Mike Halford

You've heard the expression "let's get busy?" Well, Mike Halford is a blogger who gets "biz-zay!" Consistently and thoroughly.
Getty

Leafs found a flaw in Matthews’ skating stride

12 Comments

NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario (AP) Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were born about five months apart in 1997.

And it’s entirely possible both teenage prospects will be suiting up for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL next season.

The Maple Leafs may be turning 100 years old next year, but the centennial edition of the team is likely to be brimming with youth and inexperience.

Toronto could have as many as seven rookies on the roster in the fall, the first real signs the seeds planted in the Brendan Shanahan era are starting to blossom.

“I think we’ll be really exciting,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said last month.

For now, Matthews and Marner have to be content with top billing at the Leafs’ weeklong development camp in Niagara Falls.

Toronto is getting its first up-close look at Matthews, the Arizona-born center who played last season for the top Swiss League team in Zurich.

Like each of the 41 prospects invited to the camp, Matthews bounced from rink to rink at Gale Centre Arena on Tuesday morning to work on various skills.

On one pad, Matthews and his group worked with Leafs skating coach Barb Underhill. The group looked at times like synchronized swimmers performing carefully choreographed movements, only on skates.

Underhill quickly noticed a flaw in Matthews’ stride: his left shoulder wasn’t coming across enough.

“She definitely paid close attention to it so I’ll try and work on it throughout the week,” Matthews said.

Slight skating hitch aside, expectations will be high for Matthews. He’s a real threat to become the first Leaf to win the Calder Trophy as top rookie in 50 years.

He’s likely to be joined in Toronto’s rookie spotlight by William Nylander, who shined intermittently with 13 points in his first 22 NHL games, and perhaps Marner, who dominated in the Ontario Hockey League again last season, leading all players in postseason scoring en route to the Memorial Cup.

The ongoing question for Marner is whether he’s physically ready for the NHL.

Currently around 163 pounds, Marner is trying to get to 170 for the fall.

“I just want to make sure that I feel comfortable enough to go out against men and play hard and play my game and make sure I can go out there and do things I like to do,” said Marner, the London Knights star and fourth overall pick of the 2015 draft.

It’s worth wondering how any added weight will affect the speed and shiftiness which helped the Thornhill, Ontario, native become one of the OHL’s most productive talents. Marner recalled entering the league at 165 pounds and feeling a touch too slow.

He dropped 5 pounds and felt like himself again.

If the Leafs decide Marner isn’t ready for the NHL, they can return him to the Knights for another season.

Toronto will be young and inexperienced regardless of whether Marner makes the lineup or not. Just how young likely depends on how many rising talents are ready to make the leap.

Nikita Soshnikov, 22, and 24-year-old Zach Hyman impressed during a brief NHL stint at the end of last season.

So too did Connor Brown, a 22-year-old Toronto native who had six points in his first seven games, including a three-point game that preceded his return to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

Also joining the Leafs is 24-year-old former KHL defenseman Nikita Zaitsev.

That could mean seven rookies on the roster initially (and perhaps more as the season wears on) as well as a number of others with limited NHL experience, including new No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen.

How Babcock employs that young talent is worth watching. Will he lean toward veteran Matt Hunwick on the team’s defensive top pair or opt to play 22-year-old Morgan Rielly with 24-year-old Martin Marincin, who offered glimpses of potential late last season?

Shanahan was hired in April 2014, but the true fruits of his labor are only now beginning to show, just as the team sports a new logo and uniform both driven from his office.

The Shanahan-led front office shuffled out stale personnel from old management groups in the previous two seasons while accumulating scores of picks and prospects.

Now, however, the process begins turning toward players drafted and developed by the current regime, beginning with Nylander, the first pick of Shanahan’s tenure.

Sensing that incoming infusion of youth, the Leafs sought veterans on the free-agent market. They signed 27-year-old Matt Martin and 30-year-old Roman Polak, who returns to the Leafs after being traded to San Jose last season.

Other veteran roles for the Leafs next season will be Leo Komarov, an alternate captain last season, returning center Tyler Bozak and Brooks Laich, easily the oldest Leaf at the ripe age of 33.

PHT Morning Skate: Is Las Vegas the big winner from free agency?

Getty
5 Comments

PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

Interesting idea here — in the aftermath of all the moves made in free agency, did the expansion Las Vegas team make out the best? (Sportsnet)

Longtime NHL defenseman Jason Smith, formerly an assistant coach in Ottawa, has taken the head job for WHL Kelowna. (Edmonton Journal)

Detroit GM Ken Holland would still “love to get a top three defenseman,” but doesn’t know “if one is ever going to be available via trade.” (Detroit News)

Sabres prospect Justin Bailey is trying to “show them something they haven’t seen” at development camp. (WKBW)

Columbus has signed undrafted OHL London blueliner Jacob Graves to an entry-level deal. (Blue Jackets)

Should Dallas make a play for Marc-Andre Fleury? The club’s most prominent beat writer says it would be a bad idea. (Morning-News)

After starring at prospects camp, Sergachev aiming to make Habs

Getty Images
2 Comments

When Montreal took Mikhail Sergachev ninth overall at the draft, few figured he’d have a shot of making the team this year.

Sergachev, however, was not one of those people.

“Obviously it’s better if I stay here and play for Montreal,” Sergachev said, per NHL.com. “Because I want to play as soon as possible.”

The second defenseman off the board in Buffalo — OHL London’s Olli Juolevi was the first, at No. 5 to Vancouver — Sergachev is considered a major longshot to stick in the NHL this fall.

But his eye-popping efforts at prospects camp seems to have opened the door — ever so slightly.

The 18-year-old wowed onlookers with his skill set and puck control abilities, and finished the scrimmage portion with three goals. Praise for Sergachev quickly carried over to social media, where folks began wondering if he had a shot of cracking the opening night roster.

Exciting stuff, sure. But still a major uphill battle.

For one, Sergachev is still 18 years old. While he’s got NHL-caliber size — 6-foot-2, 221 pounds — he’s played strictly junior hockey over the last two years, first in Russia’s MHL and with OHL Windsor last season.

The Montreal blueline is also pretty deep. Eight guys — Shea Weber, Andrei Markov, Jeff Petry, Alexei Emelin, Nathan Beaulieu, Greg Pateryn, Mark Barberio and Zach Redmond — are under contract for next season, with prospects like ’15 first-rounder Noah Juulsen still in the system.

Al that said, it’s clear Montreal is high on Sergachev.

GM Marc Bergevin wasted little time inking him to an entry-level deal, and the club felt fortunate that Sergachev was available with the ninth overall selection.

Now, he’s ready to try and make his mark immediately, rather than wait for the future.

“I’m going to do everything I can to make the Canadiens but if I don’t I’ll go back to Windsor,” Sergachev said, per the Gazette. “We’ll have a good team there and we have a chance to win the Memorial Cup.”

Ray Bourque apologizes in drunken driving case, gets probation

Getty
11 Comments

LAWRENCE, Mass. (AP) Former Boston Bruins star Ray Bourque has apologized to his family, friends and fans for driving drunk last month.

Bourque apologized in a statement Wednesday after admitting in Lawrence District Court that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him of driving under the influence when he rear-ended a minivan in Andover on June 24.

Bourque’s “admission to sufficient facts” plea will resolve the case without a guilty finding if he successfully completes a year of probation. A judge also suspended Bourque’s driver’s license for 45 days.

Police said Bourque had a blood-alcohol level of 0.249, three times the state’s legal limit to drive. In his statement, Bourque said he takes full responsibility for his actions.

Bourque played for the Bruins for 21 seasons, then helped the Colorado Avalanche win a Stanley Cup in 2001 before retiring.

Staal ready to ‘hit the refresh button’ after disappointing stint in New York

Getty
5 Comments

Upon signing Eric Staal to a three-year, $10.5 million deal on the opening day of free agency, the Wild said they needed him to be “the Eric Staal that he was in the past.”

That, apparently, includes Staal playing the position he did in the past — center.

There’s a good chance he’ll reprise that role in Minnesota on the top line between Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle, ditching the move to left wing he underwent with the Rangers last year.

“A lot of things just went wrong,” said Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau said, per the club website. “I don’t think he liked playing left wing. I think he’s the kind of the guy that wants the puck in the middle and wants to handle it and play with it.

“He wants to be the guy.”

Staal was less direct about his desire to play the middle. But he did suggest the chance to start anew in Minnesota, and revive himself as a top-line center, was something he relished.

“It’s an opportunity for me hopefully to hit the refresh button, and go out there and enjoy playing the game,” Staal said. “For me, the first time going through the free agent process, it was more or less about looking for the opportunity to play an important role on a good team.

“Minnesota is a good team, and I felt like there were some spots I could fit to help make a difference.”

The 31-year-old will be one to watch this season. Minnesota’s lack of depth at center has been well documented — former winger Thomas Vanek had a pretty telling take on it, prior to getting bought out — and rather than make a big splash via trade or a more expensive upgrade in free agency, GM Chuck Fletcher saw Staal as a potential reclamation project.

The biggest plus from adding Staal might be the domino effect. As mentioned above, it could allow Charlie Coyle to play in a top-six winger role, and it could allow Fletcher hold onto the “trade a defenseman” card until the beginning or middle of the season, should the club need a boost.

Of course, there is the age issue. Staal joins the likes of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter, Jason Pominville and Devan Dubnyk as core guys on the wrong side of 30, at a time where Wild fans are clamoring for the team to get younger and faster.

Related: With an aging core, the Wild could be Boudreau’s biggest challenge yet