‘It doesn’t matter where you’re playing’: Auston Matthews goes from desert to top of the draft


About a year before Auston Matthews was born, professional hockey arrived in Arizona.

He took in his first Coyotes game as a 2-year-old, and his gaze never strayed far from the ice.

“From a young age,” Matthews said, “I wanted to be an NHL hockey player.”

Learning to skate might never be a top-of-the-bucket-list item for the youth of the American Southwest, with a prohibitive climate and a scant tradition, but hockey has been on the rise in the Phoenix area since the franchise relocated from Winnipeg in 1996. The team has struggled financially, with attendance at the suburban arena in Glendale frequently landing near the bottom of the league, but the embodiment of the sport’s expansion will be on stage Friday at the NHL draft.

Matthews is expected to be the first pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“It’s what you think about since you were a little kid,” said Matthews, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound center who joined the U.S. national team development program three years ago and spent the past season as an 18-year-old with Zurich in Switzerland’s top professional league.

He could have picked baseball, which his father played in college, but the presence of the Coyotes spawned an admiration of players like Danny Briere and Shane Doan and an appreciation for the Zamboni. Matthews was on a traveling team by age 8, heading to tournaments in Chicago, Detroit and Canada where the game is a well-established pastime.

“A lot of people, when they hear you play hockey and you’re from Arizona, kind of have this mindset where they don’t even think there’s hockey down there,” Matthews said, “but I never really thought about it too much as far as that goes. I always had a goal to make the NHL. It doesn’t matter where you’re playing.”

The state of the sport in his hometown of Scottsdale has been strengthening, year after year.

“The amount of teams that are here now and the quality of coaches and players that are here now are much better than they used to be,” Matthews said.

According to USA Hockey’s annual participation statistics , the number of 18-and-under players in Arizona increased from 2,836 during the 2005-06 season to 3,803 in 2015-16, a 34 percent gain. Neighbor state California, which has had three NHL franchises for nearly 23 years, reported a spike of 54 percent from 7,589 in 2005-06 to 11,680 in 2015-16. National leader Minnesota, by comparison, saw a 10 percent jump from 43,053 to 47,367 over that span.

“It just bodes well for the future now. There’s been so much attention with Auston Matthews,” NHL central scouting director Dan Marr said. “I think you’re going to see a spurt of hockey continue in that area. Everybody’s going to want to grow up and follow in his footsteps.”

Just like “The Great One.”

All-time leading NHL scorer Wayne Gretzky’s joining the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 helped spur interest in Southern California. His partial ownership and stint as coach of the Coyotes opened up another area for his service as an unofficial ambassador.

“There are a lot of great athletes coming out of Arizona and California and Florida,” Gretzky said. “So it’s a matter of knowledge and it’s a matter of showing the kids, `Look, try this game.’ It’s a great sport when you’re 7 or 10 years old.”

Another soon-to-be high first-round draft pick Friday, defenseman Jakob Chychrun, is from the Fort Lauderdale area in South Florida. So is Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere.

“The more people that come to watch the games, the more they fall in love with the game,” Florida Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said.

NHL hockey: Coming soon to Las Vegas.

That’s where Minnesota Wild left wing Jason Zucker was raised, rooting from afar for Pavel Datsyuk and the Detroit Red Wings. Surely a sports-loving youngster or two in Nevada will pick up a stick in the coming years after being inspired by attending a game there and develop into an NHL prospect.

“If you’re good enough,” Zucker said, “they’re going to see you in some capacity.”

AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo and AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington contributed to this report.

Bruins reportedly want Panthers’ Kulikov, might be out of luck

SUNRISE, FL - MARCH 10: Dmitry Kulikov #7 of the Florida Panthers prepares for a face-off against the Ottawa Senators at the BB&T Center on March 10, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Senators 6-2. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Simply put, there’s plenty of demand for quality defensemen, but teams aren’t especially anxious to supply them.

CSNNE.com’s Joe Haggerty reports that the Boston Bruins are hoping to trade for Florida Panthers blueliner Dmitri Kulikov. They’re being proactive yet could also be described as merely “kicking the tires.”

There are two pretty big bumps in the road, however.

First, the price would probably be pretty difficult to stomach:

The sticking point with Kulikov is that he’s essentially a rental with one year to go until unrestricted free agency, and the cost would something in the neighborhood of Boston’s 29th pick in the first round and a Frank Vatrano-level prospect. That’s a stiff cost, and it should give everybody the kind of premium price tags associated with defensemen on the trade market for the next few months.


The other consideration is that Kulikov might not even be on the rental shelves, according to the Miami Herald’s George Richards:

As this video illustrates, the Bruins might just be stuck.

The Bruins say they’re being aggressive to improve in this area, but it could really be a sellers’ trade market this summer, especially with the list of targets shrinking with each day.

UFA of the Day: Loui Eriksson

Boston Bruins' Loui Eriksson is congratulated at the bench after scoring during the third period of a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders in an NHL hockey game in Boston, Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Every day until June 30, we’ll write about a pending unrestricted free agent. Today’s UFA of the Day is…

Loui Eriksson

As of last week, the Bruins were still hoping to re-sign the 30-year-old winger who scored 30 goals for them last season.

“There have been some good discussions,” said GM Don Sweeney, per CSN New England. “The onus is on us to display what level we’re willing to commit to Loui, and as he knows on the door to free agency that is important to him. It comes down to how far we want to stretch.”

After missing the playoffs, the Bruins’ decision not to trade Eriksson at the deadline will look especially poor if he walks away for nothing this summer. But Sweeney can’t allow that to affect his thinking. What’s done is done, and if Eriksson wants more than the B’s are comfortable giving him, then both sides will have to move on.

If Eriksson tests the market, Vancouver is expected to be interested. The Canucks intend to sign a top-six winger to either play with the Sedins or provide second-line scoring, and with Radim Vrbata expected to leave, there’s cap space to do it.

As always, the two big questions for any UFA suitor will be how much and how long? The latter will be particularly interesting with Eriksson, who’s already played 725 games in the NHL. On the open market, he could demand in the neighborhood of $30 million over five years. So while signing him could be good for a team in the short term, there’s at least the potential for trouble down the line.

So before July 1, that’s what the B’s have to determine — is he worth it, and what’s the plan if he’s not?

“If we don’t find common ground with Loui then we’re going to have to replace him,” said Sweeney.

Click here for all our 2016 UFA profiles.

Murray’s ‘calming influence’ on the Penguins hasn’t changed despite Game 5 loss


PITTSBURGH — Matt Murray‘s slender frame has spent the last two months seemingly impervious to the increasingly massive weight on his shoulders.

Until Thursday. Skating onto the ice at Consol Energy Center with a chance to help the Pittsburgh Penguins raise the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup, the enormity of the moment – however briefly – may have gotten the best of the 22-year-old rookie.

Murray used phrases like “a little bit jittery” and “a little bit nervous” to describe the opening minutes of Pittsburgh’s 4-2 loss to San Jose in Game 5, a stretch when he allowed three goals on five shots as the Sharks earned a return trip to the West Coast for Game 6 on Sunday night thanks to 44 saves from goaltender Martin Jones.

“As a team we really settled down after a tough start but we came back and stayed resilient,” Murray said. “We played the way we needed to to win the game but their goalie stood on his head.”

Related: Pens rally behind Murray after second shaky effort

Something Murray has done at times during Pittsburgh’s run to the final, particularly after a rare bumpy patch. He has yet to drop consecutive starts during the playoffs, going 5-0 with a 1.76 goals against average in games following a loss. Having a team peaking in front of him – one that doesn’t think twice about stepping in front of shots before they ever make it to Murray – helps. So does Murray’s healthy self-confidence.

“I don’t think I played badly by any means,” Murray said.

Maybe, but Murray knows he’s at a portion of the season where being OK won’t be good enough. In the big picture, he has a very real shot at capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy given to the playoff MVP. His 14 wins during the postseason are one away from the NHL record for victories by a rookie.

Still, it’s not the number of goals Murray is giving up but the nature of them that’s a bit problematic.

There was Joel Ward‘s breakaway slap shot from the slot in Game 3 that set the stage for Joonas Donskoi‘s wrist shot from in overtime that gave the Sharks life. There was Brent Burns‘ opening goal on Thursday, a score that in some ways mirrored Donskoi’s winner, zipping past Murray’s right shoulder. There was Melker Karlsson‘s flip late in the first period that went through the same hole between left pad and his glove that Ward found.

Would Murray have liked to be sharper just three periods from a championship, a victory that would allow him to tie the NHL record for wins by a rookie goaltender in the playoffs? Of course. It didn’t happen, so the Penguins keep playing. He hasn’t lost much sleep since taking over in Game 3 of the opening round against the New York Rangers. He’s not going to start now.

“I thought they had a couple of lucky bounces,” he said.

Bounces he insists will not affect the way he approaches his job. He spent the first portion of the postseason in an odd sort of limbo while Marc-Andre Fleury recovered from a concussion. He surrendered the starting gig to Fleury for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, only to get it back immediately after Fleury was less than crisp in defeat. Murray was hardly rattled by the brief demotion, and ripped off four straight victories.

“One of the things we love about him is his demeanor,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “He has a calming influence on the group.”

A sense of ease that belies the fact Murray has made all of 33 starts in the NHL. Unlike the emotive Fleury – who is not above good-naturedly giving the posts a grateful kiss when a puck caroms out of harm’s way – Murray is decidedly chill regardless of the circumstances.

He spends his down time at the driving range or scrolling through Netflix looking for something that catches his eye. He has a rule for what happens when he hits “play.” If he doesn’t like the first 10 minutes, he hits stop and moves on. It’s the same when things don’t go his way during a game. Though he prides himself on his ability to “turn it off” once he leaves the rink, if he finds his mind fixated on a certain thing, he’ll go for a walk to clear his head.

Maybe that’s why a cross-country flight to California isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a guy who had a neighborhood street named after him – for a day anyway – before Game 5. Given an extra day of rest, he’ll hit the reset button, probably see what’s on Netflix and take a deep breath.

The adrenaline will flow on Sunday night, just like it always does. If he can keep it under control, particularly early, he likes his chances.

“It’s just learning how to handle it the right way,” he said. “If you can kind of harness that and use it for the right reasons. Use that energy and feed off the crowd and stuff like that you’re going to be in good shape.”

Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky: A legendary bond


When it came to No. 9 and No. 99, the bond between Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky spans most of Gretzky’s life.

“The Great One” noted to ESPN that he initially met “Mr. Hockey” when he was about eight or nine years old, the first of many instances in which the two legends crossed paths.

“It was the greatest day of my life,” Gretzky said on the Dan Patrick Show today while discussing Howe’s passing.

Gretzky volunteers as much time and time again: he believes Howe is the best hockey player of all-time.

“I’m impressed by Crosby, Ovechkin, Stamkos, Toews — those guys do such great things for our game today,” Gretzky told ESPN in February. “But Gordie Howe is the greatest player who ever lived. There’s not even a question about it. Imagine scoring 20 goals at 50 years old? Jonathan Toews might be the greatest athlete in the game today. He’s not playing at 50 and he’s not scoring 20 goals. Nobody ever will again. It’s a fact.”

One of their early meetings spawned this iconic image, via Sports Illustrated’s Vault:

It was far from the last, however, as the two became intrinsically linked as Gretzky eventually passed Howe for the NHL’s all-time points lead.

They even apparently ended up recreating that photo:

Remarkably, Howe and Gretzky crossed paths on the ice during Howe’s incredibly lengthy, one-of-a-kind playing career:

Gretzky noted on the Dan Patrick Show that people sometimes feel disappointment when they meet their idols, yet Howe lived up to lofty expectations.

In this great Sportsnet interview, Gretzky explained the rather simple way that Howe became his favorite player. He also steadfastly sticks to his belief that Howe was the greatest.

“Don’t look at this as I’m breaking your records, look at it as the game’s changed,” Gretzky said when explaining why he asked Howe to be on hand for some of those record-breaking moments.

More than a few people from around the hockey world either agree or at least understand the argument.

In the grand scheme of things, those debates aren’t particularly important. It seems pretty clear that Howe and Gretzky formed a bond that transcended the sport, and they knew it.

Update: Gretzky posted this two-part statement on Twitter:

More on “Mr Hockey.”

The hockey world mourns Howe

Dan Patrick reflects upon Howe’s legacy

The NHL pays tribute to No. 9