‘Choosing to lose’ vs. accepting life in hockey’s lower middle class

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The Battle of Alberta hasn’t actually been much of hockey arms race for the last few years, as the Calgary Flames stare mediocrity in the face while the Edmonton Oilers have been downright abysmal. That being said, the two teams might be intriguing counterpoints for the way franchises build their clubs.

On one hand, you have the big-spending Flames – they’re currently eighth overall in payroll – who missed the playoffs two years in a row and haven’t won a playoff round since the lockout. Meanwhile, the Oilers have been atrocious since the messy Chris Pronger trade. They’ve missed the playoffs for five straight seasons – mostly by a wide margin – and appear headed in that direction once again in most peoples’ eyes.

It’s surprising that either side would have boastful proponents, but an entertaining debate cropped up over the weekend. It started when Flames GM Jay Feaster blasted the Oilers’ model of stockpiling lousy seasons and top-end picks.

Feaster (chuckling): “I’m sorry — Edmonton finished where last year, caller? Want to wager on where we finish relative to Edmonton this year? I’m tired of this question, I’ll tell you very honestly. I’m getting a little sour. How many teams . . . every year, for the last 10 years, five years, eight years, have finished in the bottom five, bottom seven, bottom 10? They’ve had a pick anywhere from No. 1 to No. 10 year after year after year after year, and they still wander in the desert. And they’re no closer to getting out than they were 10 years ago.

On Edmonton’s side, David Staples thinks that the Oilers will have the last laugh, claiming that “Calgary is nowhere and going nowhere.” Staples threw down the gauntlet a bit when he claimed that Edmonton should overtake Calgary no later than next season, though.

This drew the ire of excellent blogger Tom Benjamin, who railed against “choosing to lose.”

And I think Feaster is right. Were the Oilers right to blow it all up? No regrets with the Smyth trade and the subsequent moves that brought the Oilers to this point? It has been a four year rebuilding project – five out of the playoffs – with no end yet in sight. Even if Staples is right and the Oilers pass the Flames in 2012-13, that does not necessarily make them a playoff team after six years of wandering in the desert. The St. Louis Blues were the first post lockout team to “blow it all up” and six years later they still look like a team that is going nowhere. Years of pain and lost seasons can only possibly be worth it if the result is a genuine contender and the Oilers are miles away. They may never get there with this crew.

Brian Burke has endured a lot of criticism in the Leaf media for not adopting the Oiler model when he came to Toronto, but as his remake of the Leafs enters its third year, he looks like having an outside chance at a playoff spot. Did the Bruins suck for years to get to where they are? Did the Canucks? The Wings? The Sharks?

source: Getty ImagesHere’s my problem with that argument: most elite NHL teams are founded on getting the right high-end draft picks at the right time (with the Red Wings late draft wizardry being the obvious exception). The Canucks can thank a four-year run of incompetence for their chance to snag the Sedin twins in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. The Sharks straddle the line between those two camps, but it’s telling that their foundation is built upon the first two picks of the 1997 draft (they picked Patrick Marleau second overall and then traded for top pick Joe Thornton).

Those examples also ignore two recent Stanley Cup winners (Chicago and Pittsburgh) and at least one consistently dominant regular season team (Washington) who’ve taken full advantage of the “choose to lose” model.

The Blues are a faulty team for someone arguing against tanking, too. While they’ve taken quite a few first round picks recently, most of those picks are in the dreaded middle of the pack. That makes them more of an example of the uncomfortable spot the Flames might find themselves in under Feaster’s plan: too good to get a lottery pick, too bad to make the playoffs.

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There isn’t a fool-proof solution to building a team. Both sides of this argument have their points, but ultimately it comes down to having the right management to either a) take advantage of top-end picks when they get them or b) make the proper adjustments to build a solid team into a contender.

It’s hard to tell if the Flames or Oilers will end up being a good example of either approach, if their recent histories have told us anything. Still, if I had to choose, I’d rather follow a team with a brighter future like the Oilers than be stuck in quicksand like the Flames.

Panthers offer Sarah Nurse deal to lead girls hockey program

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are trying to sign a high-scoring forward who has an Olympic gold medal and two world championships, with hopes of getting the deal done in the coming days.

If it happens, she won’t be playing for the Panthers.

Sarah Nurse, the Canadian forward who had a highlight-reel goal against the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin during the NHL’s All-Star Skills Competition, has the chance to run the Panthers’ new program designed to get more girls playing hockey.

Florida president Matthew Caldwell offered the job to Nurse publicly – very publicly, at a lectern, with a microphone, before a crowd of onlookers. And he was serious.

“I’m going to embarrass you, but we’re going to offer you a job today,” Caldwell told Nurse, who was seated in the crowd. “We want you to be the face of our girls program at the War Memorial. So, are you in? On the spot? We don’t deal with agents, OK. I’m a tough negotiator.”

The idea to hire Nurse was first floated to Caldwell by Melissa Fitzgerald. She’s the general manager for the War Memorial, which is the two-rink facility being refurbished by the team and will become its practice headquarters.

“We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks,” Caldwell told The Associated Press. “Our youth hockey team kind of brought it up as a joke to me, but I said, `Let’s think big. We’re building this huge facility. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”‘

The only part Caldwell was less than serious about with Nurse was how the Panthers don’t deal with agents. He spoke with Nurse’s representative, Thomas Houlton, after the event.

Houlton did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He and Caldwell spoke for about 15 minutes after the event, which was attended by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Panthers stars Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, and dozens of kids who got to play ball hockey afterward.

Nurse played for Canada’s world-champion teams in 2021 and 2022, along with Canada’s Olympic gold winners at the Beijing Games last year.

She was one of five women’s players from USA Hockey and Team Canada – the two most dominant women’s national teams in the world – who were part of the skills events. She wore custom skates highlighting Black History month and the Black Girl Hockey Club, a nonprofit focused on getting more Black girls and women into the sport.

She used a move made famous by Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg when he helped Sweden win gold at the 1994 Olympics against Shesterkin, a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie.

U.S. star Hilary Knight didn’t think Nurse’s goal should have surprised anyone, saying, “she’s a top scorer.”

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

“It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.