Terrifying Trend: Evaluation shows Rick Martin had brain damage

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On the last night of a positively nightmarish offseason, the league may have been dealt the most devastating long-term news of the summer. Rick Martin, NHL Hall of Famer and member of the legendary French Connection line, passed away in March at the age of 59. Tonight, researchers from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy revealed that Martin had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)—a disease that has repeatedly been linked to brain trauma.

Martin is the third NHL player to donate his brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (a joint venture between the Sports Legacy Institute and Boston University). Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert had previously donated their brains to the center for research—both were found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Sadly, Martin is now the third former hockey player to show signs of CTE.

This is nothing new for athletes—football players like Mike Webster and Dave Duerson have also shown signs of the degenerative disease. The difference here is the type of player Rick Martin was and what this could mean for an entire generation of hockey players. Webster and Duerson were interior linemen in the trenches of the National Football League. They were paid to knock heads for 60 snaps per game—14 (now 16) games per season.

On the hockey side of things, Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert were known for the physical side of their trade as well. Both were known for their hands flying in a fight as much as they were known for their hands on a hockey stick. It doesn’t take a long leap of faith to understand that repeated fists to the head can lead to brain damage.

Rick Martin is different. It’s the difference that should send chills down the spines of hockey fans and players all over North America. From the Associated Press:

“The difference is Martin wasn’t a fighter. He’s the first non-enforcer who has been diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy by researchers at a Boston University brain bank.

“Martin died of a heart attack at the age of 59 in March. All three former NHL players who have donated their brains for research so far have been diagnosed with CTE, a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma.”

The obvious part of the story that stands out is that Rick Martin was known as a skilled forward and not as an enforcer. Lisa Dillman from the LA Times shared even more specifics about the report and Martin’s health history:

“It was noted by researchers in the report that Martin’s only known concussion occurred in 1977 during a game when his head hit the ice. Martin, who was not wearing a helmet, suffered ‘immediate convulsions.’”

Martin engaged in only fourteen fights in fourteen seasons in juniors and the NHL. Let’s be honest, we have a name for a guy who gets into one fight per season: a hockey player. From a physical standpoint, Martin was a normal hockey player. In fact, during his era, you could almost consider him a finesse player—so for Martin to be diagnosed with CTE makes one wonder about an entire generation of hockey players.

It’s important to note that Martin played in a different era and without a helmet for the majority of his career. Even though he was diagnosed with a concussion, it took convulsions to make doctors take note. Back when he played, trainers would diagnose most concussions by saying the player “just got his bell rung.” The culture of the game would force players right back onto the ice and ignore any possible symptoms that could have served as warning signs.

Recently, we have player after player diagnosed with concussions. The players are missing longer periods of time as they recover and the league is taking admirable steps to insure that teams don’t rush their players back to the ice. In just as many instances, the league is protecting the players from trying to come back before they’re 100% ready for the rigors of an NHL game.

The chilling part is that this could just be the beginning for the sport. As more and more hockey players from the 1970s and 1980s donate their brain to science, we will undoubtedly hear about more players who have suffered from the degenerative brain disease. But what about today’s players? Are they adequately protected with improved helmets and equipment? Or is the game so fast today that NHL players are exposing their bodies to long-term damage that we won’t know about until they’ve retired and it’s too late?

Before today, there was hope that CTE was limited to the enforcers around the league. It was a dirty little secret that the league needed to deal with—but it was an isolated problem. Two enforcers had already shown to have CTE and Derek Boogaard’s brain is currently being examined at Boston University.  But now?  This is a problem that could affect every single player who’s stepped on NHL ice over the last four decades.

Regrettably, this isn’t a problem that will stop when the offseason ends.

Canadiens make a good move: Solid deal for Danault

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Unanimously good moves haven’t happened regularly for the Montreal Canadiens these days, so it’s worthwhile to appreciate even what would seem like easy calls.

With that in mind, signing useful forward Phillip Danault to a nice three-year contract ranks as one of Marc Bergevin’s best decisions in some time, whether you can chalk up the value to RFA leverage or not. The Canadiens confirmed that the cap hit is a reasonable $3.083 million per season.

Danault, 25, has essentially been a point-every-other-game player for Montreal. He scored 25 points in 52 games this past season after a relative breakthrough in 2016-17, when he collected 40 points in 82 contests. Not too shabby.

It’s conceivable that Danault could maybe chip in a bit more if leaned upon in a bigger way, as he averaged 16:35 minutes per game, with a touch less than a minute (56 seconds) of that average happening on the power play.

Now, it’s not as though the Canadiens are being foolish in playing him in his current role, as it’s plausible that he’s best served as a supporting cast sort of asset. The point is that Danault seems to make good use of his time, might be able to do a tad bit more, and tends to check out reasonably well from a possession standpoint. He’s not the type of player who will win you a Stanley Cup, yet he’s also the sort of guy who wouldn’t take much off of the table, either. In other words, this is a justifiable contract and could even be a nifty value.

Faint praise? Pretty much, but it’s better than the usual reaction for Bergevin & Co. (laughter, mockery).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Former NHL goalie Ray Emery passes away at age 35

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Terrible news on Sunday: former NHL goalie Ray Emery passed away at age 35.

Toronto photojournalist Andrew Collins first reported the sad news, which was confirmed by Hamilton Police. Multiple reporters, including Collins, indicate that drowning was the cause of death.

The Ottawa Senators drafted Emery in the fourth round (99th overall) in 2001, and some of Emery’s best moments happened with the Sens, including a run to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final. Emery played in 287 NHL regular-season games and 39 playoff contests, also suiting up with the Anaheim Ducks, Philadelphia Flyers, and Chicago Blackhawks. Emery last played in the NHL in 2014-15 with the Flyers, while his last hockey season came in 2015-16, when he split that campaign between the AHL and Germany’s DEL.

In 2012-13, Emery and Corey Crawford were awarded the William Jennings Trophy, which is handed to the goalie (or in that case, goalies) who produced the lowest GAA during the regular season. He also enjoyed a moment with the Stanley Cup during his time with Chicago:

via Getty

Emery stood out thanks to his personality as much as his goaltending, with his one-sided fight against Braden Holtby ranking as one of his most memorable moments in the NHL.

While his NHL career was brief, Emery made an impact, as you can see from an outpouring of emotion from fans and former teammates, including Daniel Carcillo and James van Riemsdyk. Plenty of people around the hockey world also shared their condolences, including Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, who was familiar with Emery during his stint with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk released a statement in memory of Emery.

“On behalf of the Ottawa Senators, I wish to express my sincere condolences on the passing of Ray Emery. Ray was instrumental in our run to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, and at his best he brought a competitive edge and combative mentality to the game. On behalf of our entire organization, I wish to extend my deepest sympathies to Ray’s family, friends and loved ones.”

Blue Jackets get nice value with Bjorkstrand; Panarin meeting looms

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With agitating uncertainty surrounding the long-term futures of Sergei Bobrovsky and especially Artemi Panarin, it’s probably wrong to say that the Columbus Blue Jackets wrapped up their “to-do list” on Sunday.

They’ve at least taken care of the matters that are more in their hands this weekend.

On Saturday, defenseman (and potential-gone-wrong) Ryan Murray accepted Columbus’ qualifying offer in something of a shoulder shrug signing. The next day, it was more of a fist bump, as intriguing forward Oliver Bjorkstrand agreed to a friendly three-year deal.

The team didn’t confirm this in its release (because reasons), but the cap hit is a thrifty $2.5 million per season, according to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline and others.

During his first season in the NHL, the 23-year-old showed promise, scoring 11 goals and 40 points despite modest ice time (an average of 14:18 TOI per game). The Athletic’s Alison Lukan notes that Bjorkstrand checks many of the analytics boxes – rarely a bad sign – so there’s some very genuine optimism that the Dane will deliver strong value.

Personally, it’s also nice to see that he’s hungry to score more goals.

Speaking of the to-do list regarding items they might not have the power to address, Panarin announced that he and his agent will meet with Blue Jackets brass on Monday. Maybe a contract extension actually could happen? Maybe a different sort of resolution is coming?

A lot rides on that situation, yet it doesn’t hurt to land good values at a nice price. That’s absolutely the case with Bjorkstrand.

Really, value might be one of the themes of this Blue Jackets summer, as Bjorkstrand joins Anthony Duclair and Riley Nash as potentially wise bets. Cap Friendly notes that Columbus has its RFAs signed with $5.6M in cap space remaining, so perhaps they have more up their sleeves?

Jets might need to pay Trouba like a star, and that’s OK

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It’s been nearly two years since Jacob Trouba’s agent released a statement that shook the Winnipeg Jets and its fanbase.

Kurt Overhardt, Trouba’s agent at KO Sports, needed just four paragraphs to send Jets fans into hysteria. He began telling the hockey world that his client wouldn’t be heading to training camp that fall and that both he and the Jets had been working on finding an appropriate trade since that May, not long after the Jets missed the playoffs four the fourth time in five years since relocating to Winnipeg from Atlanta.

Overhardt wrote that it wasn’t about the money. Instead, he relayed that his client only wanted to realize his potential as a right-shot defenseman in the NHL. The Jets had been playing him on the left side, one part necessity given the team’s lack of depth on that side at the time, and another part, well, necessity, because the right side had all of the talent, Trouba was too good to be wasting away on the third pairing on the right and wasn’t happy with being more than serviceable and getting big minutes on the left.

By November, Trouba gave in, just days before he would have had to sit out the season.

He had no leverage at the time, and after missing 15 games, he signed a two-year bridge deal, rescinded his trade request, and went about his business.

The Jets, in turn, gave him what he wanted: a spot on the right side. And in the two seasons since being a wantaway, Trouba has realized his potential as one-half of one of the best shutdown pairings in the NHL with Josh Morrissey and the Jets.

Time, coupled with his wishes being granted and playing on a team with a window of opportunity open to take a run at Lord Stanley a couple times has seemingly offered Trouba a new lease on the outlook of his career.

This summer is about the money for Trouba. It’s time he gets paid, and with a July 20 arbitration date set, the term and the dollar amount could be public knowledge sometime in the next few days.

The only question at this point, barring the Jets trading him or letting it get to arbitration, is how much and for how long. The latter is likely obvious. Trouba will likely get the max eight years.

The question of what Trouba is worth, what he should make, etc., has been the talk of the town in Winnipeg. Everything from low-ball numbers that would surely get Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff locked up for grand larceny to numbers that rival the league’s top paid rearguards.

Sniffing around the surface isn’t going to turn up a good argument for P.K. Subban money. But put those paws to work, do a little digging, and what’s underneath starts to get quite interesting.

Despite playing just 55 games due to injury in the regular season, Trouba put up his third best point total (24) during his five-year NHL career. Keep digging and you’ll see that Trouba’s production numbers are in an elite category among NHL defenseman.

Trouba set career highs in assists/60 at 1.03, first assists/60 at 0.64 and was just short of his career-high in point/60 at 1.22. Trouba also averaged more shots/60 (7.31) than he had in his previous four seasons.

And he did all of this averaging 17:01 time-on-ice at five-on-five.

Compare this to, say, Victor Hedman, the league’s Norris Trophy winner this past season, and you see Trouba is keeping the same company.

Hedman had a higher goals/60 but trailed in assists/60 at 0.67 and first assists/60 at 0.34. Hedman edged out Trouba in points/60 at 1.25, but also consider that Hedman also played 1:29 more per game at 5-on-5 than Trouba.

The story is consistent when comparing Trouba to Drew Doughty, who played nearly 2:30 more per game, and P.K. Subban, who played a similar number of minutes as Trouba.

Here’s a handy-dandy spreadsheet:

Those are the three finalists for the 2017-18 Norris Trophy. Trouba may not have received a single vote for the NHL’s best defenseman award, but his name is in the conversation with the league’s best regardless of it being engraved on a piece of hardware.

Doughty is making $11 million a year on his new deal with the Los Angeles Kings.

Eleven. Million. Dollars.

Subban is hitting the Nashville Predators for $9 million per annum after the Montreal Canadiens went over the top to reward him, while Hedman’s taking home $7.875 million from the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The argument that Trouba’s numbers are suppressed can also be made. He’s not a focal point on the Jets power play, and sees half the ice time his contemporaries do with the man advantage.

• Hedman 3:24/G
• Doughty 3:09/G
• Subban 3:05/G
• Trouba 1:28/G

Trouba might not have the Norris nominations or other accolades at this stage in his career, but he has the stats to prove he’s worthy of them. And if he’s able to keep pace with the elite while being elite himself, why wouldn’t he get paid like his fellow elite counterparts?

Perhaps the most curious case for Trouba making bank in Winnipeg would be when you compare his numbers to that of Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg’s bruising d-man whose cap hit comes in at $7.6 million.

The same trend continue when comparing the two, with Trouba doing more with less than his aging teammate.

Of course, Trouba isn’t without fault.

Durability may be his biggest question mark.

Trouba has never played a full 82 games, and outside of one 81-game season, he’s never suited up for more than 65 in any of his five NHL seasons. It’s worth mentioning, given that per/ 60 numbers can be skewed by fewer games played, and teams pay their big-name defenseman big money to play big minutes (and the majority of games).

He’s not a prolific goal scorer on the back end either and he’s been criticized for his puck management skills.

Trouba has hit double digits in that category just once, scoring 10 times in his rookie season with the Jets. The argument can be made that if he played a full 82-game season, he could get there again, but that would mean, well, playing a full 82-game season.

What Trouba signs for, financially speaking, is going to be of interest across the league. He’s a premier defenseman in many categories even if the goal totals don’t reflect that.

He’s coming off a career-year in several departments and this brief glimpse seems to suggest that anything less than $8 million per season might be a steal for Cheveldayoff.

— stats via NaturalStatTrick


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck