Willie O'Ree racism in hockey
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PHT Morning Skate: Willie O’Ree, others on racism in and outside of hockey

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

O’Ree and others on racism in and around hockey

• Hockey trailblazer Willie O’Ree described George Floyd’s death and the events surrounding it as “very discouraging.” O’Ree added that, on a larger level, racism isn’t going to go away overnight. That said, after witnessing statements from the likes of Blake Wheeler acknowledging their privilege, O’Ree wonders if the truth about racism is finally “sinking in.” Maybe players can show that they’ve learned such lessons once play resumes? [CBC]

• Michael Traikos caught up with Kevin Weekes for his perspective on racism in and around hockey. On one hand, Weekes celebrates players “without a horse in the race” such as Jonathan Toews and Blake Wheeler for speaking up. On the other hand, Weekes emphasizes that there’s still a lot of work to do. [Toronto Sun]

• Jeff Veillette spots the sometimes-rampant racism in the “NHL 20” community. Unfortunately, it seems like EA Sports has a lot of work to do to improve this area. Also unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the company is putting a lot of resources into fixing this problem, either. [Faceoff Circle]

CBA talks intensify, and other hockey bits

• Both TSN’s Darren Dreger and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman report that the NHL and NHLPA are intensifying talks to extend the CBA. Stabilizing escrow is a big factor for the players, as the pandemic pause is likely to hit them hard, and for quite some time. [More detail in 31 Thoughts, in particular]

• Read up on the Sens Foundation ending its relationship with the Ottawa Senators. [Sports Daily]

Nick Foligno and his family open up a new chapter with “The Heart’s Playbook.” [The Hockey Writers]

• The Oilers realize that, with the “championship pedigree” of the Blackhawks, an upset isn’t out of the question during the Qualifying Round. [Sportsnet; also read PHT’s previews for the West here]

• Which teams are oddsmakers favoring if action starts up again? [Featurd]

• Emily Kaplan looks at a coronavirus trend for Ducks fans: getting married at the Honda Center. Pretty fun. [ESPN]

• Could the Rangers repair their relationship with Lias Andersson? Such a push could help them as early as the Qualifying Round against the Hurricanes. It certainly beats things only getting bitter and Andersson’s development stalling. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• When you get drafted 34th overall, as Dalton Smith did in 2010, you expect to play in the NHL. You don’t necessarily expect to only do so for one minute and 26 seconds in one game in late 2019 with the Sabres. Smith’s journey is quite the story by Nick Faris. [The Score]

• Grant Fuhr talks about what drove him to become a coach for one of the team’s in the upcoming 3-on-3 hockey league 3ICE. Sounds like it could be pretty wild stuff. [Desert Sun]

• Bill Hoppe goes in-depth on Victor Olofsson‘s chances of having staying power as a scorer with the Sabres. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

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.

NHL clarifies how conditional picks will be handled for 2020 NHL Draft

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Teams had plenty of questions after the NHL announced its return-to-play plan. Of the dangling threads, “How will conditional draft picks be handled?” represented one of the tougher conundrums. Certain details still need to be determined, yet the Athletic/TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reports that a memo cleaned up some of the biggest questions about conditional draft picks.

LeBrun’s full report at the Athletic (sub required) is well worth a read, as he drills deep on many questions on a case-by-case basis.

For this post, we’ll ponder broader strokes, and then ask some other questions.

How conditional draft picks from trades might be addressed for 2020 NHL Draft (and 2021)

Again, not every conditional draft pick situation was settled. After all, NHL teams got pretty creative, and thus things got pretty specific. But, thanks to LeBrun, we get to glance at the bigger picture.

One of the most common conditions revolves around whether a team reaches the playoffs or not. When NHL teams exchanged such conditional picks — during the trade deadline, or even before the season began — they of course didn’t realize there would be a 24-team format thanks to a global pandemic.

So how will it work? Via LeBrun, we can see how the league memo addressed this question:

“More specifically, for Trade condition purposes, a Club will not be deemed to have qualified for the Playoffs unless or until they have progressed into the Round of 16, and ‘Playoff Games/Rounds’ will only include the games/rounds played in the Round of 16 or later. We believe this interpretation will best reflect the intentions of the parties at the time of the Trade …”

Short version: making the cut for the 24-team format doesn’t meet the “make the playoffs” standard. Instead, you need to make it to “the Round of 16 or later.”

Seeing an actual example might help. Take, for instance, the Canucks’ 2020 first-round pick (and/or their 2021 first-rounder) that was conditionally tossed around in the J.T. Miller and Blake Coleman trades. Will the Devils make that 2020 first-round selection, or will it be the Canucks?

The parameters might make the most sense to you see if you see them via this screenshot from essential resource Cap Friendly:

Coleman Miller conditional draft pick Devils Canucks
via Cap Friendly

So who gets it? Well, that’s still to be determined:

  • If the Canucks win their Qualifying Round series against the Wild, then the Devils receive Vancouver’s 2020 first-rounder.
  • If the Canucks lose their Qualifying Round series vs. the Wild, then the Devils instead receiver Vancouver’s 2021 first-rounder.

That all seems pretty fair, really. At least considering the circumstances. But there are some other tricky situations, and maybe a few burning questions.

More complicated conditions and situations

On one hand, you have easier-to-resolve issues such as that conditional Canucks pick situation. LeBrun notes that there are still some details to hash out.

If you want to pinpoint a fairly zany situation, consider the performance-based elements regarding the Milan LucicJames Neal trade. Again, it might be easiest to get your head around things quickly by looking at the Cap Friendly screenshot first:

Lucic Neal conditional draft picks Flames Oilers
via Cap Friendly

That third-round pick is in flux, as Neal sits at 19 goals, 11 more than Lucic (eight). Lebrun guesses that you would “prorate” Neal’s goals over a full season, and give the Flames the third-rounder.

There’s room for argument, there, though. After all, it’s plausible that Neal could have been injured. It’s also worthwhile to note that Neal’s scoring was frontloaded. Neal started red-hot with 11 goals in 14 October games, and 19 goals through December 31. He failed to score a goal once the calendar turned to 2020, however, managing four assists over 13 games. What if that slump persisted?

So there are some tricky situations, at least if teams want to harumph about it. A more interesting discussion revolves around which situations teams might want to play out.

If you’re the Devils, do you prefer the Canucks’ 2020 or 2021 first-round pick? If you get the 2020, you get a prospect into your system, developing sooner. The 2021 pick would be more of a gamble. The Canucks could take another step to become a dominant team in the Pacific. On the other hand, they could slide back and present a situation like Ottawa earning a lucrative Sharks pick for 2020.

These are interesting questions to debate. They also might be useful ones, if you’re missing hockey and rooting for a team that won’t be able to return to play until whenever 2020-21 kicks off.

Of course, the NHL must also determine when the 2020 NHL Draft will actually take place, among other questions …

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.

PHT remembers hockey video games: ‘NHL Hitz 2003’ still delivers

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Every week, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). For the first time in this series, PHT invites a guest contributor. Enjoy a fun take from Tony Abbott (@OhHiTony) on the very fun Midway title NHL Hitz 2003. Some refer to it as “NHL Hitz 20-03,” but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll drop the hyphen.

I’ve always been a sucker for the cult classic.

My favorite movie? The Room. I’ll tell anyone who will listen that the best rock record is a science-fiction punk album called Death By Television. Catch me on the right day and I’ll argue that Dollhouse was better than both Buffy and Firefly. And of course, hockey is my favorite sport. For whatever reason, if it isn’t for everyone, there’s a good chance it might be for me.

So it may not surprise anyone that my favorite hockey video game is NHL Hitz 2003.

The Hitz series, published by Midway as a companion to games like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, hasn’t endured quite like other hockey games. It wasn’t an early pioneer like Blades of Steel or the NES’ Ice Hockey. It wasn’t the classic perfection of NHL 94. And it certainly isn’t the monolith that the NHL games of today are.

While I’m not immune to the charms of those games — I’ll gladly play any of them today — none of them will ever make me as giddy as NHL Hitz 2003 does. Thought making Gretzky’s head bleed was pure joy? You haven’t lived until you’ve knocked Jeremy Roenick through the glass, then centered the puck for a one-time goal.

Intensive research shows: NHL Hitz 2003 holds up, and the hits(z) keep coming

I dug up my Playstation 2 last night, strictly for research purposes, for the first time in over a year. It took two games for me to get used to the controls again. Super easy. A button to pass, to shoot (hold for a slapper), to deke and to protect the puck from poke checks on offense. A button for body and stick checking on defense. Left trigger for a limited turbo.

The polygonal graphics may not be crisp anymore, but that gameplay still is. Every match is 3-on-3, and it perfectly replicates the excitement of today’s NHL overtime. Oversized players zip around on undersized ice. The passing is tape-to-tape. There are odd-man rushes. You will see breakaways. All game long.

And there are the Hitz! The Hitz keep coming! You’ll have to play a heavy style of hockey that will make Tom Wilson blush if you want to win. Open-ice hits that send players flipping. Body checks that put the unlucky recipients through the glass, creating a temporary 3-on-2 rush. Casually grabbing opponents and ripping them down. Even the poke checking is nothing more than tripping half the time.

You ride this tense line all game: You have the speed to be five seconds from scoring at any time. If you can’t dodge the other team, you’ll get knocked down before you can fire even a weak wrist shot.

Experiencing that again was like visiting an old college friend again. And it reminded me of another one.

A friendly rivalry forms around “NHL Hitz 2003”

There’s a lot to do as a single player in NHL Hitz 2003. There’s a franchise mode where you start as a terrible team and work your way into the NHL. You can play as any team in season mode, and even jumble the rosters up in a fantasy draft. There are a massive number of classic jerseys to unlock, and trivia questions to answer after every match. When you get bored of playing the main game, there are plenty of minigames to conquer.

But there’s nothing like a good rivalry. These were the pre-online days, so any multiplayer was local. And a couch or dorm room is a terrific cauldron for a bitter, decade-long grudge with your best friend.

It happened to me. I learned of the game from my freshman roommate’s GameCube collection. It wouldn’t take long for me to find a copy for myself at a game store. And once I had it, it wasn’t long before I fired it up for the first time with my neighbor Danny.

Danny picked up the game instantly, and we were both hooked. We’d play late into the night, cycling through our favorite teams, and trash-talking loud enough to garner the occasional threat from the RAs. The 15-minute games made for the perfect study break during the school year. And stringing seven of them together made for an even more perfect study break.

Hitz’ appeal lasted through the years. Danny left to study abroad in Germany for a year. Upon his return, we were back to Hitz in a week. After we graduated and Danny had moved two hours south? I’d bring my PS2 in tow whenever we visited. And when he moved back to the area, the game was there and the rivalry was as fierce as ever.

This was in large part due to how evenly matched we were. In games like NHL 94 or NBA Jam, I stood little chance. Whether it was the ease of play of the scores of hours I sunk into it, I could keep up with him in NHL Hitz 2003.

The legendary rivalry of Ron Francis vs … Mike Comrie?

We both succeeded with vastly different styles. I was skilled with poke checks and dined out on one-timers. Danny had incredible reflexes around the net, cashing in rebounds with regularity. He also had a frustrating ability to score on breakaways without making any fancy moves whatsoever.

But the defining dynamic of our rivalry boiled down to two players, the mere mention of whom will cause one of us to cackle and the other to spit. Ron Francis and Mike Comrie.

I played a memorable game as the Carolina Hurricanes, who had Francis on the team. Francis was very slow, but had a cannon for a shot and was the best passer in the game not named “Mario”. One game I was able to feed one-timer after one-timer to Francis, who couldn’t be stopped. He scored five goals, and my gloating increased every time he lit the lamp en route to victory.

Ron Francis in "NHL Hitz 2003/20-03"
Try to avert your eyes from Jeff O’Neill’s sweet highlights for a second and check out Ronnie’s ratings (via Midway/Youtube)

Shortly after, Danny got his revenge in picking Edmonton. He got a quick hat trick with Comrie, then a fourth goal. Getting blown out, I decided to give up on the victory and devote myself to only one task: Stop Comrie by any means necessary. Danny scored a fifth and sixth goal with Comrie, completing my humiliation.

We cycle through a number of teams (about half the league is extremely fun to play as) so as not to get stale. But when one of our backs are against the wall, we’ll go back to Carolina or Edmonton to break a slump. Our message to each other: “You’re going to lose, and you’re going to lose to the player you hate the most.”

The NHL Hitz didn’t exactly keep coming

Other games have come along to fulfill Hitz’ legacy, but none have filled its shoes. EA released an arcade version of its game that was more stripped-down than Hitz’ brand of hockey. NHL 18 offered a 3-on-3 mode that, while fun, lacked the sharp passing and heightened reality that Midway offered.

18 years later, we’re still looking for a true successor to Hitz (This is the part where I beg Metalhead to create Super Mega Hockey). But that’s OK. As long as my PS2 is working, I’ll gladly revisit Hitz. And the next time I visit Danny, I’ll make it a priority to reacquaint him with Ron Francis.

Note from James O’Brien: For whatever reason, the “shooting out windows” minigame stood out for me:

Also, it’s worth noting that NHL Hitz Pro served as a sequel to NHL Hitz 2003. That doesn’t make Abbott wrong, about the lack of a true successor, though. That’s because Hitz Pro tried to blur the lines between hockey sims and the arcade-style action. While the reviews were reasonably decent for NHL Hitz Pro, it also represented the end of that series. What are hockey video games without Hitz? They’re less fun.

Now, as bonus, Tony Abbott shared his power rankings for the top 10 teams in NHL Hitz 2003. (Do note that Abbott wasn’t counting the create-a-team you made with cowboys or giraffes or whatever.)

NHL Hitz 2003 Power Rankings:

  1. Colorado Avalanche: Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic bring the skill, Rob Blake pounds opponents into submission, and Patrick Roy is in net. Honestly, it’s unfair.
  2. Detroit Red Wings: With Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, and Nick Lidstrom at their peaks, Sergei Fedorov can’t even crack the lineup.
  3. Philadelphia Flyers: Jeremy Roenick and company punished you with a bruising style, and this game happened to be released when Roman Cechmanek was a thing.
  4. St. Louis Blues: Cover Athlete Chris Pronger and Keith Tkachuk were more than enough to cover for occasionally shaky goaltending.
  5. San Jose Sharks: Vincent Damphousse’s top-notch passing means you can set up Teemu Selanne and Owen Nolan all game.
  6. New Jersey Devils: Surprisingly light on the defensive end. Patrik Elias brings some skills, but the game underrates Scott Niedermayer. If Martin Brodeur falters, you’re in trouble.
  7. New York Rangers: Will Mike Richter let you down? Frequently. Are Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, and Brian Leech fun enough to cancel that out? Absolutely.
  8. Boston Bruins: Another bad goaltending team, but with Joe Thornton and Brian Rolston blasting shots, you have plenty of opportunity to out-score the other guys.
  9. Dallas Stars: Bill Guerin and Mike Modano form an elite power/speed duo. Too bad the Stars’ goal song doesn’t make it in, as it’d fit perfectly with the metal-focused soundtrack.
  10. Carolina Hurricanes: The playmaking Francis, a speedy sniper in Sami Kapanen, and the do-it-all Jeff O’Neill make for a balanced team.

Tony Abbott is a freelance writer, primarily covering the Minnesota Wild. His work has been featured at Zone Coverage, The Athletic Minnesota, and SB Nation’s Hockey Wilderness. Follow him @OhHiTony on Twitter.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

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.

Sharks have plenty of time to stew over down season

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The San Jose Sharks will have plenty of time to stew over the franchise’s worst season in 17 years.

With more than three-quarters of the league hoping to return for an expanded playoffs this summer following the shutdown for the coronavirus pandemic, the Sharks are one of seven teams left out until next season starts in late fall or early winter.

One year after making it to the Western Conference Final, the Sharks finished with the worst record in the conference and missed the playoffs for just the second time since general manager Doug Wilson took over in 2003.

“We’re not used to losing or having a losing season here so it wasn’t fun,” captain Logan Couture said Thursday. “As a group, we know that every single person needs to be better next year. I think with this long break it adds time for guys to get prepared. Motivation should be at an all-time high for everyone. When you have a year like this, you want to come back and prove to people that it was just a fluke.”

This is rare territory for the Sharks, who have been one of the most consistent franchises in the league. The last time they missed the playoffs was in 2014-15, then they bounced back the following season to earn the team’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Pittsburgh in six games.

Couture believes a team that has a talented defensive group led by Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, as well as forwards like himself, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane and Timo Meier has the ingredients in place to repeat that turnaround.

“I believe that summer a lot of people wrote us off, said the window’s closed, this team’s done, stick a fork in them,” Couture said. “I think that lit a fire in a lot of us. It’s going to be the same thing this year. There’s going to be people who are writing those same articles, there’s going to be fans saying the same things. The only way that that can change is we go out and make a change and show them that we’re still a good team. We still have the pieces in my mind to compete.”

Those pieces just didn’t click this past season as the Sharks got off to a rough start following last spring’s long playoff run. The team rebounded in November before falling apart again, leading to the firing of coach Peter DeBoer in December.

After a difficult beginning under interim coach Bob Boughner, the Sharks showed signs of coming into form in January before a series of injuries derailed the season.

“When one thing came crashing down, it all just fell apart,” Karlsson said. “Once you get in a big hole like that, no matter how good you are or how much experience you have, it’s hard in the short period of time to give yourself a spin in the way that it’s going which is not in the right direction. That kind of feels like what happened to us. We tried so many things to repair it. But at the same time I don’t think that there’s anything we could have done differently that would have changed the short-term results.”

Now the task for the Sharks is to play with better structure and cohesion from the start next season to avoid those holes.

One of the bigger questions the team will face before returning in the fall will be the status of Boughner. Wilson has praised Boughner’s performance even though the team was just 14-20-3 during his tenure.

But Wilson has not committed to bringing him back next season even though he has earned the respect of many key players.

“He did a great job with where he was at and where we were at,” Burns said. “He had the knowledge, he was detailed. He was extremely detailed actually in the different scenarios. He was able to make little in-game changes. If he needed to snap, he could. He was great.”

The Sharks also have a handful of free agents to make decisions on, most notably longtime leader Joe Thornton. Thornton had seven goals and 24 assists in 70 games as a 40-year-old and has expressed interest in returning for his 23rd year.

“Knowing Joe, he’s going to want to come back,” Couture said. “He’s still got game. I think he still will help any team that’ll take him. If he’s healthy and he’s ready to go, I don’t see why not.”

PHT Morning Skate: Wilson on Sharks’ future; Miller helping charity

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Sharks GM Doug Wilson on Bob Boughner’s future, issues with his team, and the future. [NBC Bay Area]

• Why a 22-team format would work better for the NHL. [Jets Nation]

• Vancouver is among the potential cities that could serve as an NHL hub for the restart. But, according to health officials, British Columbia won’t bend the rules for NHL players. [CTV News]

• That could force the Canucks to hold their training camp in Washington state. [CTV]

• “In no way, shape or form should our federal government do anything “special” to relax border restrictions on Canadians coming back to the country or others trying to enter Canada simply to appease hockey fans who won’t be able to go see the games anyway.” [Toronto Star]

• How the Devils are preparing for the unique NHL Draft lottery. [NJ.com]

• The Penguins-Flyers five OT playoff game from 2000 will be featured as part of an NBC Sports RSN podcast anthology series: “Sports Uncovered,” which will be released June 25. [NBC Sports]

• It’s look like Sabres Lawrence Pilut is about to leave for the KHL. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

Ryan Miller is making charity a priority during his downtime by auctioning off game-worn gear. [OC Register]

Adam Pelech (Achilles) and Casey Cizikas (leg laceration) will be ready to go the Islanders in their matchup against the Panthers. [Islanders Insight]

• Could a salary cap squeeze end Jaden Schwartz‘s time in St. Louis? [St. Louis Gametime]

• Lias Andersson could be loaned to Sweden’s HV71 for the 2020-21 season. [Blueshirt Banter]

• Craig MacTavish has been named head coach of Swiss side Lausanne HC. Former NHL defenseman Petr Svoboda is one of the club’s new investors as well as the Director of Hockey Ops. [Swiss Hockey News]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.