While Ken Holland has been on the job for a week and a half already, it doesn’t appear as if the Oilers have made much headway in their head coaching search. The new GM told Postmedia’s Jim Matheson that he’s working off of a list of 12-14 potential candidates at the moment and while he won’t be interviewing that many, he’s still in the information gathering stage at this point. With interviews still to follow after that, Holland acknowledged that it could still be a couple of weeks before they have their new bench boss in place.
The biggest event in junior hockey begins tonight, as the year-end Memorial Cup Tournament opens in Halifax, Nova Scotia. For a refresher, the champions of the three Canadian Hockey League member leagues – the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and Western Hockey League – and a rotating host team square off in a round-robin tournament each year to determine Canadian junior hockey’s premier team. Each of the four contenders play one another once, after which the standings allow for a semi-final and final round. The action begins tonight and continues through the week, with the playoff rounds scheduled for May 24th and 26th. As for the competitors, the Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL) play host to the Guelph Storm (OHL), Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL), and Prince Albert Raiders (WHL). Below is a summary of each team’s season and top players for those interested in following the action over the next ten days:
Halifax Mooseheads (49-15-4)
This year’s host team was nearly a league champion themselves. The Moosheads fell to the Huskies in six games in the QMJHL Final, but will have a second chance against the team at least once in the Memorial tournament. Halifax is led by 20-year-old undrafted center Samuel Asselin, whose 86 points led the team and were a top-ten finish in the league, but all eyes will instead be on his young, draft-eligible line mate. Raphael Lavoie, who has had an up-and-down season, picked a good time to be on the up. With the NHL Draft a month away, Lavoie caught fire in the QMJHL playoffs. The 6’4″ right wing recorded 32 points in 23 postseason games, almost half of his 73 regular season points, which was far-and-away the most on the Mooseheads and second-best in the league. Most draft rankings and mock drafts have Lavoie falling somewhere in the middle ten picks of the upcoming first round and the Memorial Cup is his final chance to prove he should go earlier instead of later. The big winger plays a physically dominant game that often looks effortless, but he can also flip a switch and show off stellar skill. Also up front for Halifax are are a pair of recent Anaheim Ducks second-round selections, Benoit-Olivier Groulx and Antoine Morand, and New York Islanders’ sixth-round sleeper pick Arnaud Durandeau. Leading the defense is the daunting pair of top Detroit Red Wings blue line prospect Jared McIsaac and promising 2020-eligible rearguard Justin Barron, a likely first-round pick next year. The Mooseheads are as strong in the top-six and on the top pair as any team in this tournament, but it is in their depth that they could fall short. However, there is always the chance that goaltender Alexis Gravel, the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2018 sixth-rounder, could steal a game if the skaters fall short. Gravel finished in the top five in both save percentage and goals against average among QMJHL starters this season.
Guelph Storm (40-18-10)
No one expected Guelph to be here. The Storm, who entered the playoffs with the eighth-best record in the OHL, were down 3-0 in their second-round series against the division rival London Knights and managed to mount a four-win comeback to advance. They then fell behind by two games against both the Saginaw Spirit in the third round and Ottawa 67’s in the OHL Final to win it all. This team is nothing if not resilient and will be a tough out in this tournament. While Arizona Coyotes’ forward prospect Nate Schnarr enjoyed an excellent season, leading Guelph with 102 points and finishing in the OHL’s top-ten in points and assists, there is little argument that he is still the best forward for the Storm. Acquired in January, Montreal Canadiens top prospect Nick Suzuki has been superhuman since arriving in Guelph. The talented forward recorded 49 points in 29 games to close out the regular season and then another 42 points in 24 playoff games en route to a championship. Suzuki might be the most dangerous player in the Memorial Cup tournament, which is a major boost for the Storm. He’s not alone though; Suzuki and Schnarr lead a forward corps that includes NHL-bound power forwards Isaac Ratcliffe of the Philadelphia Flyers, MacKenzie Entwistle of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Liam Hawel of the Dallas Stars. The defense is also stout behind mainstays Dmitri Samorukov of the Edmonton Oilers and draft-eligible Owen Lalonde and trade additions Markus Phillips and Sean Durzi the Los Angeles Kings. Guelph would be the favorites to win the Memorial Cup if it wasn’t for their goaltending issues. If Anthony Popovich can find his game and that weakness goes away, the Storm are in good shape. The OHL is traditionally the strongest of the three CHL leagues, which is evidenced by the depth of talent that Guelph, the eighth-best OHL squad in the regular season, has versus the best teams of the QMJHL and WHL.
Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (59-8-1)
Rouyn-Noranda’s regular season mirrored that of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The team was dominant from beginning to end and won the QMJHL regular season title by a whopping 12 points and finished with a goal differential of +182. Fortunately for them, the similarities ended in the postseason. The Huskies continued to roll all the way to the league championship. Leading the way, regular season and postseason, has been league scoring title-winner Peter Abbandonato. Abbandonato, 21, recorded 111 points this season and tacked on another 27 in the postseason. An undrafted prospect, Abbandonato has not let the lack of NHL commitment slow him down as he has been near-impossible to stop all season. He also has a deep supporting cast, including talented first-time draft-eligible prospect Alex Beaucage, and over-agers Raphael Harvey-Pinard and Felix Bibeau, as well as Boston Bruins draft pick Jakub Lauko and Montreal Canadiens signee Joel Teasdale. Trade acquisition Noah Dobson, the twelfth overall pick last year by the New York Islanders, has also had a massive impact for the team both defensively and offensively. Dobson is arguably the best player in the tournament and could be the x-factor for the Huskies. The story of Rouyn-Noranda’s season to this point though has been the stellar goalie tandem of Samuel Harvey and San Jose Sharks pick Zachary Emond, both of whom posted a save percentage of better than .925 and a goals against average below 2.10 in the regular season. Harvey, who started 20 of 21 playoff games, put up even better numbers when it mattered most. If the 21-year-old net minder keeps up that level of play, the Huskies will be hard to beat.
Prince Albert Raiders (54-10-4)
The Raiders were just as, if not more dominant in the WHL as the Huskies were in the QMJHL, winning the regular season title by 11 points and recording a goal differential of +151, more than 50% better than the next-best team. Yet, Prince Albert accomplished such a campaign without much game-breaking talent, perhaps why they came within an overtime goal away from losing in the WHL Final to the Vancouver Giants. The Raiders have good players, but on paper they pale in comparison to the other three competing teams. That doesn’t erase what they have already accomplished this season, but it could put them at a disadvantage in inter-league play. Leading the Raiders is a player whose name hockey fans will know before the NHL Draft, if they don’t already. 20-year-old forward Brett Leason is a once-in-a-generation late bloomer who was passed over in two drafts already before breaking out this season. His play has caught seemingly everyone’s eye, as he earned a spot on Team Canada’s World Junior team earlier this year and is considered by some to be a first-round pick possibility in June. Leason’s numbers back up the hype; not only is he 6’4″ and over 200 lbs., but the power forward scored 36 goals and totaled 89 points in just 55 games this year. He then added 25 more points in 22 postseason games. Leason is a force in the offensive end – shooting, passing, possessing, and forechecking – and will be one of the tougher players to match up with in the tournament. Right beside Leason all season long has been San Jose Sharks selection Noah Gregor, who finished just one point behind Leason but still within the WHL’s top ten scorers. Cole Fonstad, property of the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators free agent addition Parker Kelly, and another intriguing draft prospect, Alexei Protas, also play key roles up front for Prince Albert. Outside of WHL plus/minus leader Brayden Pachal, the Raiders are pretty thin on the blue line, but star goalie Ian Scott hasn’t let it affect him. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ keeper of the future has been phenomenal this season, posting a sub-2.00 goals against average and .932 save percentage in the regular season and replicating those numbers in the postseason. Gravel and Harvey may be able to steal a game in the Memorial Cup, but a hot Scott could steal the whole tournament.
The Edmonton Oilers are headed in a new direction under general manager and president of hockey operations Ken Holland. Now we know that at least one other tenured front office executive won’t be sticking around, as Craig MacTavish has left the team for the KHL. MacTavish was named head coach of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl today, signing a two-year deal with the team.
MacTavish, 60, has been with the Oilers in one role or another for the last two decades, serving as head coach, general manager and senior vice president of hockey operations at different times. The KHL will be an entirely unfamiliar experience, especially given that his last coaching role came back in 2012. MacTavish will be following in the footsteps of several other former NHL coaches like Mike Keenan and Bob Hartley who have found success overseas, and joining a team with some familiar names including former Edmonton forward Anton Lander.
For the Oilers and specifically their AHL affiliate the Bakersfield Condors, this means more changes in the front office as Holland takes over. Edmonton has been criticized in the past for being an “old boys club” made up of former Oilers players, but if MacTavish’s exit is any indication things are going to change on that front.
Jordan Binnington has been a revelation for the St. Louis Blues this season. A 25-year-old rookie who didn’t make his first NHL start until January, Binnington somehow managed to record 24 wins, a .927 save percentage, and a league-leading 1.89 GAA this season and has led the Blues to the Western Conference Final thus far in these playoffs. Binnington will be 26 before next season and has just 33 career appearances, yet he is a Calder Trophy candidate and undeniably St. Louis’ MVP in this amazing turnaround season. So how do you compensate a season like this? The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin wondered the same thing and explored three comparable contracts that the Blues may explore this off-season. The first belongs to a player with many similarities to Binnington, NHL journeyman Andrew Hammond. Hammond’s breakout season with the Ottawa Senators in 2015 was even more impressive than Binnington’s, that is until he lost his job to a healthy Craig Anderson in the postseason. A 26-year-old “prospect” with only 24 NHL appearances to his name, Hammond received just $1.35MM per year over three years from the Senators following his big season. However, Larkin points out that Hammond was not expected to be the starter in Ottawa, whereas Binnington is undoubtedly going to begin next season ahead of Jake Allen on the Blues’ depth chart. He also notes that Binnington has arbitration rights this season and no reasonable arbitrator would be convinced that Binnington is worth an equivalent contract to Hammond’s, which would only be about a $1.5MM AAV. On the other end of the spectrum, Larkin uses Winnipeg Jets’ starter Connor Hellebuyck as an example. Hellebuyck, another older prospect out of UMass – Lowell, Hellebuyck joined the Jets in 2015-16 at age 22 as the backup, struggled the next year as the part-time starter, and then had a breakout campaign last year in the final season of his entry-level contract. Winnipeg responded with a six-year deal worth more than $6MM annually for Hellebuyck. However, by the time he signed his extension, Hellebuyck had played in 149 games over three seasons, a much larger sample size than Binnington’s. He was also younger and entered the NHL with far great expectations compared to Binnington’s relative obscurity through a long AHL career. Thus, Hellebuyck also fails to be a convincing comparison for Binnington. Larkin finally settles on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Murray. Murray also came out of nowhere as a rookie, albeit a 21-year-old rookie, to start 13 games down the stretch and then lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup behind a stellar postseason. Despite Murray’s lack of NHL experience, the Penguins had seen enough to reward their young keeper with a three-year extension worth $3.75MM per year. While Binnington is significantly older and a less heralded prospect, he has a larger sample size and slightly better regular season numbers than Murray, making the deal a fair comparison. Under the current salary cap, which is likely to increase this summer, Murray’s deal would equate to about a $4.25MM AAV for Binnington. So what should Blues fans expect in a Binnington extension? The safe bet is somewhere between three and four years at $4-4.5MM per year, but a Stanley Cup title could still push that value even higher for the breakout keeper.
- According to Shawn P. Roarke of NHL.com, Carolina Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour says there is a “pretty good chance” he goes back to Curtis McElhinney in net for an elimination Game Four against the Boston Bruins on Thursday. McElhinney has played well this postseason in relief of Petr Mrazek, including in Game Three. McElhinney made 29 saves and allowed just two goals on Tuesday night after Mrazek surrendered ten goals combined in Games One and Two. At this point, McElhinney does seem to give the Hurricanes the best chance to win against Boston, but is there more at stake here? Whether McElhinney or Mrazek are in net, the odds of Carolina winning Game Four are slim and the chances they win four in a row to advance are much, much worse. When the ’Canes are inevitably eliminated, they face a reality of both Mrazek and McElhinney being unrestricted free agents. If forced to choose between the two, one would certainly think that the team would prefer to bring back Mrazek, who outplayed McElhinney this season – and is nine years younger. However, they take the risk in going back to McElhinney, who lost nevertheless in Game Three, that Mrazek no longer feels like the top option in Carolina and looks for other opportunities on the open market. After a strong season, the Hurricanes can’t afford a downgrade in net, so unless they are open to spending more on a free agent upgrade to Mrazek – a Robin Lehner or Semyon Varlamov for example – they’ll need to be careful with how the approach his confidence as this playoff run winds down.
- Is new Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland happy to enter next season with Mikko Koskinen and (Group 6 free agent) Anthony Stolarz in net? If not, he could have a hard time attracting free agents and might instead look to his old team for help. Steve Yzerman may also want to bring in fresh blood in Detroit, but the Red Wings are locked in to Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier next season to the tune of $7MM. The ink is still drying on Howard’s extension with the team and his loyalty likely lies more with the city of Detroit than with Holland. After a nice season, it would be a surprise for Howard to be dealt away. However, Yzerman will likely be willing to move the disappointing Bernier and Holland would seemingly be interested. After all, it was Holland who signed the journeyman to a three-year, $9MM contract just last summer. He very well may feel that Bernier can still live up to that contract, even after a poor first season with the Red Wings. It would not come as much of a surprise if Bernier outperforms Koskinen next season, so if Holland can re-acquire the veteran net minder on the cheap, it could make sense for the Oilers.
- It appears that the Oilers are hoping to be active on the international free agent market. Postmedia’s Jim Matheson notes that Edmonton is eyeing a few European free agent forwards. As their cap space is limited for next season, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to afford some impact wingers so it’s not surprising to see them look overseas in the hopes that someone can potentially step in and play right away while likely being on an entry-level deal; any European player aged 27 or younger is subject to the entry level system.
As usual, Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet has produced another edition of “31 Thoughts” that is chock full of insider information. With the postseason ongoing and free agency yet to begin (officially anyway), a considerable focus this week is on head coaching vacancies. And the coaching news is coming in fast. Less than 24 hours after initially naming Ralph Krueger as a candidate for the vacancy with the Buffalo Sabres, Friedman writes that he is now considered the favorite. The former Edmonton Oilers head coach, and most recently soccer executive, has ties to GM Jason Botterill and has the experience that the Sabres reportedly seek. Friedman also believes that Pittsburgh Penguins assistant Jacques Martin is out of the running for the Buffalo job, which may have moved Krueger up the board. He also adds that Tampa Bay Lightning assistant Todd Richards is no longer being considered.
- Long-time NHL head coach Dave Tippett is still a candidate in Buffalo, but Friedman believes that he has become the favorite in Edmonton and is more likely to take over as the Oilers’ head coach. Tippett has been working with the Seattle expansion team ownership group of late, but has been itching to get back to coaching. In 14 years of coaching, Tippett finished above .500 11 times and made the playoffs eight times. That alone is a major step up for Edmonton, who have done neither of those things in nine of the past ten years. Joining Tippett in Edmonton as an assistant could be recent Florida Panthers head coach Bob Boughner, Friedman adds. By many accounts Boughner was fired not due to his own performance, but due to Joel Quenneville’s availability, so he would be a major addition as well.
- The Toronto Maple Leafs may not need to worry about losing highly-touted AHL head coach Sheldon Keefe. Keefe’s name has been relatively quiet on the coaching market thus far, but that could be due to the fact that Friedman believes he is unwilling to leave Toronto unless there is a better chance for him to succeed. Keefe could be in line to replace Mike Babcock as Leafs head coach when his contract ends (or sooner) and step into a talented Toronto lineup. However, assistant D.J. Smith remains a candidate in Ottawa and fellow assistant Jim Hiller has been granted permission to interview elsewhere, Friedman reports. Friedman does not expect Hiller to be back in Toronto next season and mentions the Nashville Predators as a potential landing spot. Hiller’s power play expertise could certainly help a Predator’s man advantage that was the worst in the NHL this season. The potential loss of both Smith and Hiller would hurt for the Maple Leafs and could force them to move Keefe to the NHL as an assistant.
- Friedman has no news about the vacancies in Ottawa and Anaheim. As it stands now, the Senators are considering Smith, Martin, Dallas Stars assistant Rick Bowness, Providence College’s Nate Leaman, and internal candidates Troy Mann and Marc Crawford. As for the Ducks, it appears to be Dallas Eakins, whose AHL San Diego Gulls are still alive in the Calder Cup playoffs, or bust.
Prior to the hiring of Ken Holland as GM, the Oilers had been considering the possibility of buying out winger Milan Lucic’s contract this summer, reports Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman in his latest 31 Thoughts column. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea but given the front-loaded, bonus-laden structure of the contract, many had viewed his deal as virtually buyout-proof. Courtesy of CapFriendly, here is how the breakdown of a buyout would go:
Considering that Lucic carries a $6MM cap hit, the savings would be minimal. While they could certainly use the $2.375MM in extra space for next season, the fact that they wouldn’t save enough cap room in two of the next three years to roster someone making the league minimum makes going that route a short-term solution at best.
In an ideal world, finding a suitable trade for Lucic would be the best case scenario, as long as the incentive they provide to take on the contract isn’t too steep. Friedman notes that they tried to do so last summer but that their price was unrealistic. Considering that his output dipped even more this past season (6-14-20 in 79 games), Holland’s tune may be a bit different now compared to Peter Chiarelli a year ago.
While it’s true that sending Lucic to the AHL would yield $1.075MM in cap savings (it would go up by $50K in 2021-22), his no-move clause makes that a challenge as he could very easily invoke that to block a demotion. Assuming he’s unwilling to go to the minors, that makes a trade or a buyout the only options to remove him from the roster and while a buyout would give them a bit more breathing room for 2019-20, it would come at a pretty significant cost after that. As a result, expect to hear Lucic bandied about in trade discussion in the weeks to come.
With several coaching vacancies still out there, the Buffalo Sabres have added a new name to their coaching candidates list as the team has reached out to former Edmonton Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman late Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada.
Krueger was with the Oilers in 2010 as an associate coach in 2010 and was promoted to head coach for the 2012-13 strike-shortened season, but was let go after one season after leading the team to a 19-22-7 record. He left hockey in 2014 when he turned his attention to association football and became director of Southampton FC, having left in April of this year, although there were rumors earlier that Krueger was interested in a front-office role in the NHL. However, it looks like Buffalo is considering him for the head coaching role instead. Krueger is well known for coaching a surprising Team Europe to a gold medal game at World Cup of Hockey in 2016. He hasn’t coached in the NHL since getting fired in 2013.
While Friedman added that Krueger is just a candidate, and not necessarily a front-runner, he’s in the mix. The 59-year-old is considered to be a defensive-minded coach, he also has been known to have some good offensive teams over the years. After struggling under rookie head coach Phil Housley the past two years, the Sabres are likely looking at a veteran coach that can control the locker room and get the team’s young talents to develop properly. The two other key names that have been associated with Buffalo’s coaching search are also veteran coaches in Dave Tippett and Jacques Martin, although the team is not done in its search. The team was also linked to Swedish coach Rickard Gronberg, but he signed a two-year deal with the ZSC Lions of the Swiss NLA after it was rumored that the Sabres’ were not interested in adding a first-year NHL coach.
The Edmonton Oilers and new general manager Ken Holland may have decided that Ken Hitchcock won’t be the team’s head coach going forward, but regardless Hitchcock has been a key figure in helping the Oilers find the next head coach, according to Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun. Holland spoke about the situation, saying:
I’ve known Hitch a long, long time. Certainly as I’m going through the process of whittling a list of potential coaches down, he’ll be one of the people I’ll lean on. He’s coached against some of these people and if he didn’t coach against them, he knows which coaches he can talk to gather information. He’s from the coaching world. He can gather information up quicker than I can gather it up.”
Holland is expecting Hitchcock to gather information on all the coaching candidates considering the veteran coach’s experience over the years. There isn’t a hurry to hire a coach quickly. It looks like Holland is content to gather that information on all the candidates and make a decision later.
- Sticking with Hitchcock, the Edmonton Journal’s Jim Matheson writes that there are rumors that the Columbus Blue Jackets might have interest in Hitchcock as a possible team president if John Davidson leaves for New York. However, Hitchcock’s response is that he is not interested in running a team. “I’d like to dig in and help the coaches both NHL and AHL. I think Ken Holland and I would work well together. Just need to find a role for me that would have value,” said Hitchcock.
- After stepping up in his third season and providing solid defense, the Vancouver Canucks have to decide whether they consider Troy Stecher as a piece of their future, according to the Vancouver Sun’s Patrick Johnston. Not only did he provide solid value as a second-tier defensemen, there are some who wonder whether he could be even better than that. Stecher, who had 11 points last season, finished this season with 23 points. However, if the Canucks don’t see Stecher as part of their future, the team could trade him for more assets for the rebuild. However, Johnston points out that isn’t likely as the team is quite weak on the right-side where Stecher plays.
- The Oilers are looking to hire someone with NHL head coaching experience to replace Ken Hitchcock, GM Ken Holland told Sportsnet’s Mark Spector. He notes that while a rebuilding team can afford to go with a first-time coach, Edmonton is not in rebuild mode despite their struggles in the standings so someone with experience is their preference. Dave Tippett, Todd Richards, and Jacques Martin are among the coaches with NHL experience that are still available.