Summer U20 Tournaments: Which Prospects caught my eye?

Finally, we had some ACTUAL live hockey to watch.

For the first time since February, we finally got to see some international hockey in the way of two U-20 tournaments. Last week, Germany toppled Switzerland in a three-game set 2-1 over a three-game stretch, while Czech Republic and Slovakia wrapped up their own mini-tournament on Monday with the Czechs taking a 3-0 sweep. For the most part, the action was… interesting, to say the least. You could clearly tell the players weren’t up to full speed and the result was some mismatched plays by four teams with different agendas. Some were looking at keeping its planned World Junior Championship lineup intact, while others were focused on developing their future young guns.

Regardless, it was hockey. And with nothing else to watch over the past few months regarding prospects, it was a welcome change.

So, let’s have some fun. Here are a few NHL draft prospects that caught my eye over the past two weeks, for both good and bad reasons:

2020

Tim Stutzle, C, Germany (#8) – With no hockey since March, draft watchers were desperate for actual on-ice action. Stutzle’s status as a top-three prospect – will he go No. 2 or No. 3? – has been heavily debated ever since with plays getting micro-analyzed to the point of death. That didn’t change last week when he became the highlight player to watch in the three-game series against Switzerland – only for the top prospect to fail to meet expectations. Stutzle looked frustrated, slamming his stick on a couple of occasions after failing to create much in front of the net. The usually dominant center had just a goal and an assist in three games, with his highlight-reel play to kick off the tournament gaining traction online as a way of showing just how dominant Stutzle can be. Of course, that’s without the context that the Swiss defenders were at the end of a shift and were just trying to survive, but Stutzle was likely the only player who could have pulled that off successfully. Sutzle came in clutch with the goal in the final minute to send the third game to overtime (an eventual 4-3 win for the Germans) and set up John-Jason Peterka earlier in the game, but was otherwise not the player we’re used to seeing, even if he improved throughout the tournament. The good thing? It was a meaningless summer tournament and Stutzle will be completely fine.

Lukas Reichel, LW, Germany (#23) – All eyes were on Tim Stutzle last week, but they quickly shifted to the play of Reichel, a fellow potential first-round pick. Reichel finished the three-game friendly with four goals, the most of any player and by far the most impactful in the series against the Swiss. He simply looked engaged from the get-go, mainly when attacking defenders and forcing mistakes. In the second game when he scored twice, Reichel used the extra space in both cases (power play and breakaway) to his advantage. He didn’t throw the puck on net quickly just to make a play – instead, he waited for the exact opportunity to get the disk on target and it worked. In the third game, he once again exploited the free space to contain the play and send a quick shot past the Swiss keeper for the goal. It’s clear that he can expose weaknesses in his opponents when given extra room and his high top speed compliments that. Reichel still needs to work on his defensive play while remaining consistent at both ends, but there’s something to work with there. For the record, Reichel played on the second line away from Stutzle and Peterka.

Jaromir Pytlik, C, Czech Republic (#21) – My favorite performer from the past two weeks, Pytlik came ready to play and didn’t disappoint. Pytlik centered the dominant second line with Michal Teply and Martin Lang, with Pytlik recording six points in three games. I’ve liked Pytlik before, and I know this is a summer tournament in the midst of a world-changing pandemic, but Pytlik looked hooked up and dominant at times. A strong all-around player, Pytlik was actively engaged on the power play and made his mark both around the crease and in the high slot. Pytlik was best served setting up breakout passes but his quick-play nature allowed him to react to rebounds and keep plays alive after an initial chance was missed. Pytlik was also one of the biggest instigators of physical play, hitting to separate players from the puck and winning puck battles along the boards, especially behind the net. He played most shifts like he had something to prove – it worked.

Nick Malik, G, Czech Republic (#30) – Malik only made one start and technically wasn’t the starter in the three-game series, but I think he deserves a shoutout for a job well done in the 4-0 victory over Slovakia on Sunday. Malik made 22 saves in a strong showing for the young goaltender that has played in many tournaments above his age group. Sunday’s effort was a classic showing for a goaltender that once was seen as a top netminder for the 2020 draft but slipped down the ranks after a tough 2019-20 season. At the very least, this was a good confidence booster for Malik after bouncing around the Czech league and OHL last season before re-committing to HC Ocelari Trinec for 2020-21.

Jan Myšák, LW, Czech Republic (#19) – Myšák is such an enigma to me. Some scouts absolutely love him. Others think he’s an ultimately flawed prospect that will struggle to adjust to the NHL. I’m on the side of he’s got a good foundation to grow from and can turn a switch and become the best player on the ice when he needs to be. A three-point night to open up the series was a good indication of that, although I felt his game trailed off a bit in the following contests. He had just one assist on the next seven Czech goals after the opening contest and was better utilized on the power play than at five-a-side. His play seemed inconsistent at times over the weekend, something that clearly wasn’t an issue with points in 12 of his final 14 OHL games. Myšák’s skating still needs work and I’d like to see him be more engaged at his end of the ice, but there’s still so much to like about his overall game. Tomas Tatar, anyone?

Martin Chromiak, LW, Slovakia (#18) – It’s a shame Chromiak had just one goal to his credit because I thought he had a strong showing. In the first two games, Chromiak was a consistent play-driver for the Slovaks and his speed and skill made him one to watch. In the third game, I felt like he couldn’t do much with the puck and the Slovaks were ultimately outmatched for 60 minutes, but Chromiak wasn’t bad by any means. Chromiak caught the eye of scouts late in the season when he lined up with Shane Wright in Kingston after making his case as one of Slovakia’s best U-20 players and he should be one of his nation’s go-to wingers at the WJC – they just need to set Chromiak up with a bit more help.

Simon Knak, C, Switzerland (#8) – Knak is still a work in progress: he has good size and can control the puck for long periods of time without getting stripped of it, but you can tell his foot speed left him struggling at points. Still, what caught my attention was Knak’s smarts in setting up his teammates in short-area situations and he forced a few turnovers in the offensive zone, leading to a goal early in the tournament. Knak’s skating does look improved from a year ago and he reserved enough energy to stay active late in games, but it’s still not a positive in his game just yet. I still liked what Knak was capable of in the offensive zone and he should emerge as one of Switzerland’s best players at the World Junior Championship.

2021

Lorenzo Canonica, C, Switzerland (#14) – I didn’t have many notes on Canonica before the camp but he easily thrusted his way onto my radar. Signed by the Shawinigan Cataractes for the 2020-21 QMJHL season – if it happens at all – Canonica fought his way to the top of the Swiss lineup and the 16-year-old didn’t disappoint with three points in as many games. I especially loved him on the power play, moving from the middleman spot to the point and utilizing his powerful slap shot to create scoring chances. He hit the post on multiple occasions, but his teammates still looked to him to get the puck on net and he did with little difficulty. Besides his slap shot, his wrister is unleashed at a high rate of speed and he has the hands and speed to move past defenders. When Canonica was lined up against Stutzle and Co., he faired well and showed consistency in the faceoff dot. I think he made a real case to be a key contender for Switzerland’s World Junior Championship outfit.

Ray Fust, RW, Switzerland (#28) – Fust also played on the top line for the Swiss and seemed to catch everyone’s attention. A late-2002 born forward, Fust had three points in three games in his debut tournament for the U-20 squad, the best tournament he’s played to date internationally. One scout told me Fust looked rejuvenated after making the switch from the Swiss U-20 league at 16 to United States prep action last year, honing his scoring abilities to score 31 goals in 44 games with Northwood. He had a silent U-18 tournament with the Swiss last year but looked like a pure ball of energy last week. Fust is a creative forward who keeps defenders guessing (this shootout goal is a perfect example of that) and his wrist shot was on full display throughout the tournament. When Fust gets the puck in his own zone, he does a good job of quickly exiting the zone to create a scoring chance at the other end and it seems like his footwork has taken nice strides over the past year.

2022

Juraj Slafkovsky, C, Slovakia (#20) – Statistically, Slafkovsky had a quiet outing with just one goal (in the final seconds of the last game) in three games. But the fact that Slafkovsky was so noticeable – and arguably one of Slovakia’s best players – on the back half says something about just how good this 16-year-old is. It took him a bit to get going, with Slafkovsky struggling to keep up with the pace and generally looking lost through the first game. By the second game, Slafkovsky was doing an excellent job of finding his teammates and moving the puck with a level of confidence we’re used to seeing in Finnish U-18 action. He was used solely as a fourth-line forward but once he found his groove, Slafkovsky was noticeable nearly every shift and made the most of it. It’s unfortunate he wasn’t rewarded with a goal in the second game because you could tell the effort was there, but the results didn’t follow. Overall, there was a lot to like about the U-20 debut for Slafkosvky, one of the top prospects for the offensive-heavy 2022 NHL draft.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

What it was like covering the last Leafs game before the Pandemic

It honestly doesn’t feel that long ago.

March 10, 2020. The virus had begun to ramp up in North America, and the NHL, among other leagues, took part in a new media policy that acted to prevent the media from getting too close to players. The media were no longer allowed in the changerooms after the game, forcing interviews to take place in a more formal setting. At the time, 75 total COVID-19 cases were considered a major deal, enough to force a state of emergency in New York.

Simple enough. Sure, it made getting through the rink to the media gondola a bit more tricky, but that’s a minor inconvenience – boohoo. I attended the game with fellow The Hockey News colleague Ken Campbell, who’s covered too many NHL lockouts and probably has a few dinosaurs in his phone’s contact list at this point.

I arrived about an hour before puck drop, giving myself to get used to the new guidelines, but also to snake my way through the crowd. Social distancing? There was no such thing. I made my way up past the Tampa Bay changeroom, but through a less direct route and after all players were back in the room. I made my way towards the media elevator with at least 3-4 others and two scratches for the night. Remember packed elevators?

I took some time to chat with a few other media members in the gondola hallway before getting to my seat. From there, it was business as usual. Some in the media row chatted about the virus, laughing at the thought of the NHL stopping the season due to the virus. In the back of our minds, we knew it was a possibility, but a full stoppage due to the virus would be – wait for it – unprecedented times.

Immediately after puck drop, you could tell something felt… different. The arena, which can hold up to 20,270 fans with standing room, typically takes up to 10 minutes after puck drop to reach close to capacity. It’s downtown Toronto, after all – it’s just a mess near the rink, which sits right beside Canada’s largest train station, Union Station. But for a mid-March contest against Tampa Bay – one of the league’s top teams – it felt very off. The attendance was announced at 19,124, but it felt much, much quieter than what you’d expect, even on a Tuesday night. I’d been to many games in the weeks prior and a few airports, too, but it was the first time I was starting to see people wearing masks in a crowded area. There were at least two people outside selling hand sanitizer, and you could see at least a few people taking advantage of it once they arrived at their seats.

The game itself was fine. The Leafs won 2-1 after a solid goaltending battle between Andrei Vasilevskiy and Frederik Andersen and Auston Matthews found the net for what felt like the 500th time at Scotiabank Arena this season. The media box tends to empty a few minutes before the final buzzer to allow adequate time to get on the elevator down and make it outside the changeroom. I typically would chase down the opposing team, which only would have a handful of media looming around, anyways. I took the stairs down with Ken instead of the elevator – we’re on the top floor of the building up in the media gondola, so it’s a lengthy walk down – and ended up by the Platinum Club lounge area on the event floor, not far from where the changerooms are. If you’ve ever been down there, it can get a bit hectic after a game. But since the the team’s weren’t allowing us to walk through our usual route – beyond the team changerooms towards the media centre in the middle of the player hallway – it meant we had to weave through hordes of fans (and many that were quite intoxicated) to what would end up being the makeshift media availability room.

The room was cramped – not a ton of seats, but not many media members around, either. I stood by the front entrance so I could get a quick look at who was coming around the corner, but more so because the seats in the media box were so bad that I just couldn’t pain myself to sit another second. We expected a cluster-crap – not the fault of Tampa Bay’s PR team at all, to be clear – since the whole procedure was still new to everyone. I think we sat around for maybe 15 minutes before the first player showed up. Usually, the wait’s pretty short because the players want to get back on the bus and get out of dodge, but teams were being careful and allowing one at a time. It was otherwise normal from there: ask a few questions, new player (slowly, but surely) would come in, repeat.

There was a delay in getting players to the podium, and I believe just three showed up. We couldn’t take players to the side to ask a few more personal questions like usual. The access was much tougher to get – and at the same time, I applaud the NHL and the Tampa Bay PR for the fantastic job they did making it work. It was new for everyone, and if that’s what we were forced to deal with for the next few months, so be it. I do remember being annoyed at the time because I, like many others, wondered if after the virus died off that teams would stick to making it tougher to get access. Many still believe that could be the case, but following the media policy was the least we could do in uncertain times. Usually in the Leafs room, there’s about 25 people standing around with mics bumping and rubbing into each other – the exact opposite of what we’re accustomed to in society these days.

My job was to gather quotes from the Lightning for a piece I was going to write about the next stretch of games for the Lightning and how they can use it to gain the momentum they didn’t have heading into the post-season the year before – which ended in an untimely exit. I wanted to focus on it quickly because I had a handful of podcasts to record the next day and wanted to make sure I wasn’t rushing to get the piece done. Ken asked me to grab drinks with him that night – I declined, lamentably, not realizing it was going to be the last time outside of the office that I’d see him, or any member of The Hockey News’ team.

Two days later, the NHL announced it was going on hiatus. The next day, the THN team was – temporarily – cut, but I was still working. I got to see a few friends that cover the NASCAR Pinty’s Series with me over the weekend, the last weekend where Ontario was still active by normal standards. On March 23, the Ontario government – along with most of Canada – declared a state of emergency. Life as we knew it was put on hold, a hold that’s still active to this day.

I’ve spent the past few months trying to keep busy. My position at THN was eliminated, leaving me on the sidelines professionally until recently. I started contributing 2020 draft reports to Smaht Scouting, working on an unannounced draft guide I’m self-producing and will be contributing hockey coverage for a soon-to-announced deal I’m really excited about. I’ve also probably spent too much time playing iRacing and racing against real life NASCAR drivers, but I’ve been making some good friends (and a bit of money) along the way while making the most of the opportunities offered due to the pandemic.

But to think just how different life was on March 10. Thoughts of a complete shutdown just felt crazy. There was no chance. None. There’s no way we could shut down the world, right?

Now look where we are.

Assessing Canada’s goaltending options for the 2021 World Junior Championship

If we’ve learned anything about the Canadian national junior team, it’s that picking the three goalies for the World Junior Championship half a year in advance is an exercise in triggers migrane-inducing comas.

But I don’t care. I get a few migraines each week, so what’s another one?

Once again, there’s no clear favorite to go No. 1. Let’s not forget the wide-open race heading to camp last year, with no true favorite emerging until the second half of the main event. Nico Daws emerged from out of nowhere to go from a mid-level undrafted prospect to the top North American option for 2020, and he even got a shot as Canada’s starter in the Czech Republic. It didn’t last long and Joel Hofer stole the spotlight afterwards, but even Hofer wasn’t necessarily a favorite heading into camp, either. Colten Ellis and Alexis Gravel looked like favorites heading into the summer, but neither made it to December’s selection camp roster.

Remember when I mentioned projecting how the goaltenders would do was migraine-inducing? Can you see why now?

Unfortunately for Canadians, the easy decisions that made the Carter Hart and Michael DiPietro years so easy to predict just aren’t possible this time around… again. Canada has a few intriguing options, but if the Canadians are going to win gold for the third time in four years, someone is going to need to step up. We’re far past the days where Canada just needed adequate netminding to seal the deal, and with the tournament on home soil again, the pressure is on.

Canada’s (virtual) summer goalie camp began this weekend, with five goaltenders named to the U-20 edition. Ideally, Canada can pinpoint their top options from this camp and ride them out into the fall, but with no actual hockey being played during the camp, and with no true start day for the 2020-21 season, it’s still largely a guessing game.

I’ve broken the options into three groups: the players that actually were invited to camp, the other longshot options that could sneak their way into the conversation and the actual NHL prospects. The third group, however, might be the weakest, as weird as it sounds. The top drafted goalie prospects – Hunter Jones and Colten Ellis – missed eligibility by being late 2000-born goalies selected in a draft dominated by 2001-born kids. Both were favorites to make the team a year ago, to no avail.

So now, let’s get digging:

The camp invites

Taylor Gauthier (Prince George Cougars, WHL)
Older goalies typically have a better shot at the starting role and despite playing on a below-average Cougars club, Gauthier has proven time and time again that he can give his team a fighting chance. Undrafted in 2019, Gauthier put up an impressive .917 save percentage and improved some of the inconsistencies in his game, such as his rebound control and blocker positioning. With 105 starts over the past two years, Gauthier has only been surpassed by Dustin Wolf’s 107 in terms of game action so Hockey Canada should have a clear book on Gauthier’s play – his 11 starts for Canada internationally should help, too, and we know the big dogs at HC love experience. If Gauthier is equal to any of the other top options, expect him to get the starting gig, but we know so much can change.

Dylan Garand (Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

Dylan Garand (Kamloops Blazers, WHL)
One of the biggest issues with drafting goaltenders is that by the time they hit eligibility, they likely haven’t been a starter for that long. But since Garand was selected by Kamloops in 2017, there’s been hints of greatness along the way for one of the better Canadian goaltenders for the 2020 draft. Recently named the WHL’s scholastic player of the year, Garand had a handful of pure brilliant performances in net this season and his .921 save percentage was good for third among netminders with at least 20 starts. Garand proved this season that he could handle a heavy 46-game workload and scouts have lauded his improved mental game for allowing him to take his game to a higher level. If Hockey Canada looks for the goalie with more experience, then Garand will have to wait an extra year to earn the starting gig, but a strong start to the 2020-21 season will make it tough for Canada to sit Garand too long.

Tristan Lennox (Saginaw Spirit, OHL)
If I had to make a long-term projection, Lennox is going to have the best NHL career out of the five options. But Hockey Canada isn’t in the business of giving players a spot solely based on potential, and that’s why I don’t think Lennox is going to be the starting goaltender. With a 27-10-5 record over two seasons in OHL, in the OHL and a 5-0-0 run in two international tournaments for Canada, Lennox hasn’t had an issue putting wins on the board, but his sophomore OHL campaign didn’t meet expectations – perhaps his leg injury from the Hlinka-Gretzky had a long-term effect? His .876 save percentage in domestic action was far from impressive but there’s high hopes for the athletic netminder in 2020-21. Don’t expect him to get any starts at the tournament, but he’ll use it as a stepping stone for the 2022 tournament.

Brett Brochu (London Knights, OHL)
Brouchu had a stellar OHL rookie campaign, going 32-6-0 with a .919 save percentage and a league-leading 2.40 GAA with the always spectacular London Knights. For reference, he made the jump up for the draft year after spending a year in Junior C of all places, so it’s safe to say Brochu wasn’t on the draft – or Hockey Canada’s radar – heading into 2019-20. For a goalie to jump up three leagues to become an OHL star is nearly unheard of, but Brochu’s numbers rivaled that of the league’s most experienced veterans and forced Hockey Canada to take notice. Kind of like Daws, Brochu’s rise shows that there could be some more untapped potential in the pipeline for the 2020 draft prospect and a strong candidate for selection camp – but let’s see if he can maintain what made him so good this past season.

Sebastian Cossa (Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL)
Speaking of fantastic rookie performances, Cossa once again proved why he was one of the best goaltenders of his age group growing up. After two years of carrying his weight and continuously giving Fort Saskatchewan a chance to win at the U-18 level, Cossa put up a 21-6-3 record with a .921 save percentage with the Edmonton Oil Kings. Named the WHL’s player of the month for December, the big, 6-foot-5 goaltender had some incredible streaks throughout the season, highlighted by a 6-1-1-0 record during that month before helping the Oil Kings become one of the top contenders out west. He’s got the starter role locked up again for 2020-21 – his NHL draft season – but will his younger age scare off Hockey Canada?

The rising guns

Will Cranley (Ottawa 67s, OHL)
The No. 4-ranked North American goaltender by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service, Cranley has a good mix of size, athleticism and mental toughness that teams are searching for in a modern-day netminder. Cedrick Andree was the main man in Ottawa this season but can you really ignore Cranley and his 18-2-0 record and his tremendous raw skillset? Cranley didn’t get the bulk of the starts but he is capable of being an OHL starter, so it’ll be interesting to see if the 67s end up moving him or Andree this summer.

Antoine Coulombe (Shawinigan Cataractes, QMJHL)
It often feels like QMJHL goaltenders don’t get a fair shake at the World Junior Championship for Canada, but Coulombe is one looking to change that. His play improved big time in 2019-20, helping Shawinigan graduate from being the laughing stock of the league (his 4-24-2 record and 5.19 GAA in 2018-19 was brutal, to say the least) to a better-but-still-not-great organization this past season. Growing up, Coulombe was considered the top Quebec-born goaltender from the 2002 age group and he proved that by starting off hot with just one goal allowed in his first three games of the season in Shawinigan. Coulombe hasn’t had a chance to prove himself with a competent team in front of him in major junior, so his stats will always look revolting, but if the technically sound and athletically gifted netminder was given a shot at camp, I have full confidence that he’d rise to the occasion.

The NHL prospects

Carter Gylander (Colgate University, NCAA)
He’s a longshot, especially since he’s only played in Jr. A, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if Detroit’s seventh-round pick in 2019 is given a shot. He played for a strong Sherwood Park Crusaders club in the AJHL, but with a 51-9-0 record in the AJHL, he has a ton of wins on his resume – not to mention an appearance with Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge back in December, so Hockey Canada knows what he’s capable of. There’s hope Gylander can lead Colgate after Andrew Farrier and Mitch Benson split duties this past season, and if he does, Gylander will be an attractive option for the world junior team – but that’s assuming the anti-NCAA bias doesn’t kick in.

Trent Miner (Vancouver Giants, WHL)
With David Tendeck set to join the Arizona Coyotes organization, it’s time for Trent Miner to show what he’s worth. A seventh-round pick by Colorado in 2019, Miner had a bit of a down year with the Giants (the team as a whole did, too), but he showed he can handle the starting gig when needed. Again, this boils down to how well he starts the season in Vancouver, but I wouldn’t count him out, even if he’s a longshot from the get-go.

Which three goalies do you think Team Canada is going to bring? Tweet me at @StevenEllisNHL.

Logan Delaney: A Story of Unity and an Unimaginable Dream

Playing for your home country is a special honor. For some, it’s a chance to prove that they’re one of the greatest players in the world. For others, it’s the best moment of their life, and something that only a select few individuals will ever have a chance to enjoy.

Cole Harbour, N.S.’s Logan Delaney was fortunate enough to be a part of a truly special event. Home to a guy you’re probably very familiar with on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Cole Harbour has turned out to be a solid location for Team Canada hopefuls in the past. With Sidney Crosby winning on pretty much every stage, as well as Nathan MacKinnon recently winning gold at the World Championships, Canada’s connection to the Nova Scotian’ community has been immense.

So how does Delaney, a little known hockey player, fit into the equation?

Usually, players who get named to Team Canada events are participating in a major professional league somewhere in the world. But for Delaney, whose short junior hockey career saw him play two games with the Cobourg Cougars of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, that wasn’t the case.

At the age of 16, Delaney, who was living in Barrie, Ont. at the time, was forced to miss a year of hockey after receiving a skull fracture from a hit from behind. He would eventually return to the game, despite medical advice urging him to stop, to try out for the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats. He’d eventually try another comeback in Junior A, but after a short period of time, the budding young player would have to quit for the time being due to post-concussion symptoms.

Fast forward to 2014. Delaney, 31-years-old at the time, received an email that would make anyone suspicious. Hockey Canada was looking to put a team together for the upcoming Pan-American Ice Hockey Tournament in Mexico City, a new event aimed at helping the development of countries with limited hockey resources.

You could imagine the confusion when asked to join a high profile team in such an obscure event.

“Getting asked to play was a confusing whirlwind of events to say the least,” Delaney said. “We were all contacted predominantly by email, which the majority of us thought was fake. We had to be reassured by Hockey Canada staff that it was in fact real. After doing a lot of research online into this event, clearly we jumped on it.”

Many Canadians are familiar with the Pan-Am Games, an event heading to Toronto this coming summer. But ice hockey isn’t involved with that type of event, so what exactly was this newfangled tournament? To most of the players asked, it seemed more like spam. When you take a look at the players involved, with many not making past the college or junior ranks, it’s understandable that there may have been a little bit of skepticism involved.

“I was coaching Atom “AAA” hockey. I was at a game in the dressing room and my email went off. My old buddy Matt Keer is good buddies with Ross MacLean, who is a development coordinator with Hockey Canada. Kerrsy sends this email to several of us in Nova Scotia. It says “boys, your one and only chance to play for Team Canada, read the info below and get back to me ASAP.

“I (was) confused. And excited. I went home and gave my six-month pregnant wife my phone and told her to read it. She’s says “what the &$!k”, so I spent the next two hours Googling the hell out of it. Info was scarce. I didn’t care. I jumped on it. I thought it was a joke, but I didn’t take the chance. I texted Kerrsy the next day cause I was skeptical. He didn’t know what else he could do to convince us it was real. The email was from Hockey Canada, signature and everything. All the other guys felt the same way. Guys from Hockey Canada were literally calling us and identifying themselves to try to prove it wasn’t a joke.

“A couple other buddies here were asked and said no because they thought it was a joke,” mentioned Delaney, who was familiar with other players that received invitations. “In the email thread I wrote back “am I the only one seriously considering this?” Geoff Sanford replied “yes, you idiot.”

As you can imagine, the feeling was surreal for Delaney. Here he is, a hockey coach in Nova Scotia, now getting asked to represent his country in a brand new, unique tournament.

“It was so shocking in the beginning. As a kid you watch world juniors every year. Seeing that jersey is a staple of everyone’s home, and then all of a sudden, three weeks from receiving the invite, you are going to be wearing the exact same one in a country that no hockey player from Canada has ever been.”

On March 3, 2014, Canada’s adventure to become the first-ever Pan-Am hockey champions started in the most positive way possible. Taking on Colombia just a day after their opponents grabbed their inaugural hockey win against Argentina, former SJHL Player of the Year Kyle Reed led the way by scoring a hat-trick for Canada in an eventual 9-3 victory.

But it wasn’t the victory that really stood out for Delaney.

“We tapped our sticks on the ice out of respect (a IIHF pre-game tradition) and to be honest we never thought much of it. It’s just what “we” do. Later that night, while enjoying some club sodas in the hotel lounge bar, two of their players came up to us. They told us that seeing all of us lined up on the blue line, in the famous Team Canada uniforms, tapping our sticks and cheering for them, Columbia, was the most surreal moment of their lives. One player said he had tears in his eyes. 

“We couldn’t believe it. And I think at that moment after he told us that, we realized us being here meant a lot more than we ever could of thought.”

Canada’s tournament was as dominant as it could be. With former AHLer James Reid putting up a solid performance in net, Canada would go on to finish with a perfect 4-0 record, scoring 49 goals and allowing just six in that time span. The good results weren’t to be unexpected in a tournament that, on paper, was expected to be very one-sided, but again, it wasn’t about the hockey. It was about the experience.

“I remember our first practice. Putting on the gear in the room, we all looked at each other and said “we’re really doing this?”. Then you step on the ice and (see) the big Mexico logo at center. It was crazy simply thinking about it.”

Playing at the brand new Ice Dome in Mexico City was surely a challenge. In fact, the arena was still not even completely built by the time the tournament was hosted. In Canada, you don’t need to drive very far to find a few arenas within a two mile radius. But in Mexico, just getting a single ice surface ready proved to be a tough task.

“A couple drills into practice, we cut the ice so bad our skates were hitting the concrete. The rink guys were still learning about ice maintenance. Here we are after practice in tracksuits on the ice helping them repair it. The rink guys loved it. We were having a blast. One morning we came in for practice and I’ll be damned if the ice was melted. It looked like a lake. We sat there scratching our heads. No big deal, we went out for a good meal instead.”

Hockey is filled with rivalries. Typically, Canada hates the Russians, Sweden dislikes the Finns and Latvia and Switzerland tend to have some pretty interesting battles on the ice. So when you stories about teams staying together for a week of hockey competition, that would probably stand out as something that seems rather strange.

Not at the Pan-American Ice Hockey Tournament.

“All the countries, except Mexico, stayed in the same hotel,” Delaney said. “Our accommodations were absolutely fantastic. So we were around Columbia, Argentina, and Brazil quite often. They were all really great guys. Constantly chatting with us, wanting to hear stories about Canadian hockey. However, we were more interested in hearing about hockey at home for them! It was fascinating listening to them talk about the game at home. We all had our story of where we came from, and how we ended up there, but hearing theirs was incredible. The cultural difference was really interesting.

“We shared a bus home with the Colombian team once. They had a stereo with them blaring Colombian dance music and singing. We didn’t know what to do so we started dancing at the back of the bus. It was absolutely hysterical and awesome. The boys loved it. I can honestly say that they loved having us there. We would invite them places, and made sure that if a cold one was around, they would get one too.”

Once the tournament came to a close, it wasn’t a Canadian player on top of the scoring charts. In fact, Mexican scoring stars Carlos Gomez and Adrian Cervantes, as well as American college player Daniel Echeverri, took home the top three spots after five games. Initially, you would assume that Canada, with all their hockey resources, would come out and dominate the scoring department, but when you get players out there, knowing that it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, you see incredible performances from players you’ll likely never hear from again.

“I think they (the other teams) were nervous to a degree, figuring we would go out and run them over through the glass,” said Delaney. “Once they recognized our character, I think that aspect disappeared. Playing them was a lot of fun. We had some good laughs with them, and don’t kid yourself, there was some excellent hockey players floating around those teams. Mexico could play, and arguably the best player in the whole tourney was from Colombia.”

Off the ice, however, was where the real story was.

“I watched one of our players, Mike Sullivan, give a kid in the crowd his stick after a game,” recalled Delaney, who scored two goals for Canada during the tournament. “The kids parents ran down to Sully and hugged him. I listened to a guy from Argentina tell me he spent his families life savings to build a hockey rink, and he lives in it. All of it was truly amazing, and incredible. People back home think that we just went there to steamroll these countries. They could never understand, it meant so much more.

“It’s humbling to know that a Brazilian hockey player goes home to his two kids and tells them all about how their dad played hockey against Team Canada, and made history. (That same player went out of his way to congratulate me on the birth of my daughter two months later). Hockey is Canada’s game. But we want to share it with the world. And seeing these countries play the game purely for the love of it, it’s what makes it special. Us playing against Mexico while 3000 people watched, maybe 500 of them became hockey fans for life. And that’s special. Knowing that we might have had a part in that.”

Back on the ice, Canada still had a job to do. While their main objective was to help support smaller hockey nations, Canada still went to Mexico with one task in mind: winning a gold medal. Just a few weeks prior, the top national team, featuring stars such as Sidney Crosby and Carey Price, went on to win the gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, giving Canada their third Olympic title in the past four tournaments.

Over in Mexico, a lesser known Canadian team found themselves battling for a gold medal of their own.

On March 9th, Canada and Mexico took to the ice for the gold medal game, their second meeting of the tournament Earlier in the event, Canada went on to beat the Mexicans 6-3, proving to be Canada’s toughest test at the end of the tournament. With the hosts coming in with a lot to prove, the team entered the finals with hopes of somehow finding a way of putting Canada’s gold medal hopes to sleep.

That wouldn’t be the case, unfortunately. Michael Sullivan did the most damage for the Canadians, scoring two goals in an eventual 7-0 victory to secure the gold medal. It was their lowest scoring shutout of the tournament, thanks to big victories over Argentina and Brazil, but it was easily their most important victory. For most of the players involved, it was the greatest moment of their hockey lives.

Even for some people not involved with the team.

“The Canadian embassy hosted us one morning,” recounted Delaney. “Pretty cool stuff. (We) met the ambassador and the staff. Afterwards we had lunch at a nice spot. Were all sitting there and an older fella walked in, probably in his late 50’s. His name was Marco and he flips out, “Oh my god you’re Team Canada!” So were shooting the breeze with him, and he tells us to stay and that he will be right back. He runs to his office and grabs a picture off the wall and runs back. It’s a picture of him and his beer league hockey team, 20 years ago, in Mexico City. He was so proud to tell us that he plays hockey. You couldn’t have believed it unless you saw it.

“So, we beat Mexico in the final. Rink is packed solid. We’re on the ice celebrating and getting pictures and whatnot. I look up and hear this guy yelling wearing a (Doug) Gilmour Maple Leafs jersey. It’s Marco! I skate over and tell the security guard to get him and bring him on the ice. This guy was on cloud nine. How cool is that?”

Looking back at the tournament over a year later still brings back great memories for Logan Delaney. Playing for the Canadian national team tends to be reserved for players on top of the hockey world. Crosby. Gretzky. Lemieux. Eberle. Iginla. Sakic. And yet, a little known player from Nova Scotia would become a gold medalist for the most iconic nation in hockey.

“Did I ever think I would have the chance to win a gold medal for my country? No, never,” said Delaney, whose Canadian team will not be returning to Mexico City this year. 

“Now I have a ring, and that jersey I once dreamed of wearing I have at home forever to keep. It’s a hockey fairy tale. I couldn’t describe it any other way.

Did Canada need to go to a smaller event like the Pan-Am games? They were surely not obligated to. What’s another medal to the country that lives and breathes the sport every single day?

It wasn’t about the medal. It was about creating a much more global presence for the sport we all love.

“Leaving there winning gold was one thing,” Delaney pointed out. “But in all truthfulness, leaving knowing that we made such a positive lasting impression on the hockey community in other countries was what left the biggest impact. And the lasting impression those other countries left on us was even greater.

“I know our trainer, Chuck Dufton, has been working with the Mexican federation over the past year, really working hard on hockey safety initiatives,” said Delaney. “Tom Renney has been working with Deigo De La Garma, the president of hockey in Mexico, mentoring the development. Dicky Haiek, the Argentinian president, has been working on skill development models through our coach Corey McNabb. And I know some of our players, myself included, have been in conversations of possibly going to these countries to work with minor hockey development as well. It’s been extremely positive, and the opportunities to continue the relationships we earned are great.”

When the 2015 edition of the tournament begins in June, the Pan-American Ice Hockey Tournament will feature six teams, one more than last year. But despite the added team, the event will move on without a Canadian team, giving a chance for someone different to grab the title. Surely, the impact of Canada’s participation last year helped the developing nations in a big way, including the Mexicans, who went on to grab a bronze medal at the D2B World Championships. The support in Argentina helped lead to a second team in the tournament, a big step in the right direction for a team with very little hockey experience.

While the tournament begins a new chapter back in Mexico, Delaney and the rest of the Canadians can kick back and reminisce in an opportunity of a lifetime for a group of unsuspecting candidates. They could end up being the only Canadians to ever participate in the tournament, an event that will hopefully live on for years to come.

And yet, it all started with one sketchy looking email.

“It was a fairytale, and it still is.”

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

This story was originally published in 2015 on TheHockeyHouse.net.

The regular season is over, so who wins the Calder Trophy?

With the NHL announcing on Tuesday its return to play plan to take place later this summer, there were a lot of questions left unanswered. Which hub cities will win the right to showcase the NHL playoffs? Will we actually get to see the entire playoffs?

Or, if you’re like me, you’re wondering who’ll win the Calder Trophy.

Awarded to the NHL’s top rookie, the race was so, so tight in 2019-20. I personally predicted that Cale Makar would take the title after seizing his opportunity in Colorado. He lived up to the expectations, no doubt, but then came fellow college defender Quinn Hughes in Vancouver. Solid from the get-go, Hughes was chasing records early and taking full advantage of the spotlight when Makar went down with an injury early in the season.

Now here we are: just about to enter June, the usual month for the NHL Awards but with no actual date in 2020 confirmed now, looking at the race between two of the best rookie defensemen we’ve seen in some time. Who wins? How close is it truly? Let’s take a look:

Makar vs. Hughes

On the surface, it’s easy to say Hughes was the more important defenseman to his respective franchise. The Canucks weren’t expected to be a contender in the west, while the Avalanche likely would have still been a force without Makar. Hughes’ 53 points was the most by an active defenseman in their rookie season and the best since Niklas Lidstrom’s 60-point effort in 1991-92. But prior to the shutdown, Hughes was on pace for 63 points – the eighth-best by a rookie defenseman in NHL history. And to think that Makar, who played in nine fewer games, was three points out… that shows you how good both of them were. For all rookie defensemen with at least 50 games played, Makar’s 1.82 points-per-60 was tops, with Hughes sitting second with a 1.27.

Hughes played heavy shutdown minutes for the Canucks, but with a 6-26-6 record when he played at least 23 minutes, that raises some questions. Should the Canucks have been relying so much on a rookie a year removed from college? That’s the problem: the Canucks needed an upgrade on defense in a way Tyler Myers couldn’t match, and Hughes was forced to fill in as a result. Statistically, some of his best hockey came in the 18-21 minute mark, with all four of his three-point games coming when he played under 20 minutes. In a non-overtime affair, Hughes had two points while playing over 20 minutes just once. Albeit on a smaller scale, the Avalanche faired a bit better with a 5-4-3 record when Makar skated in over 23 minutes. But then again, Makar, who mainly played second-pairing minutes for the Avalanche as opposed to Hughes’ top pair, played 34.1 percent of his shifts against “elite” quality players, per PuckIq. Hughes tracked at 32.6 percent, but also played more games overall. Those numbers sit among the top for all rookie defensemen, so it’s not like one was drastically better than the other. But we can gather that Hughes needed to take on more responsibility in Vancouver, based on his ice time, than Makar did.

The point difference between the two is close, and we’re talking about defensemen here. So let’s dig deeper. At 5-on-5, Makar has the edge with eight goals, 10 first assists and 28 points. He’s also one of two defenders at even strength to have at least five goals and a 10 percent shooting percentage, with Carson Soucy sitting at 10.53 with six goals. Hughes had a slight Corsi-for percentage advantage at 52.64 over 52.33 – so close. Only Los Angeles’ Matt Roy had a better CF percentage among players with at least 30 games played.

Hughes was forced to face tougher matchups this year as a shutdown defender and his numbers were fantastic given the situation: his 49.87 expected-goals-for, 44.49 expected-goals-gainst tops Makar’s 37.16 xGF and 32.32 xGA at 5-on-5 by a solid margin.

In the chart below measuring goals above replacement, Makar is the highest among rookie defensemen at 15.8, while Hughes finished with 11. Despite the deficit, it’s an impressive number for Hughes, with John Marino and Adam Fox being the only other rookie defenders to beat out the Canucks star.

What do these numbers tell us? When you put all the stats together, it’s too close to say one player was much more deserving than the other. In fact, we’re detailing two defensemen who, in any other year, would be just as commendable in the Calder Trophy race. One plays on a team loaded with young talent and a threat to win it all when the playoffs kick off, even if he isn’t playing top-pairing minutes just yet. The other is a on a team nearing the end of a rebuild that still has some holes to work on, yet gets great results out of its youngest blueliner. No matter what, we’re talking about a player who’ll be a Norris Trophy contender for at least the next decade, and that’s something that doesn’t happen each season.

It also depends on what matters the most to you: the overall team situation or points. By rates, Makar had the better offensive season, but he also spent significant time passing to Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen – a line, when healthy, is among the NHL’s top trios. It’s not like Hughes had a bunch of nobodies to setup, though: Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser were, as expected, important offensive leaders for the ‘Nucks, but Makar had one of the NHL’s best players to pass to each night.

From what we’ve seen, Hughes’ value offensively is on the power play. Nearly half (25) of his 53 points came with the man advantage – six points clear of Makar and four off of Torey Krug for the lead among all defenders. Given that 47.1 percent of his points come with the man advantage (despite being just over 17 percent of his total ice time), it’s safe to assume that’s where the Canucks trust him to do his most offensive damage.

So, again, you have to have context to evaluate both situations. Regardless, what a crazy battle between the league’s top two rookie defenders.

The Second Tier

When I put my poll up earlier this week, a bunch of people wrote-in New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox, and rightfully so. On a team with so much potential in its young players, Fox was the best of the bunch. In an interview with Newsday’s Colin Stephenson a few months back, Ryan Strome said “It’s not only what he does with the puck – his poise is unbelievable in how savvy he is with the puck – but he seems to be able to play defense without hitting anyone. He takes the puck away from guys, and he just starts skating up the ice. He’s a real gem.’’

Adam Fox (Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Statistically, Fox was one of the only guys who could hang with Makar and Hughes. Fox’s 14.9 goals-above replacement and 2.7 wins-above replacement put him nearly on par with Makar, and his 22 points at full strength were good for third among rookie defensemen. For most of the season, Fox was a second-pairing guy on a poor team, but his numbers show a much bigger impact than you’d expect in that situation. In a normal year, he’d be the best rookie defenseman in the class and his numbers suffered a bit given the team he was on, but Fox is going to be so good for a long, long time.

Further down the Calder clash, Dominik Kubalik scored 30 goals in Chicago, a non-playoff contender not too shabby for a former seventh-round pick who took six years to hit the NHL. Say what you want about high point totals on traditional non-contenders (Chicago was unlikely to make the post-season before the 24-team format was announced), but Kubalik brought offense to a team that didn’t get much out of reigning 40-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat. Kubalik was the only forward to record at least 20 goals (23) and 30 points at full strength (35) and was generally seen as the league’s top rookie forward. Playing with a stout playmaker like Jonathan Toews helped, but Kubalik deserved that opportunity.

What about John Marino? The 23-year-old joined the Pittsburgh Penguins after a three-year stint at Harvard University, recording a career-high 16 points in 2017-18. But through all the injuries in Pittsburgh this season, Marino was one of the steady forces on the blueline, making guys like Jack Johnson look better than ever. Marino was lauded for his stellar defensive stylings and he deserves praise as one of the best rookie blueliners in his own zone. Granted, he doesn’t have the pizzazz the three ahead of him do, but in terms of reliability, Marino deserves a ton of credit.

Victor Olofsson proved he was one of the best goal-scorers that Eichel ever had in Buffalo and should have no issue putting up 30 goals a year when healthy. On the power-play, Olofsson played a huge role with 11 goals and 17 points. But at five-aside, Olofsson had six goals 19 points, putting him in a three-way tie with Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin for fourth on the Sabres. The Sabres will want a bit more production out of him at 5-on-5 in the future, but he gave the team some hope.

I can’t leave this without giving a shoutout to Martin Necas, who impressed, as expected, in Carolina this season. As he continues to develop, he’ll play a role on a team set to contend for the Stanley Cup over the next decade – and I hope you’re excited, Caniacs. Same goes for Edmonton’s Ethan Bear, who emerged as one of the best options on the backend for Edmonton in a system with a few notable prospects in the pipeline. I profiled him back in November, and not much has changed – other than he proved he can handle full-season duties. Nick Suzuki also deserves a shoutout for his impressive numbers in Montreal – the chase for the No. 1 center spot in Habsland looks a little but clearer.

The Goaltenders

How about goaltenders? We saw one of the most exciting freshmen goalie classes in some time. It all starts with Ilya Samsonov, who, for a while in Washington, was unbeatable. It came at the best time possible for the Capitals, who may finally have an out on an expensive Braden Holtby extension. Samsonov’s .927 save percentage at 5-on-5 was 11th among goalies with at least 25 games played, with his 4.34 goals-saved above average placing him 20th. Holtby was near the bottom in both categories and given it was Samsonov’s first shot at the NHL, the Capitals will likely continue putting their trust in the youngster with so much talent.

It’s a shame that MacKenzie Blackwood’s momentum came to an abrupt end the way it did because he was unstoppable for a few weeks. From Jan. 27 until March 10, Blackwood had an 8-2-2 record with two shutouts. His .939 save percentage and 6.52 GSAA at 5-on-5 made him a dominant force in the weeks leading up to the shutdown, giving the Devils something to look forward to after the rough campaign on the ice (and disappointing results from big-name newcomers P.K. Subban and Jack Hughes). Blackwood was inconsistent at times and having to lead a team that was out of the post-season picture as soon as the season kicked off didn’t help his case, but it appears as though the Devils finally have a young stud to lead the charge for the first time in the post-Martin Brodeur era.

Elvis Merzlikins (Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Elvis Merzlikins was exactly as advertised once he finally got comfortable in Ohio and is ready to lead the team to glory in the post-Sergei Bobrovsky era. I was a huge fan of his back in the Swiss league and we can’t forget all those incredible performances at the Spengler Cup and World Championship. But a rocky start in 2019-20, where it took him nearly half a season to finally start a game at home, really made people wonder if he had what it takes to be what the Blue Jackets needed. That all changed when Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury following the Christmas break, Merzlikins gave the team new life in January with a 9-2-0 record and three shutouts before eventually landing on the sidelines himself. Merzlikins was magical when he found his flame, but we’ll have to wait until 2020-21, or whatever next season ends up being, to see what he can do for an extended period of time.

And just imagine if Igor Shestyorkin played enough games. The fight would have truly been on.

The Top Draft Picks

Sure, Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko – the No. 1 and 2 picks from the 2019 draft respectively – didn’t live up to the hype in season one, but they didn’t stand a chance in the Calder Trophy race once it became clear Quinn Hughes and Makar were going pro at the end of 2018-19. Hughes’ struggles were well documented – the 5-foot-10 forward had just 21 points in 61 games, with his points-per-game mark of .344 becoming the lowest by a first overall pick in their rookie season since Vincent Lecalvier had a weak .341 in 1998-99. But that’s the thing – Lecavalier had nearly 1,000 career NHL points, and while they’re completley different players, Hughes will have the chance to rebound once he gets a bit of seasoning behind him – and perhaps a few linemates to play with.

In Kakko’s case, it’s fair to say the adjustment of moving to North America after spending your entire life in Finland had something to do with it. The New York Rangers showed some true promise at points, but was invisible far too often. At 6-foot-2 and just shy of 200 pounds, Kakko had the size to make an immediate jump, but as the Rangers continue to work out kinks in the development system (especially in regards to Vitali Kravtsov and Lias Andersson, Kakko should be in good shape to show why he was one of the best U-18 players in Liiga history.

Kaapo Kakko (Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Chicago’s Kirby Dach was the third 2019 draft pick to stick in the NHL all year and while there were moments of greatness, it was far from a desirable year for the 6-foot-4 center. With 23 points in 64 games, Dach went long stretches without scoring, highlighted by just one point in 28 games from Nov. 21 – Jan. 18. I was hoping to see the Hawks send Dach to the World Junior Championship in December to help him earn more confidence, but the team felt it was in his best interests to remain with the pros in Illinois. Hopefully, we see more out of Dach in 2020 because it was far from a memorable rookie season for the No. 3 overall pick in 2019.

What the people say

I had my own opinions on the winner, but I wanted to see how other people reacted, too. A few nights ago, I put out a tweet asking for people to share who they think was going to win the Calder Trophy. The options were Makar, Hughes, Kubalik (the top forward) and other. I can’t say I expected Hughes to have nearly double the results, but I also have a significant number of Canucks followers and many made sure to share their thoughts.

The comments were mainly “Hughes and it’s not even close” and “Makar and don’t bother saying anyone else.” Of Course, as we’ve seen, the numbers suggest that, yes, in fact, it is quite close.

I then asked a few of my peers – prospect experts you likely know quite well and trust with their opinions. The name that came up more than any: Quinn Hughes. A few specifically detailed just how important he was playing heavy, vital shutdown minutes for the Canucks. Sure, his point-percentage wasn’t as impressive as Makar’s, but they’re defenseman after all. And when a team trusts you to come in and help change a team’s D-core like Hughes did, people notice.

My Pick

It’s been a very long time since we’ve had a Calder trophy battle this close. I would be happy with either choice. But when it’s this close, you have to go with your first instinct. And that’s why I think Quinn Hughes is going to win the Calder Trophy.

Quinn Hughes (Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Like it or not, the PHWA – which I am listed as a member of – selects the winner of the Calder Trophy. Trust me, it’s still split among the voters. It’s as much of a coin toss at this point as you’d imagine. The hunch, though, is that Hughes will be the winner in the end. Whether or not the numbers support it, people have pointed out that Hughes had such an impact on a team that likely was another year or two from a playoff birth. The stats say Makar, but the “eye test” says Hughes was relied upon more.

Either defensemen is deserving of the award, and, in the end, it’s still a personal award. It doesn’t have any effect on the rest of us, other than for discussion’s sake.

But man oh man, the discussions are going to be fun.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Which unsigned NHL prospects are worth keeping an eye on?

On June 1, certain draft prospects that remain unsigned by their NHL clubs will have their rights expire and pushed into the free-agent market. The list of available names – found at the bottom of this post – is mainly made up of CHL players two years removed from getting selected, but a host of older players over in Europe will have their rights expire, too. A good explanation of the whole situation can be found here.

In the past few months, Tyler Tucker (St. Louis), Cam Hillis (Montreal), Wyatte Wylie (Philadelphia) and Kevin Mandolese (Ottawa) turned hot seasons into NHL deals, proving that development cycles are fluent and not everyone hits their stride at the same time. So, in a time where not much else is going on, there’s something to look forward to.

Here’s a look at a few prospects that I believe will earn some significant NHL attention, whether it’s with the teams that still hold their rights or another franchise down the line (this does not mean others won’t be given a shot, but these are guys I like, in particular):

Declan Chisholm, D (Winnipeg – fifth-round pick in 2018)
Chisholm was an important figure on one of the OHL’s most dominant offensive forces, the Peterborough Petes, this past season, reaching the potential many hoped he’d be capable of in his OHL draft year. But in the four years since, there’s been a fair share of ups and downs for Chisholm, and some questioned how good Chisholm would have looked on a weaker roster this season. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Chisholm won’t get signed this off-season, whether it’s in Winnipeg or elsewhere. Chisholm’s offensive abilities aren’t questioned and his reliability in his own zone has been a keen piece of improvement in the eyes of scouts – at the very least, they like him as a project depth signing that can put points on the board and chip in on special teams.

Nico Gross, D (NY Rangers – fourth-round pick in 2018)
I have a soft spot for Swiss-born players – I became an HC Davos fan because of NHL 06 and that eventually led me to follow the NLA, and, eventually, European hockey as a whole. One guy I’ve enjoyed watching was Gross, and while he has spent the past few years in the OHL, it still counts. Gross’ play has been a topic of debate, largely because he has very little value offensively (he did record a career-high 33 points this season, but over half were on the man advantage and doesn’t do a lot to excite scouts in that regard). The issue is he wont get many opportunities with the man advantage at North American pro when he really needs an opportunity to get more used to the puck.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think a team will sign him this time around, but will instead re-evaluate what Gross is capable of after a trip back home. Gross doesn’t have a contract in place for 2020-21, but we’ve seen Swiss-born prospects head back home for a few years before embarking on an NHL career. The four-time Swiss World Junior Championship member has value as a shutdown defenseman in the right system, but he’ll need to show further improvement in his overall makeup.

Connor Corcoran, D (Vegas – fifth-round pick in 2018)
A product of Vegas’ second draft, Corcoran is a name that stood out early in terms of unsigned prospects. Corcoran produced 50 points for the first time after earning adding extra offense to his usual stay-at-home style. The Windsor Spitfires defender moves quite well and reads the play in a way where he doesn’t overcommit on a play if it could end up putting him in a bad situation on the transition. He was a slow riser, but there’s been enough improvement in his game each season to warrant an NHL deal and become an intriguing depth option. It would be surprising if Vegas does indeed pass on Corcoran, but he’ll land somewhere.

Alexis Gravel, G (Chicago – sixth-round pick in 2018)
I wrote about Gravel at the 2019 Traverse City Prospect Tournament, saying he needed a big season to cement himself as a threat for Canada’s World Junior Championship team. Instead, Gravel struggled to turn Halifax’s campaign around after making the Memorial Cup the previous year (an early injury didn’t help) and finished his four-year tenure with less-than-desirable numbers. It was a disappointing end for a kid that played 50 games as a QMJHL freshman in 2016-17 – a rare accomplishment for any rookie goaltender in major junior – and looked destined to become an NHL starter.

So, where does Gravel go from here? There are still scouts who believe Gravel has a future as an NHL goaltender, but with the Blackhawks electing to put the team’s future (at least for now) in the hands of Colin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Dominic Basse, it won’t be in the Windy City. A good projection would have Gravel going to the ECHL next year to continue playing heavy minutes like he was used to in Halifax and show that he’s still a threat. At the very least, he’s the most desirable goaltending prospect hitting the UFA market on June 1, and it’s never a bad idea to widen your options.

Alexis Gravel (Photo by Steven Ellis/The Hockey News)

Luke Henman, C (Carolina – fourth-round pick in 2018)
This is a kid many people seem split on: is there enough offense to warrant a contract for Henman, or is there still some untapped potential? The good thing is finding out won’t cost a team much. One Quebec-area scout said he fully believes Henman will fight his way into an NHL lineup once he adds a bit more to his frame – he specifically cited his decision-making with the puck and high top-speed as strengths that could make him a third-line forward someday in the NHL. I’d like to see Henman bring his A-game on a more consistent basis, but I can see him making an impact in the AHL for a couple of years before transitioning into a full-time bottom-six role in the NHL.

Eric Florchuk, C (Washington – seventh-round pick in 2018)
Could Florchuk be a nice dark horse for some team? Florchuk wasn’t finding much success in Saskatoon this season with 24 points in his first 33 games, but a trade to Vancouver at the deadline saw him explode for 33 points in 25 games. While Florchuk could still add a bit of meat to his frame, he can play just about any role asked of him and doesn’t have any major flaws when dealing with the puck. He still needs to work on his consistency, but there’s been a steady improvement in his game and his confidence level has skyrocketed. He’s a longshot to make the NHL, but he’s still a good value seventh-round pick.

Mitchell Hoelscher, C (New Jersey – sixth-round pick in 2018)
Is Hoeslcher’s emergence as a solid prospect the result of having scoring star Jack Quinn on his side, or is there something more to Hoeslcher’s game that makes him with pursuing this summer? That’s the less-than-a-million dollar question right now. The third-year center had great numbers as Quinn’s wingman and developed into a capable goal-scorer himself, potting 34 goals after recording just 20 over the two previous seasons. An aggressive forward that is always on the move, Hoelscher’s improvement on the production side of things should be enough for a team, if not the Devils, to give him a shot and hope he finds some traction in the OHL. The issue? The Devils have a steady backlog of centers that could get even more complicated this year thanks to a strong draft down the middle. If New Jersey lets him go, don’t expect Hoelscher to go unsigned – and perhaps land with whichever team snags Quinn.

Curtis Douglas, C (Dallas – fourth-round pick in 2018)
Why do I have a distinct memory of watching Douglas skate in Oakville in the summer of 2014? Because he stands out like a sore thumb. Currently listed at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds (adding nearly 50 pounds since his NHL draft season), Douglas has the potential of becoming the second player of that height to play an NHL game – John Scott was the first. Douglas is a high-volume shooter that uses his strength to out-muscle his competition and despite the size, he doesn’t spend his time being a goon and crushing players to the ice. In terms of playmaking, Douglas does a splendid job of finding his teammates at a high speed. But there are some concerns: unsurprisingly, he’s not the quickest skater and there was hope he’d crack the 70-point mark this season, instead following short by 10 points. At the Traverse City tournament, Douglas sat out two of Dallas’ games and was invisible in the other two, which is hard to accomplish for a guy his size. Still, his size alone might be enough for a team to warrant a shot, and there are far worse players available on the market right now.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

The NHL’s return is going to be chaotic, so let’s embrace it

Remember precedented times? Remember meeting up with friends? Remember what it was like to go outside and not think you were instantly putting hundreds of people in danger?

Good times.

Back in April, I wrote about how I would be completely fine with the NHL moving on from 2019-20 and focus on having a safe, healthy return in the fall. The basis was mainly to keep the integrity of future seasons – keeping everything on schedule and allowing the NHL to work in unison (for the most part) with leagues around the world. Having the NHL operate on a different timeline than the rest of hockey would be a logistical struggle.

But that was me looking out for the big, old NHL and not the fans. And while I still stand by my belief that I would be completely fine with calling caput on the current season, there are “unprecedented times”. As this continues to drag on, we can’t keep looking at the NHL season like we would at any point over the past century. No matter what, the NHL season is going to have an unusual ending.

It’s understood that we’re getting close to a proper return to play plan. I’m not aware of the NHL’s financials and can’t claim to be an expert on how this is going to work for everyone’s wallets, but the NHL is a business. Money is important. The NHL isn’t going to make money sitting on the sidelines and waiting, and after NASCAR’s successful return to action over the pat few days, there’s evidence of a sport coming back and hitting things out of the park. It’s a bit different having one event on at a time where all fans of the sport is invested in it – a Vancouver Canucks fan likely isn’t dying to watch a matchup between the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets. But the NHL has an opportunity to really take control of the weeknight sports market, and that’s something Gary Bettman and the owners are enticed by (I don’t think I need a source to prove the NHL’s love of big paydays).

A 24-team playoff? All games limited to select venues? Setting the puck on fire to create real action? Force centers to take part in a karaoke sing-off to determine a faceoff winner? At this point, why not? The integrity of the 2019-20 season is gone. No matter what, there’s no saving the season and restoring it to what it was before. The Stanley Cup champion will always have an asterisk to some fans. Some good teams will miss out on the 16-team playoff format due to the play-in idea that’s been proposed. But again, that’s what makes the playoffs so much fun – look at the Blues last year, a team that was so off the mark just a few months before the post-season, but they won the Cup. Imagine Montreal or Chicago going all the way this year – that would be total bananas and a ton of fun.

We’ve been without hockey for over two months now. I almost completely forgot who the league’s top scorer was. If you had any momentum before the break (sorry, Philadelphia), it’s gone. But if there’s a chance for the world’s best hockey players to return, we, as fans, media, etc., should accept it. I’ve come to accept the oddities of the season, and let’s hope we never have to go through this again. 

I’ll embrace a return to action and, who knows, maybe we’ll get one of the greatest playoffs we’ve ever had. We can’t use the “players are tired” excuse. The playoffs that seem to drag on after the first round won’t feel like a marathon anymore. Every game will be must-watch action. It’s not like the league has any form of tradition when it comes to playoff formats – it’s been changed more times than I can count. Why 16 teams? Why not 20? Why not 10? Why not six and force teams to be near-perfect to get a shot at the Cup? We’re talking about an arbitrary number, and we know more teams equals more profit. If the NHL held a 12-team format into the salary cap era and then switched to 16, people would complain. Most humans like familiarity and tradition, so that’s understandable. But let’s not for a second think that a 24-team playoff is some god-forsaken idea created by Satan to punish us: sports leagues are businesses, and given that it would be practically unfair to just give the top 16 teams automatic playoff bids, you can’t blame the NHL for trying to earn as much TV revenue as they can when fans aren’t allowed in the rinks.

I’ll watch nearly any form of hockey. I don’t care if it’s Montreal vs. Toronto, Bahrain vs. Egypt or the Isobel Cup final – if it’s good, it’s good. It doesn’t need the best players to be entertaining. So here we are, with the chance to watch the world’s top players fight it out with more attention than ever before. Let’s do it.

One of hockey’s best qualities is that it can be unpredictable. Los Angeles rode the wave of Jonathan Quick and went from a team barely capable of making the playoffs in 2012 to a shocking league champion. The 2018 Olympics had some of the craziest action I’ve ever seen at a high-level event. So what’s another crank in the cog? Let’s embrace this. If the NHL returns, we’ll finally have hockey back.

That far surpasses whatever else we’ve been doing for the past few months, right? I know I’m ready.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Projecting goaltenders can be challenging, but Yaroslav Askarov is the real deal

You’ve likely heard the phrase “goaltenders are voodoo”, and for good reason. It’s the toughest position to scout. For every Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury and Carey Price – the goalies that lived up to the hype after getting selected early in the draft – there’s a Jamie Storr, Rick DiPietro or Al Montoya. Just for perspective, 22 goalies went in the first round from 2000-09 compared to seven over the next 10 years – and not a single one in the top 10.

So where does Yaroslav Askarov land?

I was recently asked on the daily show Gouche Live – a show I produced during my time at The Hockey News and still follow each day – if Askarov was the real deal. Besides, there’s a “big-name” goalie in each draft: last year, Spencer Knight became the touted goalie of the future for the Florida Panthers. Teams have typically veered clear of goaltenders in the first round in recent years – Spencer Knight to Florida at No. 13 was a bit of an oddity, with no goalie landing in the first round in 2018. Jake Oettinger was the lone netminder chosen in the first round in 2017 but there’s more hype for the likes of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Michael DiPietro and Cayden Primeau (a seventh-round pick) these days.

But if the 2020 draft was to commence today, there’s a very high chance that Askarov would be a top 10 pick. In other years, perhaps top five. That’s high praise for a young kid in a position where what you expect when you draft there rarely turns out to be a reality.

So what makes Askarov the “big-game” goaltender we’ve been talking about for the past few years? The “Dream Killer”, as my former colleague Ryan Kennedy dubbed him, was a standout at the 2018 Hlinka Memorial, leading his team to a bronze with a handful of incredible performances, highlighted by a 35-save shutout at the hands of the cantonment hosts from the Czech Republic (keep in mind, he was 16 at the time). A few months later, he was named to the U-17 World Hockey Challenge’s all-star team after one of the best outings seen out of a goaltender in recent years, posting a tournament-best 1.40 GAA and .948 SP en route to a gold. He capped off the dream season with a silver medal and top goaltender honors at the U-18 World Championship, giving Russia its best chance at the top podium spot despite facing a high-power Swedish offense in the final. Cap it off with a gold at the Hlinka-Gretzky last summer where he outperformed his performance from a year prior and you have a resume built on winning and leading his team to glory.

And before you say “it’s Russia, they’re always good,” it’s worth noting that it’s not a power-rich group this year. Askarov could end up being the only Russian taken in the top 15, and Rodion Amirov and Vasily Pomomaryov (playing in Quebec) could end up being the only others taken in the first round. Askarov continuously did a lot for a group that wasn’t high on star power, and he was rewarded a spot as Russia’s starting goaltender to kick off the 2020 World Junior Championship as a result. He struggled, but keep in mind the fact that he was playing against guys two years further down the development cycle. If, out of everything, that’s the only true black mark on his international CV, that’s quite fine.

I haven’t even gotten into his league exploits yet. Askarov made his KHL with SKA St. Petersburg this season at 17 and handled the pressure admirably in a 23-save victory over Sochi. Add in fantastic numbers in the VHL, the second-tier Russian league, and you’ve got someone performing at a high level before most kids his age get a taste above junior hockey. Overall, his stats outshine those from Vasilevskiy and Ilya Samsonov – considered two of the best Russian goaltenders to get selected from the past 20 years – at the same age.

Style-wise, Askarov has perfect NHL size at 6-foot-3 and his right glove hand is a tricky one to beat. Askarov has impressive rebound control and moves fluently post-to-post with minimal hiccups. Let in a bad goal? Askarov can bounce back and play his best hockey in the minutes after. He often gets aggressive with his poke check but can move quick enough to make up for a miscue. You’ll often hear that a goalie battles hard and doesn’t give up on a play, but he guards his net like it’s his kid: he’ll do whatever it takes to protect a lead and has the proper headspace to remain calm.

“Teams are always looking for goalies with a big-game mentality. Someone who takes every game like their job is on the line. Someone who can give his club a fighting chance, regardless of the game,” a scout told me last week. “Askarov exemplifies that better than anyone in recent draft classes.”

“How does that compare to someone like Carter Hart?” I asked.

“Hart is special, but Askarov is going to be Carey Price, Andrei Vasilevskiy-level good,” the scout replied. “I wouldn’t be shocked if he gives an NHL team a legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup by the time he’s 22.”

Only five goalies 22 or under played an NHL game in 2019-20, and Hart and Washington’s Ilya Samsonov were the only ones to play more than 10 games. But it wasn’t that long ago that 21-year-old Matt Murray led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup – and then a second Cup the following year. But for every Murray and Jordan Binnington, you’re looking at the Corey Crawford’s, the Tim Thomas’ and Jonathan Quick’s of the world.

So could Askarov do it? He’ll likely land on a team in much poorer standing than Pittsburgh was when they chose Murray 83rd overall in 2012, but it’s not out of the question. Again, Askarov has a reputation as guy capable of winning important games, and if he makes his full-time KHL debut next season and finds a way to shine, it’s not out of the question. That’s just projecting, but the fact that that’s even being talked about at a point like this for a draft with no current date says just how optimistic scouts are about Askarov’s game.

Heck, I’m ready to declare that Askarov will win the Vezina Trophy one day. I’m simply THAT confident in Askarov. Call it a hunch if you will, but I can’t recall a time I was this excited about a goaltending prospect. Now it’s up to Askarov to prove me – and many others – correct.

To go back to the lede, goaltenders are challenging to predict, and a large reason why is ice time. Askarov could have received more KHL backup opportunities with other organizations, but he’s aligned with one of the best in the country. SKA hasn’t rushed him and has given him chances to play at a high level without exhausting his development. But he is still just 18, and goaltenders have a lot of development to go. The KHL isn’t known to be kind to young prospects, no matter the skill level. Just ask Vasily Podkolzin what he thinks about his ice time this year. Igor Shestyorkin and Ilya Sorokin are two examples of highly touted goaltending prospects that followed the slow, but steady path, and both are set to make the NHL look silly next season. But neither prospect, despite how good they were at 18, drew as much interest at Askarov, and his ability to outshine older competition on a weekly basis can’t be ignored.

Of course, top goaltenders each year earn that distinction for a reason – and typically, that’s because they’re dominant. But being a dominant major junior goaltender is much different than being a strong contender in European pro, and, in many cases, prepares players better than in North America based on the competition level. Askarov still has a long way to go, but if he comes roaring out of the gate in the KHL, it’ll further add to the narrative of Askarov stepping up when the stakes get higher.

Usually, teams avoid goaltenders early due to their unpredictable nature. In this case, the only reason he won’t go early is because of just how deep the top 10 is shaping up to be in 2020. Price was the last goaltender to go in the top 10 and while it’s not a far cry to think that Jesper Wallstedt could reach that territory in 2021, the fact that Askarov could break that streak is quite telling. Even if Askarov falls down to 20th, that won’t be a knock on his skill. Teams know what they’re capable of, and there’s no shortage of clubs looking for the goaltender of the future.

So time to make way for future Vezina Trophy winner Yaroslav Askarov. Hold me to that assertion.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Remembering NASCAR’s Trip to the Canadian National Exhibition

Today, the NASCAR Pinty’s Series accompanies the NTT IndyCar series to Toronto each July. I live near the track, so it’s an event I make sure to attend each year. It’s the only event on the schedule where IndyCar leaves the United States and there’s been no shortage of drama or action when the Pinty’s Series is involved. Along with the Grand Prix de Trois Rivières, it’s proof that NASCAR can produce incredible racing on a street course, and while getting the Cup cars today with nearly 40 entries would be a logistical challenge, it would be fun, nonetheless.

But at one point in time, NASCAR did make a trek up North to the Streets of Toronto – and the history surrounding it is quite fascinating. This is the story of the NASCAR Cup Series’ legendary trip to the Canadian National Exhibition – and the limited information surrounding it.

Located just outside the downtown Toronto core, Exhibition Place has a reach of nearly 200-acres. With transit taking you straight to the grounds, it’s easily accessible for local residents and hosts over a million people each summer. A month after the Honda Indy, the Canadian National Exhibition plays host to carnival rides, vast food offerings and even a big shopping centre – one where I tend to buy cheap hockey jerseys and obscure video games. Unfortunately, it was announced earlier this month that the CNE would not return for 2020 due to COVID-19 – just the second time the event hasn’t taken place in its 142-year history.

By the 1950s, stock car racing wasn’t new to Canada or Toronto specifically. Racing at Exhibition Place dates back to September 5, 1900, when the first race took place on a half-mile dirt track. According to Wheels.ca, a man named J. Short won with an average speed of 17.85 miles an hour or around 29 kilometres per hour. The Exhibition Grounds was used as a showcase facility for drivers to try and set records and there was even a race between a car and a plane in 1917 – not a fair match, as the car won the battle. It would have helped had the plane been able to move freely around the track.

The first race at Exhibition Stadium was held in April of 1952 with just under 8,000 fans braving the rain to watch Tom Forbes win the inaugural feature event. According to CanadianRacer.com, nearly 20,000 people turned out for the Canada Day event a few months later, with midget racing starting out a few days later on July 5.  On July 31 of the same year, the first NASCAR event – a 300-lap late model race – took place. It wasn’t the top division, but more so what we would consider the Xfinity Series today. Back then, admission for races were $1 for adults, which is about $10 today. Regardless of the time period, that’s crazy to think about these days.

Over time, more events were added to keep the action fresh and consistent. Racing wasn’t allowed on Sunday afternoons in Toronto at the time, so most races took place on Friday and Saturday evenings. Of course, the grounds also played host to the Canadian National Exhibition each summer, leaving the track out of commission at times. NASCAR returned for a handful of late model races over time, with NASCAR’s convertible series making a one-off appearance in 1956. Don Oldenburg won the event, which saw high attrition rates with just 14 of the 21 starters making it past the seven-lap mark.

The 1958 Jim Mideon 500 marked the 31st race of the 51-race schedule that year – and one of just two times the Cup series has ever come north of the border. In 1952, Buddy Shuman won a 17-car battle at a small dirt track called Stamford Park near Niagara Falls, but that’s pretty close to the United States border. By 1958, NASCAR had started to establish itself as a premier racing organization, so getting a race back then was a big deal.

Skipping to 1958, the track, better known as Toronto Speedway, was a third-of-a-mile oval on the Exhibition Place grounds, the same location of the current road track. Specifically, the track was housed right around where BMO Field is today, home of the Toronto Argonauts and Toronto FC – somewhere in the infield between turn five and turn nine and 10 today. 

Races would take place for a couple of decades, with the paved oval eventually forming in 1952. Early races would attract around 20,000 fans per event for just $1 admission, and even local radio stations would cover the races live. There wasn’t much competition for Toronto sports during the 1950s, especially in the summer, so sports writers gave special attention to events that we’d consider minor to this day. Eventually, NASCAR drivers were invited to take over in 1958, marking a historic event in auto racing in Canada.

According to local newspaper reports, around 10,000 spectators packed the stands at the small venue on July 18, 1958, designed to look and race like the famous Bowman Gray Stadium that still operates – and produces crash-filled events to this year – in North Carolina. It started off with three heat races for the 19-driver field made up purely of American drivers. The field had Lee Petty, Cotton Owens, Jim Reed, Shorty Rollins and Rex White, among others. But what people didn’t know they were witnessing was the start of a legendary career – the world was introduced to the driving styles of the King, Richard Petty. At 21, he was the youngest driver in the field, piloting the No. 142 Oldsmobile. He started the race in seventh, but was bumped out of the way by his father, Lee Petty, and was out of the race after 55 laps. Imagine that – it’s your first top-level race, you’re known as a talented up-and-coming driver, and your own dad takes you after becoming impatient. Richard was credited with a 17th place finish. The King went on to win seven championships and 200 race victories, so he turned out OK, I’d say.

The race itself took just 46 minutes to run, which wasn’t adnormal at the time. Rex White led the first 71 laps of the race, but Lee Petty led the final 28 laps and never looked back. It was Petty’s fifth win of the season and 35th of his career, en route to his first of three championship titles, while doing so at the age of 44. Now, granted, he was the only driver to race at least 50 events and back then the competition was very poor, but you can’t deny Lee’s impact on the sport as a racing pioneer. 

Lee won $575 for his troubles, with the race holding a purse of just $4,200. The event…. Wasn’t well received. In fact, in the Toronto Star column of the event, the Cup race had just a single paragraph compared to the 10 for the local short trackers. In John MacDonald’s article, he referred to the event as the “supposed highlight” of the race card, adding that “the spectators, enthusiastic about the regular stock car races, seemed bored by the late model cars” run by NASCAR’s best. Could it be because a fight in an earlier heat race for the local drivers provided more entertainment than the caution-free Cup series event? Perhaps, but it marked the final time the series raced in Toronto, with the top division never returning to Canada again.

But after the NASCAR event, plans started to get more complicated for the future of racing at the CNE. Late in 1958, the Toronto Argonauts football team signed a deal to use the infield space as a playing surface for 1959.  The track required some extra adjustments to meet the accommodations – most notably decreasing the size of the track to 28-feet wide. The drivers struggled to adjust to the narrower surface, with reports of widespread crashes plaguing the events the following season. The turns were widened by two feet later on to help combat the concern. In 1960, the track was finally given permission to race on Sunday’s, much to the delight of the organizers that tried for many years. Over the next few years, the track continued to see a variety of new events, with the series hosting major sprint, hobby and midget events often. In 1964, the super modifieds that dominated the track for over a decade were replaced with a stout late model series. It also played host to the USAC Midgets, which hosted the “Toronto 500” on a couple of occasions. In fact, Mario Andretti failed to make the main field for an event in 1965, so the competition was stout.

But as the years went on, race dates continue to drop and fans could start to see the beginning of the end. The oval at the CNE would remain open until 1966 when it was announced that the area of the speedway was to be replaced with a track-and-field coursr. There was some hope that the cars could run at the Coliseum just near where the track was located, nothing came out of it. All of a sudden, racing at the CNE was over – until the 1980s, that was. On July 20, 1986, the first Molson Indy housed a crowd of 60,000 people, with Bobby Rahal edging out Danny Sullivan and Mario Andretti for the first victory.

In the late 1980s, with the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts having had control of Exhibition Stadium, there was talk of bringing racing back to the 17,000-seat facility, The City of Toronto helped make it happen, and nearly a million dollars later, the facility welcomed back stock cars for the 1990 season. Weekly racing included the CASCAR Late Model Series, the return of midget and hobby stock racing and even endurance events, monster truck shows and demolition derbies. Two mainstays in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series, Kerry Micks and Mark Dilley, were among the competitors that raced in the late model series, with Randy Latour taking the title.

I wasn’t around to see races back then, but many fans took a liking to the track – but that wasn’t enough to save the rebirth of the facility. Advertising was scarce, with many events failing to host even 1,000 fans. There was still hope that racing could return in 1991 and 1992 as originally planned, but local fans started to complain – mainly about the noise, which is understandable given the fact it was close to some neighborhoods and increased traffic in the area didn’t help. In early 1991, after watching the track lose money due to poor attendance, the City of Toronto pulled the plug on what could have been a successful return of amateur racing to Canada’s largest city. There was an attempt to bring back racing in 1997, but to little interest – there’s next to no information about the return, and even diehard Canadian racing fans forgot it happened. At that point, stock car racing in the big city was dead – until CASCAR returned to the current IndyCar track in the late 1990s.

In July, the parking lots and local roadways around the grounds are populated by IndyCar, but in recent years, the NASCAR Pinty’s Series has been a highlight of the show card with close-quarters action and victories from some of the country’s top drivers, including Alex Tagliani, Kevin Lacroix and Andrew Ranger. It’s been a hot topic for debate – could NASCAR’s Cup Series race on a street course? There would be heavy logistical concerns with spacing, both in the garage and on track, but I’d love to see it – just not at the expense of the Honda Indy.

The Exhibition Stadium will forever be remembered as the original home of the Toronto Blue Jays before the MLB club moved downtown. But it’s great to think about NASCAR, and stock car racing in general, had such an important impact on the early days of sporting events on the CNE grounds. 

To read more about the event, check these links out:

http://racersreunion.com/community/forum/stock-car-racing-history/17015/rex-white-remembers-canada

https://theex.com/main/entertainment/stage,-talent-and-stunt-shows/the-ex-race

http://www.canadianracer.com/cne.asp

So, are you excited about the 2023 NHL draft yet?

I truly don’t know why you guys were so excited about my mini 2022 draft preview. I’m just going to assume you were all bored.

It’s one of the most popular articles I’ve posted on my own personal website and still, nearly a week later, is hitting impressive numbers. The draft is over two years away, but that hasn’t stopped you guys from looking ahead. So, thank you.

Some people tweeted me asking why so-and-so wasn’t included. First, it wasn’t a ranking, and I didn’t want to just name drop 20-30 players without much context. But, more often than not, it was because people were asking about guys that were eligible for the 2023 draft.

So let’s talk about the 2023 selection today.

The WHL was gifted with one of the most top-heavy drafts in the league’s existence: Connor Bedard, Brayden Yager and Riley Heidt. You’ve likely heard of Bedard’s name for the past 2-3 years by now, and for good reason. Bedard recently became the first WHL player to earn exceptional status and is set to take the Regina Pats to Western League supremacy. He’s just 14, but Bedard had 43 goals and 84 points in just 36 games against U-18 competition, good for first in league scoring. His shot is so dangerous, whether it’s a far-range slap shot or an in-tight wrist shot. Bedard has a quick release and his superb skating allows him to create his own scoring chances with minimal difficulty – simply put, he’s the best recreation of Connor McDavid that British Columbia has ever come up with, and he’s special.

For Yager – who wasn’t too far off of earning exceptional status behind Bedard – some scouts think he could be the better prospect when all is said and done. It’s too early to know how true that will become, but Yager is special. Watching him dangle Shane Wright – granted exceptional status for the 2019 OHL draft – before putting on one of the most impressive rookie seasons we’ve ever seen – with ease at the PEP high-performance camp last year was incredible. 

To finish off the tremendous trio, Heidt has an incredible skillset that allows him to get creative with the puck and take risks with a high degree of success. Heidt, like Yager, applied for exceptional status to no avail. Heidt makes everyone around him better thanks to his reputation stout playmaker and he’s willing to take risks (with a high degree of success) to make a play happen with the puck. Heidt will be a future star in Prince George, but 2020-21 will be about Heidt taking his game to a whole new level and show that he doesn’t need top talent around him to be a star.

Moving east, Adam Fantilli made a name for himself as one of minor midget’s best players as an underaged forward in 2018-19 and carried on to rip up the American prep scene this season. Had Fantilli not committed to the USHL’s Chicago Steel, he would have easily gone No. 1 in the OHL draft. Why? Obviously, with 15-year-olds, there’s still a ton of development left to go, but Fantilli is a physically dominant forward at 6-foot-2 and uses his strong frame to win puck battles essentially anywhere on the ice and fight off physical defenders. If he’s this far advanced at this age, who knows where he’ll be in another three years after putting a beating on other junior prospects?

Taking a flight overseas, it’s been a while since there’s been as much hype surrounding a Russian prospect Matvei Michkov – not even Andrei Svechnikov was this elusive. Born in late 2004, Michkov obliterated the Youth Olympic Games with nine goals and 14 points in just four games, the best in tournament history (Svechnikov had 10 points in 2016, for example). His 109 points in just 26 games in the Russian U-16 league gave him a 16-point advantage over Vladimir Khomutov for the scoring lead and second all-time behind Yegor Filin’s 136 points in 2014-15. When scouts are saying Michkov’s game – built around speed and pure skill – is a hybrid of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, you can’t get much better praise than that. A future 100-point forward in the NHL? Absolutely. Don’t be shocked if he goes No. 2 behind Bedard.

I tweeted earlier today how Slovakia’s national team has a potential to see a spike again thanks to some high-quality prospects coming through the system and at this point, Ondrej Molnar looks like a threat to go in the top five of the 2023 selection process. Small but speedy, Molnar’s 55 points put him first among U-15 forwards in the U-18 Slovakian league and second all-time behind Jozef Balej’s 56-point output (in five more games) in 1996-97. Molnar is a high-risk, high-reward goal-scorer that can take full control of a shift and often comes out with around 10 shots a game. Sure, the competition in Slovakia doesn’t match up with what we see in North America, but you can’t ignore what he has produced at this point.

Sticking in Slovakia, depending on who you talk to, Samuel Sisik and Daniel Alexander Jencko can both be considered the top Slovakian prospect. Sisik had 50 points in the Finnish U-16 league for the fourth-best output from a U-15 player in league history. Granted, his 1.67 points-per-game average is below all other forwards in the top 10, but for a Slovakian player to enter the Finnish system and put a beating on other kids his age isn’t something you can just ignore. In Jencko’s case, he had four fewer points than Molnar in 13 fewer games, in the U-18 league, on top of putting up 30 points in 13 games in the U-16 league. It’ll be interesting to see if Jencko ends up moving elsewhere in Europe to continue his development because he has nothing left to prove in his own nation – he’s ready to take on the continent’s top prospects.

The next David Pastrnak? Dominik Petr sure hopes so. A member of the famed Vitkovice system, Petr’s 98 points over two U-16 seasons is good for seventh among U-15 forwards, but he was one of the best players in the league when he was just 13. Petr’s stats hold up, but his ability to steal the puck off an opponent, go end-to-end and rush to be one of the first players back in his own one makes him such a tough player to play against. Like Slovakia, the Czech Republic needs help to ensure the nation has a good long-term future and there’s already enough hype around Petr to give fans some hope.

I put a lot of stock in the World Selects Invitational because, for the most part, it’s a way of pitting the best prospects in any individual age group early on. At the 2019 U-14 tournament, Nurmi led the tournament with 12 goals and 23 points (even though all eyes were on top 2024 prospect Aron Kiviharju) and was generally the best two-way forward in the tournament. At 13, Nurmi was already putting up impressive numbers in the U-16 league and eventually made the jump to the U-18 level this season, with his 18 points putting him behind Jesse Puljujarvi, Urho Vaakanainen and Patrik Laine among all-time best seasons by a U-15 player. The best part, he played the fewest number of games, so imagine what he could have done with more than 22 games under his belt.

Russia has had a tough time over the past two decades developing defensemen, but some Russian scouts are excited about Mikhail Gulyayev already – even comparing him to Mikhail Sergachev. Gulyayev is a confident puck-moving defenseman that plays a physical game and moves so well on his feet. Gulyayev’s 37-point, 1.37 PPG season with Omsk and Novosibirsk was the best by a U-15 defenseman in the Russian league ever and it’s clear he’s ready to tackle U-18 opponents in the near future.

I gave Calum Ritchie big praise in late April as the top 2021 OHL draft prospect and assuming he lives up to his full potential, NHL teams will be excited about him two years after that. Ritchie was dominant against kids a year older than him this season in short action and had no issue beating up on his own age group. Ritchie is a confident skater that goes above and beyond to get the puck where he wants it and doesn’t turn down any 1-on-1 challenge.

It’s still far too early to have a reasonable draft ranking for 2023, but with names like Kalan Lind, Nate Danielson, Quentin Musty, Noah Erliden, Luke Misa, Etienne Morin, Cam Squires and Koehn Ziemmer, the 2023 draft won’t have a shortage of high-end talent. Of course, there’s still enough time for things to drastically change and have someone shoot up the ranks or another fall down drastically, but there’s a reason why scouts have their eyes on 2023 already.

Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.