The Rangers, here in Boston Thursday and Saturday, look destined to finish south of the playoff cut line, despite their impressive late kick (15-7-2, .667), sparked by their 9-0 shellacking of the Flyers on March 17.
Amid the Blueshirt surge, second-year blue liner Adam Fox, ex- of Harvard, has emerged as a bona fide Norris Trophy candidate as the game’s top defenseman. That’s rare territory for a 23-year-old who has logged but 120 regular-season games, and three more in the playoffs.
The Rangers haven’t had a Norris winner since Brian Leetch bagged his second in 1997. And as tough critic Larry Brooks noted recently in his New York Post column, only Bobby Orr won the Norris (the great Orr’s first of a record haul of eight) two years into his career.
The beauty of Fox, noted Brooks, is in “the way his game sings.”
Which is to say Fox is fast, smooth, and has superb command of the puck, be it lugging and moving it on offense, or using his smarts and filching skills in the defensive end to lead the transition game. Only two years removed from playing at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center, he has shaped quickly into a heady, elite NHL backliner.
“What I’ve seen, and it’s not a huge sample size, I’ve really liked him,” said Bob Beers, ex-Bruins defenseman and fine analyst on the club’s 98.5 The Sports Hub broadcasts. “Offensively, I really love his instincts, the way he moves the puck, thinks the game, especially in the offensive zone.”
Headed into weekend play, Fox led NHL defensemen in scoring (5-42—47), just ahead of Victor Hedman (44) and John Carlson (42), both of whom are 800-plus games into their careers. The vote here, by the way, would go to Hedman (the 2018 Norris winner), but a legit case can be made for all three. There is also no denying that points matter, more than ever for defensemen, come voting time by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
“By definition, the Norris is awarded for best all-around defenseman,” noted Boston-based agent Matt Keator, who represents Fox and ex-Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, the 2009 Norris winner. “Based on the fact that Adam is the top scoring defenseman and is tops in most other defensive stats, he’s a very strong candidate. Z should have won multiple Norris trophies if voters had looked beyond just the points.”
Detroit’s Red Kelly was the first Norris winner in 1954, followed the next year by Montreal great Doug Harvey, whose total of seven was only surpassed by Orr’s eight. Orr, Harvey, Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom (7), and Ray Bourque (5) account for 27 wins, more than a third of the 66 awarded. Beyond those four, only 26 other players have their names on the trophy.
The Rangers, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy noted recently, use Fox in all situations, and when facing Boston this season, he’s been paired with Ryan Lindgren against the Black and Gold’s No. 1 line of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak.
“So obviously they trust him to be able to sort out coverages and defend well,” added Cassidy. “He’s not flashy like a [Cale] Makar or Quinn Hughes, but he’s very effective moving the puck — where it’s supposed to go. Steady. Good first pass. Reads the play well. Good stick. A body-position guy. Just does a lot of things well … not flashy … but sometimes those guys take a little while to get their due, and he’s getting his quicker than maybe people thought.”
Fox, who grew up on Long Island, just northeast of fellow blue-line stud Charlie McAvoy, was a Flames draft pick (No. 66 in 2016).
Weeks after that draft, he entered Harvard, where he rolled up 116 points in his three seasons under Ted Donato’s tutelage.
From Fox’s first day with the Crimson, Donato saw a player with “hockey IQ off the chart … even-keel under siege” and who perpetually executed complex plays with ease.
“He’s one of these guys,” said Donato, a former US Olympian and ex-Bruins winger, “who as a coach you ask him at times what he saw as opposed to telling him what you know.”
Every coach’s dream, when the student is a step or two ahead of the lesson plan.
“I think that’s the ultimate compliment you can give to a player,” added Donato. “He really is interesting in that he understands who he’s playing with, what their strengths are, and the strengths of other guys on other teams around the league. It’s why I think he’ll continue to have success the more and more he plays against other teams and sees what strengths and weaknesses guy have.”
Fox turned pro with the Rangers in the summer of 2019, after essentially forcing two trades of his rights, first out of Calgary and then out of Carolina. Along with Dougie Hamilton, he was part of the package the Hurricanes received for shipping Noah Hanifin to the Flames in 2018. Less than a year later, intent on playing on Broadway, he forced the trade to New York that delivered a pair of draft picks to Carolina.
Longtime Rangers fans like to think they might have another Leetch in their lineup. Leetch remains the last NHL defenseman to put up a 100-point season (22-80—102 in 1991-92).
“That’s pretty lofty,” said Beers, when asked about a Leetch-Fox comparison. “Leetch was unbelievable. He could do it all. [Sergei] Zubov was really good … I just hate making a comparison at this point, because I haven’t seen him enough. But Zubov, like Fox, was a right shot and he put up tons of points with the Rangers and Dallas.”
Zubov led the 1993-94 Cup-winning Rangers in scoring with a 12-77—89 line, followed by captain Mark Messier (84), Leetch, the ex-Boston College star, and Adam Graves (79 each). Zubov, by the way, finished second to Bourque in scoring by defensemen in 1993-94. No NHL defenseman has equaled Zubov’s 77 assists since.
One would have to go back 30-plus years in the NCAA, opined Donato, to find Fox ‘s defensive equal in stats and analytics for a defenseman — back to when Leetch popped for 9-38—47 in his one season (37 games) with BC in 1986-87.
“Really, that’s my mind-set, where you’d have to go back to,” said Donato, noting Fox’s 6-34—40 line as a Crimson freshman. “For us, he really was incredible from his first day on the ice.”
Hart’s struggles leave future in doubt
The Flyers announced Thursday that Carter Hart, once their franchise wunderkind goalie, was shut down for the season. He had not played since wrenching a knee two weeks earlier.
Hart, 22, appeared the last two seasons to be the answer to years upon years of Flyer goaltending prayers. But this season, the former Western League standout regressed dramatically — 9-11-5, 3.67 goals-against average, .877 save percentage. Those are nearly beer league numbers and won’t provide Hart much leverage in contract talks.
Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher now must figure a way forward, unsure if Hart is the real deal, and also in need of toughening up a club that was far too easy to play against, especially when there was still hope in March of making a run at a playoff spot.
“Soft” is not a comfortable fit against a Flyer brand fashioned around the rough and tumble Broad Street Bullies, the gnarly and bare-knuckled bunch that posted back-to-back Cup titles in 1974 and ’75. They were consistently creampuffs this season, and today’s rulebook doesn’t allow for bringing in old-school wrestlers to shore up team morale and courage. There isn’t a rule against it, per se, but the fight element and its possible benefits — emphasis on possible — are as outdated as leather Tacks.
The offseason retirement of defenseman Matt Niskanen also was a huge blow for the Flyers. Acquired from the Capitals in June 2019, Niskanen abruptly walked away after last season, opting out of a final year’s pay of $5.75 million (a deal he signed with the Capitals in 2014). Career earnings of more than $40 million make for easier walkoffs.
Niskanen provided vital balance on a back line that this year again was led offensively by Ivan Provorov. But there wasn’t much there after the talented Russian. By late March, they dropped Shayne Gostisbehere (65 points in 2017-18) on waivers in hopes of ditching his contract (two more years at a $4.5 million cap hit). No takers. He looked all the worse on the blue line, of course, with Hart’s decline in net.
Tall order for Fletcher: fix the net, acquire some toughness, find a top-four puck mover/glue guy, and figure out if Alain Vigneault is the right guy behind the bench to propel the Flyers back into serious Cup contention. In the 11 years since their last Cup Final, this is their fifth playoff DNQ.
Even Gritty can’t put a smile on that.
Curtain call for Backes?
Ex-Bruin David Backes, his five-year, $30 million free agent deal that he signed in Boston about to expire, more than likely will call it quits in the coming days.
“More of a probability,” Backes, who turned 37 on Saturday, recently told Anaheim beat reporters. “But not a certainty.”
Ever the solid citizen, the earnest Backes was past his prime upon arriving in Boston in the summer of 2016, part of the protracted and expensive search to shore up the club’s secondary scoring. He delivered at maybe 60 cents on the dollar his first two seasons, but his value dropped considerably after getting clobbered at his offensive blue line in Game 5 of a second-round playoff series vs. the Lightning in the spring of ’18.
“Never great to get a brain injury,” he said matter-of-factly just days later as the Bruins cleaned out lockers in Brighton. “It’s part of what we do.”
In the three regular seasons since getting clocked by J.T. Miller, Backes scored only 11 more times in 106 games (prior to weekend play). The Bruins flipped him to the Ducks in February 2020, along with Axel Andersson and a first-round pick (Jacob Perreault) for Ondrej Kase. They also contributed $1.5 million toward Backes’s $6 million salary this season (all numbers prorated). A pricey divorce.
The Ducks, postseason DNQs for a third straight season, wrap up with Friday-Saturday games against the Wild in St. Paul, about 20 miles south of Backes’s hometown of Blaine. Potentially a fitting final twirl for a good guy who cashed in handsomely and deserved a better finish.
Miller’s time is up
Bruins fans saw a lot of Ryan Miller in the Sabres net during his 11 seasons (2002-14) with Buffalo. He had the toughest act to follow, arriving in the wake of Dominik Hasek, who was a multiple Vezina and Hart Trophy winner during those much happier days in Buffalo.
“I always felt like I owed something to Buffalo, in a way,” Miller said during a farewell Zoom session on Thursday, “I owed something to the fans.”
Miller, a backup to John Gibson the last four seasons in Anaheim, announced his retirement this past week, though he’s expected to get some time in net over the final week.
Miller, 40, said on Thursday that working in an NHL front office, helping to shape a franchise, could have some appeal. His career earnings, per capfriendly.com, exceeded $60 million. He has the time and bank to be selective about his next move.
His 390 career wins rank 14th all time — one win more than Hasek, by the way. Born and raised in Michigan, Miller will retire ranked No. 1 among American goaltenders for wins, followed by John Vanbiesbrouck (374), Tom Barrasso (369), and Jonathan Quick (currently 334, all with Los Angeles).
Over 18 seasons, Miller also played for the Blues and Canucks. He did not win the Cup. He came within Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal of clinching gold for the US in the 2010 Olympic final in Vancouver (Tim Thomas was his backup).
Not a celebrated career in the sense of trophies and medals, though he did win a Vezina with the Sabres in 2010. Smart, thoughtful, engaging, and great at his craft. Not a sure-shot Hall of Famer, but a worthy candidate.
Ex-Bruins goaltender Frank Brimsek, of the Eveleth, Minn., Brimseks, is the lone American goalie in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Hartley still a winner
Bob Hartley, the bench boss when Ray Bourque won the Stanley Cup in 2001 with the Avalanche (yikes, 20 years!), added a Gagarin Cup to his outsized trophy case this past week, guiding Omsk Avangard to the KHL title.
Hartley last worked an NHL bench in Calgary (2015-16) and this was his third year (and second Gagarin final) with Omsk, tucked away in western Siberia.
Now 60, Hartley is overdue for another NHL gig. Perhaps Montreal or Philadelphia will give him his next shot.
Omsk rubbed out CSKA, 1-0, in Game 6 to clinch the Cup, named in honor of Yuri Gagarin, the late cosmonaut who was the first human in outer space.
▪ Ex-Bruins prospect Alexander Khokhlachev, who spent three years with Bruce Cassidy’s Providence WannaBs, was a member of the Gagarin Cup winners. Now 27, the center went 1-4—5 in the Cup run, his first title in five KHL seasons.
“Tenacious around the puck for second chances,” said Cassidy, recalling Khokhlachev’s game. “Heady player ... could make plays, go into traffic to score.”
The Russian center was a bit ornery at times, added Cassidy, but coachable, and willing to work on his defensive deficiencies.
“I always liked Koko, thought he was a good kid,” said Cassidy. “Worked hard … unfortunately didn’t get a chance to crack the lineup here. But I always wished him well, thought he was a nice kid.”
▪ Reid Boucher, a former Devils draft pick from Grand Ledge, Mich., was Omsk’s top scorer (24-24—48) this seasons and delivered 8-9—17 in the playoffs. Boucher sometimes played on an Omsk line with Corban Knight, ex- of the University of North Dakota and a Panthers draft choice.
▪ Three players in the final who might soon migrate to their NHL teams: Klim Kostin, Omsk (Blues); Yegor Chinakhov, Omsk (Blue Jackets); and Max Shalunov, CSKA (Blackhawks).
Ted Donato, his Harvard Crimson unable to suit up in 2020-21 because of the pandemic, was an assistant coach on the Team USA squad that won the IIHF World Junior gold medal in Edmonton (2-0 win over Canada in the championship game). “It let me keep a little bit of sanity for a while,” he said. “Great group of kids.” One regret, said Donato: not being able to coach Michigan center John Beecher, a Bruins first-round pick, whose positive COVID-19 test prevented him from being in the tournament. “I was really looking forward to working with him,” said Donato. “He’s a very talented guy, lots of physical tools. He can really skate, and he’s big. And guys really like him, he has some personality to him.” … Only four defensemen ever compiled more assists than Sergei Zubov’s 77 in 1993-94: Bobby Orr (five times), Phil Coffey (four), as well as Brian Leetch and Phil Housley (once each). Orr holds the mark of 102 helpers by a defenseman, set in 1970-71 … Doug Harvey toiled eight seasons on the Canadiens’ backline prior to winning his first Norris. Had the trophy been awarded prior to 1954, of course, Harvey might be the record-holder with, say, 10 or more. Orr won in his second year, having just turned 20. Bourque won in his eighth season, while the sublime Nicklas Lidstrom won in his 10th season with the Winged Wheels … Andersson, picked No. 57 by the Bruins in 2018, played all season in Sweden (Sodertalje) before the Ducks assigned him in early May to AHL San Diego. He delivered 2-3—5 in his first nine games on the Gulls’ back line … The Kings’ Dustin Brown, to beat reporters this past week as teammate Anze Kopitar (344 goals, 652 assists) closed in on his 1,000th career point: “He probably would have been there already if he hadn’t played with me for 15 years.”