We’re a long way from the vote tallying, but Ken Holland is the early leader for NHL executive of the year on the strength of his July 19 deal that brought James Neal to Edmonton — a swap for Milan Lucic that looks like it may have triggered a turnaround for the moribund Oilers franchise.
Holland was named Oilers general manager in May, successor to the fired Peter Chiarelli, after the Red Wings finalized the coronation of Steve Yzerman as the new mayor of Hockeytown. Two months later, Holland swapped ex-Bruin Lucic for Neal, whose hands inexplicably turned to stone during his one-season stay in Calgary after signing there following his year in Vegas (acquired there in the expansion draft).
Not an easy deal to make, for either side. Both veteran forwards carried pricey, long-term tickets. Worse was the accompanying stigma that their careers were somewhere between a standstill and a dead end. With Lucic appearing to be the greater liability of the two 30-somethings, Holland was forced to retain $3 million of the big winger’s deal (a $750,000 charge for each of the remaining four years on his $6 million-a-year contract).
Neal on Tuesday potted four goals in a 5-2 win over the Islanders, leaving him with six goals through three games, and more important, leaving the Oilers at 3-0-0 (all without someone named Wayne Gretzky on the roster). Word of caution here: Dave Semenko opened the 1980-81 season with seven goals in October for the Oilers, then scored only four more the rest of the season. A much different world then, of course, including the fact that teams no longer hire the likes of Semenko to ride shotgun for their best player.
"(I saw) how motivated he was to get back to The Real Deal we know & love... He's getting the opportunity here."— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) October 6, 2019
James Neal was confident he could return to goal-scoring form & helped his cause by getting his first two #Oilers tallies out of the way in a hurry. pic.twitter.com/jXyZhWpowo
Dave Tippett, Holland’s hire as the Oilers’ new coach, has the luxury of centering his No. 1 line with Connor McDavid, the world’s best player at the moment (and perhaps the next 5-8 years). With McDavid slotted between Leon Draisaitl and Zack Kassian, Neal has shifted to his off wing (right) on a trio usually with Tomas Jurco and center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
With the opposition’s best checkers routinely assigned to shut down McDavid’s line, Neal has been given more room to roam, and he’s made the most of it. He didn’t connect for his sixth goal last season with Calgary until March 29. He also went a dumbfounding 0-0—0 in four postseason games.
Lucic, who hired Adam Oates to help build some stick skill and game sense into his toolkit, has not responded with any offensive pop of his own. Same ol’ Looch (0-0—0 in three games) in many ways, but the big man has shown some of his trademark spirit in his new surroundings. As of Thursday morning, he led the league with 26 penalty minutes, thanks to career fight Nos. 71 (Nikita Zadorov) and 72 (Kurtis MacDermid). Still among the league’s most feared sluggers, Lucic logged only 12 bouts in his three full seasons with the Oilers.
Doubtful that Lucic summons any substantial scoring touch at this age (31). But if he can maintain his physical presence, he can be a much-needed turf warrior for the Flames, ideally as the guy who helps limit the forearm hacks on top forward Johnny Gaudreau.
No telling, of course, if Neal maintains the hot hand. The Oilers’ offense remains driven by the Draisaitl-McDavid pairing up top. McDavid has strung together three seasons of 100 points or more. Draisaitl last season posted a career high 50-55—105, and as of last week was averaging the most ice time of all NHL forwards. McDavid also is a minutes monster. Factoring in their time spent on special teams, they’re out there just about every other shift.
But Neal’s production is not an anomaly. The anomaly was last season (7-12—19 in 63 games). He has reached the 25-goal plateau five times, and prior to last year’s blip his annual yield on an 82-game season was right around 30. Not many of those guys around, and few other than Phil Kessel ever get traded.
Neal and McDavid are longtime pals, and both work out each summer with Gary Roberts. It looks like a great fit even if they aren’t riding together on the first line. Tippett has been rolling Neal out on the first power-play unit, parking him at the top of the crease, and it’s a good bet he’ll keep seeing cupcakes delivered his way from the silken-handed McDavid.
KNOWING YOUR ABC’S
Central Scouting rankings are out
The NHL’s Central Scouting Department this past week released its preliminary “Players to Watch” list some eight months prior to the June entry draft — with players assigned ratings of A, B or C. Only 26 players were ranked in the A group, projecting them as potential first-round picks.
A lot can change over the next 6-7 months, folks, because that’s what happens when trying to predict the career arcs of kids, the majority of whom are 17 years old, some yet to lock in dates for their senior prom.
Exhibit A in the reality check department: No. 1 pick Joe Thornton arriving on Causeway Street in October 1997, with Bruins fans expecting him to plug in immediately as the face and force of the franchise. When Thornton went 3-4—7 as a freshman under Pat Burns, Black and Gold fans had to recalibrate their dreams of a Jumbo Dynasty.
The US National Team Development Program, which last June saw a record eight of its kids get selected in Round 1 (including No. 1 Jack Hughes to New Jersey), landed only a pair of A’s — center Ty Smilanic and defenseman Jake Sanderson — on Central Scouting’s watch list.
The Yanks were well represented in the B and C categories, and a half-dozen of them already have made at least verbal commitments to play in Hockey East next season, including Norwell-raised goalie Drew Commesso (ex- of St. Sebastian’s), who’ll be headed to Boston University. Joining Commesso at Agganis Arena: 6-foot-4-inch center Dylan Peterson and 6-2 winger Luke Tuch, brother of Golden Knights winger Alex Tuch (former resident of a school elsewhere on Comm. Ave.).
USNTDP center Chase Yoder and left wing Brett Berard, each with C ratings, will head to Providence College next fall. Fellow Yank Eamon Powell, a defenseman, will join Jerry York’s crew at Boston College.
Berard, from East Greenwich, R.I., is the son of Dave Berard, now in his sixth season as the bench boss at Holy Cross. Father and son will square off Sunday (4 p.m.) when the national team visits Worcester for an exhibition tuneup against the Crusaders.
The 2020 NHL entry draft will be June 26-27 in Montreal. The No. 1 pick? Quite possibly Alexis Lafreniere, a 6-1, 205-pound left winger from Rimouski in the Quebec League. Rimouski has produced two No. 1 picks, both of whom proved to be franchise centers: Vincent Lecavalier (1998, Tampa Bay) and Sidney Crosby (2005, Pittsburgh).
Hasek mulling presidential run?
Perhaps missing the joy inherent in taking shots to the head, Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek continues to drop hints that he’ll consider running for president of the Czech Republic.
Chain-smoking Milos Zeman is the current president, now in the thick of a second and final five-year term that ends in 2023. Hasek, 54, is 21 years younger than Zeman, and keeps busy these days as owner/managing director of “Smarty,” a Czech-based energy drink company.
“One can imagine. Why not?” Hasek was quoted by the Czech website iDNES late in the summer, when asked about a presidential bid. “Now I have my job, which I really love and want to do it to the [fullest]. But what will be in two or three years? Then I’ll decide. Everything is possible.”
Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame Canadiens goaltender, was a member of Canadian Parliament from 2004-11. Viacheslav Fetisov, ex- of the Devils and Red Wings, spent some six years as Russia’s Minister of Sport.
Hasek, who won the Stanley Cup twice with the Red Wings, became a national hero back home when he backed the Czechs to the 1998 Olympic gold medal in Nagano — the first Olympiad that included the NHL’s best players. The ’98 Czech squad was captained by ex-Bruin Vladimir Ruzicka. “I like to do things that are responsible,” the Dominator told iDNES. “I have no doubt that the office of the president is very responsible, so if I were to take it from this side, I would [have to] be excellent.”
Namestnikov couldn’t make it in NY
The solid start for his top line of Artemi Panarin-Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich, though encouraging, wasn’t really what prompted Rangers GM Jeff Gorton to move Vladislav Namestnikov to the Senators this past week for a draft pick and defense prospect Nick Ebert.
Truth is, Namestnikov no longer factored in coach David Quinn’s top six, and his $4 million price tag was far too much for low-minute duty in the bottom of the order. With a cap system that now typically rewards top forwards $6 million-$10 million a year, the pressure is increasingly on GMs to budget bottom-six contributors in the $750,000-$2 million range — the NHL version of sale on Aisle 5!
To get the deal done, Gorton was forced to keep a prorated $750,000 of Namestnikov’s dough on the books, and in turn fill up the fourth line with cheap labor — such as Greg McKegg’s $750,000.
End result: Gorton now has roughly $4.5 million in cap space (per puckpedia.com), which will be plenty of wiggle room if he cares to go quiet now and make more moves at the February trade deadline. It also allows him the luxury to shop in the meantime, and perhaps really get creative if he decides to act on the long-rumored trade of Chris Kreider (cap hit: $4.625 million) and make a deal with what amounts to a bankroll of better than $9 million. Namestnikov never executed for the Bluehsirts as advertised, acquired from the Lightning as part of the package that delivered Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller (now in Vancouver) to the Bolts. Namestnikov benefited by often riding with Steven Stamkos in his Tampa Bay days, then never got it going on Broadway. He’ll likely be even more challenged now on a talent-strapped Ottawa squad, which won’t help him gin up the market ahead of reaching unrestricted free agency on July 1.
Slow start to 2019-20 for ex-Bruin Ryan Donato (two games: 0-0—0 entering Thursday night) with the Wild. The former Harvard standout also produced only a couple of assists in five exhibition games, leading coach Bruce Boudreau to open the season with Donato at left wing on a fourth line with Joel Eriksson Ek and Ryan Hartman. Donato will get a long look, in part because he signed a one-way deal (average $1.9 million) for the next two years in mid-July, prior to Bill Guerin replacing Paul Fenton as GM. Donato went 4-12—16 in 22 games after being flipped to St. Paul in the Charlie Coyle swap with the Bruins last February . . . OK, we’ve said it before, with risible results, but it looks like the Flyers finally have a legit goaltender in Carter Hart, who posted his first career shutout Wednesday night with 25 stops against the Devils (including three on ex-Flyer Wayne Simmonds). Three years after being among 18 goalies selected in the 2016 draft, Hart, 21, remains the only one of the bunch to play thus far in the NHL (the Bruins were among the 13 clubs not to select a goalie that June) . . . Only five players not based in North America made the Central Scouting A list, including the lone goalie in the group, Yaroslav Askarov, who remains in Russia this season with Neva St. Petersburg . . . Towering blue liner Jeremie Bucheler, a Northeastern freshman, made the Central Scouting C list, projecting in Rounds 4-6. Bucheler will be 20 in March but went unclaimed last June after collecting 45 points with BCHL Victoria . . . Bogus rumor of the week, which went wild on social media briefly last Saturday, was that Kathryn Kraft, claiming to be a granddaughter of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, had agreed to purchase the Ottawa Senators. No sale. No relation. And for the Senators, still no new arena in downtown Ottawa . . . Had Milan Lucic remained in Edmonton, his no-move clause would have forced the Oilers to protect him for the Seattle expansion draft. Sounds like a small detail, but player asset management relating to the expansion yard sale keeps GMs up at night. Ken Holland likely factored that into agreeing to keep $3 million of Lucic’s deal on the Oilers’ books . . . The last Bruin to score four goals in a game: Patrice Bergeron, Jan. 6, 2018, in a 7-1 blowout vs. the Hurricanes. Prior to that: Dave Andreychuk vs. the Lightning in October 1999 . . . Bruins defense prospect Axel Andersson was assigned this past week to Moncton in the Quebec League, where he’ll be coached by John Torchetti — once a Boston schoolboy scoring phenom in his days playing for Jamaica Plain. Torchetti, 55, recently spent two seasons on Jeff Blashill’s staff in Detroit, then in January signed on as Moncton’s coach and director of hockey operations. Andersson, the No. 57 pick in the 2018 draft, will get a load of playing time in junior, similar to Jakub Lauko last year with Rouyn-Noranda. Lauko has started this season at AHL Providence . . . Bobo Carpenter, son of “Can’t Miss Kid” Bob Carpenter, is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and will be assigned to AHL Bridgeport when he is ready to go. The ex-Boston University winger signed a two-year deal with the Islanders following the end of his Terrier tour in the spring. He’ll join ex-Terrier short-timer Kieffer Bellows, son of Brian Bellows, in Bridgeport, along with Ryan Bourque, son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque . . . Oct. 29 is the formal publication date of “Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other” — the life story of Scotty Bowman penned by Ken Dryden. According to Bowman, who attended the rookie camp in Buffalo that included the Bruins, Sabres, Devils, and Penguins, Dryden interviewed him over the phone, 2-3 hours at a time, during the last three winters Bowman spent in Florida. “You know Kenny, so detailed, eh?” said Bowman. Published by McClelland & Stewart, the 400-page tome is available on line at barnesandnoble.com for $29.95 hard cover and $15.99 via NOOK . . . Regular readers of the @GlobeKPD Twitter account have grown accustomed in recent years to #fridgealerts during games — notifications apprising TV viewers, radio listeners, and arena goers of precisely when play will resume once an intermission ends. It’s not science, folks, intermissions across the league last 18 minutes. Well, the NHL app this season has included a similar function, displaying the countdown of each intermission on its scoreboard. Clearly, blatant, shameless case of intellectual property infridgement?