Eventful NHL week includes suspensions, milestones and hiring/firing

The past week in the NHL was quite eventful as it featured a couple of suspensions and milestones and the firing and hiring of a head coach. The Montreal Canadiens made the biggest splash early in the week when they announced the firing of head coach Michel Therrien on February 14th and the hiring of Claude Julien as his replacement. Julien was let go as head coach of the Boston Bruins just a week earlier and this will be his second stint behind the bench in Montreal. Ironically, Therrien was hired by the Habs four years ago to replace Julien.

It appears Montreal didn’t want to risk seeing Julien hired by somebody else such as the Las Vegas Golden Knights and jumped at the chance to sign him. However, it came at a price since Julien was hired to see out the rest of this season and was inked for four more years at $5 million a campaign. Therrien also had two coaching stints in Montreal as he was at the helm from 2000 to partway of 2002-03 season. He was fired in 2002/03 after the Habs record stood at 18-19-5. Julien then took over for two and a half seasons before he was also let go.

It’s not often that the coach of a first-place team gets the sack, but the Canadiens haven’t been playing well lately and Julien was a Stanley Cup winner with Boston. Therrien’s record over the past four and a half years stood at 194-121-37. He led the team to two divisional titles and a trio of playoff appearances, but failed to make the postseason last year. However, they were without all-star goaltender Carey Price for much of the campaign. Julien still had two years remaining on his contract in Boston and Therrien also had two years remaining in Montreal at $2 million per season.

There were also a couple of high-profile suspensions recently as veteran forward Antoine Vermette of the Anaheim Ducks was nailed with a 10-game ban and forward Gus Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings was handed a six-game suspension. Vermette was given an automatic suspension after he slashed the back legs of a referee in a road game in Minnesota. Vermette was officially suspended on February 16th for abusing an official. The 10-game holiday will cost Vermette a grand total of $97,222.22 in salary, but it’s believed the NHL Players’ Association will appeal the verdict. If the appeal fails, he’ll be eligible to return to action on March 12th.

As for Nyquist, he was found guilty of high-sticking defenceman Jared Spurgeon of the Minnesota Wild. Nyquist appeared to intentionally spear Spurgeon in the face after being cross-checked by the defenceman. The Red Wing was handed a double minor penalty on the play and fortunately there was no serious damage done to Spurgeon. However, most NHL insiders felt the 27-year-old Nyquist should have received at least 10 games for his actions. The ban will cost Nyquist a total of $158,333.34 from his salary and like Vermette’s suspension, the money goes to the Players' Emergency Assistance Fund.

On the brighter side, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby reached a scoring milestone last week when he notched his 1,000th career point. The year-old centre earned the point with an assist on a Chris Kunitz goal against the Winnipeg Jets at home on February 16th. Crosby reached the 1,000-point plateau in his 757th regular-season game. He’s the 12th-fastest NHL player to hit the milestone and the fastest active player. Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals scored his 1,000th point a few weeks ago, but took more games to accomplish the feat.

In addition, another interesting milestone was reached on February 14th when forwards Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets became the first draft choices to be selected first and second overall to score at least 25 goals in their rookie seasons since 2004/05. Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins were the last pair of top-two draft picks to achieve the feat over a decade ago. Matthews was taken first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft while Laine went second and they both have an outside chance at leading the NHL in goals this season.

Other milestones included ageless winger Jaromir Jagr scoring the 760th regular-season goal of his career in a 4-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on February 17th. Jagr, who just turned 45 years old, is third on the NHL’s all-time goalscoring list and will tie Gordie Howe for second place if and when he reaches 801. Wayne Gretzky tops the list with 894 goals. On the same night, forward Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins recorded his 500th career assist in a 2-1 overtime loss to Columbus.  

Las Vegas Golden Knights getting ready to start dealing

The Las Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL’s newest expansion franchise, will soon get the green light to start making player deals and general manager George McPhee is looking forward to it. The Golden Knights will officially be able to start assembling their roster once club owner Bill Foley has paid off the remaining money owing on the $500 million expansion fee. Once he does, Las Vegas will be the league’s 31st team. It’s believed Foley will pay off the final installment close to March 1st, which is trade deadline day in the NHL.

The Golden Knights won’t be able to trade for players who are currently on rosters in the 2016/17 season or players who are injured, but can start acquiring draft picks from other clubs. This is a distinct possibility due to the upcoming expansion draft on June 20th. The Golden Knights will be able to select one unprotected player from each of the other 30 teams to build their roster. However, several clubs will be inclined to persuade Las Vegas to leave specific unprotected players alone by sending them draft picks or future considerations. For example, a team could send a fourth-round pick to Vegas to turn a blind eye on a specific player.

This was the case before the last expansion draft in 2000. At that time, the San Jose Sharks made a deal with both the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets if they agreed not to choose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. This summer’s expansion draft picks will be revealed live on television on June 21st, the same day the NHL Awards show takes place in Las Vegas. However, Las Vegas will send the league their picks the day before. The Entry Draft will then take place a few days later. The timing of Las Vegas’ official trade go-ahead could have a big effect on this year’s trade deadline moves. At the moment, teams may decide to trade a player for something in return rather than risk losing him for nothing in the draft.

On the other side of the coin, clubs may also trade draft picks for a certain player for the specific reason of leaving him exposed in the expansion draft. The NHL will allow Las Vegas to make deals for draft picks after the March 1st trade deadline has passed if the franchise hasn’t finalized the expansion fee payment by that date. The Golden Knights will also be able to trade for junior-level players who have already been drafted by an NHL club as well as an NHL-signed player who may be playing overseas for some reason. CHL and NCAA free agents are others who can be acquired. McPhee and his staff have been preparing for their debut season for several months now by scouting draft-eligible players and free agents.

The Golden Knights will enter the 2017 NHL Entry Draft Lottery in April with the same odds as the league’s 28th-placed team this season, which means the latest they will draft will be sixth overall. The team will then pick third in rounds two to seven of the draft. Las Vegas is also a possibility for the 2018 NHL All Star Game if the league doesn’t send players to the Winter Olympics next year. If NHL players are allowed to participate in the Olympics then the All-Star Game won’t take place next year. In that case, Vegas will host an All-Star Game in the near future as a part of the $500 million franchise fee.

Ken Hitchcock’s final season in St. Louis ends earlier than expected

Veteran head coach Ken Hitchcock was supposed to say goodbye to the St. Louis Blues and their fans by remaining behind the bench for the 2016/17 season, but those plans recently came to an abrupt end. Hitchcock signed a new one-year deal last year, but the Blues fired him on January 31st after the team lost for the fifth time in six games. He was then replaced by assistant coach Mike Yeo, the former head coach of the Minnesota Wild. The Blues promptly downed the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 at home in Yeo’s first game in charge on February 3rd.

Hitchcock, the 65-year-old former coach, was midway through his sixth campaign with St. Louis and compiled a record of 248-124-41. His teams also made the postseason in each of his five years in charge and reached the Western Conference Final in 2015/16, but lost to San Jose. In fact, the Blues didn’t win a playoff series for three straight seasons until last year. The club was 24-21-5 and sitting in eighth spot in the conference when Hitchcock was let go with a 5-8 record for the month of January. He shouldered the blame for the team’s poor performance this season, but general manager Doug Armstrong should probably take some of the heat too.

Armstrong traded regular starting goaltender Brian Elliott to the Calgary Flames during the offseason and the move has hurt the Blues. The team has used Jake Allen, Pheonix Copley and Carter Hutton between the pipes this season and the three of them had a combined save percentage of a league-worst 88.7 when Hitchcock was sacked. The move trade hasn’t worked out for Elliot either as he’s been struggling in Calgary and often sits glued to the bench while Chad Johnson plays. Armstrong told the media that Hitchcock is his best friend and belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but something had to be done to turn the team around.

Yeo, who was supposed to take over the Blues starting next season, said he felt bad about taking over for Hitchcock halfway through campaign, but is ready to accept the challenge. Armstrong added that Hitchcock wasn’t happy with the move and stated that Jim Corsi, the club’s goaltending coach, was fired along with him. Assistant manager Martin Brodeur will reportedly share Corsi’s duties along with the squad’s goalie development coach Ty Conklin. Looking back at Hitchcock’s career, he should have no problem being voted into the Hall of Fame. He’s coached 20 seasons in the NHL with St. Louis, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, and Dallas Stars.

Hitchcock is fourth on the all-time coaching wins list with 781 victories to his name in regular-season action and he led Dallas to a Stanley Cup triumph in 1998/99. If Hitchcock is hired by another team, such as the Las Vegas Golden Knights, he’ll tie Hall of Famer Al Arbour in third place for wins with his next victory. Hitchcock became the third head coach to be let go this season as the Florida Panthers fired Gerard Gallant in November while the New York Islanders dropped Jack Capuano earlier in January. The move could possibly pay off for St. Louis though as three of the last eight teams to win the Stanley Cup replaced their head coach during the season.

NHL celebrates 100th season with All Star Weekend

Part of the NHL’s 100th anniversary season was the league’s annual All-Star Game and Skills Competition which was held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on January 28-29. The NHL kept the three-on-three game format it introduced last season with each of the four divisions being represented by a team of 11 All Stars. The Pacific Division beat the Central 10-3 in the first matchup with the Metropolitan downing the Atlantic Division 10-6 in the second contest. The Metropolitan Division then beat the Pacific 4-3 in the final and took home the $1 million prize. Each game consisted of two 10-minute halves. Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds was named the tournament’s MVP.

There were six events in the skills competitions the night before with the two most popular being the hardest shot and fastest skater events. There weren’t any surprises though as forward Connor McDavid, the captain of the Edmonton Oilers, won the skating competition and defenceman Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadiens recorded the hardest slap shot. McDavid skated a lap of the rink in 13.02 seconds while forward Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning placed second at 13.16. The Florida Panthers’ Vincent Trochek was third at 13.32 seconds. Goaltender Mike Smith of the Arizona Coyotes thrilled fans by shooting the puck from his own goal line and depositing it through a small target in the net at the other end of the rink in the four-lines challenge event. 

As for the hardest shot, Weber was favoured to win since he entered the contest as the two-time defending champion. His hardest shot registered 102.8 mph (miles per hour) on the radar gun to lead the way. However, some fans may have been surprised that 18-year-old Finnish rookie Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets wasn’t too far behind him in second place at 101.7 mph. They were the only two players to reach the 100 mph mark. Columbia Blue Jackets’ defenceman Seth Jones hit 98.1 mph to place third and Washington Capitals' captain Alex Ovechkin reached 97.8 mph for fourth place.

Weber may be losing a little of power though since he won the event last year at 108.1 mph and two years ago he reached 108.5 mph. Defenceman Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins is still the record holder with a 108.8 mph shot in 2012. Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby won the accuracy shooting event by nailing all four targets in 10.73 seconds. The skills challenge relay was won by the Metropolitan Division with its team of Jones, Ovechkin, Simmonds and goaltender Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. They managed to complete the course in 1 minute 21.07 seconds. The Atlantic Division topped the Pacific 4-1 in the shootout event and won the overall skills competition.

This allowed them to choose the game time and their opponent for the three-on-three tournament on Sunday and they chose to play the second game against the Metropolitan Division. The NHL also announced its list of the league’s top 100 players of all time which was chosen by a panel of 58 former players, media members and league executives. We might as well list them here so you don’t have to go searching for them. The top 100 NHL players in no particular order are:
Sid Abel, Syl Apps, Andy Bathgate, Jean Beliveau, Max Bentley, Toe Blake, Johnny Bower, Turk Broda, Johnny Bucyk, King Clancy, Charlie Conacher, Alex Delvecchio, Bill Durnan, Bernie Geoffrion, Glenn Hall, Doug Harvey, Tim Horton, Gordie Howe, Red Kelly, Ted Kennedy, Dave Keon, Elmer Lach, Ted Lindsay, Frank Mahovlich, Dickie Moore, Howie Morenz, Jacques Plante, Henri Richard, Maurice Richard, Terry Sawchuk, Milt Schmidt, Eddie Shore, Georges Vezina, Bobby Orr, Brad Park, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito, Bernie Parent, Yvan Cournoyer, Bob Gainey, Bobby Hull, Guy Lafleur, Bobby Clarke, Marcel Dionne, Phil Esposito, Jacques Lemaire, Stan Mikita, Gilbert Perreault, Jean Ratelle, Darryl Sittler, Mike Bossy, Mike Gartner, Jari Kurri, Wayne Gretzky, Pat LaFontaine, Mark Messier, Denis Savard, Peter Stastny, Bryan Trottier, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Al MacInnis, Denis Potvin, Borje Salming, Grant Fuhr, Billy Smith, Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy, Pavel Bure, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Peter Forsberg, Ron Francis, Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros, Mike Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk, Adam Oates, Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Steve Yzerman, Martin Brodeur, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger, Teemu Selanne, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Alexander Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews and  Jaromir Jagr.

Since there are almost 300 players in the Hockey Hall of Fame it was obvious that dozens of great players would have to be left off the list with some of the most notable names missing being Jarome Iginla, Dale Hawerchuk, Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Joe Thornton, Larry Murphy, Doug Gilmour, and Evgeni Malkin.

Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell making his NHL goals count

Swedish forward Rickard Rakell is sure making his NHL goals count for something as 27 per cent of the young man’s career tallies have been game-winners, including three in overtime. We could also mention that 33 per cent of his career playoff goals have also been game-winners, but that would be pushing it a bit since he’s scored just three times in the postseason so far. The Ducks drafted the 23-year-old, 6-foot-2-inch, 200 lb. player with the 30th overall pick in the first round back in 2011 and he’s proven to be a worthy selection.

Rakell played his junior hockey with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League and showed he was a consistent scorer with 151 points in 149 games on 69 goals and 82 assists. He also won a silver and gold medal with his homeland at a pair of World Junior Championships as a youngster and registered 14 points in 17 tournament games. Rakell signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Ducks a year after being drafted and got his feet wet in the NHL that season by playing in four games before heading back to Junior.

He appeared in 18 games with Anaheim the next season as well as four in the postseason with a goal and assist in the playoff games and four assists in his regular-season stint. Rakell spent most of that season with Norfolk of the AHL where he racked up 37 points in 46 games and added a pair of points in four playoff outings. His performance at the AHL level and the next season’s training camp earned the well-rounded forward a spot on the Ducks’ roster in 2014/15. He showed the coaching staff he was a strong player who could was blessed with plenty of offensive creativity and overall hockey sense.

As the season went along Rakell took on a larger role for the team and finished the year with a respectable nine goals and 22 assists for 31 points in 71 contests and was a plus-six. This wasn’t bad for a player who averaged 12 minutes and 34 seconds of ice time a game. Rakell cooled off a little in the playoffs with just one goal in 16 playoff games. He made it count though as it was the overtime winner in a 5-4 victory over the Winnipeg Jets. Rakell gained confidence from his first full year in the NHL and managed to score 43 points on 20 goals and 20 assists last season. He also scored goals that count as a team-leading seven of them, or 35 percent, were game-winners. Rakell also showed he was adept at hitting and blocking shots and was becoming a valuable player for the Ducks.

If we fast forward to this season, we find Rakell’s name at the top of Anaheim’s goalscoring list with a team-leading 19 after 38 games along with nine assists. He’s still scoring important goals as five, or 26.3 per cent of them, were game winners. He was also making his chances count as Rakell was scoring on 21.3 per cent of his shots with his ice time now boosted up to an average of 17 minutes and 40 seconds per game. He was top-10 in the league in several categories as his shooting percentage, 19 goals, and game-winning goals were ranked sixth-best in the league, his 14 even-strength goals were 10th and his .50 goals per game was third best.

It’s no wonder Anaheim signed Rakell to a six-year contract extension worth$22.8 million last year as he’s blossoming and improving at an exceptional rate. His numbers would be even better this season if he didn’t miss World Cup of Hockey and the first nine games of the campaign due to injury. He can play all three of the forward positions and his knack for scoring timely goals can’t be ignored. Rakell is an important player in the NHL’s youth movement and it appears anything’s possible with him in the future. The Ducks are obviously happy with his development and fans should expect to see Rakell soon take over from the team’s old guard of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.

NHL surprises at the halfway mark of 2016/17 season

The NHL is entering the second half of the 2016/17 season as most teams have reached the 41-game mark. There have been a few individual and team surprises over the first half and we’ll take a quick look at them, both good and bad. As far as teams go, the biggest news has been the fine play of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who went on a 16-game winning streak and ended up just one short of the league record set by Pittsburgh back in 1993. In addition, the Minnesota Wild reeled off 12 straight wins until running into Columbus, and Washington was on a nine-game winning streak as of January 16th.

To put things into perspective, Columbus had just 76 points last season and had earned 62 already after 42 contests this year. However, they were still a point behind Washington for top spot in the league, and the Wild were third in the overall standings with 61 points. Washington, Columbus and Minnesota all led the NHL in the first half of the season with the fewest defeats at just nine. The best goaltenders during that stretch belong to these three clubs as they were Devan Dubnyk of Minnesota, Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus and Braden Holtby of Washington.

Dubnyk had a 21-7-3 record at the halfway point with a league-leading 1.78 goals-against average and 94.0 save percentage. Meanwhile, Bobrovsky (26-6-3) won 14 games in a row and had a fourth-best goals-against average of 2.00 with a third-ranked 93.1 save percentage. Holtby (21-8-6) had a 1.85 goals-against and a 93.3 save percentage, which were both second-best in the league. Boston netminder Tuukka Rask (22-9-5) has also been excellent with a third-best goals against of 1.98 and fourth-best save percentage of 92.5.

The most disappointing teams in the league have been the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Florida was third-best in the Eastern Conference last season with 103 points, but were tied for ninth at the halfway mark with 48. The Islanders were fifth-best in the East with 100 points last campaign and were in last place in the conference and 28th in the NHL with just 40 points. Meanwhile, Tampa finished last season sixth in the East with 97 points and were fourth-worst this time around with 44 points.

There’s been a lot of ink concerning this year’s excellent crop of rookies and the competition for the Calder Trophy. At the halfway mark, the race couldn’t be much closer as both the first and second-overall picks last summer, Auston Matthews of Toronto and Patrick Laine of Winnipeg, each had 21 goals and 16 assists. Fellow forward Mitch Marner of the Maple Leafs was just a pair of points behind them with 10 goals and 25 assists. We can’t overlook Zach Werenski of Columbus either, as he was the top-scoring rookie defenceman with 26 points, was a plus-8, and a big reason for the Blue Jackets’ resurgence this season.

When it comes to offseason free-agent acquisitions, the best pickups have been forwards Michael Grabner of the New York Rangers, Eric Staal of Minnesota and Sam Gagner of Columbus. Gagner was signed from Philadelphia for just $650,000 and had scored 30 points in half a season after registering just 16 in 53 games last year. Staal had 39 points at the halfway mark this season after scoring 39 points in 83 games with Carolina and the Rangers last campaign. As for the speedy Grabner, he had 19 goals and 27 points at the midway mark compared to nine goals and 18 points with Toronto in 80 games last year.

The most valuable player over the first half was contested by physical defenceman Brent Burns of San Jose and forwards Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh Penguins and Connor McDavid of Edmonton. Crosby led the league with 26 goals in 36 games at the halfway mark as well as in points-per game at 1.28. McDavid led the league in overall scoring with 50 points and Burns has been the top-scoring defenceman with 17 goals and 44 points. McDavid was scoring a pace of 1.11 points a game and Burns was at 1.02 points per outing.

We shouldn’t forget the coaches either as John Tortorella of Columbus, Bruce Boudreau of Minnesota and Mike Babcock of Toronto have all done wonders. Columbus was by far the surprise of the league and also owned the third-best goals for and goals-against records at the midway point. They were 27th in goals for last season and 30th in goals against. Boudreau had his team in top spot in the Western Conference with 61 points in his first year with Minnesota. They missed the playoffs last year with 87 points. As for Babcock, the Leafs were the worst team in the NHL last season with 69 points. They were tied for ninth in the East at the halfway mark with 48 points at 20-13-8 with eight rookies in the lineup.

Columbus Blue Jackets fall one game shy of NHL history

It was a case of “close but no cigar” for the Columbus Blue Jackets recently as their 16-game winning streak was snapped at the hands of the Washington Capitals. The Capitals handed them a 5-0 beating  at home at the Verizon Center in on January 5th while the Blue Jackets were attempting to tie the Pittsburgh Penguins for the NHL record of 17 consecutive victories which they set in 1992/93. Blue Jackets’ netminder Sergei Bobrovsky also saw his 14-game winning streak end in the same game as he was pulled during the third period after surrendering five goals on 23 shots. Columbus won two of their 16 games in overtime and one in a shootout, but ultimately fell one game short of joining the Penguins in the history book. 

It’s certainly a turnaround for the Blue Jackets as they were the second-worst club in the Eastern Conference and worst in the Metropolitan Division last campaign with a record 34-40-8 of for 76 points . They struggled right from the get-go in 2015/16 as they kicked off the year with an eight-game losing string. However, it looks like controversial head coach John Tortorella has pulled all of the right strings so far this season as they were leading the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference with 60 points at 28-7-4 on January 9th. Tortorella has been managing to get the most out of his lineup considering the squad isn’t laden with all stars.

The Blue Jackets have been getting excellent goaltending from former Vezina Trophy winner Bobrovsky while rookie defenceman Zach Werenski has been better than anybody expected. Forward Brandon Saad, who is a two-time Stanley Cup winner, has also been a key player along with captain Nick Foligno. Columbus is one of the league’s youngest teams when it comes to the average age of the players as well as their years of NHL experience. The franchise entered the league in 2000/01 and has made the playoffs just twice and has yet to win a series. As a matter of fact, the team has just two postseason victories in its history.

Columbus would have to basically collapse to miss the playoffs this season though due to their recent winning streak which lasted from November. 29th to January 5th. Their previous defeat was a shootout loss to Florida on November 26th. At that time, the Blue Jackets were sitting in fourth spot in the Metropolitan Division at 11-5-4. Their streak started on November 29th with a convincing 5-1 home win over Tampa Bay. Their fourth win of the streak came on December 5th with a 4-1 decision over Arizona and it was also the 500th victory in their franchise history. The ninth game was a 4-3 overtime triumph in Vancouver and was the 500th win in Tortorella’s career. 

By the time the 16-game streak had ended, the team had climbed to the top of the NHL’s overall standings with the league’s best record and they gave up three or more goals just three times during the run. Between 1992/93 and the current season, the closest an NHL team came to equaling Pittsburgh’s 17-game record was the Penguins themselves when they ran off 15 straight victories in the 2012/13 season which was shortened to 48 games due to a labour lockout. Columbus lost for a second straight time after the streak ended when they dropped a 5-4 decision to the New York Rangers, but then rebounded with 2-1 win over Philadelphia the next night, January 8th.  

Jaromir Jagr now second to only one

Other than a short three-day break it was business as usual for the NHL over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday. There were some newsworthy events such as the Columbus Blue Jackets extending their winning streak to 15 games, the Minnesota Wild having theirs snapped at 12 contests, and a couple of outdoor games. However, the most significant accomplishment over the past couple of weeks was 44-year-old winger Jaromir Jagr of the Czech Republic climbing into second place on the NHL’s all-time scoring list. He achieved the feat with an assist in a home game against the Boston Bruins on December 22nd.

There’s now just one player between the Florida Panther veteran and the number one position and that’s a fellow by the name of Wayne Gretzky. With 2,857 points to his name in 1,487 games played, Gretzky was still 966 points ahead of Jagr’s 1,891 points. As of January 1st, Jagr had 756 goals and 1,135 assists. Jagr stood number three on the all-time goals list behind Gretzky’s 894 and Gordie Howe’s total of 801. As for assists, Jagr was fifth o the list behind Gretzky (1,963), Ron Francis (1,249), Mark Messier (1,193) and Ray Bourque (1,169).

Nobody has scored more important goals in NHL history though as Jagr has 133 game-winners under his belt with Phil Esposito being second on the list with 118. Jagr was also ranked in the top-five when it came to games played as he was fourth on the list with 1,667. The only players to appear in more NHL regular-season contests have been Howe (1,767), Messier (1,756) and Francis (1,731). There’s an excellent chance that Jagr will eventually play the most games in NHL history since he doesn’t have any plans of retiring son.

In fact, Jagr already would be the record holder for games played if he hadn’t left the NHL in 2008 to play in the KHL for three seasons before returning to North America. Jagr was taken with the fifth-overall pick in the 1990 NHL Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins. It didn’t take long for the youngster to prove that he belonged in the world’s best hockey league as he banged in 27 goals and 30 assists in 1990/91 as a rookie. Jagr has scored more than 100 points in a season on five occasions with his best campaign being 62 goals along with 87 assists for 149 points in 1995/96 with Pittsburgh.

Jagr has spent time with numerous NHL clubs as he’s also played with the New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals. He’s also played in 208 career postseason games with 78 goals and 123 assists for 201 points. Jagr’s trophy cabinet includes five Art Ross awards for leading the league in point scoring, three Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player, three Lester B. Pearson Awards for being the NHL’s best player and a trio of Ted Lindsay Awards for being the top goal scorer in a season. He’s scored the most overtime goals in regular-season play in history and is the oldest player to record three goals in a game.

As far as team achievements go, the future Hall of Famer won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, two Olympic medals, four IIHF World Championship medals and a IIHF World Junior Championship medal. There’s no doubt Jagr will go down in history as one of the world’s greatest hockey players due to his longevity and production. As of New Year’s Day he had 23 points in 38 games and claims he plans on playing until the age of 50. If he does, Jagr should creep a couple of hundred points closer to Gretzky, but it’s highly doubtful he’ll ever catch him. It certainly would have been interesting though if he didn’t trade three seasons of NHL hockey for the KHL.     

Columbus rookie Zach Werenski proving he’s an elite blueliner

While forwards Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner of Toronto may be getting all the attention when it comes to talk of the Calder Trophy, the best rookie in the NHL right now may very well be defenceman Zach Werenski of Columbus. The 19-year-old was chosen with the eighth pick in the 2015 draft and has quietly become one of the league’s best blueliners in his first season at the age of 19. Learning how to become an elite defenceman in the world’s toughest hockey league typically takes several seasons to master, but the native of Grosse Point, Michigan has made it look easy.

Paired with 22-year-old Seth Jones, Werenski averages close to 22 minutes of ice time per game and excels on the power play and penalty kill as well as five-on-five. November’s NHL rookie of the month had racked up six goals and 15 assists for 21 points in 29 games by December 18th and was a plus-seven. At his current pace, the 6-foot-2-inch, 212 lb. youngster is projected to finish the season with 18 goals and 42 assists for 60 points and post a plus-21 mark.

Werenski grew up studying the play of Detroit Red Wing hall of famer Nicklas Lidstrom and lists Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings as another huge inspiration. However, Werenski is making a name for himself in the league with his stellar play and should easily set a couple of rookie records for the Blue Jackets franchise this season. He’s already tied the mark for points by a first-year defenceman with 21 which was set by Ryan Murray in 2013/14, and should be able to top Rick Nash’s record of 39 points by a Columbus rookie which was set in 2002/03.

As a teenager, the left-shooting defenceman played with the U.S. National team program and then finished high school at 17 so he could play for the University of Michigan. When he arrived in the NCAA he was the youngest player in the league. He spent two years at the school as its best defenceman and scored 20 goals and 41 assists in 71 games. When the 2015/16 college season ended, Werenski signed an amateur tryout with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League for just $5,000 and helped the club win the Calder Cup championship with 14 points in 17 playoff games.

He believes the time spent riding the buses in the AHL prepared him for the jump to the NHL and it looks like he made the right move. He now leads his NHL team’s defencemen in possession statistics and has the seventh-lowest turnover rate in the league for all blueliners. Columbus first noticed Werenski when he played for the U.S. at the World Junior Championships in 2013/14. But while he definitely interested them, he wasn’t their first choice when the 2015 NHL Entry Draft got underway.

The Blue Jackets tried to move up to fourth position in the draft, which was held by Carolina, as they wanted to select fellow defenceman Noah Hanifin. However, they considered the Hurricanes’ asking price to be too high and believed Werenski would still be available when it was their turn to choose at number eight. Therefore, they perhaps landed the potential 2016/17 rookie of the year by an odd twist of fate. There’s no guarantee Werenski’s play won’t tail off as the season goes along, but he’s already proven he’s got what it takes to become a premier NHL defenceman for years to come.  

Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookie scoring records may fall this season

With at least half a dozen rookies in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lineup this season, it’s highly likely that one of the more skillful ones will break the franchise’s long standing scoring record for a first-year player. The storied franchise hasn’t done much in the last half century, but at one time it was home to numerous elite players and hall of famers. When it comes to rookies though, just eight Leafs have managed to win the Calder Trophy over the club’s 100-year history. The last was Brit Selby way back in the 1965/66 campaign.

There are definitely some talented rookies in Toronto this season, including this year’s number-one overall draft pick Auston Matthews along with fellow forwards Mitch Marner and William Nylander. This isn’t to say that one of them will take home the rookie of the year honours for their play this season, especially with close to 100 first-year players in the league at the moment, but it’s almost certain one of them will set a new franchise record for rookie scoring. The current Maple Leafs’ rookie scoring record belongs to former centre Peter Ihnacak, who registered 28 goals and 38 assists for 66 points in 1982/83.

However, Ihnacak was 25 years old at the time and basically a seasoned pro as he had been playing for the national team in the former nation of Czechoslovakia as well as one of the country’s top club teams. Ihnacak, who was drafted 25th overall in the second round in  1982 went on to enjoy a solid if unspectacular NHL career with the Leafs with 267 points in 417 games. However, the record for goals by a rookie is 36 which was set by Wendel Clark in 1985/86 and the assists record is held by Gus Bodnar at 40 from 1943/44. 

Now if all of the Leafs’ top-scoring rookies can stay healthy, one or more of them may be able to break Ihnacak’s, Clark’s of Bodnar’s  record by the time the 82nd game of the season rolls around. Matthews appears to have the best chance since he had racked up 20 points in 26 games as of December 12th. However, Marner was just one point behind him with 19 points and the pair was followed closely by Nylander and his 17 points. In addition to staying healthy, the rookies will also have to continue producing points at their current pace over the grueling 82-game schedule.

At their current pace, Matthews would end the season with 38 goals and 25 assists for 63 points, which means he’d break Clark’s record for goals and that’s it. Marner is on pace to score 22 goals and 38 assists for 60 points, meaning he’d fall short of all three current Leafs’ rookie marks ad Nylander would also be shy of the records with 19 goals and 36 assists for 55 points. So even though this is arguably the best crop of rookies that have ever suited up with the Leafs, it’s still going to be a tough task to break the existing franchise records. It’s sure going to be fun for fans to watch them try though.