Saturday, July 20, 2019

James Neal Swatch Card

It's now official: the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers have swapped problematic contracts, with James Neal going to the Oilers and Milan Lucic headed to Calgary. Both power forwards on the decline have close to $6M left per year until the end of the 2022-23 season, although Lucic's contract is considered buyout-proof, what with being essentially a minimum-salary deal with signing bonuses while Neal's is a straight $5.75M per year in salary.

This is Neal's fourth team in four seasons, and while the optics on that aren't great, especially considering his reputation as a bad teammate (he may have told goalie Mike Smith to "stop the fucking puck once in a while" last season), one has to keep in mind the actual facts in his case: two of those teams - the perennial division-winning Nashville Predators and first-year expansion team Vegas Golden Knights - both reached the Stanley Cup Final with him in tow. The Flames, for their part, won their division with him last year with a six-point cushion over the San Jose Sharks.

Also, last year was the first time in his 11-year NHL career that he failed to reach the 20-goal mark - and that includes the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Here's what you get when you acquire Neal: a 6'3", 215-pound guy who can skate, has a very good shot (not "great", not "elite", but just below that, still in the 85-89th percentile) and a terrible temper. Enough that most players won't try to get on his nerves to draw a penalty, because he's mean enough to go so hard that he'll earn a suspension. Some call him the dirtiest player in the NHL, although I wouldn't go so far because the league still employs the likes of Brad Marchand, Corey Perry, Radko Gudas, Ryan Kesler (technically), Lucic and Nazem Kadri, but he's definitely Philadelphia Flyers/Boston Bruins/Anaheim Ducks material...

In the off-season, Neal usually trains with... Connor McDavid. The thing with Edmonton is they technically have three top-line centers in McDavid (the best player in the world), Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. All three possess all-world skill and speed, although Nuge is less bulky and, thus, more fragile. Still, any one of those guys can put up point-per-game statistics with a 25-goal scorer by their side, a number Neal's reached five times in his career (with a high of 40 in 2011-12), including in 2017-18 on the Golden Knight's second line.

Here he is from his 40-goal days, sporting the Pittsburgh Penguins' white (away) uniform on card #GG-JN from Panini's 2012-13 Titanium set and Game-Worn Gear sub-set:
It features a black game-worn jersey swatch that I assume must be from his days in Pittsburgh but could also have come from his time with the Dallas Stars.

He also has international experience, having won a gold medal at the 2007 World Juniors and silver at the 2009 World Championships with Team Canada.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Jacob Trouba Autographed Card

After acquiring Jacob Trouba in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets in mid-June, the New York Rangers have now signed the restricted free agent to a fair $56M seven-year deal worth $8M against the salary cap, avoiding arbitration.

They now have a legitimate top-tier defenseman who, at age 25, is set to enter his prime - unlike their prized 2017 free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, who has seemingly and prematurely just stepped out of his, although in fairness, Shattenkirk should never have been considered any higher than a #3 defenseman.

This leads me to the right side of the Rangers' defense, which now consists of the following players and cap hits:
Trouba, $8M
Shattenkirk: $6.5M (10-team no-trade list)
Brendan Smith: $4.35M (15-team no-trade list)
Adam Fox: a maximum of $1.75M if all bonuses are reached.
That's to go with the left side, made up of:
Brady Skeij: $5.25M
Marc Staal: $5.7M (full no-move clause)
Libor Hajek: $833K
Keep in mind the salary cap is $80.5M, a team needs 12 forwards in uniform (and this one has $11.64M man Artemi Panarin), one or two more as reserves and a pair of goalies. Oh, and the Rangers have one of the best of the millennium in Henrik Lundqvist, a luxury which comes with a $8.5M hit.

The Blueshirts have four remaining unsigned restricted free agents (forwards Pavel Buchnevich, Brendan Lemieux and Vinni Lettieri, and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo), none of whom are likely to break the bank this year, but the Rags already being over the cap by a couple of million only complicates things.

The most obvious solutions include trading one of the defensemen (with or without retaining salary to sweeten the deal), or trading pending UFA forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and/or Chris Kreider, who are both on affordable and good-value deals at $4M and $4.5M respectively, but in the straight "dollars-and-cents" perspective coupled with trade value, may be easiest to move.

It's a puzzle, that's for sure, but that's when GM Jeff Gorton will have to prove he's got what it takes to justify making the big bucks. He's definitely got the foundations of a Stanley Cup contender on his hands, maybe not to take a run at it this year, but they should have a decent window in two or three years.

Here is a card Trouba signed for me in February:
It's #394 from Upper Deck's 2018-19 O-Pee-Chee collection, showing him wearing the Jets' white (away) uniform.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sebastian Aho Jersey Card

It's now official: the Carolina Hurricanes have matched the Montréal Canadiens' offer sheet, ensuring Sebastian Aho's rights remain in Carolina for up to five more years, at an average of $8.45M per.

It is widely believed that the front-loaded deal was a no-brainer for the Canes to match because the compensation (a first-rounder, a second-rounder and a third-rounder next season) was almost inevitably going to land the team lesser players and that the team valued the cost certainty of securing their young superstar's services until the youngest possible age at which he would be able to become an unrestricted free agent (the major caveat for them in the deal, the other one being that Aho will be making $21M of the total $42.27M in less than a year, because most of it is structured as signing bonuses).

Had the Habs offered between $1000 more and an extra million and a half per, the compensation would have been two first-rounders, a second and a third - which may have given the Canes more of a reason to reflect on that.

Aho himself was a second-round pick (35th overall) from a strong 2015 draft class that has already produced these NHL players: Connor McDavid (the best player in the sport, 1st), Jack Eichel (the Buffalo Sabres' cornerstone, for better or worse, 2nd), Dylan Strome (3rd), Mitch Marner (this summer's prized RFA, 4th), Noah Hanifin (5th), Pavel Zacha (6th), Ivan Provorov (7th), Zach Weresnki (8th), Timo Meier (9th), Mikko Rantanen (10th, one-third of the best line in hockey last year), Lawson Crouse (11th), Jake DeBrusk (14th), Mathew Barzal (16th), Kyle Connor (17th),  Thomas Chabot (18th and already Erik Karlsson's replacement with the Ottawa Senators),  Evgeny Svechnikov (19th), Joel Eriksson Ek (20th), Colin White (21st), Ilya Samsonov (22nd, star KHL goalie), Brock Boeser (23rd), Travis Konecny (24th), promising defenseman Noah Juulsen (26th), Anthony Beauvillier (28th), Christian Fischer (32nd), Brandon Carlo (37th), Daniel Sprong (46th), Roope Hintz (49th), Jordan Greenaway (50th), Rasmus Andersson (53rd), Vince Dunn (56th), Anthony Cirelli (72nd), goaltending prospect Samuel Montembeault (77th), Austin Wagner (99th), Denis Malgin (148th), Christian Wolanin (107th), Dominik Simon (137th), Christian Jaros (139th), and Markus Nutivaara (189th).

I like Aho's progression, from a 49-point rookie to a 65-point sophomore to a 30-goal, 83-point third-year player at 21 years of age, showing he just got better as he garnered more attention from the opposing team's best checkers. I'd rather have an $8.5M Aho than a $10M+ Marner on my cap for sure.

Here he is wearing the Canes' plain red uniform, on card #GJ-SA from Upper Deck's 2018-19 Series 1 set and UD Game Jersey sub-set (sorry for the cropped scan, the actual card is roughly three millimetres longer at the bottom):

It features a white game-used jersey swatch.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Artemi Panarin Jersey Card

The best player available via free agency this season was without a doubt Columbus Blue Jackets winger Artemi Panarin. At 27 years of age, he's smack-dab in the meat of his prime years, with an estimated five more years of top-notch production ahead of himself.

His journey for the past six seasons has been exceptional going from a 20-goal scorer to a 1.2-point-per-game player in the KHL to being groomed in the NHL by none other than the Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane - hitting the 30-goal mark in consecutive seasons by his side - to emerging as a star in his own right by eclipsing his Hawks numbers in Columbus with 82- and 87-point seasons.

And while most of Planet Hockey speculated that he was headed to the Miami suburbs to sign with the Florida Panthers alongside fellow Russian and Jackets teammate Sergei Bobrosvky - based mostly on the fact that the pair now share the same agent - Panarin instead caught Big City Fever and signed with the New York Rangers instead, signing an $81.5M deal for seven seasons; his $11.64M cap hit is reportedly lower than the Jackets' final offer as well as what the New York Islanders had offered him.

In just a couple of weeks, the Rangers acquired top-pairing defenseman Jacob Trouba via trade, drafted Kaapo Kakko second overall and signed Panarin, accelerating their rebuild by two or three seasons. They'll still be a long-shot to make the playoffs in 2019-20 in a stacked Metropolitan Division, but the following five or six years should be aimed at a Stanley Cup bid.

Speaking of which, here's a nice card I acquired via trade last month, #DA-AP from Upper Deck's 2018-19 Artifacts set and Divisional Artifacts sub-set:
It features Panarin wearing the Blue Jackets' blue (home) uniform, with a matching game-worn jersey swatch.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Brian Elliott Swatch Card

This is a weird post-season for me, forcing me to cheer for teams I usually very much dislike (the Boston Bruins) or just don't care about (the St. Louis Blues) to win against teams I hate (the Carolina Hurricanes and San Jose Sharks).

The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and lost in the Final in 2013, so they've already cemented their place as a top team in the decade, and the Blues made the Final in their first three seasons in the league yet had to see fellow 1967 expansion brothers the Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins savor multiple wins - and the Minnesota North Stars reach a couple of Finals themselves before winning the Cup in 1999 as the relocated Dallas Stars. And nothing guarantees St. Louis would win against Boston, the third-best team in the league in the regular season.

The Blues seems to have finally found a goalie who can thrive in their system after many years of regular-season success but year after year of post-season failures in the person of Jordan Binnington. Now, goalies are hard to predict, and it remains to be seen if he can keep it up in the long run, but so far he's posted the third-best playoff performance this year (after still-standing Tuukka Rask and the now-eliminated Ben Bishop), and it doesn't seem like he'll wear down as long as he keeps playing.

These days, I have a thought for Brian Elliott, who manned the net admirably and honestly for six seasons in the Gateway City, posting some of the best goals-against averages of the millennium in the process:
from HockeyDB
Granted, he was Jaroslav Halak's backup and was sheltered by playing fewer games and against lesser opponents, but those are fine NHL numbers regardless of how you look at them.

However, his play hasn't been as effective for the past three seasons and he was surpassed by this year's other star rookie goalie with the Flyers, Carter Hart. Then again, at $2.75M per season, Elliott was pretty much playing on a backup's salary anyway.

His contract is due this summer, and I think he still has another two-year deal in him, likely with a team that needs to play their top goalie less and doesn't have a young gun ready to challenge for the position. I can think of three such teams in the Atlantic: the Montréal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings, as well as the Edmonton Oilers out West.

Here he is wearing the Blues' white (away) uniform, on card #GG-ET from Panini's 2012-13 Titanium set and Game-Worn Gear subset:
The jersey swatch, however, is burgundy - from his 12 games with the Colorado Avalanche at the tail end of the 2010-11 season.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Paul Ranheim Autograph Card

It's now official: the Boston Bruins have swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final, in a show of force unseen since the days of the Adams Division and the lowly Hartford Whalers.

Which brings me to Paul Ranheim, who has played for the Whalers and the Canes, spending parts of seven seasons in the organization before spending some time with the Philadelphia Flyers and Phoenix Coyotes.

His best season, statistically, though, was his rookie year with the Calgary Flames, in 1989-90, scoring 26 goals with 28 assists for 94 points - all career highs. As a matter of fact, all three of his 20-goal seasons came in Calgary, and he never went over 10 in any of his other NHL seasons. He never hit the 40-point plateau with any other team either, with a 30-point season (10 goals, 20 assists) with the Whalers in 1995-96 standing as the other outlier year in a career spent as a checking forward.

Here he is wearing the Whalers' dark (away) mid-1990s uniform on the signed insert version of card #87 from Upper Deck's 1995-96 Be A Player set:
I must admit I felt some nice nostalgia when the Canes sported their retro Whalers uniforms this season, especially since they did so against the Bruins.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Sean Burke Autographed Card

I think I'll be saying this until I retire, but the Edmonton Oilers missed the boat when they chose Ken Holland as their next GM last week, choosing another proven salary cap era mismanager instead of new blood like Sean Burke.

Learning the ropes as an exec with the Phoenix Coyotes, Arizona Coyotes and Montréal Canadiens, Burke also plied his trade as GM of Team Canada at several World Championships and the 2018 Olympics - the one where he scoured the globe trying to put together the best possible team of non-NHLers to try to stop the KHL-playing Russians from winning gold.

The five-time IIHF medalist as a player managed to build a roster that won bronze (better than Finland, Sweden, the United States, Slovakia and the Czech Republic), so one can objectively say he did a fairly decent job.

Former goalies are showing they have an eye for talent and management, as the likes of Burke, Ron Hextall (rebuilding the Philadelphia Flyers post-Paul Holmgren), Holland (three Stanley Cups in the pre-cap era) and, to a lesser extent, Patrick Roy (Memorial Cup) and Garth Snow (rebuilding the New York Islanders post-Mike Milbury) have all shown to be able to build decent rosters pretty much from scratch.

I know if I owned a team in, say, Seattle, I'd take a serious look at him to build my team.

As many of you know, Burke was impactful to me as a young goalie in the late 1980s. His exploits with the Canadian National Team and the New Jersey Devils set an example that many Canadian goalies wanted to follow. Sure, Roy was the reason I donned the pads in the first place, but the fact that even in Montréal he was seen as an unattainable God-like figure meant a guy like Burke - who participated in CHL/Team Canada clinics and moved around a lot by changing teams often - was more present, in a way.

And he showed that one didn't have to be a record-setting Conn Smythe winner to be an All-Star and a Hart and Vezina candidate. These days, my favourite goalies are Jaroslav Halak, Ben Bishop, Corey Crawford and Marc-André Fleury, but in the 1980s and 1990s, it was Roy, Burke and, a peg below, Stéphane Fiset. No one else came close.

Here is the 6'4" Burke in the uniform that, to me, best represents the first third of his nearly 20-year career, the Devils' red-and-green classic, on card #66 from Upper Deck's 1990-91 Series 1 set:
He signed it in blue sharpie in one of his few trips to Montréal in the past couple of years.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Seth Jones Jersey Card

I boldly predicted the Columbus Blue Jackets would beat and eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning late last night, and Seth Jones' powerplay game winner continued his clutch play for his team as the first of four steps in in that direction.

It'll be a long and hard-fought series, but the Bolts - who this year tied the NHL record with 62 regular-season wins - have never faced an adversary like this. Don't get me wrong, they've played against great teams - last year's Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals, for one, and the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2014-15 Final - but this team is a different beast altogether.

You've got no less than five key players (star winger Artemi Panarin, star center Matt Duchene, skilled winger Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid, and the only active two-time Vezina-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky) performing to earn their career-defining contracts on July 1st; a top-quality defense that nearly matches Tampa's, with Jones as the centerpiece, accompanied by McQuaid, 2012 second-overall pick Ryan Murray, All-Star Zach Werenski, Team Canada alumnus David Savard, and as depth pieces, former second-rounders Adam Clendening and Scott Harrington; also a forward corps that includes legitimate first-liners Pierre-Luc Dubois and (captain) Nick Foligno, heart-and-soul checker Brandon Dubinsky, 40-goal man Cam Atkinson, rising star Oliver Bjorkstrand, tough rookie Alexandre Texier, and a bunch of solid soldiers; and last but not least, head coach John Tortorella.

There is simply no other coach like Torts. Oh, there are far better tacticians, but no better motivator when he actually has enough time to get to know his players. It's not just manipulation on his part (like, say, Guy Boucher), nor tough-for-toughness'-sake like Claude Julien or Ken Hitchcock; no, Torts has his players' trust that he will defend them if he senses a will to sacrifice towards the team's goals, and he rewards effort. And he makes speeches like these:
That's after the first period, which saw Tampa build a 3-0 lead. Full disclosure: I stopped watching the game live at that point.

Again, he's a different beast.

And when Jones plays like the guy who finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting last season, the Jackets know any game's within hand.

Here he is wearing the magnificent Blue Jackets' alternate uniform, on card #GJ-SJ from Upper Deck's 2017-18 Series 1 set and UD Game Jersey sub-set:
It features a white game-worn jersey swatch. I found this card so pretty that I paid $5 for it on Ebay (plus shipping).

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Jason Pominville Jersey Card

He was a second-round draft pick in 2001, selected 55th overall following a 113-point season (in 71 games) with the LHJMQ's Shawinigan Cataractes; he followed that with 121 points in just 66 games with the Cataractes. Because he holds a dual citizenship (Canadian and American), he was often passed over for the Canadian teams, including during his three years of eligibility at the World Juniors (Team USA usually favors players from the College ranks to fill their rosters).

Still, he spent three full seasons in the AHL with the Rochester Americans before earning a full-time gig in the NHL, including the franchise's best season ever, a 112-point performance in 2004-05 on a team that also featured Chris Taylor (79 points in 79 games), Thomas Vanek (42 goals in 74 games), Derek Roy (61 points in 67), Paul Gaustad (43 points in 192 penalty minutes), Daniel Paillé, Chris Thorburn, Jeff Jillson, Jason Botterill, and Ryan Miller in nets.

He was also with the Buffalo Sabres during that magical 2006-07 season (113 points and a second straight Conference Final), alongside Daniel Brière (95 points in 81 games), Vanek (43 goals and 84 points in 82 games), Chris Drury (37 goals in 77), Roy (63 points in 75), Maxim Afinegenov (61 points in 56), and Jochen Hecht (56 points) up front, Brian Campbell (48 points), Dmitri Kalinin, Teppo Numminen and Jaroslav Spacek out back, and Miller and Martin Biron between the pipes.

He also captained the Sabres in 2008 and 2011-13, and is so far ranked 10th in team history in goal scoring.

I am, of course, talking about Jason Pominville, at age 36 who just played out a five-year deal that was paying him on average $5.6M per and may once again be forced to leave the city he calls home as it tries to get out of a funk that has seen its hockey team miss the playoffs for eight straight seasons.

None of which is Pominville's fault, mind you, as he finished fourth on the team with 16 goals and seventh with his 30 points despite averaging just 12:30 ice time per game; he was fourth (16 goals) and fifth (34 points) last year, and scored a goal in what may be his final home game on Thursday, and had another assist in the last game of the season in Detroit a few hours ago.

He's a good veteran to have around, a true leader, a player who has always put the team ahead of himself, who was never jealous of other players getting more ice time and never complained about who he was playing with.

The type of guy you keep at a hometown discount, but that you respect enough not to undersell; I'd sign him on a series of one-year deals at $3M apiece until he decides to retire with a no-trade clause so he can decide if and where the team sends him if they're in danger of missing the playoffs at the trade deadline, so he can have a shot at a championship.

Here he is wearing the Sabres' white "Buffaslug" jersey from last decade:
It's card #AF-JP from Upper Deck's 2009-10 SP Game-Used Edition set and Authentic Fabrics sub-set; it features a beautiful dark blue jersey swatch.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Nicolas Deslauriers Autograph Card

When the Montréal Canadiens traded for Nicolas Deslauriers, they expected to receive a hometown boy who would hover between the fourth line and the AHL - which is essentially what they got.

They were also lucky enough to get a career-high 10 goals from him in 2017-18 (in just 58 games), as well as a points-collecting pace (14 points) that was unseen in his three-plus seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, and a steady array of fighting majors and tough guy penalties that was expected from the 6'1", 220-pounder.

This year, after starting out on injured reserve following a tough preseason fight against the New Jersey Devils' Brandon Baddock, he came back to a changed team, one that was surprisingly fighting for a playoff spot instead of draft lottery placement as many pundits had predicted.

That meant he no longer had leeway to make defensive mistakes under head coach Claude Julien, but also that Julien would likely scratch him altogether from time to time to instead dress two centers on the fourth line. Julien's one of those old-school unforgiving coaches who thinks he'll outsmart the opposing coach using baseball relief pitching tactics instead of the best possible lineup.

So, in 2018-19, Deslauriers only dressed in 48 games, all told, with 2 goals and 3 assists (5 points) and 22 penalty minutes to show for it, after going 10-4-15 with 55 PIMs last year. Oddly enough, when his mind was at ease, he was a +7 playing on a bottom-feeder last year yet is -12 playing for a team that'll finish in ninth-place in the Eastern Conference this year.

I'll try to get him to sign stuff in a Habs uniform next year, but for now, let's contemplate what he looked like wearing the Sabres' white (away) uniform, on the signed insert version of card #275 from Upper Deck's 2014-15 SP Authentic set and Future Watch sub-set:
It features a blue-sharpied on-card autograph. It's numbered #483/999.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Ryan Strome Autographed Card

When historians sit down to write the story of the 2018-19 hockey season, a few story lines will stand out:

- It's the year the Columbus Blue Jackets went all-in.
- It's the year Shea Weber started noticeably regressing.
- It's the year Roberto Luongo's injuries became a bigger story than his on-ice performances.
- The Tampa Bay Lightning's regular-season domination.
- Nikita Kucherov joined the "best player" conversation.
- The CWHL announced it was ceasing its operations, just a week after the Calgary Inferno beat the Montréal Canadiennes in the Clarkson Cup Final.
- The Chicago Blackhawks' offense finally retained (Alex DeBrincat) and acquired (Dylan Strome) offensive talent instead of trading it away (Teuvo Teravainen).
- The Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers redefined "rock bottom".

That last point is where I want to look to shed yet another light on how bad GM Peter Chiarelli's tenure was, via oft-maligned former 5th overall (2011, New York Islanders) draft pick Ryan Strome.

After four seasons of Juniors hockey, Strome finished the 2012-13 season in the AHL (7 points in 10 games), and spent the following year bouncing up and down between the Isles and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers before posting a 50-point season on Long Island in 2014-15.

After two sub-par seasons in the 30-point range, Chiarelli acquired his services in exchange for Jordan Eberle, a move that was supposed to be lateral in terms of offensive production (it was thought that playing alongside either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would re-launch Strome), at half of Eberle's salary for a few couple of seasons, as Strome is younger.

Unfortunately, Strome was only able to put up 36 points in 100 games over a season and change in Edmonton, prompting them to send him packing to the New York Rangers in exchange for Ryan Spooner, a player they would put on waivers just a few months later.

In Manhattan, Strome has put up 31 points in 60 games, a 42-point pro-rated production on an entire season, which is an improvement, particularly considering the Rangers are in full "rebuild" mode, although there is concern that his luck may run out at some point, as his underlying numbers are unsustainable.

The Rangers are in fairly good hands for their rebuild, with young veterans Mika Zibanejad (25 years old) and Chris Kreider (27) leading a pack comprised of Pavel Buchnevich (23), Jimmy Vesey (25), Brady Skjei (24), Vladislav Namestnikov (25), Filip Chytil (18), Brendan Lemieux (22), Fredrik Claesson (25) and goalie Alexandar Georgiev (22). Add a lucky middle-of-the-pack first-rounder or two, or a top-three pick in the next couple of years and you've got yourself a team that's fighting for the playoffs again.

Where does Strome fit in there? Well, he may not, unless he keeps producing. His brother Dylan's turning his career around in Chicago, though, so everything's still possible.

Here is Ryan playing for the OHL's Niagara IceDogs:
It's card #69 from In The Game's 2012-13 Heroes And Prospects set, which he signed in blue sharpie last December.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Wayne Simmonds Jersey Card

First things first: I understand why the Nashville Predators sent Ryan Hartman and a conditional fourth-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Wayne Simmonds' services at the trade deadline: he's a team-first leader who will sacrifice everything he has for even the slightest chance his team moves the puck forward, let alone scores a goal or wins a game; he's a two-time 30-goal scorer and two-time 60-point-getter who rarely got first-line time, so he's proven able to provide offense no matter where he was slotted in the line-up; he's a heart-and-soul gritty forward and the Preds might need more sandpaper than acrobatics and skill to get past the St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets in the upcoming playoffs.

But I also understand why the Flyers had to let him go: this marks the third consecutive season his goals and points totals have gone down; he's clearly battered and bruised at 30 years old - despite missing only seven games last season, he dealt with five major injuries, including a torn groin, lost teeth, a broken ankle and a torn ligament in his hand - and even this year he looks like he needs to rest up and heal; he was also on an expiring contract that pays him enough for what he's delivering at the moment but had him massively underpaid for most of his deal, and it looked unlikely considering his trend downwards that his next deal would be win-win.

Like Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara, Simmonds has done enough to warrant wearing the captain's "C" for a team that will be using him less and less in his waning years - that's how good and deserving he's been, and that's how respected he is. But while most teams could use his leadership, very few teams actually need a captain at this point. As a matter of fact, most playoff-contending teams already have a few players worthy of the "C" waiting in the wings, most of them on the right side of 30.

And he hasn't exactly turned the NHL upside down since the trade, either, what with a single goal and one assist for 2 points in 14 games in Music City so far, on a team that boasts elite talent like Ryan Johansen, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis.

If I were a GM, would I have traded Hartman for his services (notwithstanding the fact that Hartman cost the Preds a good prospect and a first-rounder)? Absolutely. Would I re-sign him for more than one year with the way his last two seasons have gone? Nope.

So my guess is Nashville is betting he can help as a secondary piece - perhaps even a third-tier depth piece - on their way to another deep run. He can't do any harm, that's for sure. But I don't see them attempting to keep him after that, even if he goes on a 20-goal tear in the playoffs.

Here he is sporting (one of) the Flyers' Stadium Series black garbs (with matching game-worn jersey swatch), on card #PF-WS from Upper Deck's 2017-18 SP Game-Used Edition set and Stadium Series Fabrics sub-set:
Simmonds did not register a point in the February 25, 2017 game, but did nab a two-minute minor penalty for slashing at 18:00 of the third period, effectively keeping him in the sin bin until the end of the game. The host team Pittsburgh Penguins won the contest 4-2.

His final game with the Flyers was during this year's Stadium Series game, a 4-3 win against the same Penguins.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Jarret Stoll Autographed Card

Jarret Stoll never actually retired from the NHL, but when he failed to secure a contract atfter a tryout with the Columbus Blue Jackets ahead of the 2016-17 season and then signed with the Los Angeles Kings as a scout, the writing was not only on the wall but written in spray-paint.

Of course, he did win two Stanley Cups with the Kings, centering their checking line. While in L.A., he received some Selke Trophy votes in three different seasons, and had in his final year with the Edmonton Oilers as well.

Here is my favourite card of his, which happens to be during his days in Edmonton:
It's #20 from Upper Deck's 2005-06 Ovation set, and he signed it in (fading) blue sharpie after a Kings game in 2014-15. Ovation cards were like Ice and Artifact - a tad expensive for almost no "pulls" and just a few common cards, but so beautiful and classy. The silver foil on this card is really marvelous, and the cardboard has a three-dimensional feel thanks to the relief, which simulated used ice. It's too bad they went the way of the dodo.

He was inducted in the Kootenay Ice Hall Of Fame on March 1st (he was actually the first inductee).

Monday, March 25, 2019

Jarmo Kekalainen Autographed Card

Not everyone agrees, but I really liked most of Jarmo Kekalainen's gamble of going all-in in for these playoffs with a high number of possible unrestricted free agents at year's end, including the ones they already had (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) that they didn't trade for (tangible or intangible) "assets" at the deadline, as well as other UFAs-to-be in Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene - although the Columbus Blue Jackets should have read the signs of Duchene's previous trade, which sent him from a team that was near dead-last to a Conference Finalist Ottawa Senators club that was in the playoff picture in December, only to have the Sens miss the playoffs after his acquisition and the Colorado Avalanche squeak in on the Western Conference front.

Some thought Kekalainen paid too steep a price for Dzingel (Anthony Duclair and two second-rounders) while the Duchene deal, who came with Julius Bergman (an AHL offensive defenseman since traded with a fourth-rounder and a seventh rounder for defensive defenseman Adam McQuaid, another pending UFA) for prospects Jonathan Davidsson, Vitaly Abramov, an actual 2019 first-rounder and a conditional 2020 first-rounder, was essentially seen as continuing to empty the 2019 draft cupboard, as the Jackets currently only hold two picks next summer: their own third-rounder, and the Pittsburgh Penguins' seventh, which is almost guaranteed to be a late one.

They also don't have a second or third pick in 2020. You'd think a GM with the drafting pedigree like Kekalainen would value any pick highly; after all, he's responsible for the Sens (!!) drafting the likes of Jason Spezza, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Antoine Vermette and Ray Emery; he got the St. Louis Blues David Backes, David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo; in Columbus, he surprised many observers with the bull's eye surprise selections of Zach Werenski and Pierre-Luc Dubois, and he could very well have scored the same type of home run with Team France member  Alexandre Texier and London Knights skinny center Liam Foudy, both parents of whom were athletes.

Or maybe he's just taking too many risks now.

But he's making the game behind the game very exciting.

I wrote to him nearly two years ago and got this signed card back from him nearly a year ago to the day, before moving into my current digs (April 1st, 2018):
It's #108 from Upper Deck's 1991-92 Series 1 set, showing him attempting a play despite the presence of New York Islanders defenseman Nolan Baumgartner. "KK" may have only scored 5 goals with 8 assists for 13 points in 55 NHL games spread over three seasons in four years, but he did score against the Isles on January 15th, 1991. There's a very good chance this picture came from that game (he was blanked by the Isles in a February 28 game in Boston, where he would've been wearing the B's white - then-home - uniform).

This is a Boston Bruins uniform I have a soft spot for, as it's the one from my youth.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Thomas Hickey Autograph Card

Thomas Hickey is a former first-round pick (fourth overall, 2007) who delivers more than a hit per game, and many are huge ones, such as this one on Brendan Gallagher:

Props to the Montréal Canadiens' should-be captain for bouncing right back up from the hit, but it was clean and did not deserve Gallagher's extra attention, especially since #11's teammate Andrew Shaw had laid a borderline dirty hit on New York Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield in the previous shift.

Hickey's 30 years old now and has cemented his place as a second-pairing defender on a strong Isles blue line, playing 19 minutes per night in this injury-filled season, but he's also played upwards of 21 per game in the postseason before.

I really like what Barry Trotz, Lane Lambert and Mitch Korn have brought to the Islanders, uniting the team after star center John Tavares' departure to the Toronto Maple Leafs and instilling a team-first/underdog mentality that may just lead them to the top of their division, a feat the Leafs were never truly in a position to achieve at any point this year. Or any year, as they've only done so once in my lifetime (1999-2000). Which happens to be the only time they'd done so since the early 1960s. They haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967 either. But hey, free agents are free to sign wherever they please - and everyone makes mistakes.

Hickey, for his part, is currently in the first of a four-year contract that pays him $2.5M annually and is semi-lockout-protected for 2020-21, as he's slated to get half his salary as a signing bonus on July 1st the summer before. That's a mighty good deal no matter how you slice it, as it takes him to what may be the end of his prime, at 34 years old.

Here he is as captain of Team Canada from the World Juniors, at which he won gold medals in both 2008 and 2009 on card #TCS-TH from Upper Deck's 2015-16 O-Pee-Chee set and Team Canada Signatures sub-set:
Even though he's clearly wearing a #4 white (home) jersey, the on-sticker autograph sees him having tagged "14" at the end - his number with the Isles until this year, until Dennis Seidenberg was let go, freeing #4. Fun fact: Seidenberg's now back with the team after skating and practicing with them all year on a PTO.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Jean-Gabriel Pageau Autographed Card

One of my favourite remaining players on the Ottawa Senators, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, was hit with his first career suspension earlier today, a one-game punishment for a hit to the back of the Vancouver Canucks' Ashton Sautner last night.

Pageau's usually a mild-mannered dependable two-way forward, but perhaps his extremely disappointing season is taking its toll on him: the Sens look like they'll finish last overall and he himself is marred in a three-year downward trajectory in terms of on-ice production, and he's posted his lowest per-game points average since becoming an NHL regular:
from FrozenTools
Then again, a career-low shooting percentage indicates this year is an outlier and, should he hit the 10% mark next year, will revert back to being a 40-point producer.

He's also playing on a defensive line with Tom Pyatt, who may very well retire after season's end if no one will hire him; his time in Ottawa looks pretty much over, especially now that head coach Guy Boucher has left/been fired.

Pageau signed this card for me last year:
It's card #49 from In The Game's 2011-12 Heroes And Prospects set, which he signed in blue sharpie; it's a much sharper signature than when he signed the same card for me back in 2015. That means I have one to trade...

Like Sean Couturier before him, I expect him to bounce back next year, as they're following a similar development curve.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Kerby Rychel: Two Autographed Cards

I wrote about a prospect who is currently in his fourth NHL franchise yesterday in Anthony Duclair; Kerby Rychel is in the same boat, now playing for the Calgary Flames' AHL affiliate the Stockton Heat, after stints with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montréal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets organizations.

Unlike Duclair, skating is an area where NHL GMs and coaches are always telling Rychel to improve; his strongest suits are his grit, taste for playing in traffic areas (including in front of the opposition's net), tipping pucks, and traits generally associated with "plug-type" players and bottom-sixers, not first-rounders.

Still, it's not his fault the Blue Jackets selected him 19th overall in 2013, ahead of Anthony Mantha (20th, already 200 games and 60 goals in an NHL career), Andre Burakovsky (23rd, 318 NHL games, 61 goals), Shea Theodore (26th), Ryan Hartman (30th), Robert Hagg (41st), Artturi Lehkonen (55th, 200+ games), Brett Pesce (66th, 278 games and counting), Pavel Buchnevich (75th), Jake Guentzel (77th, closing in on 200 games and a goal shy of 75), Mattias Janmark-Nylen (79th, 224 games, 40 career goals), Duclair (80th, 277 games, over 50 goals), Sven Andrighetto (86th, 205 games, 50 assists), Oliver Bjorkstrand (89th, 187 games), Miles Wood (100th, 193 games), Andrew Copp (104th, 282 games), and Tyler Motte (121st, closing in on 150 games played).

I've heard and read about a lack of compete and work ethic in his case, but surely there was a way to instill those traits in him via positive reinforcement and reward for what he did do well, and accentuating or encouraging a will to become a Dave Andreychuck/Ray Sheppard/Brad Marchand type of "garbage goal" scorer and powerplay menace, and expanding from there.

All's not lost for him yet, at just 24 years of age, and he does have 23 goals in 57 AHL games this season, so surely an NHL team might take a chance on him in the near future, it's just been a rockier path than some expected.

For my part, I always say power forwards need more time to develop, and although he's a little small for one, that's how he plays; he also never reached the 100-point mark in Juniors, so he was always going to have to learn to work hard to deserve his chances.

Speaking of which, here's a card from his OHL days with the Windsor Spitfires:
It's card #T-45 from In The Game's 2013-14 Heroes And Prospects 10th Anniversary set and shows him wearing the Spitfires' white (home) uniform.

There is also card #88 from Upper Deck's 2014-15 Team Canada Juniors/Women set, where he's seen protecting the puck from a Swiss player while wearing Team Canada's red (away) uniform:
He was held pointless in 7 games at the 2014 World Juniors, as Canada finished in fourth place.

He signed both in (fading) black sharpie while playing for the AHL's Toronto Marlies (2016-18).

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Anthony Duclair Autographed Card

To many, Anthony Duclair is a mystery inside a riddle inside a maze that is lost somewhere in the vast confines of space. That's because he's a talented winger with all the tools needed to make an impact in today's NHL: tremendous speed, agile hands, a good shot and youth, as he's still just 23 years old.

But he doesn't backcheck hard enough and will make defensive mistakes (like Thomas Vanek still does at age 35, or more fittingly, like 27-year-old Evander Kane used to do, as he's closer to Duclair generationally). Or, as John Tortorella put it in late February, in his hometown of Montréal, with his parents watching the press conference on TV:
Duclair had many options to sign this summer, including a couple of two-year deals, and a two-way contract to play in his hometown (or more likely, a stint with the Montréal Canadiens' farm team, the Laval Rocket under Joël Bouchard's tutelage). Instead, he chose the Columbus Blue Jackets' one-year offer close to league minimum specifically to play under Tortorella, saying:
Before signing here, I talked to a bunch of guys that played for Torts and all I heard were good things. They all said he takes your game to another level and that's what I need, especially at this time in my career. You hear and you see all those interviews on YouTube, and all those rants, it's because he cares. He cares about his players. The main thing I heard is, "If you work hard for him, he'll battle for you."
My agent is Philippe Lecavalier, and his brother is [Vincent Lecavalier]. I talked to him a lot, about what happened in Tampa, when [Tortorella] came in and took the "C" away from him. We talked about what he went through. Then he told me it would be a good fit for me to play for him. It definitely opened my eyes, and it definitely was a no-brainer coming from a guy like that. (...)
If he calls me out, I don't take anything personal. He's just trying to make me a better player. He talks to me privately as well, he doesn't keep anything secret; if he has something to say, he says it, and as a player, you respect that a lot. Some coaches keep it to themselves and you don't get an explanation. He's going to give you that explanation every time. I like the challenge.
As usual, it's one thing to heed the warning, it's another to experience it firsthand. Torts is right in saying The Duke's got all the tools, and it isn't easy for a guy like Duclair, who was a goal-per-game regular-season producer and point-per-game postseason player on a Memorial Cup-caliber Québec Remparts team in Juniors, at point-per-game player on a gold-winning Team Canada club at the World Juniors and a 20-goal scorer in the NHL, to suddenly hear he doesn't know how to play the game, to be forced to play like old teammates of his who were never drafted, to not create plays out of nothing.

But that's the dilemma in the NHL. There are precious few who do not need to play defensively and can get their 50-60 points, but the vast majority of players need to play a perfect two-way game of chess to get middle-of-the-road stats (15-point guys turn in 25-point performances that way, and point-per-game AHLers get their 40-50 NHL points that way too). It evens the game down the middle, with creative plays fewer and further between - but they're still there at times, just once per week instead of once or twice per game; that means players can get a chance to win it for their team that once a week instead of tethering the edge of costing a game per week for their team.

That lesson is what turned Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban into the best of their profession (although some still make the case that Subban remains risky a few times per year), and that's what separates that elite class from the decent-to-very-good, which holds the likes of Vanek, Ron Hainey in his prime, Morgan Rielly and Mike Reilly at the moment, and many more.

On the other hand, playing within the system is what makes late-round draft picks like Brendan Gallagher and projected spare forwards like Paul Byron into sure-fire 30- and 20-goal scorers.

NHL forwards are considered in their prime from ages 25 to 32; at 25, they're still in the shape they were in at 22, but stronger, and have started to use their experience to their advantage; from 30 to 32 is a stasis, where experience, health and nutrition help keep their production leveled, and after that, the toll on their bodies start showing, they slow down and must rely on their Hockey IQ more and more. Players like Duclair have more "innate hockey reflexes" (pure skill) than "Hockey IQ" (positioning and tactics), but all is not lost for him yet. The colour of his skin may mean a handful of teams in the U.S. might be more hesitant to give him a chance (I really hate to say this, but the past couple of years have shown that racism is not a thing of the past, unfortunately, even if hockey as a sport doesn't come with inherent biases against individuals - at least in my lifetime, it was probably different in Willie O'Ree's day), but he will probably be allowed another, final mulligan in North America before having to resort to playing in Europe if things once again turn sour between now and the end of April.

I just hope it doesn't have to get to that, and that he can find a permanent place within the Ottawa Senators organization. They need each other - but they need the best of what each has to offer, not the noise.

Here he is in happier times, as a member of the New York Rangers, when his future was at its most promising, Manhattan having already given him the nickname "The Duke", his spectacular play already winning the hearts of the team's fans:
That's card #U41 from Upper Deck's 2014-15 O-Pee-Chee Update collection and Marquee Rookie sub-set. I actually bought the unsigned card on Ebay then had him sign it in blue sharpie years later.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Ben Bishop Jersey Card

Once again, Ben Bishop is quietly having a Vezina consideration-worthy season, leading the league in save percentage. He is by far the biggest reason why the Dallas Stars will be making the playoffs, especially since Jamie Benn's having a very difficult season with just 47 points in 67 games so far.

Sportsnet conducted an analysis comparing Bishop's save percentage in just about every situation not just to the rest of the league but also his backup Anton Khudobin (who "benefits" from the same offense-depleted roster and playing style), so despite seeing fiercest competition by definition of his #1 role, Bishop's outplaying everybody in the NHL except likely Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy this season, who trails him by one point (.933 vs .932):
Sure, the three-game shutout streak (breaking Ed Belfour's old record by five minutes before leaving the game with a lower-body injury) helped with his stats line, but he was having an MVP season until then anyway. He already had three shutouts in the bank on a team whose defense reads like a who's who of who's who: star defenseman John Klingberg missed 18 games due to an injury, Miro Heiskanen is a rookie, Esa Lindell is looking like a good second-pairing defender, and Ben Lovejoy, Taylor Fedun and Roman Polak are supposed to be extras who won't produce much offensively but will finish with a +/- of around 0 in a good year yet were pushed onto roles that may be bigger than they can handle because Julius Honka (29 games played) and Marc Methot (9) were each sidelined for most of the season.

The team's Top-10 scoring leaders also looks like that of a team waiting for the lottery to give them a high draft pick:
from HockeyDB
And yet, not only do they look like a lock for the playoffs, they may even finish above Wild Card status:
This, to me, has Bishop as a nominee for the Hart Trophy (league MVP) as well, likely finishing third behind Tampa Bay Lightning magician Nikita Kucherov and Calgary Flames leader Johnny Gaudreau.

And so I thought it'd be a good moment to focus on card #GJ-BI from Upper Deck's 2018-19 Series 1 set and UD Game Jersey sub-set:
You might recall it from a Box Break from late December. It shows him wearing the Stars' beautiful green (away) uniform with 25th Anniversary (of their move to Dallas) patch, and prominently featuring a white game-worn jersey swatch.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Brent Ashton: Two Autographed Cards

Three weeks ago, the NHL trade deadline saw nearly 50 trades happen with a total of 83 actual players switching teams (one of them, Derick Brassard, moving twice) with just about the same number of draft picks switching owners.

No stranger to moving, Brent Ashton was the NHL's record-holder in that category for more than a decade, having been traded eight times in his 14-season career, a feat that was tied by Mike Sillinger in 2004 and surpassed two years later.

Fun fact: both Ashton and Sillinger hail from Saskatchewan, and both returned to their respective hometowns of Saskatoon and Regina upon retiring from the NHL. Fittingly, Ashton owns a sportswear business and is a licensed... real estate agent. He does know a thing or two about purchasing and moving into and out of homes, after all.

His wife Susan, however, may have had the most experience in that matter according to a 2009 interview with the NHL's website:
"There was no help," she says.

Susan was the one who said goodbye to her friends, sold the home, found a moving company, had the mail redirected, found a new place to live, got the phone hooked up and set up shop in a new city, where she started all over again. She didn't have a dressing room to offer shelter from the storm.

"It wasn't easy," says Brent about what his wife had to juggle.  "As players, we have the dressing room. What do the wives have? They were left on their own."

Of all the moves she's been through, Susan says the one time she was close to the edge emotionally was in 1991. She recalls being at the Winnipeg airport on her way to Boston with a lot on her plate.

"I had a 6-month-old, a 2 1/2-year-old and I had a dog, which was running around the airport, and I had our luggage," she says. "It was left up to me to move. But what could I do? What was the alternative? But I didn't cry. We were fortunate because our kids were not in school."
Their son, Carter Ashton, was a Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick (29th overall, first round, 2009) who now plays in the KHL after a few years in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.

Brent's prime took place between the 1984-85 and 1989-90 seasons, where he had six consecutive 50-plus-point seasons (all of them with more than 20 goals), with a high of 40 goals and 75 points in 1986-87, which was split almost evenly between the Québec Nordiques and Detroit Red Wings.

He finished his career two games shy of the 1000 mark, with 284 goals and 345 assists for 629 points. He also had three solid postseason runs (one in Québec and two in Detroit) in which he amassed 35 of his career 49 playoff points (in 85 games).

His time in Québec occurring just before I started really paying attention to the sport, I mostly remember him with the Winnipeg Jets, which is why that's the team I had him sign cards from.

First, here he is wearing the team's initial purple (away) uniform on card #130 from Topps' 1990-91 Bowman collection:
Those long white sleeves are a look then-GM John Ferguson had previously tried to impose when with the New York Rangers (to vitriolic reviews) and brought over to the Jets when they made the switch from the WHA to the NHL.

They then modernized their look for the 1990s, as can be attested from card #78 from Score's 1991-92 Score (Canadian Edition) set:
He signed both in black sharpie. These cards allow me to induct him beside Keith Tkachuk as wearers of #7 in my Jets Numbers Project.