Rare Avs rookie Landeskog ready at 18
The day after the Colorado Avalanche selected him second overall in the 2011 NHL entry draft, Gabriel Landeskog(notes) sat at the team’s table on the floor of the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. He got to know the Avs’ officials as they went through the later rounds. There wasn’t much for him to do.
Then he was handed a phone by Charlotte Grahame, the Avs’ vice-president of hockey administration. She said someone wanted to talk to him. He recognized the number was from Sweden. Who could it be?
“Hey,” said the voice at the other end of the line, “it’s Foppa.”
Landeskog grew up in Sweden as a huge Forsberg fan. He had posters on his bedroom wall of Forsberg playing for the Avalanche and of the Avs’ 2001 Stanley Cup championship team. Now here he was, a Colorado draft pick, talking to Foppa himself for a few minutes about Denver as a city, the Avs as an organization and the team that won that Cup.
“I was a bit star-struck at first,” Landeskog said. “I was stuttering at first. Yeah, I was.”
Landeskog hasn’t seemed star-struck since. He has become a poster boy in his own right – an example of the rare 18-year-old who is ready to play in the NHL right away. People continue to compare him to Forsberg, especially because of his ability to handle the puck in tight spaces, and the Avs have decided to keep him in the NHL rather than return him to junior.
A team should keep a teenager in the NHL only if he meets two criteria: One, the kid is physically and mentally prepared to play with men in the best league in the world. Two, he makes the team better.
If there is a reasonable doubt either way, a team should err on the side of caution, no matter how desperate it is for an infusion of talent, excitement or hope. It’s not just because a player burns the first year of his entry-level contract if he plays 10 NHL games; it’s so he is put in the best position to succeed for the long term.
Most aren’t ready. So it was prudent of, say, the Ottawa Senators (Mika Zibanejad(notes), sixth overall) and Winnipeg Jets (Mark Scheifele(notes), seventh overall) to give their prized picks a taste of the NHL, get a good look at them and then send them to places where they can develop best – more ice time, more important minutes, more appropriate competition.
There are exceptions, though. The Edmonton Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins(notes) (first overall) has shown the skill everyone expected and quelled concerns about his size, racking up five goals, eight points and a plus-4 rating in eight games. The New Jersey Devils’ Adam Larsson(notes) (fourth overall) has a more difficult challenge as a defenseman, but has displayed uncommon poise. The Philadelphia Flyers’ Sean Couturier(notes) (eighth overall) looks like a solid two-way player, and living with veteran Danny Briere(notes) doesn’t hurt.
Landeskog was considered the most NHL-ready prospect entering the draft, and he hasn’t disappointed with four goals, six points and a plus-2 rating in nine games. He scored twice Saturday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, netting the tying goal with 1:48 left in regulation, setting up a 5-4 shootout victory. He had an assist, a plus-1 rating and seven shots Wednesday night even though the Avs fell to the Calgary Flames, 4-2. His 36 shots rank third among all NHL players.
One word of caution: These guys are still 18. All of them. Though some will turn 19 soon, they’re still kids, and as the teams keep them in the NHL everyone needs to keep things in perspective. Nugent-Hopkins is not Gretzky. Larsson is not Lidstrom. Couturier is not Clarke. Landeskog is not Forsberg, as much as he dreamed of being him growing up, even though he wears the same sweater now.
“People think different things all the time, and I’m not going to step on anyone toes there,” Landeskog said. “They can think whatever they want. It’s up to them. But at the same time, I’m Gabriel Landeskog. I’m not Peter Forsberg. We’re two very different players.”
Sounds ready to me.
First thing people need to know about the visor issue and the NHL Players’ Association: The union’s leaders encourage each member to wear a visor.
“Obviously if a guy doesn’t mind it and can put it on, we 100-percent recommend that players wear it,” said Mathieu Schneider(notes), the special assistant to executive director Don Fehr. “It’s clearly better than not having one on. There’s no debate about that at all.”
About 68 percent of the players on current NHL rosters wear a visor. That’s an all-time high.
Second thing people need to know: The job of the union’s leaders isn’t to protect the players as much as it is to protect their rights. As Fehr will tell you, he and the staff work for the players, not the other way around.
Owners and general managers want players to wear visors. They should. When you sign a guy for millions of dollars, when you count on him to perform, it’s silly to lose him – and maybe lose games or even your job – because of an injury that could have been prevented easily.
Personally, I support a grandfathered rule. All incoming players should have to wear a visor. They all wore facial protection at lower levels. If they never get used to playing without a visor, they will never have to get used to putting one back on.
But even as a record number of players have chosen to wear visors, a large number still want to have the choice. The last survey the union conducted was in the fall of 2008. A union spokesman declined to provide the specific results but said “an overwhelming majority” were against a grandfathered rule for the 2009-10 season.
Schneider said the data is “not up to date” and the union plans to conduct another survey this season. But it would be a shock if the majority is in favor of the rule now. The subject has been discussed informally at union meetings and the consensus still seems to favor personal choice.
“Grandfathering them in is something that’s been discussed, and every player wears one now coming up – at least a half-shield coming up before they get to the NHL,” Schneider said. “So that’s certainly an option. But at the end of the day, we do represent players’ views, not the other way around. We can’t impose our views on the players. We’re not their parents.”
Third thing people need to know: There are two sides to this. Schneider has seen both. He took an Al MacInnis stick in the eye while playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1990s and took a lot of stitches. He said it was a “close call” similar to the one Philadelphia Flyers captain Chris Pronger(notes) had on Monday night, reopening this controversy.
His wife wanted him to wear a visor. His father wanted him to wear a visor. “Everyone was on me to put one on,” Schneider said. He tried to wear one four or five times. But he has a small head and wore a small, older helmet, and when the equipment guy would attach a wider visor, it would pull out the sides of his helmet and squeeze it from front to back.
“It caused my helmet not to fit right,” Schneider said. “It was just very uncomfortable for me, and I felt like it impaired my vision to a certain degree. Maybe I would have gotten used to that if I stuck with it over time, but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted that imposed on me.”
Schneider has worked closely on equipment issues with Brendan Shanahan(notes), the NHL’s vice-president of player safety. At a meeting last season with equipment companies, he brought up the fact that no manufacturer custom-makes visors to fit specific helmets. (His theory is that they don’t put resources into it because the demand is so small and they can’t mass-market it to kids.)
“They took note of it, but I haven’t seen anything yet,” Schneider said. “With each injury, it seems it becomes an issue and maybe it forces things to get done. … As far as getting consensus from the players [on a visor requirement], I think if there’s a better product out there you would get consensus from the players. That’s just my personal opinion, but that remains to be seen.”
1. Washington Capitals: They’re 7-0-0. They won 7-1 last Saturday when they faced the NHL’s only other unbeaten team at the time, the Detroit Red Wings, who had allowed only seven goals in their first five games. Should be a hostile environment this Saturday night in Vancouver … for Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes).
2. Dallas Stars: They have lost only twice, and both games were the second of a back-to-back set on the road. With three in a row at home coming up and the ownership situation settling, things are looking good in Big D – except for this trick or tweet from the guy I wrote should land in the front office.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins: So when do you think Sidney Crosby(notes) is coming back? I’ve circled – in pencil – Nov. 11 against Dallas. The Pens will have had five days at home after a road trip. Plenty of time to get some contact in practice.
4. Chicago Blackhawks: The ‘Hawks haven’t lost in regulation since opening night. Patrick Kane is playing like Denis Savard.
5. Los Angeles Kings: Your really, really early Hart Trophy favorite is goaltender Jonathan Quick(notes). He wins three straight shutouts. The Kings gave backup Jonathan Bernier(notes) a shot and lost to the New Jersey Devils, 3-0.
6. Colorado Avalanche: The most amazing part of the Avs’ start is that they’ve done it with Matt Duchene(notes) in the doghouse. The 20-year-old star center – see above about high expectations – has one goal and four assists. He was demoted briefly to the fourth line.
25. Calgary Flames: Jay Feaster is working the phones. He should win GM of the Year if he can unload some of the albatross contracts he inherited.
27. Boston Bruins: Want a cure for a hangover? This might work better than Bloody Mary mix: back-to-back games against the floundering Habs, their hated ancient rivals, the team they barely slipped past in the first round last season. “Certainly that’s come to mind when I look at the schedule,” GM Peter Chiarelli said. “There’s always a reason to play well against Montreal.”
28. Montreal Canadiens: Has everyone forgotten this team took Boston to OT of a Game 7 last season – after going to the conference final the year before? Have the Canadiens forgotten themselves?
29. Winnipeg Jets: If Jets fever seems like Bieber fever – crazy, out of control, out of proportion to performance – well, Justin’s dad lives in Winnipeg and the pop star was spotted with girlfriend Selena Gomez at a game on Saturday night.
30. Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets got off the schneid by offing the mighty Red Wings, but they aren’t off the hook yet. At Buffalo. At Chicago. Anaheim. Toronto. At Philadelphia. Chicago. Tough sched coming up.
Plus: It says a lot that Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman decided to keep 19-year-old Brett Connolly(notes), the sixth overall pick in 2010. Yzerman, the fourth overall pick in 1983, broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old. But that was when the Red Wings were the Dead Things. He served his front-office apprenticeship in Detroit after the Wings had become a power and maybe the league’s most patient organization with young prospects, as a luxury (deep roster), by design (value of experience), out of necessity (no high picks).
Minus: Everyone is overreacting to Luongo’s struggles. I understand his playoff history, but consider his October history. As Jason Botchford of the Vancouver Province pointed out via Twitter, here are the Canucks goaltender’s numbers through his first six games the past three seasons: 2-4-0, 3.90 goals-against average and .860 save percentage in 2009-10; 1-3-2, 2.93, .903 in 2010-11; and, 2-3-1, 3.45, .868 this season.
Plus: How do you not love Scott Howson’s blog on Tuesday? The Blue Jackets GM wrote directly to the fans, didn’t attribute the team’s wretched start to anything but the organization itself, and acknowledged the fans’ frustration goes back a decade. It doesn’t excuse anything. But he didn’t make excuses, and you could feel the emotional toll the losing has taken. “We are bent, but not broken,” he wrote.
Minus: Maybe the firing of assistant coach Perry Pearn was a message to Canadiens coach Jacques Martin. But it’s hard to believe it was the answer, despite Wednesday night’s 5-1 victory over Philly, and it’s hard to believe firing Martin would be the answer, too. Martin is a defensive coach, but his defense corps has been decimated by injuries and his goaltending hasn’t covered up for it. Meanwhile, his forwards have been generating enough shots, just not enough goals.
Plus: The St. Louis Blues’ David Backes(notes) made a smart move Saturday night. He pulled himself from the game at Philly after taking a hit from Pronger, going through the concussion protocol and feeling symptoms. After what the Blues have gone through with Andy McDonald(notes) and David Perron(notes), better safe than sorry. Backes came back Wednesday night at Vancouver and had an assist in a 3-0 victory.
Minus: When Brad Richards(notes) signed with the Rangers, the theory was that Marian Gaborik(notes) wouldn’t have to carry the puck as much. He could get open. Richards would find him. That hasn’t happened yet. But maybe one reason Richards isn’t comfortable in New York yet is that, well, he hasn’t been in New York yet. After trekking through Europe and Western Canada, the Blueshirts finally have their home opener Thursday night at the partially renovated Madison Square Garden. Let’s let the Rangers – and Richards – get into a rhythm.
“Got a feeling Jagr gets on the board tonight. At home. Monster in net. And it’s about time. His last NHL goal: May 1, 2008.”
Two for two, baby! Last Monday, I tweeted that I had a weird feeling the Jets would earn their first victory since the NHL’s return to Winnipeg. They did it that night, beating the injury-depleted Pittsburgh Penguins at home, 2-1. This Monday, I got all tingly about Jagr, and sure enough, he scored his first goal since his return to the NHL. He actually scored twice against the Monster – Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson(notes) – and scored again Wednesday night against the Montreal Canadiens. He even brought back the old-school salute. Must have been for me. Thanks, Jags.