All posts by John Matisz

Japan’s Yushiroh Hirano won’t give up on the American hockey dream

To properly understand the perpetual infancy of Japanese hockey, consider the strange case of 1974 NHL draft pick Taro Tsujimoto.

Tsujimoto, an imaginary hockey player from Tokyo - literally created out of thin air in the middle of a professional sports league draft - was selected in the 11th round, 183rd overall, by his inventor, "bored" Buffalo Sabres general manager Punch Imlach. In the days following the draft, Imlach strung along media and fans, insisting Tsujimoto would be Buffalo-bound in due time. Spoiler: The kid never showed.

It's one of the strangest tales in hockey history and, in a roundabout fashion, remains symbolic of Japan's very, very long-distance relationship with the National Hockey League.

Only two real Japanese nationals have been selected by NHL teams since Tsujimoto: Defenseman Hiroyuki Miura went in the 11th round to the Montreal Canadiens in 1992, and in 2004, the Los Angeles Kings used an eighth-round pick on goalie Yutaka Fukufuji.

Meanwhile, there is no question China - the Asian powerhouse with a population of nearly 1.4 billion people - is the NHL's next frontier, as evidenced by this past week's pair of exhibition games in Shenzhen and Beijing, Gary Bettman dropping hints about holding regular-season games there, and Wayne Gretzky shaking hands.

The last Winter Games were hosted by neighbor South Korea and the 2022 Olympics will be in Beijing. So hockey in Japan must at least be benefiting from its proximity … right?

"Many people see Japanese hockey that way, but it was actually bigger before," Hiroki Wakabayashi, a globetrotting professional goalie coach originally from Osaka, told theScore. "It's actually (trending) down quite a bit right now."

Enter Yushiroh Hirano. Born, raised, and trained in Japan, the 23-year-old winger will be making the trip from Japan to the United States this weekend to compete for an AHL job in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Youngstown Phantoms

The Pittsburgh Penguins' top farm club was intrigued enough by the late-blooming prospect's upside to offer him a professional tryout. The AHL may not be the pinnacle of the sport, and there are no contractual guarantees for unsigned players, but success is relative.

"If he does well at the AHL level, or even the East Coast level, there's going to be more eyes towards Japan looking for players," said Chris Wakabayashi (no relation to Hiroki), who coached Hirano in the Asia League the past two years. "It's like Hideo Nomo when he first came over to the major leagues. That opened the door."

__________

If there is indeed a door to be opened, it's safe to assume Hirano will not tiptoe through the entrance. His 6-foot-1, 216-pound frame, snarling on-ice presence, and ability to shoot a hockey puck aren't the most subtle combination.

Hirano's shot is the stuff of legend. It is his weapon, his calling card, and a general hazard to netminders. While playing for the Youngstown Phantoms in 2015, he sent the opposing goalie to the trainer's room with a mangled mask.

"I gave Yush a pass like 10 feet inside the blue line and he just lined up and ripped a slap shot," recalled Chase Pearson, Hirano's linemate on the Phantoms. "It hit the goalie square in the mask and broke the front metal part in half.

"The goalie had to leave the game because he got cut. I think the entire rink went quiet because the impact of the puck was so loud."

Video footage of the blast is nowhere to be found online. However, the game report indicates Hirano scored seven seconds after the injured goaltender's exit, capitalizing on a clearly cold (and perhaps frightened) backup.

Then 20 years old, Hirano skated in 54 games and finished the 2015-16 season with 46 points - 24 of them goals, and many of those no-doubters. Fittingly enough for someone with his skill set, Hirano counts Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos as two of his favorite players.

"My shot did not come naturally - I have been working on it since I was in high school. I decided then that I was going to try and have the quickest and hardest shot in Japan," Hirano told theScore in a recent interview conducted via email.

"Before and after school I would shot about 100 pucks in my yard. Even to this day, I go out to my yard and shoot over 100 pucks two or three times a week. ... I strive to have the best shot. I am a firm believer that if you want to improve you have to be willing to put in the time."

__________

The NHL is Hirano's best-case scenario. The ECHL is his North American floor. And even the AHL would represent a major accomplishment for Hirano and Japanese players in general.

Fukufuji, the goalie L.A. snagged in 2004, had a four-game cup of coffee in the NHL. According to Hockey-Reference.com, the 36-year-old (still stopping pucks in the Asia League) stands as the lone Japan-born player to crack the best league in the world. The AHL says Fukufuji is also the only Japan-born player to appear there. (Ryan O'Marra, who played in the NHL and AHL, was born in Japan but moved to Canada with his Canadian parents shortly after.)

Japanese players have carved out long pro careers in Europe and Asia; however, only eight have appeared in North America's third league, the ECHL, and none since 2009. With the exception of Fukufuji (again), none of them played more than 80 games, and two didn't even crack 10. The same weekend that Hirano played his first Phantoms game, Yuri Terao debuted for the Waterloo Black Hawks, making them the first players born in Japan to slip on USHL jerseys since it became a junior league in 1979.

Japan, a country of 127 million whose sports fans are loyal to baseball and soccer, has been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1930. It counts roughly 19,000 people as registered hockey players, according to the IIHF. (For context, China has 12,000.)

"I started playing hockey when I was 3 years old," Hirano said. "My father and his twin brother both played professional hockey in Japan. So I guess it kind of runs in the family."

Hirano turned 3 in 1998, in the midst of the NHL's effort to capitalize on the attention generated by the Nagano Olympics by staging seven regular-season games in Japan between 1997 and 2000. The league has not returned since. Japan's men's program is ranked 23rd worldwide, sandwiched between Great Britain and the Ukraine (the women's program is much farther along, ranking seventh).

The Wakabayashis both expressed disappointment over the current iteration of Japanese hockey. Cheaper sports such as golf, speed skating, judo, and sumo command the attention of kids and parents, and they lamented a lack of long-term planning and direction at the national level, saying it's inhibited growth in recent years.

"The national federation is mostly volunteer guys," Chris Wakabayashi said. "They don't emphasize enough on generating revenue and sponsorship. They rely a lot on Japanese Olympic committee for money."

Hiroki Wakabayashi took it one step further: "Make it to the Olympics, you get money. When you don't, you've got no money."

__________

Hirano flew to the U.S. on his own dime to showcase his skills for the Phantoms, who didn't have a book on the power forward at the time. Beyond his attendance at Chicago Blackhawks development camp in July 2015, he'd exclusively plied his trade across the pond, including a season in Sweden's SuperElit junior league and three games with the team's Division 1 affiliate.

"He paid his way to come over for the tryout. When/if he made the team, Youngstown would reimburse him," ex-Phantoms coach John Wroblewski said. "It was quite a financial impact but he made the team with just an unbelievable work ethic. It was outstanding to watch this kid - how bad he wanted it and how hard he worked to get it. ...

"He had gone through a 36-hour travel day and all of a sudden you watch him shoot a puck and you're like, 'Oh my dear Lord.' He shot it just like a guy would in the American Hockey League."

His future linemate Pearson didn't know what to expect when the Phantoms GM told him Hirano was coming to camp.

"I was like, 'Ah, we'll see what happens,'" said Pearson, who's now a Detroit Red Wings prospect and the University of Maine's captain. "But he ended up being one of our best players."

While the USHL wasn't familiar with Hirano, the league and the country were unknowns to him too. The language gap was so wide that, at night, he felt the need to huddle up with a Japanese-English dictionary. Impressively, Wrobleski says he didn't miss a beat during practice, rarely making mistakes on drills requiring complex explanation.

Toward the end of the USHL season, Central Scouting, the NHL's in-house talent evaluation department, ranked Hirano 184th on its 2016 list of draft-eligible skaters playing in North America. In June, he went undrafted in his fourth year of eligibility. He secured a spot at San Jose Sharks development camp, but it didn't lead to future opportunities.

Though NCAA schools were interested, Hirano's brief stint in Sweden's Division 1 had cost him his college eligibility, and he skated in the Asia League in 2016-17 and 2017-18. He recorded 1.2 points per game for Chris Wakabayashi's Tohoku Free Blades and jumped to Sweden's Division 2 to close out last season with eight goals and five assists in 18 games.

Youngstown Phantoms

Mark Dennehy, the Penguins' ECHL coach this summer (he never stepped behind the bench, accepting a job with the AHL's Binghamton Devils in August) connected with Hirano's representatives. Dennehy saw potential and extended an invite for camp, which begins with physicals Sunday and holds its first on-ice session Monday. Wilkes-Barre general manager Bill Guerin saw no reason to cancel the PTO after the coach's departure.

"You have to manage expectations. We don't want to put pressure on any player, but it's all up to them," said Guerin, noting Hirano's shot - surprise! - received high marks in scouting reports filed during his USHL stint. "For us, the risk is minimal. We just felt that there was enough there to give him this opportunity.

__________

For all his skills, tools, and potential, Hirano was a flawed player when he last lived in America. Skating was not his strong suit.

"His brain's there, his shot's there, he's got vision. It's whether or not he can play at the pace," said Wroblewski, who's now a coach for the U.S. National Team Development Program. "That's really what defines anybody who is trying to transcend a level."

Guerin agreed, adding, "With a lot of players, it's not necessarily that they can't play with the pace, it's that they're mentally not willing. So, if we get willing skaters - guys who are willing to play with pace - and if they have the ability to score like he does, then they can make something of it."

By all accounts, Hirano has a growth mindset and the level of desire required to crush a new challenge. At 23, though, he's not exactly young. Not every prospect follows a linear path, but it's unlikely for a player in his mid-20s to win a roster spot if he hasn't managed to stick anywhere in North America after two NHL development camps and interest from ECHL teams.

"Since my ultimate goal is to get to the NHL, I have to work on everything," said Hirano. "I need to raise the bar. I need to skate better, be stronger, read the play better, and I have to get NHL hungry. ...

"I would like to make all my family and friends proud of me. But, more than that, I would like to change the image of hockey in Japan. I would like to take hockey in Japan to the next level."

A few current prospects appear to have a chance to change the course - and perception - of Japanese hockey. Aito Iguchi, a highly touted 15-year-old master stickhandler, has garnered plenty of social media fame. Both Iguchi and Ikki Kogawa, 15, have played minor hockey in Canada. Kohei Sato (21) and Yuki Miura (22) are playing Division I college hockey for New Hampshire and Lake Superior, respectively.

But none of those players have an AHL tryout yet, and as the 2018-19 season begins, Hirano is as close as it gets for Japanese hockey. Taro Tsujimoto, if he existed, would be proud.

"Yush loves the game. He cares," Chris Wakabayashi said. "You're not going to get many chances in North America, so I hope he makes the best of it."

John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.

Copyright © 2018 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Preseason checkup: 1 emoji for each NHL team

We use emojis every day to express our feelings or to illustrate a point.

Feeling cheeky? 😜 Rebellious? 😈 Spicy? 🌶 Ready for vacation? 🏝

With 2018-19 training camps opening this week, it's time to use our emoji vocabulary to describe the NHL's 31 clubs.

Here is one emoji taking the pre-camp temperature of each team.

ANAHEIM DUCKS - 💊

Please send medical care to Ryan Kesler, who remains on the fritz due to a hip injury. In late July, general manager Bob Murray was unable to guarantee the center's availability for the upcoming season. Kesler - who just turned 34 and is entering the third year of a six-year contract - had surgery in June 2017 and has dressed for 44 games since.

ARIZONA COYOTES - 🔮

What does the future hold in Glendale? Can the eternal rebuild feed off a strong second half in 2017-18 and the acquisition of Alex Galchenyuk? John Chayka is the NHL's most active GM, making splashes big and small. Expect that trend to continue as the process-oriented 29-year-old inches closer to the payoff.

BOSTON BRUINS - 🐣

In order to remain contenders, the Bruins need their lesser-known young forwards to hatch. Jake DeBrusk had his coming-out party this past spring, but he'll need to find another gear. Danton Heinen should be plenty motivated in a contract year. If unleashed, sniper Ryan Donato has the potential to contend for the Calder Trophy.

BUFFALO SABRES - 😂

Tears of joy. Rasmus Dahlin, presumed Sabres savior and the jelly to Jack Eichel's peanut butter, is weeks away from his NHL debut. He is joined by freshly acquired winger Jeff Skinner, who waived his no-trade clause for Western New York. The bar is so low in Buffalo that general optimism feels like a colossal step forward.

CALGARY FLAMES - 🔌

Can James Neal be the offensive spark plug worthy of a $28.75 million contract? Will the move to a new city, depth chart, and conference jolt Elias Lindholm's career? Might center Derek Ryan's contributions light a fire under the bottom six? Is familiar coach Bill Peters capable of coaxing Noah Hanifin into full bloom?

CAROLINA HURRICANES - 👽

Tom Dundon is an alien invading the NHL. Carolina's owner has been pulling all the hockey-ops strings lately, making his presence known at the draft and in free agency. The billionaire is an outsider now on the inside, essentially the GM despite hiring Don Waddell to work under that title. Dundon is an influencer to monitor during camp and beyond.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS - 🙏

Now accepting best wishes: Corey Crawford. The two-time Cup champ admitted in late July that he was still "not 100 percent" after spending months recovering from an undisclosed injury. Last week, club president John McDonough said he's "confident" Crawford will be ready for the start of camp. Frankly, Chicago is pretty screwed without its starter. That aging, expensive core needs reliable goaltending - and backup Cam Ward is not the answer.

COLORADO AVALANCHE - 🎟️

The NHL draft lottery may be nine months away, but it's already looming large in Denver thanks to the Matt Duchene swap. The Senators - set to finish at or near the bottom of the standings - owe Colorado their 2019 first-round pick, meaning Avs GM Joe Sakic could have a pair of lottery tickets. Not bad when Jack Hughes is the prize.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS - 🍞

The sticky situation involving the Breadman will dominate discussion around the Jackets until it's resolved. Artemi Panarin, the most dynamic player in franchise history and a 2019 unrestricted free agent, has expressed a desire to leave Columbus, but he may be moved before or during the season. Fireworks are coming - it's just a matter of when.

DALLAS STARS - 🤔

How will Jim Montgomery play his cards as the Stars switch from Ken Hitchcock to a rookie NHL coach? Lineup decisions awaiting Montgomery include: finding the right linemates for Valeri Nichushkin; managing Miro Heiskanen's rookie workload; and figuring out how to optimally deploy top-liners Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn, and the politely disgruntled Tyler Seguin.

DETROIT RED WINGS - 🤝

A handshake may never materialize since one party won't be at camp, but the imminent generational changeover in Michigan will conjure up images of Henrik Zetterberg and Dylan Larkin exchanging pleasantries. His career in jeopardy, the soon-to-be 38-year-old Zetterberg will pass the baton to 22-year-old Larkin, who recently signed a five-year extension.

EDMONTON OILERS - 🚣

That's Connor McDavid rowing away. Not only are the 36-win Oilers bringing back a familiar roster - one that lacks any slam-dunk linemates for No. 97 - but the blue line looks awfully thin. Thanks to an offseason injury to Andrej Sekera, the defense falls off a cliff after Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, and potential holdout Darnell Nurse. Poor Cam Talbot.

FLORIDA PANTHERS - ⁉️

The exclamation point represents the hockey trade (Mike Hoffman for picks!). The question mark represents the real-life dynamics (will Hoffman’s off-ice baggage disrupt his segue to Florida?). Hoffman is a legitimate 35-goal, 70-point threat for the Panthers, but a period of awkwardness will likely precede any on-ice success.

LOS ANGELES KINGS - ⏳

The hourglass has been flipped. The 2012 and 2014 Cup winners are racing against time, trying to prop up an aging roster by funneling in low-impact youngsters and 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk. The latter will be a must-see attraction during Kings camp and through the exhibition schedule. Does Kovalchuk still have that magic scoring touch?

MINNESOTA WILD - 😐

As usual, the Wild are the Switzerland of the NHL: supremely neutral. The playoffs are likely, but a long run isn't. What's more, GM Paul Fenton wasn't overly active this summer - he did little beyond extending Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba - which means the storyline well is dry.

MONTREAL CANADIENS - 🌵

Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty are gone via offseason trades, shipped out of town for Max Domi, Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki, and a second-round pick. Translation: The Habs' offense is desert dry, with its No. 1 goal-scoring option being Brendan Gallagher - a fine player, but not someone capable of leading an attack. Even if Carey Price finds his prime form between the pipes, Montreal is destined for the NHL's basement.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS - 🛀

That gut-wrenching Game 7 loss to the Jets last May - punctuated by Pekka Rinne's nightmarish first-period showing of two goals against on seven shots - probably still stings. But the Preds need to wash off the past; they have the horses to challenge Winnipeg for the division title and that effort must start in camp.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS - 🎣

Despite making the playoffs and employing the league MVP, the Devils enter camp with an inferior roster. Coach John Hynes will be fishing internally for youngsters to replace Patrick Maroon, Brian Gibbons, Michael Grabner, and John Moore. Perhaps Joey Anderson seizes the opportunity? A healthy Marcus Johansson should soften the blow.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS - 🥀

Morale can't get much lower heading into Islanders camp. Sure, they struck gold at the draft, scooping up Noah Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom, but losing John Tavares is nothing short of devastating. Excluding the fantastic Mat Barzal, this club is devoid of star power. Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz have their work cut out for them.

NEW YORK RANGERS - 🍿

The white flag has been waved, and the first wave of core players has been sent packing. Now? Grab your favorite movie theater snack and sit back. The Rangers - the Original Six franchise that never takes a breath - officially begin Stage 2 of The Great Rebuild this fall. Will the transparency continue? Will they keep stripping it down?

OTTAWA SENATORS - 💣

Ticking. Time. Bomb. The dominant storyline this September will be the futures of Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, and Matt Duchene. Ottawa's three best skaters are all on expiring contracts and - no shock to anyone following the Sens saga - are probably on their way out at some point in 2018-19. Also: Is Brady Tkachuk ready for full-time NHL duty?

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS - 😱

Sean Couturier, the league's best young defensive forward, is recovering from a knee injury suffered during a summer charity game. The ailment doesn't seem serious enough to affect the Flyers' regular season, but, when you factor in Wayne Simmonds' health and contract uncertainties, it's not all rainbows and lollipops ahead of James van Riemsdyk's return.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS - 😋

It took the Pens 213 games - 106 in 2015-16 and 107 in 2017-18 - to win back-to-back Cups. Last year, with the rival Capitals eliminating them in Game 6 of the second round, the squad's games-played tally shrunk to 94. Surely rested and motivated by the long layoff, Sidney Crosby and pals should be licking their lips all September. The Metro is up for grabs.

SAN JOSE SHARKS - 👌

Tavares did not take his talents to the Bay Area. It's going to be OK, though, because it's a safe bet GM Doug Wilson has a trick up his sleeve. The Sharks have more than $4 million in cap space and the incentive to supplement an old-ish core sooner than later. Side plot: Is the Joe Thornton farewell tour upon us? Jumbo, 39, can’t play forever.

ST. LOUIS BLUES - 😎

GM Doug Armstrong cooly upgraded the forward group this offseason, picking up a No. 1 center (Ryan O'Reilly), two top-nine wingers (David Perron, Maroon), and a third-line center (Tyler Bozak) through four different transactions. The Blues seem to be everybody's choice for a dark-horse contender, but how will all of the above fit into the group?

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING - 👀

Take a moment and think about how deadly the already lethal Lightning could be if Karlsson joins Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Money is tight, however, so can master negotiator Steve Yzerman work his magic to win the EK65 sweepstakes? All eyes on Tampa.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS - 🐙

Aside from the odd battle for a fringe roster spot, Leafs camp will revolve around Tavares, his transition, and the new-look forward group. The club has eight killers up front: Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, Patrick Marleau, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson. That's one for each octopus tentacle.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS - 🎢

The NHL's roller-coaster team won't be shutting down that ride anytime soon. Intrigue persists around the sketchy departure of Canucks icon Trevor Linden, the timing of Brock Boeser's next contract, the tangible impact of vets Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel, the arrival of super-prospect Elias Pettersson, Olli Juolevi's 2018-19 home, and the vacant captaincy. Get this fan base a drink.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS - 🤠

The cowboy emoji was unofficially assigned to "Wild Bill" Karlsson amid the Swede's 43-goal breakout season. Nowadays, it could fit the Golden Knights in general. For starters, there's the contentious Nate Schmidt PED suspension, the bold Pacioretty trade, and the lagging Shea Theodore negotiations. Vegas is ground zero for storylines as camps open.

WINNIPEG JETS - 🍽️

The Jets are hungry. Having endured a slow, sometimes painful rebuild, they're ready for the main course after bowing out in five games to Vegas in the Western Conference final. An imperfect team that's got a tremendous top-six forward group and Connor Hellebuyck to compensate for its deficiencies, Winnipeg is a legitimate Stanley Cup threat.

John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

Copyright © 2018 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

4 takeaways from BioSteel Camp: Simmonds wants to turn back clock

TORONTO - Dozens of NHL players and prospects descended upon St. Michael's College School Arena this week for BioSteel Camp.

The annual late-August gathering, headlined once again by Connor McDavid and Tyler Seguin, included an emotional gesture this time around: The BioSteel Cup was renamed the Ray Emery Cup in honor of the former NHL goalie. Emery, 35, died July 15.

"He was such a special character," Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse said. "He was always the life of the party, life of the room. Always had a smile on his face."

Related - O'Reilly, Fabbri central to Blues' offensive refresh

Team Seguin won the trophy Thursday for its four-on-four tournament victory. Meanwhile, various players' media availabilities throughout the week produced plenty of news. Here are four bigger-picture takeaways from the event.

Simmonds ready to shut up critics

Wayne Simmonds, general manager Ron Hextall, and Philadelphia Flyers fans all know it: This coming season is gigantic for Simmonds. He's not young anymore, his underlying numbers have dipped, and his body is breaking down. He can sign a new contract with Philadelphia at any time, or he can wait and sign with another NHL team next July 1.

On Wednesday, Simmonds - who says his reps and the team have held "preliminary talks" about an extension - was asked if he had something to prove in 2018-19.

"To prove?" he replied, seeming bothered by the question. "I don't know, I've played 10 years in this league. I've put together some pretty good years, so I don't think I have much to prove other than just being the player that I am."

It's a fair response. If Simmonds can recapture the 30-and-30 form from his finest stretch of hockey - bookended by a 29-goal, 31-assist '13-14, and a 32-goal, 28-assist '15-16 - more power to him.

However, the likelihood of him turning back the clock is, well, slim.

For starters, he's not dealing with a single-season downturn. His worst year since '13-14 was arguably '16-17, when his five-on-five numbers started to slump.

SEASON 5v5 G/60 5v5 PTS/60 PP G/60 PP PTS/60
2013-14 0.58 1.68 3.24 5.18
2014-15 0.75 1.44 3.55 6.09
2015-16 0.87 1.92 2.66 4.29
2016-17 0.63 1.14 3.17 4.95
2017-18 0.49 1.29 2.65 4.10

(G/60 = Goals per 60 minutes; PTS/60 = Points per 60 minutes)

Rate stats may look complicated, but they're quite simple. Essentially, the table suggests Simmonds, once a highly efficient five-on-five and power-play producer, is not aging gracefully from a statistical standpoint.

The late-season development of Nolan Patrick (who scored 12 of his 30 points in his final 19 games) and the summer signing of 36-goal scorer James van Riemsdyk are boons for both the Flyers and, by extension, Simmonds. Yet they also jeopardized the former L.A. King's trademark net-front superiority.

Making matters worse, Simmonds is still rebounding from last year's absurd list of injuries - broken teeth, a broken ankle, a torn ligament in his thumb, and a torn pelvic ligament. The 30-year-old underwent surgery on his pelvis this spring and is feeling fine overall, but notes he's battling to regain game speed.

"I'm going to come in, I'm going to work hard," Simmonds said of Flyers training camp, "and you'll see what you usually see from me - which was obviously not last year, I don't think I had my best year - but I'm going to get better, I'm going to be healthy, and things are going to be good."

Unpredictability makes for great theater, and Simmonds - a fearless competitor who's been criminally underpaid for the duration of his six-year, $23.85-million contract - is clearly ready to face the challenge head-on.

Montour, Ducks' D just getting started

Brandon Montour is betting on himself.

Unable to "figure out a longer-term deal that made sense," the 24-year-old defenseman settled for a two-year, $6.775-million bridge contract with the Anaheim Ducks in late July.

"I'm still growing as a player, and both sides were happy with doing something like this and we'll move forward from it," Montour told theScore on Tuesday. "I tell people all the time - I want to be there for a long time, they want me there as well."

With Montour, Cam Fowler, Josh Manson, and no-frills anchor Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim's top four is a perfect blend of handedness (two lefties, two righties), youth (ages range from 24 to 26), mobility (they can all wheel and transport the puck), and offensive prowess (all four picked up at least 30 points last year).

"We have all the confidence in the world," Montour, who is entering his second full NHL season, said of the Ducks' defense corps. "Being from where we are, being in California, we don't get seen or watched as much, (but) the four of us are very strong players and we feed off each other. Having duos like that - me and Cam, and Hampus and Manson - it's definitely huge for us as a team, and I feel like when we're out there we dictate the play and we take pride in that."

Heading into training camp, the forward group is more uncertain. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler are 33, 33, and 34, respectively. There's speculation Kesler could sit out the entire season to rehab a hip injury. Is Montour concerned about his teammate's health?

"A little bit. He's looking to start the year," he said. "It's one of those things where we obviously didn't want the result we had in the playoffs but, for his sake and a couple of guys with key injuries, it's definitely allowed for a lot more time to rest and get prepared for the year. As far as I know, we should have a healthy team."

Strome determined to take final step

Addressing the idea that the 2017-18 Oilers lost their "hunger" after making the playoffs the year prior, Nurse said Monday that "you can't believe your own hype."

Dylan Strome, however, would be best served by doing the opposite. The third pick in the 2015 draft - sandwiched between McDavid/Jack Eichel and Mitch Marner/Noah Hanifin - needs to believe in his own pre-draft hype at this point.

In his age-20 season, Strome recorded 53 points in 50 AHL games, indicating he has outgrown the feeder system. After plenty of junior and minor-league marination and 27 NHL games, he is ready for a full-time role with an up-and-coming Arizona Coyotes squad.

"It felt like I did what I was asked to do and I felt a lot better throughout the year," Strome said Monday. "I put up some good numbers, so hopefully I can continue that next year at the NHL level."

The knock on Strome has always been his skating, even though he checks off several other scouting boxes - hockey sense, shooting ability, vision, puck protection, reach, playmaking ability.

And because the modern NHL rewards speed over anything else, he won't be able to shake off the stigma until he can display significant improvement. The 6-foot-3, 183-pounder has been working tirelessly with Coyotes skating coach Dawn Braid this summer and in past offseasons.

"I feel a lot stronger, a lot faster," Strome said, explaining that his current sessions with Braid focus on improving his posture, positioning, and first few steps. "It's hard to tell when you're not in the game, but I'm excited for the year."

Fortnite still making waves

Erik Gudbranson is right in that sweet spot. He's 26, making him a millennial who's young enough to understand video game culture. But he's not so young compared to some of his fellow players.

"The kids are too good on this game," Gudbranson said Wednesday with a hearty laugh. "I go on there, I get roasted, and you just get sick of it."

The Vancouver Canucks defenseman is referring to the "definitely addictive" Fortnite, the outrageously popular third-person survival game that has taken the hockey world (and beyond) by storm.

The hoopla began in May, when Sportsnet's Jeff Marek told a story on a podcast about a top prospect whose video game addiction was ruining a promising career. It continued in June at the NHL scouting combine, where participants were grilled about their relationship with Fortnite. And it got a third life Tuesday when TSN's Rick Westhead reported some junior teams have advised players to "scrub Fortnite references from social media accounts" to avoid presenting themselves poorly to NHL clubs.

"It's been pretty big," Jordan Subban, a 23-year-old Maple Leafs prospect, said of the video game craze. "Even when I was in California last year (playing for the AHL's Ontario Reign), with the sun all year round, a lot of guys would still go home and just play video games. I try and not play it as much, but it's hard."

A common response on social media in the wake of Westhead's report: At least these kids aren't out drinking or causing trouble. But given the attention that Fortnite continues to receive and the timing - rookie tournaments are just around the corner - don't expect this topic to die anytime soon.

John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

Copyright © 2018 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

Recharged O’Reilly, healthy Fabbri central to Blues’ offensive refresh

TORONTO - The salary cap-era St. Louis Blues have been just kinda there.

They've found plenty of success, of course, accumulating more than 80 points in 10 of 12 non-lockout seasons. They made the playoffs every year from 2012 to 2017, and, in Ken Hitchcock's final full campaign behind the bench, were two wins away from competing for the 2016 Stanley Cup.

Through it all, though, they've rarely generated widespread excitement. Rarely rocked the boat. Rarely struck fear into opponents across the NHL.

Then, the 2018 offseason came and went, and the perception changed.

General manager Doug Armstrong remodeled up front this summer by acquiring Ryan O'Reilly, David Perron, Patrick Maroon, and Tyler Bozak, and trading away Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, and Tage Thompson.

The forward group won't be required to carry the Blues moving forward - captain Alex Pietrangelo and the defense corps, as well as goalies Jake Allen and Chad Johnson, have jobs to do too - but it will be the straw that stirs the drink in St. Louis.

On an individual level, O'Reilly and winger Robby Fabbri, who hasn't appeared in an NHL game since February 2017, are both viewing the 2018-19 season as a fresh start. And, quite possibly, the start of something special for the Blues.

O'Reilly's recharge

Back in April, as he addressed Buffalo media on locker room cleanout day, O'Reilly opened up about having "lost the love of the game multiple times" over the course of the '17-18 season.

His remarks, linked strongly to the painstakingly slow Sabres rebuild, stopped media and fans in their tracks. It was the type of honesty we rarely see from public figures. (It turns out pro athletes can be vulnerable too. Huh.)

A much cheerier O'Reilly revisited the topic Tuesday at the annual BioSteel Camp.

"It was tough," he said, referring to the last of his three seasons in Western New York. "You still love what you do, and there's no better feeling than playing a hockey game - it's the best job in the world - but, at times during the season, it was draining. You don't want to think about the game because it's just not going well. And it took a toll at different times of the year. There were times that year that we started to get things going and you love it. Winning's fun. Losing is not fun at all."

Not surprisingly, O'Reilly welcomed the move to Missouri and is enjoying coming to the rink every day again. "They missed the playoffs by one game. They're close, they're on the verge of something great," he said. "Getting to add to that was pure excitement."

The 27-year-old is penciled in as the Blues' No. 1 center next to super sniper Vladimir Tarasenko. Not a bad landing spot for a guy whose contract (another four years at $7.5 million per season) isn't easy to move.

"He's one of the best scorers in the game," O'Reilly said of Tarasenko, the eagerness evident in his voice. "If it works out, I think it'll be awesome. I use my stick a lot to create turnovers and he's that guy that is always in the right area, in the scoring areas."

Tarasenko has scored 37, 40, 39, and 33 goals the past four seasons. Alongside a cerebral, faceoff-winning machine like O'Reilly, the Russian could conceivably bag somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 in '18-19. That trademark shot does a lot of the work.

"You see how he gets behind it, how he puts everything into it," O'Reilly said. "You see the release of it, the quickness and just the heaviness of it. Not many goalies stand a chance, and (he has) pinpoint accuracy. It is one of the best shots in the league."

Head coach Mike Yeo will have training camp to experiment beyond the logical O'Reilly-Tarasenko and Schwartz-Schenn duos. Here's an educated guess of the Blues' top three lines to start the year:

LEFT WING CENTER RIGHT WING
Patrick Maroon Ryan O'Reilly Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz Brayden Schenn David Perron
Alex Steen Tyler Bozak Robby Fabbri

That's a balanced and potent unit that will drive opponents nuts for 50 minutes a night. (It's still August - forget about the fourth line.)

There's also the chance Robert Thomas, a high-end prospect from the OHL's Hamilton Bulldogs, makes the big club out of camp. He's regarded as a future first- or second-line NHL center but could easily slot in on the wing somewhere in the top nine.

Any way you slice it (there's a case to be made for prospect Jordan Kyrou, 20, stealing a spot too), what was largely a one-line attack last year is now thorough.

That's a necessary step for the Blues, because the Central Division is a house of horrors. They needed this infusion to compete with the Jets, Predators, Stars, and the like.

Fabbri's effect

Of the 15 forwards the Blues have signed for this coming season, eight are in a contract year. Fabbri, a true wild card, is in that show-me group.

The 2014 first-rounder is returning from a pair of surgeries on his left knee. He tore his ACL during the 123rd game of his career and has been sidelined since, suffering the same injury last fall. The fearless speedster missed the entire season, moving back home to Toronto last December for rehab.

"I've done a good job keeping a positive mindset through this whole thing," Fabbri said Tuesday. "Not too many people get 10 months to train and prepare for a season, so that's the way I looked at it. Not only rehabbing my knee, (but also) fixing the imbalances and fixing the little things on and off the ice. It has helped. I never really got down about it. The situation's kinda tough, but stuff happens and you can't fix that."

"I feel 100 percent," he added. "You can't really mimic the stresses of a season - back-to-back games and things like that - but if you ask me right now, yeah, I feel if not 100, 99 (percent)."

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

The cynical take: Fabbri may have durability issues.

Fabbri, who has also suffered a concussion and a high ankle sprain in recent years, said the club told him to "come in and prove myself again," promising nothing in the wake of such a long layoff and the signing of a one-year, $925,000 contract. In general, will that knee hold up?

The optimistic take: Fabbri may be on the verge of breaking out.

There's no denying the 22-year-old's immense potential when healthy. He hasn't truly found his footing in the NHL, but, based on his pre-draft stock and flashes of brilliance, could blossom into a top-six mainstay who contributes 50-60 points a season. The club's 30th-ranked power play certainly needs a boost.

You could play the same game with St. Louis.

The cynical take: Same old Blues.

The optimistic take: Brand new Blues.

John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.

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UFA Joel Ward still counting on NHL job: ‘Stay patient and just be ready’

TORONTO - Waiting isn't Joel Ward's favorite pastime, but it's all he can do right now.

It's late August - professional tryout season - and the 37-year-old right-winger is jobless. An unrestricted free agent since July 1, Ward told theScore Tuesday he's "waiting to hopefully solidify something" before NHL training camps open in mid-September.

The veteran of more than 800 NHL games won't let himself think about life outside the best hockey league in the world. Plan B options, such as playing in Europe or retirement, aren't top of mind.

"Haven't really thought about it," Ward said at the annual BioSteel Camp. "I think we're all fighting for contracts, for sure, so I think the main thing is to stay patient and just be ready."

Ward's three-year, $9.825-million contract with the San Jose Sharks ended in unflattering fashion this spring. First, he was asked to waive his modified no-trade clause at the trade deadline. Then, following an injury-laden regular season in which he posted 12 points in 52 games, head coach Peter DeBoer sat him for all 10 playoff contests.

A good soldier on seven previous NHL playoff squads, Ward admits it was a tough stretch in his professional life.

"I definitely wanted to play ... it was unfortunate, I suffered a pretty tough (shoulder) injury down the stretch and it was hard to get back in (the lineup)," he said. "You always want to be playing, regardless of the sport. You always want to get out there and help your squad win. But, it's part of the game sometimes and it definitely gave me some good fire in the belly to get after it this summer."

Forward Scottie Upshall was in a similar spot during last year's BioSteel Camp. He ultimately signed with his old club, the St. Louis Blues, after Robby Fabbri went down with a season-ending injury in late September. This offseason, Upshall signed a PTO with the Oilers and will fight for a job in camp.

Clubs prioritize speed, skill, and youngsters in the modern NHL. It's abundantly obvious this time of year, when tryout agreements start trickling in. Here's the full PTO list as of Wednesday morning, according to CapFriendly.com:

PLAYER AGE TEAM
Scottie Upshall 34 Oilers
Jason Garrison 33 Oilers
Mark Letestu 33 Panthers
Simon Despres 27 Canadiens
Emerson Etem 26 Kings

Now, Ward's willingness to stick it out this late in the summer shouldn't come as a giant surprise. He's been unwanted in the past. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder went undrafted and didn't make the NHL until his mid-20s, but is sitting on 356 career points and more than $25 million in earnings.

He has strung together a notable NHL career, dressing for 809 regular season and playoff games for the Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Washington Capitals, and Sharks. Last season, Ward was one of only two NHLers who honed their craft in the Canadian University ranks (Derek Ryan was the other).

"Looking back, you just hope to play one (NHL) game," he said of a four-year stint at the University of Prince Edward Island. "One turned into a couple more and it just kept going from there. Once you get a taste of it, you want to stay."

Following four years of major junior, another four in university, and three more in the AHL, Ward found a 10-year home in the NHL. Can he squeeze out one more?

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Seguin’s disappointment casts shadow over Stars as training camp nears

TORONTO - Tyler Seguin wants you to know he is disappointed.

Specifically, he is disappointed in the Dallas Stars for not offering a contract of his liking this summer and is unhappy because negotiations have been nonexistent of late.

It was easy to draw these conclusions Tuesday, as Seguin uttered the words "disappointing" and "disappointed" a total of four times in a six-minute media scrum focused mainly on the potential 2019 free agent’s future with the Stars.

"Nothing’s really going on," he said when asked for an update on extension talks between his camp and the club. "Pretty much haven’t been talking much this summer. It’s been a little disappointing. I thought I’d have some exciting news to talk about at BioSteel camp, especially this late in the summer, but ..."

Seguin, who has been eligible to re-sign in Dallas since July 1 and will almost certainly make north of $10 million per year on his next deal, trailed off for a moment but quickly reverted back to his main point.

"It’s been disappointing," the 40-goal scorer added, "but at the end of the day I’ve always had one year left here, so I’m focused on that, I’m focused on BioSteel camp right now, and I’m excited to get back to Dallas and I look forward to a good year."

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

OK, we’ve established Seguin is not completely thrilled. The elite center also revealed Tuesday that, although talks haven’t materialized to any great extent since late June, he isn’t exactly counting down the days to July 1, 2019.

Asked if he is curious at all about the free-agency process, Seguin replied, "I guess I’m not really there yet." In other words, unless the player-team relationship goes really south, Seguin would like to stay put.

"Dallas has been home. I’ve been comfortable in Dallas since I got down there," the former Boston Bruin said. "At the end of the day, I want to win, I want to be successful, I want to get back into the playoffs."

The Stars, for what it’s worth, are staying out of it. (Citing a team policy of not speaking publicly about negotiations, a spokesperson on Tuesday afternoon politely declined a request to interview general manager Jim Nill.) Regardless, it's safe to assume the Central Division squad is intent on retaining a 26-year-old who enters play this fall tied with Sidney Crosby for the second-most NHL goals since 2013-14, Seguin's first season in Dallas.

PLAYER GP GOALS GOALS/GAME
Alex Ovechkin 402 236 0.59
Sidney Crosby 394 173 0.44
Tyler Seguin 387 173 0.45
Jamie Benn 404 172 0.43
Vladimir Tarasenko 383 170 0.44

Seguin’s comments - which appear genuine and from a good place but could easily be a form of posturing to nudge the Stars into a deal - are mighty interesting. While the 2010 second overall pick seems confident that the two sides will come to an agreement at some point, he is making it seem like the Stars blindsided him by stalling as the offseason progressed.

Is Seguin comfortable negotiating during the season? "Honestly, it hasn’t really been much of a thought," he said. "I wasn’t really expecting this, so I’ve been taking it (as it comes). Normal training, normal summer. Same as last year and the year before."

Stars training camp, which opens Sept. 14 in Boise, Idaho, will be packed with intrigue. There’s this Seguin drama, the introduction of rookie NHL coach Jim Montgomery and his systems, the return of Russian winger Valeri Nichushkin, and the highly anticipated North American debut of Miro Heiskanen.

A longtime empty threat in the Central, Dallas has not advanced past the second round of the playoffs in 10 seasons, missing the postseason entirely in 2016-17 and '17-18. Still, its roster features a legitimate top-five NHL center in Seguin, one of the sport's top power forwards in captain Jamie Benn, and a dynamite young blue-liner in John Klingberg.

Oh, and two other things: Nill grabbed the attention of John Tavares during the prized 2018 free agent's courting period, and the Stars have been linked to trade rumors involving all-world defenseman Erik Karlsson.

"At the end of the day, I think it’s great for our organization and our city and team that players do want to go (to Dallas)," Seguin said. "Even if we didn’t have long negotiations with Tavares, at least he called and said that he was interested. So, it says something (about) our team and our organization and it’s all positive."

Seguin's expression of disappointment Tuesday shows he is frustrated, maybe even annoyed. It probably doesn't help that the club has won one playoff series since Nill acquired Seguin six summers ago. Above all, he's hungry for a Stanley Cup and would prefer to challenge for a title in Stars green.

"I envision giving my all this year and getting back into the playoffs," he said. "It’s been a long few summers of no deep runs. The goal since I touched down in Dallas is to get deep in the playoffs and hopefully win."

John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.

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7 players who can turn advanced stats into fantasy production

One way to find effective fantasy contributors is to look at a player's advanced stats. These numbers can be prime indicators that a player is ready to either bounce back from a down year or translate under-the-radar contributions into solid fantasy production. Will what bubbled under the surface last year rise to the top in 2018-19?

Here are seven players - four forwards, two defensemen, and one goalie - whose statistical profiles project either a breakout or bounce-back season:

Related: theScore's 2018-19 Fantasy Hockey Draft Kit

Forwards

Vinnie Hinostroza, Coyotes: Hinostroza, who at 24 has dressed for 106 NHL games, is a sneaky-good passer looking primed for success in the desert. The former Blackhawk flashed some serious playmaking potential last season by producing 0.99 primary assists per 60 minutes of five-on-five action. For context, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Couturier, and Jakub Voracek racked up first assists at a similar rate. The question is, can Hinostroza deliver in a bigger role?

Sonny Milano, Blue Jackets: Hidden gem? Of the 576 NHLers who skated for at least 500 even-strength minutes last season, only Auston Matthews was a more efficient five-on-five goal scorer than Milano. The 22-year-old scored 1.45 goals per 60 minutes while mainly playing alongside Nick Foligno and Oliver Bjorkstrand in a minor role. A bump in ice time could do wonders to Milano's counting stats.

Jaden Schwartz, Blues: Schwartz passes the eye test with flying colors, and his underlying numbers don't disappoint either. The Blues - who revamped their forward group this summer - were a 57 percent puck possession team that dominated scoring-chance (58.6%) and goal (61.8%) differentials when Schwartz was on the ice at five-on-five in 2017-18. Though he already hovers around 60 points a year, Schwartz’s true coming-out party might be upon us.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres: How poor/unlucky were the Hurricanes when three-time 30-goal scorer Skinner was on the ice last year during five-on-five play? Simply put, they couldn’t score (5.25 shooting percentage) or stop the other team from scoring (.901 save percentage). A change of scenery and a chance to play with an elite center (either Jack Eichel or Casey Mittelstadt) should help reverse Skinner's fortunes.

Defensemen

Duncan Keith, Blackhawks: Even the most cynical analysts are sympathetic towards Keith. The two-time Norris Trophy winner is coming off a season in which he flat-out couldn't beat NHL goaltenders, scoring two goals on 187 shots for a ridiculous shooting rate of 1.1 percent. The 35-year-old may be past his prime, but he remains effective as a minutes-munching defenseman, finishing 2017-18 with a 52.4 percent Corsi rating and 30 assists.

Darnell Nurse, Oilers: Nurse, one of the brightest young defenseman in the game, was between the boards for 310 high danger shot attempts during five-on-five play last season. That number tied him with Brady Skjei for sixth among regular NHL blueliners. Connor McDavid can make anybody look effective, but Nurse (six goals, 20 assists in 82 games) should see his goal/assist totals soar. Realistically, the Oilers should cash in on more goalmouth chances than they did last year.

Goalie

Carter Hutton, Sabres: Despite seeing limited action, Hutton was a reliable option for the 2017-18 Blues. He ranked first among NHL goalies (minimum 30 appearances) in quality starts percentage by boasting a save percentage on par or greater than the league average in 19 of 32 appearances. If Buffalo can provide decent support, Hutton should produce middle-of-the-road win, goals-against average, and save percentage numbers.

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Maple Leafs’ landmark women hires consistent with Dubas’ mindset

(Warning: Story contains coarse language)

Kyle Dubas delivered a memorable - and prescient - soundbite less than a year into his tenure as assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"Your eyes and your mind are lying sons of bitches in the worst absolute way," Dubas said during a presentation about cognitive bias and personnel decisions at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2015.

He went on to explain how recency bias and sample-size bias, among other inclinations, can negatively impact decision-making. Basing your opinion of a player on their performance over the last three games versus the previous three years, for instance, is a natural reaction. But it's also suboptimal because it is shortsighted.

Fast forward to this offseason; Dubas, promoted to GM in May, is putting his stamp on the Leafs' hockey operations group by promoting from within and hiring outside help. And efforts to mitigate bias are baked into Dubas' approach.

As the organization sought to add bodies to its scouting department, Dubas introduced an extra layer to the hiring process. Candidates filed scouting reports to an online system that masked their identity. This anonymity gave Dubas and his advisors the latitude to sift through the reports and flag the most qualified candidates without being influenced by things like gender, appearance, ethnicity, and age.

Among the top scorers was Noelle Needham, a former Minnesota State University women's hockey player who had never held an official scouting position in the professional or junior ranks. The reports she filed anonymously elevated her status and ultimately helped earn her a gig with the Leafs.

Needham, the club's new Midwest-based amateur scout, was one of three hires and two promotions announced by the club Thursday. Also joining the Leafs are Ontario-based amateur scout Victor Carneiro, a longtime talent evaluator for the OHL's Soo Greyhounds, and assistant director of player development Hayley Wickenheiser, arguably the greatest women's hockey player of all time.

Asked about hiring two women in hockey ops roles and, intentionally or not, diversifying his staff overnight, Dubas insisted he's merely looking out for the best interests of the Leafs.

"I think that if you're only hiring white males - and I'm saying that as a white male - you're probably leaving a lot on the table in terms of where your organization (is going) and how it can think, and how it can evolve and develop," the GM said on a conference call.

"I don't think we've gone out and said that we want to hire females only, males only - anything like that. We're looking for the best candidates and we're not pushing anybody aside. And I think sports, in general, are moving well in that direction."

__________

While the Needham hire provides a window into Dubas' methods, the Wickenheiser news hogged the headlines, and deservedly so. You don't reel in a universally revered, four-time Olympic gold medalist and future Hall of Famer and expect the sporting world to turn a blind eye. Especially if you're the iconic Toronto Maple Leafs.

The sheer lack of women employed by NHL teams amplifies the significance of the Wickenheiser-Needham double whammy. Prior to Thursday's announcement, the list of women currently working in full-time hockey ops roles was as follows: Dawn Baird (Arizona Coyotes skating coach), Alexandra Mandrycky (Minnesota Wild hockey ops analyst), Rachel Doerrie (New Jersey Devils player info/video analyst), and Kate Madigan (Devils player/info assistant).

Four women on three of the NHL's 31 teams - that's it.

Graduating to six women on four teams doesn't exactly register as a female invasion, or pose a threat to the old boys club that is so ingrained in hockey culture. But it's undoubtedly a breakthrough, and Wickenheiser's name recognition alone is invaluable.

"There's a 15-year-old girl there, sitting right now and looking at the screen and realizing, 'Oh, maybe I could pursue a career in sports, in the NHL,'" Mandrycky told theScore. "We're seeing it with other sports, too. I think seeing people in the position that you aspire to be in is something that is really important … It's important for someone who is young to know that their dream is possible."

Added Sydney Bell, manager of hockey administration for the Florida Panthers: "It shows that hockey is really growing and it's great to see qualified women (in meaningful roles). The passion that they have for the game can be applied to the NHL now."

Bell, hired full-time by the Panthers this spring, is one of many women across the NHL whose job lands somewhere between business ops and hockey ops, and is thus only loosely tied to the on-ice product. The recent St. Lawrence University grad is involved in some personnel discussions, notably around the draft and free agency, though her primary responsibilities are admin tasks such as player immigration and travel coordination.

But hey, maybe the Leafs will start a trend. Maybe the floodgates open for women, because it's a copycat league - and Toronto, an Original Six franchise that has been on an upward trajectory since Brendan Shanahan was named president in 2014, has provided the template.

Maybe additional part-time roles - like those filled by skating coaches Barb Underhill (Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning) and Tracy Tutton (Colorado Avalanche) - emerge and more women trickle in that way. Maybe more turnover at the GM level is required. It's probably no coincidence that the men employing Wickenheiser and Braid (29-year-old Arizona GM John Chayka) are young, open-minded, and willing to buck tradition.

Mandrycky, who is tasked with translating complicated statistical concepts to members of the Wild's scouting, front office, and coaching staffs, sure hopes so. Although she says she hasn't encountered any "negative experiences" because of her gender since being hired in January 2016, the Atlanta native is conscious of the unusual dynamic.

"In some ways, you do feel a burden knowing that I'm maybe the only woman that this scout or this coach has in their active list in that hockey business or front office aspect," Mandrycky said. "You sometimes feel like your independent successes and failures (are) going to dictate how these people view women in the business, in general. ...

"But, if there's more of us, I think that it becomes more normal. All of a sudden, there won't just be that one girl that someone is talking about. There's a whole collection of not just women but youthful staff members."

__________

It's the mantra every June at the NHL draft: Select the best talent available.

Whatever's deterring you from drafting the most talented hockey player - whether it's size, position, or nationality - forget it. Acquire the best players, at all costs, and figure out the rest later.

Shouldn't that mentality apply to hockey ops too? Even though the Leafs tapping Wickenheiser and Needham is noteworthy on a cultural level, it's also a business decision about recruiting competent individuals.

“I think Noelle and Hayley didn’t earn those opportunities because they're women," noted Ryan Hardy, GM of the USHL's Chicago Steel. "They earned those opportunities because they're extremely talented in what they do and the work they've put in up to this point has opened doors for them."

Dubas reached out to Hardy early in the process that ended with Needham signing a contract with the Leafs. Hardy put Needham's name forward in part because the 32-year-old doesn't back down from anyone or anything - a trait particularly helpful in a scouting field dominated not only by men, but by white men with similar attitudes.

"Everything she says has value behind it. It's because she's done homework and researched the information," Hardy said of Needham, who was a guest coach at Chicago's minicamp a few months ago. "She can be in a room with Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas and 20 scouts that have opinions and she'll fight the good fight."

Needham has been running Legend Hockey school in South Dakota for nine years while co-founding the Sioux Falls Power Tier I minor hockey club. Now, she steps into the limelight - at least relatively speaking. Scouting isn't a particularly glamorous or front-facing role, but the Leafs brand attracts attention to every nook and cranny of the organization.

Wickenheiser, on the other hand, frames her move to the Leafs' development staff as "the evolution of myself as someone in hockey." Wickenheiser, 40, retired from playing last year, hanging up her skates after 23 years of brilliance in the women's realm and 55 games split between Finnish and Swedish men's pro leagues. In her post-playing days, she remains one of hockey's ultimate spokespeople.

She also started medical school at the University of Calgary in July. Her new role - which requires Wickenheiser to work with Western Hockey League prospects when they roll through Calgary, and to occasionally fly to Toronto to skate with the Leafs and AHL Marlies - allows her to stay in Alberta. She is intent on juggling school, work, and family life.

"I played at the highest level I could and wanted to stay in the game," Wickenheiser said Thursday. "I enjoy working with players and I love being around people that are the best at what to do.

"If you were to pick a franchise in the NHL to work for, to be able to work for the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's a pretty huge honor and it's a big responsibility that comes with that. I understand well what pressure is - playing for Canada on the world stage - so hopefully some of those experiences that I've had can help some of these players as the team tries to win."

It has been an agonizingly slow burn for women in NHL hockey ops. Laura Stamm worked with the New York Islanders in the 1970s, but there was no subsequent boom. Progress has stalled and built up again over the past 40 or so years, with North America's three other major pro sports leagues currently lapping the NHL.

The NHL is unlike the NBA, which features San Antonio Spurs lead assistant coach Becky Hammon. It lags behind the NFL, which has had a few women coach on the sidelines. It even trails MLB, which has embraced women with various skill sets during the analytics era.

Dubas - and, by extension, Shanahan and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment - believes women can excel in the NHL hockey ops environment. He believes competent people can provide value to his club.

"When we go through any process of hiring people to add to our program," Dubas said Thursday, "we're looking for the best people. Period."

He's really just applying logic to the Leafs' hiring practices: Ignore the status quo, and hire the best people. It's not mind-blowing. But it is necessary.

John Matisz is theScore's national hockey writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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IIHF’s Fasel lays out 4 options for men’s hockey at 2022 Olympics

Rene Fasel is preparing for the best, the worst, and everything in between.

TSN's Gord Miller - who on Friday hosted a panel featuring Fasel at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in Edmonton - reports the IIHF president has told the IOC that there are four men's hockey options "on the table" for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

The first option: like from 1998 through 2014, NHL players participate in the men's hockey tournament.

The second: like the 2018 Olympics, only amateur/professional players with no contractual NHL affiliation are eligible to participate.

The third: Only under-23 players (presumably just those without an NHL contract) participate.

Fourth: No men's hockey.

Fasel's first option seems like a long shot right now. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his owners seem unwilling to shut down the season for an event being held overseas and is keen on the idea of transferring to the Summer Games.

"I don’t know that we want to go to China," Bettman said in February at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. "I think going to the Olympics is incredibly disruptive on a season."

He added, "I’ve asked the IOC, I said, 'Why don’t you put us in the summer?' You know, just for you history buffs, that the first participation of hockey in the Olympics was in 1920 in Antwerp in the Summer Games. We’d be happy to go in the summer. I’m sure the players would be thrilled to go in the summer."

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Ex-Leafs assistant GM Mark Hunter returns to junior hockey

The Mark Hunter watch is officially over.

The ex-NHL executive is headed back to the London Knights to assume the role of general manager, the Ontario Hockey League club announced Friday.

"I am very happy to be back in London," Hunter said in a press release. "We have a strong group within our organization and I look forward to returning to work with everyone to develop an even stronger team for our fans and for our city and the community."

Hunter, 55, left the Toronto Maple Leafs this spring after a four-year tenure, first as director of player personnel and then as assistant GM. The former NHL player and the team "mutually agreed to part ways" in the wake of Kyle Dubas' promotion to the GM chair in May.

There was much speculation this offseason over Hunter's next step. Many believed the New York Islanders made sense as a potential NHL fit, given Hunter's ties to their new GM, old Leafs boss Lou Lamoriello. However, a return to the OHL should surprise no one.

Hunter, part owner and vice-president of the Knights, bumps Rob Simpson into an associate GM role. Simpson was London's general manager for the past two seasons following four years as assistant GM, including two-and-a-half under Hunter.

"Rob and I will be working together every day in order to achieve the goals of our organization," Hunter said. "He has done an outstanding job in all facets of his position and I look forward to continuing to work with him on all elements within our organization.

"We are excited for this upcoming season and look forward to bringing another competitive team forward to entertain and excite our fans."

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