Hockey players used to come from places like Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat and Prince Albert. Now they come — some of the biggest stars, it seems, some of the most explosive players — from Scottsdale and Phoenix and suburban Los Angeles.
When Tage Thompson scored five goals the other night for the Buffalo Sabres, bringing his total to 21 in 26 games at that time, Auston Matthews wasn’t the least bit surprised; he wondered what took Thompson so long.
Thompson is from Phoenix, the son of a marginal NHL player. Matthews was born in Northern California, grew up in Scottsdale, an area better known for golf courses and vacation properties than wrist shots. The two were born six weeks apart in 1997.
They grew up playing together, training together, and somehow learning their massive shots together. Matthews, the natural, a star from the day he got to the NHL; Thompson, more of a late bloomer, is now one of the most powerful-and-dangerous shooting forwards in hockey.
Matthew Tkachuk, with 37 points, was born in Scottsdale. Jason Robertson, the unlikely scorer in Dallas, first grew up in Arcadia, Calif. These are four of the absolute best forwards in the NHL, who grew up and learned to play far from the centre of the many hockey universes across Canada and the United States.
Matthews is not so much proud of how far Thompson has come — he has only played 250 NHL games — but convinced that he is here to stay.
“I think his body has caught up to his hands and his skills and it’s all coming together for him,” said Matthews after Thompson’s five-goal game against Columbus, his second six-point game of this young season. “I’m really happy for him. He’s worked hard for it.”
Matthews was the NHL’s most dangerous shooter last season. Thompson and Robertson are the most dangerous shooters to date this season. They all play differently but naturally seem to know how to score, which isn’t something easily taught, let alone learned in Arizona or California.
All these players are different, each of them equipped with the massive ability to score. It’s possible, and maybe even likely, that this NHL season will end with Matthews, Thompson, and Robertson among the top goal scorers in hockey.
They remain exceptional to watch, almost impossible to explain. The way the greatest of players always seem to be.
THIS AND THAT
Before play on Saturday night, Mitch Marner had recorded points in the past 21 games. That means his scoring streak is longer than any player on 20 of the NHL’s 32 franchises. The list of players with longer streaks includes Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, Steve Yzerman, Bryan Trottier, Brett Hull and Mats Sundin, when he played for Quebec. Pretty nice company to be hanging with … The Leafs don’t need another defenceman; they need a front-line winger. With all their injuries, they need to accumulate enough salary-cap room — and maybe the right kind of trading partner — to find a good one before March 3. This is the best team-hockey the Leafs have played in many years. There is an opportunity here beyond what seemed possible in other seasons … Words that don’t necessarily connect: Pierre Engvall and intent to injure. Words that connect better: Engvall and a lack of responsibility with his stick … Marie-Philip Poulin was a sound choice for Canada’s athlete of the year, but you can’t convince me that Cale Makar, Stanley Cup champion, Norris Trophy winner, Conn Smythe Trophy winner, highest scoring playoff defenceman in 32 years, wasn’t a better choice … I would have been fine with Poulin being chosen, or Felix Auger-Aliassime or Brooke Henderson or swimmer Summer McIntosh, any of whom might have won in another year. And, of course, Connor McDavid, who should always be considered. But I still say Makar had the most complete year of all of them … What a bargain Mark Giordano has been for the Leafs, and never mind his salary. The quality of his play and the fact he has rebooted Justin Holl’s career have been huge bonuses for Toronto. Only two NHL defencemen, playing as much as Giordano, have been on the ice for fewer goals against this season … Leafs teammate Timothy Liljegren, also with amazing numbers, has been on the ice for 17 goals scored and just four against at even strength. And you know coaches love that … This is rather unusual: San Jose’s Erik Karlsson leads the NHL in points for a defenceman and in most goals for at even strength and most goals against at even strength.
HEAR AND THERE
A word you’d never use before to describe a Nick Nurse team: soft. This Raptors team is soft. Inside, it must be driving the demanding Nurse rather crazy … Say this for the Raptors, they’re consistent. They’re the 26th-best shooting team in the NBA at home and on the road. They’re the 25th-best three-point shooting team in the NBA at home and on the road. The top three shooting teams in the league have a combined record of 52-25. The bottom three shooting teams are 30-47 … I don’t care much about who Fred VanVleet may have blocked on social media. I do care that he starts making shots. He’s 10-for-47 from three-point land in the past six games, four of them losses. That’s 21%. This is by far the worst he has shot to begin any of his six full NBA seasons … Fred McGriff, the former Blue Jay, got 16 of 16 votes from the Contemporary Era voting committee last Sunday to be elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. The majority of the voters on the panel are former big-league players, all of them stars. They ostensibly ignored Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, far worse than the baseball writers ever did. Bonds got 66% of the vote last year as eligible to be elected by the writers. Clemens was just behind him. Neither got more than 25% of the recent vote from colleagues and big-league executives, who made a loud statement against performance-enhancing drugs … The other surprise: Curt Schilling, not a doper just a dope, who screamed and finger-pointed loudly against the writers who didn’t vote for him, did worse, like Bonds and Clemens, from his colleagues. Schilling, who once got 71% of the writers’ votes, coming just shy of election, got just 43% last Sunday. So who is he mad at now?
SCENE AND HEARD
If you were putting together a Team USA for an international hockey competition, which of these forwards would not play among the top nine: Matthews, Thompson, Patrick Kane, Jason Robertson, Jack Eichel, Matthew Tkachuk, Brady Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, Joe Pavelski, Jack Hughes, Alex Tuch, Matty Beniers, Kyle Connor, Chris Kreider, Dylan Larkin, Cole Caufield? I’m leaving out three or four obvious candidates. The depth up front is over-the-top great … All McDavid leads the NHL in is goals, assists, points, points per game, and time on ice for a forward. He’s scoring 1.93 points per game. That’s the best number since Mario Lemieux hit 2.3 points per game in 1996 … Stats that come from nowhere: Bruins goalie Linus Ullmark is 15-1 this season with a league-leading 1.82 goals against average and a league-leading .939 save percentage … The early Vezina Trophy race is between Ullmark, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck, and the Islanders’ Ilya Sorokin …I’m not doubting that Leafs goaltenders Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov are playing well and have exceeded expectations in every conceivable way. I still wonder: Can they stay healthy and can they continue to play anywhere near this level? If they do manage to do that, what a win that will be for the Leafs. Combined, Murray and Samsonov were 14-3 heading into Saturday night’s game against Calgary … Does this make any sense? John Tavares is having a terrific, productive season and he’s one point behind Zach Hyman in NHL scoring … It’s not only Matthews the Leafs have to worry about signing at the end of this season or next; William Nylander’s contract is up as well. He’ll be due a big raise at that time. Which means, guess what, more salary cap concerns.
AND ANOTHER THING
I met Grant Wahl while covering the 2019 MLS championship in Seattle. It turned out we had many mutual friends and acquaintances. What impressed me then was how everyone in soccer seemed to know him, want a word with him, wanted to share his knowledge or just spend a moment in time with him. He has that kind of presence and regard. To learn of his passing now from the World Cup under somewhat mysterious circumstances is both bothersome and devastating. To say he will be missed is obvious and apparent … If a 30-year-old Xander Bogaerts is worth $280 million and a 29-year-old Trea Turner is worth $300 million, how much would a 24-year-old Bo Bichette be worth in the open market? … Still alive in the World Cup, Croatia and Morocco, which makes Team Canada’s journey worthy of further analysis … Paul Simon wrote this: “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” … If you add up all their goals, regular season, playoffs, NHL, and WHA, Gretzky scored one more goal than Gordie Howe: 1,072 to 1,071. That was brought to Gretzky’s attention when Mr. and Mrs. Howe were still alive and well. If you add up all of Alex Ovechkin’s goals, he has 868, more than 200 behind Gretzky and Howe. Bobby Hull, by the way, scored 1,018 goals in his career … WHA goals are not counted as NHL goals in the record books. But AFL statistics, like Joe Namath’s passing numbers, are counted as NFL stats … The NHL wouldn’t allow Gretzky to qualify as a rookie because he had played in the WHA, thus preventing him from winning the Calder Trophy. They acknowledged the WHA then, just not since then … How can you have lived in Montreal for any period of time — or in Canada for that matter — and not be aware of the 1989 shootings at École Polytechnique? Was Carey Price living in a cave for all those Montreal years? … Happy birthday to Joe Burrow (26), Rey Mysterio Jr. (48), Daniel Alfredsson (50), Matthew Tkachuk (25), Rob Blake (53), Dalton Pompey (30), Steve Renko (78), Carlos Rodon (30), Dave Gagner (58) and Shareef Abdur-Rahim (46) … And, hey, whatever became of Dany Heatley?
BLUE JAYS SEEM TO BE MOVING IN WRONG DIRECTION
It is easy to be discouraged if you care about the direction the Blue Jays seem to be heading in. They appear to have taken on the role of bit player in a busy and expensive MLB off-season.
The team, right now, isn’t as strong as it was last year. And last season it wasn’t strong enough to win as much as one playoff game.
They need two starting pitchers — you can’t naturally assume that Jose Berrios will bounce back and that Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman will remain healthy enough to make 30-plus starts.
They need a starting outfielder, and as sharp defensively as newly signed Kevin Kiermaier may be he’s not an everyday kind of outfielder anymore.
They need someone to replace Teoscar Hernandez in the batting order and in right field, depending on where George Springer eventually winds up. The centrefield market was thin, which is why Kiermaier, an upgrade over Jackie Bradley Jr. was signed. But the Jays need more than this.
They need more bullpen depth. And there’s nothing more meaningless than hearing after a player signed elsewhere that the Blue Jays were in on him. All that tells fans is that they failed in their attempts to land whichever player happened to be available.
The longer they go without changes of significance, signings or trades, the more pressure there will be on general manager Ross Atkins and team president Mark Shapiro to get active. As of today, the Jays are missing a 3-or-4 hitter, a starting outfielder, and two starting pitchers. That’s a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it in.
Big picture, winning the Winter Meetings is somewhat meaningless. Unless you’re betting. Before the meetings, the Jays were 10-1 to win the World Series. Now they’re 16-1.
What means something now: tweaking the roster of a team that won 90 games two years in a row. A move here. A move there. Kiermaier is a start. It’s better than no moves at all, but not much better.
DELGADO’S NUMBERS ARE ALMOST INDISCERNIBLE FROM MCGRIFF’S
Really, how much difference is there between Fred McGriff, recently elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and another former Blue Jays first baseman, Carlos Delgado, who has yet to get any kind of real consideration for the appointment?
Consider these comparable numbers: Delgado hit 473 home runs, McGriff, with 1,474 more at-bats, hit 493. Delgado had 1,512 career RBIs. McGriff had 1,550. Delgado’s career on-base percentage was .384, better than McGriff’s 377. His OPS was .929, 43 points higher than McGriff’s .886. And his OPS+, which the stats people will tell you is even more meaningful, was also higher than McGriff’s.
Three times Delgado was a top-six candidate for the MVP award and there are those who still believe he was robbed when he finished second in MVP voting to Alex Rodriguez in 2003. McGriff was top-six MVP three times as well, never finishing higher than fourth in any season.
In Delgado’s three best home run-hitting seasons, he wound up with 44, 42 and 41 round trippers. McGriff hit 37, 36 and 35 in his top three power seasons.
Delgado had two seasons above 1.000 in OPS and five other seasons of .940 or more. McGriff had one full season above 1.000 and three other seasons above the .940 mark. In other words, there’s not much difference between the careers of McGriff and Delgado.
When Delgado was first eligible for the Hall, he didn’t do well on the writers’ ballot. He was eliminated after one year because he didn’t receive the mandatory 5% of votes. He found that terribly disappointing.
McGriff lasted 10 years on the regular ballot, never receiving more than 38.9% of the votes.
Last Sunday he received 16 of 16 second-chance votes from the Modern Era committee. He will be heading to Cooperstown this summer.
How he got there is almost meaningless. A second opportunity got him elected. A second opportunity that Carlos Delgado is probably deserving of now.
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