Could An FA Cup Style Hockey Tournament Work In North America?

So it’s the dog days of a hockey summer with almost nothing coming out of the hockey world other than Gary Bettman dumping a bucket of ice water on his head (gawd something we have all been wishing he would have done eons ago! well it’s a good first step and hopefully he will come to his senses and let a legendary player who has won the cup hand over Lord Stanley at the end of the playoffs so I can stop booing my television set to the point my neighbors think I have finally gone completely and utterly bonkers!!).

With all this free time to just mull around and ‘think’ about hockey I have started to wonder given my background in soccer/football (hey it’s not my fault, I grew up overseas in a place where hockey is about the last sport people follow) if the Maple Leafs would be capable of starting a tournament much like The Football Association Challenge Cup in the U.K., known to many simply as the FA Cup here in Toronto every few years or perhaps at a varying host city. Not familiar with the tournament? well he is a breakdown to give you a little more insight as to where I am potentially coming from;

“The Football Association Challenge Cup, commonly known as the FA Cup, is an annual knockout cup competition in English football; it is the oldest association football competition in the world.[1] The FA Cup is organised by and named after the Football Association. Its current sponsored name is the FA Cup with Budweiser.[2] A concurrent women’s tournament is also held, known as the FA Women’s Cup.

The FA Cup was first held in 1871–72. Entry is open to all teams who compete in the Premier League, the Football League and in Steps 1 to 5 of the FA National League System, as well as selected teams in Step 6.[3] This means that clubs of all standards compete, from the largest clubs in England and Wales down to amateur village teams. The tournament has become known for the possibility for “minnows” from the lower divisions to become “giant-killers” by eliminating top clubs from the tournament and even theoretically winning the Cup, although lower division teams rarely progress beyond the early stages. The qualification rounds and a system of byes mean that the very smallest and very biggest teams almost never meet.” via Wikipedia.

Hockey really has started to establish a significant foothold in the United States and even smaller professional leagues such as the Central Hockey League (CHL), East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) are starting to garner more attention and more structure to their teams and their games in the last couple of years. Gone are the days of wild west hockey and with it heightened competition and the attraction of better players. That being said if you also start looking at the number of NCAA teams along with Senior AAA and AA teams throughout both countries, one starts to wonder if an FA Cup type tournament might work here. Perhaps not every year mind you but you might be able to schedule it around the NHL lockouts which tend to occur every four years (I kid, I kid…well sort of).

Firstly, could the tournament work from a financial standpoint? Given the vast number of semi professional and professional teams out there, I believe it would from an entry fee standpoint alone. One could establish a sliding scale of fee’s depending on the level of hockey a team is coming from so that a semi-pro team is not footing the same bill as a professional team. Television revenue if garnered could also be used towards aggregating financial stability of the tournament along with ticket sales at the host city or cities. Given the audience numbers for the Spengler Cup alone in Canada, one could imagine that a local tournament might garner even more attention on television:

“The Spengler Cup, the oldest international event held annually in Davos, Switzerland, saw Canada repeat as gold medalists when they won this year’s event on Dec. 31 by beating the host team 7-4. Rogers Sportsnet carried all of Canada’s games from the Spengler Cup are received the following television ratings (all ratings are 2+):

Dec 26 Canada vs. Krefeld 215,000
Dec 28 Canada vs. Helsinki 124,000
Dec 29 Canada vs. Yaroslavl 142,000
Dec 30 Canada vs. Davos 133,000
Dec 31 Canada vs. Davos – gold medal game 207,000*** (This number includes Live and Repeats)”
via Hockey Canada

Given the more recent formation of the Champions Hockey League (CHL) in Europe this past summer, North American hockey appears to have fallen a little behind their European peers in terms of staying ahead of the curve as the more established and innovative hockey market in the world and it would be my hypothesis that an invitational tournament here in North America much like the Spengler Cup may help fill the void. Just the mission statement and core values of the CHL alone, if applied to North America, would lend a pretty strong supporting argument to the establishment of just such a tournament:

Mission
* Provide an international environment to club ice hockey for its teams and players to regularly compete on the highest level
* Assist in keeping best talents longer in European club ice hockey by offering a valuable alternative in sportive competition and thereby increasing the pool of capable players for the national teams.
* Raise interest in domestic leagues as teams are playing for CHL qualification.
* Deliver long-term financial benefits to participants and shareholders and thereby contribute to the growth and success of club ice hockey.
* Create additional value – sportive, financial and emotional – to clubs and leagues.
* Engage fans in following their team in a best-on-best international environment.

Core Values
* Competitive – The CHL is highly competitive with best-on-best ice hockey on an international level
* Accessible – The CHL is attractive to a broad demographic audience with emotion-evoking sport
* Respectful – The CHL is an inclusive competition based on respect vis à vis opponents, referees and opposing fans.”
via the Champions Hockey League.

Now imagine a team strictly made up of retired NHL veterans coming together for one last shot at glory at this yet unnamed tournament or perhaps an underdog SPHL team with a bunch of virtual unknowns beating the odds and making it to a point where they face an AHL or even NHL squad. The tournament could answer so many of those locker room statements you have heard over the years “I could have played with the best if only I had been given a shot”. Well then go out a form a team and prove it. The continued development of ‘our’ game as players and teams alike scramble to put together squads to compete in this tournament could very well have a positive impact on the game. Perhaps there would be a re-insurgence of the importance of game points and standings in the various leagues throughout both countries as the potential to receive a coveted invitation to this tournament could only but help to continue to grow the sport. While we are at it, perhaps the NHL gets involved and through their status as a socially responsibly entity sponsors a deserving team from another country to attend the tournament. Perhaps they invite HC Davos to the tournament every year as a way of saying thanks for having Canada attend the Spengler Cup for all those years. The opportunities to create goodwill while growing the game here in North America are almost endless.

Finally if the Maple Leafs were to take on the task of hosting this tournament as the largest (read: wealthiest) team in hockey or at minimum establishing the foundation, perhaps they could very well name it after one of the Leaf greats, like the Sittler Cup, the Gilmore Cup or even the Clarke Cup…something that would further immortalize for all time in the annals of history the most beloved hockey player and the most beloved club in hockey. As always, puck for thought.

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2014 – 2015 Toronto Maple Leafs Rookie Tournament Invitees

Although I have not yet been able to locate any news releases or tangible outlines by either the Toronto Maple Leafs or another reputable source to substantiate the below in terms of the fixed roster for the upcoming Rookie Tournament in September, it was mentioned on HFboards.com that the club had extended invitations to the following players for the upcoming rookie camp in September:

Waltteri Hopponen, Parker Bowles, Ty Bilckie, Zach Bratina, Kayle Doetzel, Cory Donaghey, Jeremie Fraser, Zach Hall, Luke Philp

Some of the names were quite surprising given they had attending the prospect camp as invitee’s as well (Donaghey in particular) so you have to wonder if they made a positive impression but the remainder were no less intriguing and I thought we should expand on the players to get a better idea of whether they may be attending just for the experience or are the Maple Leafs hoping to get an extended look at their potential skill level.

Waltteri Hopponen
Left Wing
18 years old
6’2″, 192lbs
Sioux City Musketeers – USHL

Of course the first player would be one of the more difficult to find information on. Waltteri Hopponen a product of Espoo, Finland spent last season in North America in the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers putting up 31 points in the first 54 games of his rookie campaign. Has represented Finland on the international stage a number of times, including more recently the Ivan Hlinka tournament. Not sure if I am missing something on Hopponen but stumbled across a 2013 ISS draft ranking for the 2014 draft that had him ranked #25 overall http://www.tsn.ca/draftcentre/feature/?id=9755 yet to my knowledge he went undrafted, obviously the Leafs must see something given the invitation that others may not have.

“Finnish winger who started his North American career with Everett in the Dub, but after one game moved on to the USHL Sioux City Musketeers he showed good tools and ability to play a two-way game. Makes a pest in the offensive zone. At this juncture he is more of a straight line quickness once he gets up steam. Has good balance and is very strong and physical along the wall. Is physically strong and uses his reach with his stick to get the puck back. Can stickhandle and cooly make plays without panic but tends to make him himself available in a passing lane as opposed to attempting to over handling his possessions. He does have strong wrister. A team that thinks he can continue to add physicality and develop a bit more attack skill will select him and let him grow. —Bill Placzek—” via Draftsite.com

Parker Bowles
Center
19 years old
6’0″, 181lbs
Tri-City Americans – WHL

In no way related to Camila, at least to my knowledge (see Prince Charles) Bowles who is a 19 year old center currently playing for the Tri-City Americans, put up 40 points in a limited 39 games due to various injuries (knee, shoulder) but appears to be a pretty savvy invitee, although chances are he may be snapped up in the draft next year if he can remain healthy.

“Though various injuries have limited him to just 11 games thus far, he has scored at nearly a two points-per-game clip when he’s made it into the lineup. We guarantee he’ll be worth the price of admission for scouts in Tri-City once he gets back to full health.” Kyle Woodlief, USA TODAY Sports

According to ExtraSkater.com Bowles has some solid statistics to back up comments like those made above, seeing plenty of power play time and leading the team in a number of measurable categories like contributing to a large number of points when on the ice.

Ty Bilckie
Right Wing
20 years old
6’2″, 217lbs
Windsor Spitfires – OHL

Bilchkie an Exeter, Ontario native appears to have made a junior career out of collecting a large number of penalty minutes, through no fault of his own I am sure. Although the role of pugilist is apparently coming to a noticeable end in the NHL, Bilckie has been mentioned as an energy player who may have more to offer the team than I am giving him credit for. With decent skating and solid forechecking, a large body that can grind down oppositions top lines is still an asset to be considered this day and age.

Image courtesy of the North Bay Nugget

Zach Bratina
Left Wing
18 years old
6’1″, 183lbs
North Bay Battalion – OHL

Zach Bratina is still viewed as a possible first round selection in the draft by some according to what has been written online about him. A tremendous skater who has a physical side to his game and deft hands has plenty of tools and 30 points in 58 games split between the Saginaw Spirit and the North Bay Battalion exudes promise. Bratina has shown an increase in production at the second portion of last season and here is hoping he can continue that throughout the next season. For more on Bratina see the video below:

Kayle Doetzel
Defense
19 years old
6’3″, 190lbs
Red Deer Rebels – WHL

For more information on Doetzel who attended the Maple Leafs prospect camp as an invitee please see my earlier post below. That being said something must have caught the Leafs eye with Doetzel given the second extended invitation he has received. “Doetzel is a shutdown defender for the Red Deer Rebels. He skates well, loves to play a physical game and blocks shots. I don’t necessarily see a ton of offensive ability but he takes no prisoners defensively. I see him as having good potential as a future bottom pairing NHL defenceman.” CJN from WHL from Above.

Cody Donaghey
Defense
18 years old
6’1″, 182lbs
Quebec Remparts – QMJHL

For more information on Donaghey who attended the Maple Leafs prospect camp as an invitee please see my earlier post below. That being said, pretty excited to see him return for another crack with the organization for a potential roster spot, of all the invitee’s attending, given what has been said about Donaghey in the past, I am personally really excited to see how he does.

Jérémie Fraser
Defense
19 years old
6’2″, 208lbs
Val d’Or Foreurs – QMJHL

A third defenseman invited who also attended the prospect camp and another potentially solid defensive defenseman, you have to wonder with Fraser and Donaghey if the Maple Leafs are considering adding another defenseman to their prospect group. My assumption based on my last article is they may extend an AHL contract to one of these players much like Zach Yuen whom I was really happy to see join the organization. For more information on Fraser, please see my earlier post below.

Image courtesy of Turning Point Sports Management

Zach Hall
Center
21 years old
5’11”, 185lbs
Barrie Colts – OHL

Throwing up a solid 70 points in 57 games for the Colts in his overage year, Hall is an intriguing prospect along the mold of Adam Hughesman who just recently signed with the Reading Royals of the ECHL (keep it up Adam!). Hall appears to be a prototypical late bloomer and although rated 158 in Central Scouting’s 2013 draft ranking, thehockeywriters.com indicated that Hall was “A good skater with excellent vision and playmaking ability…” and his high number of assists would definitely lend to that theory. Potentially another dark horse to watch out for.

Image courtesy of the Montreal Gazette

Luke Philp
Center
18 years old
5’10”, 177lbs
Kootenay Ice – WHL

Philp was the third highest scorer on the Kootenay Ice behind Sam Reinhart and Jaedon Descheneau putting up 77 points in 71 games and surpassing the 30 goal mark in only his second season with the team. Draft eligible in the 2014, Philp was ranked 80th amongst North American Skaters by Central Scouting (107 overall if I have these numbers figured out correctly). I couldn’t put much more information together that what was outlined about him on The Hockey Writers, so head over there at the link below to get a better read on Philp, its definitely worth it:

http://thehockeywriters.com/luke-philp-the-next-ones-2014-nhl-draft-prospect-profile/

So with all that being said, these are some pretty intriguing additions made to this years rookie tournament roster, especially if you look at the invitee’s in years past. Not knocking the collection of players who have attended in the past but the above definitely appears like management has made a concerned effort to have players attend this year that are legitimate prospects and possible assets for the club to consider in the future as opposed to just invitee’s to fill roster spots. Mixed in with the rest of the Maple Leafs prospects, I am personally really looking forward to seeing them hit the ice in September and hopefully they all make a positive impression before the end. As always, puck for thought.

2014 – 2015 Toronto Marlies Signing of Trio to AHL Contracts Potentially Signals Depth Perception Changes

The Toronto Marlies recently announced the signing of center Denver Manderson, left winger Brett Findlay and center Patrick Watling to one year American Hockey League (AHL) contracts for the upcoming 2014 – 2015 season. Given how closely together the signings occurred and the type of players signed, one could assume that this appears to signal the beginning of a more intense focus on depth related signings and longer shot prospect development for the club given their relative no risk nature…although it could simply be coincidence. However to lend to the argument, this trio of signings appear to coincide with the recent announcement of a two year extension of an affiliation agreement between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Orlando Solar Bears of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and with new assistant GM Kyle Dubas seemingly taking over the Marlies GM duties for recently departed Dave Poulin, there appears to be some evidence to support this theory.

The signings themselves appear to show a new willingness on the Marlies part to take on longer shot prospects by signing them to minor league only deals that (from what I understand) would not count against the 50 player contract cap, a definite change in their mindset. This would essentially allow the club to increase the size of their prospect pool while, if necessary, send a variety of players down to the Solar Bears if they cannot find space for them on the roster (I really would have to look at the league rules more closely but at first glance it seems like they really could sign a higher than average number of young players to minor league only deals).

If the Marlies were indeed doing this on purpose I would whole heart-idly applaud them for the forward thinking; by exploring all available options to the organization such as further increasing the size of their prospect pool or at minimum having players they are interested in much closer to the organization allowing them to evaluate their progress/potential up close, management are showing a shift in their approach to prospects that a lot of people felt was becoming somewhat necessary. Are these prospect further away from making an impact in terms of their skill? potentially yes, however if you have the funds necessary to take on larger risk prospects as the Maple Leafs most certainly do, then this change in thought is a good one given the old adage ‘you just never know’ when it comes to a young players development curve who could still very well develop into an impact player down the road.

These announcements also appear to coincide with the possible adjustment and realignment of the AHL that will see a number of new teams appear in the league on the West coast next season, signalling that things could become a lot more interesting on the prospect development front. If you have not yet already heard, a number of NHL clubs are having more and more difficulties with their prospects playing in markets that are significant distances away from the parent club. With travel and general lack of availability e.g. to place emergency callup’s, teams like the Edmonton Oilers for example who’s AHL affiliate team is located in Oklahoma, are pushing the AHL to establish ‘farm’ teams on the West coast and it appears the minor league is listening. What the AHL has proposed is to have a number of teams from the western portion of the ECHL join the AHL, like the Bakersfield Condors (who funnily enough were already purchased by the Oilers; forward thinking or perhaps a strategic acquisition). The vacuum of departed teams in the ECHL would then be filled by teams absorbed from the Central Hockey League (CHL) which is rumored to be struggling financially. This CHL shift could also further benefit the Maple Leafs as the nearby Brampton Beast, a current CHL team, would then become an ECHL team and the location couldn’t be more convenient; it will be interesting to see what happens when the Solar Bears agreement comes up for renewal in two years time if the above actually takes place.

Well, with all that being said and the possible impact it will have on the pool of Maple Leafs prospects what do Mr. Manderson, Mr. Findlay and Mr. Watling potentially bring to the Marlies other than depth? well I asked myself the same question in all honesty not being overly familiar with the players and here is what I found out.

Image courtesy of The Intelligencer

Denver Manderson is a 25 year old center hailing from Fergus, Ontario who last season spent time with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers (where he was better than a point per game player) ending the season with the Wilkes-Barres Scranton Penguins of the AHL where he put up a modest 11 points in 36 games. Possibly a little behind his peers of the same age in terms of development, the 5’10” 175lbs Manderson was forced to sit out the entire previous season after suffering a substantial shoulder injury.

“A goal-scoring machine for the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League, a Tier-II Junior A League in Canada, Manderson has turned himself into a player capable of playing in all situations during his time in the United States. He’ll be the quarterback of the power play this season for the Nailers, will center the No. 1 line, be the team’s top penalty killer, and is in charge of shutting down the opponent’s top unit.” The Intelligencer Wheeling News-Register.

Manderson is known to be more of a defensive and faceoff specialist but any guy with a history as a pretty solid goal scorer once he becomes more comfortable with the AHL game could potentially provide some timely goals.

Image courtesy of The Peterborough Examiner

Brett Findlay is a 21 year old left winger who split time in his first full professional season between the San Francisco Bulls (who unfortunately folded) and the Alaska Aces of the ECHL where before winning the Kelly Cup, he managed a combined 54 points in 69 games, of which 22 were goals ending the season a +8 (in some cases surpassing his junior stats). The Echo Bay, Ontario native stands at a modest 6’0″ and 189lbs but what I find most intriguing is his age, at 21 he is only recently removed from junior playing for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the Peterborough Pete’s (hey wait, didn’t Kyle Dubas work with the Greyhounds?) and the stats from his Overage (OA) year with the Pete’s although somewhat underwhelming did not properly reflect the player given the Pete’s year and the fact that Findlay was their leading scorer. More information on his season with Peterborough can be found in the below:

http://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/2013/07/19/former-pete-brett-findlay-signs-deal-with-echls-san-francisco-bulls-will-attend-training-camp-of-ahls-worcester-sharks

So what does Findlay potentially bring the Marlies? a versatile winger who can also play center who has already shown a penchant for scoring and general point production at the professional level. A deft skater in large part due to family influence (his mother Sandra Findlay is a power skating coach with the Greyhounds), it is noted that he has high end level vision but needed at the junior level to work on his consistency. As with any prospect Findlay will need guidance at the AHL level but with his apparent ability to learn quickly (just looking at his rookie production in the ECHL) and high end skating/vision he provides the Marlies with another upside prospect with little to no risk.

Patrick Watling is a 21 year old center and another Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound product with more obvious ties to the new Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas and just recently wrapped up his junior career putting up 54 points in 65 games this past season. Watling went undrafted in the 2012 draft, with a final ranking of 155 but had one of his most productive seasons with the Greyhounds a year later. At 6’0″ the Soo native has been working hard this summer to be in a better position to play against men, managing to pack on almost 20 pounds according to reports, bringing him much closer to 195lbs, which is an impressive feat in itself and if anything further demonstrates the determination of the player to make an impact at the next level.

From comments made online it sounds like Watling is being penciled in as a potential two way player with upside. Some useful statistics from ExtraSkater.com had Watling as 2nd on the team in terms of even strength assists and third on the team in even strength points overall. He did not appear to receive much power play time but according to the stats was counted upon immensely to bolster the Soo’s plenty kill. Sounds like he most likely be groomed as a two way third or fourth line center adding depth down the middle.

Well perhaps next time I blow by Mr. Dubas in Union Station in his snazzy grey suit I’ll finally work up the courage to stop him and ask some questions about his new direction on depth signings for the Marlies and overall prospect focus. However until then I can only but continue to speculate, as always puck for thought.