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Bluelines: Spotlight On the Underrated Mika Zibanejad

Stan Fischler shares his conversation with NHLAA executive director Glenn Healy, recaps the week of NHL action, spotlights Mika Zibanejad and more.
Mika Zibanejad

NOTHING WEAK ABOUT THIS SIX-POINTED PRE-WEEKEND WAR CHANT

1. Urgent scheduling memo to fans currently unhappy with their team: It's a marathon, not a sprint.

2. Military man John Tortorella has some General George S. Patton in him. That's why he's one of the precious few coaches who can will his team to win.

3. Non-military man – but a very wise man – Marty St. Louis has the ability to "smart" his much-maligned Habs to Hockey Heaven. The little guy mastered the art of smart.

4. Edmonton lost 4-2 to Buffalo at home last Tuesday. What did it prove? The Sabres backup goalie, Eric Comrie, is better than the leaky Oilers' Stu Skinner. And better than leaky Soupy Campbell.

5. Adam Fox is leading Cale Makar in my Norris Trophy race. And Tony DeAngelo is ahead of both of them.

6. What impressed me Thursday night:

* Sabres over Flames in Calgary.

* Oilers over Canes, which has long-range significance if they meet in the playoffs.

* Leafs over Stars. It just may be a turning point for the NHL’s nutsiest team.

* Pittsburgh getting good-scarier by the week – even in goal.

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SPECIAL HOCKEY PEOPLE – GLENN HEALY, THE RETIRED PLAYERS’ SAVIOR

Whenever a big-league hockey player retires, he immediately must ask himself the inevitable question: "Now what?" Up until about four years ago, a confused retiree didn't know what to do or who to seek for help. Then along came Glenn Healy with an answer where he heads the NHL Alumni Association. (NHLAA).

Healy is the kind of guy you want in your corner. I know that for a fact having worked with the former goalkeeper during his successful years as an Islander and thereafter.

‘Heals’ could be good for laughs. Could be good for bagpiping, which he does better than most. Could be good for anything because this is one very special fellow who touches all of life's bases. In other words, he gets it.

Right now, I'm more interested in the home runs he keeps hitting as the very effective executive director of the much-appreciated NHL Alumni Association. He's like Mister Everything for retired NHL players. I really mean everything.

"Glenn has succeeded in helping players transition into life after hockey," said NHLAA Board member Paul Kelly and former players' union boss. "And he's done that job exceptionally well."

Or, as Healy recently put it to me, "We honor the past. We respect those who came before us and blazed the trail for the players of today."

What Glenn – a former NHL Stanley Cup-winner (Rangers 1994) and Islanders hero (1993) – has become is a multi-person. He's a combo father-confessor, rabbi, guru and everything else that has turned the NHLAA into a super get-well group.

"For a lot of the guys, retirement isn’t easy," Healy explained. "A player goes from a structured life for however many years with his hockey team, and now all of a sudden, his life isn't structured anymore."

Retirement can be a smooth transition for some, but it sure ain't for others. Divorce, financial problems, you name it, they intrude and cause potholes to be addressed. These issues can be frustrating for former players and – if not treated – drive them down the boulevard of broken dreams.

Healy and his very efficient group of 14 are there to answer the S.O.S. But I often have wondered why this happy-go-lucky bagpiper – and much underrated goalie – moved into such a challenging role?

"It started with The Great One," Healy told me. "I got a call one day from Wayne Gretzky and we met in Toronto. He said, ‘We (retired players) deserve better, and we can't do this without you.’ "

Healy, who can be very funny, took Gretzky very seriously and continues doing so. The NHLAA has dramatically grown in the four years since Glenn assumed the leadership role. Plus, it not only survived the Covid crisis but has continued to grow.

"With Glenn's direction," Kelly asserted, "the NHLAA also is involved with many active programs to grow the sport, and that includes NHL Alumni hosting 'Learn to Skate' and other youth hockey programs."

It's said that "By their works shall ye know them." And, in that regard, the association has been infused with confidence based in large part by its success rate in supporting and helping to rehab retirees who need assistance.

“ ‘Enjoy’ is one word I use for our work,” Healy said. “We stress that idea, 'Every day I can make the next day.' And my role is to provide that structure.

"We've also been working to improve financial assistance such as the 'Senior Player Benefit' which has been doubled in size. In everything we do, it's about making tomorrow better than today.

"Let's face it, every player will retire, and – no matter how long or short his career – we want to make sure that the transition works."

Glenn Healy knows firsthand that his NHLAA is doing its job. The endless "Thank You's" that he regularly receives underline the point.

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DIDJA KNOW THAT ONE PLAYER IN NHL HISTORY came from a Canadian town spelled the same way, forward and backward? Forward Dave Balon of Wakaw,

Sask. was the guy. And only one NHL player came from a town that no longer exists: Forward Aldo Guidolin from the former Forks Of Credit, Ont.

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BEST COLUMN OF THE MONTH: A MAGAZINE ARTICLE WORTH READING – THE WRONG KIND OF CONTRACTS

Every so often, the esteemed Athletic publication comes up with a genuinely well-written and very thoughtful piece. This one by the insightful Shayna Goldman is special because it touches a sensitive hockey nerve. The title said it all. It's called, "Why NHL teams are betting with long-term deals on younger, less-proven players." The following few excerpts will make you think. And, after critiquing the essay, my sidekick Irad Chen concluded it's a compelling piece of hockey journalism. Now, you be the judge.

Generally, only elite players are signed to massive contracts in their 20s – think Connor McDavid and Cale Makar. Adam Fox earned a max deal after two stellar seasons at the NHL level before his ELC expired. Miro Heiskanen was inked for eight years even younger at 21 years old because the Stars view him as a franchise player. But outside of those cornerstones, it’s not uncommon to see bridge deals or mid-range contracts after entry-level deals expire. Those major signings, instead, have been reserved for more established players, whether as a contract extension in a player’s late 20s or a splashy deal to land an unrestricted free agent. But the value of those contracts, especially free agency deals, has often been a lot lower than expected.

A simple way to avoid? Pay players sooner.

But there’s also been a lot of hesitation from front offices to take that risk on their younger players, outside of the elite. That’s starting to change, especially with the wave of deals over the last few months. (Look at Mattias Samuelsson, Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou and Tage Thompson among others).

Teams have been burned by signing aging skaters – not just stars, but mid-tier players leading the free agent market – before. And in many cases, it’s required a lot of maneuvering (and assets) to shed the cap space they absorbed. That’s why it makes sense for teams to find the right time for those contracts to maximize the return on their investments.

That right time is through a player’s prime so the contract covers current and future performance. So, if Kyrou, Thomas, Stutzle, Norris, Hughes, and so on, follow the path of a traditional aging curve, these contracts should look great for years to come.

If. That’s what holds some managers back from jumping on this trend. The uncertainty. Some teams may want to see how these contracts shake out in the early years first. Others, like the Sabres, Senators, and Blues, have shown their willingness to dive in – and do so a year early.

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WHO SAID IT? "What for? I get enough practice during the games."

(ANSWER BELOW)

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Yays and Boos

YAYS AND BOOS:

YAY TO THE SHARKS for honoring San Jose legend Brent Burns with a special video when he recently returned to his former home. The defenseman had played 788 games for the Sharks.

YAY TO PAUL WOODS for reaching his 3,000th game as a Red Wings radio guy.

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BIG QUESTION: (This from Sportsnet's Ken Wiebe.)

Are teams gravitating toward leadership groups to replace captains?

BIG ANSWER: If they are, it's a big mistake. The last team to win the Stanley Cup without a captain was the 1972 Boston Bruins led by non-captain Bobby Orr.

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SPOTLIGHT ON THE UNDERRATED – MIKA ZIBANEJAD

Every month, we'll ferret out a superior player who – for one reason or another – slips under the radar. Our current choice, Mika Zibanejad, deserves a lot more attention than he receives.

Whatever the reason, our Sean McCaffrey believes that it's time to keep him in mind for the Selke Trophy which routinely is awarded to prolific scorers who also attend to defensive play. Listen up to McCaffrey:

The Swedish-born center has placed in previous Selke Trophy races but has never finished better than 15th place. (He finished 30th overall in 2020 and 15th overall in 2022.) However, as his bank account has grown, so has his play on the ice.

Zibanejad has become one of the NHL's top centers and continues to improve.

The 29-year-old scored 74 points for a rebuilding Rangers' club during the 2018-19 campaign. A season later, he was the NHL's hottest scorer prior to shutdown, when he finished the campaign with 75 points in only 57 games.

Despite a season from hell (2020-21), Zibanejad still flirted with a point-per-game average, having scored 50 points in 56 games played during another pandemic-plagued campaign. And last season, he set career highs in assists (52) and points (81).

For a Selke Trophy that has historically honored centers who can rack up the points, Mika has that department covered.

Defensively, there is no better Rangers' forward and when No. 93 isn't scoring shorthanded goals, he's constantly clearing pucks, where he makes these high-pressure situations look easy.

Overlooked by many is the fact that he's a three-zone player who also plays on the first penalty-killing and power-play units. In other words, the man bears watching in the Selke Derby.

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I'M JUST SAYIN'

* In Boston, they're chirping "Who needs Bruce Cassidy?"

* In Vegas they're chirping, "We do."

* Mention the name Erik Kallgren and it doesn't sound like a goalie.

* Now's his chance to really make a name for himself and boost the Leafs.

* Watching the Stars, I can't make up my mind whether Peter DeBoer has made Jake Oettinger a better goalie or whether ‘Jake the Rake’ has made Duke DeBoer a better coach.

* Famous Last Words Of A Losing Coach: "I didn't like our start."

* If somehow Fred Andersen can remain healthy, I like him in the Vezina race.

* The Toronto Sun's Steve Simmons said that the Senators didn't trust Matt Murray to be healthy.

* So far, Murray has made Ottawa and Steve look smart.

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IS THIS GUY WORTH THIS KIND OF DOUGH? KASPERI KAPANEN

OK; so Pittsburgh is off to a soothing start. And Sidney Crosby is almost allowing us to forget Viscount McDavid and Master Matthews. Even Evgeni Malkin has been caught – in a weak moment – actually backchecking. But the Penguins need more if they're Cup-serious.

To that end, Ron Hextall went a little nuts opening the vault for Kappy. He won a two-year extension with a $3.2 million cap-hit deal. Hextall must figure he's worth it. But we have a Penguins maven, Irad Chen, who has his own view and squeezes it into a mild rant below: Take it away, Irad:

Kapanen is the only Penguins first round draft pick from the past 17 years who still plays for them. (Former Pens GM Jim Rutherford reacquired him from Toronto in the summer of 2020.) Kapanen showed potential in Toronto and did not disappoint when he returned to Pittsburgh, posting 11 goals and 30 points in 40 games in the short 2020-21 season.

Last year, things got ugly. He delivered just 11 goals and 32 points in 79 games, while occasionally being scratched.

“I wasn’t really enjoying hockey for the majority of the year," Kapanen admitted. "It was a bad year, probably the worst I’ve had so far. I’m just trying to get back to my roots and being the player that I used to be.”

Nevertheless, ‘Hexy’ gifted him big-time. Is he worth it? No.

I'll grant that ‘Kappy’ has good speed and hands and seems to fit well into Mike Sullivan’s system. However, he hasn’t fully adapted his game to the North American drive-to-the-net style. Too often, he carries the puck inside the offensive zone with speed, getting below the hashmarks. Then, unfortunately, the puck is turned over and that's that.

This season. the ‘Kap Man’ has a chance to redeem himself playing on the third line with veteran Jeff Carter.

But until we see redemption in the form of 20-plus goals and 45-plus points, he’s not worth his contract. This is especially true when you consider that players such as Danton Heinen and Evan Rodrigues (for Colorado) have done better for the Pens. Heinen signed for much less money than Kapanen.

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ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT: Rangers goalie Gump Worsley, asked why he does not put more effort into team practices.

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