The Will Sports Group

The RIG 28 for May

May 5

Spitfires look to future on defence with signing of Henault
Jim Parker
Windsor Star

General manager Warren Rychel announced the Spitfires signed defenceman Louka Henault — the club’s second pick in April’s Ontario Hockey League Draft — to a standard player and education package.

The signing of Henault, who is a left-hand shot, comes just over a week after the team signed defenceman and first-round pick Nathan Staios.

“With the uncertainty of Sergy (Mikhail Sergachev) and (Sean) Day, there’s a great opportunity here for them,” Rychel said.

Sergachev started this season with the Montreal Canadiens before being sent back to Windsor, but could make the jump to the NHL full time next year. Day is also eligible to return, but the New York Rangers have the option to send the former exceptional status prospect to the minors next season. The club will also lose co-captain Jalen Chatfield to graduation.

“We got two good defencemen,” Rychel said after drafting the pair.

The Spitfires selected the five-foot-11, 180-pound Henault in the fifth round of the draft with the 96th pick overall.

“It was tough, but I’m really happy I got drafted by Windsor,” said the 16-year-old Henault, who was born in Montreal and moved to the Toronto area when he was 10. “I watched them play and met with some of the coaches (before the draft) and it seems like a great organization.”

In 81 games with the Toronto Marlies minor midgets last season, Henault had 11 goals and 56 points along with 32 penalty minutes.

“Just happy to get him,” Rychel said of Henault. “I talked to Dan Brown (the father of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Connor Brown), who coaches the Marlies, and (Henault) was his favourite player and the smartest player he had at the back end.”

Henault attended last month’s prospects camp with the Spitfires and was one of the players that stood out to Rychel. He said both Henault and Staios are capable of running a power play with Staios a little more dynamic offensively and Henault a little better defensively.

Henault is currently with the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s Red Team at the OHL Gold Cup in Kitchener, which is a stepping stone to Canada’s World Under-17 Hockey Challenge team.

“My vision and skating are my two biggest strengths,” Henault said. “I can put pucks on the tape and make the right play. My weakness is I might not be strong enough.”


May 11

May 18

P-Bruins 4, Bears 2: Jordan Szwarz scores twice as Providence wins Game 7

May 24

From Brentwood Bay to Stanley Cup final: Matt Irwin is living the dream
Cleve Dheensaw
Times Colonist

Defenceman Matt Irwin of Brentwood Bay knows he is living a storyline dreamed by any kid who has ever walked into an arena dressing room to suit up.

His journey began in the Peninsula Recreation Centre. It has led to the 2017 Stanley Cup final as the Nashville Predators make their first appearance in franchise history.

“It’s crazy … so cool … but it’s perhaps not totally sunk in yet,” the former Nanaimo Clippers BCHL junior star said.

“This is what you play 82 games for in the regular season. All 30 NHL teams set out to do this. Only 16 get the chance and there will only be two left — and we are one of them, with a shot at the ultimate prize. As a group, we’re really excited by this chance. It’s an opportunity you dream of, but you don’t get here every year.”

Irwin and the Western Conference champion Preds await the winner of tonight’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final between the Ottawa Senators and defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the past decade, Rod Brind’Amour has brought the Stanley Cup to Campbell River and Willie Mitchell to Port McNeill. But don’t book that Cup parade down Wallace Drive just yet. Irwin is close, yet so far.

“We have not reached our goal yet. The hardest games are still ahead of us,” he said.

There will be an advantage because it will be a fresh Nashville squad, with a full week’s rest after its Game 6 victory Monday against Anaheim, for the puck drop in Game 1 of the final Monday in either Pittsburgh or Ottawa.

“We are using the time to regroup, relax and rest up after a lot of hockey played with speed and intensity,” Irwin said of the rare playoff break.

“That is as important mentally as it is physically.”

The 29-year-old former San Jose Shark said he has no preference between the Senators or Penguins.

“We beat a physical Anaheim team, a Chicago team with speed, and a St. Louis team that is a combination of both,” he said, noting Nashville’s victims on the road to the Stanley Cup final.

“We are confident we can adapt to any style.”

The six-foot-one, 210-pound Irwin has resurrected his career in Nashville by providing depth minutes for a vaunted Predators blue-line led by the standout top four of P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Roman Josi.

“Our top four defencemen are so creative offensively and solid defensively. For me, it’s about giving consistent minutes,” said Irwin, a former Saanich Braves Junior B player whose No. 44 jersey is retired and hanging from the rafters of Pearkes Arena.

It’s been quite a fish-out-of-water ride for the first-year Pred from the Island as Music City USA had suddenly become Hockey Town USA.

“The fans have really pushed us … they are our seventh man,” Irwin said.

“It’s been a crazy experience to be part of this. The city and whole state of Tennessee are excited because this is a first for this organization.”


May 25

Senators prospects Brown and Chabot also enjoying lengthy playoff runs
Ken Warren
Ottawa Citizen

If the Saint John Sea Dogs defeat Erie in the Memorial Cup semifinal Friday, Brown will be up against another future Senator, star defenceman Thomas Chabot.

Chabot, drafted 18th overall in 2015 by the Senators, has had a dominating season with Saint John, scoring 10 goals and 35 assists in 34 regular season games. He was also the best defenceman at the world junior tournament while playing for Team Canada and was outstanding in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs, racking up five goals and 18 assists in 18 games.

All of that after Lee publicly criticized Chabot’s mediocre performance at the club’s development camp 11 months ago.

“I’m surprised that got as much press as it did, but the kid embraced it,” said Lee. “He worked really hard.”

Lee is also over the moon with how Chabot keeps on going after the heavy load of hockey he has played.

“To still be able to perform at this point, with all the pressure put on him, and the amount of attention he has received, is impressive,” he said.

In an odd twist, Chabot was consistently challenged by Colin White, an American, in the world junior championship game. White, of course, is now with the Senators and played in Ottawa’s 2-1 Game 6 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“Colin (White) was hacking and whacking him, but (Chabot) was still able to elevate. When targeted, most players diminish. His didn’t,” he said. “Colin played well, too. They both did their jobs.”

Lee says Chabot and White, who could both be in the Senators’ lineup next season, share a mutual respect.


May 27

Chabot’s passion, skill evident all through Mastercard Memorial Cup
Ryan Dixon

WINDSOR, Ont. – Thomas Chabot’s passion and skill was on display until the bitter end.

With his Saint John Sea Dogs down three goals in the final flickers of the third period, Chabot was still playing as if his floppy hair was on fire, ferociously driving the net and depositing a crucial tally right before ploughing into Erie Otters goalie Troy Timpano.

Then, when an Erie empty-netter meant all the effort was for naught, Chabot splintered his stick against a post as red as his angry mood. All he could do after that was glide to the bench and ride out the final 34 seconds of his incredible major junior career.

Chabot competed in his last game as a Sea Dog on Friday night in Windsor, his team being eliminated from the Mastercard Memorial Cup thanks to a 6-3 semifinal loss at the hands of the powerhouse Otters. The setback was the final act in a season that saw Chabot make his NHL debut with the Ottawa Senators, deliver an MVP performance for silver-medal winning Team Canada at the World Junior Championship and, ultimately, come up short in his quest to deliver a national title for the only junior squad he ever skated for.

“It hurts, obviously, but we can’t just think about the four games we played here,” Chabot said. “We’ve got to think about the 80 others we played this year.”

You can bet, for the vast majority of those, No. 5 was the best player wearing a Saint John uniform, running the show from his spot on the blue-line. And given that brilliant precedent, it was certainly strange to see Chabot take two second-period penalties against Erie and rack up 14 penalty minutes overall in four Memorial Cup games after recording just 12 minutes in 18 QMJHL playoff outings.

Chabot had no real explanation for the infractions, other than stating that sometimes your stick just ends up between the wrong feet at the wrong time. But considering the 20-year-old’s overall body of work, don’t expect the rare rash of penalties to linger in anybody’s mind for long. Despite spending an unusual amount of time in the box, he still registered two goals and four points this week.

“He’s an amazing defenceman and he’s a good person on and off the ice,” said Erie’s Taylor Raddysh, Chabot’s opponent on Friday and teammate from the 2017 WJC. “He’s a leader.”

Sin-bin excursions notwithstanding, that notion was evident all game. No. 5 logged his typical ton of ice time, moving his lanky 6-foot-2 frame around the ice with enviable ease. And when he spotted a chance to join the rush late in the third, Chabot took off like a shot, determined to drag his team back from the brink.

“You can just see the speed he has, the hockey IQ,” said Sea Dogs centre Joe Veleno, himself a top prospect for the 2018 NHL Draft. “He’s gonna make things happen every time he’s on the ice. He’s a big player and you know he’s got a bright future.”

One day after the team that drafted him was bounced in double overtime from the NHL’s Eastern Conference Final, Chabot — the 18th overall selection in 2015 — didn’t want to talk about what’s ahead other than to say his goal is to be a Senator next fall. And the notion of him joining a blue-line that already features singular talent Erik Karlsson should help Sens fans emerge from their current fog of despair.

Soon enough, Chabot will turn his attention to making that scenario a reality. But while still wearing sweat-drenched Sea Dogs gear, he was thinking about his entire major junior journey.

“You walk in there, 16 years old … for me, I wasn’t speaking a word in English,” he said. “You get in there as a young kid and you leave there as a young adult.”

With more growth yet to come, it’s easy to see why people are so excited about Chabot’s next phase.


May 29

Matt Irwin’s humbling journey from AHL scratch to Stanley Cup Final
Kevin Allen
USA Today

PITTSBURGH — Nashville Predators defenseman Matt Irwin had times during the 2015-16 season when he wondered whether he would ever play in the NHL again.

“You are a scratch in the AHL,” Irwin said. “How are going to play in the NHL?”

Irwin had a plus-minus of -5 in his first two games in a Boston Bruins jersey in 2015-16 and they sent him to the Providence Bruins in the American Hockey League. It didn’t help his confidence when he was scratched in a handful of games there, including in the team’s playoff elimination game.

“It was a rocky road there as well, but you learn from those experiences,” Irwin said.

Today, this story is merely a reminder of how thankful Irwin is that he’s a third-pairing defenseman on a Predators team that is playing in the Stanley Cup Final. At 29, Irwin has finally found the right fit, and is playing the right way, to be a valuable contributor on a good team.

When Predators general manager David Poile called Irwin to welcome him to the team as a free agent acquisition, the first words he said to him were: “Are you ready to turn the page?”

Irwin said Poile couldn’t have chosen better words to remind him what needed to be done.

“I wouldn’t say I have changed (my style) drastically,” Irwin said. “Just more defensive responsible. The biggest thing is the trust and confidence the coaches have in me.”

Irwin was demoted to the minors by the Predators at the start of this season, but was called up when several players became ill. He was never returned to Milwaukee. He had 14 points, and was plus-14, in 74 regular-season games.

In the playoffs, he’s playing 10-12 minutes and he’s plus-two. He is paired with Yannick Weber on the third pairing.

“Everyone always talks about our top two, or top four defensemen,” Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. “But I really believe we have one of the best top six in the league.”

Nashville assistant general manager Paul Fenton was Irwin’s savior because he told Poile that Irwin would be a good fit with the Predators.

Fenton tried to sign Irwin when I came out of U-Mass Amherst as a free agent in 2010 only to lose him to the San Jose Sharks. Fenton also tried to sign Irwin for the Predators in 2015 when he signed with the Bruins.

“I had known him for a long, long time,” Fenton said. “I called him and said, ‘Matt, is the third time the charm?’ I told him if you sign with us, I’m going to get you an opportunity to play here. I’m the one who believes you can play regularly in the National Hockey League again. I said, ‘You are going to get that from no one else. So why don’t you come and believe me this time’ and he did.”

Irwin makes it clear that the year spent in the Boston organization humbled him. He had played 153 NHL games with the Sharks before he landed in Boston and wasn’t prepared for his demotion. Self-doubt showed up.

“It obviously goes through your head,” Irwin said. “We are all human. To get sent down was disappointing. You start to doubt yourself.”

Today, the Predators’ confidence in him seems unwavering. Said Poile: “He’s a third-pairing guy but when we have any injuries, he’s the guy getting moved up to the top four.”

May 30

Ryan Kennedy
The Hockey News

The future looks bright in Ottawa thanks to newly-crowned best defenseman in all of junior hockey: Thomas Chabot. And he appears to be ready for the NHL.

The Ottawa Senators made a stunning run in the post-season, coming within a single goal of the Stanley Cup final. And while there is much to celebrate surrounding the greatness of Erik Karlsson, the resiliency of Craig Anderson and Clarke MacArthur, and the tactical forcefulness of coach Guy Boucher, it’s worth noting that the future looks pretty bright in Ottawa, too.

From two-way center Colin White to Memorial Cup champion Logan Brown, the Sens have some nice pieces up front. On the back end, they have the newly-crowned best defenseman in all of junior: Thomas Chabot.

The Saint John Sea Dogs stalwart fell in his final junior game to the Memorial Cup runners-up from Erie, but along the way he further cemented his status as a minute-munching game-changer on the back end. Even if he can’t reach the lofty heights of Ottawa’s current ace defenseman, Chabot stands to be an impact blueliner who has impressed opponents with his excellence.

“He’s a great player,” said Erie captain Dylan Strome. “He’s gonna be pretty scary with Karlsson back there.”
Chabot had a buffet of important experiences in his junior days. The confident puckmover and all-around talent has two world juniors under his belt (earning a silver medal this year) and now a QMJHL title and Memorial Cup berth. But it was his training camp and brief tenure with the Senators at the beginning of this season that really opened his eyes.

“I had the chance to be in Ottawa for two months, Chabot said. “That’s where I probably learned the most about myself on and off the ice. Coming from junior, you learn the NHL is a job like how my parents go to a job every morning. You have to show up and work as hard as you can every day and going on road trips, I had a chance to see how the boys take care of themselves on and off the ice.”

What will be most interesting now is to see how fast Chabot can make an impact with the Senators. Naturally, he won’t have to log insane minutes right away – what with Karlsson doing that, and all – but he will have to fight for a place on a ‘D’ corps that really came together under Boucher’s new regime. Marc Methot, Cody Ceci and Dion Phaneuf rounded out the top four, while Mark Borowiecki, Chris Wideman and Fredrik Claesson also played roles in the team’s success.

Still, another long training camp will help the continuing education of Chabot, even if he has to spend some time after that with the franchise’s new AHL affiliate in Belleville (personally, I think he’ll make it, especially if Ottawa loses a D-man in the Vegas expansion draft). And the carrot of playing with Karlsson at some point is a pretty strong incentive.

“To have the chance to maybe play with him one day would be special,” Chabot said. “Everyone knows he’s so great on the ice and a one-of-a-kind. I’m going to try and learn as much as I can from him.”
The best part is that Chabot has an entire pro career ahead of him. The fact he has already done a lot of maturing both on and off the ice speaks to the adversity he was willing to go through to make his junior dreams come true.

“I came into Saint John as a young kid,” he said. “I grew up near Quebec City in a small town where people only spoke French and next thing you know I get drafted to Saint John, New Brunswick – I didn’t even know where that was. I get to the city and everyone speaks English; I don’t speak a word of English. It feels like I started yesterday and all of a sudden I’m done.”

But there is far, far more to come from young Chabot – and the Ottawa Senators will be all the better for it.


Syracuse Crunch’s Mitchell Stephens feels right at home jumping into postseason lineup
Lindsay Kramer

Syracuse, N.Y. — Rookie center Mitchell Stephens has reached a clear conclusion after practicing with the Syracuse Crunch the past few weeks.

“This team’s really good. The depth in this organization, it’s unbelievable,” Stephens said Tuesday.

That assessment alone hardly qualifies Stephens for a future as a scout. Syracuse’s loaded roster has carried it to the Calder Cup Finals, where it will meet Grand Rapids in Game 1 on Friday in Van Andel Arena.

What’s truly impressive about Stephens’ powers of observation coming out of junior hockey is the way he avoided getting too caught up in what he saw. He certainly appreciated the skills of his new teammates. But he also didn’t have to squint to envision himself racing right along with them.

It was a quiet confidence, but also one grounded in reality. And now, with the Crunch at the doorstep of the AHL championship, Stephens has worked his way into position to get pressure minutes at the most important time of the season.

Stephens, 20, made his pro playoff debut in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against Providence. He earned a lineup spot in Games 4 and 5 as well, working on a trouble-creating line with Byron Froese and Kevin Lynch.

It takes rare potential for a rookie to break in at this point of the season. For instance, current Lightning forward Cedric Paquette showed that type of ability in debuting for the Crunch against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals.

“I guess my first game was a little nerve-wracking because I hadn’t played in five weeks. But you have to sort of take the good with the bad. The nerves will go away once you step on the ice,” Stephens said.

“I thought he gets better every game. I thought with Lynch and Froese, they were a pretty good line the other night,” said Syracuse coach Ben Groulx. “I think they manufactured six scoring chances, a lot of momentum in the offensive zone. They wear down defensemen. He was part of it. I really like what he’s doing.”

Inexperience aside, there was every reason to believe Stephens, a Tampa Bay second-round pick in 2015, could be a postseason factor.

Stephens earned a spot on Canada’s entry in this year’s World Junior tournament and also had strong efforts in both Saginaw (11-17) and London (11-14) of the OHL this year.

And he got a little whiff of what he was getting into last year, when he skated five games in Syracuse at the end of his season in Saginaw.

“The biggest thing for me was to come in, maybe I wasn’t going to get an opportunity to play. But I was going to show the coaches and the players that I was ready to work in practice and off the ice,” Stephens said of this postseason. “I got a chance to play. For me, in this lineup, it’s pretty big for the confidence aspect. It’s exciting. There’s a lot of guys in this room that are very welcoming. There’s a big team, family atmosphere in this room. So it’s pretty cool to be a part of.”

Linemate Lynch is among the many that Stephens has impressed.

“I feel like these kids, just younger and younger, they come up and they can just adapt pretty quickly. He was just getting better and better with each shift and each period,” Lynch said of the action against Providence. “We just got better and better as a line. We had a lot of good shifts. We had some good offensive opportunities. He’s just a smart player on the ice. He knows where to be. He gets in there. He’s not afraid to go to the dirty areas. And you can see his skill level, too.”

Whatever Stephens accomplishes now will have a chance to carry over into next season for Syracuse. He’s old enough to be a full-time AHLer in 2017-18.

But it appears Stephens has caught on to the task at hand enough to understand how much there’s to be done before then.

“It’s a big family atmosphere down there (in the team room). That’s why we’re winning games,” he said. “With four lines, plus guys that we have on this team, I bet you can throw many guys in the lineup and they could do the job. So, being in the Calder Cup Final now it’s huge. Everyone wants to win this. We’ve come so far. You might as well win.”