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Toronto Maple Leafs Reminiscent of Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers – The Hockey Writers

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During yesterday’s Toronto Maple Leafs 8-6 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, I thought I had been transported 35 years back in time. As a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for 40 years, I cut my hockey teeth watching the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the mid-1980s.

Related: Witnessing the Maple Leafs’ New Puck-Possession Philosophy in Action

That Oilers team was amazing. Wayne Gretzky was an assist-first, goal-scoring machine. Jari Kurri was a sniper who could finish like few others. One season, goalie Grant Fuhr started 75 games. Glen Sather was a creative young coach who structured a youthful team and then let them freewheel their on-ice skills.

The Oilers had bangers, speedy skaters, scorers, offensive defensemen, good coaching, and confidence – oodles and oodles of confidence. Even if they were behind by a couple of goals going into the third period, Oilers’ fans knew to stay tuned to their televisions or to not leave the building. Every so often, there was a low-scoring game; but most games ended something like 6-4, Oilers win. In 1985-86, the team scored 426 goals (5.325 per game) and gave up 310 (3.875 per game).

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to captain John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

To show the team’s scoring prowess, in that 1985-86 season – the season rookie defenseman Steve Smith accidentally banked the puck into his own net and allowed the Calgary Flames to beat the Oilers in the conference finals, Gretzky, Kurri, and Glenn Anderson each scored 50 goals. Kurri led the NHL with 68 goals. Paul Coffey set a record for most goals in a season by a defenseman with 48 and came one short of Bobby Orr’s points record with 138 (Orr had 139 points in 1970-71). Gretzky set a record with 163 assists and 215 points.

Related: NHL Rumors: Islanders, Maple Leafs, Rangers, More

The Maple Leafs’ 8-6 win over the Hurricanes was Gretzky-vintage Oilers. Gretzky’s part was played by Mitch Marner. Auston Matthews played the role of Kurri. Zach Hyman played Anderson. Tyson Barrie made a Coffey-like move on the goalie’s doorstep to score. Frederik Andersen became Fuhr. And young Sheldon Keefe became Sather. It was classic Oilers – fast, unpredictable, exciting, and crowd-pleasing. Oh, and the Maple Leafs won.

Andersen Stopped the Hurricanes When He Needed To

Andersen gave up six goals on 40 shots. It wasn’t a
typical Andersen showing; he’s more likely to give up only a couple goals a
game. But he stopped the opponents when he needed to. Although nothing like the
5-foot-10 Fuhr in stature, he played like Fuhr, who was the best goalie ever
for giving up five easier goals and then stopping five breakaways in the last
eight minutes to steal a victory.

Marner Was a Puck Magician

After a horrible second period, the Maple Leafs’ 3-0 lead evaporated and they were down 5-3 starting period three. Suddenly the offense exploded, and Marner’s highlight-reel goal after what looked like a planned faceoff play was lightning in a bottle. It will be shown, again and again, both for fans’ pleasure but also in video reviews by Maple Leafs opponents. Mitch Marner had five points (two goals) in the game.

Barrie Scores at the Net  

Barrie’s goal showed both the freedom Keefe’s been encouraging him to take and the best of Marner’s magic. While the play was whirling around them, both players stopped the action in their minds, saw a possibility, and created a perfect scoring play. It looked exactly like a Coffey-Gretzky hook-up. It was patient. It was considered. And, it worked.

Toronto Maple Leafs Tyson Barrie
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Tyson Barrie (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Barrie scored both his points in the third period. He assisted on Marner’s first goal of the game to cut the Hurricanes’ lead to 6-5 and scored the game-tying goal less than a minute later. As I say, it was lightning in a bottle. Barrie now has four goals and 17 points in 38 contests this year. He looks like what fans expected when he came from the Colorado Avalanche.

Matthews Can Be More than a Skilled Sniper

Matthews scored a goal and an assist in the 8-6 victory. It was his 24th goal of the season and pushed his point streak to five games. But two things about Matthews’ play caught my eye. First, his beautiful spin-o-rama assist on Marner’s goal was creative and confident. Second, everywhere Matthews skated, you could see him assessing the play on the ice.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner and Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

He’s simply seeing the ice better, and as that skill grows he’ll
become more than a skilled shooter. Matthews now has 43 points in 38 games this season.

Hyman Has 3 Assists

Few players in the NHL play like Hyman. He’s a perfect set-up player for Matthews and Marner, and his three assists came on goals by Matthews, Barrie, and Pierre Engvall (an empty-netter to seal the victory). Although his assist on the Barrie goal was a secondary assist, it was a typical Hyman play. He not only got the puck to Marner, but he created the chaos in front of the net that Barrie’s goal snuck through.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Mikheyev, Engvall, Kerfoot, Barrie, Sandin

Hyman now has scored six points (two goals
and four assists) in his last two games playing with line-partners Matthews and
Marner. It’s a line of Keefe’s creation, and it’s working big time.

The Maple Leafs Were Both Exciting and
Successful

I’m sure many hockey thinkers believe such rollicking hockey can’t be played successfully over a season, and perhaps they’re correct. But, as I recall, the Oilers of the mid-1980s were a dynasty and played this way night after night. It’s a style of play that keeps fans on their feet both at the arena and, I’m sure, in their living rooms in front of the television. In fact, this was a perfect game to see at your local sports bar.

Related: Maple Leafs Rookie Report: Engvall, Mikheyev Earning Trust of Teammates

It’s also a style of play that’s exciting for the players, which Marner summed up well when he talked about his own juices during the game.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitchell Marner
Toronto Maple Leafs Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Derik Hamilton)

“Our adrenaline is pumping, our hearts are pumping, you’re fired up. The first one was a great pass by Matty, the second one a great play by Barrie to find that open spot and make that move. The third one I jumped through and saw their D-man have it, saw their other D-man folding out, and tried to get it. Lucky enough, I picked it off, got down the ice and was able to score.” (from Maple Leafs complete third-period comeback to improbably beat Hurricanes, Terry Koshan, The Toronto Sun, 12/23/19)

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Hyman, Marner, Tavares, Pietrangelo

That’s why the Maple Leafs win over the Hurricanes reminded me so much of the 1980s Oilers dynasty. That was fantastic hockey.

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Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Campbell, Spezza, Engvall, Calling Leaders – The Hockey Writers

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Where did Saturday’s game come from? In the three seasons that I’ve covered the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was one of the strangest games I watched. The team was overwhelmed. There was every chance to come in and play well against what should have been an under-manned Pittsburgh Penguins’ squad; but, a final score of 7-1 for the Penguins shows it didn’t happen. 

Related: Frederik Andersen’s Legacy: One of the Best Maple Leafs’ Goalies Ever

The question that remains for the Maple Leafs as a team is whether this current funk is a short one or whether it’s symptomatic of deeper issues. There’s a saying attributed to William Arthur Ward that “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

The question now is what the Maple Leafs will do to adjust the sails. Although there’s great value in optimism, for as optimistic a face as head coach Sheldon Keefe shows the public, having watched him in the Amazon Prime Documentary “All or Nothing,” you have to know Keefe isn’t singing “Kum Ba Yah” behind the scenes when he’s not answering the media’s questions. 

Keefe’s a realist and is surrounded by realists. What will happen now? In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at Jack Campbell’s odd night. Second, I’ll look at Jason Spezza’s continuing contributions to the team. Finally, I’ll consider Maple Leafs’ current team leadership.

Item One: Time for a Jack Campbell Mulligan

The stats line shows that Maple Leafs’ starting goalie Jack Campbell let in five goals on 21 shots during Saturday’s 7-1 loss to the Penguins. That isn’t the Campbell we know from either last season or thus far this season. The second period did him in when he let in four goals in 20 minutes.

By the third, coach Keefe had enough and put in Michael Hutchinson to close out the obvious defeat. Given that the 29-year-old Campbell entered the game with a 2-0-1 season’s record, a goals-against-average of 1.18, and a save percentage of .953 in four games, he deserves a mulligan. 

Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Honestly, it’s hard for me to lay a guilt trip on a goalie who had, until Saturday’s game, only given up two or fewer goals in each of his first four starts. Here’s hoping, although Campbell might have fallen in one game, that he can get up quickly.

Item Two: Jason Spezza Continues to Produce

No surprise, the one player whose game seemed unaffected by the circumstances was Jason Spezza. He scored a goal to tie the game early and gave Maple Leafs’ fans early hope that all was not lost. It was the last goal the team would score.

Related: Ron Francis’ 5 Best & Worst Moves as Hurricanes General Manager

Spezza continues to show up. In six games to start the 2021-22 campaign, he’s scored three goals and added two assists (for five points). Last season, he scored 10 goals and 20 assists (for 30 points) in 54 games. He shows no signs of a let-up.

Item Three: How Did Pierre Engvall Emerge with a Plus-One Rating?

One amazing scoresheet surprise has to be that Pierre Engvall emerged with a plus-one rating on the night. How does a player play 13:21 minutes during a 7-1 loss and come out on the positive side of the ledger? I have no comment on Engvall’s game because I didn’t notice the statistic until I looked at the box score after the game. 

Pierre Engvall Toronto Maple Leafs
Pierre Engvall, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Engvall had an assist on Spezza’s goal but was miraculously not on for any Penguins’ goals. That just seems amazing and was perhaps the only positive statistic the Maple Leafs can show for the game.

Item Four: Considering Team Leadership

Each offseason the team’s management gets together to talk about what moves it can make during the offseason to improve the team. Last season, the management decided to bring in outside players to provide leadership. Chief among those players was Joe Thornton. I believe he provided that aspect of leadership and the team was better for his presence. Even if his play was less than expected, he helped the team.

Related: 3 Takeaways From Maple Leafs’ 7-1 Loss to Penguins

During this offseason, I believe management thought it was time for the team’s internal leadership to take the next leadership step. Specifically, it was time for Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner to take the reins. The team’s management reasoned that group had seasoned enough to do that job. In addition, Wayne Simmonds and Spezza remained to help.

As a result, this season, the team is different because management didn’t bring in outside players for leadership. That leadership now must come from within – starting with Matthews, Marner, and Tavares. The results on the ice suggest that it hasn’t happened yet. 

Auston Matthews John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews celebrates with teammate John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

As my sometimes collaborator and long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith emailed me after the game, if these players are to lead they’ll have to do it by example. So far, it isn’t happening – not yet anyway, 

If this team is to come out of its current crisis, that leadership must emerge soon.

What’s Next for This Maple Leafs?

The Maple Leafs must try to shake off this blowout before they meet ex-teammate Frederik Andersen and the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday. You can only imagine that Andersen is waiting to exact some payback against his old team. 

Related: Frederik Andersen’s Unforgivable Sin According To Maple Leafs Fans

Winning in Carolina won’t be easy for the Maple Leafs. The Hurricanes are 4 – 0. Andersen’s only given up seven goals in four games, and he’ll be ready. It might be another disaster, or it could be a chance for redemption. That it’s the Maple Leafs’ third game in four nights, this one might take some lucky bounces or the immediate emergence of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

Is it too naive for Maple Leafs’ fans to be optimistic?

The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).

If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.

Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.

He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf

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Wentz leads Colts to rain soaked road win over 49ers – Sportsnet.ca

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Colts coach Frank Reich wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.

After being burned by a conservative third-down run call late in a loss to Baltimore two weeks ago, Reich put the ball in Carson Wentz’s hands this time — and it paid off.

Wentz threw a 28-yard TD pass to Michael Pittman Jr. to finish off the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night in a rain-soaked 30-18 victory.

Instead of playing for a field goal the way he did late against the Ravens that contributed to an overtime loss, Reich stayed aggressive even in the treacherous conditions.

“I felt like something about learning the lesson from the Ravens game,” he said. “We had a third-and-8 and I called a run. I told the guys, `I’m not doing that again. I’m throwing a pass.’ I don’t care what anybody says. It really comes from trusting your quarterback and trusting your receivers.”

Wentz and Pittman earned that trust, delivering numerous big plays during a driving rain storm that could have made throwing deep difficult.

Pittman had four catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. He also drew two other pass interference calls as Wentz repeatedly looked his direction as the Colts (3-4) overcame the wet conditions and an early nine-point deficit to win for the third time in four games following an 0-3 start to the season.

“It seems like he just goes into a kind of a beast mode kind of deal,” running back Jonathan Taylor said of Pittman. “When the ball is in his hands, he’s like, `No one is stopping me.’ And if the ball is in the air, he’s like, ‘This ball is mine, or it’s a PI. This is my ball.'”

The 49ers (2-4) dropped their fourth straight game and remained winless at home for more than a year since beating the Rams on Oct. 18, 2020, as the return of starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo failed to provide any spark on a wet night.

Garoppolo threw for 181 yards, lost a fumble, threw two interceptions and struggled to push the ball downfield in his first game back after missing one game with a calf injury.

“The NFL is a crazy thing,” Garoppolo said. “One week, you’re on top. One week, you’re at the bottom of it. Every team has its ups and downs. We’re at the lower point right now. But we can fight back.”

Wentz and the Colts were able to do just enough on offense thanks to three pass interference penalties for 97 yards and a productive game on the ground from Taylor, who ran for 107 yards and a score.

Wentz threw an 11-yard TD pass to Mo Alie-Cox in the first quarter and then led two short TD drives following fumbles by San Francisco, leading to his 1-yard score late in the first half and Taylor’s 5-yard run that made it 20-12 late in the third.

Garoppolo led a TD drive early in the fourth, cutting the deficit to 20-18 on a 14-yard throw to Deebo Samuel. But his 2-point try was batted down at the line.

The Colts then put it away by driving for a field goal and getting the late TD pass from Wentz to Pittman on another short field after Xavier Rhodes intercepted Garoppolo.

“I’ve got to catch them,” Pittman said. “Carson can really throw it out there, so I just got to make sure that I’m the one who comes down with it.”

IN THE SLOP

The driving rain storm had a big impact on the game, especially during a stretch midway through the second quarter.

Colts running back Nyheim Hines got wide open downfield on a third-down pass that slipped right through his hands.

Indianapolis then punted and Brandon Aiyuk muffed the ball before kicking it back nearly 20 yards into the end zone. He recovered it and it was ruled a touchback because he never had possession.

Wentz and Garoppolo both fumbled snaps that they recovered later in the quarter before Samuel lost a fumble for San Francisco at his own 28 on a perfect punchout by Darius Leonard.

That set up a 1-yard run by Wentz that gave the Colts a 13-12 halftime lead.

TAKE IT AWAY

The Niners came in with a league-low two takeaways but doubled that total in the first half.

Taylor fumbled on Indianapolis first play from scrimmage and Fred Warner recovered to set up a field goal by Joey Slye that made it 9-0.

Wentz then made an inexplicable decision early in the second quarter. As he was trying to run away from Nick Bosa, Wentz appeared to flip the ball forward right into Azeez Al-Shaair’s hands. It was ruled a fumble.

INJURY REPORT

Colts: CB BoPete Keyes (hamstring) left in the first half and didn’t return.

49ers: LT Trent Williams was scratched after aggravating an ankle injury last week in practice. Rookie Jaylon Moore made his first career start in his place. … S Jaquiski Tartt (knee), DE Dee Ford (head injury) and CB Emmanuel Moseley (back) all left the game.

UP NEXT

Colts: Host Titans on Sunday.

49ers: Visit Chicago on Sunday.

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Time For Maple Leafs To Admit The Kyle Dubas Experiment Has Failed – The Hockey Writers

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It’s still in early in the season, but based on the reactions from Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans on Sunday, you’d never know the organization has 76 games to pull their season around and get things back on track. No, after a 7-1 loss at the hands of a very depleted Pittsburgh Penguins team, Leafs Nation is freaking out over a terrible start and a lack of production from some key contributors on this Leafs’ roster.

Mitch Marner has one assist in six games. Auston Matthews has played three since returning from injury and has no points. John Tavares has three points in six but is clearly slowing down. Nick Ritchie hasn’t popped up on the scoresheet yet and Ondrej Kase has one goal and no helpers. The team leader in points is the player most fans often talk about trading and everyone on the roster not named Morgan Rielly, Travis Dermott, and Michael Amadio is either even or a minus player.

These six games are being seen as a microcosm of a much larger problem, one that has plagued this franchise for a few seasons now. The window to win is rapidly closing and the prospects for the roster being productive while together are dwindling. The exodus started this past offseason and it will only continue.

Dubas Hasn’t Come as Advertised

Two people are responsible for this and one more than the other. You can’t blame the GM without pointing a finger at the person who hired him, but the GM has been the one pulling the trigger on a series of poor decisions that have clearly caught up to this team.

When Brendan Shanahan hired Kyle Dubas to be his new general manager in July of 2014, the decision was seen as progressive and astute. Dubas was young, he had a strong handle on analytics and he was bringing in a fresh perspective. The thought was he’d crunch the numbers, look at this team in a different way and make changes accordingly.

Kyle Dubas, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Alana Davidson/NHLI via Getty Images)

While much of the number-crunching speculation turned out to be true, one of the first big moves Dubas made was signing John Tavares to a massive contract in free agency. Tavares was a player the Leafs didn’t need, but he wanted to come home to Toronto and Dubas wanted to make a splash. Both the GM and the player got what they wanted.

Immediately the team transitioned into salary cap crisis mode. Giving Tavares $11 million over the course of seven seasons meant the Leafs were inevitably going to run into issues re-signing Nylander, Matthews and Marner. All contracts got done, but all negotiations were a bit contentious with the exception of Matthews who was pretty much going to get whatever he wanted.

Related: Maple Leafs Are Playing the Blame Game

Dubas went to work trying to plug holes in goal and on the blue line and while he was successful in some regard, he had to make sacrifices when he came to a number of crossroads. Essentially, Dubas has been lauded for his ability to work the salary cap with his numbers guy Brandon Pridham. The reality is, the two men are being applauded for barely being able to keep the team above water based on their cap restrictions.

Series of Wrong Decisions

Starting with the Tavares signing — Tavares is a great player but he wasn’t a necessity for the Maple Leafs — Dubas fell down a rabbit hole of transactions that haven’t panned out for Toronto. He moved Nazem Kadri for Tyson Barrie (who left in free agency then led the NHL in points for a defenseman), he traded a number of players to create cap flexibility, he made trades and signed free agents that barely moved the needle, and he lost big names to free agency, simply because he couldn’t afford to keep them.

Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman
Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Zach Hyman (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

The latest losses might be among the team’s most painful. Zach Hyman reportedly left the Maple Leafs over a no-trade clause. While there was talk the money was a big issue, Elliotte Friedman has reported that Hyman simply wanted security. Dubas wasn’t in a position to give it to him and the Edmonton Oilers were. Meanwhile, Frederik Andersen left for the Carolina Hurricanes (for a reasonable $4.5 million over two seasons) leaving the Maple Leafs without a proven starter. Jack Campbell might be the real deal, but he’s going to cost a pretty penny to keep as he’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Nick Foligno was a disaster of a trade. Joe Thornton didn’t pan out. The grit is essentially all but gone and the future isn’t looking as bright as it should for a GM who was going to find gems in the draft others couldn’t find.

What Has Dubas Left This Team With?

What’s perhaps more concerning than what Dubas has done with the roster is what he can do moving forward. As the prospect of going deep in the playoffs dwindle, some important pieces will likely be moving on.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Few expect Rielly to remain with the club after this season. He’s going to get paid on the open market and the Leafs simply can’t afford him. Meanwhile, even though he seems to love this team, Campbell could dart in free agency if the right offer comes along and Dubas can’t match. There’s always talk Auston Matthews might want to head home to Arizona and the best players on the team are taking all sorts of heat from the fan base as they band together in the face of unscrupulous critcism.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Campbell, Spezza, Engvall & Calling All Leaders

Right or wrong, Dubas has committed to his core four guys: Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander. He seems unwilling to trade any of them, even though almost everyone knows that’s the one thing that can help him balance out his roster. His formula for winning hasn’t worked and Dubas seems relentless in his need to beat a dead horse.

What might be the most troubling is that if he makes a move, it will likely be the wrong one. The player with the most tradeable contract is Nylander, yet he leads the team in scoring and might be the most naturally skilled player of the four. Tavares isn’t going anywhere thanks to a full no-move clause and the fans seems to be chasing Marner out of town, which will inevitably bite the Maple Leafs in the a– if and when he’s traded.

As Corey Landberg accurately wrote on Twitter, “Imagine being Kyle Dubas and walking into Matthews, Marner, Nylander entering their prime, Rielly and Kadri on great contracts, a solid goalie, depth all over the roster and then you turn them into this crap 4 years later.”

Fans are losing their minds over the rough start to the 2021-22 season and many are blaming Dubas. What’s crazy is that this downward trend started a while ago. The 7-1 loss to the Penguins only shined a light on something most fans should have been aware of.

Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”

Other content contributions include: NHLtradetalk.com, The Sportster and hosting weekly video casts, THW News and Rumors Rundown, plus Oilers Overtime.

For interview requests or to provide content info, follow Jim on Twitter or his social media accounts. They appear under his photo on articles like this one.

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