Some local hockey fans might not know that Kraken general manager Ron Francis is just one of three Hockey Hall of Famers born and raised in the puck-hotbed, 73,000-resident town of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario — the others being the Esposito brothers, Phil and Tony.
Well, Tony Esposito died Aug. 10 at age 78 after a short bout with pancreatic cancer, but his career as a Chicago Blackhawks goalie was fascinating for several reasons. The five-time All-Star helped pioneer today’s popular “butterfly” netminding style, dropping to his knees early for saves during an era of stand-up goaltenders.
Then, there’s Esposito’s iconic white fiberglass mask, filled with scratches, dents and chips from pucks and sticks. It also had protective metal bars over the eye slots from an external cage fashioned with pliers and attached by Esposito himself — who often stayed one step ahead of NHL rule-makers with personal equipment modifications.
“Tony O” set a rookie record that still stands, with 15 shutouts in winning the 1969-70 Calder Trophy for the league’s best debut player, and he blanked opponents 76 times over a 418-win career. He won three Vezina Trophies as the NHL’s top netminder, playing his entire career in Chicago aside from 13 appearances with Montreal in 1968-69 upon entering the league as an emergency call-up.
Interestingly, that season — not even considered Esposito’s rookie year — would be the only time he got his name on the Stanley Cup despite no playoff appearances. The closest Esposito got to a Cup title actually playing in a final was 50 years ago this past spring with a Blackhawks team arguably among the game’s most underrated.
Chicago led that 1971 Cup Final series 2-0 over upstart Montreal and rookie goalie Ken Dryden, then was a period from clinching in Game 6 before the Canadiens scored twice to force Game 7. In that final game, the Blackhawks were up 2-0 at home midway through the contest when Jacques Lemaire scored on Esposito with a blistering slap shot from near center ice that changed momentum and the course of history.
Henri Richard would score twice to hand the Blackhawks a heartbreaking 3-2 loss. Esposito never again came as tantalizingly close, though he lost a somewhat competitive 1973 Final rematch to Montreal.
I’ve long wondered how differently those largely-forgotten early 1970s Blackhawks powerhouses would be remembered had Hall of Famers Esposito, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita held that Game 7 lead. Esposito’s was just the latest in a slew of fairly recent deaths of players from the 1971 team, sadly, all before their 80th birthdays.
Mikita (78), defensemen Pat Stapleton (79), Bill White (77), Doug Jarrett (69), and Rick Foley (70), and wingers Chico Maki (76) and Dan Maloney (68) have died since 2014. Earlier, defenseman Keith Magnusson (56) died in a 2003 car accident, Paul Shmyr (58) died of throat cancer in 2004, and center Pit Martin (64) drowned after falling through a frozen lake in a 2008 snowmobile mishap.
With Esposito gone, Hull, — and his brother, Dennis — Jim Pappin and Eric Nesterenko are the most notable surviving team members. Figured I’d give them all their due.
On to your Twitter mailbag questions.
Question: @rudylefkowicz asked: It’s unclear who will score for this team. Are the Kraken still seeking to acquire a scoring forward?
Answer: I recently wrote about the Kraken having nine players who could optimistically project as 20-goal scorers based on the abbreviated numbers of last season or previous achievements. If that happens, the team is fine, as no squad has produced that many in more than a quarter-century.
More realistically, having even four or five score 20 would likely make the Kraken a playoff team. Jordan Eberle and Jaden Schwartz have done it multiple times, and Joonas Donskoi and Alex Wennberg each had 17 in the 56-game campaign last season. Opening betting lines on conference and divisional champions from BetOnline give the Kraken the sixth-highest chance of 16 teams — 14-to-1 odds — to win the Western Conference and reach the Stanley Cup Final. For winning the Pacific Division, the Kraken was third-highest at 15-to-2, behind Vegas and Edmonton.
No wonder Kraken GM Francis hasn’t splurged on signing Vladimir Tarasenko. The oddsmakers appear somewhat bullish on his team in a relatively weak division. That said, yes, the Kraken is on the lookout for additional scoring, especially with center Yanni Gourde out until at least November following shoulder surgery.
There’s nothing beyond marginal improvements readily available, but Francis told me he’ll watch in training camp for teams backed against the salary cap that might jettison players.
With about $9 million in cap space, Francis could take on one more significant contract while maintaining flexibility for in-season moves. But if the Kraken’s internal projections are anything like those betting lines, then there probably isn’t urgency to make moves at any cost. So this would have to be a great-fit acquisition, or I could see the team waiting a few months.
Q: @MikeLindblom asked: Is there any chance that disparate masking/vaxxing norms, or border rules, will cause the NHL to create awkward conferences and divisions again?
A: I’m glad you didn’t ask me arena transportation questions, Mike, though you’d probably have better answers. On this question, no. There’s zero appetite among league owners to revisit the reconfigurations of last season caused by COVID-19 restrictions. That’s why the NHL’s head office has been so insistent about player vaccinations to avoid Canadian border issues. Some NHL owners didn’t want to play last season and now are focused on maximizing revenue to compensate for pandemic shortfalls.
So, the league will attempt as “normal” of a season as possible — subject to any future limits on fans by local health authorities. They’ve been tougher on that in Canada than the U.S., which is probably why the Winnipeg Jets took the preemptive step of requiring vaccines and masks for fans. Our state is among this nation’s most rigorous for COVID-19 regulations, which is why I would not at all be surprised to see the Kraken follow Winnipeg’s lead.
Q: @HoushRon asked: How about an organ in the arena ala Chicago Stadium ?!!!
A: Well, that arena’s Barton Pipe Organ from 1929 was once the world’s biggest at 7-feet tall, with six keyboards projecting sound through 2,675 pipes snaking through the arena’s walls and a 100-horsepower blower. So, fat chance getting one like that. Tampa Bay ripped out two terrace level seating sections at Amalie Arena for live in-game entertainment, including a five-module, 300-speaker Walker Company Organ — the NHL’s current biggest — soon after current Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke was hired by the Lightning in 2010.
Leiweke told me in December 2018 he’d like an organist here. “An organ can be such a powerful thing. … We’re definitely going to have live music at our games. And if I’m a betting man, the organ is going to play an important role in that, too.”
But configuring room for one within Climate Pledge Arena has proved challenging. As of this week, a Kraken spokesperson said there will be organ sounds but maybe not an actual organ.
Q: @MarcSheehan006 asked: Which players are likely going to Charlotte?
A: The Kraken will have only eight to 12 players with the American Hockey League affiliate this season, a shared arrangement with the Florida Panthers in Charlotte. We know goalie Joey Daccord will be there, and other likely candidates will be players who, like him, are on two-way contracts paying one wage for NHL service time and much less for AHL.
This includes Alexander True, Carsen Twarynski, Kole Lind, Cale Fleury and Connor Carrick. Restricted free agent Dennis Cholowski, when he signs, will have a two-way contract.
Morgan Geekie has one, though with the Kraken’s lack of centermen he’ll likely start in the NHL.
So, that’s seven possible AHL guys. And don’t forget first franchise player Luke Henman, likely the eighth. Others signing tryout deals before camp could also be AHL-bound.