30 Thoughts: Can Predators win without bold move?

Damien Cox and Elliotte Friedman breaks down the rumours and rumblings of the week before Christmas, including Ryan Johansen, Steven Stamkos and the Dallas Stars' sneaky face-off tactic.

Let’s start with a follow-up to something Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Mike Johnson reported during last Saturday’s Montreal/Dallas game.

They showed video of Stars centre Vernon Fiddler dropping down to one or two knees in an attempt to win faceoffs. Later, I mentioned a memo had been sent to Dallas, warning the club against this strategy, even though it is not against the rules.

On Monday, both NHL Senior Executive Vice-President Colin Campbell (via phone) and Stars GM Jim Nill (via email) denied any written warning was given. Campbell added he double-checked with Senior Vice-President and director of officiating Stephen Walkom to make sure.

It is possible, Campbell said, there is confusion because the agenda for the recent GM meetings included notes on this topic.

There is conflicting information as to whether or not any player was warned on-ice by an official. Nill wrote he hadn’t heard that, Campbell had no specific evidence, but another source indicated at least one player was told he’d be removed from the circle if he continued to do it.

Anyway, this tactic definitely is on the league’s radar. As mentioned, it was discussed in November, and could be on the agenda at the return engagement in March.

“There’s no rule you can’t do that, but is it starting to stink? Is it any different than going down and winning faceoffs with your hands?” Campbell said, referring to a practice made illegal in June 2012. “Players and coaches try lots of things to get an edge every season. One of the GMs asked us to look at it. You ask, ‘Is this wrong?’ We told the managers to go back and talk to their coaches, ask what they think. Should there be a rule here? How you deal with those things is not always easy.”

Campbell’s right about that. For example, on last second faceoffs, it’s normal for a defensive-zone centre to drop down to block a direct shot. Would that be banned? And, what if a player simply falls or gets knocked over?

Monday night, Nashville’s Paul Gaustad, consistently an excellent faceoff man, did it successfully at the end of the first period against Montreal. The Canadiens have their own such-skilled player, Brian Flynn. Didn’t see any Capitals, so Alan May can relax.

“We’ve got a trend developing here,” Campbell continued, “But I’m not so sure that it’s successful. We’re going to watch it and if the averages show it’s not, why stop it?”

To that point, I found three defensive-zone draws in the Montreal game where Fiddler drops down. He lost all of them. In the third period, he tries one standing up — and gets a teammate’s help to win.

30 THOUGHTS

1. In a lot of ways, Nashville GM David Poile asking about Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins isn’t news. It’s news if he isn’t asking about them. The Predators are one of the NHL’s best teams, on a list of legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. It’s not exactly a secret that Poile would love to add another offensive piece, and all three of those players have dynamic potential.

Last week, he told The Tennessean’s Adam Vingan, “I have no interest in touching my defence, but if there was going to a trade here — I’m just being very bottom-line with you — whenever I talk to a team and I’m asking about forwards, they’re asking about one of our defencemen. You can fill in the blanks.”

Poile politely declined to address that further, but he’s specifically being asked about his top three: Seth Jones, Roman Josi and Shea Weber. He doesn't want to do that. But, in this big game of poker, who’s willing to wait the longest? And, if Poile doesn't bend, can he get what he needs?

2. I’m President of the Shea Weber fan club, and was surprised to hear a couple of executives say they wouldn’t trade one of the three aforementioned players for him. The major issue was age, as Duchene, seven years younger, is closest. “Shea Weber changes the game every time he steps over the boards,” one said. “But you should not be trading a 23-year-old for a 30-year-old.”

Weber still has almost $30M in bonus payments the next three seasons. There is some concern about the seriousness of the injury he suffered last April, and the long-term effect it could have. I’d be curious to hear how widely held this opinion would be around the NHL. No doubt the Predators would be happy to keep him.

3. There were some rumours Columbus was going to deal Johansen before the trade moratorium kicked in, but that died down when he was in the lineup Saturday night against Philadelphia. One thing Johansen must realize: the microscope is on him. Everything he does is scrutinized. He gave a stick to a fan in Pittsburgh sitting behind glass that popped out during Monday’s loss to the Penguins, a nice gesture. But, there were reports he ignored John Tortorella during a timeout and there was a weird-looking moment where it appeared he did not celebrate a goal with his teammates during the Flyers game. Every move will be watched. Just play.

4. One of the most-asked questions about Johansen is if this is just another example of Tortorella’s tough love, which dates back to Vincent Lecavalier. The difference between that situation and this one is, back then, Jay Feaster came out and said the two were stuck with each other. No one was getting fired and no one was getting traded. Here, the Blue Jackets are being very honest in saying anyone could be moved after the tire-fire start the season. Johansen is scheduled to be unrestricted in July 2018. The closer you get to that date, the more the leverage slides to the player. You also risk a circus.

5.
After signing Jared Spurgeon to a four-year, $20.75M contract, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told reporters his defencemen could be used as trade bait to help the rest of the lineup. According to The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Michael Russo, Fletcher “specifically brought up the … lack of depth at centre.” Minnesota’s top four blueliners are at a cap number of $21M next season, and this kind of move was rumoured even before Spurgeon’s extension. It would not be a huge stunner to see Fletcher make a run at Johansen, as Columbus is looking for defence.

6.
Don’t think Vancouver has what it takes to get in on this, but would GM Jim Benning look to add pieces he can flip?

7.
Spurgeon is a terrific story. Drafted by the Islanders, but never signed. Played five years of junior hockey, finishing with a Memorial Cup. Minnesota assistant GM Brent Flahr offered a spot on the Wild’s Traverse City rookie team, where Spurgeon performed well enough to get an invitation to camp and then an entry-level contract. But this?

“I’d like to say that we were smart enough to project Jared as what he is today,” Flahr said via email. “Our staff thought he was a great junior with top-end hockey sense. However, like other teams, we were skeptical on his NHL potential simply because of his size…What we didn't know was the tremendous character that this kid had.”

When Ryan Suter was upset about defensive pairings earlier this season, he was being taken away from Spurgeon. High compliment.

8.
Fletcher said the Wild are also chatting contracts with restricted free agents Mathew Dumba and Jason Zucker. Dumba does not have arbitration rights. Zucker does. Not every team has the same philosophy. Their history with Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Spurgeon is, whatever the AAV, to bump up the cash value in arbitration-eligible seasons. Zucker has 29 goals the last two years. Only 70 players have more. That one surprised me a bit.

9.
I went back and re-watched Steven Stamkos’s shifts from Tampa’s 5-4 win in Toronto last week. Just figured he’d have much more of an impact in that game and wondered if I missed anything. Included are the Lightning’s first two goals.

Nikita Kucherov gets wide open to make it 1-0 because Matt Hunwick is preoccupied with Stamkos at the top of the screen. And, when Anton Stralman makes it 3-2, he’s allowed to walk in because the defenceman won’t leave Stamkos in front. (That one’s not all on Hunwick; you have to wonder what everyone else was doing.) Stamkos’s numbers are down, but it’s clear opponents still key on him. Maybe they were secretly asking him if he really wants to play there.

10. When Stamkos says he wants to play first and foremost for the Lightning, I believe him. That’s always been his goal. The bigger challenge is balancing what the team, Stamkos and his agents believe his value to be, because it’s very possible all three numbers are different.

11. The wildest thing about his stop in Toronto? A representative from a local tourism agency, Visit Tampa Bay, walked up to Paul Romanuk, who was broadcasting Lightning/Maple Leafs. She presented Romanuk with a Stamkos sweater and told him, “You can keep the jersey. Let us keep the player.” I’m not smart enough to make this up.

12. Went down to Buffalo to see Anaheim play there. We’re used to seeing Ryan Getzlaf bowl over defenders like Mike Alstott in his prime. He says he is not injured, but it was hard to see him against the Sabres and believe nothing is wrong. Here are two examples.

In the first one, he’s easily outmanoeuvred on the boards by Zemgus Girgensons. In the second, he’s shut down by Zach Bogosian. Bogosian is one of the few in the NHL who can physically match Getzlaf, but this is lopsided. We’re all wondering what is going on with Sidney Crosby, but this is just as strange.

13. One coach has a theory on the Ducks. They knew they were going to be judged solely on playoff performance, and thought they were good enough to coast and get there. “The problem,” that coach said, “is if you’re not physically or emotionally consistent, you’re going to get beat. And, if you’re behind mentally or in the standings, it's hard to catch-up.”

14. Roberto Luongo said that was the lesson Florida learned in 2014-15. The youthful Panthers made a late run, but fell seven points shy of the playoffs. “We were all disappointed,” he said Monday. “We let some opportunities slip away. We took it for granted. A younger team, they don't know how it is. Now they are realizing how it is…understand the value of points in the bank.”

The Panthers enter the final day of pre-Christmas play three points out of first in the Atlantic Division. Luongo is a big reason for that. Does he find it a better fit in Florida than Vancouver?

“To me, the city is more about the lifestyle. It has nothing to do with how you perform. The pressure? For me, it comes from within. It doesn't matter where you live, you try to be the best and win. There’s a long way to go. We're still early in the season. I’m pretty happy but it’s not time to take our foot off the gas. If you look at the big picture, it’s overwhelming, even for me. I don’t look at standings, or stats.”

I told him his stats are pretty good. He laughed. “They are?”

15. So, who is the Florida player we need to know, the guy who is too far under the radar? “I don’t know what type of attention we get. I’m not sure how you view the players on the team.” Pause. “Do they know (Aaron) Ekblad?” Answer: Uh, yes. “How about Aleksander Barkov?” Answer: That’s a good one. “Barkov I think, he's amazing. Hands-down, by far, our best player. So young and dominates. He’s just smart, the best player with and without the puck.”

Luongo laughed about Barkov’s shootout winner against the Canucks: “His move, who would do that on bad ice? He doesn't really practice shootouts…never. I guess there’s no need to when you’re that good.”

16. One GM laughed at speculation that Marc Bergevin likes Wayne Simmonds because he went to Philadelphia in-person. (For the record, Bergevin said he was there for Team Canada.) “Do you think Marc Bergevin needs to go to Philadelphia to see that Wayne Simmonds is good? Everyone already knows that. Without going there.”

17. One exec on Alex Galchenyuk: “Takes one stride to many. Has a shot, waits to get closer or beat someone else, gets it taken away from him.” He can fire it, and needs to when the opportunity arrives.

18. PK Subban indicated he will return to his old sticks. He changed his curve and model this season, and is shooting 1.1 per cent, by far the lowest of his NHL career. He’s too good for this to continue, but as you wake up on Tuesday, no one who’s scored a goal this season has a worse shooting percentage in the entire league.

Another tip came from an opposing coach. “He doesn’t need to pick corners or tight spots. His shot is so hard, even if it hits the goalie it could go in.” Pause. “Just don’t say anything until after we play them.”

19. Midway through his third season, does Patrick Roy still enjoy coaching at the NHL level?

“I love it. I thought I knew everything about coaching, but I’m realizing what you have to do: changing the structure, adapting to the culture. I love to learn, it makes me better. Understanding the input of the players, the partnership there. You have to make those relationships comfortable, as fair as possible. No player walks in for a game and says, ‘Tonight, I’m going to suck.’” He’s changed their style from a 1-2-2 to 1-3-1. “You’re adapting to the structure of your team. We can’t be run and gun, we have to slow down the game in the neutral zone.”

He said at times the Avalanche get a “little overprotective” and the second forechecker doesn't go, which “isn’t encouraged,” but it’s a process.

20. Semyon Varlamov’s hot streak came to a halt in Monday’s 7-4 loss to Toronto, but he’d been a blockade leading up to that. Varlamov’s absence from the lineup earlier in the season was as much mental as physical, trying to repair his confidence after an awful start.

“(Goalie coach) Francois Allaire does most of the talking to him, but I would tell him, ‘You are our man.’ It’s like Jacques Demers was with me, not afraid to say, ‘Patrick, we need more from you.’ You can be very supportive and still tell someone they have to play better.”

Varlamov’s best performance was Dec. 13 at St. Louis, where the Avalanche won 3-1 despite being outshot 43-17

21. Down Mike Smith for two months, Arizona GM Don Maloney made it very clear last week that he prefers to let Louis Domingue and Anders Lindback show they can lead the way. But, like any GM should, he’s created an exit strategy.

“There’s a lot of time left in the season, so (you) have to be ready to go for it. There’s a list of teams, about 10 different possibilities. If we need to do something, adding a goalie with term would be preferable.” How much flexibility do you have? “We have a little bit of a budget room. But, again, we'd like to let it play out a little bit.”

22. Arizona is right in the Pacific playoff chase. Does this pleasant surprise change their rebuild? Accelerate the process to get in and create excitement?

“This doesn't change one iota where we have to go or what we have to do to build,” Maloney answered. “It’s great to be in this mix, to show we can compete with anybody in our division. There is a culture we are trying to build and it’s a lot better to do so when winning – not like the disaster we went through last year. I like that about this team…it crawled back from (that). It would be an added bonus to hang around long enough to get into the playoffs, but turning a good asset into a short-term need? It doesn’t make sense.”

23. Shane Doan is in the final year of his contract. Has Maloney touched base with him? “We had a conversation with his agent a few weeks ago. We both decided to evaluate at the end of year, see where his mindset is at. Shane Doan will stay with us as long as he wants to stay with us.”

24. The Coyotes did make a small trade, sending Lucas Lessio to Montreal for Christian Thomas. I actually didn’t ask Maloney about it, but word is Lessio wanted a fresh start, and Arizona was willing to oblige. A couple of intriguing AHLers who might move are Nicklas Jensen (Vancouver) and Ty Rattie (St. Louis). Both are closing in on waiver eligibility.

25. In addition to their coaching and goaltender moves, San Jose made some cosmetic changes to the dressing room in an attempt to create a fresh atmosphere. The area itself was remodeled, and some new slogans were added. I used to think it was hooey, but I’ve come to understand the psychology. Brenden Dillon liked “Break the Line” — a fitting fishing motif asking the players to push through challenges. They’ve broken the line enough to stay in the race, second in the Pacific. Last season, the Sharks were minus-14 five-on-five, buoyed by the sixth-ranked power play. They lost 19 games where they outshot an opponent, fifth-worst in the NHL. This year, they are minus-10 five-on-five and the power play is down to 12th. Where they’ve made a huge difference is on the penalty kill, jumping from 25th to sixth. Coach Peter DeBoer’s Devils led the league when they went to the 2012 Final.

26. Brent Burns on Joe Pavelski: “Only Sidney Crosby is as good at tipping pucks as he is. We’ll go out early before a game-day skate, and he’ll ask me to shoot at him. They’re the two best I’ve ever seen.” Only difference? “Crosby can deflect them towards different angles a little more.” Aim them towards corners, etc.? “Yes.” DeBoer compared him to Zach Parise.

27. Raffi Torres is eligible to return Jan. 14. It’s happened before, but he is prepared to reach out once again for a meeting with the Department of Player Safety. Injuries and suspensions limited him to just 44 games in the last two-and-a-half seasons. He still wants to play for a while.

28. It’s difficult to pinpoint when Anze Kopitar’s extension will be announced, but after momentum stalled, things are grinding toward a conclusion. The money will be somewhere between $9.75M-$10M per season over eight years. Whatever the trade protection issue was, that’s settled. It’s like waiting for the Starkiller to power up. It’ll be big when it finally happens.

29. You’ve read all the tributes this week about what a great, competitive player Dickie Moore was. Over the past few years, as a rinkside reporter in Montreal, he showed a great sense of humour that always made me laugh. He — and the Beliveaus — would have to wait for the first intermission interview to finish if they took too long to get down the hallway at the end of the period.

If that happened, Moore would start yelling, “I had to wait for that? Terrible questions!” once we finished. Everyone would laugh, and we’d repeat the drill next time. During one playoff, I was lucky enough to interview Mr. Beliveau himself. When it was over, Moore said nothing. I looked at him and asked, “Where are the complaints?” He smiled and said, “Him, I’ll wait for.”

I’ll miss those moments. All the best to his family and friends.

30. No matter what you celebrate, this should be a great time of year. Hope it is for each and every one of you. Merry Christmas.