The first thing that crossed my mind when Eugene Melnyk unleashed his frustration across the Ottawa organization: how much of a surprise was this to Dave Cameron?
The two have a long history. Melnyk bought the OHL’s Toronto St. Michael’s Majors in 2001, one year into Cameron’s tenure as head coach. Since then, they’ve been tied together, whether in the OHL, AHL or NHL. In the hockey world, that’s rare — especially for a coach.
“He’s got a great future,” Melnyk said when adding Cameron to the Ottawa bench as an assistant in 2011.
No one was surprised Cameron took over from Paul MacLean in 2014. Everyone assumed his chance would come, and 15 months ago, it did. When overnight sensation Andrew Hammond led the Senators on a wild surge to the playoffs, the idea of everything falling apart a year later seemed as ridiculous as a Donald Trump Presidential bid.
“Eugene Melnyk loves Dave Cameron,” one opposing NHL executive said Tuesday. “But business is business.”
Melnyk is the most unpredictable owner in hockey, by a mile. You never know what he’s going to say. But if he’s consistent about one thing, it’s that he expects the Senators to be great. In the 2010 playoffs, GM Bryan Murray prevented him from entering the dressing room to give a speech during an intermission of a game they were losing. Months later, as the next season began, he said he expected the team “to go all the way” during a Hockey Night in Canada pre-game interview. Ottawa finished 25th.
Nothing’s changed in five years. He’s the owner, and he’s the most passionate fan. As Melnyk all but guaranteed heads will roll and ripped the decision to start rookie goaltender Matt O’Connor in the home opener, you could see where this was going. Especially when, later in the day, Melnyk made it very clear Murray controls his own employment destiny.
“That’s the owners’ prerogative,” Cameron told reporters. “He pays the bills, he’s the man who is putting the money on the line and he has the right to make changes…If he’s going to make changes, he’s going to make them.”
I’ve heard this quote before. As a coach/manager, you have three options when pushed into this corner. You laugh it off, you defend your record or you give the “it’s his ball club” line. Cameron chose door number three. Those are the words of someone who knows this situation is out of his hands.
It’s not easy. My first “beat” was the Toronto Raptors in 1995-96. That was their inaugural season, and it ended with a nasty split between GM Isiah Thomas and coach Brendan Malone. Malone was fired. I asked if he saw it coming. He said, “Coaches always know.”
Players can sense it, too. The Senators were down 3-0 to the Washington Capitals Tuesday night before fans from Gatineau could park their cars. They're in Brooklyn on Wednesday facing the suddenly desperate New York Islanders. The issues are clear. The power play is 27th, the penalty kill is 30th. But I wonder if Cameron thought his history with Melnyk made this different, that his leash would be longer.
It’s amateur psychology, but I’d guess he did.
1. Curious to see if Melnyk reaches out to Matt O’Connor. The goalie drops from the high of making 46 saves in a win for AHL Binghamton to the low of learning his owner was disappointed to see him start the home opener. Melnyk fires from the hip, but this is a call he should make.
2. Murray made it clear at the GM meetings that he will take a few more weeks to decide what his role will be, but it sounds like he’s staying at the forefront if his health allows it. (That’s what everyone would like to see, too.) It’s believed he’d recommend that assistant GM Pierre Dorion be the replacement if the choice is to move into more of an advisory role.
It’s only natural to speculate about Daniel Alfredsson’s future in all of this. My guess is that Alfredsson takes his time. One thing he said years ago has stuck with me. I asked him why he attended one of those gigantic Canadian hockey symposiums while still an active player. He said he wanted to see if management was the right path for him, and he wanted to make sure he properly approached it. I’d be surprised if he rushed into it.
3. If Cameron does go, Ottawa will hire its seventh coach since 2007, when Murray — a terrific bench boss — stepped into the front office. (One of those replacements was the GM himself, in 2008.) I’ve said it before, but I like watching Senators games, because they are full of chances at both ends. Great for fans, awful for coaches. It’s part of the problem. No matter who’s running the show next season, the players are going to have to show more commitment to defending. I can definitely see Ottawa trying to add another defensively-minded blueliner to play on the third pairing.
4. You could almost hear a league-wide groan when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins left Tuesday night’s game in Arizona after taking a Connor Murphy hit. Don’t know if his future is in the Alberta capital or elsewhere, but it certainly complicates matters if he finishes the season injured. I’d keep him, but it’s not only the Oilers who recognize his value.
6. One contractual note about the newest Canuck, Anton Rodin: if he doesn't play 80 NHL games next season, he becomes an unrestricted free agent (Group VI). Among the top 25 scorers in the Swedish Elite League, he was the only player to average more than one point per game (1.12) and would have won the crown by seven points if he played a full season. Instead, he missed almost 20 games after a skate cut to his knee in January. The word is Rodin is more physically ready for the North American challenge than in 2011-12, the first of his two disappointing seasons with AHL Chicago. He’s listed five pounds heavier (185 lbs) than four years ago, and he’ll have another summer to work at it. If Rodin needs a stop in the minors this time, the Canucks won’t be hurt by his cap number. If he really breaks through he’s going to have all sorts of contractual leverage. I’m looking forward to seeing him.
7. There were rumours goalie coach Roland Melanson would leave Vancouver after his contract concluded, but there was confusion about his term, since some sources thought he had one more year to go. That’s not the case, as NHL.com’s Kevin Woodley reported last weekend. Melanson’s had a huge impact on the organization, and, if he wants to work, there will be no shortage of suitors.
As for his replacement, the fascinating thing is the list of people with connections to the organization and coaching staff. It’s pretty long as these things go. The two most sensible names are former Canucks Alex Auld and Dan Cloutier. Cloutier’s a team consultant, and has successfully worked with Jacob Markstrom. There are differing opinions on his willingness to take the full-time job, but, if he wishes to do so, he'll be a strong candidate.
Auld is a local guy with a perfect temperament for the city. But, if you expand the circle, there’s Eli Wilson, with a connection to Willie Desjardins from Medicine Hat. Melanson is a fan of his, too. Dallas’s director of goaltending development, Mike Valley, knows Desjardins and assistant coach Glen Gulutzan from their days with the Stars. But he’s in a good situation and might not want to leave. Bill Ranford’s been mentioned, but not sure Los Angeles would be so willing after losing Kim Dillabaugh to Philadelphia. Dark horse: Toronto took a long look at Scott Murray before last summer’s hire of Steve Briere. Murray joined Washington, but may be Mitch Korn’s replacement if Korn ever decides to retire. Longer shot: Michael Lawrence, who spent the last couple seasons coaching in Switzerland. Just some names to keep an eye on.
8. One coach whose team was recently torn apart by Sidney Crosby: “He looked distracted earlier in the year. Whatever was bothering him … well, he decided it wasn’t going to bother him anymore.”
9. In the last calendar year, Trevor Daley has played with Jamie Benn/Tyler Seguin, Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews, and Crosby/Evgeni Malkin. Any comparison between them? “All those guys are programmed a certain way — competitive. They are at a different level, competitive in everything. Sidney, he likes to bicker, and will give you an argument over anything. You are never going to win, especially when it comes to hockey.” Colby Armstrong and Ryan Malone used to say Crosby loved it when teammates ripped on him, because it made him feel part of the group. (Kelly Hrudey says Wayne Gretzky was the same way.) Do teammates still rip on Crosby? “Uh, no,” Daley laughed. “Guys are so young now. Half of them probably grew up with Sid as their favourite player.”
10. Daley played the first 756 games of his career in Dallas, before being traded after the end of the 2014-15 season to Chicago and then Pittsburgh. “It was tough leaving Dallas. Chicago was a good experience — minus when the puck dropped. It’s a great city with a great group of guys. I have nothing bad to say.” Why didn’t it click? “I’m surprised, I wish I knew. Right off the bat it didn’t work out … I don’t know the right words to use. It wasn’t a fit for some reason. (Me and agent Rick Curran) asked Chicago if they’d be willing to move me, and they were good about it. I was pretty lucky, I knew something would come, but not the exact date.”
Daley thinks one of the reasons things fit better in Pittsburgh was he came days after the coaching change, so everyone was starting fresh, not just him. What does Mike Sullivan demand from you? “On defence, we’re not the biggest group, so he stresses making the right decision, not getting out of position … don’t give them an opportunity.”
When did he see the confidence start to come back? “We have Crosby, Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang. I think when you have those four, you’re going to be a good team. You don’t lack too much confidence. It’s just a matter of everyone buying into it. We’re not where we need to be.”
11. Finally, Daley had a good line about his goal that tied last Saturday’s game in Philadelphia 1-1. It wasn’t easy to tell he’d scored, but he knew. “Nobody came to celebrate,” he laughed. “I was thinking, ‘Come on, I’m over here.’”
12. For all the talk about Calgary’s search for a goalie, don't underestimate the Flames’ desire to find a winger with some edge and bite.
13. Niklas Backstrom will start for Calgary against his former teammates in Minnesota on Thursday. I'm told the Wild praised him for how he handled practising, but not playing, this season. Backstrom replied, “Even when it was difficult with three goalies, they went out of their way to help me.” He mentioned assistant coaches Andrew Brunette, Darby Hendrickson and Bob Mason would always be on the ice for him, and that several current players would make an effort, too. I mentioned something Wade Redden once said, that Curtis Leschyshyn told him not to quit angry at the game instead of going to the minors. Backstrom nodded early in the question. He knew exactly what Redden meant. “I thought a lot about that,” Backstrom replied. “Remember everything hockey has given me.”
14. As the NCAA Tournament begins this week, there's some names to watch for with potential NHL interest. The overall class is not considered particularly strong, but teams always mine for gems. Some of the more familiar names are North Dakota’s Drake Caggiula (Ottawa is there, but Philadelphia, with his former coach Dave Hakstol in place, shouldn't be discounted); Providence’s Brandon Tanev (Boston is a pursuer); Yale goalie Alex Lyon (several teams).
Some quieter names if you’re feeling ambitious: St. Cloud’s Mikey Eyssimont, Denver’s Trevor Moore and Lowell’s CJ Smith (Anaheim recently sent a contingent to see him play). Northeastern’s Zach Aston-Reese plays on the same line as Los Angeles associate coach John Stevens’ two sons. If unsigned, he is expected to attend Edmonton’s development camp.
In goal, Kevin Boyle from Lowell and Providence’s Nick Ellis, who could end up in Winnipeg’s camp. Calgary fans will watch Mark Jankowski, wondering if he stays with them or goes elsewhere. Same for the Bruins with Yale defenceman Rob O’Gara.
15. Is Michigan’s Kyle Connor ready for the NHL? “Is that a serious question?” one scout said Tuesday. “Why are you bothering me with this?” said another. Up to Connor (and the schedule, really).
16. There’s no question that all eyes are on Harvard's Jimmy Vesey. The Crimson face Boston College on Friday. If they win, it’s a head-to-head matchup versus the winner of Providence/Minnesota-Duluth for a berth in the Frozen Four. A defeat ends Vesey’s college career and forces him to make a decision — Nashville (and the playoffs) or elsewhere. I don’t profess to know what Vesey is thinking. In his writing and interviews, there’s a bit of Tim Duncan there, in terms of explaining why he wished to stay in college for four years. The Predators are hopeful and, one thing I can tell you, is about 28 other teams are hopeful he chooses them over Toronto. It’s going to be interesting if the choice is the Maple Leafs, because the accusations will fly. Not that Lou Lamoriello will care.
17. In last week’s Headlines, we discussed the interest in Lithuanian-born, Swedish-trained goalie Mantas Armalis. Carolina and Toronto are among the teams looking at him, with the Maple Leafs believed to be the favourite to get him. A couple other Europeans: Vadim Shipachev. Mentioned him earlier this season, a 28-year-old centre. Montreal was among the interested parties. It’s almost time for the annual Vladimir Sobotka watch, too.
Person of Interest: Who is Maple Leafs target Mantas Armalis?
18. In a conversation about goalie equipment, written by Michael Traikos of The National Post, Robin Lehner had some interesting comments about the size of stuff worn now. One particular quote stood out: “I know guys in this league who wear player pants underneath their goalie pants. That’s how big their pants are.” There was a rumour three goalies were recently caught and fined for this, but that was denied to me. It’s believed some do wear a kind of “girdle” underneath, but the goal is to make the pants so tight that none of this is necessary, or possible.
19. In the aftermath of the GM meetings, I admitted to being confused about players who will be completing their sophomore professional seasons — Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, William Nylander, etc. — and their eligibility for a potential June 2017 expansion draft. In asking for clarification, I was told, “Players who have only earned two years of pro service are second-year pros and are exempt.” So there you go. Unless the framework is changed, teams (and their fans) need not worry.
20. In all of the discussions about potential expansion draft rules, a couple execs warned the “25 per cent rule” did not get enough play. If you spend to the projected ceiling of $74 million, you’ll have to expose at least $18.5 million of unprotected salary. That’s not going to be easy, especially if players with no-move clauses can’t be exposed.
21. GMs were also informed that Las Vegas and/or Quebec City (should one or both get teams) would likely not pick any higher than third in an amateur draft, although those discussions are still in their infancy. That fits with the most recent expansion. In 2000, Minnesota chose third (Marian Gaborik), while Columbus followed one spot later (Rostislav Klesla).
22. There’s still a big belief Montreal’s Scott Mellanby will play a major role in any Las Vegas front office. He played in Philadelphia with Murray Craven, who is close to prospective owner Bill Foley. The question is the structure. Will the NHL want a more (publicly) experienced hand as part of the operation, too?
23. Finally, the suggestions to improve offence — full two-minute power plays even if goals are scored, or disallowing icings by a penalty-killing team — were never discussed with the full GM group. That makes it unlikely any are introduced as potential rule changes for next season. One exec suggested a slight switch with the icing. Instead of preventing the defensive team from doing it, would it be better to allow the team with the power play to ice the puck while up a man? Doesn’t punish a club to for trying to attack.
24. It doesn’t happen as quickly as some people like, but it didn't go unnoticed that Columbus’s Dalton Prout received a one-game suspension for a gloved punch to Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov. There was some internal consternation when Wayne Simmonds was not suspended for socking Ryan McDonagh in February. A few players and teams are wondering if this new precedent sticks.
25. Buffalo’s Sam Reinhart went from zero goals in a short NHL window last season to 20 so far this year. Since 2005-06, he’s become just the fifth forward to go from nothing as a 19-year-old to 20-plus as a 20-year-old. The others: Jamie Benn, zero to 22; Patrik Berglund, Michael Frolik and Derek Stepan, zero to 21. (I fully admit to some cheating on this. Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin also had zero goals as 19-year-olds, but that was lockout-driven.) The only defenceman to do it? Dion Phaneuf in 2005-06.
26. Florida has extended Aleksander Barkov and it’s believed something is being worked on for Vincent Trocheck. You know they will take care of Aaron Ekblad. Seeing Reilly Smith, basically booted from Boston, wearing an “A” indicates his time may come as soon as this summer, too.
27. Smith has one more year one his contract before becoming a restricted free agent. Same goes for Jonathan Huberdeau, the terrific passer alongside Barkov and Jaromir Jagr. I was at a clinic a couple of weeks ago, where a young player asked what kinds of drills Huberdeau does to work on it. When the Panthers were in Toronto, the question was relayed to him. He advised to skate in figure eights, receiving and delivering passes while your body is twisted and your eyes aren’t looking at your target. He’s changed so much in four years. Huberdeau was 171 pounds when drafted in 2011, and is now around 197-198. He says he wants to get to 205 as a final playing weight, his target for next season. He’s gone from a skinny guy to a real load.
28. Another guy with a bigger body is Toronto’s Connor Brown. He doesn’t have Huberdeau’s height, but he’s working on the bulk. As a 13th-round pick in the 2010 OHL Draft, he weighed 135 pounds. As a sixth-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft, he was 10 pounds heavier. Now, he’s at 185. He’s two years ahead of where former Leaf GM Dave Nonis predicted he’d be in the summer of 2014. Asked who he wanted to thank as he prepared to make his NHL debut, Brown said, “Aside from my parents, I’d pick Sherry Bassin, GM of OHL Erie. He told me I could do this.”
29. Earlier this season, Morgan Rielly explained how Mike Babcock instructed him to engage opposing forwards earlier. Don’t let them get to the net, stand your ground well before that. Now going through the same lessons: Frank Corrado. He describes the exact same message. It’s also interesting how it’s not an assistant delivering the message, but the head coach showing the film.
30. One thing nagged at me from this good Chris Johnston piece on Nikita Soshnikov. Who was the other NHL team trying to snare Soshnikov’s services? Young Mr. Johnston says it was Boston.