Back in my early days as a Raptors’ reporter on The Fan 590, Isiah Thomas gave some great advice that’s held through time.
“Around the draft, everyone lies.”
It’s more strategy than malice, as teams try to keep their true intentions a secret. We know what Edmonton will do. We know what Buffalo will do. And then? You have to work your way through the smokescreens.
We’re just under two weeks from selection Friday, and, in almost every way, the real action starts at No. 3. During the combine, Coyotes GM Don Maloney said he’d received three calls about that position but didn’t know what he’d do. At the team’s State of the Union last Tuesday, Maloney joked it would take someone’s “first-born” to pry loose the pick. At least, we think he was joking.
Hours after Maloney dropped that superb line, the ground shifted under the Coyotes when Glendale City Council began the process to void the 15-year arena lease agreement with the hockey club. There are other teams wondering if the instability (and the effect it could have on recruiting free agents or players with no-trade clauses) forces Arizona to take a less biblical stance.
For most of the season, the consensus No. 3 was Boston College defenceman Noah Hanifin. Assuming the Coyotes keep the pick, it doesn’t seem like a match. If they wanted to, the team could dress six defencemen under age 25 next season — led by 23-goal scorer Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Klas Dahlbeck (acquired in the Antoine Vermette trade), along with former first-rounders Brandon Gormley and Connor Murphy.
The 16 forwards currently listed on the Arizona roster combined for 105 goals last season in a Coyotes’ uniform. Even with talented youth Max Domi and Anthony Duclair banging at the door, more offence is a necessity. Maloney opined about centres, and the easiest place to get them is the draft. Damien Cox’s mock draft has Dylan Strome going here. That’s what other teams expect as I write this.
And then things open up.
“What happens next,” said one team’s draft guru, “will be determined by who really wants defencemen.”
Three separated themselves from the rest: Hanifin, Brandon’s Ivan Provorov and Michigan’s Zach Werenski. Damien has Provorov going fourth to Toronto, and that didn't come as a shock to a few execs and scouts I asked. Hanifin is fifth to Carolina, Werenski eighth to Columbus.
There are two teams picking later in the Top 10 who are seen to have a strong desire for defencemen — Columbus and Colorado (choosing 10th). Philadelphia (seventh) and San Jose (ninth) are looking for defenders at the NHL level, but it’s not certain if that’s what they want in the draft.
But this is where the first-round intrigue begins.
“It’s starting to happen,” said the executive quoted above. “Teams who want defencemen are phoning the teams ahead of them, laying the groundwork in case they need to move.”
The question is: who is willing to move back?
1. Teams looking for defence are also eyeing the Kings’ AHL franchise, Manchester. The Monarchs won the Calder Cup on Saturday with a 2-1 Game 5 victory over Utica. "Colin Miller is ready to play in the NHL now," said one NHL exec. Miller, 21, a fifth-rounder in 2012, was third in regular-season scoring for Manchester with 19 goals and 52 points in 70 games. He had 10 points in 19 playoff games. The other is 22-year-old Derek Forbort, taken 15th overall in 2010. There have been mixed reviews in the past, but he impressed in this run. Is it Los Angeles for Miller and Forbort, or somewhere else?
2. "Have you ever been to the rink in Manchester?" Canucks GM Jim Benning said Saturday. (No.) "They have a banner showing all of the players who played here on their first Stanley Cup team. Then, they have a banner with all of those who played on the second one. They are the gold standard of our business, drafting and developing. That’s what we want to get to." It was a good run for Vancouver’s AHL team. So, how many Comets are ready to contend for an NHL job next season? "I’d say, three-to-five of them," Benning replied. My guess is that includes goalie Jacob Markstrom, defencemen Adam Clendening and Frankie Corrado and forward Sven Baertschi.
3. Obviously, the goalie debate is the big one in Vancouver. (That topic just never goes away, does it?) After their scouting meetings, Benning was willing to say two things: First, Ryan Miller is not the one being traded. Second, while he is looking to get a second-round draft pick for the one he traded earlier, "We are also looking to make hockey trades." So, if it is Eddie Lack, for example, it’s not guaranteed to be Lack for a pick. Possible, but not a lock.
4. A couple of GMs indicated Cam Talbot is probably the top choice among cap-friendly, potential No. 1 options. Another suggested Lack second and Robin Lehner third.
5. Hearing Detroit is looking for a defenceman who can take some of the physical responsibility from Niklas Kronwall. While the Red Wings like their prospects, they see too many similarities to what is already there. Wanted: someone with a bit of mean.
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6. Hurricanes GM Ron Francis knows there’s a lot of interest in last week’s meeting between he and agent Rick Curran, but, from his perspective, "Nothing’s changed." Curran represents both Eric Staal and Cam Ward, two franchise cornerstones with no-move clauses entering the final years of their contracts. (Curran also represents Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner.) "They laid out what they are thinking, we laid out what we are thinking," Francis added. "We’ll circle back in the next little while." It is believed the two wish to stay and would be interested in three-to-four year extensions, but it comes down to the number — for both sides. No doubt Carolina would like their AAVs to drop, with Staal at $8.25M and Ward at $6.3. My personal guess is both are somewhat agreeable, but how much? There’s no certainty of clarity by the draft. When I wondered if Francis had asked where each player might consider a trade, he replied, "We’re not at that point."
7. The history between Ryan O’Reilly and the Colorado Avalanche is well-documented. On-ice, no issues. Patrick Roy loves him, and he’s delivered. At the negotiating table, they are like teachers and a Canadian provincial government. What makes this speculation about O’Reilly different is the calendar. He is one year from unrestricted free agency. That’s why executive vice-president Joe Sakic is testing the centre’s value, letting teams know he’s willing to listen. It is believed the Avalanche want at least a significant defenceman in return. (I assumed a lefty because both Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson shoot right, but one source disputed that.) Colorado’s secrecy makes a few things difficult to clarify, as in: how many clubs are involved, because it’s not everybody. Even more critical: will anyone be allowed to negotiate with O’Reilly in advance of a potential trade? It’s hard to see the Avalanche maxing out on a return without it.
8. Ask teams who is most aggressive right now, and Calgary leads the voting. One year ago, the Flames were willing to take on salary, but it’s slightly different this time. They are telling clubs they will do nothing that jeopardizes their ability to re-sign Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano and Sean Monahan. They have plenty of speed and skill, and apparently are looking for some power that can play alongside those players. Like O’Reilly, Jiri Hudler is one year from unrestricted free agency. But, after a season where he led the NHL with 60 even-strength points, they will only trade him if the offer makes it worthwhile to do so.
9. There definitely are attempts being made on an extension for Drew Stafford in Winnipeg. One source warned against using the word "optimistic." But it sounds like both sides are trying.
10. Anaheim has permission to speak to Paul MacLean (among others) about the assistant coaching job previously held by Brad Lauer. Maybe things change, but a few of his peers believe MacLean will need convincing to be an assistant. It’s also not easy when you know everyone will be speculating you’re the replacement the first time the Ducks lose three in a row.
11. Two teams with connections to Kim Dillabaugh are believed to want to interview him for their vacant goalie coach position. Dillabaugh oversees goaltender development for the Kings. He’s worked closely with Jonathan Bernier, and for Ron Hextall. Toronto is definitely interested, and Philadelphia is thought to be. The hurdle is at least one team (Carolina) asked to interview him a year ago, and was refused. It is possible Dillabaugh will be given a window after the draft, since the Kings want his expertise on goalies during the selection process. But that is not a guarantee. “Dean Lombardi does not believe in free trade,” one opposing executive laughed.
12. If Dillabaugh is not allowed to go, it will be interesting to see if the Flyers ask instead to speak to Bill Ranford, the Kings’ current coach. More and more teams are doing this "double setup," with someone at the NHL and another person moving throughout the organization. Dallas is the latest to adopt, as Jeff Reese, formerly of Philadelphia, is expected to be hired. Mike Valley slides to the roving position. Reese will try to resurrect Kari Lehtonen as he did Steve Mason. It doesn’t sound like there’s a ton of interest in the Stars’ No. 1.
13. If Toronto does not get Dillabaugh, there is talk they may also do something different. The Maple Leafs are believed to have interest in Steve Briere, who runs his own goalie schools and coaches a few different teams in U.S. junior leagues. He is part of the Mitch Korn teaching tree. It’s also thought they are looking at WHL Tri-City goalie coach Lyle Mast for a potential consulting role.
14. As Toronto continues to investigate the market for Phil Kessel, there is doubt two teams I thought were potential landing spots are going to be in the race. The first is Nashville, which heavily pursued Kessel when Boston was ready to let go. The Predators are one year away from new contracts for Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones. There is doubt they will be able to handle the winger’s $8M when you add that to their other business. (One exec refused to believe Nashville would be out, so he can spend the rest of my life telling me if I’m wrong.) The other is Florida. Kind of the same situation. The Panthers are not a cap team, and are working on an extension for Jonathan Huberdeau. Still to come are Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad. That last one will be hefty.
15. Seven years ago, while going through the process that hired Todd McLellan, Sharks GM Doug Wilson interviewed Peter DeBoer. So, there was a familiarity when the two met this time, as DeBoer eventually became McLellan’s replacement. "I wanted to be in a spot where the expectation was a team could and should be in the playoffs," the new coach said last week. "That hasn’t always been the case over my career in the NHL, and I thought it was very important. It’s not like I was turning down jobs, but I prefer this rebuild."
16. DeBoer is very familiar with the team’s core, from international tournaments to OHL coaching battles. Among them: Brent Burns. So, is Burns a forward or a defenceman? “He’s a defenceman. At the World Championships, he was the best and it wasn’t close. You can count on one hand the number of players in the world who can be an all-star at forward and on defence at the NHL level.” DeBoer watched a lot of him in the lead-up to his interviews. What did he see? “You can’t play that position part-time. He was a little bit uncomfortable. We have to commit to him playing there, so he can really become comfortable with it.”
17. DeBoer said as he did his interviews, then started talking to the players, he could see the 2014 playoff disappointment "dragged into last season and played a big part in what happened there. They are ready to leave it behind them now…and would all agree it was something that hung over them all year." Why? "You continually answer questions about it. It’s not easy, but they are a motivated group that played at a high level for a long time. They want to get back there." I asked DeBoer if he thought about what he was going to say in that first training-camp meeting to set a new tone. At first, he didn’t want to answer, because he was worried it would be interpreted as a shot at the previous coaching staff, which is not his intention. Finally he said, "Yes, but there’s a natural separation. It will be their first different voice in years. They had a great run, but now it’s time for a different look." Then, he paused. "I can tell you this, they didn’t blame anyone but themselves."
18. What must the Sharks correct? DeBoer pointed out the penalty kill went from 85 per cent in 2012-13 and 84.9 the next season, to 78.5 this year. "Historically, it’s not bad. We have to figure out the reasons why. Was it goaltending, structure, system…probably a little bit of everything." The year DeBoer’s Devils went to the Cup Final, they were first at 89.6 per cent. That’s the best in the NHL since 1997-98. He also said San Jose’s five-on-five play “was not at the level of a contender.” They scored 142 such goals (22nd) and allowed 156 (24th).
19. Best exchange with DeBoer: "Have you discussed with Doug Wilson what you will do in goal?" A: "Yes, we’ve talked about that." Silence. Q: "You’re not going to tell me, are you?" A: "You’re right about that."
20. Didn’t ask DeBoer about potential offer sheets, but, as teams wonder if anyone will hit cap-tight Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles, a couple executives reminded of what San Jose did in 2010. The Sharks dropped one on the Blackhawks, a four-year, $14M contract for Niklas Hjalmarsson. It wasn’t a huge number with crazy bonuses (just $250,000), but once Chicago matched, it allowed San Jose to get Antti Niemi. Is a similar move out there?
21. On the possibility of an offer sheet for Dougie Hamilton? "I’d like to see the guy who does that to Jeremy Jacobs," one GM said. Another countered, "I can think of someone." Another reason teams think offer sheets will get matched: the compensation isn’t high enough.
22. New Jersey Devils coach John Hynes, on mixing the organization’s on-ice legacy with fresh ideas: "There are a lot of good habits here. Stick position, defensive position…they deny the middle of the ice very well. The difference is going to be how we play with the puck, how we get out of our zone, go through the neutral zone, how we forecheck. Tweaks, more than an overhaul." Both he and GM Ray Shero talked a lot about pace. Not just skating quickly, but thinking quickly. Hynes said there will be different options for the defence to activate more in the offensive zone.
23. Hynes has history with three players — Stephen Gionta, Jon Merrill, Cory Schneider — but hadn’t yet spoken to them, or anyone else, when we talked last week. (Asked if he thought about reaching out before the interview process to get information, he said, "No, I didn’t think it was fair to put them in that position.") As he prepares for his first NHL job, he had an interesting answer about relating to NHLers vs AHLers. "No matter what the level, you have to find out what drives the player. All of them have different pressures. Are they trying to get there? Are they thinking about their legacy? Everyone wants a good environment…to win, to have fun. To accomplish that you have to know where they are at in their career, where they are at in their life."
24. Best phone call or text message Hynes received after news broke that he got the job? "Oh boy, that’s a tough one," he laughed. "My wife (Sarah)." What did she say? "I called to tell her…there was silence. Very emotional."
25. When he plays 14:42 in Game 6, Duncan Keith will become the fourth player since the NHL started counting ice-time to play 700 minutes in one playoff year. If he plays his average of 31:09, he will end up at 716:27 in 23 games. Only Drew Doughty (747:33 in 2014, 26 games), Chris Pronger (742:55 in 2006, 24 games) and Nicklas Lidstrom (717:01 in 2002, 23 games) finished higher. If there’s Game 7, and he plays his average, Keith beats Doughty by three seconds.
26. Tampa Bay’s AHL coach, Rob Zettler, was not surprised Andrei Vasilevskiy held strong in his Game 2 relief appearance and Game 4 spot start for the injured Ben Bishop. He and Kristers Gudlevskis couldn't grab hold of the starters’ job in Syracuse, splitting the first 18 games. But Vasilevskiy shined in front of 30,000-plus at the Carrier Dome, turning in his best performance and snaring the No. 1 spot until Tampa called him up. "We saw it that day, he loves the big stage," Zettler said. Vasilevskiy struggled at the start adjusting to the regular rink, which is eight feet shorter through the neutral zones. Compared to Russia, where he was last season, opponents must have looked like they were wearing jet packs.
27. Vasilevskiy drew comparisons to Jonathan Quick, playing small and wide — on his knees a lot. It’s a little more unusual for him because he’s taller. But opponents say he’s smart at reading the play, which gets him into proper position. Asked if he thought Vasilevskiy would have to change, Zettler replied, "We wondered about it. But the more we saw him, the more we realized it wouldn’t be a problem."
28. Wanted to close out the details on Jeff Petry’s contract. He has a full no-move clause the length of this six-year deal. For the last three years there is a limited no-trade. So, there is a point where the Canadiens could theoretically deal him. The no-move is protection against waivers.
29. Some updates on the continuing crazy that is Glendale: Apparently, the city of Phoenix reached out last week to the Coyotes and offered them a move back to Talking Stick Resort Arena, where they played from 1996-2003. The NBA's Suns remain in that building (which has obstructed-view seats for hockey). The idea was to play there while the two teams and city worked on a new arena. The Coyotes declined — for now. That scenario may be a more long-term outcome, but the fight for control of Gila River Arena is the current priority. No matter what any reader thinks of the NHL in Arizona (or Quebec City), the organization maintains publicly and privately that it is not leaving the state.
30. What stood out last week was the absence of new owner Andrew Barroway, who had zero presence as the team fought for its local existence. There have been rumours his purchase was in trouble, and now come reports he will actually be a minority owner once this is all done. Do not be surprised if Gary Drummond, a current co-owner and director, becomes a major voice in the organization.