30 Thoughts: Flames willing to deal, but is anyone else?

Mark Giordano (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

When I was a cub reporter covering the NBA’s Toronto Raptors in 1995-96, Brendan Malone, the Raptors first head coach, gave me some great insight into team politics.

“The most important people on the team are your best four players and your four players who play the least,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“If those eight guys buy into what you’re doing, everyone in the middle buys in, too,” he said. “If not, you’re in trouble, because you’ve got a lot of guys who aren’t on-board.” (This is the heavily edited version of Malone’s actual quote. He could “blue streak” with the best of them.)

I’ve asked hockey coaches if the analogy works for this sport. Because the rosters are larger, it’s an inexact comparison. But most agree the theory is sound.

Malone’s story popped into my head last week while doing research into American Hockey League salaries. One executive asked if I’d heard about Justin Johnson.

Johnson is a 34-year-old forward, an 11-year-pro who joined the Toronto Marlies after a season with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces. He’s played two NHL games, both for the Islanders in the 2013-14 season, where, by all accounts, he was a very popular teammate at their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport.

Sixteen different forwards have played for the Marlies in just seven games. That’s a roster nightmare, because you know those who sit are grumbling.

“There’s a logjam there, so they wanted a veteran with good habits who won’t cause a problem,” Johnson’s agent, Jeff Helperl, said last week. “Yes, he wants to play, but also do the things the Marlies are looking for. Justin’s biggest selling point is his character.”

It’s also likely the Marlies wanted someone to protect their youth in case opponents started running at them. It's tough to say for sure, because assistant GM Kyle Dubas, who negotiated with Helperl, is in media jail.

The interesting thing is how the team and the agent designed this contract. The structure is very different, with a couple of agents and executives saying they’d never seen anything like it before. Johnson’s salary and signing bonus are normal, in American funds.

What stands out are the bonuses.

Johnson gets:
*$5,000 (these are in Canadian dollars) for every Marlie who scores 20 goals
*$5,000 for every Marlie who reaches 50 points
*$2,500 based on the success of the power play and penalty kill
*$2,500 for everyone who plays 10 games with the Marlies and 15 with the Maple Leafs

“Initially, it was more elaborate than what it ended up being,” Helperl said. “It took a month to finish.”

He wouldn’t go into it, but a couple of sources indicated other bonuses were rejected.

In the NHL, the only players who qualify for bonuses are rookies on their entry-level deals; players who have missed significant time due to injury; and over-35s. But this structure? Don’t even try.
It’s unique. Team bonuses? Absolutely. A player benefitting from the individual performance of a teammate? Definitely new. It’s going to be copied, for sure.

30 THOUGHTS

1. My interest in AHL salaries piqued when Toronto signed Andrew Campbell to a contract worth $250,000 this season and $400,000 next season. That’s a terrific amount at that level. Commissioner Dave Andrews stresses it is a developmental league, but each team has room for five veterans (those who have played at least 260 professional games) with the potential of one other exemption.

Andrews won’t discuss the finances, but, according to one source, there are more than 50 players above $250,000, with Michael Leighton at $450,000. Ten seasons ago, there was nobody. The average salary (not counting those on NHL contracts) is creeping towards $100,000. The biggest challenge may be western expansion since living in California can be expensive, but the overall rise in salaries says very good things about the growth of the AHL.

Andrews and Larry Landon, executive director of the Professional Hockey Players’ Association, have done it without labour problems, too.

2. Compensation for hiring fired executives and coaches is now on the agenda for both the General Manager’s meeting (Toronto in November) and Board of Governors (Pebble Beach in December). The hope is there will no longer be a draft pick awarded for hiring a fired coach, general manager or president of hockey operations as of Jan. 1, unless the league is so angry at how this was butchered that it decides to entirely scrap compensation.

3. Ducks GM Bob Murray texted not to get too excited about his Western Canadian scouting trip: “Team Canada. Previously scheduled.”

Director of player personnel Rick Paterson spent at least two games in Buffalo, which was interesting. Anaheim’s owners, the Samuelis, love Bruce Boudreau. Murray and his coach aren’t best buddies, but the former recognizes the latter doesn’t deserve all the blame. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Murray wanted a trade to jolt his stunningly impotent offence. It’s tough, though. Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen wanted to go that route, there was nothing that made any sense and Todd Richards paid the price.

4.Add Los Angeles to the list of teams looking for a defenceman or two. The Kings are not happy with their mix.

5. As Calgary continues to struggle, GM Brad Treliving holds some sway over the defensive market. There are blueliners available, but few that are overly appetizing. Dennis Wideman’s played very well for them, one of the few who’s been above water during this ugly start.

“I’ve changed my opinion of him,” another GM said last week.

He’s got a no-move clause, but even if he was willing, the problem is his $5.25 million cap hit next season — with an actual salary of $6 million. With so many teams so tight to the ceiling, it’s going to be hard for someone to take it.

6. That leaves us with Kris Russell, unrestricted at the end of the year. He’s down with the ship right now, no points at all after 63 the past two seasons. Word is he’d like to stay, and, in a perfect world, the Flames would like to keep him. Look at some of his contemporaries. Andrej Sekera jumped into the market and got $5.5 million. Teammate T.J. Brodie signed early, for $4.65 million. Chris Tanev signed early, for $4.45 million.

You could argue Russell may not be a first-pairing player, so let’s look at Mattias Ekholm. Obviously happy in NashVegas, Ekholm took $3.75 million from the Predators. He was to be unrestricted in 2017. Calgary would probably love to get Russell on that, but Ekholm plays six fewer minutes a night. This is an interesting card for the Flames to play — if they want to.

7. Another guy I wondered about was Yannick Weber. He’s only played two games in Vancouver. It’s so hard to score five-on-five that power plays are even more important. If not the Canucks — and Ben Hutton is going nowhere — he’s got to help someone with the man advantage. GM Jim Benning wouldn’t comment, but right now word is there isn’t much action there. I have to admit I’m surprised by that. On a one-year deal at $1.5 million.

8. Similar to Wideman is Columbus’s Cam Atkinson. He’s got fans around the league, although the Blue Jackets are underwhelmed by the offers. That goes back to last season’s trade deadline, too. His new extension, which averages $3.5 million and features a rising salary, makes it tougher.

9. One coach on the Flames: “Out of sync.” Everything came through Calgary’s back end last season. They carried the puck, they fired the stretch passes, they controlled the game. Brodie’s injury is big, but Dougie Hamilton isn’t an easy fit yet and Mark Giordano is still finding his game. (He was brilliant last Friday in a win over Detroit.)

“If the opponent can stay above them in the neutral zone, the effectiveness of the long pass is neutralized. Teams who stay patient can counter-punch. Worst case is, you are back to retrieve a tipped puck first.”

10. Benning did say, with the Canucks at eight games, “We’re going to sit down and discuss what we will do with Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen in the next few days.” (This was Saturday.) Remember it is the player’s 10th game and not the team’s that matters. McCann’s played six times and Virtanen five, so there is some breathing room. But, when asked if that means they could stay a little bit longer, the GM was non-committal.

“At this level, it’s what you can do defensively. Can you gain the coach’s trust?” Benning said.

11. Arizona’s Martin Hanzal, on the toughest centre in the Western Conference: “Got to be (Anze) Kopitar. You might not notice it, but he’s pretty fast. Can beat you in different ways.”

Extension talks have slowed. Don’t know if it was because the Kings were losing, but it seemed very close, then stopped. Would be shocked if it didn't get done, though. He’s too important.

12. When the Coyotes came through Toronto last season, that was a miserable group. They were undermanned, losing. No one was happy. The team that arrived to play Monday was 180 degrees different.

“When camp opened, we decided last year was forgotten,” Kyle Chipchura said. “We didn’t want to talk about it any more.” As one player said, “Even (coach Dave Tippett) is friendlier.” Tippett smiled at that one.

13. Max Domi and Anthony Duclair are playing a huge role, bringing some much-needed youthful energy. Having Hanzal and Mikkel Boedker healthy makes a big difference, too. (Boedker’s father watched his son’s hat trick from last Saturday live in Denmark.) But, as usual, goaltending is everything. The Coyotes hired Mike Smith’s long-time sounding board, Jon Elkin.

“We wanted to get him from reacting and reflexes 40 per cent of the time down to 20 per cent,” Elkin said. “So far, he’s stuck to that.”

Smith has battled confidence issues, and admitted he saw a sports psychologist. Has Elkin seen the goalie’s mental strength wane? “No, not at all,” he replied.

That will be critical. Smith’s been great.

14. All it took was one game and the John Tortorella/Ryan Johansen watch has begun. My theory is this: the Blue Jackets have until the end of next season to decide what they have in Johansen. A new contract will be needed, with unrestricted free agency a year away. They are going to use that time and they want Tortorella to push him like he pushed Vincent Lecavalier.

Whatever Columbus eventually decides to do — sign him or trade him — it will not be a rash decision. One rumour I could not confirm: the organization met with Johansen and agent Kurt Overhardt to soothe the hard feelings of a year ago, so everyone could look forward, not behind. That was before Todd Richards’ firing, although I don’t think everything unravelled immediately.

15. If there’s one man who knows what’s coming here, it is Jay Feaster, Tampa Bay’s executive director of community hockey development. “I would tell Ryan Johansen to understand none of it is personal. It’s not that (Tortorella) doesn’t like you, it’s that he has no politically correct bone in his body. No regulator, no unvarnished feeling. I would love it when a player would come into my office and say, ‘He hates me.’ I would always hold up my hand, stop them and say, ‘He hates all of us the same way. You are not special.’”

In John Feinstein’s outstanding book on basketball coach Bob Knight, A Season on the Brink, there’s a point where he’s told (I'm paraphrasing), “When he calls you a (bleep), don’t listen. When he tells you why you’re a (bleep), that’s when you listen.” Feaster laughed at that, saying it’s a good parallel.

“For all the bluster…he would not invest the time and trouble if he didn’t believe in you and didn’t care.”

16. Feaster told a great story of a meeting in his hotel room between Tortorella and Lecavalier after Tampa won the Stanley Cup. “They hit a rough patch. John told Vinny, 'I look at the 20 guys on the bench and I’m going with my gut. If I need a goal, I’m counting on who is going well that night.’

Vinny replied ‘I get that. I may not have had a good night, but the reason you pay me that money is I’m going to get you that goal.’ John would say it was fascinating, the mind of the gifted player. No matter how bad he was, he’d still get it later.'”

That’s a key to Feaster. Tortorella expects to get as good as he gives. Martin St. Louis was one who really stood up to him.

17. Finally, Feaster pointed out Craig Ramsay played a very important role. If a player was down, it was Ramsay who stepped in to explain/sort it out. So Craig Hartsburg and Brad Larsen will be important in Columbus.

“It can work out. Ruslan Fedotenko, John eviscerated him and he went back to play for him in New York. Vinny Prospal was benched, then scored two goals, was interviewed post-game on the scoreboard and said he wanted to ‘shove it up someone’s butt.’ He’s coaching now and they talk all the time. You’d be surprised at how many players have an epiphany after it’s over.”

18. I love watching Victor Hedman, but cringed seeing him take this hit last Friday from Adam Lowry.

It’s clean, no issues, but a guy who’s had three (I think) concussions has to learn how to avoid this.

19. Washington is 6-1 after taking Western Canada by a combined 16-8 with wins over Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. In 2014-15, their sixth win came in their 14th game.

“There was a learning curve,” Brooks Orpik said Monday. “We should have been five games over .500. This year, we’re comfortable with how our practices and systems work. During games, we’re not thinking, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ It’s more instinctive. Last year was a big adjustment. Of all my training camps, it was the hardest I’ve been through. I’m guessing it was harder than (coach Barry Trotz’s) normal camps, too.

"The first day, we had our first practice, and the conditioning test right after. There were longer meetings, the systems were complicated, a lot info to take in and digest. The pace of practice was an eye-opener, too. It’s easy to make a 10-15 foot pass when you’re 100 per cent focussed, but there are a lot of times in a season where you aren’t. He went after that sloppiness in practices. Now, as soon as practice starts slipping, one of the players tries to get it going, because it’s not too long before (Trotz) does.”

Was this year’s camp any better? “It wasn’t enjoyable, but we understood.”

20. An example manifested itself in the final game of that road trip, in Edmonton. The Capitals won the night before in Vancouver, so there were plenty of built-in excuses with the team losing an hour coming one province east in a back-to-back. “Actually, we talked about it before the game,” Orpik said. “A few weeks ago we had an army ranger come in and talk to us about being sleep-deprived and trusting your physical skills. He said, ‘If you get your mind right, you can do anything you want.’”

Evgeny Kuznetsov led the way with five points in a 7-4 win.

“That’s the only good thing (about losing to the Rangers last year). You kick yourself, because you don’t get a lot of legit opportunities with a team that can win. But you saw the way (Kuznetsov) played and this is a direct carryover. It took him until halfway through the season to get comfortable with the size of the rink and style of the game.”

21. Orpik admitted teams did not fear the Capitals. In 2009, the Penguins came back from a 2-0 deficit to win Game 7 on the road. “Down 2-0, most times doubt creeps in. But we were confident and calm.”

What is the biggest change Orpik sees now?

“An understanding you don’t have success on talent alone. More accountability and more discipline.”

Then he laughed a little.

“Asking for it and actually liking it are different things, though.”

He wouldn’t go into it too much, but the 2009 Stanley Cup champion said last year’s video sessions could cut deep. “Guys were a little sensitive, took it a little too personally. In November, one player was highlighted for a couple of bad penalties. Initially, I know he took it personally, couldn’t believe it was actually happening. It got everyone’s attention. If you do it to a young guy, it’s not the same effect. You need to do it to a more established guy. Slowly they understood. It’s never a personal attack, but they raised eyebrows. Then, as we started to win, everyone understood there is a reason for this.”

(For the record, when I asked about Alexander Ovechkin’s one-game punishment this year, Orpik refused to discuss it. “We’ve moved on.”)

22. It always works this way. You call a team that’s going well, and they immediately get blown out. In this case, it was Dallas. The Stars stormed through Pittsburgh, only to have Florida ruin their homecoming. Antti Niemi had a .940 save percentage, Kari Lehtonen a .920 before the Panthers gored them.

Those kinds of numbers will win you a lot of games. New goalie coach Jeff Reese on the duo: “Interesting situation. Thus far, very good. They hang around together, both trying to help each other with their games…willing to try new things. I’m sure they both want to play more. Right now, both have a chance to go in where they can be rested. Winning cures everything, and right now, we are all enjoying the winning. But I don’t see it changing. Their relationship is very strong.”

What language do they speak?

“Always talking Finnish.”

Do you understand any of it? Reese laughed.

“I’m looking into it right now.”

23. When training camp started, did either ask, “Who is the No. 1 here?” Reese said that didn’t happen.

“If they were 21 or 22 that question would be asked. Antti knew what he was getting into here. He wanted the situation, that’s why he came. Not once has there been a complaint the other guy is going. We make sure both are involved, don’t sit them out too long. I’ve had two guys battling before, but younger. These two are very mature and understand. And with the travel, they get a chance to work and have breather.”

Lehtonen and Niemi are Western Conference veterans, so they understand the demanding schedule. Reese, who was in Philadelphia, joked that he forgot. “I’m used to short flights and train rides. Last night, we got home (from Pittsburgh) late and are heading to the rink for (a noon) practice. In the past, both would be playing. There are no easy games. Being fresh gives you a better chance to win.”

24. Reese didn’t want to discuss technical changes he made with either goalie. But, he did admit — under fierce questioning — that Niemi is working on something the Sharks privately complained about. Niemi would not anchor his skate to the post, so his push-off was not as strong. San Jose wanted him to adjust that, but it was never done to the organization’s satisfaction.

Reese said they are trying the “Reverse VH” technique, which places the skate directly against the pole. “He enjoys it. He’s an interesting guy, always tinkering. Powerful, bigger than you think. He’s got long arms and long legs, can use them to really push. In the past, he got in trouble pushing too far. We’re cleaning that up a little bit.”

Lehtonen?

“Kari has bigger adjustments than Antti.”

Such as? Reese wasn’t going there.

“Just simplify his game, make things easier. Nothing major, but as he got through exhibition, he was doing less thinking.”

25. I'm curious to see how many St. Louis Blues start wearing protective skate gear now that Paul Stastny is out after breaking his foot blocking a shot. Teams cannot order their players to do it (as Calgary found out a couple of years ago), but they strongly “suggest” it. And I can’t blame them, really.

26. One Maple Leaf on Jack Eichel: “The word is out…if you let him get going, he will embarrass you.”

27. Sam Reinhart downplayed his switch to wing from centre, saying he’s played it before at some international events and, at WHL Kootenay alongside older brother Max. He did say that the biggest difference between moving there at the NHL is how you get the puck in your zone. “When you’re at centre, you’re always moving. It’s easier to get going. When you get it on the wing, you’re often standing still. So, it’s harder to make that quick play.”

Reinhart is whip-smart. On the power-play, coach Dan Bylsma said the Sabres’ first three extra-man goals “don’t happen without his positioning in front.”

28. Interesting thinking from Mike Babcock when he revealed Jake Gardiner was out of the lineup. Toronto’s coach said he would put Morgan Rielly on the power play, but didn’t want to. Why not?

“Because I want him concentrating on other things.”

Rielly filled in the blanks.

“When the puck is going up the ice, am I there supporting it? In our zone, am I boxing out the opposing forwards? Or, if someone is coming out of the corner with the puck and gives it to someone else, am I preventing him from getting to the net? That’s the kind of thing he wants me worrying about.”

29. After Babcock demanded better from Jonathan Bernier, the goalie was asked if he would change his preparation or routine leading into games. Bernier would not say. Then, he was very good in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Sabres last Wednesday. So I followed up. Bernier smiled and said, “No” in a way that made me unsure if he was serious or was politely saying, “none of your business.”

Whatever the case, he couldn’t keep the momentum, with a 5-3 loss in Montreal. James Reimer was in net for Monday’s home defeat to the Coyotes. It's still anyone’s net.

30. One follow-up from last week’s Detroit/Montreal Brendan Gallagher goal: The War Room in Toronto had the right to review whether or not the puck entered the net prior to contact with the goalie. No coach’s challenge was necessary. I’m told that’s changed. Anything to do with contacting a goaltender goes through the challenge process, although it’s automatically checked in the last minute of regulation and overtime.

Oh and if you know someone who wants to be an NHL official, contact the league. There could be five retirements at the end of the regular season.