30 Thoughts: Making the NHL’s development model better

Damien Cox & Elliotte Friedman discuss the Canucks cap situation, Zac Rinaldo’s suspension and Winnipeg to host an outdoor game.

Months after returning to the NHL from an executive stint with the Buffalo Sabres, Pat LaFontaine quietly reached out to several of North America’s top amateur and junior leagues with a question: “What can we do to make our developmental model better?”

“We were told, ‘No idea is a bad idea,’” one representative said, declining to comment on the record. “If we stay quiet, we’re not going to improve things.”

LaFontaine, the’s NHL Vice-President of Development and Community Affairs, put together several meetings that involved the league, the Players’ Association, Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, the Canadian Hockey League, the United States Hockey League and the NCAA. It was held last spring, and another “NHL Development Summit” is scheduled for early May.

Reached Saturday, LaFontaine didn’t want to say too much. He echoed a quote he gave to ESPN.com’s Joe McDonald, that “discussions remain preliminary, and we are looking at everything in an attempt to improve how we develop players.” He was also concerned about speaking out of turn. Even though he’s passionate about this project, he knows nothing will happen without approval from higher up the food chain.

Last month, Hockey Canada President & CEO Tom Renney told NewsKamloops reporter Gregg Drinnan that, in an effort to get 16-year-olds out of junior hockey, he pitched the idea of a “midget super league” at the summit. (Renney, saying he did not “want to contaminate the process by saying too much publicly,” declined to speak further.)

That’s an intriguing idea. But, from an NHL perspective, the newsiest item surrounds the draft. Current rules allow anyone who turns 18 by Sept. 15 of the draft year to be taken. But, there’s conversation about going to age 19 across the board.

What’s most interesting is that several sources believe this talk is serious, and, while it would be a mistake to say anything is imminent, many of the stakeholders would like to see it happen. Apparently, it’s been a topic of conversation at NCAA and CHL games in recent weeks.

From executives to agents to coaches, they’ve heard the rumours. One NHL goalie coach reached out to suggest that even if skaters are still allowed to be drafted before age 19, netminders shouldn’t be.

“Their development takes longer and they get less looks…at age 17 and 18,” he said. “Seems to be there would be less mistakes made on goalies if they have more ‘junior mileage.’ How do you know if he’s any good when all scouts see is size and pre-game warmup?”

The biggest hurdle is the NHLPA’s feelings on the matter. Any change to draft age would have to go through collective bargaining. But, don’t forget, the group is already apart of the process. If it was impossible, everyone would know by now.

After all, who tends to get squeezed in any CBA negotiation? Guys who aren’t in the league yet. Look at what’s happened with entry-level contracts in the NBA, NFL and NHL.

Again, we’re not sure where this is going to go. And we may not have a clear picture until May. But, as the NHL gets younger and fewer impact players are available in free agency, drafting/development grows exponentially in importance.

There’s a ton of people who’d love an extra year to make these decisons.

30 THOUGHTS

1. As part of the summit, one source indicated it was brought up that maybe the NCAA should drop its opposition to accepting players who have appeared in the CHL. How far did that go? “Not very,” he laughed.

2. The GM meetings begin next Monday in Florida, and it’s expected that a few of them may ask to see if the offside reviews can be moved from the ice to the War Room in Toronto. There seems to be a lot less anger about goaltender interference decisions than offside rulings. It’s delicate, however. Whenever this comes up — and it’s been brought up a few times, most recently during the Washington/Boston game last Saturday — officials push back, not wanting more control taken from them. At some point, though, it’s going to come down to bigger screens or no replay system at all.

3. The league is not as bullish as it once was on cameras in the goal posts. Too much is obstructed. It is, however, more confident in them inside the crossbar, looking down. Those are being worked on for all playoff games. Same goes for cameras along the blue line. The plan is to install them in the 16 arenas that will host post-season games. On the penalty box side, they will be set along the surface. The players’ bench is trickier, so the mount will be above the ice.

4. At the last GM meeting, there were discussions about banning the opening of bench doors during play to prevent injuries should someone fall into them. Doesn’t sound like it’s going to happen. One of the concerns is that it means more skates flying in the air around the bench. Very legitimate worry. Since eyes will be on the ice, the potential for a frightening cut is enhanced.

5. Jared Cowen is not going to file a grievance against the Toronto Maple Leafs for sending him home — a move designed to keep him healthy for a buyout. (It is expected the NHLPA will notify the league that it will retain its right to do so in any future situations similar to this, but will pass in this instance).

“We’re going to take the time to get Jared right,” agent Rick Valette said Tuesday. “He’s not injured, but he’s not right. Any doctor would clear him to play. But there are compensation issues when your hip isn’t 100 per cent, other parts of your body are affected. Rather than having him sit as a healthy scratch with the Leafs or the Marlies, we’re going to have him go see some people and get healthy.”

Cowen is back in Ottawa, but Valette plans to send him to the Mayo Clinic and some other specialists he knows. Damien Cox reported Saturday that Toronto granted him permission to speak with other teams, but Valette will wait until seasons start ending before pursuing them. “He’s 25 years old. We’ve got six months to get him back to being a good player. That’s our game plan for now.”

6. As Cowen leaves, Jonathan Drouin returns. He can still perform in the NHL playoffs, as long as its with Tampa Bay. He can get traded, but wouldn’t be available for the post-season. The Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, have three games in three days this weekend, so you have to assume Drouin will get time, but how much? His NHL compatriots will welcome him back, but the American league is a different animal.

It’s in Tampa’s best interests to showcase him, but that’s going to cost others their own opportunities. The Crunch are a longshot to make the playoffs, which means if he wants to play past April 17, it’s going to have to be with the big club. He showed up saying all the right things. Can he co-exist with Jon Cooper if the opportunity arises?

7. Another reason the trade market fizzled at the deadline? Last summer’s deals involving Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Saad. We are looking at a potentially flat cap, which will tighten the screws on a few teams. If you want to be in on young, impactful players who might be available, you better save your assets.

8. Alex Galchenyuk might be one of those players. He scored twice during a loss to Winnipeg on Saturday, giving him 21 goals this season. That’s a good number in what hasn’t been an easy year there for anyone.

Galchenyuk is supposed to finish the season as Montreal’s top center, but who is this audition for? The Canadiens, or someone else? I think Marc Bergevin had a chance to pull the trigger at the deadline if he wished. But a strong finish in the middle makes Galchenyuk more attractive to everyone, including Montreal.

9. Are we looking at the final 15 games of Mike Hoffman’s tenure in Ottawa? Sure looks like it. The winger was benched Saturday in Toronto, then played 13:46 the next night against Dallas. I talked about it with one agent (not Hoffman’s), who points out the contract power pendulum will switch from the club, which did very well in his arbitration case last summer, to the player. He is one year from unrestricted free agency, and can go to arbitration once again. This time, his resume is deeper, as he’s become one of the best even-strength scorers in the league. Unless the Senators believe in him enough to offer a lengthy extension, and their usage certainly indicates doubt, you can’t let him walk for nothing.

10. As outdoor games for 2016-17 are starting to be officially announced, it’s gone quiet with regards to Ottawa. I still think the Senators are pushing for the following season, with all efforts underway to make Parliament Hill a possibility.

11. Tough to get a full picture of what happened with a potential Scott Hartnell deadline deal. There were a lot of rumours. He had to approve anything, and I’m not sure it ever got close. I thought it might be salary for salary, but the Blue Jackets weren’t as interested in that. There were a few teams that saw value, including Minnesota, Nashville and Pittsburgh. But they backed away at the ask.

12. Not that anyone will ever admit it, but did a GM out there try to acquire Mikkel Boedker and Martin Hanzal together?

13. NHL teams ignore their fans at their own risk, but you don’t want to move into what CFL legend Pinball Clemons called “Paralysis by Analysis.” I see that in Vancouver. If the Canucks lead the league in something, it’s fan forums. There was one last summer, there was one the day Chris Higgins was sent down and there was one last week. There’s another on Tuesday. That is too much. By all means, have a couple of them. Answer questions, explain reasoning, kiss babies. But, every time I read the transcripts, they come across as tense and difficult. It’s not the way an organization should be run, because it poisons the relationship and creates doubt. At some point, you have to stand up and say, “We love your support, we can’t be who we are without it, but we can’t be explaining ourselves every other week.”

14. That’s why it was important for Trevor Linden to put an emphatic show of support behind Willie Desjardins as coach for next year. Canucks fans are well aware that every time under current ownership the team has missed the playoffs, someone pays for it with their job. Marc Crawford, Dave Nonis, Mike Gillis and John Tortorella were previous victims. Linden got out in front of it, establishing to the fan base — and maybe ownership, too — that he will be making this call. To be successful in a white-hot market, someone’s got to step up and say, “We’re doing it this way. And that’s that.”

15. While fans are already debating potential World Cup snubs, one coach is already wondering how injury replacements will work. He pointed out that Canada and the United States are playing back-to-back exhibition games in Columbus and Ottawa, Sept. 9-10. “If you’re one of those teams, you’re worried about it right there.”

16. For that reason, does Brent Burns, an outstanding forechecker, make Team Canada as a forward? Just in case another blue line body is needed?

17. Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli swatted away comments that leaving off Ryan Nugent-Hopkins from Team North America meant an uncertain future in Alberta for the young centre. It’s much more likely that Edmonton’s disappointing season cost Taylor Hall and Nugent-Hopkins early World Cup roster spots.

18. The North American brain trust selected Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray as one of the three goalies. After a 3-2 loss in Washington last week, he was asked what Penguins coaches told him when he turned pro in 2014. “They told me, ‘You’re going to have to become a more aggressive goalie. You won’t be able to play as deep as you did in junior.’” Murray is tall and lean, reminding me a little of Matt O’Connor, who joined Ottawa last season. O’Connor realized he had some “holes” in his stance, something professional players could exploit.

The good news for Penguins fans is Murray said the organization never told him he had the same problem. You can see his talent. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that Calgary tried to get him. Another source added Toronto tried to as well in the Phil Kessel deal, but Pittsburgh held firm.

19. I watched Washington go through a brief, brisk practice the day before hosting Montreal two weeks ago. You could tell head coach Barry Trotz wanted to keep them on the ice as little as possible. “His message was very simple,” one player said afterward. “If we did what he needed us to do, it would be a quick day. If not…well, it was up to us.”

That practice, Trotz said later, was to correct “drifting” in defensive zone coverage. We’ve seen confident Capitals teams before, but this is different. The belief isn’t boastful as much as it’s businesslike. No matter the situation or the game an opponent tries to dictate, the group thinks it can win.

Monday’s victory in Anaheim (a terrific game), gave them a 20-11-4 record when giving up the first goal. That’s impressive, but, at the same time, not a stat Trotz really likes. “Giving up the first goal in the playoffs is not something I want to see,” he admitted. Their depth is terrific. You could see in the win over Pittsburgh that Washington felt stronger as the game wore on. But, another factor is they react well when Trotz goes to the blender. He put Tom Wilson with Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin — “I want someone going in straight lines when they start going to side to side” — and moved everyone else around. They started to take over the game. “Some teams don’t react well to that,” another player said. “Ours do.”

20. One of the biggest questions about Mike Richards was going to be endurance. Start in the middle of the season and you’ve got a lot of guys to catch up to. You could see early on that he was slowing down 20-25 seconds into a shift. But, he’s moving past that and its having a positive effect. What’s worked out really nicely for Washington is Backstrom and TJ Oshie are spending less time killing penalties. Richards leads all Capitals forwards with 2:17 of short-handed ice time per game. The other two now get approximately 18 minutes a night at even-strength or on the power play because they aren’t needed as much on the penalty kill.

21. Jay Beagle told a good story about signing his extension last June. He was driving through Alberta with his family and didn’t have cell service. He got to Canmore, the phone kicked in, and all of a sudden it started going crazy. “There were about 14 text messages from my agent (Wade Arnott) asking where I was,” he said. “I didn’t even think about not being reachable. He told me to get somewhere where I could sign my contract right away.”

22. Tried to find a funny tale or two about Brooks Laich from his former teammates. The best one: how his love of photography got him in hot water. According to a couple of players, Laich hooked up a camera to a drone and used it to take some tremendous photos. “It was pretty cool, actually,” said one teammate, who started laughing when adding, “Until Brooks learned it was probably not a good idea to do that in Washington.” He wouldn’t specify what happened, which building was involved or any punishment. “He took it on the road instead.”

23. One change in the Wild’s system since John Torchetti took over as coach: more active defence. Other teams have seen it, he says it’s something the coaching staff pushes: “We want to see five men on the (television screen). We want them to be a shooting option if the forwards gain the zone and curl.”

24. Charlie Coyle is establishing himself as a critical piece in Minnesota, but makes sure in just about every interview to credit Glen Tucker for help. Tucker grew up in Toronto but moved to Boston a few years ago, where he runs the Shoot to Score Shooting Academy in Massachusetts. What does Tucker do? Well, the easiest way to describe it is that he works with players to score in tight spots and difficult positions, necessary in today’s NHL.

“We put players in situations where they will be uncomfortable,” Tucker said by phone on Monday. “We won’t let them load and won’t let them follow-through. I compare it to an airplane taking off from a ship’s runway…you don’t have enough room to get top speed.”

Tucker made Coyle shoot on a four-foot-by-one-foot board situated four inches off the ice. “It forces your bottom elbow up, your top hand up to the armpit. Very compact. Creates muscle memory so you get used to doing it this way…. When you get it, you have to be ready to shoot it. Try to make two more moves, and it won’t get done.” Coyle had 31 goals his previous three seasons. He has 21 this year.

25. Tucker’s first big client was John Tavares, who he first met when the Islanders captain was a young boy. “Tavares forced me to be a better teacher, because he refused to leave the ice and I’d say, ‘What am I going to do with this little (bleep)?” he laughed. “I’d tell him I’ve got another group, and he asked for just five more minutes. I told him I’ve got him crying on tape at age seven or eight and some day I’m going to use it. He said, ‘Do it, and I will kill you.’”

26. Last year, a late-season injury cost Mark Giordano the Norris Trophy. Will this year’s victim be Cory Schneider for the Vezina? The Devils say Schneider will be re-evaluated in two weeks, but the timeline is tight. He’s been brilliant, and if New Jersey got to the playoffs, he was going to be a candidate for MVP as well.

27. He’s not as heralded as some of his fellow Marlies’ prospects, but Zach Hyman had a very interesting NHL debut last Monday against Tampa Bay. He led all Maple Leafs with five “controlled entries” to the offensive zone. (In English, that’s carrying it in and keeping possession.) That came as a pleasant surprise to an AHL coach, and possibly even to Toronto’s organization.

“It’s not as natural for him to carry the puck as, say, a William Nylander,” the coach said. “The prediction probably is that he gets rid of it quickly and plays not to make a mistake.”

Hyman’s faced down a lot of doubts, including that his great season at Michigan in 2014-15 was a Dylan Larkin creation. If that’s the way he’s going to play at the NHL level, he will — again — confound the doubters. He scored his first NHL goal on Monday.

28. Over the AHL All-Star weekend, commissioner Dave Andrews was given a one-year contract extension through June 2018. He’s tried to retire, but, to quote Michael Corleone, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”

29. Two months ago, NCAA Division III Geneseo mourned the loss of North Vancouver’s Matt Hutchinson, a defenceman killed in a double-murder suicide at the school. It was the second tragedy to shock those athletes in a short span, as forward Jason Stephanik fractured his skull in a skateboarding accident last November. Despite those two painful incidents, the Knights won their first conference title in a decade, beating Plattsburgh 7-1 in the championship game. The Knights face Salve Regina in the first round of the Division III tourney this weekend. It’s a great accomplishment for a team’s that’s suffered this season.

30. Working Toronto/Washington last week, I had a chance to meet Jeff Carpenter, who travelled down from Nova Scotia for the game. He’s started working as a referee in minor hockey, and talked excitedly about his goal of becoming an on-ice official in Atlantic University Sport. Good luck, Jeff.