30 Thoughts: Oilers could do worse than Nelson

Former Edmonton Oilers interim head coach Todd Nelson. (Jason Franson/CP)

Wanted: an idea to make the All-Star Game more entertaining.

The obvious punchline “Make it disappear!”

That’s not happening. Teams want the game. Sponsors want the game. The league wants the game. So it’s staying, whether you like it or not.

At the recent GM meetings, there was some discussion about All-Star Weekend.

“It’s a good event,” one of them said. “Until the game starts.”

There’s an understanding it is never going to be competitive. And, after polling several of the GMs, they don’t want it to be. The season is taxing enough on the players, so no one wants to see them injured when it doesn’t matter.

Chicago’s Stan Bowman was one of those who suggested a small March-Madness like tournament. After thinking further about it, here’s how it could work.

Currently, the NHL invites 40-ish players to the event, six of whom are goalies.

Increase the total to 48 skaters and keep the same number of goalies, bringing the total to 54. You can still do the draft, picking six teams of nine. We go four-on-four. The NHL and NHLPA determine the length of each game (it should be no problem getting them to agree on things, right?), creating a 15-match round-robin, with each group facing the others once.

The top two teams get a bye to the semis. The next four go head-to-head in the quarters in single-elimination until we have a winner. There would be ties in the round-robin and shootouts in the “playoffs.”

That’s 20 games. Assuming, what, six minutes a game? That’s two hours plus whatever else needs to be done.

The other thing you could do here is change the way the event is televised. NHL chief operating officer John Collins has discussed an all-access broadcast, so maybe this is one. Have very limited broadcaster interaction with microphones everywhere with the head coaches, several key players, and the goalies always live.

Want to try something new? Here’s your chance.

One former player suggested another way to attract your current stars is by flying all of them to a nearby, warm-weather vacation right after the game. Maybe you add an extra day of games before All-Star Weekend begins, giving an extra off-day after it ends. (A bonus might be allowing them to miss a day of practice, similar to the Sochi Olympics.)

Some of you might gag at the idea of such a perk, but it would help. It is a brutal season, and you can’t blame guys for wanting to avoid attending.

The league asked the GMs to think of other ideas, and this will come up again in the future.
There’s no guarantee there will be a change, but it’s clear we’re in the brainstorming phase.

30 THOUGHTS

1. Hearing there’s progress in contract talks between the Vancouver Canucks and Chris Tanev. It’s hard to say if it’s imminent, but it’s moving in a positive direction. Update: Canucks lock up Tanev for five years.

2. As of Monday night it was not 100 per cent certain Colgate forward Kyle Baun will forego his senior season to join an NHL roster, although teams would be surprised if he didn’t. He’s still sorting through offers, with a few Canadian clubs (Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Winnipeg) interested. We should have a better idea of his future Tuesday afternoon.

3. The top NCAA free agent is goalie Matt O’Connor — although scouts who like him take pains to say he needs AHL time. There are several teams looking for goalie depth. A couple of them are also eying Vermont’s Brody Hoffman, who can still go back for another season.

It’s possible Hoffman waits to see where O’Connor goes (his school, Boston University, is still playing), so this won’t play out in the short term. Hoffman is from Wilkie, SK.

4. Sabres fans were stunned that Casey Bailey, a product of the Terry Pegula-funded Penn State hockey program, chose Toronto over Buffalo. The honest truth seems to be Buffalo GM Tim Murray wasn’t sold, especially when it came to performance bonuses and playing NHL games right away.

The Maple Leafs showed more interest, and put in a harder pitch. There is great debate about Bailey’s skating but he can fire the puck. However, he will need to play with a pass-first centre to make it work.

5. It was nice to see Michigan’s Zach Hyman named as one of the finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the NCAA’s top player. Hyman, who is from Toronto, is the son of Stuart Hyman, who withdrew from ownership of nearly 100 minor hockey teams after a 2004 investigation.

Florida took Zach 123rd overall in 2010, immediately followed by whispers the Panthers only selected him to get his father to invest in the team. Five years later, Zach gets a chance to prove his worth. He’ll start in the AHL, but word is Florida feels he has a chance to make it, since he’s a winger with size, something the Panthers don’t have a lot of.

6. A scout who works a lot of KHL games was surprised Atlant let Nikita Soshnikov go to Toronto.

“Shows the money problems they are having,” he texted, in reference to the team allowing a 21-year-old to walk. He understands the Maple Leafs taking the chance, saying Soshnikov is very skilled. As with everyone who comes from Europe, the key will be meshing the two styles. Soshnikov loves to carry the puck and try to go through multiple defenders. That’s a tough chore here.

7. Speaking of Russia, NHL teams are scouting Artem Panarin, a 23-year-old forward with St. Petersburg. He led them in regular-season scoring (ahead of Ilya Kovalchuk) with 26 goals and 62 points in 54 games. Panarin wants to play in the upcoming world championship, so he’s not coming now, but whoever gets him can sign him to a two-year, two-way, entry-level contract.

Since the contract is mandated by the CBA, “opportunity is the key,” agent Tom Lynn said. (Lynn also represents Viktor Tikhonov, who is planning an NHL return.) Lynn said six teams are “very active” in their pursuit, with at least 20 inquiring. But there’s time here, too.

8. Of all the players rumoured to be dealt in Toronto, the one with the biggest financial incentive to ask out is Jonathan Bernier. The goalie compared the Maple Leafs to a junior team in last week’s loss to the Sharks.

His time to cash in is now or next summer, in what should be the biggest payday of his career. You can see why management would hesitate at this time. Bernier didn’t have a good year. He has to accept half the responsibility, but it was a mess in front of him. How much better will it be in 2015-16?

9. With all the talk about Joe Thornton in San Jose, there is a lot more on-ice concern about Patrick Marleau. He was dropped to the third line during last Thursday’s win in Toronto, and his production is bottoming-out. His shooting percentage is a career-worst 7.4 per cent. Only once since his rookie season has he had fewer points at even-strength than the 23 he’s got now. (He had 22 in 2007-08.)

He can’t say it’s not for a lack of opportunity, as only Joe Pavelski plays more at even strength. Normally, you would look at this and think, “it’s not consistent with his history, and he will improve.” Turning 36, you have to consider this being the start of a bad trend. Like his teammate Thornton, Marleau controls the situation with a no-move clause. But Thornton’s production is still there.

10. San Jose started with nine of 12 on the road and finish with 10 of 13 on the road. Tough schedule.

11. When Todd Nelson took over for Dallas Eakins in Edmonton, I’m not sure how many people thought he would be the permanent choice. It’s no guarantee, but it’s very clear he’s put himself deep into the conversation. The Oilers are determined to wait until after the season before making any decisions, but it’s going to take a real high-level candidate to push him out.

I’d wondered if (for argument’s sake) Todd McLellan was the guy, if the Oilers may ask him to keep Nelson as his top assistant. But that’s a recipe for trouble, and it’s believed Nelson, who has already been an NHL assistant, would rather run his own bench than return to that position. One thing is for sure: everyone’s learned he coaches at the NHL level exactly how he does it at the AHL level. Players relate to him, and play hard for him.

12. Capitals defenceman Mike Green told the web site Russian Machine Never Breaks that his “heart is in Washington,” and he sees himself, “a part of that until the day I die or I retire.” This is one of those negotiations where you see a player who wants to stay paired with a team happy at his performance and acceptance of a smaller role.

That’s usually a good sign, but this is dependent on Braden Holtby’s next contract. Washington has to work around it and Holtby’s having a huge year. Will Green be content with what remains?

13. That was a weird 48 hours for Craig Berube, Steve Mason and the Flyers. Berube yanked Mason with 2:03 to go in the second period of Thursday’ 4-1 loss in Calgary after the goalie was totally screened on the Flames’ second goal. General manager Ron Hextall revealed the two men spoke the next day and sorted it out.

“Mason’s been through a lot,” Hextall said. “He can handle this.”

Hours after that comment, Mason skated off the ice sick during warmup in Edmonton, a personal city of horrors in his NHL career. He was not on the bench in the first period, although he did return to watch a sloppy 5-4 Oilers victory.

It was instructive Berube did not pull Ray Emery. The coach has a quick hook, but you could see the steam coming from his ears. He wasn’t going back to Mason unless Emery was kidnapped. So, what gives here?

14. Berube is keeping his thoughts to himself, but it’s clear he’s not comfortable with his No. 1 netminder. The team steadfastly denies goalie coach Jeff Reese was fired because he objected to the way the club handled Mason’s injuries. (Reese has declined to comment. All he’s said is, “I loved being a Flyer and have nothing bad to say about them.”)

Mason is Philadelphia’s best and most consistent player. They’ve been so bad on the road that he’s got two shutouts, but lost both games in shootouts. Does Berube think Mason pulled the chute? Does he think Mason’s given up goals at brutal times, like the one with 15 seconds left in regulation against Boston that led to the killer defeat of Philadelphia’s season?

Does he think Mason’s been too critical in some recent comments about the Flyers’ play in front of him? It’s tough to say, but the coach sure looked like someone who was fed up.

15. Before the season, one thing Hextall wanted to see improved was the way the Flyers entered the offensive zone — he wanted them carrying it in more often. Did it happen?

“Some nights we were very good, but it was inconsistent,” he said, a problem he felt plagued them all year. He added he hopes the solution for their offensive issues comes internally, especially from Matt Read. “When you see someone who’s done it before,” Hextall said, “it’s not like you’re trying to draw blood from a stone.”

Read dropped from 22 goals to seven, while Brayden Schenn is down from 20 to 14.

16. One of the reasons Hextall prefers internal solutions is because he’s tight to the cap. There has to be room to extend Jakub Voracek (one more year) and possibly Michael del Zotto, although he can snare the defenceman at a good salary with a qualifying offer for next season.

He’s also trying to avoid Philly’s previous weakness: the big splash, a short-term move that yields long-term pain. Hextall backed away from a possible deal with Florida at last year’s draft when he could not get some form of lottery protection for their 2015 pick.

His easiest card to play is changing coaches, although Berube’s supporters point out how many players improved under his watch — led by Voracek, followed by Michael Raffl, Ryan White, del Zotto, Nick Schultz, and even Mason. But what happened Saturday night opens another question: how does Hextall feel about his goalie? That may be one of Philly’s biggest off-season storylines.

17. Another unusual one: news getting out that Arizona allowed Sean Burke permission to speak to other teams. Even though the Coyotes won’t be a playoff team, it is not regular practice for this to happen while a team is still playing. (Word is however, Burke will hold off on any formal interviews until after the regular season concludes.)

He preferred not to comment, but other sources say he knew advancement was limited once GM Don Maloney brought in Darcy Regier. After overcoming difficult odds for years, this has been a hard season in Arizona — even though re-starting was the right call. All eyes will be on Dave Tippett come mid-April. You can see how much it wears on him, too.

18. In Vancouver’s first three games against Los Angeles, goals were 12-3 Kings. Shots were 96-54 Kings. Shot attempts were 177-110 Kings. That’s pretty dominant. Last Saturday’s Canucks victory was a complete reversal. A 4-1 win (with two empty-netters), complete with L.A. being outshot 42-26 on goal and 74-61 overall.

The Canucks talked about trying to play differently against a team that believed it could do whatever it wanted against them. Any shot attempt was considered an opportunity to create confusion in L.A.’s game.

They were careful to stay above the Kings on the forecheck, trying to nullify how well the Kings control the boards. (The 1-1 goal was a good example, with Vancouver taking advantage of a bad line change moments after the Kings simply fired it out of their zone following two lost battles.)

And, they were told not to worry about proving their manhood, just finish checks if the opportunity presented itself. They play again April 6. Will this recipe work one more time?

19. I spoke a couple of weeks ago with Tampa Bay associate coach Rick Bowness, who was recently honoured for his 2,000th game behind the bench.

“Your family sacrifices the most,” he said. “To see that it meant as much to them as it meant to me… meant a lot.”

Bowness just turned 60. Seeing Willie Desjardins and Mike Johnston, both 58, get chances as head coaches struck a chord with him.

“You’re here to win the Stanley Cup, regardless of the job title. That’s what you want and we are building towards it in Tampa.”

Asked however, if he’d want another head job, Bowness said yes.

20. He had success in Boston, survived expansion chaos in Ottawa and had small opportunities with the Islanders and Coyotes. “Experience develops confidence,” Bowness said. “You have to be honest with yourself.”

Would he go back and change anything? “A lot,” he replied with a laugh, declining specifics. He paused when asked how coaching is different now.

“That’s not a simple answer. Every generation changes. There’s a lot more individual attention. How you push. Learning who can handle certain instruction and who can’t. Players want to know how you are going to grow them on and off the ice. There’s a lot more teaching. Coaches used to say, ‘Work harder!’ Now, when a player hears that, they say, ‘Give me something! I want to know how you can make me better.’”

21. Ottawa’s Matt Puempel, on what Curtis Lazar said after eating a hamburger thrown on the ice: “He said he wanted some ketchup.” He also laughed when asked if Andrew Hammond has changed with any of his success: “I want to say yes, but no, he hasn’t.”

22. Bad break for Puempel, now out with a high ankle sprain after cracking the lineup. He dropped from 30 goals at AHL Binghamton to 12, but he feels coach Luke Richardson pushed him to improve everywhere else.

“He’s been awesome… he told me to work on getting more assists, don’t get frustrated, set a good example. The knock against me was as a one-dimensional scorer, so I worked on getting better from our goal-line out. The more you get pucks out (of your own zone), the more you get chances.”

Puempel's assist total rose from 18 to 20 in 23 fewer games.

23. Finally, he told a good story about the 2011 draft, where the Senators took him 24th overall.

“Toronto had told me if I was there they would grab me. They traded for the 22nd pick, so I was anxious and excited, but they didn’t take me. Then Ottawa moved up… and they were interested, too. My agent (Pat Morris) winked at me, and I knew.”

Suffice it to say Puempel, who grew up a Leaf fan, switched allegiances very quickly.

24. Team USA will wait to announce its World Cup management team until after the Stanley Cup Final, with Dean Lombardi expected to lead the way. Canada hopes to do it sooner, although the NHL and NHLPA have veto power over the timing. It is believed Ken Holland, Doug Armstrong and Peter Chiarelli will be involved, as they were at the Sochi Olympics.

You have to think Holland’s seniority puts him in the forefront, but there’s no confirmation.

25. When Vladislav Tretiak announced the KHL would not participate in the event, the first thing that leapt to everyone’s mind was money. Did the league want financial compensation for interrupting its season? Sources from the NHL and NHLPA don’t think it’s that, but believe Tretiak’s stance concerns the 2016 World Championships, scheduled to be held in Russia.

With the best expected to be in the World Cup, it would not surprise anyone if they take a pass on the Worlds, which will be held four months earlier. That’s still an important tournament for Russia, and it wants it protected. I’m not sure that will happen. NHL.com lists 27 Russians and 26 Finns, but with the KHL’s financial issues, will those totals grow?

26. More from the GM meetings: Initially, they decided the coach’s challenge would be solely for a.) goaltender interference and b.) to remove a penalty for the puck being shot over the glass. After further discussion it sounds like coaches will get the opportunity to review whether an opposing team directly put the puck into the crowd. So not just overruling a penalty, but potentially adding one.

27. Coaches will not be throwing a challenge flag on the ice to start the review process. The plan is for officials to take a few seconds after goal celebrations or puck-over-the-glass debates before looking at the two benches. At that point, the coach could wave or call over the referee, indicating they want a review.

The pressure is going to be on TV producers to get those replays up fast. (They always tell us how good they are, now we’re going to find out for sure.) The New England Patriots proposed getting rid of the challenge flag in the NFL, suggesting the team wanting a review call a timeout, then get it restored if correct. That’s not a bad idea.

28. The NHL’s Command Centre will have final say in puck-over-the-glass calls, with the on-ice officials controlling goaltender interference. This is a slight change from what was expected, as the discussion leading into the meetings focused on everything being decided from Toronto. But, it was felt that since goaltender interference is a judgment call, not a black-and-white letter-of-the-law rule, on-ice should have the final say.

29. As hockey fans and reporters salute the late Matthew Wuest, founder of Capgeek.com, one note about salaries appearing on NHL.com.

After the site was closed, the league did discuss the possibility, with some teams in favour but others were opposed. (You can probably divide it by those who reveal contract numbers and those who don’t.) Ultimately, the idea was discounted, because there wasn’t consensus.

30. I wrote last week about the league’s position on the five per cent inflator clause and that it will be able to raise it by the maximum even if the players vote not to do it at all. When putting together that blog, I stayed away from anyone connected with the NHL or the NHLPA to try and keep things unbiased. Since its publication, both sides have weighed in. The union clearly interprets the clause as negotiable once either side indicates it does not want the full amount.

The league sees it differently, that it didn’t want five per cent on certain occasions, but the players pushed ahead. What both sides do agree on is this will come down to negotiation. We should have a good idea what the players think in the first week of June, when they meet in New York.

One wrinkle: will the 30 team representatives vote on a number, or will the membership? Both options are possible.