30 Thoughts: Power struggle over the coach’s challenge

Damien Cox and Elliotte Friedman cover all the NHL’s top headlines including, coach’s challenges, Steven Stamkos and a potential Russian free agent coming next year.

Some strange stuff came out of last Saturday’s Headlines segment.

First: Nikita Zaitsev.

The 24-year-old right-shot defenceman is a free agent, scheduled to come to North America next season. At one point, it was thought he would sign last summer, but decided to stay one more year. Philadelphia and Toronto were hot-and-heavy for his services with Calgary, Los Angeles and Vancouver lurking nearby.

“If he’s not 100 per cent ready for the NHL,” one GM said, “he’s really close.”

According to several sources, a few teams have recently visited Russia (believed to include Arizona, Detroit and Edmonton) to scout and check his availability. Zaitsev is also on the country’s roster for the upcoming Karjala Cup, an international tournament in Finland also involving the Czech Republic and Sweden. Several NHL clubs are expected to be there, too.

Success in the North American game is no guarantee, but two things set Zaitsev apart from other later-arriving Russian imports. His English is pretty good, and he spends time in the summer training with Gary Roberts. I think he’s done it three times now, although the last trip was shorter than normal due to injury.

He is eligible to sign as of March 1, when his KHL contract is up, although that could be delayed if he chooses to play in the World Championships. By CBA rules, Zaitsev would sign a one-year entry-level contract. After that, he would become a restricted free agent.

All of that sounds so simple. But it isn’t.

In reporting Zaitsev’s imminent arrival, I mentioned that I’d spoken to his agent, Todd Diamond, who had some verifiable information on the situation. On Sunday, I received a phone call asking why I’d done that, since the agent is Mike Liut. (Liut was not the caller, but did confirm via text that he believes he has an agreement with the player. And, the NHLPA has paperwork indicating that.)

Then, on Monday, an interested team mentioned they were told Zaitsev is represented by someone else.

“Welcome to our world,” one exec laughed.

This will clear up, as Zaitsev needs to confirm with the NHLPA who gets to negotiate his contract. Teams want it settled — and fast. Especially the ones who are worried all the legwork will be wasted if they’ve been talking to the wrong guy.

There’s no confusion on the interest in Zaitsev, though. He has plenty of pursuers.

30 Thoughts

1. Hard to say how many potential European free agents can make an impact in North America, but there are at least two others who will be monitored in Finland. Both are Swedes.

One is Anton Rodin, an about-to-be-25-year-old forward drafted in 2009 by Vancouver. He played in the AHL, but couldn’t get a one-way contract and went home. (UPDATE: I had checked to see if Vancouver retained his rights and misunderstood the results. He is still Canucks property.)

The other is Marcus Sorensen, a 23-year-old forward taken by Ottawa in 2010. He’s yet to come over.

Again, it’s hard to predict their potential, but stats show readers love this gossip and I am here to serve.

2. There is one other agent situation to watch. The best source for information is here, as Ritch Winter is suing former partner Claude Lemieux.

I’m not going to wade into the right/wrong of this complaint, because I’ve got no clue. Ducks GM Bob Murray is keeping a low profile right now, so he did not comment, but word is the split affected Anaheim's negotiations with two clients from that firm — Frederik Andersen and Hampus Lindholm. Not an easy situation for two younger players.

Lemieux technically isn't supposed to negotiate, although he has now applied for certification, which changes that. Clients will be allowed to keep one of the two, or switch to someone else.

3. The second thing to follow up from Saturday Headlines is the coach’s challenge. There is a fight going on behind the scenes about who should get to make the final call. Right now, it is the on-ice officials who hold the hammer of justice. In some conversations with GMs about it, a few thought it should be switched to the War Room.

“No offence to the officials,” one said, “but what is the sensible thing? Should it fall to the guys watching one replay at a time on a tablet, or the guys watching on 10 giant screens at once?”

Part of the problem is the replays have to be fed to the arena, which slows the process. And, the complaints about slowed-down games are growing. There is a sensitivity here, though, from some in the NHL who feel it neuters the on-ice officials and don’t want the War Room “playing God,” as Colin Campbell put it at one of last year’s meetings.

I can’t imagine the referees/linesmen would be thrilled if something else was taken from them, too.

4. Two other replay items to keep an eye on at the GM meetings next week in Toronto. The group will be shown the disallowed Toronto goal from last Friday’s loss in New York.

The league wants to get a vote on whether or not the GMs think it should count. Also, I’m not sure anything can be done about it, but both Jack Capuano and Bob Hartley have used it to get longer timeouts when their teams are in trouble. Smart thinking to find that loophole, but I’m sure it drives the league crazy.

5. Quote of the week: “Hearing Buffalo is looking for a left-shot defenceman,” I told one GM. Reply: “You’re really on top of things. That's been going on since the draft.”

6. It’s not exactly a news bulletin teams are looking for defencemen, with a chunk of focus on Dallas and Montreal because they carry eight. GMs Marc Bergevin and Jim Nill refused to expose Jarred Tinordi and Jamie Oleksiak (respectively) to waivers, so they’ve got other executives calling to ask what they might want to do to alleviate their excess.

“Trouble is, since both teams are going so well, they can be patient,” one said. “No need to do anything until they get what they want.”

This is more of a guess: but I would not be surprised if a Montreal ask was something like two second-rounders for Tinordi.

7. Why has it been so difficult for Philadelphia to trade Luke Schenn?

Still only 26, unrestricted after this season, so many teams looking for defensive help. You figure someone would take a look at him. (Ron Hextall would not comment.) Checking with some execs and scouts, a few reasons emerged.

If the Flyers don’t want to take money back, it limits the ability to trade him. That is probably a factor. Schenn needs structure to cover up his lack of speed, and the Flyers are still working to create that. One scout thought that issue was exacerbated by trips to the World Championships, because his game is not built for the bigger ice surface and several teams saw him there. Another GM said he believes the market for Schenn will grow as more of his salary is spent.

8. James Reimer beat back Dallas after an injury cost Jonathan Bernier the start, but word is Toronto is checking out goalie options. Tough to tell exactly what they are looking for — something short to get some wins or a more long-term solution.

The Maple Leafs have to be careful with this. You want to reward players for competing hard, but the goal is also to re-stock the system. They weren't getting John Tavares in 2009, but Martin Gerber’s strong finish after arriving on waivers hurt their draft position. Then again, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock might not care.

There were also some rumblings about Roman Polak talks with Los Angeles, but those were shot down.

9. Don’t think the Oilers expected — or wanted — Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse in the NHL so quickly. Give them credit, injuries created an opportunity and they earned it. Edmonton’s had someone watching each AHL game they’ve played. Will they stay? GM Peter Chiarelli wouldn’t comment, but word is if either (or both) continue to improve, Edmonton will consider it.

10. Slowly and carefully the Predators continue contract discussions with Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones. Nashville reached out during the summer to get things started, and things are grinding away. Nothing imminent. Both players are with CAA, but different agents.

11. Regular readers of this blog know I keep special track of the standings on Nov. 1.

Starting in 2005-06, only five teams out of 44 have recovered to make the playoffs when at least five points out of the playoffs after games played on that date. Last year’s group went 0-for-4.

This season’s contenders are Anaheim, Colorado, Columbus and Toronto. (Buffalo, Calgary and Edmonton were all within four points of third place in their division.) In the Pacific, Anaheim is your best wager to beat the odds.

12. A couple of his peers were really impressed with Bob Murray’s decision to stick with Bruce Boudreau after the Ducks endured a winless five-game road trip.

“Definitely did not take the easy way out,” one said. This seems different than the “dreaded vote of confidence,” where a coach is fired days later.

Murray is going overseas, so he won’t be around the team for a couple of weeks. That gives everyone some breathing room. Unlike Columbus, where John Tortorella was seen the favourite to replace Todd Richards if something happened, there is no clear-cut successor here.

Another exec believes Murray acquiesced to his players when he fired Randy Carlyle, and does not want to do that again. Whatever the case, there is no doubt the team misses Francois Beauchemin in the room. He kept things cool.

13. Read some articles last week critical of Patrick Roy trying to sound positive as Colorado fell behind in the lethal Central. To me, that reads as a coach knowing there are times you cannot grind your players, especially someone as intense as Roy.

I’m reading a book now titled Saban: The Making of a Coach. It’s about Alabama’s Nick Saban, hugely successful in college football, but a flop in the NFL. There’s a hilarious story about linebacker Channing Crowder walking into Saban in a bathroom and, struggling for words, saying, “Hey, coach. How’s your wife?” Saban replies, “She’ll be a lot better if you can cover backs on third down.” You can do that to collegians, whose future you control, but it’s much harder with pros. Saban lost the Dolphins because all he knows is tightening the screws.

To succeed — and Roy does not strike me as someone who would bail — you need to pull out a different playbook sometimes.

14. If there's one thing Mike Babcock needs to fix with Dion Phaneuf’s game, it’s penalties.

As of Tuesday morning, Phaneuf is tied with Dustin Byfuglien for the NHL lead in minors, with nine. Last season, he was fifth with 39. (Byfuglien led all defencemen with 42.) In 2013-14, his 47 led everyone, two more than David Perron.

One scout said last weekend that his organization declined to pursue a trade for Phaneuf for this very reason. Lowering that total would increase his value, probably to Toronto as much as anyone else.

15. As for Byfuglien, if his hit to Brendan Gallagher happened in a vacuum, I’m not sure there would be a hearing. But, he received a four-game suspension late in 2014-15 and was warned at least once — possibly twice — this year. He had two previous hits that warranted further review.

The first was October 18 to Jay Bouwmeester; the second one week later to Jason Pominville. He's a physical powerhouse, but that Pominville shot could have been really ugly.

16. Before a complete curb-stomping in Montreal, Winnipeg had a nice week of three wins in four tough games. So, Paul Maurice, how good is your team?

“I don’t know the answer to that question yet…I’m still asking that myself,” he said last Friday. “We’re still learning. But our captains lead by playing hard, and we believe our young players are going to get better.”

Last summer, he watched every one of Chicago’s playoff games. “Those guys are on the puck like a bunch of fourth-liners. Intense compete level. There were times Chicago could have folded, yet they changed gears. They didn’t always run you off the puck, but they competed like they were thinking, ‘If we win this battle, we win the Cup.’ To be good in this division, a young team has to learn that is how you have to be.”

17. Maurice, asked if he was worried contract discussions with Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd would affect them and, by extension, the team: “No. These two are solid guys who work hard, don't bitch, know they will be getting paid. A comfort level would be harder to find if they were younger or didn't understand the business yet. They’ve handled it great.”

18. The Stars brought in two of those Blackhawks. Despite Dallas’s loss in Toronto, they look like they are going places.

So talented, fun to watch and, as one scout put it, “They’re still not great defensively, but they do try to play better defence.”

Johnny Oduya compared this team to watching the 2008-09 Blackhawks, before they won anything. “The question becomes, do we believe we are special?” “What happens when we lose three or four in a row?” Patrick Sharp asked. “How does the room handle it?” He said Chicago faced a similar question last season. “We looked at the schedule with seven-to-10 games remaining and said, ‘We might not even make the playoffs.’ I don’t want to say we flipped the switch, because that’s wrong, but we found another gear. And we never lost it.”

19. I like to ask about players on teams who break up the monotony of a long season, and one guy who gets a lot of votes is Vern Fiddler. Teammates love the guy, although they tend not to give details — except that he can verbally destroy you.

He came close to leaving as a free agent two summers ago, but chose to stay. “(The Stars) were great about it. They understood I wanted to look around and wanted to win. In the end, this was the best place for me. We’re going in the right direction, have great ownership and a good, young team.”

When he was starting out, Sidney Crosby loved it when Colby Armstrong or Ryan Malone needled him. Are Dallas’s young stars the same? “That’s the way it has to be,” Fiddler said. “They have to be part of it. And they are.”

Who’s the easiest teammate to rile up? He looked to his right and said, “The guy two stalls down.” It was Antoine Roussel. “He has no idea what I’m saying, so he’ll take it very personally. Then, he’ll figure it out in a few hours and laugh.”

20. Winnipeg’s only loss last week (not counting Montreal) was to the Kings, whose seven-game win streak ended Monday in Chicago. “Their identity is back,” Maurice said. “In the third period, they put the puck in our zone 20 times and were on it. Just driving it down your throat.”

21. Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter experimented with Marian Gaborik away from Anze Kopitar, and one opposing coach said he saw why. “Gaborik is more of a freelancer, and sometimes Kopitar looks frustrated with it.” (The coach is not Maurice. As usual, no named source is used for anonymous comments.)

22. The last four seasons saw Henrik Lundqvist’s numbers drop in October, with his save percentage going .929, .925, .908, .891. This year he was a monstrous .943, leading the Rangers to a strong start as coach Alain Vigneault tried to get others going in front of him.

About his top three on defence (Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal): “I’m not worried about them at all. They are the most motivated guys I know, played in so many big games even before me. Ryan in particular is skating it for a better percentage.” What does that mean? “Make the easy play early. You might skate it up ice, but if there are two or three sticks in the lane, you can’t go north/south as quick as we like to.”

Dan Boyle has been scratched once, but Vigneault is hopeful. “Each player, at some point, age catches up to you. We’re hoping he still has some good hockey…I’ve coached a lot of athletes towards the end of their career, Markus Naslund, Trevor Linden, Mats Sundin. All thought they could still play and eventually you find out you can’t or don’t want to. He’s trying real hard right now. Last year he got better as season went on and into the playoffs. He still had something left.”

After I finished with Vigneault, I noticed the schedule tightens for them, with more back-to-backs. Wonder the Rangers ask Boyle to sit for halves of those to save his energy.

23. Even though Vigneault joked last week his players’ mothers would not like their report cards, he says “with the 82-game demands of the schedule, I try never to critique a win. Guys have to have fun. I can still get my points across. When you’re winning, you have to keep a pleasant environment.”

Does Vigneault ever pull Nash aside when he’s having a rough drought? “Very rarely. (Associate coach) Scott Arniel went through a 10-minute package of his shifts (last Thursday). He talked to Nash about going on the inside, changing the angle of his shots. He’s still got the most scoring chances, his game at both ends is real strong. Sometimes, you go cold. But he’s not one of the guys we are worried about, he and (Chris) Kreider are getting looks.”

Derick Brassard said if Nash gets frustrated he “doesn’t show it to the team. He’ll go out early in practice, try different things, working on his shot. He’s not like a Steven Stamkos or a James Neal who can just rip it. But if he can attack you three-on-two or get in the cycle, he’s still very dangerous, no matter how much he’s scored.” Brassard-Nash-Mats Zuccarello skated rings around Toronto after being re-united.

24. When Dale Tallon was in Chicago, he told a good story about signing Brian Campbell to a massive contract. “I said to him, ‘Forget the money.’ You’ve got it. It’s over. Nothing can change that. Don't try to earn it all in one shift. You got it based on how you played before. Continue to play that way.”

There are two players who need that message. One is Brandon Sutter. The Canucks are winning and everyone loves the kids, so it’s quiet for now.

The other is Dougie Hamilton. He looked so tense last week in Ottawa. He reads a lot, too. You just reach a point where you have to forget the past and embrace the future. Hamilton said there are some changes in structure. “In Boston, we were asked to box out. Here, it’s more get in front and block the shot. Some differences with the stick, too. But that’s not an excuse.”

25. Matt Cullen on Marc-Andre Fleury: “(Former teammate) Pekka Rinne is so fast. You’d shoot on him in practice and an arm or blocker would come out of nowhere. But Fleury is lightning. And, he never embarrasses his teammates. No matter what happens, he never stares them down, nothing. Guys love playing in front of him.”

Behind a youthful Penguins defence, that’s valuable.

26. As Rich Clune returned to the NHL, his proud father, Tom, told a great story about his son’s first professional experience.

Dallas, which drafted him, put him in the AHL, “but they had about 30 guys there.” So Clune was sent to the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads. “He called an told me he didn’t want to go. He had this old truck and didn’t think it would make it. The coach told him, ‘I know a mechanic in Idaho. He’ll fix it when you get there.’”

Clune’s had a hard battle over the past few years. Good luck to him.

27. Last week, we talked about AHL salaries, and a few people wondered why Rochester’s Cal O’Reilly wasn’t mentioned, since he’s earning $700,000. Those on one-way NHL contracts were not included, because it skews the numbers. If you do consider them, the average AHL salary jumps somewhere in the neighbourhood of $40,000.

28. The CHL/NCAA Cold War continued last week with two defections. Jeremy Bracco left Boston College for Kitchener, just before Warren Foegele departed New Hampshire for Kingston.

When this happens, you wonder if it is a trickle or the start of a flood. Looking into it, there are two names thrown around.

One is forward Luke Kunin, playing at Wisconsin with OHL rights owned by Sarnia. (Neither his family advisor nor the Sting responded to a request for comment.) Damien Cox mentioned Blue Jacket draftee Zach Werenski, whose OHL rights belong to London. That would be a major move, and a couple of scouts who saw him last weekend said the rumours are out there.

29. Now that rookies are moving past their 10th games, there is one more often-forgotten hurdle to leap.

Once a team hits 40, any rookie gains a year towards arbitration and free agency. So, it wouldn’t be a surprise if some who made it this far get sent down before then. Some clubs consider that deadline more important than burning a season of the entry-level deal.

Forgot to mention last week that Canucks GM Jim Benning said he was very happy with the junior situations for Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen if he had to send them back there. Makes it more impressive they stayed.

30. Thank you, Paul Beeston. For your kindness to a nervous young reporter when it would have been easy to act like a big-timer.