30 Thoughts: Could Russian NHLers bolt to KHL over Olympics decision?

Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin still holds out hope that the league and the players will still come to an agreement, but no matter what, he's still going to the 2018 Olympics.

• Could RFAs Kuznetsov, Orlov flee for KHL?
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A few years ago, I was chatting with a GM of a team that missed the playoffs. It had been a tough year, and he didn’t want his players going to the World Championships.

I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something along the lines of, “Most of the players understand where we’re coming from.” Then he paused. “But I’ve got no chance of stopping the Russians.”

Any particular reason? “The pressures put on them to play are much more intense.”

I thought of that conversation on Tuesday as the Toronto media swarmed on Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. Ovechkin answered questions about the NHL’s decision not to attend the 2018 Olympics as you would expect, saying, “I didn’t change my mind and I won’t…. Somebody going to tell me I don’t go, I don’t care, I just go.”

Ovechkin will be 36 by the time his next Olympic opportunity comes around, China in 2022. He does not have a medal in three attempts. The quarterfinal loss to Finland in Sochi was a national downer, almost singlehandedly killing Russian interest at the end of the Games. When he celebrated a World Championship victory three months later, much of the hockey world laughed.

But I remembered that GM’s quote. He — and the other best available Russian players — were expected to be there. Canadians, Americans, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, you name them. They all want to play in the Olympics and face varying degrees of pressure to do so. But none face it as intensely as the Russians.

I don’t believe the NHL hasn’t already planned for this. Igor Eronko of Sport-Express in Russia reported that an official there told him “Ovechkin's (willingness) to go won't be enough.... NHL has to agree.” We can argue the various positions and legal strategies until we bore each other to death, but someone’s going to test the league’s ability to block and we’ll see where it goes.

But here’s another question: Is Russia a bigger favourite without the NHL?

The country’s got a lot of good players who aren’t in North America, and won’t be affected by Monday’s news. Pavel Datsyuk, Slava Voynov and Ilya Kovalchuk immediately jump to mind. Minnesota prospect Kirill Kaprizov, who had a great World Juniors, is expected to stay in the KHL next year. They’ve got legit young goaltenders in Ilya Samsonov (drafted by Washington) and Ilya Sorokin (Islanders).

Do some rough sketches of rosters. Tell me which country would be better, especially on an international surface.

It sure sounds like NHL clubs were burning up the phone lines Tuesday to check the status of players expected to come over next season. Have plans changed? How many would rather stay one more year if an Olympic spot is part of the deal? What if you have an NHLer — like Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov — without a contract for 2017–18? I haven’t specifically spoken to the Capitals, but, in general, there are some nervous teams wondering how much the ground shifted below their feet.

And word is several potential Russian free agents were considering staying home, knowing they have an increased chance to play a larger role on an Olympic Team without NHLers. That includes Vladimir Tkachyov, a centre who was being pursued by the likes of Edmonton, New Jersey and Toronto. It appears less likely he will leave the KHL.

So there’s some potential fallout. Yes, you’d always like to have your best players. But I’m not sure who benefits more.

30 THOUGHTS

1. The two things that have surprised me the most in the aftermath of the announcement? First, the amount of legitimately connected people who think the NHL will end up going anyway. While that may happen, it’s only if someone brings something substantial to the party. Second, the league received more support than I thought it would. Fans are annoyed, but anyone I spoke to who owns/runs a business understood.

2. I did not include Nikita Zaitsev on that list of unsigned players who might go home. While it has not been announced, the Toronto defenceman is closing in on a seven-year extension with the Maple Leafs worth $31.5 million. In order to keep the average annual value down, the team gave up term. Since he is older, he is only two years away from unrestricted free agency even though he is only a rookie. I don’t think the deal will fall apart, so my prediction is he stays.

3. By now, you’ve read the angry comments from Victor Hedman, Henrik Lundqvist, Ovechkin, Carey Price, Anton Stralman, Jonathan Toews, et al. Commissioner Gary Bettman pointed out something I’d forgotten during an interview on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown and Damien Cox — that Olympic play (for 2006 and 2010) was part of the last labour agreement, but not the current one. There are two items that rile NHLers more than any other: the Olympics and escrow, both of which are collective-bargaining issues and neither is working out for them. This comes at an interesting time for the Players’ Association. It just held agents’ meetings, and there is some unhappiness. Earlier this season, the NBA avoided a lockout for the first time in almost 20 years. Chris Paul is the president. LeBron James is first vice president. Carmelo Anthony and Stephen Curry are on the executive board. Will hockey’s superstars take a more active role?

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4. An interesting note from those meetings: that the arrival of the Vegas Golden Knights makes it even less likely NHLPA membership votes to use the five per cent growth factor to raise the salary cap for 2017–18. The expansion team will be spending money, and its arrival should create some flexibility for clubs. So, no need to artificially raise the ceiling.

5. One thing I always try to ask myself when working on a story is, “What don’t I know?” The league made its Olympic announcement before the playoffs, which makes sense. But it waited until after it went to China, and I don’t believe in coincidences. Considering the IOC and IIHF are threatening to take away those Games, I can’t help but wonder if Bettman received any assurances about 2022. The NHL made a commitment to growing hockey at the youth level before it left.

Zhou Yunjie, known in hockey circles as “Mr. Joe,” is a successful businessman and massive fan who played goal in the 2017 All-Star Celebrity Game. His company, ORG Packaging, already has partnerships with Boston, Los Angeles and Washington. During this particular trip, he struck a sponsorship deal with the league for approximately $7 million/year, pending more games in that country. People were pretty excited about that, for an opening foray. This is purely me thinking out loud, but I’m wondering if the NHL would play a future World Cup there.

6. Wanted to do something a little more positive/uplifting after all the Olympic talk, and I stumbled into this: Very quietly, the Howe family and one of its representatives have been working on trying to have Colleen Howe nominated to become the first female builder into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Gordie and Colleen were married in April 1953, forming a happy and powerful union that lasted until her death in 2009. Mr. Hockey’s statue was unveiled outside the Hall last week. Son Mark, a great defenceman, followed his father’s enshrinement with his own in 2011.

A couple of years ago, the Howes brought in Brad Robins to oversee the foundation. He’s a very smart guy, with a lot of interesting ideas on marketing and personal branding. (Among his NHL clients are Martin Brodeur and Carey Price.) “We were discussing with the family the legacy of the Howe Foundation,” Robins said Tuesday. “The significance of their mother came up. Her acumen as a business lady; the name ‘Mr. Hockey’ was registered by Colleen... everything came from her. For women at the time, it was, ‘Sit in the back seat!’ Instead, she took total control of what was best for the family. After unveiling the statue last week, what better way to welcome people to the Hall with hockey’s first family? Colleen started that legacy of Hockey Moms.”

Colleen Howe was elected to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000. One of the 18 members of the Selection Committee must nominate her by April 15 to be eligible in 2017.

7. Agent Ray Petkau specializes in goalies, with his main clients being Thomas Greiss, Eddie Lack and James Reimer. He knows the position very well, and does plenty of research to stay atop the curve.

It’s been a tough couple of weeks, with Lack and Reimer both injured on plays at the net. There was no intent in either case, but, thankfully, the injuries were not as serious as they could have been. He’s worried about safety. “The way goalies are taught now is to track down on pucks, and it makes them vulnerable,” he said last week. “The head can't be upright; the chin down puts head forward naturally. When you get higher in the crease, it’s dangerous. Before I was, let’s call it ‘borderline concerned,’ but it’s more than that now. I respect that the NHL wants more offence, more goals. I understand it. But it’s my responsibility to look out for my clients and they are getting injured. We can call all the cross-checks and slashing. I just want goalies to be safe.” 

8. St. Louis fans probably grit their teeth every time Vladimir Sobotka’s name is mentioned, but overseas sources indicate a reunion appears closer than ever. His KHL contract was terminated earlier this week. He owes the Blues another year, but word is the team was not interested in having him play just a few games to “burn” it. Instead, it asked for him to sign an extension and there appears to be progress. Yes, I know we’ve heard this before, so we’ll see where it goes.

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9. Kelly Hrudey mentioned during last weekend’s Headlines that he’d heard Dale Tallon’s name in connection with a position in the New York Islanders’ organization. He’s not the only one who has heard it, and there is some belief it may have occurred when the Islanders were talking to Gerard Gallant about the coaching position. When Hrudey checked, he was told the team would not discuss its process, which is standard.

Meanwhile, Florida said it had not allowed permission. And, from what I’m hearing, the Panthers want to bring him back and would not be inclined to allow anyone to talk to him now. Tallon and Islanders GM Garth Snow have a good relationship, and I don’t assume that the former was pursued to replace the latter. If there was contact, it may have been to work together.

10. The Islanders continue to battle against long odds, beating Nashville to keep their hopes alive. There was good news as John Tavares won’t need surgery to repair his injury. Barring a miracle, what is next for him? You’d think the World Championships are a no, especially after this. The expectation is he’ll take a couple weeks after the season to decompress, then sit down with the organization to discuss where things stand.

11. Ken Holland is 61. He’s got one more year left on his contract. Is there any chance Detroit's executive vice president and GM would step down, hand someone else the keys to the car? “You know what, I’ve been pretty lucky in my career,” he said last week. “Since I retired and became a scout, I’ve only had to live in two places (Medicine Hat and Detroit). I got to be the general manager of a team that was already a Stanley Cup champion and then was able to win more. But I don’t want to step down. I was here during the good times and I want to get us back there.”

12. Holland has made it very clear in many interviews he does not see this being a major teardown. Evgeny Svechnikov played Monday and scored the shootout winner against Ottawa. Tyler Bertuzzi’s seen seven NHL games, 2016 second-rounders Filip Hronek and Givani Smith made AHL debuts last week. Holland wouldn’t commit to them being full-time NHLers next season, but did admit they are closing in. So he likes what he has coming.

Holland is going with a seven-forward, three-defenceman, one-goalie protection model for the expansion draft. However, the most important topic for the Red Wings will be what happened to Riley Sheahan? To Danny DeKeyser? To Gustav Nyqvist and Petr Mrazek. “We’re going to sit down after the season and we’re going to go through it. Because these players are better than they’ve shown. We just have to figure why it happened.”

13. Any theories? “The Datsyuk factor is one,” Holland said. “This was our first season without him, and even though he was getting older, he is still a great player. He shielded a lot of his teammates, because he received top assignments and the best opponents. Without him, some of our players had to step into more difficult roles, maybe before they were ready. We hope what they learned improves them for the future.”

Holland also pointed to a power play that did not score on the road from Oct. 19 to Jan. 12, although it rebounded strongly in the last two months of the season. Interestingly, he quoted a few analytics in our conversation, mentioning the team had a .686 winning percentage in one-goal games in 2015–16, “which is unsustainable.” They are below average this year.

14. Holland backed his coach, Jeff Blashill. “He went to the USHL and won a championship. He went to an NCAA program (Western Michigan) and revived it. He won the Calder Cup in the AHL, and other teams were starting to take notice. His resume indicates he will be successful.”

Expect Blashill to return.

15. Holland also used the resumé example with Dylan Larkin. “Everywhere he’s gone, he’s been an important player. He came to the NHL and was successful right away. What happens is that a good player arrives and the league adjusts to you. He’s got great speed, and other teams have figured out how to close the gap on him. Now, he’s got to adjust back. We’ve moved him around, but we see him as a centre. And we see him trying some different things. In the last couple of games, he’s pulled up as he crosses the blueline, not simply driving wide and around the net. That’s good. That’s him making adjustments, making it harder for other teams to defend him. Again, his resumé shows he’s going to be successful.”

16. Finally, I asked about Niklas Kronwall. Kronwall has two years left on his contract, but the actual cash drops and he’s got a partial no-trade. Limited to 54 games, he’s been a model Red Wing, given the organization everything he has, and his body is breaking down. Will he be back? “He has earned the right to sit in my office and discuss what he wants to do. Even if he is injured, we see a lot of value in his attitude and what he brings.”

17. When Anaheim was considering acquiring Jonathan Bernier, GM Bob Murray asked his goalie coach, Sudarshan Maharaj (known in the hockey world as “Sudsy”), about him. “I knew Bernier when he was 18 in the Canadian National development program,” Maharaj said. “He was there with Carey Price, Braden Holtby and Kevin Poulin. I’d always say 'Hi' to him whenever I saw him when I worked with the Islanders. Always thought Jonathan had the skill and talent.”

What happened to him in Toronto? “I just saw him playing a different game than the one he played as a high-level prospect. We just tried to get him back to things I’d seen from him before.”

Bernier went on a ridiculous run after starter John Gibson went down, stabilizing the Ducks while Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry worked to get their games back.

18. Bernier has a megawatt smile, but we didn’t see it often in Toronto. The marriage started so promisingly, but it simply didn’t work. Asked about that, Maharaj paused. “Yes,” he said. “He was beaten down.”

So how did you work on repairing it? “I flew to Montreal right after we traded for him. There’s a book I believe in that talks about the five components of confidence. The chapter I preach is about faith in your preparation and your system. What I saw was doubt in his system. So that was our starting point, getting him to believe in what he was doing and that it wasn't wrong.”

(Maharaj couldn’t remember the specific title of the book, and I can’t find it either. Yet.)

Technically, what are we talking about? “Minor things. Footwork. Your base is the feet. For a small goalie, getting into the right position is critical. We had to get him to believe in his technique. We had to get him to believe, period. The one thing everyone forgets is external criticism is a lot less than internal criticism. We showed him video of how he played in (QMJHL) Lewiston and helped him connect the dots. By the time we finished he sat back and beamed, felt like part of the process. He lost his love of the game for a while.”

19. How long did it take until Bernier really believed in himself again? “It was difficult because Gibson was so hot. Jonathan was playing so sporadically, couldn't get on a roll. When he played that's when I knew. He deserves full credit. He worked as hard as I’ve seen anybody work. It’s a treat to watch, because he’s gone though so much. It was gut-wrenching to watch. I still live in Toronto not far from their practice facility and there were times I was nearby and wanted to walk down there, say, ‘It’s okay,’ and help him through it. Goalies can't play without a clear head and a free heart. Right now he has both. I’m happy for him.”

How much influence does head coach Randy Carlyle give Maharaj on who to start? “Absolutely none. That’s Randy’s call. My job is to get both ready.”

20. Maharaj on Gibson: “He’s maybe the most misunderstood goaltender I've ever encountered. Reminds me of Ray Emery. What makes them great goaltenders doesn't always translate to people. John comes across as aloof or standoffish, but he’s got a wicked sense of humour. He’s engaging, hilariously funny. People misread him.”

As for talent, “Gibson is the best I've ever encountered by a long shot. He carried the team earlier this year.”

The Ducks would not argue about his ability, but wish he could stay healthy. No one has ever confirmed it, but the belief last year was Bruce Boudreau wanted to start Frederik Andersen right away in last year’s playoff series versus Nashville, only to be overruled. Gibson got the first two games.

21. Should Erik Karlsson get greater MVP consideration for showing up on one leg to try to save Ottawa’s season? I think so.

22. A little harder to get information on a couple of other Czech free agents, which usually means negotiations are more serious. Chicago had serious interest in forward David Kampf, with Colorado and Las Vegas nibbling at their heels. Jakub Jerabek, who was fifth among all KHL defencemen in scoring, was talking with a few NHL teams, including some Canadian content. He’s going to play for the Czechs in the Worlds. The one thing I don’t know about either player is if the Olympic situation makes them want to stay overseas.

23. Regina Pats fans are hoping somehow Tyson Jost joins them next year, since the Saskatchewan capital will host the Memorial Cup. First, Colorado will give him every chance to stick. Second, I think the Pats already tried it, and were rebuffed.

24. The Bruins are very excited about their young defence, as Charlie McEvoy joins AHL Providence. All that youth likely hurt them in the pursuit of Union’s Nick DeSimone, who was pursued by Boston. San Jose’s got an outstanding blueline, but it’s a little older. The Sharks were happy to get him.

25. The Calgary Flames wanted to do a special video for Jarome Iginla just in case he decides to retire after this season. They asked him when he was with Colorado and again after being traded to Los Angeles. Both times, he declined. Last week, he was the first star after a game in which he was brilliant. It was set up to be a massive final lap, but Iginla didn’t stay out long.

26. The other newsmaker that night was Matthew Tkachuk, who backed up his tough talk at Drew Doughty by refusing to back down against a Kings team that targeted him. The Flames were very impressed with how he handled himself, and they weren’t the only ones. The only thing they asked him to avoid was taking it public.

27. I get Calgary ownership’s annoyance at seeing that beautiful new arena in Edmonton. My temperature would rise every time I thought about it, too. But the Flames are very lucky they didn’t take as much abuse as Daryl Katz did when he clumsily threatened to move to Seattle.

28. As Joe Louis Arena comes to a close, allow me to recount a favourite memory. The first Stanley Cup Final I covered was 1998, Detroit/Washington. The Capitals led 4–2 in the third period of game two, before the Red Wings tied it and forced overtime. Coming down the stairs before extra time started, I realized I forgot something and turned to go back up. That’s when I came face-to-face with Anna Kournikova. You know that surprise when you walk into someone like that? It happened to me, and I guess I didn’t move quickly enough. She gave me this look like, "How long are you going to stand there and stare?" It was both funny and embarrassing, but I laugh about it now. Kris Draper won the game not long after.

29. Five years ago, Dallas owner Tom Gaglardi was in Scotland on vacation, with his wife, Brittney, scheduled to join him days later. She called to say she wasn’t coming, and Tom had to get home as quickly as possible. “Our son (Wilson) was drinking copious amounts of water [and] urinating, but still thirsty like crazy,” Gaglardi said a couple of weeks ago. “My wife has a friend with Diabetes 1, so we tested him there. His sugar level was high, and they went right to hospital. They said he had Diabetes 1. Your life changes.”

Diabetes is similar to Autism (a condition I try to raise awareness about) in that it becomes a 24/7 situation and proper care can be very expensive, a heavy burden for affected families. “The process of managing 24/7 makes it a family disease. That's what it takes. It is tough. For example, last night we set our alarm for 3:00 a.m. to wake up and go check him. With his friends, you know how it is at recess. The bell goes and they’re on the basketball court 28 seconds later, but he has to check his sugar first. He’s a great kid, but it’s tough on him and tough on a family. And it’s expensive to manage properly. Some families have mortgaged their lives to make sure their children get proper care. It just makes you sick.”

Gaglardi fundraises for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund, and it will honour him Saturday in Dallas at its Dream Gala banquet. A Vancouver native, he’s proud to make a difference in his adopted NHL city. There have been some testing breakthroughs with animals, including dogs. “Talking to scientists and researchers, we are not far from a cure, I really believe it. It is not hopeless. But we need money to do these tests.”

Please visit the JDRF’s website for more information and/or to donate.

30. Never mind all of the great hockey we saw Tuesday night — just for a second. What a great evening to watch Bryan Bickell and Clarke MacArthur. Sometimes we forget that stripped down, people are all the same. We may not be elite athletes, but we share a common trait with them: The things we love the most will be ripped out of our cold, dead hands. Think of what you love the most and imagine it taken away for reasons you cannot control. Bickell and MacArthur love to play hockey. Their careers were threatened by health issues thrown upon them. Who knows where it will go, but to see them get at least one more shot was really something.