• McDavid deal “a significant reset”
• Maybe five teams still interested in Duchene
• Leafs took a big run at Condon
Well, this is it for the summer… the close of a fun year. When you work for Hockey Night in Canada, success of the Canadian teams drives you. Last year, that ride ended like Thelma and Louise’s convertible.
This was very different. Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto served notice that they have a chance for something special, although it was Ottawa that gave the most spectacular chase, dissipating with a painful double-overtime Game 7 defeat in Pittsburgh. That led to a fantastic Stanley Cup Final, where one of the NHL’s best-kept secrets (Nashville) finally got its time to shine. It’s going to be very hard for other organizations to duplicate the in-game experience the Predators can offer, but I hope they try their own individual, localized touch.
Vegas, which signed a deal with Cirque du Soleil, certainly will. There is always room to improve the show, and what we saw in Tennessee should embolden attempts to do so.
In the end, Sidney Crosby stared down the Burnses, the Karlssons, the Laines, the Matthewses and the McDavids, re-affirming he is the best player, nowhere near ready to give up the mantle. Even with him and Evgeni Malkin, this Pittsburgh victory was more about guts than anything. Years ago, player agent Don Reynolds sent me a book by John C. Maxwell entitled Talent is Never Enough. It’s a great read and I believe it to be true.
In 2016, it was the Penguins’ skill and great depth that overwhelmed San Jose. This time, the team set an NHL record by playing 49 post-season games over a two-year span. Those are hard minutes. Many of those Penguins were on fumes as the series progressed, but from 1-to-23, they willed themselves through.
Then, we got down to business.
One year ago, the number was six. Not “The Six,” just six. Young, emerging stars were getting that on their second contracts. Filip Forsberg landed square on $6M. Mark Scheifele came in at $6.125M, Nathan MacKinnon $6.3M, Sean Monahan $6.375M and Johnny Gaudreau $6.75M. That area looked to be “the new normal” for this group.
It lasted barely 12 months.
Last week, Connor McDavid obliterated that ceiling by signing the highest average annual value contract in NHL history, at $12.5M for eight years. (There was an initial verbal agreement at $13.25M, but McDavid, skittish about the reaction to the original number, walked it back.) He will make $15M — the maximum allowable at this time — in the 2018–19 and 2019–20 seasons. Almost 87 per cent of that will be in the form of signing bonuses.
So what does this mean for the rest of the league?
“Of course, the landscape has changed,” one agent said this week.
“It is a significant reset,” added a general manager. “It pulls up everyone behind him.”
“The biggest change is who qualifies to break the $10-million barrier,” said another executive. “Before Connor signed his contract, it wasn’t about individual trophies. It was about Stanley Cups.”
He pointed out that while Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews — the three previous players with average salaries at or above $10M — do possess some individual accolades, the major reason they broke that barrier was being a cornerstone of multiple championship teams.
“That isn’t a shot at Connor, who is a great player,” he continued. “It just means you can’t make that argument anymore.”
“(We) will say that, but teams may not,” said a second agent. “I can see teams responding, ‘This is a special circumstance. Do you have a 20-year-old who has won the Hart, the Pearson and the Art Ross? He’s an outlier.’”
Carey Price also surpassed the $10M mark (and will make $15M in the first two seasons of his extension), although that came as he approached unrestricted free agency. It’s going to affect Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty — who has two Stanley Cups of his own.
One GM looked up and down the league, naming teams who need to worry and those who don’t. He listed Boston, Calgary and Tampa Bay as examples of those who shouldn’t be affected. They have “internal caps” with their best players signed long-term and no superb talent ready to surpass them.
He labelled Columbus (“What if Zachary Werenski wins a Norris in the next two years?”), Los Angeles (Doughty), Ottawa (Karlsson), Toronto (Auston Matthews et al) and Winnipeg (Patrik Laine, Jacob Trouba) as those who have thrown their previous projections in the garbage and hurriedly re-programmed spreadsheets.
Buffalo GM Jason Botterill is in talks with Jack Eichel’s representatives about an extension, and that should give everyone a good idea of where we’re going. It will be instructive. Let’s say you’re going to argue the next tier should be $4M below the highest level. Before, that was $6.5M. Now, it’s $8.5M.
“They are going to be saying, ‘I know I’m not Connor McDavid, but I’m not $6M worse than Connor McDavid,” said agent number three. (The GM in the previous paragraph targeted Nashville’s Ryan Johansen as a player who fits that category.)
“We could go the NBA route,” agent three continued. “More money to elite guys of the world. Further erosion of the middle class… or there isn’t going to be a middle class. I can see the genesis of it with this contract. More than half your team at or around the minimum.”
The team executives I spoke to pushed back against this idea, saying it would be much harder to win in the NHL than the NBA with that salary structure. Interestingly, NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr said something similar during his conversation with reporters at the union’s annual golf tournament on Wednesday.
“It’s fair to say a single basketball player can have more of an impact on his team and season than any single hockey player, no matter how good he might be. One of the things I’ve learned in spades since I’ve been here is that this really is the ultimate team sport. You can’t win this by yourself. It’s not possible.”
That’s true. But, for teams, putting the puzzle together just became more challenging.
1. One thing a few different NHL executives agree on: Offer sheets are coming. Cam Fowler, Martin Jones, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Price are gone from next year’s unrestricted class. “There simply are not enough impact players available in free agency,” one said. “If you need to improve your team — and fast — it’s going to be your best option.”
2. I thought Toronto was vulnerable with Connor Brown, a really good player who wouldn’t cost four first-rounders, but the Maple Leafs’ use of “Summer LTIR” gave them room. Admittedly, that wrinkle caught me by surprise, but after doing some digging, this is not a move Lou Lamoriello is unfamiliar with. In 2005, right out of that lockout and the new CBA, the Devils became the first team to use this option, when Patrik Elias came down with Hepatitis after spending that season in Russia. (I believe Philadelphia also used it. The Flyers were on LTIR for about a decade.)
Chicago GM Stan Bowman told local reporters he didn’t want to go this route, because of the dangers. What are they? Well, it basically comes down to this: If someone gets hurt in training camp/pre-season and you can’t bury their contract, you could be in big trouble. So if Toronto’s players are wearing bubble-wrap, you’ll understand why.
3. The Maple Leafs had to do it because of their bonus overages. Their summer cap is calculated at the upper limit minus the bonus penalty, plus the 10 per cent cushion you are allowed at this time of year. So that’s $75M-$5M+$7M, or approximately $77M. Theory: Either Nathan Horton ($5.3M salary) or Joffrey Lupul ($5.25M) is on LTIR. Zach Hyman just signed for $2.25M. That leaves between $3-$3.05M for Brown. (Assuming no one offer-sheets him first.)
4. I think Washington tried to get Evgeny Kuznetsov in that $6-million range, but realized that was not going to happen. The current CBA has that opening from July 1-5 where restricted free agents are “unprotected,” for lack of a better term, and they rightfully worried what could occur. For all the issues the KHL has, it was going to find cash for him. Russia knows this is an enormous opportunity to finally win another Olympic gold, and it went hard after players to stay home.
We’re not just talking about stars like Kuznetsov, but up-and-comers like Columbus prospect Vladislav Gavrikov and solid pros like Sergey Kalinin, who did not play an NHL game after being traded from New Jersey to Toronto. It is impossible to prove what Kuznetsov was being offered, but the rumours were $10 million for one season and $20 million for two.
5. It doesn’t sound like players on NHL contracts playing in the AHL will be allowed to compete in South Korea. But, if you spend next season overseas, there’s going to be some room to play. The rules aren’t written yet, but that is the word.
6. Everyone decided to take a deep breath and go back to their corners when Matt Duchene wasn’t traded July 1. It sounds like everyone is realizing the possibility he could start next season in Colorado. But remember this: Avalanche assistant GM Chris MacFarland was with Scott Howson in Columbus when Howson waited until July 20, 2012, to trade Rick Nash. Sometimes the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, and MacFarland could be following that blueprint. I wouldn’t be surprised if interested parties (Boston, Columbus, Nashville, Pittsburgh, maybe Calgary) try again to see if anything shakes loose.
7. There’s been criticism of the way Colorado’s handled this. I do think everyone — including Duchene — would benefit from a fresh start, but the Avalanche need this deal. The Ryan O’Reilly trade didn’t work, and you can’t move two of those talents without getting some kind of win. They are looking for young players with term, and I think the guys they’ve targeted include Mathew Barzal and Ilya Sorokin from the Islanders; Brandon Carlo or Charlie McAvoy from the Bruins; Mattias Ekholm from the Predators. (Before someone from Barstool comes at me, I don’t think the McAvoy conversation was a long one.)
What makes it tough for these other clubs is Duchene only has two years remaining. That certainly was a problem for Carolina. One exec pointed out three examples of similar trades: Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones; Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson; and Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev. They were all one-for-one, and both players involved could be under team control for a longer time. But the Avalanche are determined to do it right, and they have to.
8. That Jaccob Slavin deal is a huge win for the Hurricanes. It sends the right message to their market, and with guys like him the number doesn’t get any smaller considering they bought four years of unrestricted free agency. They will also try to extend Brett Pesce, with Sebastian Aho to follow when he becomes eligible for a new deal next summer.
9. I do think there is something to the column by Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the Penguins will look to trade Phil Kessel. Other potential manoeuvring: Dallas GM Jim Nill laying the groundwork to ease a roster/cap jam. And I can see Calgary waiting to see what happens with Micheal Ferland before looking at another forward. Ferland is eligible for arbitration. A third year on any long-term deal for him is the tricky one, as that’s when he is unrestricted.
10. Trevor Daley’s Detroit contract has a unique provision. Daley has a no-trade from now until 10 days prior to the 2018-19 trade deadline. After that, a 15-team list you can’t send him to.
11. I’ve said a million times that I believe John Tavares’s first choice is to stay with the Islanders. But, if he does decide to leave, why do I have visions of him taking less money to play in Tampa Bay?
12. Toronto took a real run at Mike Condon, who got a third year with the Senators.
13. When I speculated a couple of weeks ago that a Kings-Senators deal involving Dustin Brown and Dion Phaneuf made sense because the money is almost even, I think I guessed the wrong L.A. player. More likely, they were discussing Marian Gaborik.
14. Had an interesting conversation with Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher. We were talking about how good Jake Allen was in the playoffs against the Wild, but he refused to accept that they should just come back with the same offensive group because Allen stoned them. “We’re going to have to look at different ways to score,” he said. “You can’t just try the same things over again.”
15. Dwight King was convoy driving when we spoke Wednesday, beginning the trek from California to Meadow Lake, Sask. He was in one car with daughter Grace, while his wife, Lauren, was in the other with son George. “It’s about 26 hours, but we stretch it over three days. Got to let the kids run around,” he laughed.
King is still looking for work after finishing the season in Montreal. There are a few Western Conference teams poking around.
“I’m just looking for an opportunity at this point. I’m going to be on the ice more this year, doing a little more skills and skating. Any bit of improvement I can find.”
King is going to try a couple new teachers, then decide which route to take. One also works with former teammate (and new Golden Knight) Brayden McNabb. King is quite the physical specimen, but will take a new approach. He regularly played at 230–231 pounds, but is going to go to 225–226. And he believes the Western Conference is better for him.
“I’m more comfortable with the style of play, a little less transition, more sustained pressure. It’s what I’m accustomed to. It’s harder to switch than you think.” He paused. “I want the opportunity to prove I can still be effective.”
16. Intrigued by Los Angeles’s idea to hire Pierre Turgeon as an “offensive co-ordinator.” How is it going to work? Will he be on the bench during the game?
“We’re not exactly sure,” Kings coach John Stevens said. “We haven’t set that up yet, we’ll probably talk about it in a couple of weeks.”
Did he know Turgeon?
“Didn’t know him at all, but (President) Luc Robitaille and (GM) Rob Blake brought his name to me. We brought him in for a week at development camp, and it went very well. We went end-board to end-board, talked about everything. I can talk Xs-and-Os, but he can see the game in a way I never have. What are others doing, and how can we take advantage? On the power play, how can you help us with your knowledge of offensive situations?”
The Kings have done a lot of work with analytics this off-season, trying to figure out why a team that dominates possession has so much trouble scoring.
“There’s so much info, it can bog you down,” Stevens adds. “We want Pierre to look at it from an offensive perspective, see what’s really important (from that data). He has a knack for that stuff — he was a gifted player and a structured thinker. I don’t need every coach to be like me. (Assistants) Dave Lowry and Don Nachbaur are a little different, Pierre is very different. Because he has a son at this level, he is engaged with today’s player and the way they think.”
(Dominic Turgeon just finished his first pro season with AHL Grand Rapids.)
17. Stevens says there will be a difference in the way the Kings play.
“You bet, it’s not a secret. We have the puck a lot, our top guys take ownership that if they don’t have it they are working to get it back. But we don’t do enough in the middle of the ice, creating scoring chances or driving from there. It will be a huge focus on our hockey team. We need to grab the attention of our players to create offence in front of the net and inside the dots. We will challenge some players to be a bit uncomfortable in their games.”
18. Stevens added he feels good about bounceback years for Kopitar, Brown and Jake Muzzin.
“I saw some promise in (Brown’s) game at the end of last year. He may not necessarily be a 30-goal scorer again, but I am comfortable with what I think he can do.”
19. When Arizona asked Rick Tocchet to interview for its head-coaching job, there were people who thought he wouldn’t go — not because of the situation, but because they thought he wanted to go for a three-peat.
“That’s true, I wanted a crack at that,” he said. “But when you’re 53, you never know if you’re going to get another chance.”
Did he ever think another chance wouldn’t come?
“I don’t think you lose faith, but you recognize that maybe it won’t happen. I was lucky to be in Pittsburgh, because you’re allowed to coach and be yourself. If I was in a different situation, I might have been more upset.”
20. Arizona interviewed Dallas Eakins, Sheldon Keefe and Todd Nelson in-person, and had some phone interviews, too. (I think Bob Hartley was one.) Tocchet wouldn’t discuss his contract, but the Coyotes made a competitive offer, believed to be in the $1.5M per year range.
Tocchet appreciated that, in his meeting with ownership, the Coyotes “weren’t trying to blow smoke. They were honest. They explained they weren’t going to be a cap team right now and a lot depends on an arena deal. But they said, ‘We want to build a culture around here and we want you.’ I know there are hurdles, but they have a good bunch of young guys and they want to learn. My approach is that I’m being given a crop of young players and I have to mold them into special ones.”
21. Tocchet is tight with his players, getting more out of Kessel than any previous coach.
“I’m going to bring a lot of the thinking and philosophies from Pittsburgh. There wasn’t a lot of fluff there… you cut to the chase. Do you change as a head coach? You can’t be buddies, but can’t be phony. Players will see through that 100 per cent. They won’t play for you.”
“(Tocchet) has presence, he owns the room,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said. “You think the technical side would be his weaker side, but he was very strong. He brought some great examples into the way teams should play.”
(As always, no one quoted is used as an anonymous source.)
22. Good summer for new coaches. Bob Boughner, Travis Green and Phil Housley all came in around $1M per season to start. (As mentioned, Tocchet was a little above that.) That’s a little higher than the entry spot even two years ago.
23. Arizona hired Steve Patterson as president and CEO. It’s a smart local choice, probably their last chance to getting an arena done. Also believe they interviewed former Ottawa president Cyril Leeder.
24. Between Patrick Marleau, Alexander Radulov, Kuznetsov, McDavid and Price, 73 per cent of their combined $300M salaries will be paid in bonuses. (Anaheim couldn’t do the bonus structure the Maple Leafs would for Marleau.)
With the possibility of a work stoppage in September 2020, here’s a list of newly signed July 1 bonuses that year: McDavid $13M (of $14M total salary that season); Price $8.75M (of $9.75M); Vlasic $5M (of $7.25M); Radulov $3M (of $4M); Kevin Shattenkirk $2M (of $4M); Kuznetsov $2M (of $5M); Drouin $2M (of $4.5M); Karl Alzner $1.5M (of $3M); Martin Jones $1.5M of ($6M).
25. Another trend that surprised a few clubs: how many primarily AHL players got one-way NHL deals. The amount of salary you can bury on someone in the minors rises to $1.05M per contract, and some teams hoarded. (As you can imagine, others really hated this development.)
It’s great for Jacob De La Rose (Montreal), Jordan Oesterle (Chicago), Steve Oleksy (Anaheim) or Ben Street (Detroit). It’s hard to find many second- or third-string goalies on a team’s depth chart that don’t have one-way components in their contracts. Toronto’s Garret Sparks and Washington’s Pheonix Copley got the second of their two year deals as a one-way. Chicago’s J-F Berube got both, although he was a full-time NHLer who couldn’t get the net.
26. When Montreal acquired Drouin, the website listed him with number 27. That sent all sorts of craziness to my Twitter feed, wondering if this meant Alex Galchenyuk was being traded. But Alzner originally was listed as number 27, too. When a player goes to a new club, his old number is automatically entered at first. So don’t freak out.
27. I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about what’s going on in the NHLPA, after writing a few things about it during the year. Both the players and owners have the option in 2019 to re-open the CBA before the 2020–21 season. Right now, it’s 100 per cent that the players do it. Escrow and the Olympics are major issues for them.
As I get older, I’m not interested in the rhetoric and politics. We’ve heard it before — it never changes. My only concern is a solution. The Canadian dollar had a slight uptick this week, which is very nice for the cap, but no one is expecting a significant climb. If my math is correct, our loonie is down 25 per cent since before the 2012-13 lockout, while Hockey Related Revenue is up 15 per cent (in U.S. dollars) since the stoppage ended. (One source indicated overall league revenues were up nine per cent from last season to this one, as measured in local currency.)
So there’s growth — many businesses would be happy increasing nine per cent per year — but the Canadian dollar poses a problem other leagues don’t have.
There are at least two major upcoming opportunities for the NHL and its players. The first is international hockey. South Korea is out, but the move into China is underway. Both sides talk about how important it is, so you can’t stress enough how it must be done right. Second is the U.S. television deal. It is up in four years, but I wonder if it even gets that far before a new one is negotiated.
From the Rogers package, we know digital rights are critical, and, according to a couple of sources, the NHL has the ability to make them part of the conversation, even though it entered into a digital partnership with Major League Baseball Advanced Media last year. If a “revenue explosion” is to arrive, it will likely be in those areas.
Labour talks in the NHL and NBA have mirrored each other for years. Whenever the CBA was up in either league, there was a lockout. The NBA players weren’t always a united group but this time did it right. With a huge new television deal, they started over a year in advance and got something done. A major key was the owners had to negotiate with Chris Paul, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony staring at them — all members of the players’ executive and negotiating team.
That hasn’t happened enough in the NHL. The top players have to take control of both the union and the negotiations.
A few years ago, I did a major house renovation. I figured I’d let the contractor do his job because he was the expert. But he was terrible — one fiasco after another. Every time I see his office, I want to firebomb it. But I learned a valuable lesson: You have to take responsibility for something that important.
The best chance at the best CBA deal is having the best players in the room, looking at their individual owners, taking control of their own fates. A rising tide floats all boats.
28. The people in both the NHL and NHLPA know better than me, but I wonder if there is an opening to start talking in the fall. A lockout/strike as they are trying to get into China seems incredibly terrible. On escrow, from 2005-13, the salary cap was set by determining the “midpoint” and going up $8M (ceiling) and down $8M (floor). The gap was always $16M from top to bottom. That changed in 2013 to 15 per cent in each direction from the midpoint. (The chasm will be $19.6M in 2017-18.)
Most of the teams go to the cap. They are competitive, their fans scream for it and you can’t maintain elite status without being there. That also makes the escrow situation worse for players. If you revert back to the previous method, does that save them money? Just an idea.
29. I love baseball. Love watching it during my summer downtime. I’m still mad at Gord Stellick for shutting down our summer softball team five years ago. But the “Three True Outcomes” — walks, strikeouts and home runs — are just killing the game. Put the ball in play, for crying out loud. It’s the most exciting thing.
30. It is time to shut down for a bit. Thank you to the editors and designers at Sportsnet. They do really nice work with this blog. Thank you to the people in the industry who put up with the questions and tell the stories to fill it. Thank you most of all to the readers, because if you didn’t exist, there would be no point doing it.
See you in September, when, with a new team in Vegas, we go to 31 Thoughts.