30 Thoughts: What’s delaying the NHL’s Olympic decision?

Calgary won their 10th straight, the Jets fell to Nashville and Brad Marchand brought out the hats.

Despite the Olympic war of words—Gary Bettman at the GM meetings, David Backes and Jakub Voracek volleying back—it seemed possible for a brief time last week that there might be a breakthrough.

There were some rumours the NHLPA would agree to the 19-year-old draft (with a first-round exception for 18-year-olds) in exchange for Olympic participation. Alas, it proved to be false hope, with multiple sources denying that was the case.

So, where do we stand?

The NHLPA is steadfast in the belief it should not have to give up anything to go. The Olympics matter to the players, now an important—and appreciated—part of being a professional hockey player. With owners like Ted Leonsis publicly revealing he will let his stars go, the union feels it’s in a stronger bargaining position.

That would make it seem like the NHL is boxed into a corner, but if the commissioner didn’t want to go, the announcement would be done already. So, what are we waiting for?

There was supposed to be some kind of Olympic discussion in the near future, but that meeting was cancelled at the end of last week. There is nothing scheduled, as far as I know.

There were plenty of rumours the players would refuse to play the Los Angeles/Vancouver exhibition games next season in China if Olympic participation wasn’t agreed to by now. According to multiple sources, those games are happening no matter what occurs with South Korea. That’s the right decision. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. I’m pro-Olympics, but if you don’t go, don’t hurt other growth potential.

I’ve pointed out before that 2014 participation was not settled until July 2013. But, last week, one source mentioned the “handshake” was in February and it took several months to finish the negotiation. This process is not comparable to that one.

So there’s a lot of negativity.

Again, though, I come back to the fact the commissioner could have killed this already. He tried to extend the CBA, which didn’t work. What else is out there?

This is me talking, but I wonder if it’s the U.S. TV deal. NBC signed a 10-year contract in April 2011. That ends before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, a Games that will be shown on NBC (That network owns the rights until 2032).

I could see Bettman thinking that NBC benefits from the NHLers being there, so what tangible benefit could NBC offer in return? A new broadcast package would certainly qualify. What I can’t tell you is how The Peacock feels about the idea.

It would be a big victory for him, especially as the salary cap stagnates. It wouldn’t be a player concession, but a good TV deal eases that concern.

Again, it’s only conjecture. But, if the players really won’t concede anything and the league is really serious about getting something—do you see another answer?

30 THOUGHTS

1. Initially, the plan was to give Las Vegas 48 hours with the protected list before the expansion draft. That is being increased to 72. At the GM meetings, the Golden Knights’ George McPhee let everyone know that once the lists are handed to him, it’s an auction for any unprotected player another team might want. This has outstanding potential.

2. College signings will dominate much of the player movement over the next few weeks, but it won’t just be free agents. At least two prominent draft picks are expected to join the jamboree. Vancouver’s Brock Boeser (23rd overall, 2015) is coming out, with the only real debate being whether or not he plays NHL games this season. It’s rare a player chooses an AHL tryout over burning a year of their big-league deal, but Zach Werenski did it last season. Lake Erie was a power and won the Calder Cup. AHL Utica is hitting above its weight class this season, battling St. John’s and Toronto for two playoff spots in the North Division. Extended time there is no guarantee. If Boeser wants to play at the highest level, is Vancouver going to say no?

3. It seems a certainty that Clayton Keller (7th pick in 2016) will leave Boston University for Arizona. Barring any snags in contract talks, he’ll be an NHLer.

4. Among early NCAA free agents, the top name is probably Zach Aston-Reese of Northeastern. He had a big year, with 63 points in 38 games, mainly because he did a great job as net-front presence on the power play. It’s interesting. At different times, different teams made their push. Some of those involved changed their predictions. Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion went and saw him in person, but the Senators pulled back. Pittsburgh took a real run at him. So did Edmonton and Vancouver. Anaheim and San Jose made pitches. It’s probably one of those five. Tuesdays are quiet for Aston-Reese, so it won’t be surprising if he makes his call.

5. Decision-time looms for St. Lawrence defenceman Gavin Bayreuther, who led his team with 29 points in 30 games. It’s believed Dallas was the most aggressive pursuer, with Buffalo and Colorado lurking. Another 63-point player is five-foot-six Tyler Kelleher, who is very skilled. He’s rumoured to be New Jersey-bound, and it’s not a surprise the Devils are the only NHL team following him on Twitter.

6. If Ottawa makes any NCAA foray, watch the goalies.

7. Don’t know if the Rangers are going to get Kevin Shattenkirk, but there is one free-agent defenceman they could snare. His name is Alexei Bereglazov, a 22-year-old left-hand shot playing at KHL Magnitogorsk. They are considered a favourite.

8. That team’s blue line could really be poached. Another defender, 24-year-old Viktor Antipin (also a lefty), is expected to join Buffalo. If that is the case, the Sabres won a bit of a recruiting battle, with Calgary, Chicago, Columbus and Pittsburgh all poking around.

9. Right after lunch, every game day, Calgary’s Brian Elliott does some shootout preparation. He’ll look at some video, make a few notes. “I like to have it on my mind before I take my nap,” he said Monday night, minutes after the Flames extended their win streak to 10 games.

Elliott stopped three of the world’s best to preserve the win. Evgeni Malkin went low blocker, Sidney Crosby high glove and Phil Kessel five-hole. Kessel’s shot did squeeze through, but Elliott got enough to direct it wide.

Does he review his notes in the moments before the shootout begins? “I go change my headband, maybe look at the notes a little, but by the time I get back to the net, I don’t remember anything anyway,” he laughed. “You look a little at what they did in their last attempts, but they obviously have a bunch of different approaches. You’re looking where (an opponent is) holding his stick or where the puck is.” Did any of them surprise you? “Crosby likes to go five-hole. I was looking for that. But he’s probably thinking the same thing, trying to bait me. There’s a lot of cat and mouse.”

10. Elliott is on a tremendous tear after a rough start, and those three shootout stops were extremely impressive. He did a massive fist-pump as Kessel’s attempt trickled wide.

“As a goalie, you don’t get as many opportunities to celebrate like a player does when he scores. I figured I’d take the opportunity while it was there.”

11. At the GM meetings, one suggestion made to increase offence was limiting the number of coaches who could be on the bench. The head man and one assistant. The rest must be elsewhere. The theory behind it is “less talking, more reacting.” Would love to know which GM(s) came up with that idea, but a couple of guys laughed and wouldn’t say.

12. In its continuing attempt to speed up the replay process, the NHL sent a memo to all teams last Friday indicating referees were to drop the puck 30-35 seconds after a goal. There’s a deal with the television partners to allow about that much time for replays after a score. Coaches have been instructed to decide challenge/no challenge during that time. Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan took 36 seconds to set in motion a (successful) challenge of a Vancouver goal in the first period last Saturday night. That’s what the league wants.

13. No one will discuss it, but I think the GMs wanted to take a longer look at altering the offside rule at their meetings. But there was strong pushback. One of the concerns was injuries, that skates would be in the air and people would get cut. That rationale led to grumbling, but the rule wasn’t going to be changed.

14. Florida head coach Tom Rowe said Aaron Ekblad is out 7-10 days with a concussion. We know he had one last season after a hit from Matt Hendricks. We know he had to leave the World Cup early after a bout with whiplash. Whatever the time frame, the organization needs to think about shutting Ekblad down for the season. Too much at stake, on and off the ice.

15. The Islanders are right in the Eastern Conference race despite an ugly 8-4 loss to Carolina on Monday night. However, the organization re-iterated that any discussion of Doug Weight’s future behind the bench would not occur until after the season. I can understand Weight wanting to see how things evolve on the flow chart.

16. At some point, don’t the Islanders have to give Jaroslav Halak another shot?

17. Bryan Bickell has three assists in six games with AHL Charlotte as he begins his comeback following a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis. He’s an unrestricted free agent after the season. The Hurricanes plan to give him a game or two at the NHL level before this season concludes. There isn’t a person in hockey rooting against him.

18. As Erik Karlsson and Brad Marchand force their way into the Hart Trophy conversation, Ottawa’s captain is putting up a season unlike any other in recent memory. He leads the league with 181 blocked shots. Tracking that stat goes back to 2003-04 on the NHL website, and the most points by any player who finished first in any one season was 34. Kris Russell did it in 2014-15; Francois Beauchemin equalled it last season. Karlsson has 62 points with 15 games to go. The average point total by the leader in this category is 24. The Senator defender reached 24 points on Dec. 5.

19. Heading into Sidney Crosby’s second season, he talked quite a bit about the need to improve on faceoffs. He finished at 45.5 as a rookie, still the lowest percentage of his career. Year 2 saw him improve to 49.8 and only once in the nine following seasons was he below 50. He’s at 51.4 for his career.

On After Hours last week, Scott Oake asked Crosby if there’s anything he needs to fix. “Faceoffs,” the Pittsburgh captain answered. “I’ve got to figure out these guys who use their skate…That’s been a bit of a challenge, a lot of guys are using their skate now. You feel like you’ve got a pretty good feel on guys in the faceoff circle, and I think you’ve got to constantly compete in that area.”

I didn’t realize it, but he’s at 48.9 in 2016-17. That’s a weird number to see on his stat line. But you can be certain of one thing: it won’t stay that way.

20. It’s rare to see Rangers coach Alain Vigneault lose it like he did last Thursday after a loss at Carolina. Vigneault was furious about a Sebastian Aho goal that came with contact from Elias Lindholm to Antti Raanta.

His ire grew because New York had a score disallowed last season when Kevin Hayes clipped Jimmy Howard during a game against Detroit. In the moment, Vigneault saw no difference.

The league and the organization spoke Friday. From what I understand, the NHL told the Rangers Lindholm was outside the crease and made no attempt to touch Raanta. They were not comfortable disallowing that goal. Now, no one would say what happened when the Rangers brought up Hayes/Howard. But another team suspected the previous goal should have counted, because Hayes was tripped.

21. Darin Stephens, who uses the Twitter handle @SharksStats, had a good one the other day. Marc-Edouard Vlasic just played his 800th game. He’s won 473 of them since his 2006-07 debut, most by any NHL defenceman during that time.

“I like to win. For me it’s about winning,” Vlasic said by phone on Monday. “If I score 10 points all year and we win the Cup, I’ll be very happy. It shows I’m lucky enough to be on a team that is in the race every year.” His father, Ed, was a pretty good defenceman at McGill University. “He used to joke that I’d never be as good as him, and then when I was 13-14, he said, ‘Yeah, crap, you’re better than I am. They used to call me Steady Eddie, but your game is better than mine.’”

22. Vlasic was taken 35th overall in 2005. Duncan Keith was 54th in 2002, Shea Weber 49th in 2003, P.K. Subban 43rd in 2007. That’s four elite defencemen in the second round. How does that happen?

“I think with Weber, Keith and myself, we’re not very flashy,” Vlasic answered. “Weber has the hard shot, but if you took that away, you wouldn’t notice as much about his game. You watch video on those two, and they don’t make mistakes. We make plays that are never really talked about, do everything right at the right time.” Where did Vlasic think he’d be drafted 12 years ago? “I never thought first round. I didn’t have the numbers. I didn’t even think second round, maybe fourth, fifth or six. When I saw second round, I thought, ‘Oh my God. Ok I’ll take that.’” Vlasic sat at home, “watching” the draft on his computer. “I do remember hitting refresh, refresh, refresh. Okay, is that my name? Then I Googled my name to make sure.” He remembered feeling he could be a player after his first NHL game. “They threw me out there most of game against Keith Tkachuk. I’ve been watching this guy, a power forward. I handled myself okay. I thought, ‘I can play and try to make an impact. This is what I’m going to be doing.’”

23. Brent Burns gets the headlines with the ridiculous point totals and even more ridiculous beard, but Vlasic, with his Olympic gold medal and World Cup championship, is equally critical to the Sharks. He and Justin Braun get the big defensive assignments, and he is very proud of that. “I look at it as a privilege our coaching staff has. We handle the top players, allowing Brent to roam. And he’d still get those points if he was facing the best.”

San Jose has a comfortable lead atop the Pacific Division, one year after falling to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final. Has Vlasic ever re-watched that series? “No. Once something is over, I’m not one of those people who looks back and says, ‘I should have done this.’ If you should have done that, do it in the first place. It’s over, they were better than you.” Then, he pauses. “Well, if I learned anything, it’s don’t start 0-2.” I think the Sharks are really good. Does he? “We are as good as anyone in the league. We can’t get too complacent when we are good. That happens to us sometimes, so we have to fight through it. We did it last year, and we will have to this year. That’s when we are at our best. If we do that, we have what it takes to go all the way.

24. Finally on Vlasic: all the talk about contracts in San Jose surrounds impending free agents Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. Vlasic can hit the market July 1, 2018. He will be 31, and one of the best defencemen in the league. The Sharks are well aware of that.

“I love it here. I’m not really a guy who wants to play for three or four teams. I like the city, I like the organization, we’re always competitive. What’s not to like? I want to play my whole career in San Jose.”

25. As you read this, the Sparta Warriors and Storhamar Dragons will be preparing for Game 6 of their Norwegian League playoff series. You could probably call it Game 10, since the two teams played the longest game in hockey history on Sunday, an eight-overtime triathlon that ended with a 2-1 Dragons victory.

One of the winners was Hamilton, Ont., native Joey Tenute, who turned pro in 2004 after four OHL seasons with Barrie and Sarnia. “I’m pretty sore, pretty tired,” he said Monday, with a little laugh at how understated that answer probably was. “I thought it would never end.” The game ended at 2:32 a.m. Monday, with Tenute joking that was “long after all the kids went home.”

What stood out most about the experience? “It’s hard to describe, you’re just trying to survive at that point. A lot of fruit was available, bread…peanut batter and jam, protein bars, sports drinks. But by the fifth overtime, I needed more. I ate three slices of pizza. I never do that. Ever.”

More: “No one wanted to give in. No one wanted it to be their fault. The passion that everyone had. Guys were tired, exhausted, cramping up, getting their groins taped in-between periods…it’s pretty amazing to see guys could continue to push and push and play through that amount of time. It’s hard to put into perspective how hard it is to play 11 periods of hockey. After the winning goal was scored, we looked over and saw their team sitting exhausted on the bench. You had to give respect to them, knowing they faced a two-to-three hour bus ride after.” That ride after that loss would be the worst.

26. Tenute’s wife Najah and young son Jacksen went home before the playoffs. Najah is pregnant with their second child, and a player is less helpful/available during the post-season.

“After the game I looked at my texts and timeline. There were texts at 11 p.m. after second OT, people saying, ‘Wow I can’t believe this.’ Then the same people were texting at 1, 1:30, then 2:30. Sometimes, playing over here, you think no one at home sees you. I always look to wave at my wife and son after games. I did it out of habit, but they were empty.”

Jacksen’s a big hockey fan and won’t be happy he missed it. Tenute got 40 games with his hometown AHL team in Hamilton four years ago. Norway is the fifth European company he’s played in, joining Finland, Germany, Austria and Sweden. He’s got two more years on his contract. But hopefully no more 11 OT games.

27. The true understatement of Tenute’s interview: “It’s kind of hard to beak down 11 periods of game film.” Somewhere there’s an NHL coach willing to try.

28. When Mark Streit went from Philadelphia to Tampa to Pittsburgh on deadline day, a couple of the ex-players on our Sportsnet panel were wondering if the defenceman got a bonus because the Lightning retain 50 per cent of his salary (Florida has no state income tax). Unfortunately for Streit, that’s a no. The Penguins are the ones that actually pay him, with Tampa reimbursing Pittsburgh.

29. I know people get sick of following the Coyotes’ off-ice saga. Heck, we get tired of covering it. If you need a conversation piece around the family dinner table in case it ever comes up, go with this: Commissioner Bettman will do everything humanly possible to make a team work in its current market. Clearly, he’s still fighting for Arizona.

30. My grandfather, Nathan Friedman, emigrated from present-day Belarus to New York City in 1901, a year after he was born. From there he went to Winnipeg, then Saskatchewan. He lied about his age to join the Army in 1917, although World War I ended before he saw any action. My grandmother, Myrtle Johnston, was the daughter of a Scottish/English father and an Irish mother, who apparently grew up in an orphanage in Quebec. Saskatchewan became a province in 1905. The Johnstons arrived in 1906 and were successful farmers before the Depression clobbered them. Nathan and Myrtle eloped in 1936, returning a year later to Wilkie, where they owned a general store. Nathan doubled as an alderman and mayor from around 1949-60, before the store burned down and they moved to North Battleford. That was their home until she died in 1989, and he followed three years later.

Wilkie is one of the 10 finalists for Kraft Hockeyville, and I am rooting for them. Why it is a deserving community. Voting is here.