Let’s start with some trivia.
Go back to the fall of the Soviet Union, when countries like Belarus and Latvia began entering their own teams in hockey tournaments. We’re talking the last 29 major international events where top players could compete: every World Championship since 1993, five Olympic Games and two World Cups.
There were 116 semifinalists. How many of those spots were filled by one of The Big Six — Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the United States?
The answer is 107, or 92 per cent. The exceptions were Slovakia (five appearances), Switzerland (two), Belarus and Germany (one apiece). The Slovaks were the only ones to win gold, at the 2002 Worlds.
So, when the NHL decides to mix it up at the soon-to-be-announced 2016 World Cup, you can understand the theory. Those six will fill 75 per cent of the spots, with “the rest of Europe” and a North American Under-23 Team filling the final two positions.
No doubt the Slovaks will be annoyed, but adding Roman Josi, Anze Kopitar, Frans Nielsen and Mats Zuccarello to Zdeno Chara, Jaroslav Halak, Marian Gaborik and Tomas Tatar makes a pretty good team. It could contend, especially if Kopitar and Zuccarello play like they did in Sochi (although the Norwegian missed later games with injury).
It’s the other one that’s giving everybody ulcers.
What isn’t 100 per cent clear is whether or not any North American under 23 automatically gets assigned to the junior varsity. The reason that’s being debated is, let’s say Nathan MacKinnon is selected for Canada, but ends up wearing an expensive suit to games. Does it make more sense for him to be bag-skating every morning, or being the backbone of a different team?
Undoubtedly, some of this is marketing. You want to promote the future faces of your game. The biggest concern the NHL and NHLPA should have is if this team will look bad, especially against deeper and more experienced countries. That won’t help showcasing them.
In tribute to Joe Piscopo in Johnny Dangerously, I believe you should try everything… once. But, if the NHL really wants to do something different while featuring its youthful sensations, here’s some free advice:
Do it in the All-Star Game.
Make it the Under-27s versus the rest of the NHL (chosen because that is the age for Unrestricted Free Agency). You can still do fan voting. You can’t do a draft, but if you want to poke fun at someone, give a car to the guy with the worst plus/minus.
It still puts teammates on opposing sides. This year, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews would be against Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Claude Giroux could taunt Jakub Voracek about Quebec League defeats from the other bench.
It gets Jonathan Drouin and Aaron Ekblad and Jack Eichel and Johnny Gaudreau and Seth Jones and Connor McDavid on a big stage very quickly. And no one cares who wins here, unless you’ve really got a gambling problem.
1. So, who is going to run and/or coach the two mixed World Cup entries? That’s still being discussed, but would love to see roles for Kopitar’s father, Matjaz, who did a magnificent job with Slovenia in Sochi, and Lars Eller’s father, Olaf, a longtime player/coach in Denmark.
The Under-23 job is a Hockey Canada/Hockey USA production, and, if they really wanted to make it interesting, why not offer it to whichever coaching staff finishes higher at the 2016 World Juniors in Finland?
2. Speaking of the American entry at the 2016 event, heard last week AHL Wilkes-Barre coach John Hynes is a consideration to run the bench. Don’t know what the logistics would be, but he’d be a good fit.
3. My guess is Zac Rinaldo is in a lot more trouble than Dan Carcillo.
If suspended more than five games, you can appeal to Commissioner Gary Bettman, and, if still unsatisfied, to an independent arbitrator. For the arbitrator to reduce or overturn, he or she must disagree “the length of the suspension imposed (was) supported by substantial evidence.” Unfortunately, you have to understand how a lawyer thinks.
In Carcillo’s case, you don’t see a history of crosschecks resulting in lengthy suspensions. Luke Schenn took a good whack at Sidney Crosby Tuesday night, and nothing. Crosby winced, swore and stayed in the game. There’s not a ton of history for it. What Rinaldo did? Lots of history. Patrick Kaleta and Shawn Thornton did not appeal to the arbitrator for this very reason.
4. Don Cherry said Saturday night he saw confusion on the faces of Toronto’s forwards, unsure of what they are supposed to do.
There’s no doubt coach Peter Horachek is trying something new. “He wants us using the middle on breakouts,” James van Riemsdyk said Monday. “Under (Randy Carlyle), we used the walls more. The weak-side winger could blow the zone early if the puck was sent around the opposite side.” Not anymore.
Van Riemsdyk pointed out that the “5-5-5” system — the team travelling as a pack through all three zones — means Toronto’s forwards, used to racing up ice as fast as possible, now are asked to wait, creating different options for the puck carriers. (Note: this was not a criticism, but an explanation.) It takes time to adapt, but as Horachek said after the loss to Carolina, they are not going back to previous methods. “I don't think any of the top teams play that way.”
5. One scout said that the best hope for Toronto is the players adapt as well as Winnipeg’s did under Paul Maurice.
According to several Jets, Maurice asked them to: force opponents outside when coming through neutral ice, make sure forwards backed up aggressively pinching defencemen when in the offensive zone and “make a play” with the puck coming out of your own zone, not just blindly chip it out. But, the biggest change was when, as both Zach Bogosian and Blake Wheeler said, “selfish play” eliminated itself from the lineup.
In a calendar year, the Jets have changed, and so has the NHL’s perception of them. Look what they’ve done in Chicago this season. The scout did add, “Toronto is not as ‘heavy’ as Winnipeg,” so it may not be a totally fair comparison.
6. Damien Cox reported Saturday the Maple Leafs will open talks with UFAs-to-be Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli, which makes sense, considering they would be traded by the deadline if no consensus is found. (Wonder if Detroit, searching for a right-shot defender, would have interest in Franson.)
This will be the first wave of decisions for Brendan Shanahan and his staff. There probably isn’t a single untouchable on the team, although some (Morgan Rielly and van Riemsdyk) will cost you more than others. The smart move by the organization is to test everyone’s market value, and you can safely assume they will.
7. The other thing to determine is who needs a change of scenery, either for the organization’s sake or the player’s own. A Dion Phaneuf/Mike Richards trade matches financially, but, after suggesting the idea last weekend, my sense is the Kings would consider that, but Toronto wouldn’t, at least not yet.
Phaneuf has a big ticket, and the Maple Leafs will need to get creative in dealing with it, but he could fit where he’s not expected to carry the load. I’d expect Shanahan and Dave Nonis to see what else is possible. There is a list of 12 teams Phaneuf can be dealt to, although more can always be discussed.
8. The other situation is David Clarkson’s. He needs a change of scenery in the worst way, a chance to start over. He’s a better player than this, but it started badly with a 10-game suspension and never improved.
No Maple Leaf’s ice-time is dropping under Horachek more than his, including 8:11 last week in San Jose, his lowest non-injury game in five years. Would Toronto propose Clarkson/Richards? Makes sense for them, but I don’t see the Kings as a willing partner in that.
9. The most sensible thing would be a buyout, but that is borderline impossible for him.
As Toronto battled with Edmonton and Ottawa to sign Clarkson, his agency (Newport) had leverage and used it. He has five years and $27.5 million (cash) remaining, and, under regular rules, that would mean the Maple Leafs pay out approximately $1.85M per season for 10 years to let him go.
Problem: $20.5M of his deal is in bonuses, and those cannot be shrunk under the buyout formula. So, he’d cost between $4M-$5M a year the next five years. Doesn’t make sense to do it.
10. Forgot the Rangers signed one pending UFA before Marc Staal: backup goalie Cam Talbot. He’s been a great fit there. According to a couple of sources, he was on Edmonton’s radar and New York knew it. Mark Messier apparently is a fan.
11. With Capgeek currently off-radar, it’s harder to pin down salary information, but the Rangers’ top four defenders (Dan Boyle, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Staal) combine for a cap hit of approximately $20.4M next season. I think that’s second highest in the NHL, behind Montreal, at about $21.6M.
New York values this group and Boyle’s deal ends in June 2016, which adds some flexibility. I have Los Angeles third ($19.2M or so) with Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez, Jake Muzzin and Slava Voynov signed long-term, although Voynov’s future is far from certain. But it shows where top-four defencemen fit in a cap world, and some teams have decisions to make.
12. Atop of the list is Washington, with UFA Mike Green. The Capitals have John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik at about $15.2M for the next three years, which means that if Green re-signs for no raise at all, they will be above $21M.
Since his breakthrough 2007-08 season, Green’s ice-time rank among the club’s defence ranked first five times, second once and third once. This year, he is fifth, two seconds behind Karl Alzner, 19:08 per night. That’s 2:54 under his previous low during this span. He still leads Washington defenders in powerplay time, but at 2:58/game, that’s also down from his offensive heyday.
Barring a change in his role or Green accepting a cut, does this make sense for either side?
13. Barring trades, Winnipeg will have decisions to make when it has to re-sign Dustin Byfuglien (unrestricted) and Jacob Trouba (restricted) for the 2016-17 season. That will put them around $20M, probably more.
Tom Gilbert comes off the books after next season, but the Canadiens are going to be tight for at least two more years with Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov and PK Subban at almost $19M between them. That’s why the continued development of Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi is so important, as the blueline budget will be tight.
14. GM Marc Bergevin is always in stealth mode, so it’s difficult to know what he is up to. But, he traded Josh Gorges as Gorges was about to turn 30, because Bergevin was concerned about the cap situation and footspeed.
Emelin will be 29 in April. Different bodies, some of the same questions. Always look for patterns, and I may be overthinking it, but it crossed my mind.
15. Speaking of defencemen, word is the Islanders and Johnny Boychuk’s agents (Gerry Johanssen/Steve Kotlowitz) have been working for a while to try and find common ground, but no one is saying anything, not even GM Garth Snow in a phone conversation.
As mentioned a few days ago, the Canucks and Chris Tanev were expected to have their first serious conversations this week. The Jets and Allan Walsh (who represents Michael Frolik) aren’t talking, either, but it would be a stunner if the two sides didn’t meet when Winnipeg was in Los Angeles, where the agent is based.
16. Winnipeg’s decision to back away from the Heritage Classic next season brings added intrigue to the NHL’s plans for 2016-17. That is the league’s 100th anniversary; both Ottawa and Toronto want the event then. Could Winnipeg be added to that mix, or will the Jets (and Manitoba) have to wait?
17. It’s been quiet around the Oilers since the David Perron trade, never a bad thing. Wouldn’t be surprised if there was some interest in Matt Hendricks, but it’s far from certain the Oilers would trade him. They need pros, and he certainly is one.
18. The Flames knew Joni Ortio was confident guy who didn’t get rattled easily.
After two brief AHL stints years ago, he returned in 2013-14 to finish second (behind Jake Allen) in save percentage at .926, winning 27 of his 37 appearances. It was a strong performance, but Calgary challenged him to do it again — follow the likes of Allen, Jimmy Howard and Cory Schneider, who put together multiple good AHL seasons.
It didn’t start well, as he gave up 15 goals on his first 95 shots faced. But he allowed just 26 in his last 16 games before the call-up. Now he’s beaten Vancouver, Arizona, San Jose and Los Angeles on the road. Not bad.
19. In a conversation last weekend, Blues GM Doug Armstrong said he would not discuss what will happen next with a certain goaltender. “He’s Martin Brodeur,” Armstrong said. “He’s earned the right to talk to me before I talk to anyone else.” They are expecting to converse during All-Star.
20. The Blues are rolling now, healthy and with people in their proper spots. Armstrong admitted it wasn’t always easy as the newcomers and younger players grabbed larger roles from the veterans. For example, on Dec. 20, they gave Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko a chance to preserve a one-goal game late in San Jose. The Sharks scored, and won in overtime.
Normally, that would be a spot for David Backes.
“The coach’s job is to push the limits of all the players,” Armstrong said. “The best players play all situations, over time. Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, you look at top players, they touch every aspect of the game. You have to find out now, so you can know in March and April what you have…One of the ways you learn to get better is by failing. You learn the proper things to do, or if the mistakes are repetitive, it doesn’t mean you are a bad player, but don’t have the skill set to do certain things. The top players play all the time.”
21. Does everyone now understand what the organization was trying to do? “Yes,” he answered. “Ultimately, our players want to win. Look at quality of minutes over quantity of minutes. Ken Hitchcock believes in it and I do too. Don't worry about someone else, worry about what you get to do.”
22. One Blue getting back to a high level is Alex Pietrangelo, who had a rough beginning this season.
His offensive zone start percentage the last three seasons: 52.8, 50.3, 52.3. This year, it’s 45.8.
“We are asking Alex to go 200 feet,” Armstrong said. “He had to find a different way to be successful. He needed time to get used to it. Everyone wants it overnight, but it doesn't happen that way.”
23. Finally on St. Louis, Armstrong said there will be no Tarasenko extension until after the season. It is not expected to be a bridge deal, as was the case with several other Blues forwards.
24. Add Nashville to the list of teams considering Chris Stewart. Can’t imagine who wants a trade more: Stewart himself or the reporters chasing this.
25. Carolina is 6-2-1 since the calendar flipped to 2015.
GM Ron Francis will take another run at signing both Andrej Sekera and Jiri Tlusty, but there are other reasons he’s slamming the brakes on trade rumours. You have to let your players and fans enjoy some success without the threat of changes.
The Hurricanes have 13 one-goal losses, most in the NHL. How close are they, really, to turning those losses into wins? “That’s why we’ve got to see what we really have,” Francis said.
26. Cam Ward is looking at his best save percentage in three seasons, although his .911 is still slightly under the league average of .912.
“We’ve done a much better job helping him know where shots are going to come from,” Francis said.
And, Eric Staal is finally getting healthy. “I think he came to camp in the best shape he’s been in a long time. He was injured right away, tried to play, but couldn’t. Then he got hit with a slap shot on the ankle. It was swollen, not broken, but he refused to take time off, because he wanted to help even though he was not the player we needed him to be.” The GM really likes Staal on the left wing, with Jordan in the middle.
27. The Hurricanes have key young players on the team, and another one will be coming next season, a high 2015 draft pick. How necessary is it to have someone like Eric Staal around?
“I think it’s critical,” Francis said. “I was reading an article with (Red Wings GM) Ken Holland. He was saying how important the right guys are… When Eric was a rookie he sat next to me. When I was gone, the rookies sat next to Rod Brind’Amour, now they sit next to Eric. To have that veteran guy you like and trust, there are valuable lessons to learn.”
A lot of this could come down to what kind of contract Eric is willing to take after next season.
28. There is a Board of Governors’ meeting in Columbus, but an updated salary cap projection is not expected. At the December get-together the number for 2015-16 was $73M, as long as the Canadian dollar stayed in the 88-cent range.
29. One of Las Vegas’ first NHL season-ticket commitments comes from Poker Hall-of-Famer Daniel Negreanu, who signed up through a private website for members of the team’s Founding 50. (That group now numbers about 75.)
Potential owner Bill Foley hopes to launch a public campaign either February 9th or 10th, with a goal of 10,000 commitments by the end of March.
As a member of the Founding 50, Negreanu will be asked to sell 60 season’s tickets. Asked if he believed this would work, he went right to poker lingo. “92 per cent chance of victory,” Negreanu laughed.
30. The world is a less funnier place this week without the loud Irish laugh of Terry Kelly rippling through the Air Canada Centre. A former Toronto Maple Leafs director, Kelly was an Oshawa-based lawyer who left a huge imprint on that community after emigrating from Belfast as a teenager. If you wrote (or said) something he didn’t agree with, he’d let you know in hilarious fashion. All the best to his family and friends.