31 Thoughts: Eberle, Hall and how the media really affects NHLers

Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Chiarot throw the body while Mitch Marner got taken out by a linesman. Check out all the hard hitting action from the week that was.

• Toronto a potential landing spot for Ian Cole?
• A Team Canada Spengler Cup spot awaits Iginla
• Avalanche responding well to loss of Duchene

Back when I had more hair as a radio reporter, the Toronto Maple Leafs traded for future San Jose broadcaster Jamie Baker. During the next season, I asked him what he’d heard about playing in Toronto. He said that Wendel Clark told him, “You’re never as good as they say you are, and you’re never as bad as they say you are.”

That’s an awesome quote. I’ve never forgotten it, because it applies to everyone in life, no matter what you do.

Thought a lot about that last week, especially after going to Edmonton’s morning skate in Buffalo. That’s an organization in shock from the top down: executives, coaches and players. Everyone is on-edge, waiting for something to happen, knowing no one escapes this kind of a season unscathed.

Head coach Todd McLellan made sure players were aware of a column by Sportsnet’s Mark Spector after a blowout in St. Louis. Spector wrote the team quit against the Blues, and, desperately trying to find any way to get the group going, McLellan tried an “us-against-the-world” tactic. The Oilers recovered to beat Detroit and Boston around a listless defeat in Buffalo.

Then Jordan Eberle told Tim Panaccio, “When you read articles every day about how much you suck, it’s tough.”

Panaccio said he should ignore them.

“You can’t,” Eberle replied. “It affects you and I lost my confidence. The biggest thing for me since I got here with the Islanders is trying to get that back.”

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski asked Taylor Hall about it.

“I think that if the media in Edmonton think that they don’t impact players, just a little bit, then they’re crazy. Everyone’s human. No one wants to read crappy stuff about them, no matter how good of a player you are.” He added, “I never felt that the media was unfair in Edmonton, but when you do read constant negative stuff about yourself, you can’t help but lose confidence.”

I don’t like passing judgement on the work of other reporters. I’m not infallible, and my best work comes when I focus on my own process. The only rules I really have are, “Don’t write or say anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face,” and “Show up if you are critical.”

Playing hockey in Canada is like being a New York Yankee or a Dallas Cowboy. It’s a high-risk, high-reward situation, and it’s not for everyone. As one player recently told me, “When your team is good, life is great. When your team is bad, man it sucks.” But he knows that if he competes hard for his team, his legacy is set. Fans don’t forget who gave their all, and that brings lucrative post-career opportunities. That doesn’t happen everywhere.

No one gets away without scars. Not even the reporters. Social media is the great equalizer. No matter who you are, if you choose to be on it, someone can get to you. Not everyone has a thick skin, and if you let people know they can get under it, they are going to keep trying. I’m pretty de-sensitized, but you take your shots to get there.

A couple of years ago, I ran into a player at the excellent NHL pre-season media tour. He stink-eyed me, and said, “I know what you guys say about me on TV.” I stopped in my tracks and came back with a, “Let’s talk about it.”

We went back and forth. Finally I said to him, “Do you love playing hockey?” His answer was yes, of course. “Are you single?” Taken aback, he replied yes. “What are you earning this year?” It was very good. So I told him, “You have won. You are playing the game you love. Millions of people would give their (I can’t write what I said) to trade with you. You are earning a great living and can date whoever you want. Why do you care about all this?”

He laughed. He has said that conversation moved him in a better direction.

But we also talked about something else: Family and friends. I don’t know if families or friends of NHL players read this blog, but I can tell you that most of the issues I’ve had with players is from either group warping something that’s written or said. My first question is, “Did you see/read it yourself?” If not, I’ll send it to them and wait for a response. Most of the time, it’s “that wasn’t as bad as I was told.” But damage gets done.

I’d be curious to know how much of the stuff that bothered Eberle came from reading/seeing it himself or having it told/handed to him. Whenever I meet a parent and they ask for advice, I tell them, “Don’t fill your son’s/daughter’s head with negativity. Eyes on the prize.”

You can’t escape criticism as a player or a media member. No one likes it, but there are times you have to eat a crap sandwich. The key is managing it.

If your coach brings it to you to motivate you, that’s one thing. However, only you can ask yourself the most pertinent question: Am I doing enough to insulate myself from what doesn’t matter?

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31 THOUGHTS

1. For what it’s worth, a few Oilers said the toughest lesson learned this season was how hard it is to manage expectations. Surprising people is a lot easier than being expected to win.

2. Before I get to more of the hockey stuff, wanted to follow up on last week’s eSports notes. This is waaaaaaaaaay out of my element, so I enjoyed and appreciated the Twitter feedback from people who know much more. It was pointed out that I forgot to include Philadelphia as an organization that owns a team. I also had no idea the EA Sports game has glitches that concern players about its ability to do what the NHL desires.

The NBA is going to launch its NBA2K league next year. It’s going to be a five-on-five league, with one gamer representing one “player” on the floor, and Toronto will own one of the 17 teams.

“Our objectives?” said Dave Hopkinson, Chief Commercial Officer at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. “Number one, go win. Number two, learn a lot about (the gaming world). We don’t know all the answers and look at this as a kind of ‘living lab.’ Our sponsor interest exceeds expectations and I had high expectations.”

MLSE is posting a team-manager position, and will unveil the name and logo next month. It won’t be the Raptors.

“It will be intimately linked, but there is only one ‘Raptors,’” Hopkinson said.

So you can expect it to be similar to their development-league team, which is known as Raptors905.

Does MLSE have any interest in buying, say, a League of Legends team?

“Not now,” was the answer. I’m very, very interested in seeing what the NHL comes up with.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

3. The surest predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Last year, Pittsburgh was carrying three goalies and there was interest in Mike Condon. GM Jim Rutherford knew it. The hope from outside was the Penguins would place him on waivers, but Rutherford resisted. He wanted… something. Finally, Ottawa stepped up with a fifth-rounder for a player who helped saved their season. As the Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey reported, Ian Cole is available. That’s someone who really impressed me in the playoffs, a battler on an undermanned blue line that stepped up in a big way. The Penguins, not wanting to risk injury, are keeping him out of the lineup, knowing Cole would throw himself on a live grenade.

It’s hard to see this ending without a trade, but Rutherford will do this at his pace and not until he gets what he wants. It is unfortunate to see it play out this way. Pittsburgh and Cole were great for each other.

4. The interesting variable is Rutherford giving agent Kevin Magnuson permission to talk to teams. It opens the possibility of a sign-and-trade, making the UFA-to-be more than a rental. That could improve Pittsburgh’s return. Mackey reported Colorado, Toronto and Vegas as potential partners. I could see the first two for sure, especially since the Maple Leafs have Calvin Pickard and Garret Sparks in the AHL if the Penguins feel they need a bridge during Matt Murray’s injury hiatus. (But I’m not sure I see Toronto wanting to add term.)

I wonder if Chicago and Edmonton wade into this. New Jersey seems like a match, but is there any chance Pittsburgh deals in the Metropolitan?

5. Still no talks between Washington and UFA-to-be John Carlson. That’s going to be a big second-half storyline.

6. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the sexy name, but Pat Maroon is the most likely Oiler to be traded if things continue this way. Wonder if hometown St. Louis would be an option. The Blues are looking for scoring depth, and Maroon can give you exactly that.

7. Buffalo players were unanimous on one of their problems. As one said, “Watch us for five minutes after we give up a goal.”

“We lose trust in the system and everyone tries to fix it themselves,” another added.

It sounds so simple, but it’s so true. When things go badly, it’s even more important to stay with what you know.

8. The Canadian Olympic Team is going to try again with Jarome Iginla. The future Hall of Famer is set to resume skating after getting some work done on his hip. If he wants to play in the Spengler Cup, there will be a spot for him. It begins on Boxing Day and is the last major tournament before the Olympics.

9. The IIHF council met in Zurich, asking the International Olympic Committee not to exclude clean Russian athletes from the Winter Games. I’ll believe a full Russian ban when I see it, but other hockey countries are very concerned. Technically, the KHL has to let international players participate in major tournaments like the Olympics. However, everyone is aware that if Russians are banned (or choose not to compete), the KHL will tell non-Russians that leaving could mean forfeiture of contract or no job in the future. Walking away is a very, very difficult option for most. They need that income.

10. No question that the best early-season story in the NHL is Vegas’s rise to the top of the Pacific Division. What if the Golden Knights stay there?

“It doesn’t change anything,” GM George McPhee said Monday. “Our plan wouldn’t change. We’ve said that if we are in the hunt, we’ll stay in the hunt. It’s a simple answer.”

Then, he reminded, “It’s early — we’re only 22 games in.”

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11. McPhee prefers to be low-key in public, but allows that this has been an enjoyable ride.

“It’s a low-ego team, good people to work with. We wanted to be competitive, we wanted to do the best we could. There’s still a long way to go. But we’re happy, no one expected this.”

Do you think that your players were motivated by feeling “unwanted,” for lack of a better term?

“I think that’s a fair assessment, in some respects,” he answered. “It’s only human to feel rejected. That’s certainly a factor, along with opportunity. Everywhere else, there were people ahead of them.”

What’s been the most enjoyable part of the season so far? McPhee was careful with his words, wanting to come across respectfully.

“Without a doubt the way Las Vegas responded to this hockey team. It’s a smaller story than the bigger story that happened here (the Oct. 1 shootings). We think we provided something uplifting, something for the community to be proud of. Some people move on; unfortunately, it will never be over for others. I think the club has played a small part of making things better.”

12. We had a conversation about coaching philosophy. I’m a huge baseball fan, and have been fascinated by Joe Girardi’s firing from the Yankees. MLB teams want coaches to be an extension of the front office, not independent thinkers. It was a big theme in Moneyball with Billy Beane/Art Howe, and is going to a new stratosphere now. Does McPhee push Gerard Gallant on an organizational philosophy?

“Not a lot,” he replied. “I think it’s our job to find the players, and a coach’s job to coach. Gerard makes the decisions on who’s in and who’s out, who plays with who. How do you evaluate a person unless you let them make the decisions they want to make?”

Gallant, who went through a difficult 2015–16 getting fired in Florida, has done a tremendous job as injuries have taken away one goalie after another.

“I think it says he’s a good coach. I couldn’t think more of him of a person. He’s the kind of coach players like working for. He respects them — there’s a calmness and trust. On that bench, you feel like he’s got your back. You’re not afraid of him — it’s more like you don’t want to let him down. He’s someone who knows how to make a team a team.”

One area where McPhee gave Gallant credit was in sorting out who could play with who very quickly. On an expansion club, that’s a strength. McPhee also praised goalie coach Dave Prior.

“At times, it felt like a shame,” he said. “We’re playing well, and we kept losing guys in the net, the most important position in the game. Dave has done a marvellous job advocating for (Malcolm) Subban, [and] pulling (Maxime) Lagace, (Oscar) Dansk out from wherever he found them. They’ve played some very good games for us.”

13. When people get fired for the first time, they split into one of two groups: those who are convinced the next opportunity is coming, and those who worry the second chance won’t come. Even after a 17-year run in Washington, McPhee was unsure of his future. He loved being able to spend more time with his family, but like most people, wanted another shot.

“I missed it,” he admitted. “[Islanders GM] Garth Snow did me a huge favour to keep me involved in a meaningful role. I’m probably enjoying it more. You are more appreciative and, most importantly, better the second time around. It doesn’t mean I took anything for granted the first time, but know I’m fortunate to get a second chance. I have lots to be thankful for and just want to be able to deliver.”

14. Last one on Vegas: 17 players on the current roster are without contracts for next season. Have the Golden Knights begun to discuss extensions?

“Internally, yes,” McPhee replied.

So no external conversations yet?

A pause. “I’ve never discussed contracts publicly and I’m not going to start now.”

I could see the smile through the phone.

15. I wondered how Colorado’s veterans would react to the Matt Duchene trade. The team is much-improved yet, unlike Nashville and Ottawa, they targeted the future, not the present. Sometimes, that bothers players when you are still in the race.

“It didn’t bother me,” Erik Johnson said Monday. “(GM Joe Sakic) and I talked a lot about it. I saw the beating he was taking from the media for not doing it earlier. He stuck to his guns, which was not easy to do. When we saw (Samuel) Girard play his first game, we were thinking, ‘Wow, he’s good.’ The rest of the assets were gravy, because this guy is a stud. We are very happy for the return.”

16. The Avalanche are two points out of a playoff berth. Johnson notices a huge difference, but doesn’t want to get overly excited because the team hung around early last season before the bottom fell out.

“We have a lot of young players who are hungry to prove themselves, and it’s brought up the competitive nature of our team a bit. That’s been good for me, too.”

But there was a game last week where the change stood out for him. Colorado led Dallas 2–0 after two, and won 3–0.

“Last year, we would have blown that lead and lost 5–3. This time, there was no, ‘Here were go again’ attitude that crept into our room last year. We got the third goal and shut it down. We were crisp and assertive. It felt good as an older guy that there was no panic in our game. That’s where we need to get to. I don’t like comparing things to last year — this is such a different team. But when I came back from my broken leg, the morale in the room was so low… it was difficult. Now, we’ve seen some growing pains, but the future is super-bright for the organization. We’re not tearing it up…. We are trending in the right direction.”

17. A couple months ago, coach Jared Bednar praised Johnson for making several trips during the summer from his home in Orange County to Denver. It allowed him to skate with the J.T. Comphers and Tyson Josts, who were preparing for the season.

“I remember walking into the locker room as a rookie in St. Louis, seeing Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Paul Kariya — and being intimidated. I wanted to make sure our younger players are comfortable on and off the ice. Now, with the change in our league, it’s easier for a 19-year-old, because the oldest player is 30, not 36, but it makes a difference when the older guys show up. I remember how Keith Tkachuk was there every day when I was a rookie. It makes a difference that no matter what you’ve accomplished, you’re there every day to be one of the guys who sets the right example.”

He laughed. “Besides, I like mixing it up, not being in one place all summer. You get stir crazy being in one spot. I like training by the beach and at altitude.”

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18. Finally on Johnson, he said that during his exit interview last April, he was challenged to handle more minutes.

“I took my training to a new level — less about getting stronger, more about better cardio. I’m glad I did. I feel great, and am really happy with my game. But I’m not satisfied or content, because we have not accomplished anything. There is a lot of the season to go. We have to remember that no matter how good or how bad things get, we have to remain on an even keel, because if you get down for too long, it is tough to get out.”

19. I lied, one more: Johnson wanted to pump Mikko Rantanen’s tires.

20. Duchene broke through with a power-play goal in Saturday’s loss to the Islanders.

You wonder if that’s the dam being burst and a run of points is coming. Ottawa certainly hopes so. One coach made an interesting point about Duchene and the Senators’ system. Because Ottawa’s third forward stays higher in the offensive zone than many other teams, forwards have to win a lot of two-on-three and two-on-four battles. Saw some examples versus Columbus and New York last weekend. Duchene will have to adjust to that.

21. There is always confusion when it comes to history and suspensions. Under the CBA, a player is labelled a “repeat offender” if there is anything during the previous 18 months. However, the NHL only considers that relevant to the way the fine is handled. If someone qualifies as a repeater, the fine will be levied on a per-game basis as opposed to a per-day basis, making it larger. However, the Department of Player Safety always reserves the right to consider someone’s history. Its position is: If we decide a suspension is warranted, history matters. Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog received two- and three-game suspensions during the 2015-16 season.

22. Both Mike Babcock and Barry Trotz sparred with their local media last week about line combinations. Babcock kept getting asked why Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner don’t play more together. He tried it, although it’s clear his heart isn’t in it. Only one player among the NHL’s top 50 in assists averages fewer than 16 minutes per game. That’s Marner, at 15:35. Next lowest is Will Butcher, at 16:03. Next forward is Nico Hischier, at 16:14.

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Mike Babcock has a better option than Marner for Matthews
Originally aired November 23 2017

23. As for Trotz, my belief is his unwillingness to put Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin back together is basically, “We’ve done this and we’ve lost. Time to try something different.” (Those are my words not his.) The two are re-united for the time being, and look dynamite. One of the reasons it might stay like this is Backstrom/Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov/T.J. Oshie is better defensively than Kuznetsov/Ovechkin. But I understand what Trotz is thinking.

24. Outstanding story courtesy of Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie: In San Jose’s coaches’ office was a large printer/photocopier. Bob Boughner always struggled with it. He would kick it and/or swear at it all the time. Fellow Sharks assistant Steve Spott — a notorious practical joker — loved watching this. So when Boughner got the top job in Florida, Spott and a few buddies surreptitiously loaded the infuriating object onto the moving truck. As Boughner unpacked from the cross-continent journey, he came across this big, heavy box. Sure enough, there was the printer. He had to load it into the back of his truck and get rid of it himself. That is one spectacular move.

25. Was Toronto the only team not to do a ceremonial faceoff the night it hosted Hockey Fights Cancer? Did I miss someone else? It was really strange, especially on a night Washington did a marvellous job hosting Alex Luey.

26. AHL Belleville was in Toronto last weekend to face the Marlies. When the schedule allows it, the Senators use Monday as “compete days” to spice up the season. Basically, the team gets split into two, with the losers having to do something for the winners. One defeat had them making a team breakfast. Another was even better: someone in the organization came across a place that hosts “beer yoga,” which is exactly what it sounds like: doing yoga while drinking beer. The winners that week got their session paid for, although everyone on the team attended.

27. A couple of scouts who just came back from Europe spoke very highly of Dallas’s Miro Heiskanen, the third-overall pick in last year’s draft. One source (who asked to remain nameless because he does draft projection for an NHL team) said Heiskanen has a chance to become just the second 18-year-old in 30 years to average a point per game in Finland’s top league. He has eight goals and 12 points in 15 games. The other? Carolina’s Sebastian Aho.

28. The other thing scouts said about the Karjala Cup? It was not easy to get access to their Russian players. You could say hi, but that was about it.

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29. Ben Scrivens, who played at Cornell, holds the NCAA record with 104 consecutive starts. Two goalies are making a run at that total in 2017-18. Minnesota’s Eric Schierhorn is at 91, while Paul Berrafato of Holy Cross has run his number to 82. Neither’s been drafted by an NHL team, but they carry a big-time workload.

30. Last year, I wrote about the Surrey Knights, winless in British Columbia’s Pacific Junior Hockey league since November 2015. The streak reached 89 losses in a row, before ending last Friday with a 2-0 victory over the Abbotsford Pilots. Congratulations to the players — especially goalie Zakary Babin, who made 49 saves for the shutout.

31. Very, very disappointed in the Calgary Stampeder who openly ripped Kamar Jorden for his fumble at the end of the Grey Cup. You don’t think Jorden knows how badly he erred? Some teammate. Brutal.