31 Thoughts: Rangers roster decisions could have huge impact on NHL

Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Mika Zibanejad and Michael Grabner scored in the third period and the New York Rangers defeated the Vegas Golden Knights.

• Rangers are ready to re-stock
• Will Oilers call up or trade Puljujarvi?
• Toronto poised to chase another Russian blueliner

The New York Rangers caused a huge stir Monday night when Glen Sather, Doug Risebrough, Jim Schoenfeld and Gilles Leger showed up in the Canadian capital for Montreal/Ottawa. Chances are they weren’t there for the beaver tails, although I thought it was odd a pure scouting mission wouldn’t include GM Jeff Gorton.

Whatever they were up to, the trip was a reminder that you could make a great argument no team could make a bigger impact on this NHL season than the Rangers. It goes back to last season’s draft, when they traded Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona for Anthony DeAngelo and the seventh-overall pick, which became Lias Andersson. Twelve selections later they snared Filip Chytil, who already has eight points in six games at AHL Hartford.

The message was clear. The Rangers are ready to re-stock. Now comes the next question: How far will they go? My sense is they are honest about who they are. They’re not interested in the “dreaded middle.” In addition to Andersson and Chytil, they are excited about Russian goalie Igor Shesterkin, just named to that country’s Karjala Cup team. They want more. Picks and prospects, keep them coming.

New York begins the day three points out of a playoff berth. That’s not insurmountable, but it’s been a fight for every inch. There’ve been rumblings about Alain Vigneault’s security. He’s got two years at approximately $4 million per season remaining on his contract, and he’s going to get snapped up somewhere if they let him go.

What really intrigues, though, is their roster. I don’t get the sense the Rangers are in any hurry, but they know what they have. The UFAs are obvious: Rick Nash. Michael Grabner. Nick Holden. That’s the simple play, very easy to do.

But will that be it? I can’t see them moving a Pavel Buchnevich, a Brady Skjei or a Mika Zibanejad. But what I do see is the Rangers testing other possibilities. Not necessarily offering certain players, but checking their value. Name one contender who wouldn’t love a Ryan McDonagh or a Mats Zuccarello. (Both have one year remaining on their contracts.) Chris Kreider has two. J.T. Miller is a restricted free agent, but I could see contenders liking his versatility, since he can play everywhere up front.

I can’t see them trading everybody, and it’s possible none of them go. But they will look, and they have a lot of options. So, it comes down to two questions: How much self-surgery do they want to do, and when do they want to do it?

Several teams will be waiting for those answers.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Also sending rumour-chasers into a tizzy this week: Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion. He saw Vegas twice — Monday in Brooklyn, Tuesday in Manhattan. Probably won’t be as much fanfare Wednesday, when he goes to Belleville for his AHL team’s home opener.

2. One team that could be affected by New York’s decisions is Edmonton. GM Peter Chiarelli went to AHL Bakersfield last weekend, where he saw Jesse Puljujarvi take 14 shots and get one assist in a pair of losses to Stockton. He’s got three assists in seven games. You can argue about whether or not Puljujarvi deserves a call-up, but the Oilers need an offensive jolt. The 2016 first-rounder is the easiest, least-costly option. Remember, Leon Draisaitl wasn’t exactly the King of Kern County when recalled in 2015, but he took off at the NHL level when the Oilers took a chance.

Chiarelli’s got a lot of balls in the air, but you don’t see a ton of trades this early in the season. Chris Johnston reported this week that Jussi Jokinen is available and Mark Spector followed with at least one club having interest in Matt Benning. There are likely other discussions going on, too.

You heard Montreal’s Marc Bergevin say he told his team “the solution has to come from within.” Edmonton’s probably in the same spot.

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3. One other thing about Puljujarvi: He might also be Chiarelli’s most enticing trade chip. That’s a big, big decision and, unless the Oilers are absolutely convinced it won’t work for Puljujarvi in Edmonton, you’ve got to think the player gets another NHL shot first.

4. Don’t forget that, as of today (Nov. 1), waiver priority is based on points percentage for this season. Through Oct. 31, it was the 2016-17 standings.

5. Vadim Shipachyov has told Vegas he wants his contract terminated so he can go back to Russia, and things will probably head in that direction. A couple of things have to be cleared up. If he does go back, Shipachyov must re-pay all but $86,000 of his $2-million signing bonus. It’s expected he will do that, which has people assuming he already has a KHL job lined up.

It will be interesting to see if the Golden Knights also ask for a guarantee that he does not sign with any other NHL club if his current contract is terminated. Freed of a two-year, $9-million obligation, it wouldn’t be a stunner if someone else tried to get him with a lower number.

What went wrong? More than one executive said Shipachyov came over “too late” — at age 30 — and that he “missed his window.” Other Russian players indicated he’s not a workout fiend, and that may have had him behind when he arrived for camp. A younger player (or one without significant KHL options) might have gone to the AHL for awhile to get up to speed. That’s not what he wants, so it will take a few days to negotiate the exit.

6. Toronto is poised to dip into the European free-agent defender market for the fourth time in three years. Two summers ago, it was Nikita Zaitsev (a hit), last summer it was Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen (too early to judge). Next summer they are the favourites to land 25-year-old right-shot Igor Ozhiganov.

The wild thing about it is they already have 10 defencemen between their NHL and AHL rosters under contract for next year, with four more restricted free agents. But, GM Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock went to visit Ozhiganov face to face, and he was impressed. Other clubs are going to try to recruit him, but they are not optimistic.

7. It sounds like Montreal is going to make a push into European/KHL free agency, too. Not sure about specific names, but they are looking around.

8. Finally from overseas, it is possible Alexander Khokhlachev makes a return to Boston next season. This is his second season in the KHL, but he liked playing for Bruce Cassidy at AHL Providence. May happen.

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9. One situation to keep an eye on: Florida and Alex Petrovic. Injuries limited him to 49 games last season, but when he dressed he played 18:09 per night. Under new coach Bob Boughner, Petrovic’s usage is down. He’s had three healthy scratches. The third one came Monday against Tampa Bay after Petrovic was benched for the third period of last Saturday’s overtime loss to Detroit. He’s also gone from 1:18 per night on the penalty kill to under 30 seconds.

These things can change, but defencemen are hard to find and other teams will be watching. Petrovic has one more year until unrestricted free agency.

10. Chris Johnston also reported Winnipeg received calls on Michael Hutchinson, making $1.3M ($1.15 AAV) at AHL Manitoba. Another name you might hear soon is the Hamburglar’s. Andrew Hammond’s final 2016-17 appearance was on Family Day at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, when the Marlies beat his Binghamton Senators 4-2. He just didn’t look good — slow and laboured. One week later, the organization announced he’d miss the rest of the year with a torn labrum in his right hip.

Hammond is back, and word is he looks better. AHL Belleville’s been outshot when he’s started, and his .929 save percentage is behind only Thatcher Demko and Garret Sparks among those who’ve appeared four times. He’s at $1.35 million (both AAV and cash). Last year of his contract. Don’t think the cost would be high and it would be nice to see him get another shot. Maybe he’s got another ridiculous run in him.

11. With back-to-back wins over Florida and Arizona, Detroit ended a six-game losing streak and remains in the thick of the playoff race. I mentioned during last Saturday’s show about the possibility of Dave Tippett going to Detroit if — and I stress if — the Red Wings wanted to make a change, but I believe in that possibility less now. Detroit did some due diligence on Tippett. That’s not to say it was imminent, but simply collecting information. They asked enough people that it got around.

Now that Andreas Athanasiou’s back, coach Jeff Blashill’s got his best group and they are in the mix, having played most of their games on the road (with a big trip coming up). I like the Athanasiou-Dylan LarkinAnthony Mantha line.

12. One coach (not affiliated with either Montreal or New York) had a suggestion for the Canadiens about Carey Price. He pointed back to last season, when the Rangers gave Antti Raanta four straight starts in December as Henrik Lundqvist struggled.

“In the media, you all wondered if Lundqvist was losing his job,” he said. “But he was getting his work done in practice. Sometimes, that’s what you need.”

Lundqvist came back strong with a shutout when he got back in the net. The whole season was a battle for him, but he fought through and led the Rangers past Montreal in the playoffs.

“The other thing it does,” he continued, “is give the team something to look forward to. They see Price or Lundqvist working in practice and feel, ‘He’s really going to help us when gets back to his level.’”

Al Montoya was in net as Montreal rampaged Ottawa, and the Canadiens don’t play again until Thursday in Minnesota.

13. Another NHL coach on the Penguins: “They’re going to be fine. Believe me, no one thinks they’re on the decline.”

Does GM Jim Rutherford concur?

“Yes, of course,” he replied from Edmonton, where Pittsburgh practised before facing the Oilers. “We haven’t got to the level of our game. When you are the champion, everybody wants to beat you. There are no easy games.”

Is there anything that concerns him about what he’s seen?

“It’s too early to tell. If we were playing like this at the midway point, then I would have more concerns than I have right now. I was watching what the Cubs did (this past season). (Manager) Joe Maddon said he didn’t push…. Until the midway point he wasn’t hard on them. For us, we’ve won two of them. There’s the World Cup, it’s a lot of hockey. It’s natural for what we’ve gone through. The hunger will be there at the most important time. We’re not concerned about the President’s Trophy.”

14. The Pittsburgh GM pointed out that all of the team’s defeats except one (last Saturday in Minnesota) were on the rear end of back-to-backs and the blowout in Winnipeg was their fourth game in sixth nights. A lot of the blame was thrown on Antti Niemi, who was waived and claimed by Florida.

“I feel bad for him,” Rutherford said. “I’m not pointing the finger. We gave up some goals that you could point at the goaltender. But the same goalie made five or six saves that should have been goals.”

Casey DeSmith initially came up from AHL Wilkes-Barre, but Tristan Jarry is now with the team and likely plays in Calgary on Thursday. They wanted him to get another weekend of AHL action before calling for him. Is he ready to be the full-time number two?

“Ability-wise, yes, but our preference was for him to have at least a half a season in Wilkes-Barre, get him even more games. We had to accelerate this.”

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15. Rutherford says the Penguins need to ease the workload on Kris Letang, but full health should aid that. As for trades, “I don’t feel pressure to get anything done.”

Interesting nugget: they made two previous offers to Detroit for Riley Sheahan. This one closed because Athanasiou’s return brought cap pressure.

16. Finally from Rutherford: He was the only GM to vote against the two-minute penalty for an incorrect offside challenge. He supports video review, but thinks the punishment for being wrong is too harsh.

“Do we want to get it right, or not get it right? If we don’t want to get it right, we should get rid of it.”

He pointed to Chicago’s 5-2 loss to Minnesota on Oct. 12 as an example of the severity. Chris Stewart broke a 1-1 tie with 9:28 remaining. The Blackhawks challenged, failed and gave up a Jason Zucker power-play goal 1:57 later.

“If you were to look at that, those are game changers.”

What I liked about Rutherford’s comments is that he offered a solution, modelled on the game-misconduct rules. Any player who accrues three game misconducts gets a one-game suspension. After that, each additional misconduct increases the next suspension by an extra game. Rutherford suggests something similar for coaches: You get three wrong, you get a penalty. (He added the caveat that if you go, say, 10 games without a wrong one, you lose a “strike” against you.)

“I don’t like the two-minute rule. To me, [this option] provides a little more leniency. Close plays at critical times, you’re not going to ask if you’re worried about being wrong.”

17. A couple of coaches were curious to see how a smart player like Sidney Crosby would adapt to the new faceoff rules. He’s at 55.5 per cent, the best number of anyone who has taken more than 250 draws. The next time you watch Pittsburgh, see how he concedes the circle. “He’s just letting them have the dot,” one said. By doing that, other players are leaning in, going off-balance — and losing.

Crosby has a great “backhand sweep” to his eight o’clock, and I also saw a few examples where he swept the puck past the opposing centre’s blade. It’s another example of how the best adapt, and a reminder of why he continues to excel.

18. Crosby and Connor McDavid have their second (and final) meeting of the season Wednesday in the Alberta capital. McDavid does 99 per cent of his training with Gary Roberts, but goes to the BioSteel camp every summer. That’s run by Matt Nichol, who has an interesting drill that shows McDavid’s ability to process at high speeds.

Nichol has some really fast clients — including Tyler Seguin and Wayne Simmonds — who can beat McDavid at the 20-yard dash. However, where the Edmonton captain shines is when the runner has to choose between two finish lines.

In the video, notice the light on the “right finish gate” as McDavid passes the 10-yard mark. That means, at top speed, he has to process a right turn that’s sprung on him. It’s a great test, and he’s phenomenal at it.

19. One thing that’s clear about Philadelphia? Claude Giroux’s move to left wing “is no longer an experiment,” as coach Dave Hakstol put it last weekend. This is going to be a big part of what the Flyers do. Giroux said it was fortunate he had the pre-season to dip his toe in the water, but added one of the reasons its worked so well is “I’m comfortable making plays on my backhand.”

The other reason it’s worked is that Sean Couturier embraced the offensive role. The coaching staff and front office were curious to see if the centre would be too deferential or simply along for the ride. Nope, he’s out to score.

“I always believed in my offensive ability,” Couturier said. “I knew I could do this.”

He’s scored nine goals, the latest coming when he was put into the slot position of the Flyers’ deadly 1-3-1 power play.

So, 50 this year?

“I wouldn’t go that far,” he laughed.

20. The conversation about Niemi and all the debate in Toronto surrounding Frederik Andersen has me trying a deep dive into how teams really evaluate their goaltenders. I think most teams are long past using goals against average and save percentage.

One thing I’d heard last week is Toronto believes Andersen should stop 85 per cent of the high-danger chances he faces. That’s a window into what I understand, that several clubs are big believers in software that allows them to see how often certain shots should be saved. I first heard about it from Jay Feaster when he was in Calgary, but there’s no doubt it’s been fine-tuned since then. What I can’t say is how exactly this is measured.

I don’t think it’s solely about distance. It could also allow for the type of shot — whether screened or unscreened, what happens right before it is taken, and other variables. The website Corsica allows you to access a similar calculation, and it’s not flattering for Andersen. Entering last Saturday’s game, it had him ranked 32nd among all goalies for stopping low-danger chances.

I can’t say how that compares to what Toronto (or others) use, but it’s a window. And I think it’s closer to how everyone evaluates their goalies, although Mike Babcock might be more annoyed with everyone skating in front of Anderson than the goalie himself.

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21. The Flyers are really protective of Andrew MacDonald, who is out at least a month after blocking a shot against Edmonton on Oct. 21. As one of them said, “People just see the number.” That’s $5 million, his AAV.

In the 1980s there was an NBA player named Jon Koncak, who got a crazy free-agent deal in Atlanta. He got tagged with a derisive nickname, “Jon Contract.” I remember seeing an interview with him where he basically said, “What was I supposed to do — say no?”

I thought of Koncak after my MacDonald conversations. It’s obvious his teammates and the organization like and respect him because he prepares properly, never complains and doesn’t let the negativity overwhelm him. When he was sent to the minors last season, I understand he spent some money on a few things that benefitted players who don’t make as much.

In a cap world, if you can’t move out your tough contracts, you have to make them work, and that’s what Philly is trying to do. They like him next to Ivan Provorov, because they feel MacDonald’s simple game makes life easier on his talented young partner. MacDonald’s on his weak side, so Provorov doesn’t have to be.

The Flyers have only one right-shooting defender (Radko Gudas). They started the year with MacDonald and Robert Hagg on their off-wings, but have tried a few things since MacDonald went down. Hagg went with Provorov first, an experiment that lasted one game — an ugly 6-2 loss to Anaheim, where no one was good.

In Ottawa, they moved Shayne Gostisbehere alongside Provorov. Although a lefty, Gostisbehere has said he prefers playing the right. The results were better against the Senators (a tough loss) and Toronto (a win). Then, Gostisbehere got hurt against the Maple Leafs, which made things even more difficult. Hagg and Travis Sanheim are still feeling their way. With MacDonald, they know what they have.

22. Couple more goalie notes: I wondered what Mike Smith said to Kevin Fiala after the Flames goalie stopped Fiala’s shootout attempt last week in NashVegas. Apparently, it was, “Get that (bleep) out of here.”

23. Forgot one item last week in our conversation with St. Louis coach Mike Yeo. The Blues hired David Alexander as their goalie coach in the off-season. Alexander has a lengthy history with Jake Allen, as both are from New Brunswick. I assumed that was the reason for the hire, but Yeo said it wasn’t the case.

“It’s nice that it worked out that way,” Yeo explained, “but it wasn’t a priority. We wanted our new goalie coach to work with Jake and (Carter Hutton), but also with Martin Brodeur. I thought Brodeur had a positive impact on Jake last season, and I wanted that to continue. That (Alexander and Allen) worked together before is a bonus.”

Yeo pointed out that Al MacInnis and Larry Robinson are also part of the St. Louis organization.

“You better be able to handle feedback here.”

24. The Blues drafted Glenn Gawdin 116th overall in 2015, but elected not to sign him by last June’s deadline. As an overager, he’s getting some attention, off to a great start with WHL Swift Current — 30 points in his first 13 games playing with two 2017 NHL draftees, Aleksi Heponiemi (40th by Florida) and Tyler Steenbergen (128th by Arizona). One scout compared him to Reid Duke, who was signed by Vegas after Minnesota declined to keep him. Duke had a terrific overage year, which led him to the Golden Knights.

I’m curious about Gawdin, because the Blues don’t miss too often.

25. No doubt many of you saw Ryan Kesler dressed as Big Bird for Anaheim’s Halloween practice. The rest of the story: There was supposed to be a whole busload of costumed characters. But something got crossed up, and all the costumes didn’t arrive.

Kesler needs to get back playing. He’s got too much time on his hands.

26. Growing up, Brandon Montour was a huge fan of the Detroit Red Wings. His father, too. So, as you can imagine, when he got into a game against them, he was pretty excited.

“It felt weird playing against Henrik Zetterberg,” he said Tuesday.

Did you say anything to him?

“I was too nervous to say anything. Well, we got into a battle and I caught him with a high stick. As we skated up ice, I told him I was sorry,” he laughed.

27. You can see how comfortable Montour is getting. He says he’s picking his spots better. He did admit that in their last game against Carolina, when they were down 3-2 going into the third period, he got reigned in a little.

“On an early shift, I made a rush, then another rush. I got back to the bench and (coach Trent Yawney) was looking at me. He said, ‘You will have the green light in a bit, just tone it down now.’”

His story is pretty well known now — he was a good lacrosse player who went undrafted in the OHL. While playing with the Greater Ontario Junior League Caledonia Corvairs in 2012-13, he’d been discovered. NCAA Massachusetts was on to him, as was USHL Waterloo.

“It’s kind of a weird story,” Montour said. “(Waterloo head coach PK O’Handley) called me and asked me to come, and I asked, ‘Why would you guys want me to come there? I play against you.’”

Montour didn’t realize the call was from Iowa, not Ontario.

“I didn’t know about (the USHL).”

Did he doubt his ability?

“No, I thought I could do it.”

He sure could. Eighteen months later, he was at UMass, and on everyone’s radar.

28. Montour has told the story about how a Ducks scout made eye contact with him a few picks before he was taken 55th overall in 2014, giving him the thumbs up to know his selection was coming. Did he know it would be Anaheim?

“I’d talked to them a couple of times. There were a handful of teams that seemed interested. I thought there was a good chance Winnipeg would take me. I talked to them a lot. Toronto and Chicago, too.”

I’ve been told Anaheim knew the other interest and wasn’t risking his availability any longer. Looks like a great decision.

29. Quote of the week: One exec asked why last Friday’s Vegas home game against Colorado was an early start. Informed it was a holiday called “Nevada Day,” he replied: “Isn’t every day a holiday in Vegas?” Can’t argue with that one.

30. Potential 2018 No. 1 draft pick Rasmus Dahlin is on Sweden’s roster for the Karjala Cup. At 17, he is seven years younger than the next-youngest player on the roster (Mikael Wikstrand). At the very least, it puts him on the radar for the Olympics in addition to the World Juniors. The last player I can find who went to the World Juniors and Olympics in the same year? Luca Sbisa for Switzerland in 2010.

31. How old is too old for trick-or-treating? I went when I was 18. It had been a long, long time since I’d done it, so four of us decided to give it one last try in our final year of high school. We tied branches to ourselves, and went as a forest. Most people were really good about it. One guy asked if we’d told our wives that we went bowling. Another basically closed the door in our face, saying she thought what we were doing was wrong. But the majority had a good laugh. Therefore, the last acceptable age is 18.