31 Thoughts: Tensions running high for slow starters

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman explains why the Montreal Canadiens have to find a way to make Shea Weber's huge shot a power-play weapon once again.

• Canadiens, Rangers, others feeling early pressure
• Hot Avalanche start doesn’t rule out Duchene deal
• Team Canada could invite Iginla to Karjala Cup team

In hockey, as in life, there are people you hear about, but don’t know. Doesn’t mean you’re not curious, just means you don’t cross paths.

For me, one such individual is Ted Dent.

Four NHL seasons ago, Randy Carlyle was looking for new assistant coaches in Toronto. Dent discussed a job with the Maple Leafs, although there wasn’t a formal interview. The two men had a history, as Dent was video co-ordinator in Washington when Carlyle worked there as an assistant to Bruce Cassidy.

Even though it didn’t happen, I was curious about someone in the Maple Leafs mix.

Turns out he is a local guy, 10 months older than me. We were in high school at the same time not too far from each other, him at A.Y. Jackson and Georges Vanier, myself at the far superior York Mills Collegiate.

From Junior B, he went to St. Lawrence University, where Pierre McGuire coached him for two years. Then came the Central League, the East Coast league, retirement and a job running youth hockey at the Florida Panthers’ practice facility.

“I wanted to be involved,” he said Monday.

He did it — the hard way.

In 1998, Terry Christensen, head coach of the ECHL’s Miami Matadors, allowed him to volunteer with the club. Dent said that current Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher, then with the Panthers, told him to send resumés everywhere. The Capitals responded, offering the video job in 1999. That ended as the league headed into the 2004–05 lockout, with no guarantees of what could happen.

Dent ended up in ECHL Trenton, assisting Mike Haviland. That team won the league championship, known as the Kelly Cup. Two years later, in 2006–07, they were together again in AHL Norfolk. Then, the Admirals were Chicago’s affiliate. When Dent got there, the roster included Bryan Bickell, Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer, Adam Burish, Dustin Byfuglien, Corey Crawford and Kris Versteeg.

All of those players won at least one Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks.

Chicago moved its affiliate to Rockford. Dent went with them. He spent 11 years in the organization, the last six as the IceHogs’ head coach. The team was 44 games over .500 during his tenure, but it wasn’t always about winning. The AHL is a developmental league, and that’s what he was asked to do. Develop Blackhawks. It was a mutually beneficial relationship. He got a three-year extension in the summer of 2016. And he owns three Stanley Cup rings, which is what it is all about.

Last year, it all unravelled. Rockford was losing, which hadn’t happened during his watch. The day after the Blackhawks fired assistant coach Mike Kitchen, they announced Dent was gone, too, through a statement acknowledging he “played a major role in helping a number of players reach the NHL level… many of whom became Stanley Cup champions.”

Then came a crazy story by Christopher Hine and Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune.

At the trade deadline, Chicago dealt three of Rockford’s best forwards. Spencer Abbott and Sam Carrick went to Anaheim, Mark McNeill to Dallas. According to the reporters, Dent tweeted — then deleted — his exasperation with the moves. He also told players who had concerns about the lineup to contact GM Stan Bowman directly.

“He had 11 great years with us, a model employee, then he had a couple very bad days,” one Blackhawk said around draft time. He added that because of turmoil inside the organization after the playoff loss to Nashville, “It was the wrong time for that to happen.”

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At that time, I’d never spoken to Dent. But now I was really curious. What happened there? I made a few requests, but he wanted to stay quiet. There were a couple of interviews… but no jobs.

With two years left on his contract, Dent could afford to sit, maybe scout for someone. But, as he said when we finally talked on Monday, “I’m a coach. I want to coach.”

So he took an assistant’s role in OHL Niagara. The IceDogs are off to a good start, 6-2-1 in the competitive Eastern Conference.

Dent took a deep breath when I asked him about Rockford. Initially, he didn’t want to talk about it. But, he admitted, considering his experience, he was surprised how hard it was to land in another spot.

“It was a rude awakening,” he said.

He asked if I thought what happened had hurt him. I told him I heard it had. He paused.

“I know I should have kept that internal. Of course, I regret it. I wish it hadn’t happened. But when I think about [Chicago], there are only good memories. I’m proud of what we did there.”

A representative from one organization that spoke to Dent said, “He took ownership of his mistake. We respected that.”

We’ve all been there. Had that one moment. Paid for it. Dent’s family (wife and three children) stayed at home while he began the road back.

“You have to sacrifice to better yourself,” he said. “I’m going to do that.”

31 THOUGHTS

1. There’s a GM who has one of the best lines I’ve ever heard about life in sports: “There are only two moods — winning and hell.”

In conversations over the last week, one theme stood out: This league is tense.

“Well, it’s always tense,” one executive laughed. “But even more than normal for this early.”

Various coaches, players, execs and media said they could see it in places like Arizona (winless after some good summer moves), Boston (injuries and a slow start, despite talented young players), Minnesota (injuries and expectation), Montreal (losses and intense local pressure), New York Rangers (roster in transition), Vancouver (attendance), Washington (organizational pressure) and Winnipeg (rough start before three straight wins).

Watching the Rangers’ last two games, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Alain Vigneault look so stressed. Until their young prospects — Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil — are ready, they’ll be thin at centre. And in the Metropolitan division, it’s very hard to win like that as Pittsburgh proved on Tuesday night.

I’m sure it’s similar in other sports, but one of the biggest changes over the years is the decrease in early-season optimism. It used to last 10 games. Not anymore. I’m not one to complain about the stresses of my job; I always think of Hyman Roth in Godfather II: “This is the business we’ve chosen.”

But pro sports takes its toll, and you can already see it.

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Chris Johnston with Kerr
Originally aired October 17 2017

2. One of the early-season questions being asked is, “If Colorado keeps winning, does this mean Matt Duchene stays?” Unlikely. I still believe Duchene’s preference is to start anew, although the Avalanche’s improved start benefits everyone involved.

I do think they are doing work on non-NHL prospects of potential trade partners — especially left-handed defenders. That might be a way to break the trade stalemate, providing Colorado’s scouts like what they see. There’s so much interest in what they are doing and who they are seeing that Joe Sakic’s presence in Nashville for the Avalanche/Predators game on Tuesday turned heads. The Colorado GM didn’t think watching his team was a big deal, but other clubs were under the impression he was scheduled to be elsewhere.

3. Wonder how much Columbus’s decision-making process depends on extending Jack Johnson. They’ve talked with the pending unrestricted free agent, but I don’t get the sense anything’s close.

4. We make a big deal out of everything, but remember that it’s not unusual for Marc Bergevin to go west ahead of his team. At least twice previously during his tenure, he’s travelled to California prior to a Golden State road trip. That said, the Islanders and Canadiens are sensible trade partners. New York’s in win-now mode and is one of the few teams with legit defensive depth. Ryan Pulock, whom they protected in the expansion draft, has not played yet.

5. The trade market tends to be very slow at this time of the season, but I started to hear the name Sam Reinhart last weekend. Reinhart scored his first of the season Sunday, although it took an NHL review a day later to confirm it.

I don’t think it would surprise Sabres fans to hear this, but, after checking around, my sense is Buffalo doesn’t want to do anything rash. It’s a new regime, it’s been five games, and you want to make sure you really know what you’ve got unless something spectacular drops on you. Might be something to watch later in the year. Also with Buffalo, I get the sense people (not just the Sabres) want to see Alex Nylander play. He’s injured at AHL Rochester.

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6. It’s no secret Washington is looking for defencemen. Everyone talks Vegas, but the Capitals and Golden Knights couldn’t make a Philipp Grubauer trade to protect Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft, so I don’t know how easy it will be. Vegas’s preference is to move from the left side. Tuesday’s three scratches all shoot that way — Jason Garrison, Brayden McNabb and Griffin Reinhart. Another lefty shot, Luca Sbisa, has four assists in six games.

7. Two years ago, Los Angeles and San Jose were among those who asked Boston about Zdeno Chara. Last summer, I think there were others. (There were rumblings about Toronto, but that was refuted by everyone involved. So don’t go crazy on it.) If the Bruins continue to struggle, it will only heat up. But GM Don Sweeney re-iterated on the weekend that his plan is to re-sign the future Hall of Famer and talks are under way to do so.

8. Boy, Connor Murphy is in a tough spot. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville has sat him twice, and, as it stands, he’s battling with Cody Franson for the third spot on the right side, behind Brent Seabrook and Jan Rutta. The difficult thing for Murphy is he’s kind of like Shea Weber was last year, a guy who becomes a political football without asking for any of it. It’s no secret the Blackhawks internally were split on the Niklas Hjalmarsson deal.

Weber is one tough SOB and a top-pair defender. Murphy is a really nice guy, but sensitive and feeling his way. He told a funny story when the Blackhawks came through Toronto, saying that when Coyotes GM John Chayka called to tell him he was traded, he thought Chayka “was calling to ask me my opinion on someone he was thinking of getting. Once I got through the (trade) deadline, I didn’t see it coming.”

You can tell he’s uncomfortable, worried about making a mistake. It’s very hard to play like that. With the pressure this season in Chicago, the Blackhawks’ coaches can’t wait for him to tiptoe into the pool.

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9. Watch for Team Canada to extend an invitation for Jarome Iginla at the Karjala Cup. Hosted by Finland every November, it usually includes the Czech Republic, Russia and Sweden. In this non-NHL Olympic year, both Canada and Switzerland will join the competition. It will give us a first look at potential Canadian Olympians. If Iginla doesn’t accept, it’s hard to see how he can compete in South Korea. If he does, he can see how he feels, then decide how he wants to proceed until the Games begin.

10. The Oilers have let it be known they would like to be considered for a pre-season trip to China. They are one of the few teams with an uncertain pre-season schedule for 2018, and that explains why. They would be a great choice. Connor McDavid went there on a promotional trip two summers ago.

11. Mike Smith, then of Arizona, was furious last year when concussion spotters removed him from a game against Anaheim. The play was similar to the one that injured Marc-Andre Fleury last Friday in Vegas. Fleury was not removed, but is now out of the lineup. Very curious to see if that means the spotters pull more goalies in the near future.

12. Fleury’s injury led to a huge night for Malcolm Subban, who won his first NHL game as Vegas beat Boston, the followed up with another on Tuesday. What I’d forgotten was that David Prior, the Golden Knights’ goalie coach, lives in Guelph, Ont., and saw plenty of Subban while still in the OHL.

“I did scout Malcolm for Washington and we interviewed him before his draft,” Prior said after Subban’s victory. “I always thought he had the right head on his shoulders.”

A lot of eyebrows were raised when Vegas took Subban off waivers from the Bruins.

“I didn’t dislike Calvin Pickard,” Prior added. “I was hoping we’d have the space to carry three. My goal with Malcolm was not to play him, but to work and improve his game. I felt he was worthy to take in the expansion draft.”

Colin Miller was the pick from Boston.

13. When asked what he thought he could fix with Subban, Prior wavered. He didn’t want to criticize anyone else.

“I’ve been accused of being old school and I am,” he eventually offered. “I prefer guys not to be so automatic to the ice. I preach being on your feet. I look for physical skill to wait it out. It can be unsettling, but I tell them I don’t scare if you get scored on in practice. I’m more interested in the evolution of your game. I want to see how long you can stand up.”

He believed Subban would be capable of that.

“His physical talent excited me the most. I may not have shared beliefs in the way he played, but he was quite disciplined at doing what he was instructed to do. That told me he is coachable. Whether he agrees or not, he will do it. His losing record did not concern me.”

14. Prior warned that one victory is far, far from a guarantee. But he was proud of Subban because, “games are supposed to be fun. You do the work leading up to them.”

I worry this isn’t going to come across as purely in print (or on a computer screen) as it did in our conversation, but when he saw his goalie in the second intermission of the Boston game, Prior congratulated him for reaching 40 minutes for the first time in his NHL career. His two previous appearances lasted 31 minutes apiece. He was trying to tell the young goalie he’d taken a step. Twenty minutes later, Subban finished the job.

15. Shea Weber scored his first power-play goal of the season Tuesday night in San Jose:

Last year, only three players had a higher percentage of a team’s man-advantage shots than he did. (They were Alexander Ovechkin, Tyler Seguin and Mike Hoffman.) The Canadiens used two men on the point. Mostly, it was Andrei Markov setting up Weber’s blast, although Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov got primary assists on those goals, too.

Weber’s attempts were way down in the first four games this year, as the Canadiens went with a 1-3-1 setup, controlled by Jonathan Drouin on the left side. That was difficult for Weber. The one-timer does not come easy from there, and, in the opener against Buffalo, they tried a cross-ice pass to Pacioretty before going to him, and it leaves a lot to chance.

Last Tuesday against Chicago, Montreal went back to a second point man, which created two opportunities. Victor Mete was inserted in that spot during last Friday’s practice, and he set up the goal against the Sharks. Montreal needs this weapon.

16. Montreal isn’t the only team that tried to four-forward, one-defenceman power play. Most teams go there now with their first unit at least. What is rising with that trend is short-handed goals. In 2016–17, NHL teams combined for 184. Heading into Tuesday’s games, we were on pace for 354 in 2017-18.

Fans and media might find this more exciting at both ends. Coaches don’t. Vancouver gave up a shorty to Calgary on Saturday night. Three nights later, the Canucks scored a power-play goal in a 3–0 win over Ottawa with both Michael del Zotto and Derrick Pouliot on the ice.

17. That defeat doesn’t dampen Ottawa’s impressive, Erik Karlsson-less start. The Senators have a unique talent in Hoffman, whose three goals have been on his stick for a combined 0.6 seconds. (The first two were 0.1 seconds each.) Several of their scores in Calgary and Edmonton came seconds after they got the puck or gained the blue line.

“When we gain the line, our coaches want us to attack right away,” Cody Ceci said Monday. “No wasting time, no dumping it.”

With Karlsson injured and Marc Methot in Dallas, Ceci has taken greater responsibility. His ice-time is about the same as last year’s, but his performance is even more important.

“Last year was a big growing year for me. Heading into the playoffs, I was getting that bigger role, but I pulled my hamstring,” he said. “I looked forward to the opportunity this time.”

Ceci and the Senators were blitzed by Ovechkin in their opening game. Since then, he’s been on ice for just one five-on-five goal against.

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18. Ceci is a player I watch a bit. He’s a critical piece for the Senators and they’ve been asked about him a few times in the last couple of years. I know his [public] analytics aren’t great, but the Senators see value in throwing heavy lifting his way so Karlsson can do what he does.

He must be a good poker player. He doesn’t give away much. I asked about his responsibilities against certain players. He responded with, “It varies by team and matchups,” although he eventually added “I’m encouraged to beat guys up the ice” under ferocious cross-examination.

Asked about his 2017 exit meeting, he said it really wasn’t noteworthy, before chuckling that people in the organization “were in a lot better mood than the year before.” He also said the players weren’t motivated to prove they were more than just Karlsson in the captain’s absence.

“No, we haven’t really talked about it.”

He did have one spectacular line, though. Asked about living in in Ottawa, where he grew up, he replied, “My friends are finally starting to understand I only get two free tickets per game.”

19. How good is Ottawa’s early run? Derick Brassard and Mark Stone are the only forwards in the NHL who’ve played 75 minutes at five-on-five and not been on-ice for a goal against.

20. Fun stat to keep an eye on, Toronto. No team has ever won 50 games in a season with a Goals Against Average of 3.00 or worse. Highest number was 2.93, done in 2008-09 by both the Red Wings (51 wins) and Capitals (50). The 1974-75 Sabres, 1976-77 Bruins and 1982-83 Flyers all won 49 games with a GAA of exactly 3.00.

21. Through Tuesday, only eight of the NHL’s first 91 games did not have a slashing penalty. (Thanks to ace statistician Stan Nieradka.)

22. Great story about New Jersey’s recruitment of Will Butcher: The day before he visited, his Wikipedia page referred to him as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. Since the Devils were Butcher’s last NHL stop, I don’t think they were incredibly confident. Smart player.

23. Mentioned earlier this year about Taylor Hall’s off-season, where he moved to Toronto for the first time and skated with John Tavares. That included skating coach Dawn Braid, and the Devils say they’ve noticed major changes in Hall’s edge work.

“He could always skate with great speed,” head coach John Hynes said. “Now he’s also more dangerous coming out of the corners and off the boards.”

Hynes, by the way, is in the last year of his contract. The Devils look very different than what we are used to.

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Dan Rosen on why the Lightning and Devils are fun teams to watch
Originally aired October 17 2017

24. Impressive, under-the-radar first-couple-of-weeks player: Alex Iafalo, Los Angeles. An NCAA free agent. “Looks like a lot of us missed on him,” one exec said.

25. One of the top targets this time around is Mankato State defenceman Daniel Brickley. He had four points in a game last weekend at Boston University. That did not go unnoticed.

26. Spoke Monday with Adam Foote, who joined agent Kurt Overhardt’s KO Sports Inc. as director of player development. (Cam Stewart, who played 202 NHL games with Boston, Florida and Minnesota, has a similar role in the agency with forward prospects.) Foote’s contract with the Avalanche ended last summer and it was time to try something new.

“Joe (Sakic) treated me great. There were things I didn’t like about being part-time. When the team was on a tough road trip, it was very hard for me not to be there. But I wanted to be around my kids, go to their tournaments. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing that.”

Son Cal was a Tampa Bay first-rounder last June, and, another boy, Nolan, is expected to follow in 2019. Foote said he, wife Jennifer and Steve Yzerman had a good laugh that night about Cal being selected by one of his father’s biggest on-ice adversaries.

27. Foote told a story about Yzerman at Tampa’s development camp that is central to his own philosophy.

“Cal said [Yzerman] came down every day and talked to him. You don’t realize how important that is to a young player. With my own kids, when it came to hockey, I tried to treat them like billets. I only talked about it when they asked a question. But I was always thinking, ‘Please ask.’”

Foote wants to share his knowledge.

“When Kurt approached me, I told him that if I’m going to do this, I want to pick my schedule. As we talk now, I’m getting set up to watch one of our guys play his shifts.”

There will be travel.

“You have to see them play in-person. Video is great, but you can’t see two windows before the play. With young D, it’s all about what you are doing when you don’t have the puck. What are you doing before the next [on-ice] disaster happens? When you throw the puck [defenceman to defenceman] behind the net, do you step up and breathe, or do you skate up and get ready to be in the right spot? If you’re not going hard to the right spot, something will go wrong. It may not be right away. It may take 10 games. But it will happen. So you have to develop the right habits.”

I was enjoying this conversation. I asked if he noticed much of a change in the next generation. Are they receptive to lessons?

“Yeah, they want to hear it. If they trust you, they will listen. Nothing has changed in the last 20 years and nothing will change 20 years from now. You win the Stanley Cup in the hard areas. It’s not always about physicality — sometimes it’s angles. If you need to get back, take three hard strides to get between the dots. Then, gap up if you have to. If you want to win the Cup, that’s what you have to do.”

28. The conversation closed with Foote talking about accepting roles. I found it funny when he said, “It took me until the last five years of my career to accept that I wouldn’t be on the power play.”

That surprised me, considering he won two Stanley Cups and an Olympic Gold Medal. Obviously, people respected his game.

“This sounds like I’m talking to my dad (Vern) again. He’d always say, ‘The right people are always watching’ and ‘Don’t you want to win?’ Of course I did. But I wanted to score a power-play goal once in a while, too,” he laughed.

29. Commissioner Gary Bettman appeared on FOX’s coverage of Los Angeles’s home opener, saying expansion is not a front-burner right now. Considering Vegas just dropped the puck, I could see it being true. But (there’s always a but), when someone drops $2.2 billion on the NBA’s Houston Rockets and says, “Yeah, I’m interested in the NHL,” there is zero chance Bettman is not paying attention.

Remember, when the AHL left the city, it wasn’t because parent-club Minnesota didn’t like it there. Then-NBA owner Les Alexander jacked up the rent on the arena because he could make more money with other events. Houston’s got a good hockey history. It’s the fourth-largest TV market in the United States. The new boss, Tilman Fertitta, oozes cash. It would fit in the one remaining seven-team division. It’s not impossible to see.

30. Do not be surprised if the NHL fiddles around with more player tracking at All-Star. Hearing a German company — Jogmo — is making a pitch. There have also been rumours of the NHL talking to Second Spectrum, an interesting organization that does data/visual work for the NBA, among others. But I can’t pin that one down.

31. Wanted to wish the best to Boston’s David Backes, diagnosed with diverticulitis at the start of the season. I came down with it in 2008; it hit me on Super Bowl weekend as I was supposed to be the rinkside reporter for two games in Montreal. I missed both of them thanks to a fever and a midsection that felt like John Hurt’s in Alien. By moving to more of a high-fibre diet, cutting down on seeds and red meat, I managed the situation to the point where it doesn’t recur and I didn’t need surgery (knock on wood). Exercise helps, too. I should do more of it, but that won’t be a problem for Backes. Good luck to him.

And, finally, one more this week…

32. I’m like a lot of Canadians. I didn’t know Gord Downie, but I knew Gord Downie. For many people around my age (47), The Tragically Hip was the soundtrack of our lives. I saw them on tour with Rush at Maple Leaf Gardens when I was a university student. They came to our campus bars at Western back when you could still smoke in them. Skydiggers, Lowest of the Low and the Hip. Three of the best concerts I ever saw.

The first Olympics I covered were Salt Lake City in 2002. I was at The Score then. Covering the Games as a non-rightsholder is a challenge. You can’t bring a camera into any “official” venue. I wasn’t even granted a media pass, so I had to buy a ticket to get into anything. Our interviews were done in IHOP parking lots, Canada House, bus stops — anywhere athletes would stop outside the field of competition. It was hard, but rewarding. I enjoyed the test.

The last day of the Olympics was the gold-medal hockey game. The night before, the Hip put on a small, private concert and I was lucky enough to get in. Marc Gagnon won two gold medals that evening in short-track speed skating, but I was told he would not be available to interview. It had been a long three weeks and I was going to let loose.

Of course, he showed up. Of course, I was about six beers deep. The interview had to be done. It remains the only time I went on-air when I really shouldn’t have been on-air. My boss, Anthony Cicione, knew it, too. He said later he could tell because I had “this stupid perma-smile” on my face.

I briefly met Downie a couple of times. People gravitated to him, and I didn’t want to bother him. Last time was during the World Cup of Hockey, as Braden Holtby wore a tribute on his mask. We ran into each other as we came around a corner, but I kept it quick. He had asked for privacy and I wanted to respect that.

He left us last night, and it’s still Earth-shaking even though we all knew it was coming. What I most admired about him was some of his recent work on Indigenous causes. He wanted to use his influence to make a difference, a positive one. The man made an impact on a lot of Canadians. We will miss him, but we’ll always be able to hear him.