BOCA RATON, Fla. — Pats on the back all around.
“We’re better off than we were a year ago,” said Chicago GM Stan Bowman on Monday.
What Bowman is referring to is the coach’s challenge, which was established as part of NHL competition last year and, despite some glitches along the way, seems to be working the way the league wants it to.
“It’s in its infancy,” said Buffalo GM Tim Murray. “But I like it.”
There are going to be tweaks, and some may be generated here at this year’s GM meetings, particularly when it comes to using coach’s challenges on offside calls. New cameras will be used by the league in this year’s playoffs that should dramatically enhance the ability to get those calls right. The question left may ultimately be whether instead of having linesmen do it at the arena, would it be done more efficiently back at hockey ops in Toronto.
In general, however, the GMs are happy with what they created at these meetings last year.
“You’re never going to get agreement on 100 per cent of the calls,” said Bowman. “We’ve taken the egregious mistakes out.”
The league delivered a report on this year’s all-star game in Nashville, and most seem to believe it was a roaring success, with three-on-three set to be used as the format next year in Los Angeles.
“I think it was the best all-star game we’ve had in the last 20 years,” said New Jersey GM Ray Shero.
The availability of some of the best players for the game remains an irritating issue. Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews were both suspended a regular season game for declining their invitations this year, citing injuries.
“That’s the rule,” said Bowman. “I don’t have an issue with it.”
Some believe giving teams a five-day rest period in the middle of the season may help encourage players to attend the all-star game even if they’re not 100 per cent healthy.
Shero said he worries some teams are too concerned with gaining a competitive edge by keeping players out.
“There’s a bigger picture here,” he said. “It should be about the league itself.”
Crawford wants back in
Marc Crawford isn’t bothering to play coy. He wants back in.
“I want to be in the best league in the world,” he says. “I know I’m a better coach than I was when I got here. I’m ready for the next challenge, just hoping I get a crack at it.”
Crawford’s tenure with Zurich of the Swiss league ended last week with a four-game sweep at the hands of Bern, with this June’s presumptive No. 1 pick, Auston Matthews, dominant but unable to score a goal in his first playoff series of any kind at any level.
Crawford immediately announced he was stepping down, but in truth, he and the team had reached that understanding last November. After four years overseas, the 55-year-old coach has his sights squarely on getting back to the league where he was once coach-of-the-year and hoisted a Stanley Cup.
“It’s about challenging myself against the best in the world,” he says. “I want to show I can do it again. Ply my trade against Barry Trotz. Ply my trade against Joel Quenneville. Show Dean Lombardi how much better I am than I was when I was in LA. I’ve done something about it.
“So I’m putting all my eggs in one basket of trying to get back to the NHL. Maybe as an assistant, maybe in the AHL.”
Coaching Matthews got Crawford back in the media spotlight this year, but he says he has re-learned his trade overseas since his last NHL job in Dallas five years ago.
“I really got back to the roots of coaching,” he said. “You have to do everything. I know that’s been a big thing. The mistake I made was gathering information, but not getting it first hand. I won’t ever make that mistake again.”
The question is, of course, what jobs will be open, and which ones will be open to Crawford. He’s had many interviews in recent years, nearly got the Montreal job before Michel Therrien, thought he was close to being hired by Florida but lost out to Gerard Gallant, has chatted with Washington, Vancouver, Pittsburgh and Colorado, and had brief talks with Toronto and San Jose last summer.
Nibbles, but no bites. Guy Boucher, who also coached in the Swiss league this year, will be looking for NHL work, as is Randy Carlyle. There’s also a list of assistant coaches and AHL coaches likely to be listening for NHL head coaching openings.
Crawford will stay in Switzerland for a couple of weeks, then head back to North America, maybe do some television work, go back to Europe for the world championships coaching clinic, then back to Buffalo for the NHL draft.
“I’m gonna get the word out to teams,” he said. “Here’s how I can help.”
It’s never quite made sense that in the NHL you can make a hand pass in the defensive zone, but not in the offensive zone.
Particularly for a league that says it’s open to creating more offence.
Like kicking the puck, it’s just one of those rules that's always been there, but NHL general managers will get a chance to discuss whether changing the hand pass rule makes any sense at their meetings in Boca Raton.
It’s one of those little things that wouldn’t have as big of an impact as three-on-three overtime, but might create a few more goals.
It’s unclear on whether GMs are going to get much direction on when, or if, expansion to Las Vegas or Quebec City will happen. It would be the first expansion in the salary cap era, as well as the era of no-trade and no-move clauses, and could be fraught with all kinds of complications.
But there seems to be a general agreement the league will have to try and do a better job of stocking those teams with more than just bad contracts and fringe players.
“They need to have credible teams,” said Shero. “They need to be competitive. We can’t go back to the days when expansion teams won 10 games. And I don’t think we will.”
Boost for Babcock
Got to believe that was huge for Mike Babcock to go back to Detroit with half an NHL roster and come up with a victory Sunday night. He’ll never acknowledge it, but you know he’s heard the whispers, the suggestions that he isn’t quite the coach he’s made out to be, that the Red Wings were just as happy to turn the reins over to Jeff Blashill.
Well, it doesn’t really matter, and while you hear the snide suggestions that given Toronto’s record this season Babcock has been exposed, well that’s just nonsense. If you don’t understand how much the Leafs have been transformed this year, you’re not watching very closely.
His former club, meanwhile, is fighting for its playoff life, a job made tougher with the loss of veteran defenceman Niklas Kronwall on Saturday afternoon. A massive road game in Philadelphia Tuesday night awaits, and a 24-year-old streak of making the playoffs is on the line in the final weeks of the NHL season.
The Flyers, meanwhile, start a patch of seven games in 12 days that will likely decide a season that has gone better than most believed it would.
There will be talk in the next few days about the possibly of coming up with a rule to restrict the number of times an individual team can win the draft lottery.
Murray, whose Sabres had the worst record in the NHL last year but saw Edmonton win the lottery and get Connor McDavid, sounded leery of messing too much with the current lottery format.
“I believe the only way for bad teams to get good players is through the draft. If you’re going to be a league with parity, and most leagues want to be, you’ve got to let those teams pick high,” Murray said.
“But should you be able to win the lottery five years in a row? I’m open to hearing ideas on that.”
What next in Flint?
A nightmarish season is coming to a close for the OHL's Flint Firebirds, and now the question is, what comes next?
Some believe the team will stay put under new ownership although there are rumours Belleville would love to get a junior team back after losing the Bulls to Hamilton.
Joe Stefan and Pat Peake have done a credible job taking over the coaching duties in Flint after the mess created by the firing of John Gruden and his staff. But the big question, with the OHL priority draft coming up April 9, is how will the team convince players to come there with its future so murky?
Right now, the Firebirds own the third and fifth picks. Last year, they couldn’t convince their top selection, Ryan McLeod, to report, and ultimately traded him to Mississauga to play with his brother, Michael.
The next few weeks, not to mention months, are going to be fascinating as OHL commissioner David Branch tries to re-position this embattled franchise.
Russian goalies in the CHL
There are two Russian-born goalies playing in the CHL -- something that wasn’t supposed to happen after the decision was made two years ago to gradually ban European goalies from being eligible to play in the league.
Evgeny Kiselev played for the Quebec Remparts on Sportsnet’s Friday Night Hockey against Gatineau, with Quebec’s No. 1 goalie, Callum Booth, out with an injury. Meanwhile, Leo Lazarev has played 44 games for the Ottawa 67s this season.
Both Kiselev and Larazev came to North America and played Junior B in Waterloo, Ont., which, in the eyes of the CHL, was sufficient for them to qualify as non-import goalies. Both are represented by former NHLer Igor Larionov, who seems to have found a loophole in the CHL’s Euro goalie rules.
We’ll see what, if anything, is done about it.