31 Thoughts: Checking in with McDavid, Matthews, Eichel and more

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. (Jason Franson/CP)

• When did McDavid, Draisaitl know Oilers were for real?
• Does anyone work out harder than Eichel?
• How much did Matthews enjoy chasing Vaive’s record?

First and foremost, hope everyone who reads this is hanging in (friends and families, too). Don’t be inert — meditate 10 minutes a day, reconnect with someone, enjoy the gift of time with people we care about. Look out for anyone who seems “off.” We’re only going to get through this together. There are so many great hockey fans and people in the New York area, and we’re with them as their city gets hit hardest.

Also, I really hope no one is as bad a Grade 3 math teacher as I am.

Just a quick summary of where we are:

This week, the NHL asked teams to submit home arena dates for August. The postponement of the Olympics erases the concern of going head-to-head with them. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told WFAA’s Mark Leslie on Tuesday that, for him, the over-under on the NBA returning was June 1, and he’s “taking the under.”

I love Cuban’s optimism, and I love to gamble — but I don’t see that. The NHL had an infectious-diseases specialist on its Board of Governors call on Monday, and from what I understand, they painted a picture that was interpreted as closer to July. So that’s where we are, although I stick to my original prediction that we won’t have a true idea until at least May.

From a business point of view, it’s tough in hockey, just like everywhere else. The Canadiens announced layoffs and salary cuts, albeit with a plan to ease the financial pain. The ownership group of the Devils and the NBA’s 76ers — widely praised for leading the way in protecting part-time workers — stepped in it when asking employees to take pay cuts. They backed off, and it will be interesting to see what that means for everyone else. More has been discussed, although I’m not sure teams will announce. (That doesn’t mean the news won’t get out.) At the NHL offices, anyone making north of $75,000 took a hit.

Amongst all of this came an interesting development. According to several sources, the players considered not taking their final paycheque. That one would be paid on April 15, but cover only the final four days of the regular-season, April 1-4. I understood the idea from several perspectives. It might ease the players’ overall escrow, and some of the lower-revenue teams would definitely be happy with fewer costs.

I was told Tuesday not to go with that any more — that a decision had been made to proceed as normal. On Wednesday, I was told not to make any firm statements either way. I guess we’ll see.

No business will escape the pandemic unscathed. We know the players are expecting huge escrow holdbacks, especially if no playoffs occur. We know the league is worried about approximately $1 billion in revenue. We know the 2020-21 cap is going to have to be negotiated by the league and players. There’s a lot to do.

We’ve heard the NHL and NHLPA are bending over backwards to work together in difficult times. So allow me a theory:

Everything is uncertain now, I get it. But there are at least two positive things on the NHL’s radar. One is Seattle. The other is the potential U.S. television deal — which is why you’re going to see a lot of work put in towards creating the best possible playoff system whenever we return.

But to really make everything work, the league needs certainty. A long CBA. No labour trouble on the horizon.

Ten days ago, the NFL/NFLPA signed a 10-year deal. The final vote was far from unanimous, and it wasn’t easy. But it got done.

Commissioner Gary Bettman is pretty good with his TV contracts. If he can get that done, are the players willing to vote for a 10-year deal? In return, they should get Olympics and some kind of escrow relief — not in terms of avoiding paying it, which isn’t realistic. But maybe spreading it out over two or three years to escape a one-season 35 per cent figure. (Maybe the league goes after big signing bonuses, too. Who knows?)

Just a theory, but I wonder if that’s where we are going.

31 THOUGHTS

1. One of the things I wish there’d be more of in the weekly blog is player perspective. They’re busy; I don’t travel as much as I used to; it is clearly a worldwide conspiracy against me. So I tried to hit up one player per team with three questions about their season. In these unusual times, not every club could be represented, unfortunately. Hope you enjoy what we could curate — forwards first, then defence and goalies.

We start with future Hall of Famer Patrice Bergeron. Months after going to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, Boston is the NHL’s No. 1 team at the pause.

“For me, the best thing about being a Bruin is the friendship that we’ve been able to establish,” he wrote in an email. “In a cap world, rarely do you see teams keeping lots of guys long term. We have been so lucky in Boston. Growing up together (almost), it’s a special bond. I think it helps with our culture — keeping guys accountable, understanding how we do things. We know what is expected of each other. Everybody is included and has a voice. We are all only a small piece to the puzzle.”

I’m an optimist. I believe the best will occur — even now — but admit, that, turning 50 this year, I don’t know how many more Cups I’ll get to cover. Tuukka Rask confirmed one rumour to the Boston Globe’s Matt Porter that he may retire after his contract expires next season.

As a group, is there any added frustration because some of Bergeron’s key teammates are older by NHL standards and simply don’t know how many more opportunities there will be?

“I think as you get older you realize that you need to make the most of every opportunity since they might not come by often. That being said, this is out of our control. What should be on our minds right now is everyone’s safety. Still, it is hard knowing that we have a great team, not certain if there will be a playoff and a Stanley Cup to compete for.”

Finally, what is your favourite Zdeno Chara story?

“Man, that’s a tough one. I’ve known Zee for so long now. He’s the ultimate competitor. What will always impress me is his competitive drive and work ethic in every practice. In every drill of every practice, he wants to be the guy to start it. He has been doing that since I’ve known him. His way of leading the way.”

2. Two teams have two representatives. One is Edmonton. When we finally get around to figuring out trophy voting, will both Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid be Hart finalists? Draisaitl leads the league in scoring, and all forwards in time-on-ice per game (22:37). He’s had some huge-minute games this year.

What was the most exhausted he was after any game this season?

“I think the hardest one was probably the 29-minute one in Arizona,” he wrote.

That was Nov. 24. Exactly 29:00, on a night when he played 4:10 of overtime — 10 seconds more than McDavid. The Oilers won 4–3 in a shootout.

“I remember sitting in the dressing room after and not being able to move because it took me so long to catch my breath.”

At what point in the season did he realize that the team was going in the right direction? What did he see that made him believe?

“It was after that bad month of December. In January, we really started to turn it around, went on a solid run. That’s when I knew that we had a good group and a good team.”

Edmonton was 5-8-1 in December, 6-1-2 in January. More importantly, what is it like as an Oiler to have meaningful, nasty games against Calgary? The fans love it, the media loves it — do you love it?

“Yes, it’s a lot of fun. Games are important — two good teams going at it, both in the playoff race. It’s heated. It’s so much fun to be a part of.”

3. When you’re sending out the questions, there are always one or two that you look at and say, “Uh, am I sure about this one?” Exhibit A was to Connor McDavid. He was coming off a major injury. As great a player as he is, I thought pushing his way back set a different kind of tone for Edmonton’s season, a very important reminder of how even the best have to grind to succeed.

How much had he exceeded expectations for himself and for the team?

“The expectations coming in this year, not only for the team but myself, were not high from a media standpoint,” he texted. “There were more questions than answers with the team and with my injury — would I even be playing, and, if I was, how would my game be? Team-wise, everyone has done a great job exceeding those expectations. From management to the coaching staff down to the players, everyone has done a great job getting to this point. But there is lots of work left to be done this season. Personally, I always try to believe in myself. But it was hard for sure. Coming into training camp, I hadn’t battled against another player on the ice all summer long, so it was hard to be sure where my game would be. But with lots of help from my teammates, trainers and everyone around me, my game has been able to stay where it’s been at in years previous.”

Sure has.

Same question that I posed to Draisaitl: At what point in the season did he realize the team was going in the right direction? What did he see that made him believe?

“I think I started to feel good about our team after the first month. I liked where everyone’s heads were. We were saying all the right stuff, but not only saying it — doing it on and off the ice. Our game had a big slip in late November and December. That raised a lot of questions again, but I liked how we responded. We were very solid in the second half.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

4. Right with the two Oilers in the Hart race is the 2018 runner-up, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon. He has enormous standards for himself. Does he feel he’s played to the level he demands?

“For sure the standards I have for myself are high,” he said via text. “I always feel there’s room for growth. The challenge is to maintain a high level of play for any top-end player in the NHL. The season is a grind and there’s lots that goes into it behind the scenes to be consistent every night.”

The Avalanche’s 92 points are tied with Tampa Bay, two points back of second-overall St. Louis. Has the turnaround from 2016-17 happened quicker than he thought?

“For me, I wasn’t so much worried about how long the turnaround (would take) — just that I had to do my part in becoming the player I was capable of becoming. Looking back, it’s amazing how fast we turned things around as a franchise.”

Then MacKinnon paid one of his young teammates a huge compliment: “2016–17 did get us Cale Makar, so it was worth it.”

5. At what point does MacKinnon say, “Sorry, Sid — I’m now the best player from Nova Scotia in the NHL”?

“I’ll be better than Sid when I have 4 cups and 3 Olympic gold medals 😂”

6. Auston Matthews rejected one of my questions like Dikembe Mutombo sending some weak layup into the 20th row. Was there ever any real fear in the Toronto room about the team missing the playoffs?

“No. No one in our group plays with fear, and that will continue to be the case.”

I liked that one. You can imagine that this year’s been a total whirlwind for Matthews and the rest of the Maple Leafs. What stands out to him when thinking of the season so far?

“It’s hard to think of anything right now except for the people who have been affected by the pandemic. I wish the best to all of them and their families. I miss my teammates, Leaf Nation and the chance to compete every day.”

Matthews was chasing Rick Vaive’s franchise-record 54 goals, and was on pace to beat it by one. How much did he enjoy the chase?

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Rick Vaive. He was a tremendous Leaf and a great player. I like scoring goals, of course, but I’m here to help my teammates win.”

7. One of the great stories of this year is Winnipeg. Every player hopes for the best. But when they were starting camp, how concerned was captain Blake Wheeler that being in a playoff position wouldn’t be possible?

“Going into training camp, I knew it was going to be a challenge to repeat some of the success we had the last couple years,” he wrote. “In 2018–19 we had a young team and we were still expected to compete for a Stanley Cup. We lost a lot of key guys from that team and with our salary cap situation, we were going to get even younger coming into this year. This was all WITH Bryan Little and Dustin Byfuglien in the mix. I would say there was definitely some concern knowing that we had a very young team. It left a lot more questions than sure things. What I did know is we have some firepower up front, the best goaltender in the league, and a great dressing room of guys that are willing to battle for each other. In training camp our group developed a bit of a chip on our shoulder because everyone that was in love with our team a few years ago was now picking us to finish last in our division. We used that and battled every day in camp and it carried over to the regular season. So even when our lineup was depleted with injuries, we gave ourselves a chance. That’s why I was so bummed we were put on hold because we were really starting to fire on all cylinders. Our defence was playing great and our goalie was out of his mind. Add that to some of the offensive weapons we have and the battle in our room and you never know what could happen.”

Wheeler was very honest and blunt about how he felt he had to change the way he led. How has he changed?

“I would say that I know myself a lot better today than I did a year or two years ago. I know that there are days when I come to the rink and I’m a little on edge. The combination of pressure from my job and having three small children makes me a little ornery sometimes. I wish it didn’t, but it does. So I know on those days how to carry myself a lot better. I can hide my scowl better than I used to because I really don’t like being the grumpy old guy — at least not yet! Another focus I had this year is trying to empower as many of my teammates as I can. It’s impossible to make over 20 guys happy on the same team, so instead, you try to empower as many guys as possible. You do that by making the guys feel important to the team. That’s all anyone wants, is to feel like their job is important. Putting guys in those situations is obviously (coach Paul Maurice’s) job, but as teammates we can make sure the guy blocking a one-timer on the penalty kill FEELS equally as important as the guy quarterbacking the first power play.”

Very, very impressive answer. I wondered what Wheeler considered the most impressive Winnipeg win of this season? “A couple stand out. Our second game of the season was against New Jersey. We were down 4—0 before coming back to win 5-4 in a shootout. Another was at home against Edmonton on Oct. 20. We had some injuries to an already depleted lineup. Connor and Leon were averaging about four points a night through the first month of the season. I remember being really worried about that game, but our team fought hard and snuck out a 1—0 shootout win.”

8. There was a great profile of Jack Eichel in Sports Illustrated during his rookie season where he talked about not liking people “kissing his ass,” and his great respect for his father Bob’s willingness to tell him the truth. It is hard to talk about personal success during a hard team year. So I tried this approach: What did your dad say about your season?

“My dad’s always been my toughest critic,” Buffalo’s captain wrote. “He measures success with winning, so in that sense it was a tough season to swallow. I think when you look at our competitiveness from a night-in and night-out basis, and playing to our identity, our team did make a lot of strides this season, which was something to be positive about. In terms of my personal year, my dad gave me a huge compliment around the New Year when he told me how proud he was of the player that I had become. He thought I made a lot of strides as a complete centre, meaning I was much more responsible in our defensive zone. The hard minutes took a toll in his mind, but overall he was very complimentary of the year.”

Eichel added that one of his targets was to score more, and he’d already hit a career-high 36.

“We worked very hard at that in the summer, so that was also rewarding.”

At the NHL/NHLPA pre-season media tour, he talked at great length about his newly formed relationship with Ralph Krueger. There was a lot of optimism and a strong bond. How did that evolve?

“Getting to play and learn from Ralph this season was a real pleasure. He’s someone that comes into the rink every day with the best possible attitude no matter what happened the day before. He’s able to reset the group back into the right frame of mind so well. Obviously as the year we went we became more comfortable with each other. Not saying we weren’t at the start — it just was easier to go to him with things as we got to know each other better. With his background in leadership, it was great to be able to learn from him every day. He taught me a lot about myself, which I’m very thankful for.”

Eichel is a workout fiend. Did any of his teammates “beat” his determination?

“Working out and off-ice training is something I’ve always enjoyed. With the long season and tough schedule we are always trying to find time to fit in workouts. We have a lot of great athletes in our room that push each other in the gym every day which is great. We do a bike test at the beginning of the year. They use your weight and bike results to find an endurance score. I posted a really good score that I was happy with until I saw Sam Reinhart’s score. He blew everyone out of the water.”

9. I wanted to hear from someone who’d been traded during the year, and Taylor Hall was a perfect fit. I don’t know if anyone can predict what’s going to happen in one season, but did this year unfold in any way as you thought it might?

“When I drove to New Jersey in September, I envisioned a scenario where we were going to fight for a playoff spot all year, and a contract would or wouldn’t get figured out around the trade deadline,” he wrote. “I was really excited for what we had going on there. But I also knew there was a chance that I could be on a different team by the end of the year. Hockey’s a business and you are reminded of that always. And, obviously, [the pandemic] is something that no one would ever predict.”

Hall came up with a great answer about what we are all going through. His future is going to be determined during a unique time. How much does he think about how things may or not not happen as he chooses his long-term NHL home?

“It is definitely a weird time to possibly be a free agent, but there’s so much uncertainty throughout the league… throughout the world, really. So I’m not as worried about free agency as I am about getting back to hockey and hoping that we can somehow get into the playoffs. I think everyone just wants some normalcy back in their lives.”

What ideas did he have about playing in Arizona that turned out to be true or not true?

“The one thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised about was our attendance and support from fans. We’ve had numerous sellouts. I didn’t think it was going to be like that. There’s been nights where the atmosphere has been awesome in the arena.”

10. Anze Kopitar bent the rules for his first question. When asked if there was one young King who took big steps this year, he said he was going to name one forward and one defenceman. It’s not like I was going to argue with him.

“At forward, Alex Iafallo took the next step this year. A couple of years ago, you’re a rookie, and you don’t really understand what’s going on. Now, he’s consistent, he’s scoring goals, he’s putting up points, he’s doing the things you are expected to do when you’re on the top line.

“On defence, I will take Matt Roy. He’s done a tremendous job. Being on a team where we are losing more often than not — which sucks — he’s a plus player. That’s impressive.”

Los Angeles reminds me a lot of Ottawa. The results aren’t there yet, but they play really hard. How do Kopitar and the other veterans prevent the young players from getting discouraged?

“That’s the hard part. You can start cheating when you don’t get the results. But our effort has been very good this year. There’s been very few games where we’ve been blown up. It’s been encouraging to see many of our guys doing the right stuff. The thing we try to tell them is that there might only be five (or) 10 minutes where you didn’t do it in a game, and that’s when you get scored on. But we’ve done a really good job of staying positive. I tell them that even for me, the toughest thing is that you’re not going to be at your best for 82 games. It’s not possible. So you have to work on limiting the low points. How good can you be when you’re not at your best, so you don’t get blown up?”

That’s a great attitude. We talked about my respect for Henrik Lundqvist, and how he refused to be a negative force as the Rangers rebuilt and then carried three goalies. Kopitar said it was easier for him to do that this year, as opposed to 2018-19.

“Last year, we didn’t see it coming. This year, we knew it was coming. We signed up for it, and the good thing is we are starting to see our trend go upwards. Sure, at times it gets frustrating. But the hard work and the effort, that’s the encouraging part.”

11. How much quieter is life without Drew Doughty around you on a daily basis?

“It’s a little quieter, but it’s uneventful,” Kopitar laughed. “Ninety per cent of what comes out of his mouth is funny. You’re not laughing as much without him around.”

12. Another great answer came from Jonathan Huberdeau. Everything is uncertain now, but Florida traded Vincent Trocheck and there was a sense more could come if the Panthers don’t find their way. How much does the group of Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Huberdeau discuss what could happen?

“We all know we can’t control what the GM wants to do, but we sure know one thing we can control is to win. We tell ourselves that if we win, we will all stay together. It’s not complicated, and that’s what we need to do in the near future.”

What is Joel Quenneville like to play for?

“Joel is a great coach with a lot of energy, loves to win and knows what it takes to win. Practices are hard and intense! He wants you to work hard and earn your ice time.”

Big accomplishment this season for Huberdeau, who became the all-time leading scorer in Panthers’ history. Every season, his totals increase, as he was on pace for 93 points, which would have edged his career high of 92 from last year. How close is he to the player he expected to be?

“For me, I got better every year since the beginning of my career. Consistency is a big thing in this league and I feel I’ve come a long way since I was 19. I still think I have more to give to my team to have a chance to win a Stanley Cup.”

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13. What a huge jump for Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli, who will battle with Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier for Selke Trophy supremacy. Only Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point play more at even-strength than he does among the Lightning. Was he expecting that? Has he surprised himself at all?

“No, not at all,” he wrote via email. (I like the understated confidence.) “I just tried to have a good off-season, work on my skills, get stronger and be ready for training camp. I think you’re always looking to grow as a player — not just every season, but every day. Heading into this year I just wanted to concentrate on playing my role. Focus on playing well defensively and contributing when I could on the offensive side. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be playing that many minutes. We have such a deep and talented team that it really doesn’t matter who you’re playing with — they’re going to be great players. So I’m fortunate.”

After last year’s playoff defeat, 2019-20 seemed like nothing more than an 82-game trial run for the post-season. Was it hard to concentrate on the regular season, knowing, as a group, you just wanted to get to the playoffs?

“Quite the opposite, actually. It wasn’t hard at all. It was an extremely disappointing ending, obviously. Guys came back motivated and knew it was going to be a fight just to get back into the playoffs. It gave us an opportunity to come together as a team and find our identity. The season didn’t start the way we wanted, but as it moved along, I think we really started to find it.”

On March 7, the Lightning faced Boston in one of this year’s best games — an intense, chippy 5–3 win for Tampa. What was it like to play in that one? The Lightning don’t have that kind of nasty reputation — at least not until recently.

“It was an emotion-filled game. We see them a lot, with playoffs and a couple times during the regular season, so there is some familiarity. I think it was just two good teams going at it and neither being willing to back down. Both teams wanted the two points. It was a playoff atmosphere that is great to play in as you prepare for more intense games down the stretch and in the post-season. It was a good test for us. Those types of games are a ton of fun to play in.”

And watch.

14. Also with the big leap is Andrew Mangiapane. After eight goals in his first 54 NHL games, he was poised to break 20 — playing a big role as Calgary found its legs. I wonder when a talented young player feels comfortable that, “Yes, I am an NHLer.”

“I would say that I started gaining confidence around last year when [Derek Ryan, Garnet Hathaway] and I were a line. I felt that they let me play my game. I wasn’t nervous to play, and we ended up connecting really well. When I first came into the league, everyone tells you to play your game and not to think about it, but this was kind of hard for me to do — I was almost starstruck, for lack of words. Once I was able to get over this, I think my confidence started coming out. You definitely need some confidence to play in this league.”

Selected 166th in the 2015 draft, what advice would he give to a young player so he can know being taken a little later is not the end of the world?

“Whether you’re drafted or not, you always still need to put in the work afterwards. That’s the beginning of the whole process. So if you’re a late draft or not drafted at all, never give up. Just keep working hard, and keep fighting to get to where you want to be.”

Finally, for Mangiapane, the same kind of question I sent to Draisaitl: Do the current Flames hate the Oilers as much as their fans and 1980s alumni do?

“I think there is always going to be a rivalry there. I don’t know if we hate Edmonton as much as the ’80s alumni did — hard to tell. But this year alone, it has been two good teams fighting for a playoff spot and we’ve been battling all year. In recent years there’s been a strong team and a weak team. Now you have these two good teams fighting for a spot and it really makes the rivalry that much more intense.”

15. One of the things I’ve wondered this year is how much Steve Yzerman discusses his early years in Detroit with Dylan Larkin. Yzerman went through tough times in Detroit and eventually was rewarded. What advice does he give Larkin on how to handle things?

“I have had very positive talks with Steve throughout the season,” Larkin wrote via email. “He has been very helpful and a mentor to me as someone who has been in this situation a few times as a player and manager. His advice has been to make sure my level of professionalism — in mindset, work ethic and leadership — is setting the tone and example for the rest of the team all the time.”

I thought that was really interesting. No matter how tough a season, there are always fun moments. What are the moments of this season that did make you smile?

“There have been a lot of bright spots. This season has had a lot of downs, but we have a great group of young players that have made it very enjoyable coming to the rink every day. I look back at our opening-night win against Nashville on the road and our home opener the next night against Dallas when Anthony Mantha scored four goals. We have played very well against top opponents in our division and that makes me excited for the future. We’ve also played better in buildings where we have struggled in the past.”

16. Larkin made me laugh with this next one. Him, Connor McDavid and Mathew Barzal. Goal line to goal line. Standing start. Who wins, and by how much?

“First, I would say thank you for not putting a puck and defenders in this contest because that would quickly eliminate me. Both are in the category of the most elite skaters this league has ever seen. I would have to go with Connor in a straight-line goal-line-to-goal-line race.”

17. Philadelphia’s Scott Laughton loves to get under opponents’ skin. Who is the opponent he most loves to annoy?

Brady Tkachuk. Me and him have had some good battles the past two years.”

There’s probably no team more disappointed in the the current recess than Philly. The Flyers were scorching hot, one point behind Washington for first in the Metropolitan. When did Laughton and teammates believe they could be at this level?

“Around November everything started coming together and we started creating an identity,” he wrote. “I think the past month we’ve been playing our best hockey overall and we’ve been better on the road. Our goalies have been huge as well.”

Which Flyer has taken the biggest jump, and why? Like Kopitar, he found it too hard to narrow it down.

“I can’t really pinpoint it on one guy. I would say Travis Konecny has had a really strong year and has led the way offensively. [Carter Hart] in his first full year in the NHL has been really solid and gives us confidence.”

You’ll be stunned to hear Hart’s nickname is “Hartsy.”

18. Andrei Svechnikov was responsible for one of the most fun storylines this season, scoring two lacrosse goals. Has he noticed a change in how he is defended around the net? Not surprisingly, the answer is yes.

“NHL teams thoroughly prepare for each opponent. After my second, both defenders and goalies were ready for me. I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to score another one, but I have other things up my sleeve.”

I’m very interested in seeing what that could be, especially if Evander Holyfield is involved. Svechnikov was an even-strength titan last season. He scored 20 goals, and was up to 24 (and counting, we hope) this year. Bigger role, some power-play time. Does he see himself as a 40-goal scorer someday? 50?

“I don’t have a specific number of goals in mind. I’d like to score as many as I can, but my main goal is to win games and raise the Stanley Cup.”

And he says not to discount his playmaking ability: “I also enjoy setting up my teammates. The more they score, the more games we’ll win.”

What is Svechnikov’s favourite Rod Brind’Amour post-game speech?

“The most memorable post-game experience was when we beat Toronto with David Ayres in relief. Everyone was cheering, and Rod was so happy as a kid can only be.”

19. Another impressive comeback? Minnesota. Kevin Fiala mirrors that turnaround. One point in his first eight games, with healthy scratches along the way. Now he leads the Wild in scoring, with 54 points in 64 games. What was the turning point in the season? Were players affected by the rumours early in the year?

“It was a crazy start,” he emailed. “We were not doing well at all, and we knew it couldn’t continue like that. We knew that there was still a lot of time left and that we could do it. Inside of our room there was never a doubt. We got better and better every day. I don’t think anybody cared in our group what other people were saying. We always believed and knew that we could do this.”

Fiala always had great self-confidence, going back to his arrival in Nashville. Jeff Marek was the first to tell me about it, and when I asked some of the Predators if that was true, they smiled knowingly. Did that ever change as Fiala fought to regain his role?

“I mean, there were good days and bad days, but at the end of the day I knew how good I am. Honestly, last year, the confidence wasn’t always very high. But this year it’s been very high, especially the last few months.”

You can see it. Whenever someone is traded to a new team, I wonder if there’s a player they absolutely could not stand on the ice who they get to know and say, “Not such a bad guy after all.”

Fiala wasn’t biting on that one.

“Haha, I don’t know. It has never happened in my experience.”

20. John Carlson’s had a monster season. The Norris Trophy frontrunner, he was on pace for 89 points — which would have been the most for a blueliner since Ray Bourque’s 91 in 1993–94. Only eight other defencemen have hit that total — Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, Al MacInnis, Denis Potvin, Brian Leetch, Phil Housley, Gary Suter and Bourque. Not too shabby.

Any disappointment at not seeing how high he could have reached?

“I think there is just a general disappointment in not playing,” he wrote in an email. “A lot of my success on the ice is attributed to the guys who I play with. That’s what I miss the most. Time will tell. Hopefully, we’ll resume at some point here and I’ll be able to finish what I started.”

The Capitals went through some rough waters before play was halted. Was there any concern amongst the players about the way it was going?

“I don’t believe we ever hit a panic button. But, at the same time, we weren’t happy with the way we were playing. There definitely was a sense of urgency for us to get back to a level that we expect of ourselves. We knew full well that it’s not a switch you can just turn on and off come playoff time. It’s a process. That’s where our focus was, and I’m confident in our team, our guys, to right the ship if we get an opportunity here.”

From a purely entertainment point of view, one of the rough things about the current stoppage is it throws a wrench into Alexander Ovechkin’s chase of Wayne Gretzky’s goal record. Does Carlson think The Great Eight plays long enough to beat it?

“That’s a tough one. I think he will keep playing as long as he is healthy. Being around him, I think you see first-hand the joy he has for the game. Will he break Wayne’s record? That’s tough to say, but he definitely has an opportunity to do so if he remains healthy.”

Does number 895 come on a power-play one-timer Carlson puts on Ovechkin’s tape? The production machine wasn’t biting on that one.

“He has the right players around him in Backstrom and Kuznetsov to create chances for him.”

21. Carlson’s biggest Norris challenger is Nashville’s Roman Josi. One thing I love about Drew Doughty is he was unafraid to admit he wanted to win the Norris. He didn’t care who knew. Is it something that is important to Josi?

“Yes. Winning the Norris is definitely a dream of mine. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t. Personally, I think it is good for every player to set individual goals. The closer everyone gets to those goals, the better the team success will be. That’s the most important thing.”

It can be a tough question to answer, but does Josi believe this is the best he’s ever played?

“I think, as a player, every year, you are trying to get better and work on things you think you can improve. The longer you play in the league, the more you know what you have to work on. It’s hard to say if this is my best season. But I do think it is my most consistent. Hopefully, once everyone is safe, there will be more coming for me and the Predators.”

After an incredibly inconsistent season, the Predators appeared to have righted themselves, taking advantage of games in hand to move into Western Conference playoff position. When Josi looks back on it, why does he think it took longer than expected for the Predators to consistently be at their best?

“It’s hard to say. I think we got off to a very good start and then inconsistency set in. A lot of the time, we were inconsistent within games, too. Before the pause, we had made progress playing more consistently and the ‘right way’ as a team — something you have to do to be more successful.”

22. In the past, players who have won the Stanley Cup for the first time in the middle of their careers looked back and said they realized later how much it changed them for the better. They are still driven to win, but they relax, are more confident. With some time to think about it, how has winning the Cup changed Alex Pietrangelo?

“I would say the biggest difference for me as a player would be to understand that it’s a long season and to trust the process of what it takes to win. The season has plenty of ups and downs, and it’s important to not get too high or low. It’s easy to say, and I’ve always thought that, but now that I have been through it I understand it. As a group, no doubt we feel more confident in tight games — win or lose, we know we have a chance in every game. Winning certainly can relax you as a player. I definitely feel more relaxed knowing we have checked a championship off our list. It’s the one thing we all dream of as a kid — to finally fulfill it is hard to put into words. At the same time though, after winning, you want to win again. You want to keep the trophy for yourself.”

Can’t tell you how many players in all sports have said something similar after that first taste. The Blues went through a very difficult situation with Jay Bouwmeester. Thankfully, he’s doing well. How are the players doing and how much do you keep in contact with Jay?

“Almost all of us have kept in touch. He was coming to the rink almost every day before we got shut down. Guys are stopping by his house, doing as much as we can to help. It was certainly a scare for us all to get through it… a blur for most of us. Without realizing it at the time I think it brought us closer together, especially with us being on our dads trip. It was really an opportunity to bond together and with our dads.”

Like Taylor Hall, Pietrangelo will have to decide his hockey future at some point over the next few months. How much does he think about it?

“Unfortunately, we all have a lot of time to think right now. If you imply moving to Hawaii and living on an island? Then, yeah, we do all time!”

That’s pretty good, and I’m jealous. The Blues’ captain continues: “Business-wise, we try not to discuss it too much, although it’s hard to ignore. We don’t stress about it, our three little ones keep us busy enough.”

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

23. If things had gone according to plan, Shea Weber’s 1,000th game would have been April 1 — in Nashville, of all places. He really isn’t interested in personal goals, but considering how hard he has worked to get through some tough injuries, how much would that mean?

“It would definitely be a pretty special moment. There has been a lot of hard work and dedication to this point (with a lot more to go). A player doesn’t really know what the future holds, but hopefully there will be a lot more good memories along the road.”

That “a lot more to go” won’t escape anyone’s notice. Marc Bergevin has made it quite clear that he believes in this group of Canadiens, and the prospects coming. What does Weber see for the future?

“I definitely believe in the future of our team. As hard as this season and the last few have been, there have been some positive things, and some exciting signs in our young players as well. Going through tough times should be a good learning experience for everyone and make us all better from it.”

Obviously, we don’t know what is going to happen. But I’ve heard rumours that if there is an expanded playoffs, Montreal could be included. Do you think about that possibility at all?

“I don’t think anyone really knows what is going to happen with the uncertainty right now. Needless to say, players live for the playoffs, and until you have been in it you don’t really realize how exciting and intense it is.”

24. BONUS: I had to put Tom Brady somewhere in this blog. Weber is the NHL’s fantasy-football king. Blake Wheeler is a Brady disciple. How do they think he’ll be as a Buccaneer?

Weber: “Oh man, I think he’s going to do really well. Bruce Arians is the quarterback whisperer. Two elite receivers, hopefully get OJ Howard going again — and warm weather. I like it for him and fantasy.”

Wheeler: “Definitely going to be weird seeing TB12 in anything but a Patriots uniform. I think after last year he was going to find the best QB vacancy in the league in terms of weapons around him. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin might be the best WR duo in the league, and the Tampa heat will probably be good for that old body of his. I think he could have huge year.”

25. When I asked Quinn Hughes about the most memorable exchange he’s had with Canuck fans, I could tell he likes the passion there.

“There were a few early in the year,” he said. “They would come up to me and say, ‘We love you, Huggy Bear.’ At the beginning, I didn’t like that nickname, and it would piss me off.”

He’s laughing.

“Now I think it’s funny. At one of our last games, a fan showed up in a full bear costume. It was all over the internet. That was great.”

Hughes is my Calder pick, and he realized early some of his off-ice habits had to change.

“There were a couple of off-days early in the year where I just sat on the couch for a couple of hours, alone. I was lazy. You can’t do that. You’ve got to get the right meals, but take care of yourself in other ways. Go out, walk. Don’t get stiff. Take care of yourself.”

He saw a big change in the way other teams played him. It started with Vancouver’s 22nd game, a 6–1 loss in Dallas.

“That game was 3-1 going into the third, and then they crushed us. I was hit a lot that game. In our first game against Toronto (a 4-1 Leafs win three weeks later), they were cheating on some moves I use at the offensive blueline. But that’s okay. We looked at what Matthews, Willie Nylander and Mitch Marner do, too.”

Last year, Elias Pettersson set the Canucks rookie record with 66 points. Hughes’s pace was right at that number. Will he tell Pettersson that he would’ve beaten it and just claim the title anyways?

“No, I’m not going to. I had Petey, but Petey didn’t have Petey, if you understand what I’m saying. Besides, it’s all about winning — not about that.”

26. Hughes is home with brother Jack. What are they doing to pass the time?

“We both love hockey. We’ll text each other during the season, ‘This guy’s unbelievable… Watch what this guy did.’ Right now, we’re relaxing, getting away from that a bit. I’m thinking about having a great next 13 games and an even better playoff. Then, for both of us, having a good summer, putting on a couple of pounds and killing it next year.”

The future is bright for the Hughes brothers.

27. Number one among all defencemen in goals — and tied for 79th overall — is Zachary Werenski. We travelled back to the spring of 2016. He’s turning pro from Michigan. Someone says, “In four years, you will be a 20-goal scorer in the NHL.” What would Werenski have said?

“Wow… I don’t know. I’d say ‘I hope so.’ You never really know how things are gong to go. So much was unknown. That’s pretty awesome. But there’s more work to do.”

At the 2018 All-Star Game in Tampa Bay, he explained that John Tortorella allows him freedom, that he can go where he needs offensively, and others have to cover. As time has gone by, has Tortorella added/changed any on-ice rules for him?

“Not really. ‘Go, be aggressive.’ But he wanted me to be harder defensively, and I needed that. For the last year and a half, we’ve spent a lot of time learning the defensive side. When he says ‘harder to play against,’ he’s not talking about fighting guys or hitting guys, but to improve my effort. Not getting beaten to the net or one-on-one. He doesn’t care about mistakes, which I really like about him. He knows they’re going to happen. But when you go at a guy one-on-one, be aggressive. Make the effort.”

Columbus proved a lot this year. A lot of fans and media wrote them off. The Blue Jackets are right there, even with injury upon injury. How much was proving everyone wrong motivation for you?

“One hundred per cent it was. We lost four key players. We had something to prove to ourselves, our city and the NHL. On day one of camp, we had that dreaded John Tortorella two-mile run. On the second day, we had a 6:00 a.m. meeting. He told us people thought we were going to be a lottery team, no playoffs.”

How many words of that speech began with an “F”?

“Too many to count, to be honest,” he laughed. “But it works — he knows how to get the guys going.”

28. Let’s move to the goalies, starting with the perpetually happy Marc-Andre Fleury. If you follow him on social media, you know he’s trying his luck as a handyman to pass the time. Is he any good at it?

“It’s a work in progress. My skillset is pretty low. So fixing a few little things at home during lifts my spirit during these tough times,” he laughs.

The Golden Knights are where many of us thought they’d be, atop the Pacific Division. What was critical for getting the team going in the right direction?

“Our consistency to play the way we wanted, especially defensively. Giving up less quality scoring chances.”

What’s the biggest thing you’ve noticed about Peter DeBoer?

“Very detailed in his game preparation.”

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Fleury’s career is the fact that more and more goalies are adopting his method of play. Your technique has to be good, but if technique can’t make the save, find a desperate way to do it.

“I love it. Those saves are the ones that make me smile, even watching other goalies make them. That makes me have fun playing the games.”

It’s always sunny in Fleury’s world, an important trait in these times.

29. When I was looking up Ben Bishop’s statistical information, I did a double-take at the fact this is his 12th pro season. I wouldn’t have guessed he’d been around that long. He still laughs about his big-league debut.

“I was 21 when I played my first NHL game,” he said. “At that age, you think you are ready. As I look back, I know I was not anywhere close. Two weeks into my first season, I played my first game. It’s pretty funny, it was the one where Sarah Palin dropped the puck in St. Louis.”

“Manny Legace hurt his groin in the pre-game,” Bishop continued, “and they told me, ‘You better be ready here.’ I was like, ‘What?’”

Bishop entered after the first period. The Blues were down 2-0 to Los Angeles. He stopped 15 of 17 in a 4-0 loss.

“I’m thinking, ‘I can do this, yes!’ I was naive at that age; reality sets in pretty quick. Now I feel like I’m getting better every year. I’m more confident every season, with the knowledge I gain about the little things you need to play this position and be successful.”

Dallas is tied with Colorado for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL, at .932. That’s .001 behind Boston’s .933. The Stars’ 2.52 goals against average is second behind the Bruins’ 2.39. Dallas allows 1.6 more shots per game, though, so I asked Bishop to make the case for he and Anton Khudobin as the best goalie tandem in the NHL.

“Well, it’s a bunch of different things. Khudobin’s been unbelievable this year. (Goalie coach) Jeff Reese has done an excellent job with us, making sure we are both ready to play. As a team, we take care of the defensive end; protect our net-front and work our way out from there.”

Bishop’s played 44 games, 14 more than Khudobin — but he circled back to praise his partner once again.

“It’s a lot of fun playing with him.”

Dallas was my pre-season pick to win the Stanley Cup. And, while I think they are definitely built for the post-season, they haven’t been scoring much lately, just nine goals in their last six games. How tough is it to play when the margins are so thin?

”I wouldn’t say it is tougher. I’ve been around long enough to know that you can’t play every game perfectly. You just have to play your way through it. If we don’t score, I don’t even worry about it. It’s a long season — there are droughts. We have a lot of talent and we know our guys are going to score. I don’t feel any pressure; (Khudobin) doesn’t, either. You can’t go into a game thinking, ‘I’ve got to be perfect,’ because you can’t be that way every game. We’ve got a good team.”

30. When Bishop played in Tampa, he took batting practice with the MLB Rays and hit four home runs. If he played for the Astros, and knew what pitches were coming, how many homers could he hit?

“I’d be lucky to hit the ball,” he laughed. “I’m not going to be greedy enough to say I’d hit a home run. I’d just be happy enough to hit it.”

Bishop added he once got the opportunity to stand next to the bullpen plate when a Houston pitcher threw some pre-game warmup. When he saw what was coming, he realized the difference between batting-practice fastballs and the real thing.

31. Very quietly, MacKenzie Blackwood’s had a big year: 47 appearances, his second-most behind the 51 he made as a 19-year-old with the OHL’s Barrie Colts. He’s got a .915 save percentage, nicely above the NHL’s .910 average.

At the beginning of the season, what hopes did he have?

“I wanted to prove to myself and my team that I can play at this level and play well,” he wrote by email. “I wanted to have a solid year and improve every day. I didn’t have specific statistical goals, but more of an approach that I wanted to keep getting better and play well whenever I got the chance.”

That’s happened. If there was any doubt he’d be New Jersey’s goalie of the future, it is erased. Every young player has that “holy smokes” moment, where they truly discover what it takes to be successful. What was Blackwood’s biggest “holy smokes” moment this year?

“When I started to play a heavy workload and get many starts in a row. I was enjoying playing and all the hockey, but it was more than I had ever done consecutively in such a short period of time. I realized how hard the grind of the season was, and that it’s a hard league to be successful in day in and day out. If you had a good game last night, today is a new day, and that if you want to have success tomorrow, you have to keep pushing every day to try and keep improving.”

It’s the old saying: You’re only as good as your last game. But he’s found a higher level. People have noticed. Does Blackwood say to himself, “I know now I will be a starter in this league?”

“I feel happy about how my game is progressing, but I have levels I can get to that I’m not quite at just yet. You always need to keep pushing to keep your game up and try to improve each day. I think this year I proved to myself and others that I can play in this league and play well, but I know I’m just starting, and it’s going to be a fun experience trying to get better and push our team forward. I definitely have belief in myself that I can be a starting goalie, but the most important thing to me is that whenever I’m getting a chance to start I want to give my team the best chance to win, and play my game with all the little details to the best of my abilities.”

32. If Darcy Kuemper hadn’t been hurt, he’d have the inside track on the Vezina. The injury was rough timing for him and the Coyotes. What did the first half of the year mean to him?

“Before I got hurt, it was a lot of fun to be playing lots and contributing. As a team we were battling for first place in the division. It was a lot of fun to be a part of that.”

What did you notice about the Coyotes while watching?

“It was not fun watching being out. What I really noticed about our team, I kind of already knew…. The strength of our team is our depth. When we get all of the lines going, it’s really hard for teams to match up with us. We’re not really counting on one line to score. That’s hard to defend against.”

I wanted to specifically ask about Phil Kessel and Hall. What do you see from them up close and in practice?

“They were really well-received in the locker room. They fit in right away and the guys loved being around them.”

Not surprisingly, Kuemper liked the challenge of practising against them.

“They’re both elite shooters… unbelievable shots. I get to face them all the time and they keep me sharp.”

One final lesson there from a goalie having a big year: practise the way you want to play and things will be just fine.

33. Disappointed this week for all the CHL and NCAA players whose junior/college careers ended without a final attempt at a championship. (And, really, that goes for players of all ages around the world.) Some of those players will go on to the next level. For many others, it is game over and that absolutely sucks. For next week, I’d like to highlight some of them. My DMs are open, and I’m willing to listen to suggestions.

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