Suddenly, Las Vegas is crowded — and not because Christopher Cross is playing the Golden Nugget later this week.
Six months before the Vegas Golden Knights are to make their NHL debut, Nevada politicians threw $750 million at the Oakland Raiders. The NFL wasn’t ignoring that chunk of cash, happily voting to uproot the three-time Super Bowl champions.
After an initial, polite statement, NHL owner Bill Foley dropped the pretense during an interview with The Vegas Hockey Hotline.
“I felt like there are a lot better ways to spend $750M than bringing the Raiders to Las Vegas,” Foley said. “Thought we could spend it on police and schools, and make them the best in the country. Instead I guess we’re getting a football stadium.”
One other hockey/football market watched this movie before, although the order was reversed. The powder blue Houston Oilers announced a move to Tennessee after the 1995 NFL season. Eighteen months later, the NHL awarded expansion franchises to Atlanta, Columbus, Minnesota and Nashville.
The Predators were the first to begin, in 1998-99. They could start quickly because there was a ready-made downtown arena. They had to start quickly because there were fears about waiting too long, with the NFL looming large.
“We saw possibilities for growth in the city,” said GM David Poile, hired by then-owner Craig Leipold months after the franchise’s birth. “It’s worked, as you know. We’re buzzing both on and off the ice.”
That’s true. The franchise awaits its first trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but last year’s all-star game showed how far one of the league’s most fun cities has come. It was a great party. In a few quiet moments, those connected to the team admitted there were times they thought they’d fail.
“There were a whole bunch of different challenges,” Poile said Monday, although he preferred not to go into them.
So that’s our job. The Golden Knights’ biggest advantage over the Raiders is that the NHL club is scheduled to have at least the next two seasons to itself in Sin City. Oakland owner Mark Davis said he plans to play 2017 and 2018 in California, and there is the question of 2019 since the new Las Vegas stadium may not be ready until 2020. It is a huge opportunity to grab on and say, “We’re your team from the beginning. Enjoy the show.”
Then-Oilers owner Bud Adams had similar ideas after revealing his plans in 1995 to move from Houston to Nashville. But things were so bad the next year in Texas, he asked to be let out of his lease. They played in Memphis in 1997 and at Vanderbilt University in 1998, before the current stadium was ready. No one was happy. It was an awful, hideous debut in Tennessee. There is little expectation things will be easy next season in Oakland, so the Raiders face similar concerns.
That could help the Golden Knights, just as it helped the Predators. Their original season was 1998-99, and even though they went 28-47-7, it was an era of good feeling.
Then the Titans settled in. They went 13-3. And they went to the Super Bowl, losing one of the most thrilling games in the event’s history. That year, the hockey team finished last in the Western Conference. Poile was determined to be patient, building a strong foundation with staying power. History proved him right, but when the Titans soared while the Predators crawled, it teetered at times.
I remember what one Predator said: “Do your fans panic? Your media? Your organization? Does it force you to abandon your plan? We stuck to it.”
It paid off. The Titans haven’t been to playoffs since 2008. The Predators made it nine of the last 12 seasons. It will be interesting to see if the Golden Knights chose to accelerate their goals. Fortunes change quickly in the NFL, but the Raiders are a surging, exciting team — coming off their first playoff berth in 14 years. Can George McPhee stay as patient?
The Predators solved two other problems. First, they couldn’t keep their homegrown stars. Scott Hartnell walked. Dan Hamhuis walked. Ryan Suter walked. Finally, they kept Pekka Rinne and matched Shea Weber’s offer sheet. Weber was traded for P.K. Subban, owner of the highest-average salary for an NHL defenceman. They have a competitive payroll and changed perception. Will the Golden Knights be able to keep the players they nurture?
Second, they lacked local ownership. Leipold searched for Nashville-area investors for eons, but couldn’t make a dent. It wasn’t until Jim Balsillie nearly moved the club in 2007 the city stepped up. After a crazy year, things finally stabilized. Foley and Vegas don’t appear to have that problem.
Poile did offer one other piece of advice for the Golden Knights.
“You have to do your own thing,” he said. “We created our ‘Predator Way.’ The Smashville idea and name. In-game entertainment fitting the market. Those things worked.”
What sponsorship announcement did Vegas make last week? Cirque de Soleil.
That’s a perfect start.
1. One other thing about NFL and NHL “worlds colliding” in Las Vegas: the NHL’s research indicated Sunday games were the way to go. How much does football’s arrival alter that, especially in the first three months of the season?
2. The NHL’s top two scorers since Feb. 1 are Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov (36 points) and Buffalo’s Jack Eichel (34). Maybe that’s not a coincidence. “He is probably my favourite player in the league,” Eichel said of Kucherov during a conversation last Friday. “The subtle plays he makes. One thing he does really well is shoot through a screen. He can pick a small corner through both the screener and the goalie and put it there. That’s something I’d like to do, too.”
Eichel said he watches more now, both for personal use and for fun. “If I’m not happy about my game, think I missed something or had a bad night…I’ll get my shifts right away and look. Last year, living with Matt Moulson, I didn’t watch much (for fun). Now, on my own, I do.” He named Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane as others he studies. I don’t know if it can be quantified, but there’s something about players who watch more games. Teams definitely like to hear that. They think it makes a difference.
3. Eichel really didn’t want to blame the high-ankle sprain suffered the day before the season began as any kind of excuse. Pressed, he did admit it took him longer than he thought to get to full strength, but wasn’t eager to continue that line of questioning. We started talking about his desire to improve and he said he’s “always looking to become more dynamic.” How do you measure your success?
“Scoring chances. The number of quality plays I make. When I have the puck, am I making the right decisions? Am I forcing plays or am I making plays? Do I know where my linemates are?” He can kill you from the left half-wall on the power play, but he’s also working being dangerous nearer to the net. As I’ve spent more time around great players, I’ve enjoyed discussing their craft. Eichel is really good at explaining how he thinks.
4. The last thing I asked Eichel was if he enjoys the life. It’s been hard season in Buffalo, and it can’t be easy to see Connor McDavid stampeding towards the playoffs while Auston Matthews battles to get there. But he understood. “I’m 20 years old,” he answered. “I do not take this for granted. (Being in the NHL) opens so many doors, gives you opportunity to see incredible things.” Personal highlight? “I got to see Conor McGregor at Madison Square Garden. That was amazing.”
5. Laughed pretty hard when Eichel celebrated a huge goal against Toronto by celebrating right in front of Maple Leafs’ fans who bought the good seats in Buffalo. As a lifelong southwestern Ontarian, let me say this: the NHL is a better place when the Sabres, Leafs, and their fans hate each other.
6. The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington wrote an interesting piece a couple of weeks ago, wondering if Sabres players were “tanking” to undermine head coach Dan Bylsma. He’s in the second year of a five-year deal, and if I was an owner, I wouldn’t be happy about that. Terry Pegula is already paying Rex Ryan not to work, and that’s not something I’d want synonymous with my name. To me, that’s failure. Eichel missed the first six weeks of the season. Evander Kane went down in Game 1 and needed a month to get back. Dmitry Kulikov was never healthy. I think you have to be realistic about where you are. If the Sabres do have an issue, it’s a divide between older and younger. The organization is in the process of turning over its roster. Losing causes fissures. Ice time changes, and the veterans don’t like it if they feel some of the younger players are not accountable. Edmonton went through this too. When you surpass expectations (Toronto is a good example), no one’s complaining.
7. There’s been a lot of speculation about Eichel’s college coach, Boston University’s David Quinn, being a potential Buffalo target down the road. San Jose interviewed him before hiring Peter DeBoer. Quinn’s got a great setup there. If he even wanted to leave, NCAA watchers think you’d really have to make it worth his while.
8. Don’t know how things will shake down in Dallas and prefer not to guess. But I wonder if Ken Hitchcock will end up there in some role. Some connections remain.
9. Would prefer not to talk about John Tavares’ future while the Islanders are still chasing playoff participation, but it’s been thrown into the spotlight again. Agent Pat Brisson was in New York last week, meeting with the club, and it led to some pretty intense speculation that there were more discussions about his interest in joining the organization. Newsday’s Arthur Staples reported Brisson was initially approached last summer, but said no. When I asked him on the weekend, Brisson reiterated that will not occur.
10. Ak Bars Kazan is down 2-0 to Metallurg in the KHL’s Western final. When their season is over, NHL clubs will try to close on forward Vladimir Tkachyov. Toronto remains very aggressive, but there are several chasers. He’s had a good season and a strong playoff. (Aside: love how the KHL website lists how long players are under contract.)
11. It is tinkering time in New Jersey. Both Adam Henrique and Cory Schneider are trying something new as we finish the season. Henrique is going with a higher stick lie, seeing some benefits but admitting it feels strange after so many years of viewing the ice a certain way. Schneider will look at some new goalie equipment. He mentioned skates and pads for sure. “Time to join the 21st century,” he said with a laugh.
12. Had a good conversation with New Jersey’s Joseph Blandisi. Selected by Colorado late in the 2012 draft, he never signed there. The Devils scooped him up as a free agent during his final year of junior, when he scored 52 goals. He showed some offensive punch at both the AHL and NHL levels last season, but the organization wasn’t happy with his work habits and sent him down this year, too. Some teams were scouting him in case Jersey decided to give up, but they held on. He’s back in the NHL now. So, what has he learned? “If your coach doesn’t trust you on defence, you’re not getting on the ice.”
13. Blandisi’s 2013-14 junior season was gutted by a weird illness that started as mononucleosis. He admitted he didn’t know if he was going to play hockey again, that his career might be over. He remembers walking into a room during that time and seeing his mother, Josie, in tears. “She didn’t mean for me to see it, but she was crying. She was wondering if I was ever going to be healthy. I haven’t forgotten that.”
14. Needing offence from their blue line, everyone’s falling over themselves predicting New Jersey will throw bagfuls of cash at Kevin Shattenkirk. Wonder if someone like Justin Schultz could be a target, too.
15. The Flames are loading up on young goalies and defencemen. Last week, they signed 2016 second-rounder Tyler Parsons, who backstopped London to the 2016 Memorial Cup and the United States to 2017 world junior gold. Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson are free agents at the NHL level, but Calgary now has five goalies at the AHL and below with NHL potential. Jon Gillies and David Rittich are at AHL Stockton; Mason McDonald is at ECHL Adirondack; Parsons is still in junior as is Nick Schneider with Medicine Hat (so you know Kelly Hrudey loves him).
“Gillies and Rittich are getting closer to playing in the NHL, but I’d rather cook them for another year if we have to than jam them in,” GM Brad Treliving said Monday. “The biggest challenge in goal is finding enough spots for everyone. Is there enough net? A goalie can do well in the ECHL, you’re fine down there. The real question is Parsons. He’ll have played three years of junior, won a Memorial Cup, a world juniors and there is potential for another run now. You don’t want to rush someone, but you do want to challenge him. At the end of the day, you always rather not enough spots than not enough players.”
16. On defence, Calgary is discussing signing Boston University’s Brandon Hickey, a third-rounder in 2014 who has one more year of college eligibility. They just snared NCAA free agent blueliner Jake Healey. They are pretty deep at the NHL level, although there will be free agency questions. Those two join a prospect pool that includes Rasmus Andersson, Brett Kulak, Oliver Kylington and Adam Ollas Mattsson, who just came overseas on an AHL tryout. (The Flames are also excited about Adam Fox, going to the Frozen Four with Harvard.)
“When we got here, the plan was to build down the middle, with goalies, defencemen and centres,” Treliving said. “We’ve talked about goalies. You’d like to have a big four on defence. We have (Mark) Giordano, Dougie (Hamilton) and T.J. Brodie. We’ll see who that fourth is, whether we bring back Michael Stone or it’s somebody else. Ideally, you allow for two kids, maybe one on the third pair and an extra. But the plan is to let them marinate. You don’t have to rush them, although it’s contingent on what we do here. What it gives you is options and depth. They can come and play here, or they give you the opportunity to find other things you need.”
With all of the cooking analogies, I’m betting Treliving spends a lot of his free time watching Chopped.
17. Treliving did indicate he wants to bring back Deryk Engelland, who is a free agent. But, he probably has to sort out the fourth defenceman first, and I can see him not wanting to disrupt an improving, more confident club by picking only one potential contract to solve now.
18. Leafs centre Matthews crossed the 60-point barrier, with fellow rookies Mitch Marner and William Nylander three away. The last time an NHL team had three rookies do that was the 1980-81 Quebec Nordiques — Peter Stastny (109), Anton Stastny (85), Dale Hunter (63). Matthews is at 34 goals, Nylander 21, Connor Brown 18 and Marner 17. Last team with four rookies to hit 20 goals? The 1992-93 Winnipeg Jets — Teemu Selanne (76), Evgeny Davydov and Keith Tkachuk (28), Alexei Zhamnov (25). The kicker? No team has done both.
19. After an 81-point season for the OHL’s Erie Otters, 21-year-old undrafted defenceman Darren Raddysh is getting some attention. There are a few teams keeping a closer eye on him, and one appears to be Vancouver. The Canucks just snared another unselected Ontario defender, Windsor’s Jalen Chatfield, but the two are different players. Darren’s younger brother, Taylor, is a forward who also plays for Erie. He’s a Tampa Bay draft pick.
20. Meanwhile, Vancouver continues to stockpile prospects, nabbing 23-year-old Griffen Molino, a forward from Western Michigan. Best asset: very fast. Another exec said he thought the Canucks had a good shot when Molino’s father left his own seats to sit with Vancouver scout Jonathan Bates during a recent game.
21. Decisions to come? There are a couple. Union’s Mike Vecchione, with 63 points in in 38 games, was scheduled to go through the process on Tuesday. His choice should be made in the next 24 hours. Teammate Nick DeSimone, a defenceman, was culling his list and is also close. Another Dutchman, Spencer Foo, an Edmonton-born winger, has told teams he will not play pro hockey this year. There’s no guarantee he’s going back for his senior season, but will take time to decide. There’s a lot of Canadian NHL interest in Foo, who lost Union’s scoring race to Vecchione by one point. Lowell’s C.J. Smith can also go back to school for another season, and as of Tuesday morning, was not committed to leaving.
22. As for already-drafted players, Boston is moving along with defenceman Charlie McAvoy, who took a major step forward at the World Juniors. McAvoy has played two years of college hockey, and is definitely ready for the next step. Tougher to read the situation with Colorado and Tyson Jost, who has only one year of NCAA play. Neither player is old enough to “burn” the first year of their contracts, but haggling over bonuses is always a factor. When Arizona signed Clayton Keller, the Coyotes sweetened the pot by offering $25,000 for five games played. Brock Boeser, who just finished a storybook weekend with Vancouver, got a package better than what a 23rd pick usually receives. It all comes down to leverage. Jost plays at North Dakota. Boeser went back for a second season, then left. So did Jonathan Toews. We’ll see if history repeats itself.
23. Colin White is expected to make his professional debut Wednesday for AHL Binghamton. Let’s see where this goes once Ottawa clinches a playoff berth, but, the way I read into it, my bet is he gets an NHL game just before the regular season concludes. Another GM (and an agent after I mentioned it) joked that it was good to see White’s rep (Kent Hughes) and Ottawa boss (Pierre Dorion) smooth it out after the Alex Chiasson arbitration hearing. Apparently, that one was a real doozy.
24. With the Frozen Four coming up and the NCAA season winding down, amateur scouts are focusing on various CHL playoff series. Two of the potential top picks, Brandon’s Nolan Patrick and Halifax’s Nico Hischier, play for huge underdogs. Both teams had the second-lowest point total to make the post-season. The Wheat Kings are down 2-0 to Medicine Hat. Patrick is a late birthday, and is not eligible for the Under-18s. So if Brandon goes out quick, there isn’t a ton of time to see him. As for Hischier, he had a goal and an assist in a Game 1 road upset in Rouyn-Noranda, then nothing as Halifax lost Game 2 in overtime. NHL teams knew the odds wouldn’t be with them in the opening round, and were curious to see how they handled it. Hischier had a great opener.
25. At least one NHL exec is hoping for a second-round OHL series between Owen Sound and Windsor. That would put two 17-year-old centres head-to-head: Nick Suzuki (Attack, 101 points in 68 games) and Gabriel Vilardi (Spitfires, 63 points in 51 games).
26. When Toronto didn’t put a man in the penalty box and had to kill seven minutes of five-on-four last week against Columbus, I wondered if that was some kind of record. It’s not anywhere near official, but there’s at least one that was longer. On Jan. 9, 2010, the Coyotes also didn’t put a man in the box, and had to kill an incredible 9:02 straight against the Islanders. The worst thing about it was Arizona got a whistle by taking another penalty, and New York scored four seconds after the ensuing faceoff. Adrian Aucoin was caught on the ice for 5:02, Zbynek Michalek for 4:20, Daniel Winnik for 3:57.
27. Maple Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick delivered a huge hit to Columbus forward Josh Anderson early in that game. Usually, the Blue Jackets are the hitters, not the hittees, but there is history between those two. “He used to run me all the time in junior,” Carrick said. He played at OHL Plymouth. Anderson was in London. Something to remember if they meet in the playoffs.
28. One of my favourite quotes about sports came from an NHL GM, who says that in his job, there are only two moods: “Winning and Hell.” A compatriot amended that. He said that at this time of year, there is only, “Relief and Hell.”
29. Good to see USA Hockey and the National Women’s team close in on a deal. A boycott would make a loser out of everyone — especially the sport.
30. Two years ago, Eugene Melnyk’s life was saved by a liver transplant. As a thank you, Ottawa’s owner started The Organ Project, with the goal of shortening wait times for those in need of the same assistance. The organization will host its inaugural Gala this Friday in Toronto, a sold-out event.
“It’s tortuous for people to sit and wait for an organ, and it becomes a life-and-death situation,” Melnyk said last week. “To think that we have 4,500 people waiting in line in Canada, and up to one-third die, waiting in line…somebody has to do something about it and I plan to do it through The Organ Project. People should donate their organs when they’re done with them. You have no use for them. You’re going to be buried with something that saves other peoples’ lives. If you go to our website, theorganproject.net, it takes less than two minutes — two minutes! — to register.
“And always remember, you’re passing on a gift of life. You really are. The person that donated their liver to me was alive…That person’s walking around somewhere. I’ve never met them, don’t know whether it’s a female, male, it doesn’t matter. They saved my life. And I was literally days away — days away — from dying. So you’ve got to tell your family, you’ve got to register at theorganproject.net and it’s done. Forget about it, it’s over. You’ll walk away from this world giving something back, in a big, big way.”