• Marchand incidents making NHL look bad
• Hitchcock a candidate for Vegas head coach?
• Lightning receiving low offers for Bishop
It didn’t get a ton of play during All-Star Weekend, but there’s bad news for your favourite NHL team. The cap will be flat for next year.
“Oh yeah, really looking forward to it,” one GM said Tuesday.
Commissioner Gary Bettman discussed it after his formal media conference, saying there are still conversations that need to take place between the league and the NHLPA — but this is where things are headed.
The commish mentioned concerns over escrow, the most contentious word among NHL players today, narrowly beating out “Olympics.” It is also the source of a tense behind-the-scenes fight involving the union.
On one side is lawyer Richard Rodier, who worked for the NHLPA from 2011 through 2015. If his name sounds familiar, it might be because he worked closely with Jim Balsillie in an attempt to bring several franchises — Nashville, Phoenix and Pittsburgh among them — to Canada. The battle over the Coyotes ended up in bankruptcy court and earned Rodier the NHL’s undying enmity.
Years later, the mere mention of his name still elicits grimaces from league employees.
“A pit bull,” one called him.
On the other side of this dispute is the NHLPA itself, led by Donald Fehr. Initially, the marriage between Rodier and the union was strong. Not long after his hiring, the league settled a revenue dispute involving Arizona, Nashville and Washington that netted the players an extra $40M.
That changed when he was fired in 2015.
Last Tuesday, Rodier sent a mass email to agents, players and divisional representatives saying he has information on revenue claims that “could decrease escrow deduction by 25 to 35” per cent, but are not being pursued because he and the union cannot agree on his compensation. The union fired back, which led to another Rodier broadside.
In order to make sure revenue is split 50/50, a percentage of each paycheque is withheld. At the end of the season, once all the accounting is done, the numbers determine how much of that money is returned.
In the NBA, the amount that can be taken from players is capped at 10 per cent. That is not the case in hockey, a miscalculation in negotiating the 2013 CBA. This season’s hold began at 15.5 per cent.
Rodier declined to speak by telephone, stating in a text, “I will only speak with players or their authorized agent.”
In his initial email, Rodier told agents, “I believe you have a fiduciary obligation to inform your clients of the situation so they can investigate, and make their views known directly to their Player Reps and to the PA.”
He says there are HRR claims that could raise approximately $400 million to be shared among the players. “Even if those claims can be settled for a fraction of that… I believe it could decrease the escrow deduction by 25% to 35%.”
It’s believed Rodier had at least two targets. One is Detroit, where the Red Wings had debt forgiven by the city. Another is Florida, where the Panthers reached a new lease deal with Broward County in December 2015. The union has told agents that it disagreed with his conclusions.
There have been reports the NHLPA threatened to file a complaint against Rodier with the Law Society of Upper Canada for violating a non-disclosure agreement.
Despite all that negative history, the two sides considered a reunion in October. However, Rodier referred to the financial terms as “unreasonable.” He proposed a bonus system based on any gains from the NHL. It’s possible the NHLPA (which declined comment) viewed this as a “test drive” for him, but it’s unlikely Rodier would accept that logic.
Fehr responded one day later, using the same approach — a mass email. He was characteristically blunt.
“Suffice it to say that we disagree with nearly everything he wrote,” it began. “We will not here discuss those disagreements, but it is important to note that this matter has been an ongoing issue. It has been discussed with the Players, including at length at the Executive Board meeting last May, and with individual players (and agents) who have inquired.”
That note made its way to Rodier, who fired back harshly, accusing Fehr of ignoring claims “in favour of the harmonious relations he felt he needed with the NHL.” That is believed to involve putting together the World Cup.
He closes with, “This Player issue cries out for impartial mediation by an agent or a Player who can bring some sanity to this for the Player’s sake. It’s the only way. It’s the Players’ money. It’s time to stand up and be counted… or never complain about escrow again. Feel free to contact me.”
It’s possible that impartial mediation occurs. As you can imagine, agents were loathe to comment. But they recognize this is something they will have to investigate.
As for the players, it’s in-season, so their minds are elsewhere. But escrow is their “third rail,” the thing they’d like to change most.
We’ll see if it goes anywhere. But we’re not looking at a major increase for next season, because the cap isn’t expected to go up.
1. Asked a few GMs about player activism during the social-media era.
“You can’t prevent them from wanting to speak out if they decide to do so,” one GM said, a comment echoed by his compatriots. “The only thing I ask is, ‘Be informed.’ If you are going to take a stand, make sure you understand the issues.”
It’s good advice, because any mistakes, no matter how unintentional, will go nuclear.
2. The Department of Player Safety has more patience than I do. When Brad Marchand escaped suspension last week for a “dangerous trip” on Niklas Kronwall, one of the factors was that the NHL historically does not suspend for tripping. I know that drives people crazy, but lawyers always eye precedence — especially when appeals are involved. Marchand was fined $10,000 for knocking down Kronwall, then followed up with something similar Tuesday to Anton Stralman. The league’s position was this was not comparable; the puck was there and it wasn’t intentional.
Stralman told the Tampa Bay Times’ Roger Mooney, “I’m not the puck holder. I’m out in the neutral zone and I get hit from behind. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Marchand’s been suspended four times, one of them for slew-footing (Derick Brassard in 2015). He’s got two prior fines. And there are two warnings on file, the most recent for slew-footing Nashville’s Anthony Bitetto. That was three weeks ago.
We all saw how good Marchand was at the World Cup. Very talented. But he is making the league look bad.
3. Do not be surprised if Jack Capuano gets an interview with Las Vegas. Golden Knights GM George McPhee worked for the Islanders, and word is he was impressed with Capuano’s efforts. I don’t think it would be a shock if Ken Hitchcock gets an interview here, too. McPhee has hinted he wants a coach with NHL experience — so we’re talking Capuano, Hitchcock and Gerard Gallant among the candidates. And I can see Kirk Muller, too.
4. It is so rare to hear a GM throw his players under the bus like Doug Armstrong did Wednesday. He made sure the heat was going to be right on them. He said, “We don’t lose with pride,” called the roster “independent contractors” as opposed to a team, and added Hitchcock was a Hall of Famer and they aren’t — that’s a serious mushroom cloud.
Clearly, Armstrong thought the players were too sensitive to Hitchcock’s pressure. The coach himself once said a captain is very important under his leadership because he has to be the buffer and take the heat. He loved Keith Primeau in Philadelphia. I’m betting David Backes was pretty good at it, too.
Before the decision to change, St. Louis made an interesting move in bringing assistant Steve Thomas down from the press box and onto the bench. Muller, a forward who played 1,349 NHL games, left for Montreal last summer. It can’t be a coincidence the Blues moved Thomas, a forward who played 1,235 times, closer to the ice. Undoubtedly, the club thought they were missing a similar perspective.
The other thing that stood out this season? Hitchcock’s systems normally make goalies look good. This is an aberration for him; lowest team save-percentage in the NHL despite allowing just 27 shots per game. The last time Hitchcock’s goalies had a below-.900 save percentage over a full season? Antero Niittymaki (46 games) and Robert Esche (40) in 2005–06.
5. Much of the trade talk around that group spotlights Kevin Shattenkirk. Some chatter was starting about Patrik Berglund, who is also free in July. We’ll see if the Blues continue down that path or hope for a similar jolt the Islanders got under Doug Weight.
6. Final note on St. Louis: A few executives were surprised the Blues did not “invent” an injury to Jake Allen rather than say he needed time off in the last couple of weeks to repair his confidence. I’m not in the business of ripping people for honesty. But a couple guys admitted they would have lied: “Harder to rebuild his confidence when you’re telling everyone he has to sit out because he’s lost it.”
7. What is Steve Yzerman’s acceptable threshold for a Ben Bishop trade? There is a growing sense Tampa Bay is willing to move the goalie, give him a fresh start six months before unrestricted free agency. The move benefits the Lightning, too, allowing Andrei Vasilevskiy the rest of the season to learn what it will be like to be the full-time No. 1 in goal. Bishop got the first start out of the all-star break, a 4–3 loss to Boston, where he made 31 saves. It’s a worthwhile gamble for someone needing a jolt without taking on a firm commitment. Word is current offers are low and Yzerman isn’t biting. His risk is seeing a rejuvenated Bishop deliver high reward somewhere else.
8. Another UFA-to-be worth watching: Buffalo’s Dmitry Kulikov. Nightmare of a start to the season, a freak pre-season injury from smashing into an open bench door. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Kulikov won’t practise much the rest of the year. He played 24:11, 25:32 and 22:47 in the last three games, after a month-long absence. Eric Engels mentioned his availability during the Buffalo/Montreal broadcast Tuesday night, and it makes sense. He’s better than we’ve seen during this cursed season, though.
9. One GM on Tuesday night: “Someone is going to set the trade market. Not every GM feels they can wait. There are guys who like to go early, and one of them will.” So many teams are so close that someone is going to decide they won’t lose a playoff spot because they waited.
10. Ken Holland to Jeff Marek on last week’s edition of Scotiabank Wednesday Night Hockey: “I don’t see us being a buyer. The question is, do we stand pat or do we become a seller? If we think we have a chance to make the playoffs, we’d probably stand pat. And if we think we’re too far back, then we’ll explore the market.”
11. On Dec. 30, Andreas Athanasiou didn’t really want to talk. He was benched by the Red Wings the night before and wasn’t interested in any in-depth conversations about it. Since then, he’s had just one game below 12:53 and logged 19:06 last week against Boston. He’s still 12th among Detroit forwards in ice-time, but looks to be trending up. It sounds like the team recognizes it’s time to see what he can do. San Jose lives with the wild colt that is Brent Burns. Athanasiou is not on that level, but the Red Wings appear ready to give him some room. The man is a talent, but he will have to reciprocate.
12. Bruce Boudreau on Jared Spurgeon: “He’s the best defenceman no one knows.”
13. Ryan Suter, asked if he’s received the Scott Stevens death stare: “You know what? What I see more is how much he just likes to talk hockey. He asks, ‘What do you think about this play?’ ‘What did you see here?’ I notice that more than I notice anything else.”
14. As momentum grows in everyone’s favourite city of Toronto to build up Nazem Kadri’s case for the Selke Trophy, the question must be asked — can someone win that award without killing penalties? Kadri averages three seconds of shorthanded time per game. The lowest average for any winner since time-on-ice recording began in 1997–98 is 44 seconds, by Pavel Datsyuk during his third and final victory in 2009-10. No one else is below Jonathan Toews’s 1:25 in 2012–13. Ryan Kesler has the highest total in the last 10 seasons, 2:33 in 2010–11.
From 2000–01 to 2006–07, winners did a heavy, heavy dose of penalty killing. During those seasons, the range was 3:05 (Kris Draper, 2003–04) to 4:21 (Rod Brind’Amour, 2005–06). Brind’Amour’s number is the highest recorded of any winner. But that kind of workload doesn’t happen anymore.
15. Hearing there is more than the usual amount of scouting going on with KHL players. That league is considering going with fewer teams next season, so NHL clubs are readying for the possibility of some extra players being available. Just like last year, the bigger names are St. Petersburg’s Evgeny Dadonov (56 points in 48 games) and Vadim Shipachev (68 points in 45 games), but it will cost millions to bring them over.
16. After last week’s notes about Robin Lehner, one of the goalie’s biggest fans reached out. That’s AHL Binghamton coach Kurt Kleinendorst, who won a Calder Cup with Lehner in 2011.
“It’s not like we stayed in touch, but you always have a special bond with players when you win championships,” Kleinendorst said Tuesday.
“Not everybody has a great filter. Robin doesn’t have one for whatever reason, and when you add emotion into it…,” he trailed off. “You have to understand our history. When the playoffs began in 2011, he was not our starting goalie. We were down 3–1 before Robin came in. We had to win three straight against Manchester and he did it. In Game 7, he had to stop their leading scorer, Bud Holloway, on a penalty shot in overtime to keep us alive. Later, there was a game where I had to pull him. He was okay with it, and I knew we were winning the next game…. That’s just Robin.”
What did he think when he saw Lehner stare down Bylsma after getting pulled?
“It’s not something I’d condone. I would have had an issue, no question,” he replied. “Like I said, it was an emotional moment, and he doesn’t filter properly. In my experience, he tends to thrive on confrontation. I give Dan Bylsma a ton of credit for taking something that could have blown up and finding a way [to] not make it a big deal.”
Kleinendorst played for Lou Lamoriello at Providence and worked for him in New Jersey.
“Lou would say our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses. [Lehner’s] greatest strengths are his emotion and passion. His weaknesses then would be the same.”
17. Ottawa’s goalie coach when the AHL Senators won it all was Rick Wamsley. Kleinendorst said he and Lehner were brutally honest with each other.
“I’d give them my office and get out of the way,” he laughed. “Talk about explosions… but it doesn’t make Robin a bad person. Full of emotion is who he is.”
18. Final one from Kleinendorst: He is a big fan of Pittsburgh prospect Jake Guentzel, who has 21 goals in 33 games at AHL Wilkes-Barre; four goals in 12 games with the Penguins. “When he goes (to the NHL), he plays with Evgeni Malkin. That’s all you need to know.”
19. On the Islanders and Barclays Center: It’s almost irrelevant the building’s owner will ask the team to leave in 2018–19. I think the Islanders themselves would be disappointed if no long-term plan existed by then. If there’s a legitimate future (and they have one year to nail it down for John Tavares), Islanders fans will deal with whatever short-term pain for long-term gain. They’ve shown incredible loyalty so far.
20. Matt Duchene took some heat last week for saying, “I’m open to it,” when asked by the Denver Post about being traded. Look, he’s getting asked about it every day and will get asked about it every day until it happens. Not every answer is going to be sunshine and unicorns.
21. Some NHL/NHLPA stuff: The league would like an answer on exhibition games in China and regular-season games in Europe during the next couple of weeks. It’s likely the response comes before players know whether or not they will be going to the Olympics. Will be interesting, because there is definitely some belief they want to say no if South Korea does not happen.
22. The NHL is also looking into all-star possibilities in case the Olympics are a no-go. Do not be surprised if both Detroit and Edmonton are on the list in the near future, but word is not until the areas around their new arenas are finished. That allows a proper showcase of what both cities are doing. It’s clear Las Vegas is getting one soon. Would they do it next season, if necessary?
23. The league badly wants to change the five-day “bye week” setup, recognizing this is not working for anyone. It is weird to see Ottawa and Toronto with five games in hand on fellow playoff-chaser Boston this late in the season. One suggestion is to have half the league take their recess at the same time, with the other half at another time. The break itself has already been negotiated into the 2017–18 season, regardless of Olympic participation.
24. There was a text waiting for Connor McDavid after he surpassed Mike Gartner’s fastest-lap record of 13.386 seconds, set in 1996. (McDavid skated 13.382.)
Gartner congratulated him for doing it, and McDavid replied in kind over All-Star Weekend on Gartner’s inclusion into the top 100.
“He’s a great kid,” Gartner said. “I knew it would be him. Best three strides, ever.”
Gartner then smiled and added, “By the way — I was 36 when I did it.”
Dylan Larkin, who surpassed both men with a running start last year in Nashville, handled it beautifully on Twitter. As actor Joaquim de Almeida said in one of my favourite movies, Clear and Present Danger, “I see… opportunity.” Larkin vs. McDavid will be a fun subplot at a future skills competitions. We’ll be seeing plenty of them for years.
25. Great weekend for Bo Horvat. Rough weekend for souvenir-hunting parents. Vendors ran out of “R”s, then “H”s, then Pacific Division sweaters altogether.
26. I’m not sure if the All-Star Game itself can be fixed. I went to the NBA one last year in Toronto, and it was similarly non-competitive (although the latent skill of the players is incredibly apparent when no one is guarding them). But I loved the top-100 show and can watch John Legend all day.
If there is one thing I would change, I would go to the NHLPA and ask them to tell membership to bring back the breakaway challenge. Here’s my argument: The players are fantastic during the weekend. It’s a lot like MLB spring training, one thing I really loved covering. They are in great moods, very accommodating during the media availability and during events. One of our best shows of the season was Friday night, with Bruce Boudreau, Erik Karlsson, Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Connor McDavid and Michel Therrien. I respect the conservative nature of the sport — team above individual — but this is the one weekend where the players need to understand it has to be different. Fans loved the goofy stuff — oversized glasses, Jagr wigs, you name it. To grow the game, you have to sell the game. What drew the loudest cheers? Ryan Kesler’s son scoring on Carey Price. Fans want to see that side of the players. (I loved it when Kesler blew kisses at booing Kings’ fans.) Once a year, you have to show the fans this side of yourselves.
27. Did not have a top-100 vote. Saw the ballot. Incredibly tough choices. I did vote for the Maple Leafs’ 100. That was hard for me, and this is 1,000 times more difficult. No matter what happened, there were going to be complaints. I would’ve had a little more current representation. And I was surprised there wasn’t more buzz for Ed Belfour, Rob Blake or Paul Kariya.
28. Only complaint about the weekend from one of the top 100: “For a few minutes on Friday night, we couldn’t find a bottle opener.”
29. The NHL was not concerned at all about a potential Oakland Raiders move to Las Vegas. I thought that was strange, but it appears the skepticism was bang-on. The bid is unravelling, with Nevada power-broker Sheldon Adelson and investment firm Goldman Sachs threatening to pull out.
30. Walking into Staples Center last Saturday, we saw legendary Kings’ play-by-play voice Bob Miller sitting up on a stretcher. He looked at us and said, “Looks like I’m out for the skills competition tonight.” Was great to see that, because everyone was worried. Get well soon, Bob.