30 Thoughts: Matthew Tkachuk’s draft stock ‘gaining momentum’

Check this out, Matthew Tkachuk scores MasterCard Memorial Cup winner in overtime for the London Knights on Sunday.

When it comes to June’s draft, there’s a pretty common chorus: Matthews, Laine, Puljujarvi. Matthews, Laine, Puljujarvi. Matthews, Laine, Puljujarvi.

Maybe, just maybe, The Big Three is now a Big Four.

Matthew Tkachuk is “gaining momentum,” as one executive put it, days after the London Knight bulled his way through the Memorial Cup. You know the NHL’s preoccupation with skilled power forwards, and he certainly qualifies.

Conventional wisdom is Auston Matthews goes first to Toronto, with Patrik Laine following to Winnipeg. I think we all expected Jesse Puljujarvi to go third, but it sure sounds like Tkachuk is pushing his way into the picture.

He led NHL Central Scouting’s rankings of North American skaters in the mid-term draft report card, then dropped to second behind Cape Breton’s Pierre-Luc Dubois on the final list. Big-game performance tends to make scouts swoon, though.

The other thing is Tkachuk interviews well. Very polished. Being the son of an NHL player, he’s got a better understanding of how this works and is unfazed by the enormity of it all.

The possibility adds new levels to typical draft intrigue. It makes an interesting choice for Columbus at three, because Tkachuk certainly fits a “heavier” mould they have liked to play. God only knows what Edmonton will do with the fourth pick, but if the Oilers do keep it, either Puljujarvi or Tkachuk would make them happy.

It’s worse news for Vancouver and Calgary at five and six. The likelihood of Tkachuk dropping to those slots is nearing infinitesimal. The Flames, in particular, crave a power winger. (A few teams suspect the Canucks like Dubois if the above four are gone.)

What it also does is drive up the value of those Columbus and Edmonton draft slots. The Oilers would particularly benefit, since there no longer seems much of a drop-off (if any at all) at four. We’ll see how it turns out in three weeks, but there’s nothing like throwing more gasoline on the draft-day inferno.

30 Thoughts

1. A friend at the Memorial Cup said there was a good debate one night about whether or not Toronto would ever consider uniting Christian Dvorak, Mitch Marner and Tkachuk as professionals. That line rampaged through the tournament with 34 points in four games en route to the championship.

The Maple Leafs drafted Marner last June. Dvorak is Arizona property. It would take a trade with the Coyotes and moving down at least two spots to get Tkachuk. Of course, that costs them Auston Matthews, which throws cold water on the theory. No doubt copious amounts of beer were involved, but you could certainly see why the idea would appeal.

2. We’ve been so focused on David Backes and Troy Brouwer that St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong surprised us a little by saying signing Jaden Schwartz to an extension was the “focus” for the offseason.

The team held the CBA hammer during the last negotiation and wielded it. Schwartz has arbitration rights this time, which evens things out. If you’re Armstrong and/or agent Wade Arnott, the biggest question you’re asking yourself here is, “Does Schwartz have one major salary leap coming in his career, or two?”

He was paid $2.7M in actual cash this past season and will get a nice raise. He’s heading into the prime production years of his career, and quietly averaged 0.81 points per game the last two regular seasons/playoffs. Their record with him in the lineup is noticeably better than without him. So, you can see why Armstrong feels this way. Curious to see how high he’s willing to go.

3. As for Backes, I see term being a bigger issue than money.

We’ve gone through this before, but Jeremy Rutherford of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the last offer was three years at $5.5M, although there were some rumours the Blues were willing to go up to four years and $6M. Last weekend, on NHL Network, I said I thought Backes could get more, but that’s not about the average annual value. It’s about the overall package.

Armstrong, like many GMs, refers to the league getting younger. Backes is 32. Is St. Louis willing to go above four years? How much term does Backes want? That’s the line here. One opponent said Backes could be taken out of a series if you bullied him instead of letting him bully you. That player said this year was very different.

The other thing about Backes is Ken Hitchcock’s return. Hitchcock leans on his captains, and that player has to walk a very fine line between the coach and his teammates. It’s not easy, because Hitchcock can really grind his players. If Backes goes, is someone else ready for that job?

With the way free agents Backes and Troy Brouwer played, is there any chance Armstrong tries to keep them and move others off the roster? Vladimir Sobotka is expected back, too.

4. Andy Strickland, the Blues’ Rinkside host, suggested Buffalo, Columbus and the Rangers as possibilities for Brad Shaw, who left his associate coach role rather than accept a one-year extension. Ottawa seems logical, too, since he played for both the OHL 67s and the Senators, but he apparently interviewed for the head job there and may not want to take a “step down” behind Guy Boucher and Marc Crawford. There are rumblings he may pursue a lead job in Europe.

There would be internal support for Kirk Muller to be coach-in-waiting — Armstrong mentioned the possibility — but would the Blues be willing to make a guarantee of it? Unlikely. “You can’t do that,” one exec said. “You never know where a year will take you.” So, it’s very possible they lose Muller too. Some sources have indicated he could get interviews in Anaheim or Calgary, but there is no confirmation yet. Other teams looking for assistants will be interested too.

5. Hitchcock may look at Rick Wilson and Darryl Sydor, both fired by Minnesota. Wilson stood next to Hitchcock when Dallas won the Stanley Cup in 1999. Sydor played for that team. The Blue Jackets also seem like a potential Sydor fit. His second Cup came in Tampa, where he played for John Tortorella.

6. One potential member of Bruce Boudreau’s Minnesota staff is Troy Mann. Mann, who leads AHL Hershey, would undoubtedly like to be a head coach at the highest level, but this could be an intermediate step. Mann’s Bears eliminated regular-season champion Toronto 4-1 in the semifinals and will meet Lake Erie for the Calder Cup. Boudreau is a fan.

7. Will the Chicago Blackhawks try to convince unrestricted free agent Brian Campbell to return at a reduced rate? He’s got a great history there, and it’s where his wife is from. Their cap situation is very tight, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they tried.

8. If Campbell does return to the Blackhawks, it won’t be alongside another former teammate, Andrew Ladd.

“When we spoke after the season, they said it would be tough,” Ladd said during a phone conversation on Tuesday. “The likelihood is they don’t have the room to make it work.” He laughed about “this weird feeling, the waiting game. It’s new to me. I honestly don’t know what will happen.”

One player he spoke to was Tanner Glass. “He said it was chaos…free agency hits, you get all these offers and everyone wants an answer right then. But it’s changed with the (week-before) window. It’s exciting to see what options will be available.”

I’m not that naive to ignore the financial factor, but Ladd pointed to two specific things: “Can the family go somewhere where my wife and kids enjoy life? That’s a big element. From my standpoint, I want to win and compete for a Cup.” He has two rings: Carolina (2006) and Chicago (2010).

9. Brouwer, another of Ladd’s former teammates and friends, told Vancouver radio station News 1130 that he “has thought about” going to home to British Columbia.

Has Ladd, another BC native? “Yes it’s crossed my mind.” What about Winnipeg, if the Jets were interested? “I’ve said since I left I would never close the door. We enjoyed our time there. We’ll see if that’s an option. It takes two willing combatants.”

Would he change anything that happened in the past 12 months?

“No I don’t think so,” he answered. “It was a tough year. I didn’t get that start I wanted to, wasn’t feeling great after the hernia surgery. Both sides expected (a contract) would be done before the season. As it progressed, it got tougher. At times, it was not easy. It makes you stronger and you learn from it. When we came back from All-Star I just decided to let it go…whatever happens, happens. I started to play better and it was easier for my wife, too. It’s kind of funny, (Brouwer, Kris Versteeg and myself) we’re all getting older and going through the same stuff. It feels like I’ve been waiting a long time, the process started last draft. It’s kind of nice to be be around the corner. I’m Interested to see how it all plays out.”

10. Ladd said he’s also been talking to two other former teammates and current free agents, Eric Staal and Cam Ward. Reunion? He laughed. “I don’t know about that one.”

11. I asked Dallas GM Jim Nill about Kari Lehtonen and he came back at me with a question: “How many games did he lose last season, including playoffs?” Uh, 15? “Thirteen,” he answered.

So that means you’re not buying him out? “No, we’re not buying him out. That last game is not a full reflection of the season. Nobody remembers the game before where he stood on his head. He’s disappointed, and the team is disappointed. We finished second overall, and everybody is focussed on the playoffs. Something went right too, you’ve got to be careful.”

12. Here’s another question I posed to Nill. Is there any chance he re-signs Jordie Benn, but lets Jason Demers, Alex Goligoski and Kris Russell walk? That makes Stephen Johns, Julius Honka and John Klingberg his right-side defenders; some combination of Benn, Esa Lindell, Patrik Nemeth, Johnny Oduya and Jamie Oleksiak on the left.

“I can see what you’re thinking there, and it’s possible,” he replied. “But there’s a fine line between development and playing to win. We’re going to sit down over the next two weeks as a group and discuss this. We had a great season, but we’re still in our infancy. We’re going to get younger, yet. Bigger and faster. I’d like to bring back one of them, but if we can’t find a way to make it work, that could happen.”

Nill wouldn’t comment, but the suspicion is Goligoski is the target. We’ll see.

13. Jamie Benn’s contract talks?

“We sat down, his future is something we’ve already talked about…started that process. It’s no secret he’s the leader here, and we’re going to figure it out.”

Benn can sign an extension on July 1, one year from unrestricted free agency. Watching what’s happened with Steven Stamkos and Tampa, no doubt the Stars want to avoid that. If the Stamkos/Toronto stuff was bad, the Benn/Vancouver would be worse. Does his ask start with a 10?

14. Finally, who did Nill think benefitted most from the postseason?

Cody Eakin. We told him after he didn’t have a great regular season, but in the playoffs, he set a higher bar. Radek Faksa. He changed our penalty kill. Benn, too. Yes, he’s had success in the Olympics, but you have to live it to understand the playoffs.”

15. Much of the pre-draft speculation surrounds Edmonton, and its willingness to make moves.

Another active club? Arizona. How busy? “I don’t have enough experience to know what an active month looks like,” new GM John Chayka said last week, “but moves involving prospects, draft picks, cap space…taking on a bad contract with an asset or assets to help another team’s space? Futures for roster players, roster players for roster players? It’s all been discussed. However, we have made one thing clear: we are not going to make our team worse. We are going to be competitive this year.”

With two first-round picks, seven and 20, could you move around? “Fifty-fifty. We’re open for everything at this time. It’s such an open draft, I don’t think anyone’s ratings are similar. It will probably come down to the (draft) floor.”

Will the Coyotes incorporate more of an analytical model in the draft, similar to Florida? “I’m not privy to what Florida is doing exactly, so I can’t comment. It seems like interesting work, but I’m sure it’s more complex that what we know publicly.”

Chayka mentioned director of amateur scouting Tim Bernhardt and assistant Jeff Twohey as people who “allow analytics to play a role. Once you get down to making a list, you get to a group of players and you try to separate them properly. There’s not a whole lot between them. Statistics illuminate, adding context. It’s amazing how little separates those players, (so you try to find ways of) defining what you value as strength and are comfortable with as a weakness.”

16. Only two of Arizona’s defencemen are signed — Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek. (Three if you count Chris Pronger.) So there’s room to shape the blue line.

“Oliver is at the top, both Michael Stone and Connor Murphy have progressed at a level we’re happy with. But it is an area we need to address. We are making it a priority to develop some homegrown defencemen,” Chayka said.

Chayka wouldn’t discuss this, but there are rumours the Coyotes are looking to add one or two via trade. An exec from another team said he’d heard Martin Hanzal’s name out there, but another source disputed that, thinking it’s more likely Arizona tries to extend him. He’s got one more year under contract.

17. Other Coyote business: Chayka says Shane Doan’s next contract(s) will be for one season at a time. Since he’s over-35, any multi-year deal stays on the cap if he retires. “We do not want him to feel he has to commit to playing because of his contract.”

As part of the Mikkel Boedker trade, Arizona received Connor Bleackley. If he is not signed by Wednesday evening, the team will get a compensatory pick — 53rd overall. Expect the Coyotes to go for the extra draft selection.

18. There’s a lot of smoke around the Rangers, too. Rick Nash’s no-move is gone, but he does have some control, 12 teams he can be traded to.

It sounds like there is legit interest. He’s got a big ticket, and that makes it more difficult, but it’s not impossible. Remember he’s got plenty of fans in the organization who know he was hurt last season.

If he’s healthy, he makes a big difference. And, is he more valuable with one year remaining in his contract, not two? The Rangers also have centres. And, everyone is looking for centres. They’re going to be interesting to watch.

19. The Draft Combine is being held in Buffalo this week. One rumour: the hometown Sabres are looking at a contract extension for GM Tim Murray. I believe he’s entering the final year of his contract, so that makes sense. Reached for comment, Murray said there are currently no negotiations.

Another rumour: the Predators and Filip Forsberg are in some level of conversation about putting together a long-term deal. (GM David Poile and agent JP Barry did not comment.) Another agent said he’d bet, if it gets done, it falls between Brandon Saad ($6M AAV) and Vladimir Tarasenko ($7.5M). I’d assume they go short term if a long deal can’t close.

20. As teams searched for head coaches, the status of Los Angeles Kings associate head coach John Stevens and assistant Davis Payne was uncertain. GM Dean Lombardi has a policy — he doesn’t like opposing teams to ask for interviews just for the heck of it. He wants assurances Payne/Stevens are serious contenders before any agreement.

Lombardi’s contracts tend to be very specific in their wording, with carefully considered “outs.” Can’t be certain of the language in their particular contracts, but it doesn’t sound like anyone convinced Lombardi either was a strong enough candidate to grant permission.

21. Randy Carlyle interviewed with both the Ducks and Flames at the NHL combine on Tuesday.

My guess is he’s a more serious candidate in Anaheim than Calgary. Remember Bob Murray begrudgingly fired Carlyle. It wasn’t a move he wanted to make, more like one he felt he had to make. Making the whole situation more complex is the two men and their families were very tight. That put a strain on the relationship, although, to my understanding, it’s been repaired.

So, I’m not at all surprised he’s on the radar there, since Murray wants a bit of an edge, but I wasn’t sure he’d want to risk the relationship again. If Hitchcock hadn’t returned to St. Louis, he might have been a contender.

As for Calgary, the Flames interviewed Ralph Krueger at the Worlds. I think GM Brad Treliving is paring down his list.

22. James Reimer, asked what percentage of times Phil Kessel went stick side on him in practice: “You mean, ‘Every time?’” he said with a laugh.

When it was pointed out that it looked like Andrei Vasilevskiy was cheating a little in preparation for that, Reimer said it wasn’t a strategy he would try. “As much as Phil loves high-blocker or low-blocker, he can also go high-glove or low-glove. Unless you’re the best guesser…I mean, reader, on the planet, I’d make myself as big as I can be and not cheat.”

23. One Shark, asked the highlight of San Jose’s post-Western Conference victory celebration: “One player ‘cup-checked’ owner Hasso Plattner. We couldn’t believe it, but he laughed at it.” Oh, come on, who did that? Just a smile in response.

24. A few Penguins had a chuckle when asked which of Mike Sullivan’s requests took them the longest to adapt to.

Eric Fehr smiled and said, “He told us to stop trying to score fancy goals, but that really doesn’t affect me too much.”

Ben Lovejoy took that a step further, saying Sullivan “was willing to go to everyone, whether star forward or third-pairing defenceman, and point out their mistakes on video.” Was there ever a time players either laughed or were shocked at what was being shown? “Both,” he answered. Unfortunately, he declined to elaborate.

25. Grudging respect to the NHL for its ability to keep expansion plans so quiet. A number of players, executives and even governors say they have no idea which way the league is leaning as we approach the June 22 Board of Governors’ meeting in Las Vegas.

Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the Executive Committee (nine of the most influential owners) will get together in the near future to make a recommendation. There was belief the meeting would be between Games 2 and 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, but that was denied.

My personal guess is the NHL will expand to Las Vegas, but for 2018-19. However, a couple of GMs disagreed. “Bettman has made it clear any expansion team is going to be competitive,” one said. “If we are given two years to prepare our rosters for a draft, that’s going to weaken the pool of players available to them.”

“We all know the league hates no-move clauses,” another added. “They don’t want to help teams who might escape some with an extra year. And, if you had a terrific rookie this past season, you want expansion next year if it’s going to happen. That way, you probably don’t have to protect that player. In two years, you will.” (The two GMs quoted in this blog are not used as anonymous sources.)

Bettman said there are four options: both Las Vegas and Quebec City; just one of them; deferring it for a year; or nobody. Maybe it’s my tinfoil hat, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s something else we’re not seeing.

26. Apparently, one of the issues to sort out in Las Vegas is the local broadcast “map.”

The NHL’s cone of silence makes it difficult to determine if there’s been a resolution, but it comes down to this: currently, Vegas is Anaheim/Los Angeles territory. Those are the televised teams in the region. John Shannon, expert on all things television, points out there will have to be some kind of payment made to the Ducks and Kings. (A similar negotiation would play out between Quebec City and Montreal.)

When Ottawa came into the NHL, it badly wanted Kingston to be part of its broadcast zone and had to pay Toronto to get that done.

27. Daly told reporters the salary cap figure would be “relatively flat” for next season. (It’s at $71.4M now.)

Meanwhile, the NHLPA meets this week in Chicago, and, among the discussion topics is if the membership will vote to raise the cap by up to five per cent, as is its right. It’s happened every year but once, and that was a decade ago, the first time this option existed. In recent seasons, players have made more noise about saying no, as it hurts their escrow payments. But whenever the moment of truth arrives, they go for the max.

Those eligible for free agency (and their agents) make it very clear: Why should we be punished, when others weren’t? Don’t expect a decision for a week or so, as players who attend the meetings will likely take some time to consult with teammates before the vote.

28. Good to see Janne Niinimaa, who played 741 NHL games, at the Stanley Cup Final. He’s working this event and the World Cup for Finnish TV.

He’s not surprised to see countryman Joonas Donskoi making an impact. “He just needed time. At the end of last year’s Finnish League playoffs, he looked very strong. That’s when we knew he was ready.”

29. Vadim Shipachyov has another season on his KHL contract, so he’s not coming over. And, word overseas is St. Petersburg is trying to sign him to an extension, so it’s uncertain if this ever happens.

People more familiar with the system say he could buy his way out of his contract, and estimate the price is somewhere around $700,000. Sergei Plotnikov did that, and it usually involves the NHL team giving the player a signing bonus, which can be used to pay for freedom. But that doesn’t seem likely in this case.

30. As I worked my way up the reporting ladder, one of the guys I tried to emulate was The Toronto Sun’s Bob Elliott. Bob preferred to be under the radar, let his writing do the talking. At some point, Bob took notice of my work and began to provide quiet encouragement.

Since my first name is the same as his last name, I was always “cuz,” (short for “cousin”). Back at The Score, I’d see him at the World Series and ask him to come on for an interview. He’d say no, “You know I’m terrible at TV, right,” but that was ridiculous. His word was gold.

You could see the deep respect players, managers, coaches and executives held for him. He retires today. Enjoy the country music, Bob. You’ve earned it.

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