30 Thoughts: Oilers smartly ‘downgrade’ captaincy

It was a big summer of change and addition for the Edmonton Oilers. We break them down and look at how all these changes will affect them in the upcoming season.

It looks the same, but it’s not.

Edmonton’s decision to “downgrade” Andrew Ference from captain to alternate — alongside four of his teammates — is eerily similar to what San Jose did following the April meltdown of 2014. Months later, Joe Thornton was stripped of the letter, and the Sharks went a season without the “C.”

Coach number one? Todd McLellan. Coach number two? Todd McLellan.

To me, the Edmonton decision is a no-brainer. Ference will be a part-time player, and while he can and should prepare as he always did, it’s extremely difficult to lead in that role. But the Oilers found a way to soften that landing, keeping him part of the group. It’s a smart play.

So is a) not rushing to hand it to one of its young players, and b) not handing it to Connor McDavid. McDavid has enough going on, like a Murderer’s Row of Western Conference centres looking to test the new guy. And, as a new era evolves in Edmonton hockey history, why anoint someone when you can see who grows into the role?

San Jose was totally different. That was anger and heartbreak. As we know now, changes should have come a year ago — everyone was exhausted and emotionally drained. Taking the “C” from Thornton was mishandled, tossing more gasoline on the fire. The loss to the Kings hung over them the entire season. Only now have they really begun to move on.

The Sharks were trending downward, an arc they intend to reverse this season. Edmonton, with the excitement of McDavid and a fresh coat of paint, is looking up. A stunning lottery victory, a new direction, a new building to come. The Oilers biggest challenge may be ridiculously high expectations.

This is not a playoff team. Not yet. But the hope is there.

The Sharks and the Oilers have one thing in common…they eliminated the captaincy. But the circumstances are not comparable.


1. As the season starts, we’ve seen everybody get a chance to adjust to the three-on-three, with each club getting a few chances to play it regardless of the score. Coach’s challenge? Nada. The system couldn’t be set-up everywhere during preseason, a recipe for trouble.

The teams are concerned, but the officials don’t seem to be. They had a chance to see and work with the monitors at their training camp, so they won’t be flying blind. One bit of feedback: The overhead replay is going to be critical on goaltender interference.

2. Quote of the Week: One player, asked what he’s looking forward to this season, laughed and said, “How the coaches ruin three-on-three.”

3. As every coach will tell you, “It’s a copy-cat league.” Both Chicago and Tampa made it to the Stanley Cup Final with aggressive defences, keeping gaps tight and challenging at the opposition blueline. So, with that success, a couple of teams not really known for it are trying the idea. One is St. Louis, and a reason both Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko made the opening roster is they did it well.

Playing this system can be risky; mistakes happen. How will the Blues, who have played carefully, handle it? One opposing coach said his staff noticed St. Louis is trying hard to shed that “conservative” label.

4. Another team making the effort is Arizona. The theory makes sense, as some of the Coyotes’ best players are defencemen.

The challenge here will be young players in key roles knowing how to make the right reads — especially the forwards, who need to cover when the defence steps up. The thing about this team is, it’s in the middle of a huge rebuild, so it can afford to be more patient.

5. A smaller system change in Boston, where the Bruins tweaked how they face an aggressive two-man forecheck. They basically moved one winger from a stationary position along the boards to a more aggressive sweep through the middle.

The biggest challenge for Boston will be that some of their defenders aren’t speed demons, and you’ve got to move quickly. That’s why opponents went from sending one attacker to two.

6. Finally, San Jose: The Sharks “now play a simple game” according to one opponent. “Up-and-down, and quickly. They will make you chase them.”

7. Total long shot, but wondered if Edmonton was at all interested in Derek Roy after he was cut by Washington. Probably would be for less than what was discussed before free agency. That idea was shot down.

8. One PTO with an unclear ending is Martin Havlat’s in Florida. Last week, Panthers GM Dale Tallon indicated one of David Booth/Havlat was likely to make the club. The former was cut, making it look good for the latter. But something happened, and there were multiple reports Havlat wasn’t getting a contract. The Panthers don’t open until Saturday, so we’ll see if this goes anywhere.

9. It was a quiet summer for the Predators, with a couple of depth moves. That was by design.

“We were happy with the first three-quarters of the season,” said GM David Poile. “It was as good a year as you could hope for. Then, the last quarter, there was a drop-off.”

Losing in the first round can be a tough sell, but Nashville fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in a brutally hard series. Sometimes, it’s not when you lose, it’s who you lose to. As he thought about it, Poile looked back to 2011-2012, a season where he added Paul Gaustad, Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov. “Too many moves,” he says now. “If I could do it over again, I’d know I went too far. Too much change.”

10. The Predators are deep and talented, with some interesting decisions to come up front. They sent 2014 first-rounder Kevin Fiala and KHL free-agent signing Steve Moses to the AHL, although it wouldn’t be a huge stunner if either returned at some point.

“Moses looked great in practice, he was our fastest player. It didn’t translate — yet — in games,” Poile said. Fiala? “He was trying so hard to make it at a young age. He’s so dangerous with the puck, but he’s got to be a little bit better when he doesn’t have it…He can skate and drive hard. He just needs some time in Milwaukee.”

11. Word is Fiala is very confident in his ability. Asked about it, the GM laughed and said, “Yes he is.”

12. Poile would not delve deep into predicting the future of Harvard senior Jimmy Vesey, a 2012 pick who could also arrive later this season.

“All I will say is we have a great relationship and supported his decision to go back to school.” Vesey, who scored 32 goals in 37 games in 2014-15, has the option of free agency next summer.

His father, Jim, was recently hired as a scout by Toronto, a move that raised eyebrows, to say the least. Pretty sure I was at the game where the father scored his first NHL goal, an empty netter at Maple Leaf Gardens.

13. A young player who did perform well without the puck was Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers.

A month ago, Ehlers sleepwalked though the start of the Penticton Rookie Tournament, but when the big camp came, he was very good. Nicolas Petan is another who showed well defensively, but, as one executive said, “It wasn’t a surprise he could do it, he just didn’t have to worry about it too much in junior.”

14. The Jets made it very clear when Alex Burmistrov returned that they weren’t getting him back simply to trade him. But you look where he was two years ago, see how the likes of Ehlers, Petan, Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry have fit in and wonder, where does Burmistrov make an impact?

Things can change, but he seemed to get lost amid an impressive group of young players.

15. Craig Anderson admitted to Sportsnet’s Kyle Bukauskas he was unnerved by constant rumours: “For me it was a bit of a relief (Robin Lehner) was traded, because the certainty of my life and my family of knowing I was going to be in Ottawa…was secured.”

Anderson/Lehner won’t win awards for the most harmonious goaltending duo of all time. Undoubtedly, the Senators hope that security means a return to a .941 save percentage.

16. Thought there was zero chance Frank Corrado would clear waivers, but, in the hours before the deadline, a couple teams warned he might get through.

It can be tough at the start of the season, because your roster is already full, or you think Corrado might need more time in the AHL, and you can’t put him there without another run through the system. (One team was worried about exactly that.) That’s the gamble Vancouver made. Of course, it only takes one, and that one was Toronto.

When the Canucks made organizational changes last summer, Corrado phoned some of the people who were let go to thank them for drafting him.

17. Think there are some teams curious to see what, if any, waiver choices Detroit makes when everyone gets healthy.

18. In retrospect, the smartest decision Detroit made with Dylan Larkin was putting him on the wing during last year’s AHL playoffs. Don’t know if Jeff Blashill was foreshadowing what would happen, but it’s unlikely the Red Wings keep him now if Larkin is playing centre behind Henrik Zetterberg and Brad Richards. Instead, he can open aside Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader in a scoring role, not a checking one.

A little play that stood out during exhibition season came when Larkin was on a two-on-one with Zetterberg and looked to shoot, instead of simply giving it up to his more-experienced teammate. A small thing, but a big thing, because many young players would defer.

19. Detroit looks like it has another keeper in 2012 fourth-rounder Andreas Athanasiou. Impressive preseason performance. Did not go unnoticed by opponents.

20. Pretty smart contract by Carolina and Eddie Lack. At two years and $5.5M without any no-trade or no-move protection, there’s a lot of flexibility for both sides.

The general assumption is the Hurricanes move on from Cam Ward next summer, but if things change — or another team decides it wants Lack — that’s not a prohibitive commitment to take. Clearly, the Swede is betting on himself, whether in Carolina or elsewhere, he’ll be a starter in two years.

21. The Lack contract is a reminder that, when you hear about demands, always ask if it’s the first offer. In Vancouver, the rumour was Lack wanted $4-$4.5M, just like Mark Giordano wanted $9M in Calgary.

Never bid against yourself. Set the bar high. Negotiation 101.

22. Before exhibition play began, one exec said, “Don’t be surprised if Marko Dano doesn’t make Chicago. He might not be ready for them. You should write that in your notes.” I told him I wasn’t doing that, because it sounded insane.

Another example of why I’m writing about hockey decisions, not making them.

23. Injuries to Pascal Dupuis (does anyone deserve an injury-free run more than him?) and Eric Fehr opened up a roster opportunity for Daniel Sprong, the 46th overall selection in the June draft.

It will be interesting to see how much time, if any, he might get alongside Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel. It’s similar to Larkin, if you’re going to keep him, put him where he best fits.

Sprong certainly was a polarizing name around the draft, similar to Calgary’s Oliver Kylington. Both were first-round talents who dropped into the second. Sprong gets a quick chance to show some people they were wrong.

24. One of the biggest early-season questions is going to be: how patient is Pittsburgh going to be with its defence?

GM Jim Rutherford has said many times he believes in waiting until a defenceman is 24 before you really understand his progress or lack thereof. Seeing Derrick Pouliot sent down at age 21 may not change Rutherford’s long-term opinion of the player, but it hurts the current chances of the club. They were counting on him.

25. When they met in July, Mike Babcock asked Shawn Matthias if he preferred to play in the middle or on the wing. Matthias answered with the latter. So that’s where he’ll start the season.

26. Nazem Kadri, asked if he set any numerical goals for this season: “You get into trouble when you start talking numbers. I want to have a career year. That’s it.”

27. I get a variation of this question quite a bit, so I wanted to re-answer here: how can the NHL use Raffi Torres’s history against him when he is not a repeat offender?

If you read the relevant sections of the CBA, the league takes the position that the repeat offender status is only applicable to fines. Repeaters are fined on a per-game basis, non-repeaters on a per-day basis. (The former is more expensive, because there are fewer games than days in an NHL season.) However, if you go to Section 18.2, among the factors taken into account are, “the status of the offender and, specifically, whether the Player has a history of being subject to Supplementary Discipline for On-Ice Conduct.”

So, in the NHL’s view, a player’s history is relevant, even if longer than 18 months ago. An appeal (first step to the commissioner) is being considered, but this will be difficult for Torres to win. In both Patrick Kaleta and Shawn Thornton’s cases, the league’s position was so strong, the NHLPA passed on going to an independent arbitrator.

28. Canadiens coach Michel Therrien confirmed Tuesday what was widely suspected, that Zack Kassian had already been through Stage One of the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse Program.

It had been rumoured that was the case in Vancouver, but the Canucks never confirmed it at the time, nor should they have. Stan Smyl spent a ton of time working with Kassian, but it’s very clear the Canadiens are already out of patience.

It’s extremely unlikely he will play for Montreal this season. Can only hope the possibility his NHL career could be over scares him to the proper path.

29. The NHL (like the NBA) has an equity stake in Draft Kings. The website (and competitor FanDuel) is now being investigated by New York’s Attorney General, after “insider trading” was discovered, allowing at least one employee to win $350,000. My guess is both leagues wait it out and see where this goes.

I never played online poker, because I always thought everyone else in the room was in on it. If anything, maybe we’ll see fewer of those annoying commercials during football.

30. Last year, there was a note about Dylan Playfair, son of Arizona associate coach Jim Playfair. Now 23, Dylan left the BCHL five years ago to go into acting, and played Marty Howe in Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story.

Now, he’s produced his first feature-length documentary, entitled The Drop: Why Young People Don’t Vote. It airs Sunday at 11 p.m. ET on TVO and CPAC. Playfair made three trips to Ferguson, MO as part of his research. I’ve seen a chunk, and it’s thought-provoking. Definitely recommended.

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