30 Thoughts: The story behind the Flames’ turnaround

David Amber, Nick Kypreos and Chris Johnston talk about everything from day three of the NHL GM meetings, including the possibility of the cap going up by 2.5-3 million next season.

Back in 1989, when I entered university and really discovered alcohol, the Canadian post-secondary powerhouse was York. The Yeomen (as they were known then) won three titles in five years, two of them back-to-back.

The success did not last. The Yeomen became the Lions, but celebrations did not follow. They haven’t reached the University Cup Championship Game in 27 years. Rock bottom came two seasons ago, when the Lions finished last in Ontario’s West Division, with a 9-15-3 record.

York needed a new coach and Chris Dennis needed a new job.

Dennis was hired part-time by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2000, doing video work for Reid Mitchell, now the team’s director of hockey and scouting operations, and his father, Paul. Paul Dennis, who coached the OHL’s Toronto Marlboros during the 1980s, spent two decades with the NHL club, working as what he called a "mental coach."

Chris would go to teacher’s college and go behind the bench at the high-school level before Pat Quinn offered him a full-time job out of the 2004-05 lockout. He would work for Quinn, Paul Maurice, Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle before Toronto cleaned house after the 2014-15 season.

Chris Dennis went to York, but did not play at the varsity level. He was told about the opening and applied.

"I knew I would show well in an interview, I am confident in my skills," he said Thursday, minutes after the Lions finished practice. "But I would have understood if they said no because I didn’t have head-coaching experience. They took a chance on me."

However big the gamble, it paid off handsomely. Last season, Dennis was named OUA West Coach of the Year as the Lions went worst-to-first in the division before being upset by arch-rival Toronto in the quarterfinals. Wednesday night, Dennis won coach of the year for a second straight season. The Lions face Queen’s on Saturday for the Ontario crown. Regardless of the outcome, York will go to the University Cup U Sports Canadian championship next weekend in New Brunswick.

"We played last Saturday and have a week off," Dennis said. "We play again (Saturday) and from there, have a Monday morning flight. We could end up playing Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I called Dallas Eakins, who knows so much about rest, recovery and fitness, and asked him, ‘What would you do here?’ I take that advice, mix in our kids’ student responsibilities and make it work."

Eakins, coach at AHL San Diego, spent a lot of time with Dennis in Toronto, and gave him a Twitter shoutout Thursday. Dennis speaks/texts frequently with several of the coaches he worked with including Eakins, Keith Acton, Randy Carlyle, Greg Cronin, Scott Gordon and Steve Spott. His assistant coaches at York are Russ Herrington (Spott’s brother-in-law) and Andreas Karlsson (Eakins’ brother-in-law).

"It’s funny," Dennis says, "With Randy in Toronto, there were times I would say, ‘Let’s try this,’ and, if he said no, I would later think, ‘Maybe we should have tried that.’ Now that I’m a head coach I realize he knew what he was talking about."

Dennis is 37 and has tasted life at the NHL level. Is he looking to go back? He evades the question.

"York has been so great to me. I don’t want them to think I’m looking to leave, because that’s not the case."

30 THOUGHTS

1. Daren Millard told a fantastic story at the top of Wednesday’s Pittsburgh/Winnipeg telecast. Colby Armstrong remains tight with Marc-Andre Fleury. Last week, Fleury texted Armstrong and asked, “How’s the weather in Winnipeg?” Colby thought he had a huge scoop — that Fleury agreed to a trade there. Nope. The Penguins were going on a road trip and the goalie needed to know what jacket to take.

2. If the NHL does not go to the Olympics, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see next year’s bye weeks occur during Olympic competition. Makes a lot of sense for TV ratings purposes and if teams do allow individuals to go. But I’m not convinced yet…still a big game of chicken.

3. The league indicated the cap could go up next season, but it depends on the players using the “growth factor/escalator” to raise the ceiling. In recent years, the players have held their noses and decided to do it, even though it’s bad for the escrow coming off their checks. There are threats they won’t vote to do it, but that never happens, because players who need new contracts need as much breathing room as possible. This year is different. People who have always correctly predicted the union will, in the end, vote to raise the total say they aren’t sure this time. The interesting thing is the NHL said at All-Star they expected the cap to be flat. Maybe, in the five weeks, they have reason to believe differently. We’ll see.

4. Although the GMs decided not to change the offside rule, they are looking at a couple of tweaks to the process. One thing that will take effect immediately is telling the officials to announce their replay decision and drop the puck. No discussing it with the coaches or the captains. If you talk to one, you must talk to both, and that slows things down. It will, however, drive the coaches absolutely crazy.

5. What they will look to next season is a clock/set time-limit for rulings. Major League Baseball recently announced that managers will have 30 seconds to decide whether to seek a review. Replay officials will have two minutes to make their decision. Now, it should be pointed out that the two minutes is labelled a “guideline” and not a rule, so we’ll see if that is even possible. The NFL tried a similar plan years ago and it didn’t happen.

6. Playoff teams are very concerned about concussion protocol for goalies. Arizona’s Mike Smith was removed in the third period of the Coyotes’ 3-2 win over Anaheim on Feb. 20. The next day, he asked what would stop a fourth-line forward from doing it to a No. 1 goalie during the post-season. However, I don’t see the NHL bending on this one. After Dennis Wideman’s 20-game suspension was reduced and with the looming concussion lawsuit, the league won’t be too eager to move backwards on awareness and enforcement. But this is something to keep an eye on during the playoffs. Someone is going to have to come in cold during a huge game.

7. Canucks radio analyst Dave Tomlinson had an interesting idea for increased scoring — let the offensive team, not the home team, have the last change for faceoffs in the O-zone.

8. A few NHL teams circled around KHL veterans Evgeny Dadonov and Vadim Shipachyov last season, but neither came overseas. This year? Could see Las Vegas trying for both. The Golden Knights will need offensive punch, and they may be worth a shot.

9. Pittsburgh took a long look at Jannik Hansen before he was traded to San Jose. That’s the second straight season the Penguins took a run at a Vancouver player, only to have it fall through. (Last year, it was Dan Hamhuis.) Los Angeles pursued Hansen as well, but it sounds like the Kings needed Vancouver to retain a little more salary and weren’t as willing to upgrade the draft pick conditions. If the Sharks win the Stanley Cup, the fourth-rounder for Hansen becomes a first.

10. There were eight or nine legit offers for Burrows. Ottawa was the only one willing to step up with an extension, so the Senators got their man.

11. Henrik Sedin briefly discussed the meeting with Jim Benning and Trevor Linden prior to Vancouver’s trades of Burrows and Hansen. He confirmed his and Daniel’s future was not a topic. “We have not talked about beyond next season at all. If they want to talk to us about it this summer — or whenever they want to discuss it — we will be ready. But we haven’t talked about it yet.” The twins have one more year on their contracts.

12. Patrick Sharp may not be the only NHLer who gets shut down once his team is officially eliminated from the playoffs. Vancouver may have a couple of candidates, including Chris Tanev, who is playing through multiple injuries.

13. There were reports that someone seriously tried to reach Colorado’s asking price on Matt Duchene/Gabriel Landeskog, but that appears to be incorrect. The Avalanche aren’t talking, but from what I can gather, no one was close. A team may have offered three or four pieces, and while the quantity was there, the quality was not to Colorado’s liking.

14. Eddie Lack bounced back from Bill Peters’ public dressing-down with a 2-1 win over Arizona, before a 3-1 loss to Colorado. When Lack was traded to the Hurricanes, there were a couple of goalie coaches who warned it could be a bad fit. Carolina’s goalie coach, David Marcoux, preaches an aggressive style that can work for Cam Ward. Years ago, when Calgary and Carolina shared an AHL team in Lowell, Marcoux, who was with the Flames at the time, saw a lot of Ward. Lack is not a great skater, and improved in Vancouver playing in the paint, not charging out of it. Word is he initially was crushed by Peters’ comments, before the coach walked them back both publicly and privately. By hockey standards, Lack is unusually positive and happy-go-lucky, and when I first heard what the coach said, that’s what jumped into my head. Peters, intense and serious, has seen Carolina slip out of the race. That’s not a match when the team and player are struggling. Ultimately, Carolina will search for a trade option after this season, as Lack has another year left on his deal.

15. A few weeks ago, Canadiens’ broadcaster John Bartlett noticed Carey Price switched from the newer-style one-piece goalie skate to his old two-piece. In Vancouver, it was noticed that Price is practising with another, more updated, two-piece model. The cowling is tighter, which gets him closer to the ice. Price discarded the one-piece because he felt off-balance in them. We’ll see what he decides to do, but I find it interesting that he’d consider a change when he’s en fuego once again.

16. Brandon Davidson made his debut for the Canadiens. Any adjustments moving from Edmonton to Montreal? “Been a long time since I played a 1-1-3,” he said.

17. Can’t believe Josh Ho-Sang wearing 66 is a controversy. He’s doing it with the best of intentions. If Wayne Gretzky’s 99 wasn’t retired, guys would be spearing each other in competition for it. Interesting thing is Ho-Sang wore 66 in juniors, while fellow Islanders prospect Michael Dal Colle wore 71. At AHL Bridgeport, they wear 26 and 17, respectively. I suspect that’s because Chris Lamoriello is now running that team. The Lamoriellos don’t like high numbers unless it’s something special, like Jaromir Jagr’s 68.

18. Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, asked if it would be better to finish in the first wild-card instead of third-place in the Metropolitan Division: “Lose on purpose? I don’t understand how an athlete could think that way.”

19. The Rangers’ players love the fact MSG broadcasters were calling their penalty kill the “Power Kill.” When New York played in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, the Maple Leafs were warned of the Blueshirts’ aggression, even when shorthanded. Chris Kreider does not kill penalties, but from the bench noticed opposing point men backing up at the threat of Michael Grabner.

20. In Calgary’s road victories over Nashville, Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina, Mikael Backlund took 71 faceoffs. Two were in the offensive zone. Glen Gulutzan’s security blanket.

21. On Monday’s edition of Hockey Central at Noon, Gulutzan was asked if his harsh words after a 5-1 loss in Montreal on Jan. 24 were a turning point: “Honestly, those words zero. If we fast-forward to after that game, we took the train from Montreal to Ottawa on the day off in-between…The players are in the front car and usually there is some beer. We took it off the car and everybody was mad. I walked up to the player car during that trip and saw that everybody had their headphones on, just staring forward, watching their movies or whatever they were doing. I talked to a couple of our veterans and said, ‘Do you guys need a beer here, or what?’ And they’re like, ‘Yup.’ So I went and got the beer tub and I set it down and said, ‘Take your headphones off, sit down and have a couple of beers, and let’s figure this thing out.’ Got them a little bit more lively. The next day was a day off. Following day was the game against Ottawa, we went around the room and not a rip session, but an honesty session of what we needed from each player and what the expectations were…To sit down and have a heart-to-heart with the guys was probably the biggest thing.”

The Flames beat the Senators 3-2 in a shootout and are in great post-season shape now.

22. Olli Jokinen had a great line when Alex Galchenyuk asked to do some faceoff work during the Canadiens’ bye week. “I told him I was a career 48 per cent, so I wasn’t sure if I was the right guy to teach,” he laughed. “We spent 90 to 120 minutes per day on the ice. Gave him some different ideas, depending on whether or not you’re lining up on the right or left side, offensive zone versus defensive zone. I told him the big thing is to be prepared. Study. There are so many more resources now. You can get all the faceoffs on your iPad the night before a game.” Anything you changed with his physical approach? “We did change his technique of holding the stick. It was easy for me to take his stick out of his grip; every time you slashed his stick it spun around. He had a weird grip, no power.” Jokinen also told Galchenyuk that late in his career, he still worked on it with aces like Paul Gaustad. “There is always room to improve.”

23. Going to use a few of these on Jokinen, who officially retired Tuesday as a member of the Florida Panthers. He’s a great talker, who saw everything in playing 1,231 NHL games. Jokinen won 11 international medals, including the 1998 World Juniors at home, which he considers his most memorable accomplishment. “Time flies so fast. It’s amazing. I remember my first camp. It was such an eyeopener. How big the guys were, what shape they were in. There was no internet. Now, kids know everything before they come to play. I knew Rob Blake, because I’d played against him before, but I didn’t know a lot about the NHL. We played intra-squad games. We’d start with 15 guys and finish with seven because they were fighting against each other. I was thinking, ‘What is this? Aren’t we teammates?’” Toughest opponent? “I remember sitting in the room before we’d play New Jersey and Scott Stevens. We’d all be looking at each other. ‘Oh my God, this is going to be a long night. Nobody wants to go to the hospital tonight.’”

24. Jokinen was a third overall pick, but his career wasn’t going as he — or anyone else — hoped. He credits two particular people and a lifestyle change for sending him on a much better path. “I love hockey. My dad and brother both played. Staying in the league a long time is something I’m very proud of. Duane Sutter was with me all those years in Florida, then later in Calgary. He was a very important piece of my career. When Mike Keenan showed up in Florida (2001-02), I was ready to go back to Europe, to pack it in. I was on my third team, a high prospect, but nothing was going as planned. He challenged me big-time. With two months left in the season, he said he was going to play me on the top line. ‘Let’s see if all the scouts in the world were wrong about you,’ he said.” As for his training, Jokinen has discussed the decision to quit drinking and get serious. “If I would have kept going the way I was going at the time, I would have been gone. The game has changed. There used to be beer in the locker room, now it’s protein shakes. I changed everything. Lifestyle. Diet. Drinking. I haven’t missed it at all.”

25. Finally, Jokinen is based in South Florida, after building a home there in 2006. (Good call over Finnish winters.) With former NHLers Radek Dvorak, Petr Sykora and Tomas Vokoun, he’s created and runs the South Florida Hockey Academy. Some of the kids are local, some come from overseas. “It’s very natural to want to give something back,” he says. Next season, they will have three full teams — Under-16, Under-12 and Under-10. A number of current players (Andrei Markov, Max Pacioretty, Jacob Trouba) have worked out there during the summer.

26. Also had a chance to catch up with Dwayne Roloson, who is living on Vancouver Island, helping coach sons Brett, 16, and Ross, 14. Are they goalies? “No, they were smart,” Roloson laughed. “I’m pretty hard on them, but from others’ perspectives, they are good players. We’re going to look at the college route and go from there.” Roloson worked for Anaheim last season, but desired to see more of his boys and his mother, who is 80 and lives in Ontario. “I tried to go part-time, but the Ducks wanted me there all the time, and rightfully so (with John Gibson taking over the starting spot). I couldn’t commit to full time.” He says he remains interested in working for a team on a part-time basis. “I love to learn. Scouting, player development or goalie work, whatever. I’m interested in doing all of it.”

27. Went to Winnipeg last Thursday for the Fire & Ice Gala, benefitting the Pan Am Clinic and the Bruce Oake Foundation. In attendance that night was Derek Meech, who played 144 NHL games with Detroit and Winnipeg. He was in Sweden last season, but took this year off to have knee and shoulder surgery. The recovery was four-to-six months, so Meech figured it was better to sit out and get healthy. But he hopes to return in 2017-18.

28. A few months ago, when it was reported the NHL had interest in holding an outdoor game at the US Naval Academy, a few of you asked on Twitter if the game could possibly be played on a battleship/aircraft carrier/etc. (The NCAA has done that with a few basketball games.) I’m told that’s unlikely, and one of the reasons is not enough fans would get to go. Still betting on Notre Dame for next year.

29. In the end, Antoine Vermette decided not to appeal his 10-game suspension for slashing linesman Shandor Alphonso. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHLPA did work out a reduction to five games — which I thought was fair in this case — but it was contingent on the referees/linesmen agreeing to it. They were not willing to do so, because they did not want to weaken a rule that protects them.

30. Very impressed with the people of British Columbia, who raised $500,000 Tuesday night for the Canucks For Kids Fund. It was an honour to be there, but that fan base deserves major credit.

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