30 Thoughts: The last days of Babwatch

Elliotte Friedman talks about Mike Babcock visiting with San Jose, but his favourites to land the head coach are the Sabres or Red Wings.

This week’s blog begins with a last look-back at Game 7 of the Capitals/Rangers’ series. There was all this debate about whether or not Alexander Ovechkin guaranteed a victory. There was all this debate about whether or not he failed to deliver.

I’m not interested in any of that.

What I am interested in is a question that would concern me as an owner in, or a marketer of the NHL. Should it bother you or I that Ovechkin has less chance than ever to affect the outcome of a game so critical to the fortunes of his franchise?

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For a league that is close to turning 100, time-on-ice statistics are a relatively new phenomenon. Sixteen years ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the New Jersey Devils 4-2 in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Final. Martin Straka led all forwards that night with 25:44 of ice time.

I didn’t look at all the Game 7s since, but not many forwards played more than Straka. (We’re talking non-overtime games here, to keep the comparison level.) The largest numbers I came across were: Sidney Crosby, 28:56 (vs. Montreal, 2010); Peter Forsberg, 25:21 (vs. Dallas, 2000); Rod Brind’Amour, 24:16 (vs. Edmonton, 2006); and Brad Richards, 23:54 (vs. Calgary, 2004).

Forsberg’s a Hall-of-Famer, Crosby will be, Brind’Amour was a Hart Trophy candidate that season and Richards won the Conn Smythe. They were critical forwards to their teams, just as Ovechkin is now. But, as the calendar inched toward today, the numbers continued to drop.

In the last two years, the forward who played the most in any non-overtime Game 7 was Tomas Plekanec, on-ice for 23:50 last spring when the Canadiens defeated Boston. Only two others — Claude Giroux and Evgeni Malkin — reached the 23-minute mark. This season, no one’s done it in regulation, although both Barry Trotz and Alain Vigneault shortened their benches in overtime. Only Darren Helm (21:24 vs Tampa Bay) and Alex Killorn (21:03 in the same game) even reached 21 minutes.

That brings us to Ovechkin. He’s now played nine Game 7s in his career, and his ice-time is trending in the wrong direction. Here they are in order (with overtime totals removed from occasions there were extra periods) — 21:46, 21:24, 22:29, 23:35, 20:23, 20:54, 19:08, 16:52 and 18:30. The last two are from this season.

Before the playoffs began, one coach said he thought the winner of the Stanley Cup would be the team that “had the best third line in the playoffs.” There’s a lot of truth in that; depth is critical.

But if I was paying Alexander Ovechkin $9M a season, or I was someone who wanted to promote the stars of a great game, I’d be concerned. It’s not just Ovechkin being affected. It’s all of the franchise forwards out there, many of whom sell tickets and jerseys. Many of whom make the mucho moolah.

I admit I don’t have the answer. But I do have a question. Shouldn’t they impact the game more than ever, not less?

30 Thoughts

1. The league and players sent out the summer calendar, and there are a few interesting tidbits.

The average salary was $2,803,043, an 8.57 per cent increase over $2,581,827 from 2013-14. If a team wants to take a player to “cutdown” arbitration, that player must have made at least $1,899,943 this past year.

This process allows teams to cut a player’s salary to 85 per cent of the previous season’s. Vancouver did this with Mason Raymond in 2012. And, teams can walkaway from any salary arbitration award of larger than $3,799,887 — as long as the player elected to go this route. Teams cannot walkaway from any award if it chose arbitration.

2. The calendar includes draft choice compensation for offer sheets.

Average annual value Compensation
Less than $1,205,377 Nothing
$1,205,377-to-$1,826,328 Third-round pick
$1,826,328-to-$3,652,659 Second-round pick
$3,652,659-to-$5,478,986 First and third-round picks
$5,478,986-to-$7,305,316 First, second and third-round picks
$7,305,316-to-$9,131,645 Two firsts, a second and third-round picks
$9,131,645 or greater Four first-round picks

Remember, you can’t trade for any of these selections, they have to be your original choices. Unlikely to matter, but that won’t stop us from hoping.

3. Some whispers, but zero conformation, we are getting close to a Boston GM decision. Internal candidate Don Sweeney remains the favourite. Two of their other interviewees were Paul Fenton and George McPhee, although I’d assume there were more.

4. McPhee is in the Toronto picture, as is Tampa assistant GM Julien BriseBois, although that is extremely unlikely.

BriseBois declined comment with the Lightning still playing, but a couple of sources indicate he has made it clear he will not be leaving right now. He’s got a good situation there and apparently wants to remain for at least one more playoff run.

5. Hearing one possibility is Zane McIntyre’s Bruins contract may not be completed until July 1, although it is expected to happen.

The North Dakota goalie announced he would go pro and try to sign with Boston, which holds his rights, even though free agency is an easy possibility. Why not try the open market? “He’s loyal,” one team exec said.

6. One of Colorado’s major offseason projects: find a defence partner for Erik Johnson. Could be interesting to watch.

7. On Sunday, I got a call indicating the Flyers were going to make all our predictions look silly, but there was absolutely no hint of Dave Hakstol.

Peter Chiarelli was barely in Edmonton before he was discovered; Mike Babcock couldn’t spend hours in Buffalo or Toronto without everyone knowing. But Hakstol and Ron Hextall were deeper undercover than Donnie Brasco for days in Philadelphia.

Also surprised: Hakstol’s mother, Theresa, an Oiler fan in Warburg, AB. “She was shocked, but proud and happy for us,” he laughed. “She’s a little upset her grandchildren are going further away, but I told her it was only two flights.”

8. There were occasions when other teams reached out to Hakstol.

Eight years ago, current Calgary GM Brad Treliving approached him about an AHL job in the Coyotes organization. But he was happy and it was far from a slam dunk he’d leave this time.

He coached Hextall’s son Brett and knew Ron a little. “We had a relationship, but didn’t know each other very well. He was not over-involved. The first phone call, something clicked a little bit in my mind. It’s a feel you have in your gut.” As they spoke more, Hakstol said he realized he and Hextall “think similarly.” He did not want to go deeply into timelines, but did confirm this was seriously percolating for slightly more than two weeks.

It’s believed he considered bringing his assistant coaches, Brad Berry (241 NHL games played) and Dane Jackson (45) to help with the adjustment, but they stayed. Berry is the new head coach. “The top priority, the most important thing was ensuring a proper transition at North Dakota. That’s done.”

Now, as he and Hextall begin to discuss NHL assistants, “There are three good people here to get to know and talk with, and we will not exclude anybody.”

9. Interestingly, Hakstol did not reach out to some current NHL alumni (Matt Greene, TJ Oshie, Jonathan Toews or current Flyer Chris VandeVelde) for advice.

“I didn’t think it was fair to put them in that type of position,” he said. “You have your own plan and execute that. You hear everybody’s opinion, let them put it on the table, but make the decisions myself.”

That led to a conversation about something I’d heard he does: meet with the players at the start of each season and get them to invest in the process by asking what they expected to accomplish. He would then push the group to try and surpass that. Correct? “Parts of that are true,” he replied. “But you have to do it different ways in different years with different kinds of teams. You want players to be invested and they want to be.”

He will begin phone conversations the individual Flyers soon, before deciding on any personal visits.

10. Hakstol laughed when it was mentioned that the words “serious” and “intense” follow him around.

“There’s a time and a place for everything. A lot of that comes from, when you’re at work, you’re at work. On the bench, at practice, there are tasks you have to complete. But I love being around the game. Love it.”

His players really liked him. One (who preferred not to be named), said that good or bad, he’s honest with you. “You always know where you stand.” Craig Simpson, whose son Dillon played four years there, texted the coach was always focused “on preparing players for that next step. Top-notch training on- and off-ice, and mentality of what it takes to be an everyday pro player.”

Will it work the same for those who are already pros? “I won’t change that,” Hakstol said. “The approach is different, but the belief is the same.”

11. Not sure if Hextall ever spoke to Mike Babcock, but do think there was at least one conversation with Todd McLellan. That doesn’t mean McLellan rejected the Flyers. It’s possible Edmonton’s aggressive move took him out of the picture.

It’s also possible Hakstol was Hextall’s guy anyway. The GM is determined to show these are not your father’s Flyers. This certainly is a major step.

12. Finally: This is not the first time Brett Hextall’s career has led to his father hiring a coach.

Brett, who played for Hakstol at North Dakota, also attended Northwood Prep, where he was coached by Mark Morris. While in Los Angeles, Ron Hextall hired Morris to coach the AHL Manchester Monarchs.

13. We are less than 48 hours from the conclusion of Babwatch. What have we learned so far? The market for Babcock wasn’t as wide-ranging as we thought.

Edmonton’s decision to go hard after McLellan altered things. But the more we look back at everything that’s happened, the more I wonder about the toll this process is taking on the Red Wings.

Just about every conversation about his future includes some reference to, “It is so strange to see Detroit involved in this.” The Ilitches and Ken Holland have a certain way they prefer to do business — as quietly and as dignified as possible. This has been very different, and I can’t imagine they are comfortable with it. Is there any way this damages the relationship?

14. One thing that stands out is how much Babcock’s started to discuss whether or not his message gets through to the current Red Wings. He never mentioned that when we spoke last week, so it makes you wonder if he and Holland are considering something different.

Babcock was looking for a long-term commitment (six years?). Maybe a shorter-term deal, maybe something structured with outs. We’ll have our answers soon.

15. Do believe Buffalo pushed hard. That doesn’t mean they get him, but, if not, it won’t be for lack of effort.

Yes, Babcock went to the Czech Republic to watch Dylan Larkin. But it also allowed him to see Jack Eichel, who had an excellent tournament.

16. By now, we’ve all handicapped this horserace.

I see Detroit and Buffalo as serious contenders; can’t imagine he wants to go through a total rebuild in Toronto unless the offer is ridiculous; and would be surprised if it was San Jose, especially after reports Babcock “initiated discussions” with the Sharks.

That leaves two wild cards. The first is he takes a year off because he doesn’t like any of the options (unlikely, but I always like to be prepared for the “surprise option.”) The second is St. Louis.

17. There have been several reports Ken Hitchcock will return with a new contract, but we now know the Blues have spoken to Babcock.

The silence on Hitchcock’s status is deafening, and that’s not a coincidence while we don’t know the futures of Babcock and/or Dave Tippett.

There are rumours Hitchcock may prefer a consultant/front office role with St. Louis. He was unavailable for comment, but word is that’s not correct — he wants to coach. The longer things remain unclear, however, the harder it is for him to apply for openings. That’s a rough Catch-22.

Biggest question: do the Blues have the finances necessary for Babcock?

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18. It’s a pretty eclectic group chasing the San Jose job.

As of last weekend, the Sharks were the only team that’s asked for permission to speak to Randy Carlyle and Doug Wilson’s old defence partner (Anaheim GM Bob Murray) would give a good recommendation. There have been other interviewees with NHL lead experience (Dan Bylsma, Peter DeBoer), some without it (Dave Lowry) and who knows who else.

How much influence will Sharks’ director of player development Larry Robinson have? He coached with DeBoer when the Devils reached the Stanley Cup Final.

19. Do not underestimate Lowry’s candidacy here.

Now that Philadelphia’s hired Hakstol, it’s not impossible Wilson does something similar. Living in the Bay Area, the GM has seen two recent examples where coaches with limited pro experience were very successful — Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco 49ers) and Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors).

20. Would not be surprised if Montreal is one of the teams in on Kerby Rychel, who may not be a Blue Jacket much longer. Columbus is looking for defencemen and is loaded with good, young forwards.

A 20-year-old two years removed from being a first-round pick is hard to find, so there’s going to be a market. Rychel had concussion issues last season, but word is he’s cleared.

21. When Alex Galchenyuk moved back to the wing last season, one of the rumours was that it was his preference to be there. Don’t forget, he didn’t always play centre in juniors and didn’t always look comfortable working down low, which is what that position needs to do.

I never got the chance to ask Galchenyuk, but GM Marc Bergevin certainly contributed to the theory in his season-ending media conference. Was it a contract negotiation tactic? You’ve got to think Bergevin avoids that after what happened with P.K. Subban.

22. Another NHL coach on all the complaints after Bergevin backed Michel Therrien: “If those players had quit on him, they would have lost Game 4. He didn’t change the lineup and they delivered.”

A second coach did wonder, though, if he would tweak his system for next season. The Canadiens brought their defencemen above their own blueline when defending in the neutral zone, a small but important tactic. “It’s a good system and you can win with it,” he said. “But it adds 10-15 feet of skating every time. Their guys got tired.”

The determining factor probably is re-signing Jeff Petry or the development of the youth to ease the load on Andrei Markov and Subban.

23. One Tampa player, via text: “Game 6 (vs. Montreal) was our best game of the season.”

They gave Montreal very little, with Kelly Hrudey pointing out how Ben Bishop’s puck movement allowed the rest of the Lightning to stay aggressive in the neutral zone, knowing they didn’t have to come back so deep for the puck.

24. Players this century with at least 10 goals in 15 playoff games and a shooting percentage of 25 per cent: Ruslan Fedotenko (12, 22, 27.9 in 2004); Fernando Pisani (14, 24, 28.6 in 2006); RJ Umberger (10, 17, 25 in 2008) and Tyler Johnson (11,15, 25.6 this season — and counting). That’s getting hot at the right time.

25. Chris Pronger on conversations he’d have back in 2007 with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry: “There were times where myself or Scott Niedermayer or Todd Marchant would keep them on the bus before we’d go to the rink and say, ‘We will go as far as you take us. Going hard to the net, getting tough goals…you might not understand or get it now, but (the other players) will follow you. If we’re going to win, you’re helping drive the bus here.’ All the pressure was on the rest of us. All the burden fell on our shoulders. But give them credit. We wanted them to recognize how important they were, and they did.”

He added that Anaheim did a good job of making sure the two of them weren’t expected to carry the weight too early. “I left, Scotty retired. Having (Saku) Koivu come in there with Teemu (Selanne)…bridge the gap, allow them some time to grow. They were not necessarily anonymous, but supported. Now they’re the guys. They know the team goes as far as they take it. They’re in the room busting chops when necessary, which is what good teams do.”

26. After listening to this, I asked Pronger if he ever had an confrontation with either Getzlaf or Perry similar to the legendary one with Claude Giroux? (If you’re not familiar, Paul Holmgren said Pronger threw Giroux against a wall.)

Pronger laughed. “That was blown out of proportion,” he said. It was? “Yes. It was never physical. Just verbal about how to play and lead.”

27. Did Pronger ever wonder how Getzlaf (19th) and Perry (28th) fell so far in the draft?

“That was 2003, wasn’t it?” (Yes.) “There were a lot of great players. The knock on Getzy was he was inconsistent, didn’t play hard every game. On Perry it was his skating was not good enough. You could just see the talent they have, the battle and the will. The will to want to get to the front of the net, take the abuse — it’s not like it once was — but you still have to get there and be there. Perry’s a pain in ass, Getz is big and strong, controls the puck and the play.”

What Pronger sees now is they’ve gone from winning at age 22 to suffering. “You don’t make the playoffs, there are a couple heartbreaker Game 7s. Now you turn 30 and haven’t been back, haven’t sniffed the conference final. You might not get another chance. It goes by fast.”

28. Finally, Pronger brought up Randy Carlyle. “I don’t know if Randy gets credit, but he should. He tried to teach them how to be pros…kept them down a peg, not give them the world right away. It wasn’t easy, but I’m sure they have a better appreciation for it now.”

29. Current Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau has a history with Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and assistant Mike Kitchen.

Boudreau is almost four years older than Quenneville, but they briefly played together for the Maple Leafs and the AHL New Brunswick Hawks in the late 1970s. He and Kitchen won a Memorial Cup together with the 1975 Toronto Marlies.

Quenneville said last week, “Gabby, he’s way funnier than I ever was.” (Gabby is Boudreau’s nickname.) On-ice: “He knew how to score. Loved the game and understood it.”

Boudreau was not available to chat, but has said in the past that Quenneville was a great card player and “much better than I was.” He also has said that Kitchen was “like a bowling ball,” not the biggest player in the world, “but for his size, one of the toughest.”

30. With all of the depth issues on Chicago’s defence, one coach saw another area where that was going to hurt them: Boudreau doesn’t always worry about line matching.

“He doesn’t like guys worrying that they have to jump off the ice in the middle of a shift and not paying attention to what’s happening out there,” the coach said. The Ducks are so deep he’s allowed that freedom. You can’t hide anyone against them.

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