30 Thoughts: Will the Canadiens be able to get a defenceman?

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin talks about the decision to send Mikhail Sergachev back to the OHL.

Rick Nash doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who spends a lot of time on social media.

“I’m not,” the New York Ranger laughs. But when he does surf profiles, he sees some pretty interesting stuff.

“Hockey is a 365-day sport now. For some young players, it’s all they do. When you look on social media it’s video of their edge work and stick skills,” Nash said by phone on Monday. “It used to be power skating…straight lines, how fast can you get there?”

“It really began to change when (Sidney) Crosby came into the league. You’d ask, ‘Why can’t I knock him off the puck?’ It was his edge work. Now, look at Connor McDavid, the way he attacks defencemen, rolling both edges. Johnny Gaudreau, too.”

Nash is one of many NHLers — whether players, coaches or executives — who believe an increased emphasis on skills development at the youth level is a major reason we’ve seen a scoring jump during the first month of the 2016-17 season. All these great young players embraced this learning process. Their talent is incredible.

Last week, TVA’s Renaud Lavoie was on The Jeff Blair Show on The FAN 590 in Toronto, saying Washington’s Braden Holtby told him skaters were finally catching up to goalies by hiring specialized coaches. Like Nash, Holtby notices a generational change.

“I went back home a couple of summers ago and could see it,” he said Monday from Winnipeg, where the Capitals play the Jets on Tuesday, “We used to have one or two players (from Lloydminster) who were drafted. Now, it’s multiple guys in both the WHL and NHL, and we’re the same size of city.”

In a four-year period beginning with 2012, I counted 22 players from the area drafted into the Western Hockey League. Defenceman Ty Smith was the first overall selection in 2015. At the NHL level, Los Angeles took defender Kale Clague 51st overall last June.

Holtby joked he dresses less often in the offseason because “being a goalie in the summer is not that fun.” But it’s hard to miss the differences.

“(Players are) zoning in on certain ways to release a puck to fool the goalie…shooting off the wrong leg, for example. It’s crazy the way kids can skate. Now the whole game is based on edge work, not straight line, but power off of tight turns.

“It’s changed the game. Kids coming up are so skilled and so much more prepared for this level.”

Holtby gives credit to Kyle Tapp, a private coach who used to work for the Junior A Lloydminster Bobcats. Whether it is Dawn Braid or Barb Underhill for skating; Darryl Belfry, Jari Byrski, Adam Oates or Yogi Svejkovsky for skills; Glen Tucker or Paul Vincent for shooting — the influence of these coaches is growing. And there are plenty of others out there.

More later on Nash, who is enjoying an early-season resurgence. He’s modifying his game, too. How comfortable is he?

“It takes time,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s tough to learn, but the game evolves. You have to (evolve with it).”


1. Another interesting theory on why scoring went up early in the season: How many teams began training camp in September with all three of the following criteria — returning head coach; that coach being in attendance, not at the World Cup; and potential number one goalie in attendance, not at the World Cup? The answer is four: Buffalo, Dallas, St. Louis and San Jose. “League-wide, everyone wasn’t as ready to start the season as they normally would be,” one GM said. Moral of the story? We need a World Cup every year.

2. A couple of goalie coaches tied some of what was discussed above to the rash of goalie injuries. “The game is more side-to-side than we’re used to,” one said. “The groin injuries we’ve seen are not a coincidence.” What does Holtby think? “It makes sense. Using the butterfly style from a young age affects our hips and knees. We’re not going to have as long careers as in the past based on way we play now. It’s like a pitcher in baseball, not a natural motion.”

3. About All-Star balloting: It’s something I’ve been asking about for a while. The word at the end of last week was “no substantive changes,” which is why that terminology was used last Saturday. I did specifically ask if things were going to be similar to last season, no “John Scott Rule” (for lack of a better term). That was confirmed. The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell reported Monday that the league is going to limit balloting to “bona fide players.” What does that mean? We don’t know yet, because the NHL isn’t ready to tell us. Scott was on an NHL roster in 2015-16 until after All-Star lineups were set. If you’re on a roster, you’re bona fide — to me, anyway.

4. Alright, on to the fun stuff. When Boston sat Ryan Spooner for its home opener, GM Don Sweeney got some long-distance text messages. Spooner is a 50-point player making $1 million, an important part of a top power play last season. He’s a restricted free agent and will get a raise, but it’s not something that will blast your budget. So you can see why there’d be interest. That said, those are all good reasons for the Bruins to keep him, too. I’m not sure Spooner’s going anywhere unless a good, young defenceman gets to model black-and-gold.

5. Another factor in Spooner’s availability: how soon is Austin Czarnik ready for full-time duty? He’s got fans, just needs time.

6. Watch Philadelphia. The Flyers are right at the cap with Michael Del Zotto and Scott Laughton getting closer to returning. Would not be a surprise if GM Ron Hextall is trying to clear cap room. Matt Read has five goals already after 11 all of last season. There was a time Philly looked to move him, but with that pace, I’m not as certain now.

7. Two years ago, looking to upgrade his blue line, Montreal GM Marc Bergevin traded for Sergei Gonchar in early November. He’s looking again, even before Mikhail Sergachev was sent back to junior. According to a couple of executives, the problem is while there are some available, they aren’t really top four guys — since Anaheim is determined to keep Cam Fowler and Winnipeg’s asking a huge price for Jacob Trouba. So, teams aren’t certain what’s out there is an upgrade.

8. Speaking of Trouba, there were some rumours last weekend he was considering a return to the Jets, but only on a short-term bridge deal. That was denied. We’re a month away from the deadline for him to sign and play this season.

9. Another rumbling debunked: that there would be no in-season negotiations between San Jose and Brent Burns. That’s not to say there’s much information on how it’s going, but talks weren’t shelved until the spring.

10. A few years ago, I asked an Allan Walsh client what he thought of his agent’s Twitter missives. “Do you think,” Patrik Elias replied, “he’d do any of it without the player knowing first?” The Islanders are well aware of that, too, which is why an annoyed GM Garth Snow made sure everyone knew Jaroslav Halak is available. So far, no real nibbles, with the one remaining season on his contract a key sticking point. I wondered if Snow would send him home, but Halak backed up Thomas Greiss for Sunday’s win over Toronto.

11. Halak and Walsh are correct that this is a long time for a team to stay with three goalies. One of the few to ever indicate they liked it was Devan Dubnyk, who played in 38 straight games for Minnesota after the Wild got him in 2014-15. Dubnyk said it allowed him to take some practices off as Mike Yeo rode him into the playoffs. (Bet is that Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper weren’t as thrilled.) That said, the Islanders feel one of the reasons they need three good ones is Halak never seems to be 100 per cent. They also tried to make Halak more comfortable by hiring Marc Champagne, who worked well with him in Montreal. They’ve tried to make the situation work for him.

12. There’s a sense this is really about the Islanders’ other Octagon-represented netminder, Jean-Francois Berube. Berube, 25, has appeared in just seven NHL games the past two seasons (none this year), a brutal time in his career to be so inactive. He can play, and the Islanders are correct to think he’d be claimed on waivers if available. Should Halak get traded, Berube gets more action. It looks like he’ll be a Group 6 unrestricted free agent if the Islanders don’t get him into 21 more games.

13. The Islanders are a really interesting team to try and predict. In the next two years, their list of unrestricted free agents includes John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Jason Chimera, Cal Clutterbuck, Mikhail Grabovski, Thomas Hickey, Nikolai Kulemin, Dennis Seidenberg and all three goalies. There are some very impressive prospects, including in net. There’s new ownership, so we’re not sure how they will approach all this other than chaining Tavares to the Brooklyn Bridge. The first test will be Clutterbuck. There was a heartfelt ovation for Matt Martin in his return. Clutterbuck doesn’t have the same charitable resume, but he does a lot for that team. Same agency as Martin, too — Newport.

14. New wager amongst friends: which potential 2018 free agent re-signs first? Tavares or Carey Price?

15. As teams decide whether or not to keep their rookies, there are three factors to keep an eye on: most of you are familiar with what happens if someone plays their 10th game, it burns the first season of their entry-level contract. If a player is on the roster for 40 games (and it doesn’t matter how many they play), it counts as a year towards unrestricted free agency. Clubs care much more about that than the first contract. The final consideration is the second contract. Look at the differences between players who spend three full years in the NHL before that next deal, and those who don’t.

16. Let’s look: Nathan MacKinnon, Sean Monahan and Mark Scheifele all played their full ELCs in the NHL. Scheifele did go back to junior twice, while the other two made it immediately. All signed long-term extensions over the summer. Scheifele came in at $6.125 million, MacKinnon at $6.3 million and Monahan at $6.375 million. Matt Duchene, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Brandon Saad are at $6 million. Some of them were point producers right away, others weren’t. But they all ended up in the same area. Now, look at some talented forwards who didn’t spend all three years in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov’s AAV is $4.76 million. Vincent Trocheck’s is $4.75 million. St. Louis took a hard line with Jaden Schwartz and went bridge deal. GMs and agents will always twist the comparables to their advantage, but they (privately) agree that a full third year in the NHL makes a financial difference.

17. Washington GM Brian MacLellan on what he hopes to see from his team: “The biggest thing for me is for our guys to recognize big moments in the game and step up. That was the difference in the Pittsburgh series. They did it and we didn’t.” One week ago, the Capitals were up 2-1 on the Rangers with a double-minor for their lethal power play. “We had a chance to bear down and bury them,” MacLellan said. It didn’t happen. New York had a great kill, then scored three in a row to win. Last Wednesday, they cut Edmonton’s lead to 2-1, only to give it back 76 seconds later. They recovered with a weekend sweep in Vancouver and Calgary.

18. Other than that, MacLellan said, “I like what we’ve got. We’re as good as ever down the middle.” A key to that is Lars Eller. His previous GM, Bergevin, has a saying: “There are guys who get you there and guys who get you through.” There was a time he felt Eller was the latter. MacLellan hopes so. “He’s stronger and faster than we thought. He should be a producer of more offence. He’s a quiet guy but has the ability to elevate. Pittsburgh was his best game.” That was the opener, with the Penguins raising the banner.

19. Finally, the Capitals GM has said that new contracts for Karl Alzner and Evgeny Kuznetsov mean this could be the final run for this particular group. “There are a lot of moving parts. We’re not sure what the dynamic is going to be. There are so many questions…how we do is going to answer a lot of them.” A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Kuznetsov’s painful summer, mentally trying to get over a disappointing performance both personally and for the team. “He got down on himself. His body language…there’s a hang-dog look to him when it’s not going his way. The coaches are trying to work him through it, don’t put your head down. Get more competitive as opposed to getting negative on himself.”

20. Kuznetsov could take a lesson from Nash, who showed up in a positive frame of mind despite a hard season that ended with trade rumours swirling. “You can dwell on the negatives for a long time if you want, but no one feels sorry for you,” he said. While he’s trying a few new things, Nash says he’s stayed with pretty much the same routine he started three years ago, before he scored 42 goals in 2014-15. “Last year was so tough. I couldn’t score and before I could find the rhythm, I got hurt. It’s like a cliche, but I felt I finally found my stride in Games 3 and 4 of the playoffs.” Pittsburgh eliminated the Rangers in 5 “and I worked as hard as I could all summer.”

21. It doesn’t sound like a trade was anywhere near close. “I prepared myself for it. You understand it’s business, not personal. It’s what organizations go through. When we lost, we finished knowing it would be the last time for all of us playing together as a 23-man group.” The Rangers look faster. They gave St. Louis all kinds of problems and embarrassed Tampa on Sunday. “(Coach Alain Vigneault) wants us to be fast-paced through the neutral zone. (GM Jeff Gorton) got guys who can play at that speed. I may be older, but I still feel like I’m in my prime.”

22. So, who has impressed Nash? “Kevin Hayes. He lost 20 pounds and looks a lot faster. I didn’t know a lot about Mika Zibanejad, but he’s got everything to be a first-line centre.”

23. Florida looks like it has a great draft find in Swiss forward Denis Malgin, taken 102nd overall in 2015. Watching practice last week in Toronto, GM Tom Rowe pointed to Dale Tallon (sitting next to him) when asked how the Panthers found Malgin. Tallon saw him at the 2015 Under-18s in Finland. The US won that event, but Switzerland beat them 4-2 in the round-robin. “He played against Jack Eichel that game,” Tallon said, “and he was terrific.” Asked about that, Malgin smiled. “I didn’t know that story. But I scored two goals that game.”

24. One exec on Zach Werenski: “I knew he was good, but I never thought he’d have the chance to be better than Noah Hanifin and Ivan Provorov. That’s not a knock on them, but a credit to Werenski.”

25. Was surprised to hear last week that Mitch Garber and Lino Saputo, Jr. leapt into the hockey world by financing the merger of two player agencies, MFive Sports and Quartexx. That’s some hefty financial muscle. Canadian Business estimated the net worth of the Saputo family at more than $6 Billion. Lino Jr. is CEO of the dairy empire. I’ve met Garber a few times. He’s now chairman of Cirque de Soleil and CEO of Caesar’s Acquisition Company. That group just sold the online casino-style games portal Playtika for $4.4 Billion. “Lino and I went to school together, our kids went to school together. We both love hockey and and our boys love hockey,” Garber said. “I’m friendly with a lot of former hockey players…I don’t want to say their names, but I’m 52, so you know who they are…They are in need. Sadly they just missed the (big-money) era.”

Based in Montreal, Garber has a good relationship with Minnesota’s Marco Scandella, also from there. “I meet with Marco whenever he’s available. We don’t talk too much about hockey, more about life advice. What do you want to do after hockey? How do manage your money, do you buy or rent a place, how much should you help your parents, families? I’ll text him articles about why Apple stock went up and down, and he’s interested.” Garber doesn’t see himself as a day-to-day agent, that’s for Kent Hughes and Anton Thun, who had their practice merged into this group. “I won’t be in hockey arenas looking for the next McDavid. There are much better people than me for that. We want to work with a player well beyond their contract. So, if you’re 30 years old with $40 million in the bank and a high-school education, you won’t be a deer in the headlights. We can help you with life-planning, a service every athlete needs.”

26. What is the number one question Garber gets from athletes, current or retired? “The number one question is, ‘How do I protect capital and live the way I want to live for the rest of my life, while taking care of the people I want to take care of?’” He warns them “never to put an appreciable part of their net worth at risk. You’ve worked too hard for it, and it’s unlikely you’ll ever make $30 million again.” He says he also asks them, “What kind of person do you want to spend the rest of your life with?”

27. Saputo owns Hockey Etcetera, an elite training facility in Montreal. Will he build one in Toronto, or somewhere else in the country? “You would have to ask him,” Garber replied. “Nothing’s impossible. If the opportunity makes business sense, it’s worth discussing.”

28. Denis Potvin’s talked before about how Montreal tried to acquire the first pick in the 1973 Draft from the Islanders. The Canadiens wanted Potvin and Sam Pollock offered Bill Torrey several different players to get that spot. Torrey said no to all of them, the final offer coming as then-President Clarence Campbell tried to begin proceedings. Did Potvin ever ask Torrey who the Canadiens — three years from starting a run of four straight Stanley Cups — were willing to trade? “No, I didn’t ask and I didn’t want to know,” he said last week.

29. Reminder: as of Nov. 1, the team with the worst percentage of points per games played gets top priority for waivers. Up to then, last season’s standings were the base.

30. End of an era as Regina’s Taylor Field hosted its final CFL game last weekend. Anyone who’s been there has a great memory of the place. As a sideline reporter for CBC games, I rarely heard anything from fans at other stadia. This was different. Saskatchewan always had something to say. Once, I somehow mixed up a suit jacket with a different pair of pants. They were close, but not exact. It’s not as if I had a choice, because I didn’t notice until it was time for the game. No one from the broadcast crew saw it, either. Later, I’m walking the sideline and all of sudden these fans start yelling, “Hey Friedman! Your suit doesn’t match! Can’t CBC afford a wardrobe consultant?” I look up, and these guys with watermelons on their heads are ripping the way I’m dressed.

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