31 Thoughts: There aren’t as many ‘untouchable’ players as you think

Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

One thing Craig Cunningham’s learned about being in management: the travel isn’t any better than the players’.

“I’m in Vancouver,” he said, as our conversation began. “This trip started in Colorado, then Edmonton, Calgary and here. After this, I go back to Arizona for the trade deadline.

“A scout’s life is a lot more than you think,” he laughs.

On Nov. 19, 2016, Cunningham collapsed before an AHL game due to cardiac arrest. The loss of circulation to his left leg led to a partial amputation on Christmas Eve. Fifteen months later, he is well onto the next phase of his life. He doesn’t know where the road will take him, but he’s enjoying the drive.

“I’m still trying to feel my way around the business side. I like the idea of having direct influence, developing or coaching players, getting them to the NHL. Whether in development, or coaching or hockey operations, I want to get a taste of everything … see what I have a passion for. I want to stay in the game as long as it will have me, give back to the game like people gave to me.”

How are you feeling?

“I’m good,” he answers. “My heart has recovered remarkably well, [doctors were] never sure my heart would recover to the point it has. The leg has been a little bit of an issue, but in the last seven, eight weeks, I’m finally full-time on my leg. I had five surgeries since the original amputation.”

Cunningham uses a prosthetic leg, saying the technology is “crazy.”

“There’s a workout foot, one for golfing, to use on-ice, jog, lift weights. Amazing.”

How good is your golf game?

“I still can’t beat [long-time family friend Ray Ferraro], so it’s not that good,” he laughs. “I’m about 50 yards less off the tee, but my short game is better. I don’t swing as hard, because I’m not going for the cannon, just nice down the fairway.”

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All joking aside, Cunningham wants to deliver a more serious message. Alongside the doctor who saved his life, Dr. Zain Khalpey, he launched the “All Heart Foundation”. His goal is simple: to make you go get screened for warning signs of cardiac arrest, even if you don’t think it would happen to you.

“There are so many unsuspecting people,” Cunningham says. “You think it only happens to overweight people or old people. It can happen to everyone. Dr. Khalpey pushed me towards this, wanted me to do something about it. He said, ‘You’re a survivor, there’s not many of you out there, things need to change.’ Everyone thinks they are invincible.

“It’s the last thing I ever thought would put me down.”

Has anyone told you that what happened led them to go get tested?

“Yes, a lot of people. My family, people close to me, my mother, both brothers. To be honest, though, it’s still … I thought people would be more concerned about it. If I talk to you and ask if you got screened and you say, ‘No, no,’ I’ll say, ‘Well go get it done. What are you waiting for?’

“The heart is a muscle, and you can repair a muscle. We want to let people know. Talk to a doctor, you need these tests done. We can find abnormalities and repair them. There’s a great chance of survival. If you find something wrong, it’s not the end of the world. There are a lot of different options that can help you.

“If I save one life, I’m making a huge difference.”


1. I had an interesting conversation with an agent last weekend.

Thinking about all of the players being discussed in trade rumours around the league, he asked, “How many untouchable players do you think there really are? I mean players who absolutely would not be traded?” I said 20.

His reply: “I don’t think there are that many.”

He might be right. That’s why I don’t think it’s impossible Erik Karlsson gets traded. Maybe no one wants to pay Ottawa’s price, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t discussed. Ottawa’s front office will consider every option, as it should.

2. It sounds like Winnipeg is having some trouble adding what it wants because no-trade/no-move clauses get in the way.

If I was a rental, or even someone with a year left, I would be very interested in the Jets. This is such a crazy league with a thin margin for victory you can’t predict success. But, if I needed to be put into position for a big next contract, why not?

They have great talent, they score and the rewards are high if you succeed in Canada. Life is a gamble, this would be a good bet.

3. The Jets took a look at Mike Hoffman, who has two years remaining. What a fit he would have been.

It was complex, as Winnipeg is on his no-trade list, which means the Senators had to ask high to even consider going to the player. No dice, both sides moves on.

4. Someone who strikes me as an under-the-radar possibility for Tampa Bay: Alex Edler. Remember though, he does have a no-trade.

5. Newly extended Canucks GM Jim Benning raised eyebrows on Hockey Night in Canada last weekend when he said the team “would like to add a big player. Maybe a forward with some physicality who has the skill to make plays.”

My sense is they are looking for youngish players with some term or team control. Possible fits could be the likes of Nick Bjugstad (Florida), Vladislav Namestnikov (Tampa Bay) or Brock Nelson (Islanders).

6. Not sure the Panthers are going to do anything with Bjugstad, but a few teams have been scouting him.

7. The Lightning kept Namestnikov on the top power play, but moved him to the third line with Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz at even-strength.

Tampa always has an eye to the future, and Namestnikov is arbitration-eligible this summer. He’s another potential piece that could bring them some trade help.

8. The newly-revealed severity of Chris Tanev’s injury complicates things at the deadline, but word is there were a few teams asking Vancouver what it would take (Toronto would be one).

The answer: it would take quite a bit.

9. Same thing for Niklas Hjalmarsson in Arizona. Don’t think it is the Coyotes’ preference to move him, so any potential payment would be high.

10. Don’t believe Boston’s addition of Nick Holden prevents them from adding another current Rangers defender. Question is whether or not the Bruins are willing to take the plunge.

Can’t pin it down, but there also appears to be Western Conference interest in Ryan McDonagh.

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11. Toronto certainly has interest in Luke Glendening, but I’m not sure how the Maple Leafs can do it for a draft pick. They’re at 48 contracts, two shy of the max, and they wouldn’t want to get back to 50.

It’s likely they discussed Nikita Soshnikov as part of the trade before the winger was sent to St. Louis, so it makes sense that maybe Josh Leivo could be part of this.

The other key would be a draft pick, and the two sides are a few rounds apart on agreeing.

12. At times, the Red Wings have shown an inclination to move Gustav Nyquist or Tomas Tatar, but not both.

We’ll see where it goes, but while Nashville has shown interest in Tatar, there may be others who like Nyqvist better because he’s got one year remaining as opposed to Tatar’s two.

Nyquist controls more of his future at this time with a no-trade, while Tatar’s doesn’t kick in until July 1.

13. Columbus asked Ottawa about Derick Brassard and Chicago about Artem Anisimov as it looks for centres.

Brassard is still available, but there is doubt the Blue Jackets can (or will) match what Ottawa is asking. As some of you pointed out on Twitter, Anisimov has a no-move clause, but it drops to a partial no-trade on July 1, which is why he might prefer to do it now — when he has more control over the situation.

Of course, the question is moot if, as I’d heard, Chicago prefers to keep him. Centres are hard to find.

14. As Michal Kempny proved, the Blackhawks are a lot more focused on moving their pending UFAs.

Lance Bouma, Jan Rutta and Tommy Wingels would have interest.

Curious to see if Boston or Calgary, which had interest in Patrick Sharp beforehand, would consider him again — or if he chooses to finish up this year as a Blackhawk.

15. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey reported on Michael Grabner as the Penguins’ target, which makes a lot of sense as he fits their speedy winger profile.

Mackey wondered if the Rangers would refuse to trade with the Penguins but I don’t think that’s the case. If Daniel Sprong was available, why wouldn’t someone consider it?

16. San Jose added Eric Fehr from Toronto for a seventh-rounder on Tuesday.

AHL San Diego gave Fehr a chance to play in some good situations after the Maple Leafs sent him down, and he took advantage. GM Doug Wilson has worked the phones hard looking for offence. The Sharks are 25th in five-on-five goals (104), although they exploded for nine in recent wins over Vancouver and Dallas.

Wilson is careful to protect his $20 million in cap space for next season.

17. Don’t know how to read into this, but John Carlson and the Washington Capitals seem very comfortable with waiting to talk contract.

Teams used to be scared to wait this long but Steven Stamkos’ free agency has changed that. If an organization really believes a cornerstone wants to stay, they will play it out.

How Washington does could lead to further changes on the roster, which gives the Capitals a better idea of their salary structure.

18. Nikita Soshnikov was a good gamble for St. Louis. There’s no worry about his desire to compete or personality, only about his concussion history, as he plays bigger than his size, and the possibility he’d go back to Russia next year – for the record, I think he prefers to take a run at staying in the NHL.

Those issues meant Toronto got some offers of conditional draft picks, which they wouldn’t bite on. In addition to Detroit, I think Calgary and Colorado also poked around.

19. As Trevor Linden went to ownership with a request to extend Jim Benning as general manager, there was this impression (and I admit I had it, too) of him going to the Aquilini family and saying, “If you don’t do this, I’m out, too.” Sadly for the narrative, I don’t think it came to that.

I’m sure ownership looked around, and I’m sure it knew how Linden felt, but I think by the time it actually came to serious negotiations, the ultimate result — a Benning extension — was coming.

Benning said in several interviews that the real conversations began recently, which says to me that due diligence for any potential outside candidate was done. Part of Linden’s message was believed to be that there are people in the front office with real potential who are going to be more involved in the decision-making process. That will include director of amateur scouting Judd Brackett and director of player development Ryan Johnson.

20. Here is my theory on the Canucks and Erik Gudbranson: the Canucks are betting on stability making him a more comfortable, confident player.

If you read/watch his scrum from Monday, it’s clear that he thought a lot about a changing league and his role in it. And it’s not just about the way defencemen play, it’s about how some free agents got squeezed last summer.

There’s nothing Gudbranson can do about the trade that brought him from Florida, but it has made him a flashpoint in a tough, intense market where the discussion never goes away. It bothered him and affected him.

Now, he’s got some security and I do believe he genuinely likes living there. The Canucks did not like the market for him, so they’re hoping that peace of mind will make a difference. No doubt Gudbranson will work hard to deliver.

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21. Sounds like there’s been a feeler or two on Ben Scrivens playing goal for Canada at the Olympics. Not sure where it goes, yet.

22. Looks like the NBA will be televising its all-star draft next season. Come on NHL, bring it back. Just limit it to six beers per player.

23. After Philadelphia traded for Petr Mrazek, Flyers GM Ron Hextall had an interesting quote on his conference call: “This is a sign that our players have done a really good job. They’ve worked extremely hard. We’re in a tough situation. You lose your top two goalies when you’re fighting for a playoff spot, and our players have worked hard for a long time now, and I didn’t feel like it was fair to not have a proven NHL goaltender for this team.”

Back when I covered baseball the Chicago White Sox pulled the infamous White Flag Trade in 1997. Three-and-a-half games behind Cleveland, the Sox sent two starters and their closer to San Francisco for six prospects. They came through Toronto a little while after and I interviewed long-time third baseman Robin Ventura about it.

“I thought the idea was trying to win,” he said, adding that you have to reward teams that earn it.

The White Sox faltered in the games after the deal and fell out of the race.

I never forgot that conversation, because that’s the way players think. The Flyers are a little bit ahead of where they thought they’d be in a very tough division. They earned some help.

24. After mentioning Justin Faulk’s low shooting percentage last week he scored a hat trick against Los Angeles.

Someone joked, “Can you do Jeff Skinner next?”

Didn’t need to. He scored four goals in four games.

25. Some of the scouts/reporters who were watching Los Angeles at Buffalo last weekend said they haven’t seen a general manager all year as upset as Jason Botterill was during that game.

26. Nick Kypreos mentioned Ken Holland, John Ferguson and Bill Guerin as possibilities for the soon-to-be-open Seattle GM job.

Two more to ponder: Vegas’ success likely puts Kelly McCrimmon in the conversation, while Tim Leiweke’s guidance with the OakView Group means you should always keep an eye on his connections, and one is Los Angeles’ Mike Futa.

27. Pittsburgh is rising to the top of the Metropolitan Division thanks to a lethal power play that is among the best since records were kept. The Penguins’ percentage of 26.6 heading into last Saturday’s game against Toronto puts them fourth overall.

The best is Calgary in 1989-90, at 27.7. Second and third are Washington (26.8 in 2012-13) and Philadelphia (26.7 in 1988-89) – ah, the immovable Tim Kerr.

Watching Sidney Crosby draw defences and feather passes to wide-open teammates was like watching Steve Nash do it with the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns.

28. Courtesy Sportsnet 650 Vancouver’s Scott Rintoul: Connor McDavid could be the third player in the last five years to win the Art Ross Trophy as scoring leader — and miss the playoffs. (Martin St. Louis did it in 2012-13 and Jamie Benn in 2014-15.)

In the days of the Original Six, this happened the first two years of the award’s existence, for Elmer Lach in 1947-48 and Roy Conacher the next season. There are seven such winners in total, the others being Mario Lemieux (1987-88) and Jarome Iginla (2001-02).

29. Nazem Kadri on Mitch Marner: “95 per cent of the time, he passes when others shoot.”

30 From across the continent, the Florida Panthers did some very special work in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting on their social media feeds and game broadcasts.

31. All the best to Jerry Howarth, who retired last week after 36 years of Blue Jays radio.

Back in the Headline Sports days I spent one season in the booth with Jerry and Tom Cheek for home games. My as-yet-unfinished university degree was in English but I despised nitpicking for good grammar and when I got into television and radio, I decided I was going to speak the way I wanted, not the Queen’s English.

One night, as I was reading the out-of-town scoreboard, I said something along the lines of, “Mariano Rivera struck out Rafael Palmeiro with the Yankees leading the Orioles 5-4.” Jerry replied, “So the game is still going on, then?” I said, “No, that ended it.”

Later, he came to me and said that he didn’t like the way I phrased it, that to him, “leading” means the game is still in progress and that is the way he preferred it. I liked that, and always made sure to do it that way when around him. It taught me that some things had a standard, an expectation, and you had to bend to that. It’s a lot of what I felt when I joined Hockey Night.

Jerry also validated something I always did: when you hear something interesting, immediately write it down and pursue when you can. He had a notebook full of things he would ask about the next day during batting practice. Jerry taught a lot of small things that added up to one big lesson.

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