31 Thoughts: NHL embracing new era of fun, personality

Rod Brind’Amour joins Hockey Central at Noon to give his thoughts own his team’s post-game celebration and the play of Andrei Svechnikov.

• Canadiens among teams interested in Sam Bennett
• Melnyk tells NHL Board he’s not selling Sens
• Six-year deal the answer for Leafs, Nylander?

Well before the Carolina Hurricanes publicly unveiled their new victory celebration — featuring a team-wide leap into the glass — they discussed it with new head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“The captains brought it up early and we talked about it as a group,” Brind’Amour said Tuesday, driving home from a 5–3 victory over Vancouver. “They were tired of the salute at centre ice.”

What did you think?

“I thought it was great,” he replied. “Guys play hard and they should enjoy themselves. It should be fun when you win. It used to be that when you won you’d go out and have a good time, but guys don’t do that anymore — they’re serious about things all the time. You have to find other ways to blow off steam.

“I’m not sure coaches (back when I played) would have allowed it, but we’re living in a different time.”

In a wild first week, we’ve seen a magnificent showdown between Patrick Kane and Auston Matthews, where Matthews put his hand to his ear when scoring late against the Blackhawks, only to see Kane mimic the move after his own goal minutes later. (Matthews smiled on the bench in reply. I’m convinced we’re about to discover a whole new side of him.)

Nashville’s Roman Josi was on GQ’s “best-dressed of the week” list, joining Orlando Bloom, Ryan Gosling, Gucci Mane and Tom Hardy.

Even Gary Bettman got into the act. As the Ducks celebrated their 25th anniversary with a shootout win over Detroit, Anaheim colour analyst Brian Hayward got Bettman to blow a duck call during an intermission interview. There was precedent for this, as the commissioner did the same thing in March 1993, when the team was first introduced. But I never thought we’d see him do it again.

Ever since last year’s NHL Awards, where Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, Florida’s Roberto Luongo, Vegas GM George McPhee and Nashville’s P.K. Subban were trusted to lead more serious segments, I’ve been wondering if we’re heading into a new era. That was bold, and they shined.

Reigning Super Bowl championship coach Doug Pederson came out with a book called Fearless: How an Underdog Becomes a Champion. In it, he writes: “One of the things I’ve told players repeatedly is I want them to show their personalities. Be who you are…. I am not coaching robots…. Your career is going to last two years or ten years, or somewhere in between. Then it is over. So while you are playing, enjoy it, man. Don’t hide. Don’t mask anything. Doing that helps cultivate our culture, and if dancing around on the field helps you win games, do it.”

Not sure if Brind’Amour’s read this book, but his philosophy is the exact same.

There’s always a clash in hockey of team vs. individual. I get that. It is very, very hard for an individual to win in the NHL. You just don’t get the same opportunity to impact the game as an NBA star or a top NFL quarterback would. But what that often suppresses is the fact that you can be both a great individual and a great teammate. And if it is not what you want, no one’s forcing you.

We’re off to a fun start. Hope it stays that way.

31 THOUGHTS

1. A quick whistle erased Sam Bennett’s first goal of the season Tuesday night in Nashville, but he did play 13:27 — his highest of the year. He saw 8:47 and 7:01 in the opening two games against Vancouver. The list of teams who’ve inquired about him through the years includes Anaheim, Montreal, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. I’m not convinced the Flames want to trade him, knowing he’s 22 and could blossom elsewhere. Just something to watch, as he searches for a fit with a new coach and changed roster.

2. Alexander Edler is playing 25:19 a game, 12th in the NHL. This is someone who does not want to leave Vancouver. He’s made that very clear. His contract is up after the season, and Tampa was interested a year ago. Someone’s going to want him as a rental, even if he returns to British Columbia next year.

3. We’ve seen stronger-than-expected openings for Montreal and Ottawa, who are both under different offensive setups than what we were used to. The Canadiens, realizing they would not be able to overpower teams, especially along the boards, placed emphasis on offence through the middle.

“Own the area between the dots,” one player said.

“Beat the swarm,” said another.

“The fourth player up the rush is much more active,” says an opposing coach.

The organization was encouraged by a home pre-season game against Toronto, where the Maple Leafs dressed both Matthews and John Tavares for the first time. The Canadiens lost 5–3 thanks to one ugly stretch of two shorthanded goals allowed in 20 seconds, but battled to a draw at even strength and were competitive.

4. Kelly Hrudey showed during last week’s pre-game show how Carey Price has moved his legs closer together, providing video evidence of a six-inch difference between his skates from 2017–18 to 2018–19. In the short-term the adjustment looks good, as he stopped 44 of the 48 shots he faced in nearly ruining the Maple Leafs’ home opener and blowing out the Penguins. The Canadiens wanted to see him regain his swagger, and felt the first week was a great opportunity for that.

Two things stood out: Price celebrating when the Canadiens got to overtime in the Ontario capital, knowing that would be good for confidence. Second was a lengthy solo practice with goalie coach Stephane Waite Tuesday in Montreal. Years ago, then-Canadiens coach Jacques Martin complained about Price’s work habits, wanting to see him work as hard on the ice as Patrick Roy would after a bad performance. Price is putting in the time after good work.

5. The Senators are completely different, almost unrecognizable in the offensive zone. They aren’t afraid to play three below the face-off dots, and it’s noticeable how players are covering for each other when a fourth comes down to make a play.

“We knew in the past our left defenceman was coming up — now everyone reads the third forward or both ‘D,’” one player said.

Added another: “It reminds me of what New Jersey did last season. As long as we’re willing to get back, this can work.”

Coach Guy Boucher said it wasn’t quite correct to call it a copy of the Devils.

“You design a system to fit your players. Our guys are fast enough to play this way.”

They definitely caught people by surprise.

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6. Not long after being put through waivers, Zack Smith has four points in his first three games. Smith had some interesting things to say about how he handled it, from the number of surprisingly supportive texts he received to the fact he’s a new father (daughter Rae was born in August).

“When you go home to see her,” he said, “things don’t bother you as much.”

Best text?

“There was one from Nick Foligno that was pretty good.”

But what Smith said helped the most was that he realized 2017–18 simply wasn’t acceptable.

“This year was always going to be a fresh start for me. I was in the mindset that I was going to be better. That didn’t change with what happened.”

7. Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk took the floor at the Board of Governors meeting to let the rest of the NHL know that he’s not selling the club. We’ve heard that before, but it’s interesting that he was given the opportunity to do it in that setting. Clearly, he wanted the other owners to hear it from him — directly.

One governor said what he took from it is the downtown building process is going to take a long, long time.

8. At the Board of Governors meeting last week, the NHL provided 2019–20 cap estimates ranging from $81.4 million (no NHLPA inflator) to $85.4 million (the full five per cent). (The players committed to 1.25 for 2018–19.) Looking at the last six Stanley Cup champions and their four highest-paid players, the percentage of the cap spent on them ranges from 35.5 (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford and Patrick Sharp on the 2015 Blackhawks) to 45.2 (Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel on the 2017 Penguins).

The advantage Pittsburgh had that Toronto doesn’t is Crosby and Malkin are on back-diving contracts no longer allowed under CBA rules. The defending-champion Capitals were at 40.2 for Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby. Those deals all have acceptable structure. We already know John Tavares is at $11 million, so if the Maple Leafs want to stay at 45 per cent, they have between $36.6 million (low end) and $38.4 million (high end) for Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander. Matthews is going to come in above Tavares, and Marner will wait to see what he signs for. It’s a tight, tight squeeze.

9. Chicago and Pittsburgh alleviated cap stress with five-year second contracts for Crosby, Kane, Malkin and Toews. It’s unlikely Toronto would want that term for Nylander, since it takes him right to free agency. Maybe six is the answer. I do believe they’ve looked at something in the three- or four-year range, but the gap remains. The other issue is that I don’t see many easy trades, if Toronto ever decides to go that route. Monetary differences aside, they like the player. A lot.

10. Early-season prediction: The number “34” shows up somewhere in whatever extension Auston Matthews signs.

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11. “Here’s one for you,” an amateur scout said. “Can you find the NHL team that had [Elias] Pettersson No. 1 on its draft board?”

12. The Canucks produced a draft video after Pettersson’s fifth-overall selection in 2017, revealing they felt safe trading down one spot with Vegas, but were worried about the Rangers — picking seventh. One executive indicated that if Pettersson had followed top pick Nico Hischier to North America the season beforehand, the current Canuck would have been No. 1. Another disagreed, if only because it is so hard to be dominant with his body structure.

“You need to be special if you’re built the way he is,” a third said of Pettersson, who’s currently listed at 6’2″ and 176 pounds on the Canucks’ website. “I had no doubt that he was the most talented player in his draft class. Him not playing in North America and being so physically raw prevented him [from going] first overall in my opinion.”

The Canucks were handed a tough, tough schedule to start this season, but that’s probably good for Pettersson, who will learn what it’s like to be the focus of a game plan when you don’t have last change.

13. If you’re wondering who might be next to follow John Tavares’s free-agent setup, the betting money is on Artemi Panarin.

14. It’s been reported that the NHL and potential plaintiffs in concussion lawsuits were ordered into mediation. About two weeks ago, there were rumours about “movement” towards some kind of resolution. Multiple sources warned not to call it a settlement, that the language of any reporting would be very important. Obviously, it is complex. We’ll see where it goes.

15. Sportsnet producer Jeremy McElhanney went to Russia for Ovechkin’s time with the Cup. The piece will air this weekend on Hockey Night in Canada. We were in Washington for extra interviews during the pre-season, and asked Ovechkin about not having to answer any more questions about winning his first Cup or getting past the Penguins or whatever. He wasn’t buying it.

“Well, you have to figure out what’s the next question. What’s the next question for me?” he asked.

It was a great response.

Added Braden Holtby, “They’re all over Tom Brady right now. You’re always going to have to answer questions.”

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16. Two weeks ago, we interviewed Dallas Green (City and Colour) for 31 Thoughts: The Podcast. He talked about his friendship with Holtby, laughing at how he went to see the goalie play in Nashville, only to see him get yanked after six goals in 25 minutes. He did add that there was a better story about their friendship, but we’d need Holtby’s permission to tell it.

Holtby told it himself.

“I don’t know if my wife (Brandi) is going to be mad at me for telling everyone this,” he smiled. “My wife and I, when we first me had that common ground of City and Colour. We were big fans. I kind of took a shot in the dark and asked [Dallas] if he’d play ‘The Girl’ for me and record it [so] I could play it at our Cup party for Brandi. I think that’s one thing that gets forgotten in all this is the support we get from our families and especially our wives and our kids…. They took on a lot to go through that playoff run. We weren’t being the best fathers or husbands because we were busy, and when we were home we were sleeping. I just wanted to find a way to say thank you.”

17. Best story heard from the Capitals’ Stanley Cup celebration: The morning after they won, the travelling party could not find Alex Chiasson for the bus ride to the airport.

“We were like, ‘Where is this guy?’” said Mike Vogel, well-known to fans for writing the “Dump ’N Chase” blog at washingtoncaps.com. “We went knocking on the door and there was no answer…. So security opens the door, and there’s no one in this room.”

They packed his stuff, stepped out of the elevator into the hotel lobby and walked right into Chiasson. He had been in Starbucks.

“He said, ‘That’s not my luggage; mine is on the bus.’ I said, ‘No, we went to your room and packed it.’ He said, ‘No, it’s on the bus.’”

It turned out Chiasson was unhappy with his original room and changed it.

“I can’t imagine this guy going back to his room and… ‘Why is all my stuff packed?’”

18. Philadelphia’s had a couple of rough losses after an impressive start in Vegas, but one player who looks much better is Wayne Simmonds.

“I’m close to fully healthy,” he said this week.

How close?

“I’d put it at 95 per cent.”

It was an intense, gruelling summer of rehab after pelvic and abdominal surgery in May. Asked if he considered changes to his skating style to ease the workload, Simmonds responded that when he missed seven games last winter with torn ligaments on his left thumb, he worked with the team’s skating coach on making his stride less choppy.

At the Bio Steel camp in 2017, other players said Simmonds has tried just about everything to add weight — not easy for someone with such a lean physique. He is a bit heavier to start this season.

“I didn’t do as much cardio because of the rehab, so I’m close to 190 (pounds).”

What’s normal for you?

“Between 180 and 185,” he answered.

One fact I never knew about him: Simmonds went to the Ontario high school track and field championships in the 1500-metre run, qualifying by finishing 10th in the city of Toronto. His parents were distance runners, too.

19. Prior to their home opener Tuesday night, the Flyers announced Simmonds would be a permanent alternate captain to Claude Giroux. He’s a pending free agent, with the Flyers saying they’d like to keep him, and the player responding that he’d like to stay.

“I’m going to let my agent (Eustace King) handle that,” Simmonds says.

He’s kept his spot in front of the net on the Flyers’ first power-play unit, which was uncertain after Philadelphia signed James van Riemsdyk. The two were linemates between Mikhail Vorobyev before van Riemsdyk was injured in the team’s second game, at Colorado.

“He’s very smart,” Simmonds says of the Russian rookie.

Vorobyev looked hilariously stone-faced with his first goal puck, scored in the 5-2 defeat to the Avalanche.

“I don’t think he was mad (at taking the photo after a loss),” Simmonds laughed. “I think that’s just him. He’ll sit quietly on the bench during the game, then say something out of nowhere.”

20. Another guy who can’t put on weight? Tyler Seguin.

“I have struggled with keeping my weight up throughout a season. Most years I’ll lose 10 to 13 pounds.”

During playoff runs in Boston, Seguin said it wasn’t unusual to lose 15 to 17. Now he’s hired a chef to cook for him, and this summer he’s up 15 pounds.

“The boys joke about my body fat, just because it is so low. This is the first year I got it over four per cent.”

Four per cent!

“I’m happy about that. Hopefully I can keep it up.”

Jeff Marek wondered if this means Seguin has to change his stick during the year, and he replied it does happen, for both kick point and flex.

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21. Winnipeg’s players joke that captain Blake Wheeler has two distinct personalities — an easygoing one, and “grumpy Blake” for when things aren’t being done properly.

“I think there are times that I can boil a little bit,” he admitted. “I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better about controlling when and where, time and place, and who’s involved in that. All in all, it all comes from a good place. I have a high level that I expect from myself every single day. I have a high level I expect from my teammates every single day. More than anything I try to dish out positive reinforcement, but there’s going to be days where we don’t have it, or I don’t have it. So the intensity gets revved up a little bit. That’s a healthy thing.”

Wheeler said he picked up that attitude by hearing how people talked about Nicklas Lidstrom.

“He was doing the same thing every day. An 82-game season is a marathon. There’s days where it’s no fun doing things in the gym or doing things to warm up. Seeing a guy like that who found a way to love doing that stuff and make himself great every single day, that stuck with me. So, I’ve tried to trick myself on those days to making it fun and enjoying it and putting a smile on my face even though inside you’re burning up. Carrying a positive attitude goes a long way.”

22. Brind’Amour’s Hurricanes have 17 goals in four games. Did he think they could score like this?

“I don’t think we expected it. We’re a bit fortunate that we are scoring on chances that would not go in last year or the year before. We’re not going to do this all year, but it’s good to see them coming together, playing hard.”

How does one of his era’s best two-way players handle this?

“You can handle it as long as we win them,” he laughed.

Brind’Amour is off to a 3-1-0 start in his coaching debut. He didn’t really celebrate his first victory, but the players did.

“I walked in, told them ‘Good job’ and walked out. They grabbed me back, presented me with the team puck. I still don’t view myself as coach…. It’s very strange. I feel like a player in a lot of ways. The first win wasn’t as overwhelming as my first goal.”

What has he learned so far?

“How important your staff is.”

23. Brind’Amour, with enormous praise for Jordan Staal: “He’s as good a player as there is in this league, our MVP. Shift after shift, he dominates. He may not score, but he always does it right. He can do everything, penalty kill, power play, our glue for sure. He’s a horse out there.”

24. Finally, the coach on Warren Foegele, with three goals in four games: “He keeps his mouth shut, works his butt off. We told him to earn his spot. He did it.”

25. Asked to remember a favourite play, Josh Gorges didn’t mention a goal, a blocked shot or a big hit. He remembered his fourth game in the NHL, Dec. 23, 2005. His San Jose Sharks hosting the St. Louis Blues.

“Evgeni Nabokov went out to play the puck, and he clipped skates with a forechecker.”

Gorges went in to defend his goalie, engaging in his first fight.

“That opened the door. Our coaches saw how competitive I was and looked at me differently.”

Do you remember the player?

“Yes, it was Mark Rycroft.”

(Rycroft is now part of Colorado’s broadcast team.)

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26. After 783 NHL games, Gorges is back in Kelowna with his wife and two young children, helping out the WHL Rockets. Is coaching in his future?

“I’ve thought about it. There’s a lot that’s appealing, a lot that is not. But as I transition, I know the owner and the GM (of the Rockets). It’s nothing official, just hanging out with the young guys to see if I want to pursue it or not.”

At 34, Gorges wanted to continue his career, but things did not materialize.

“I wanted that chance to win a Stanley Cup. It is the thing that was driving me, another shot at it. But, as the summer went along, I saw the writing on the wall. It’s different. Since the age of four, I’ve never not played hockey come September. But there’s nothing to hang my head or be embarrassed or upset about.”

That’s for sure. His older boy is four, and starting to try hockey.

“I get to take him skating. Those are things you miss when playing, so that makes it easier on me.”

His greatest moments? Easy.

“Twice for the Canadiens, we got to play in the conference final. In Montreal, the first round is so spectacular. I always told guys, ‘You’ve got to experience what it’s like, the playoffs in Montreal.’”

27. Also returning to British Columbia was Derek Dorsett, who needed to take his physical with one year remaining under contract. You’ll remember that after the final game of Daniel and Henrik Sedin’s careers, they presented the puck to Dorsett in Edmonton’s visitors dressing room.

“It just shows what kind of guys they are,” Dorsett told Sportsnet’s Joey Kenward last month. “They knew I was going through a tough time…. That puck means a lot to me. It actually sits on the nightstand beside my bed. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

Even more impressive than being on receiving end of that gift is that his wife, Allison, gave birth to the first Dorsett girl in three generations — Emmie Rose.

“She’s going to be spoiled,” he told Kenward.

28. I think the pressure on the Department of Player Safety to give Tom Wilson a large suspension was as great as any decision the department’s faced since its inception. Bettman will hear the appeal. Wilson has the right to go to an independent arbitrator if he doesn’t like Bettman’s decision.

29. During this year’s trip to China, Bettman said he wanted to bring regular-season hockey to the country, not just exhibition games. That’s going to be interesting, simply because teams might not want that. One governor suggested taking four clubs instead of two, so they don’t have to move between cities while overseas, adding that you can make a little more impact when you stay put longer. There is no question clubs will be afraid of the toll the travel and time change could take on their regular seasons.

30. We are seeing earlier goalie pulls than normal at the start of this season. It’s not unusual to see nets empty with three minutes to go. This is something analytically inclined minds have been pushing for years. But the bigger storyline might be if it means front offices are taking more control of coaching strategy. We’ve seen that in baseball, where the manager is now an extension of the GM as opposed to an independent mind. There’s always been a separation of church and state in hockey. Is that line blurring?

31. Coming soon to a liquor store near you: NHL Alumni Whisky. Several retired players went to the JP Wiser’s factory to create their own concoctions and be part of the process. The first three are to be launched this month, from Wendel Clark, Lanny McDonald and Larry Robinson. As a Scotch/whisky person, I’m looking forward to trying it. If I were Ron MacLean, I’d probably say Clark’s will pack a mighty punch.

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