31 Thoughts: Bettman has ‘no interest’ in NHL playoff expansion

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

• ‘No proposal’ for playoff expansion
• GMs will use Nylander deadline as leverage
• Penguins may not be done dealing

Two Saturdays ago, Chris Johnston mentioned the idea of an expanded playoffs in our Headlines segment. Here’s some more detail on what he was referring to:

First, don’t call it a proposal. During the 31 Thoughts podcast with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, I used that word.

“There is no proposal,” Bettman replied. “You’re making it sound like there’s this movement out there. There isn’t.”

Okay, it’s a concept. And, if you can’t already tell, there’s a major stumbling block. The commissioner is 1,000 per cent against it. It’s a CN Tower–sized hurdle.

But I love it, so let’s humour ourselves.

From what I understand, whoever came up with the idea wants the top three seeds in each division to get a bye through a new “play-in” round, as we’re going to call it. The next four teams would meet in a one-versus-four, two-versus-three setup. The winners of those two setups move on.

If this had been in place for 2017–18, the Eastern play-in round would have featured Columbus/Carolina and New Jersey/Florida. The West would have had Los Angeles/Dallas and Colorado/St. Louis. It wouldn’t be a one-game showdown. (Bettman is absolutely against that, too, considering the regular season too meaningful for a one-game throwaway. Which is true.)

Whoever thought of this agreed that those who finished seventh and eighth in each conference deserved some reward for getting to those spots. What they suggested was a two-out-of-three series played over four nights with the higher-seeded team hosting every game. A true home-ice advantage.

It’s a great idea, although two games in two days as a total-goals setup would also work. (Overtime if tied after 120 minutes.) Again, the higher seed would host both.

I tried to figure out who came up with it (and who champions it), but struck out. One source indicated it grew out of frustration from how much damage missing the playoffs causes to ticket sales. Even with the Rogers television deal and optimism for the future of the American package, those sales are hugely important to the NHL’s financial health. Much more so than its Big Four brethren.

If even a quick “playoff loss” alleviates some of that damage, organizations will take that as a win. And the commissioner has created more parity than just about any other league, so their argument is that everyone will benefit as much as they lose.

How would the players feel? Would they want to play two (or three) more games? Would they see this as a revenue generator, which benefits the bottom line?

It all comes back to Bettman, who must be convinced. That’s going to be a challenge.

“It’s not getting widespread support,” he says. “If you’re a team that was in the eighth slot, and you lose, your season ends as a disaster…. Our first rounds are sensational, so now we’re going to wear out a couple of teams in advance, and the first round won’t be as good.

“I have no interest.”

Too bad. Could be some great hockey.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Hilarious scene as the media waited outside NHL offices in Toronto on Tuesday for the GMs to emerge from their meeting. Lost count of how many people walked by asking, “Did something happen with Nylander?”

I know those of you outside Leafs Nation are sick of hearing about it, but here, it’s all we get. As we get closer to the Dec. 1 signing deadline for 2018–19, another executive said we’re going to learn if both Kyle Dubas and Willam Nylander believe in the “no deal instead of bad deal” philosophy. There’s no doubt opposing GMs are going to try to use the deadline to pressure Dubas. If Toronto can’t sign him — which remains the Maple Leafs’ true preference — there is always the pressure of, “Well, we’ve got to get something instead of having him just sit.”

Dubas does not believe in conventional wisdom, which is important to remember. There are also interested teams claiming they can’t fit Nylander under their cap for 2018–19, a shot across the bow of the player. This is the time where everyone talks tough. Eventually reality sets in. We’re getting closer to understanding everyone’s true goals, and what they are really willing to accept.

2. Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford celebrated his contract extension by trading Carl Hagelin to Los Angeles for Tanner Pearson. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan loved Hagelin, who will be a free agent. They will try to revive Pearson, without a goal in his last 30 regular-season and playoff games.

Do not discount the possibility of Rutherford and Anaheim’s Bob Murray trying a lateral “change-of-scenery” trade. Those don’t happen much anymore, but they’ve done it before (Hagelin-David Perron in 2016). Both are looking for change, and the rumoured names were not involved in this trade.

3. With Rutherford mildly annoyed at his team, one of the players who most intrigues opposing teams isn’t even on his current roster. That would be Calen Addison, a right-shooting defenceman at WHL Lethbridge. Addison, taken 53rd in last June’s draft, has 20 points in his first 18 games. Two of the three defenders ahead of him in scoring were 2018 first-rounders: Spokane’s Ty Smith (17th, New Jersey) and Red Deer’s Alexander Alexeyev (31st, Washington).

4. Pearson’s name had been out there. I think the list of players Los Angeles is willing to move is growing.

5. It’s safe to say the Capitals felt teams took liberties on them without Tom Wilson in the lineup. A goal, a goaltender-interference penalty and a fight in his first game. That’s over now.

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6. Something to watch: Ice time for Colorado’s Nikita Zadorov (15:40 per game) is down almost four minutes from 2017–18. It is by far the lowest of his career. Zadorov came a long way last season after being a healthy scratch on opening night. He’ll be 24 in April, and is a restricted free agent. Have not heard his name in any trade rumours, and there aren’t too many like him. Let’s see where this goes.

7. Quietly, teams are trying to find out if Joel Quenneville wants to coach this season, and what situation(s) he prefers.

8. There is a lot of debate as to whether playing Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid together is a recipe for long-term, team-wide success, but after watching them dominate Montreal on Tuesday night, you can’t blame Todd McLellan for doing it. First, those two are tremendous to watch. Draisaitl could have scored eight goals if it wasn’t for Antti Niemi. Second, no one is running away with the Pacific Division, keeping the Oilers very much in it. Third, Boston and Colorado benefit from loading up one line. And, while I don’t profess to know which direction the organization will go, everyone from top to bottom is expecting some kind of a shakeup — on or off the ice — eventually. Go with your best.

9. There were two European tournaments last week: the Deutschland Cup in Germany and the Karjala Cup in Finland. There were a few teams watching Finnish free-agent centre Oula Palve at the latter. He has 15 points in 17 games for TPS Turku, and was scoreless in this event. He’ll be 27 in February. One scout compared him to Par Lindholm, who came this year from Sweden to join Toronto. Russia won both events, and at the Deutschland, others were watching undrafted forward Konstantin Okulov. Now 23, he can’t come over until summer 2020, but can score.

10. Tuesday’s GM meeting was the least newsworthy maybe ever, but it is notable that the executives backed the league and not some of their upset goalies over equipment complaints. Some really talented netminders are struggling — Matt Murray, Carey Price, Tuukka Rask — and I asked longtime goalie coach Roland Melanson about it last week when New Jersey was in Toronto. He thinks it is much, much more than the equipment.

“The goalies are under siege,” he said. “I keep the chances for our team and it used to be that you gave up 12 or less 60 per cent of the time. Allowing 15 to 17 was bad. Now that’s good. Twenty used to be really bad, now you get that all the time. It’s tougher to check. If you get your stick off the ice, you know there’s a good chance of a penalty.”

The Devils had a team dinner at the Hall of Fame the night before playing the Maple Leafs.

“I’m watching the old videos, and I’m not talking 40 years ago,” Melanson continued. “Defending is totally different. Neutral zone. Defensive zone. Watch our practices, a lot of one-on-one drills. You have to be good at that. See how many backdoor tap-ins there are. Fourth line players are different, everyone can shoot. (Wayne) Gretzky scored all those goals with that Titan stick, look at what these guys are using now. They want offence, so you have to adjust.”

What does he think of the equipment?

“I would have loved to play in the ’80s with the equipment they have today. So much lighter, one half the wear and tear on you.”

11. Happily, Melanson and I share the same opinion on scoring chances. I hate that some don’t count them if a shooter misses the net. Hey, it was still a chance, right?

“Yes,” he says. “But [Alain Vigneault] thought that way, too. If someone didn’t hit the net, no scoring chance. But what if that’s all the goalie gave him?”

12. On Nov. 6, the Canucks were at Detroit. Late in the first period, Elias Pettersson gets the puck, and he looks up at the clock to see how much time he has:

Smart play, but the NHL is working on something to eliminate this problem. During one of Toronto’s exhibition games, the league tested a clock in the boards. Word is the clock worked very well and received positive reviews from coaches, players and officials. There are details to be worked out, such as size, number of positions (two or four), and conflict with advertising space. It’s likely they’d want a full rollout in all 31 arenas. But this could happen.

13. Not sure there’s a more important player to his team right now than Roberto Luongo and Florida. He’s 4-0 with a 1.33 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage. Michael Hutchinson and James Reimer are 3-5, 3.40 and .882. Publicly, the Panthers said he wasn’t supposed to play in Finland, but he took the reins after an opening loss to the Jets that had them dead last in the East, three points back of Detroit. Since his return, Florida’s leapt over three teams and is within four points of the playoffs. Even better for them, the Panthers aren’t heavy with back-to-backs over the next little while. Luongo can’t play both ends.

14. John Tavares has never scored 50 goals in an NHL season. He hasn’t scored 40, either, although his 2013 lockout rate translated to 48 goals over an 82-game schedule. He’s on pace to score 50 this season. He’ll really have to get going, though, to beat the 72 he scored as a 16-year-old for OHL Oshawa.

15. Somewhere, Jeff Twohey had to be smiling on Tuesday as Jakob Chychrun signed a six-year extension in Arizona. Twohey, who resigned this month as the Coyotes’ assistant director of amateur scouting, is a huge Chychrun fan. You’ll remember that the defenceman took a precipitous fall heading into the 2016 draft, going from a consensus high pick in the months before to 16th overall. Twohey, who saw Chychrun at OHL Sarnia during his days as GM of the Oshawa Generals, believed the young player lost his way in the pressure of his draft-eligible year. His belief was a factor in Arizona taking Pavel Datsyuk’s contract to get the first-rounder from Detroit necessary to make the pick.

16. The biggest question about Chychrun: Can he stay healthy? Only 2015–16, where he played 62 of Sarnia’s 68 games, has there not been some kind of injury. His $4.6-million average annual value puts him below Noah Hanifin, who had 51 points to Chychrun’s 34 in their first two seasons. Hanifin did play 160 games, as compared to 118. Their points per game were very similar, but you need to be on the ice.

17. In 2006, the New York Islanders signed 32-year-old defenceman Mark Wotton, making him the captain at AHL Bridgeport. It was there Wotton met a 21-year-old, second-year pro by the name of Jeremy Colliton.

“Jeremy is 33 now,” Wotton said of the Blackhawks’ new coach Tuesday night from Foxwarren, Man., where he runs the family farm with his brother. “But he was 33 ten years ago. He was already into the idea of coaching, making everyone better. We sat next to each other on the team bus, and he’d be analyzing every game. Asking questions, looking for solutions. ‘What can we do to get better?’ Finally, I’d say, ‘Jeremy, I have to get some sleep, we’ve got a game in four hours.’”

18. Colliton had a history of injury trouble, and would try to stay involved by making suggestions. Wotton remembers one time where he suggested a power-play breakout. “‘Give to the weak-side winger, back to the D, out to other side. Should work,’” Wotton says with a laugh. “He peaked younger. Some guys do that and Jeremy had injuries. The older guys like myself weren’t there to be the best players. We were there to be good people. A genuine young guy like that, you wanted to help him out.”

Wotton pauses.

“I’m not surprised, although I thought it wouldn’t happen for a couple of years. It will be hard for him to get respect, because he’s young. But when they find out how passionate and smart he is, they will come around.”

19. Wotton and Colliton had something in common, both small-town boys with farm experience. A couple of his former teammates from junior said if Colliton was made fun of for anything, it was the lack of a tan for someone who supposedly worked in the sun.

“That’s true,” Wotton said. “He never had one. So either he didn’t work or he doesn’t tan.”

Judging from everything we hear about Colliton’s drive, work ethic isn’t the problem.

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20. The NHL won’t discuss its concussion-suit settlement until it knows what the eligible players choose to do. Daniel Carcillo is on record as saying he will continue to pursue his day in court, and Dennis Maruk told CBC he won’t opt in. It’s a difficult spot for them, because many will want to take the settlement money and, if the number who do isn’t high enough, the league could choose not to proceed. In the end, there just wasn’t the unity among the hockey players as there was in the NFL. The football settlement involves almost 20,000 people, the hockey one slightly more than 300. There are going to be lingering hard feelings about that. (People who compare the NFLers getting $1 billion to the NHLers’ $19 million need to take those totals into account.)

Not getting the class-action certification was a devastating blow, and no doubt the plaintiff lawyers were concerned about getting paid. If you’ve read the excellent League of Denial, you’re aware that there was much more evidence against the NFL than has been found against the NHL to this point. It is also a reminder that Bettman/the NHL will not back down from very public, very hard body blows.

21. If there is good news for the plaintiffs, it is this: The smaller dollar amount (and fewer number of collectors) makes it more likely they can avoid what’s happened in football. The distribution of the NFL settlement money has been plagued by problems. In 2017, player attorney Thomas Girardi told the Washington Post “the current administrative structure of the claims process is flawed, cumbersome and moves at a glacial pace.”

Last spring, the league alleged almost one quarter of the claims submitted were fraudulent. Judge Anita Brody agreed there was “sufficient evidence of probable fraud to warrant serious concern” but did not hire a special investigator. The hockey agreement won’t need such a massive bureaucracy, increasing chances the people who really need the financial help can get it.

22. On the podcast, Bettman was asked if there is any part of him that wants to do one collective bargaining negotiation without a work stoppage.

“It’s beyond my control,” he answered. “If you have an agreement and you can ensure that every season you start, you’re going to complete, then you don’t have a work stoppage. But, if for whatever reason, you can’t make a deal, and you have no assurance that you complete a season that you start, you have to consider all of your options. Nobody wants a work stoppage, but it takes two to tango. Yes, management initiates a lockout, but that means there’s no [CBA] and that a union can strike at any time. You can’t do that, particularly when people invest emotionally and financially in a season. So while I won’t preordain anything and will bargain in good faith as we are legally obligated and morally obligated to do, this is a joint deal. And if we have labour unrest, it is as much on the players’ association as it is on us.”

It being beyond his control will be the most disputed part of his quote, but it is clear two late-season strikes he had nothing to do with (1992 NHL and 1994 Major League Baseball) are uppermost on his mind.

23. Two years ago, Bettman phoned everyone (or a representative for those who have passed) on the NHL’s list of the top 100 players. He was supposed to do it over 10 days, but finished in a couple. He said one player didn’t recognize the number and ignored his calls. But the commissioner kept trying and eventually connected.

“Will you stop calling me? Why are you calling me? I’m not buying what you’re selling,” was the answer.

(Bettman didn’t say who it was.)

24. Other notes on the Hall of Famers: Bettman has formed a professional relationship with Jayna Hefford, now commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

“We’ve met to discuss the future of the women’s game,” Hefford said last week. “We agree that we’ve got one shot to do this right.”

Hefford is referring to some kind of eventual merger with the rival National Women’s Hockey League. It’s delicate, because the NHL doesn’t want to come across as a villain, but does want to help when the two leagues figure out their future.

“One league is the only way,” Hefford says.

The question is how we get there.

25. Favourite memory of Hefford? Interviewed her between periods during a game at the 2006 Olympics in Turin. She was cut through her cage.

“How did that happen?” I asked before the cameras started rolling.

“(Bleep) happens,” she replied.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

26. Twenty years ago, Willie O’Ree was working at a San Diego hotel very, very far from the Hockey Hall of Fame. Did he think his connection to the sport was broken, unable to be fixed?

“No,” he said. “I always hoped and believed that I would find a way to get back in. Whether I worked in construction or as a security guard, I thought it would happen.”

O’Ree says there is a list of all the events he’s done — everything he’s participated in to help grow the game. He’s very proud of that, and loves that such a ledger was kept.

27. Phil Esposito always said that Alexander Yakushev was the best of the Soviets who played in the Summit Series — by far.

28. It was different to see Martin Brodeur so emotional. Brodeur usually had one of three looks on his face: smiling, stern or stoic. I remember the 2006 Olympics, not because it was a great moment for Canada — they got KOed in the quarterfinal — but because Brodeur spent some time explaining what he saw and how he processed it. In a win over Italy, there was a shot of him talking to Bryan McCabe after a seemingly innocuous play where McCabe had knocked a puck out of the air. It became a turnover that Italy capitalized on. Brodeur explained later that he told McCabe not to do that, because on international ice, puck races don’t matter as much as retreating to reset.

After Canada was eliminated 2–0 by Russia, he blamed himself for going down on the winning goal by Alex Ovechkin. Brodeur said in the scramble beforehand, he thought the puck was on a left-hander’s stick, which would have made it impossible to score high from where the play occurred. But when he saw who it was, he knew he’d made a mistake and was beaten. A master class on how to process things.

29. As for Martin St. Louis, it was the fire. With all his success, St. Louis never forgot where he came from, never lost the edge. In Tampa, teammates said he always checked the stat sheet to see his minutes, and God help you if he was unhappy with the number. No matter what the situation, he wanted to be out there. In the first period of Game 6 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final in Calgary, he left the bench to take breaths from an oxygen tank. Hours later, he scored the winner.

The only time his teammates saw him melt was after his Mother’s Day goal in 2014. It was his first home game after his mother passed away, and he scored to force Game 7 (which they won). Even though his teammates knew he was going through a hard time, it was still a revelation for them to see him emotional like that.

30. Now that Cassie Campbell-Pascall is on the Hockey Hall of Fame Selection Committee, do they ask her to leave the room when they vote to put her in? Not sure how it works.

31. Good luck to Sirius/XM host Rob Simpson. Simpson, who co-hosts the morning show with Gord Stellick, begins a 31-day, 31-game journey Thursday in Dallas. It’s an arduous trek, but someone’s got to do it.

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