• Canadiens looking to move a forward?
• Why Rasmus Sandin’s contract structure could help him earn an NHL roster spot
• How Winnipeg is handling Byfuglien, Connor, Laine uncertainty
It’s very possible Connor McDavid makes his 2019-20 debut tonight against Arizona.
It’s a big story, important for the Oilers and the NHL. It was awful to see McDavid writhing on the ice during game 82 of a lost season, going hard to the net because that’s what he does. When you’re determined to be the best, you don’t take nights off.
Initially, the reports were positive: it wasn’t as bad as it looked, confidence about his readiness for October.
Then, it started to change. First came news of a second opinion, then rumours of a third and a fourth. From there, the rumblings got worse: that it was a PCL injury (later confirmed by Sportsnet’s Mark Spector); that there was unhappiness about how the things were handled; that the captain wasn’t going to be available at the start of this season.
McDavid and the Oilers did the only things they could do — wait, follow doctors’ orders and not turn this brushfire into a five-alarm blaze. He didn’t skate at BioSteel camp as he usually does, fuelling speculation this wasn’t going to be good.
But you knew one thing: McDavid was going to do the “gruelling work,” as he called it back in that last week of August. As training camp opened so too did the first signs of optimism. Cleared for practice, no need for a non-contact jersey. Out of his mouth came admissions of a torturous off-season.
“It was a complicated summer,” he said. “Lots of stuff going on. Lots of different opinions.”
To no one’s surprise, McDavid pushed the boundaries. He wanted to play. At that point, the biggest obstacle probably became the Oilers themselves. Ken Holland is in a unique position. The organization’s been through so much in the last decade that anything less than immediate and unqualified success sends everyone into a tornado of negativity — fans, media, players, the team. You can’t escape it.
Holland’s different. He’s seen everything. He’s in Year 1 of a massive five-year contract. He warned ownership this was not going to be a quick fix. His job is to take the long view. If anyone had the juice to say, “We’re going to wait on this,” it was going to be him.
Holland agreeing to a pre-season return is a very, very good sign for McDavid’s health.
During last night’s Monday Nighter, analyst Booger McFarland talked about seven-time Pro Bowler Trent Williams’ holdout from Washington. McFarland ended a very interesting soliloquy by saying he wanted to see Williams playing because the best players should be playing. That’s what’s best for the sport.
I was writing this at the same time, and while McDavid’s circumstances are different, the feeling is very much the same. Hockey needs McDavid making every game appointment television, because that’s his power. There are three other Canadian franchise cornerstones who want to be seen as at his level. Their names are Gaudreau, Matthews and Pettersson, and the only way we can be enthralled by their pursuit is if all are playing.
McDavid was most in question. The great news is, he’s answered them. We shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s excellent to know for sure.
1. The lesson of the Brayden Point negotiation? Everything can change with one phone call. Months of inertia, and a lengthy Sunday conversation gets it done. Of the remaining restricted free agents, the one most affected is Patrik Laine. Point was always going to be a bridge and Laine is likely to be. Calgary and Matthew Tkachuk were looking at five- and six-year terms although that could have changed (Tkachuk signed a three-year deal Wednesday morning), Kyle Connor and Winnipeg have been around four-to-six years, and Colorado’s made it very clear it wants term with Mikko Rantanen.
Point’s extension is the highest three-year RFA deal ever, erasing Marian Gaborik’s $6.33 million signed in July 2006. (Pavel Datsyuk’s $7.5 million AAV from 2014-17 remains largest of all.) Three seasons ago, the Lightning extended Nikita Kucherov at the same term for $4.77 million. Point’s average is 42 per cent higher. During that time, the cap has gone up 12 per cent. With that in mind, expect teams to be aggressive trying to sign next summer’s cornerstone RFAs, like Ottawa was with Thomas Chabot. For these players, the numbers only go up.
2. Point: 91 goals, 198 points. Laine: 110 goals, 184 points. There’s always grinding to do. Centres are more valuable, but Laine scores — and scorers get paid. If he does want a bridge deal, shouldn’t this provide the path?
3. We’ll see if the NHL and NHLPA agree to a different number as part of negotiations, but at last week’s Board of Governors meeting, the 2020-21 cap was estimated at $84.5 million, if the players do not use any escalator at all.
4. Details of Mitch Marner’s contract negotiation get out. He signs 48 hours later. Details of Brock Boeser’s negotiation get out. He signs shortly thereafter. Then comes Point. It takes about 10 days. Last week was Rantanen. We’ll see. As a reporter, I’m not complaining — although some of the players and teams weren’t happy. Don’t know if I’ve ever seen this strategy used as often.
5. I think the Devils and Taylor Hall are underselling this a bit. They are trying to make a serious run at an extension.
6. This will come as no surprise to anyone who follows the Canadiens, but they are looking to move a forward. Nick Suzuki is pushing. Even though he was sent Monday night to AHL Laval, Jake Evans is too. Hopefully Ryan Poehling makes a quick and complete recovery, but even with his injury, they have extra bodies. Jonathan Drouin played 11:57 in Monday’s 3-0 loss Toronto, lowest among all skaters. Already, this is something to keep an eye on.
7. Some of the teams looking for defencemen are considering Stanley Cup champion Joel Edmundson from St. Louis. He will earn $3.1 million, and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. I think the Devils are trying to add a blueliner, but am not certain he’d be the one. I’m wondering if Winnipeg is there, too. (Edmundson was traded to Carolina Tuesday afternoon for Justin Faulk.)
8. Anaheim continues to look for a righty, after the aborted Justin Faulk trade.
9. Nothing imminent as far as I can tell on Tyler Toffoli, but, he’s another potential UFA and teams know he’s an option to add.
10. Fourteen months ago, Kyle Dubas said, “We can and we will,” when asked if the Maple Leafs could extend Auston Matthews, Marner and William Nylander in a lineup that suddenly included John Tavares. I can’t imagine that he expected such a Cedar Point roller-coaster ride. Over time, more and more information will seep into public consciousness, but the organization’s preference is to focus on the present. All of the contract talk took its toll, which is why they wanted six years for Marner even at a big number.
Two interesting things stood out from conversations about Toronto’s choices. First: I was stunned at how many people felt Tavares picking the Maple Leafs may have hurt them, because it raised the salary bar. He scored 47 goals, takes great care of himself and leads by example. What were they supposed to do, say no?
11. The second thing that stood out to me was even execs who were mad at Toronto’s deals felt the Maple Leafs could not risk Arizona getting a chance to talk to Matthews. It can be argued that there is no player in the NHL more valuable to a franchise than Matthews would be to the Coyotes. (Neither organization would comment on this.) He’s a great player and a difference maker for Toronto. Imagine that in Arizona. Very unique situation. I have no doubt Dubas knew how it would affect the Marner negotiation, but decided the best thing to do was get a deal done.
12. It’s early, but Matthews looks dynamite. According to one teammate, he felt there was not enough respect for his ability to shoot off the pass. So whether it’s a still-in-progress one-timer or his lethal “catch-and-shoot” wrister, he wants to be great at it no matter what side of the ice he’s on. He’s going to have a huge year.
13. Also off to a great start is St. Louis’s Klim Kostin, who will face tougher opposition in the second week of games. I think he came up in Jesse Puljujarvi discussions, and no one’s ever doubted his talent. Big week for him.
14. At last June’s NHL Awards, Calder Trophy winner Elias Pettersson said that when we saw him in the fall, we would notice a difference in his first four steps. He was going to do a better job of creating separation. Monday night’s 6-4 win over Ottawa was radio-only, but the difference did not go unnoticed by those in attendance. When he’s committed to playing faster, he looks even more unstoppable.
15. Rasmus Sandin does not have performance bonuses as part of his contract. This was a strategy by his agent and the team, thinking it might allow him a faster path to the NHL. Toronto will be cap tight, and overages for 2020-21 definitely would be a worry. He’s knocking on the door, and that’s going to help him.
16. Every August, Scott Oake organizes a charity event for the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre in Winnipeg. (The facility broke ground last month, a huge step forward.) This time, Paul Maurice was interviewed as part of it. Apparently, the Jets’ coach picks several themes for each season before training camp begins, and consistently reminds his players of them throughout the year. He said that was true, “and I have four for this year.” Will you tell us what they are? “Not a chance,” he smiled.
Since that night, the organization’s been turned on its ear by the continued contract disputes with Connor and Laine, along with Dustin Byfuglien’s surprise absence. On Sunday, I spoke with Maurice and asked if he had to change his themes because, as my grandmother used to say, “You plan, God laughs.” His reply? “Not one bit. We made a plan and we stuck with it.”
17. The key, Maurice says, is that those messages “dealt with us being better, even if all of those players were here.” He addressed the team about everything at the very beginning and even though fans/media discuss each situation to death, the group doesn’t unless absolutely necessary. Maurice isn’t scanning Instagram or Twitter, so he’s not aware what Laine says in Switzerland or that some fans ran into Byfuglien at a bar.
“That’s (Senior Director of Hockey Communication) Scott Brown’s job. He doesn’t need to tell me anything I don’t need to know. But, if it’s going to be discussed in my room, I have to know. If we have to deal with something, do it once and move on.”
Here’s an example: when Laine told Finnish reporter Pekka Jalonen “there are top lines and there has been our line,” the story broke as the Jets flew back from an exhibition game in Edmonton. They landed about 3 am local time, and Brown was awake to hear Jalonen do an interview on CBC Radio at 6:45. Since Bryan Little — who centred that line — had played against the Oilers, he wasn’t scheduled to do media the next day. Knowing Laine, the Jets believed he would reach out to clear the air, which turned out to be correct. So, a day later, when Little did talk, the controversy petered out. It doesn’t take much to ignite these flames, so don’t pour gasoline on them.
18. Maurice relayed a summer conversation he had with Josh Morrissey. “(Josh) said that there are only so many seats at the table, and normally, they are all filled. This year, that wasn’t going to be the case, and guys would be excited about that, because they’d be getting a chance.” It’s an opportunity for Morrissey and Adam Lowry to increase their voice, for Jack Roslovic to snare a bigger role. “Our leadership is as good as it’s ever been,” he added, “and what has helped is players like Anthony Bitetto, Gabriel Bourque and Mark Letestu. Look into their reputations. We’ve been so young for so long, it’s good to have them here.”
Brightening Maurice’s mood is a terrific milestone experienced by son Jake, who made his play-by-play debut last Friday for the Manitoba Junior League’s Winnipeg Blues against the Portage Terriers. For Paul and wife Michelle, that was a proud moment. Maurice was an underdog throughout his career and knows the Jets will have to “scratch and claw. I have a lineup with one of them back, with two of them back and all three back. But I have two goals every year in camp: work your butt off and and have fun. We’ve done that so far, even with what’s going on.”
19. One final note on the Jets. I asked Maurice if he would keep one alternate captaincy from use, until they know if Byfuglien comes back. He thought about it for a few seconds. “I don’t know yet. But if I do (give it to someone), I don’t want anyone to use it as an indicator that Dustin’s not coming back. I don’t know how that’s going to resolve itself.”
20. Last year, Nylander returned at the beginning of December, and was not able to catch up. I think there are teams and players hoping Byfuglien or Justin Williams gives it another try at some point during the year. In this age of sports science, more data is needed to a) see if it can work, and b) discover the optimal time to return.
21. John Marino is making a run at the Pittsburgh defence, and, even if he starts the season at AHL Wilkes-Barre, he’s going to play in the big league. The Oilers really liked Marino, who they took 154th in 2015. Playing at Harvard behind offensive wizard Adam Fox and Devils draftee Reilly Walsh — the team’s two leading scorers — Edmonton thought it had a diamond-in-the-rough. Marino, from North Easton, MA., had a connection with former Oiler GM Peter Chiarelli (may have played with Chiarelli’s son) and things changed after he was fired. It wasn’t exactly a secret, either, and the Oilers made the best deal they could with the defender one year from becoming an unrestricted free agent. Penguins look like they will benefit big.
22. Dallas defenceman John Klingberg on his summer project from head coach Jim Montgomery: “The one thing that me and him are talking about…is not to try to do too much all the time. And I think that comes down to with the puck through the neutral zone. Give it to the forwards and maybe join the rush instead of trying to skate it too much yourself. Or don’t stand still waiting for a better pass. If you see something, give the puck to the forwards and then join the rush. That’s going to make you play more offence. If you turn it over there, you’re going to play more defence. (My) game is good offence so he wants me to have the puck as much as I can, but also realizing I don’t have to do too much myself, either.”
23. Klingberg on Miro Heiskanen: “Overrated.” After we finished laughing, Klingberg said Heiskanen “changed our whole team.”
24. Healthy again after concussions derailed his career, former Leaf and Blue Nikita Soshnikov has eight points in eight games to start his KHL season. He’s signed for two years. Very nice guy, and maybe we see him again in 2021.
25. Low-key controversy of the summer: teams absolutely lost their minds at Anton Forsberg’s arbitration award. The goalie, traded to Carolina from Chicago in the Calvin de Haan deal, got a one-way contract even though he didn’t play a single NHL game last season. “Who qualifies for a two-way contract if he doesn’t?” one GM said.
26. Labour peace between the league and the NHLPA helped reach a new CBA with the officials. The NHL’s confidence that a player strike/lockout will be avoided created a path to ease the officials’ greatest concern, compensation during any stoppage. Also: an additional referee and linesman will be named to the Stanley Cup Final, making five of each. One additional referee and linesman will be added when Seattle joins in 2021-22.
27. The AHL Board of Governors meets later this week in Chicago. There was some thought the league might announce its process for replacing outgoing commissioner Dave Andrews, but that may take a little longer. What we could see is an announcement about Palm Springs, future home of NHL Seattle’s prospects.
28. As everyone continues to look for ways to grow the game, one spot to watch might be UC-Irvine. Anaheim’s new practice facility (getting excellent reviews) has four sheets of ice, one of which seats 2,500. That one was sold out for the Ducks/Kings rookie game, while Arizona/San Jose drew 700 on a smaller rink. The Samuelis, who own Anaheim, have a connection with the university. Something to keep an eye on down the road.
29. Watching the Patriots steamroll through the NFL once again reminded me of a presentation from last summer’s excellent Coaches’ Site conference by Vegas assistant Mike Kelly. Like many teams, the Golden Knights steal from New England’s successful approach. Kelly discussed watching one particular NFL Total Access video, where Bill Belichick explained how he only posts photos of players from games the Patriots won — admitting there is only one play from a loss he’d so much as consider. The segment is here:
30. Loved this video put together by Craig Medaglia of the Senators’ content and social department.
One of the things I’m curious about is how much lead time team employees are given to prepare these things. Some GMs share info with their media relations staff, some don’t. This was a summer project for Medaglia, who prepared multiple versions, each with a different number of years Chabot could sign for. Shortly before the signing was announced, he was told to prepare the one that said eight years.
31. One of the events I try to do every summer is Adam Graves’ golf tournament for Smilezone Foundation. It’s a great charity, with a wonderful motto of, “We believe that every child deserves to smile, no matter what circumstances they face.” They go to hospitals, clinics, etc., and make them over so that children can enjoy the atmosphere.
Colton Orr is skating for Smilezone in Battle of the Blades, and Calgary’s Sean Monahan was an ambassador for the project as it expanded to Alberta. It was great to hear that last week was the grand opening of another location, at Woodview Mental Health and Autism Services in Burlington, Ont.. Thank you to the Rotary Club of Oakville and The Vic Hadfield Table Hockey Challenge for raising the funds to transform four areas in the Woodview building — the main entrance, two classroom hallways and the family room. Awesome.