31 Thoughts: Byfuglien decision will have major ripple effect

Blake Wheeler spoke about Dustin Byfuglien being on personal leave, offering his support.

• Western race depends on Byfuglien
• What’s Laine thinking for AAV?
• Chabot raises second-contract bar for D-men

Dustin Byfuglien followed the normal path as training camp approached. He moved back to his NHL city, brought his family with him, enrolled his children in school. He participated in informal skates with teammates, readying for the real thing in the second week of September.

Physically, Byfuglien was in Winnipeg. Mentally, he was somewhere else.

Byfuglien’s 42 games in 2018–19 were his fewest since he became an NHL regular more than a decade ago. The biggest issue was an ankle injury that cost him 30 games and never fully healed. Even though he had eight points in six games during the first-round loss to St. Louis, Byfuglien never fully seemed like the dynamic wrecking ball who could singlehandedly change a series — one of the most fun players the league has to offer.

Now, as you’ve read, he’s away from the team, and what happens next is anyone’s guess.

“Privacy is paramount,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said Wednesday, “so I won’t comment on any speculation.” 

He’s not the only one who feels that way. But here’s what can be pieced together:

Byfuglien’s actions were not those of someone who didn’t plan on playing in 2019–20. Jacob Trouba would have been traded anyway, but, if the Jets realized earlier in the summer there was any reason to doubt Byfuglien’s availability, they would have planned for it. However, it’s believed the ankle didn’t heal as hoped, continuing to give him problems. Understandably, that cooled his enthusiasm. 

He’s got to play a certain way, and things didn’t look promising. You have to go back to 2009–10 to find the last season he wasn’t among the top 50 in time-on-ice per game. Tough to feel excited about that when you start the year hurting.

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Twelve years ago, after Anaheim won the Stanley Cup, playoff MVP Scott Niedermayer sat the first two months of the season, contemplating his own future. The Ducks suspended him, but happily welcomed a return when their captain was ready. Niedermayer was 34 then, the same age Byfuglien is now.

He and Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff are close. The latter will give the former the time he needs.

It’s hard to know if Byfuglien simply needs a rest, or if he’s leaning towards retiring, and the Jets have advised him to make sure that’s what he wants before he makes a decision. As a fan, I’d love to see him continue, because every shift promises something exciting. Ultimately, his health is the most important thing. Even if he walks away from the $14 million remaining on his contract, he’s earned approximately $60 million in his career. That’s more than enough for someone happiest when there’s a fishing rod in his hands.

You’re going to hear plenty of trade rumours around Justin Faulk and Rasmus Ristolainen, and few teams have watched more of the Sabres defender than the Jets — Winnipeg’s director of pro scouting, Peter Ratchuk, is based in Buffalo, after all. But this makes the Jets cap situation even trickier. If you believe Byfuglien’s coming back, you still have to account for his hit. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can throw more cash at Kyle Conner and/or Patrik Laine, even if you wanted to. (Although, as one executive pointed out, Byfuglien retiring makes them less susceptible to an offer sheet.)

As I see it, the Central Division has five teams that can win the Stanley Cup: Colorado, Dallas, Nashville, defending champion St. Louis, and Winnipeg. The reaction to the Byfuglien news ranged from “Wow” to “Holy $%#&” — it’s that big of a story. For now, the Jets are less of a certainty than we thought, with the Western Conference race depending on his final decision.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Winnipeg had interest in Ben Hutton, but had to wait until things settled before formalizing anything. Hutton had to get started, and the Kings were ready

2. The dynamic between the Jets and Laine is something. Agent Mike Liut went on Sportsnet 650 in Vancouver on Wednesday, indicating negotiations are not close. When Chris Johnston interviewed Laine last month in Finland, the winger said there had been almost no contract talk at all. Curious about that, I tried to find out as much as I could, and it appears the Jets used much of their dialogue making sure Laine was comfortable in the organization, understanding that he was valued there. They are fulfilling that promise. Captain Blake Wheeler has bent over backwards to make it very clear there will be changes, and they didn’t overreact after Laine’s overseas comments about not playing on the first line.

People who know Laine say he’s not mean-spirited, but is blunt and, if asked a question, will give you an answer. (I’m sure the Jets would prefer he stop giving interviews.) In the aftermath of the Byfuglien news, there was plenty of debate about trading him for a defenceman, but that’s a hard deal to win. He’s going to figure it out at some point.

As for the contract, Laine’s going to want to push the envelope for two or three years. In 2016, Nikita Kucherov signed for three years and $4.77-million AAV. This week, Brock Boeser got $5.875-million for the same term. What’s Laine thinking? Nothing under $6 million, for sure.

3. NHL teams always talk about being strong “down the middle, and on the blue line.” Assuming Connor and Laine get done, the Jets could easily have 40 per cent of their cap tied up in wingers. That seems counter-intuitive, but, interestingly enough, they wouldn’t be the only contender in that situation. Vegas is just under 44 per cent, Dallas slightly above 41. Tampa Bay is at 39, but that’s not including the unsigned Brayden Point. It’s hard to find centres, so these very good teams are loading up with wingers. (Thank you to Cap Friendly for the assistance.)

4. In the radio interview, Liut brought up Mitch Marner’s extension — specifically in reference to another client, Mikko Rantanen of Colorado. That signing has played out as expected, with players/agents using it to increase/justify their asks and teams replying with, “That’s Toronto’s situation, and it does not affect what we will do.”

The Avalanche and Tampa Bay, in particular, have a way of doing business they are determined not to deviate from. That said, Brayden Point’s negotiation has lasted longer than anyone suspected. Will those teams, who historically do not budge, be willing to move? 

5. One of Marner’s offer-sheet dalliances was with Columbus. Initially, he was not willing to give the Blue Jackets term, and it would have been insane for them to risk four first-rounders for, say, four years. There are a couple of executives who suspected GM Jarmo Kekalainen was going to ask Marner if his feelings had changed had the stalemate lasted to the start of the season. They wonder if he will consider another player. Not surprisingly, he declined comment. We’ll see, don’t know what to make of it, but he’s got big brass ones. 

6. I do think Minnesota wanted to pursue a trade for Marner (when Paul Fenton was still GM), but never got far on a contract. 

7. Instant reaction to Thomas Chabot’s new deal: I believe this is the highest second contract ever given to a defenceman. Aaron Ekblad’s second contract had a $7.5-million AAV. Drew Doughty‘s was at $7 million and Erik Karlsson‘s was at $6.5. I always say if you can get term on a cornerstone player, get term. This is going to save the Senators money down the road.

I’d also be curious to know how many players have signed for this high a number in just 134 games. Connor McDavid would be there, and that’s pretty good company.

8. The last group of players to really smash through the second-contract ceiling were the defencemen. Zach Werenski got three years at a $5 million AAV; Charlie McAvoy got three at $4.9; Ivan Provorov got six at $6.75. There really wasn’t a comparable to push these players to a higher level. Now there is.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

9. Justin Faulk politely declined an interview request last weekend, but agent Brian Bartlett made it clear his client “has not demanded a trade and does not want to be traded. He’s like any other player in the league right now, focusing on his team. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, these don’t get out into the public. Unfortunately, this one did.”

Bartlett hesitated to call the Anaheim trade completely dead — “you never know what can happen” — but it sure looks that way. He would not comment on negotiations with either the Ducks or Hurricanes. But there haven’t been extension talks in Carolina for some time, and it is believed the ask from the Ducks was in the $6.75-million range. 

10. Jared Spurgeon’s extension helps Faulk’s case for that number. According to industry gossip, Fenton’s intention was to put Spurgeon at Ryan Ellis’s number: eight years, $50 million — an AAV of $6.25 million. The change to Bill Guerin — and the Wild’s determination to lock down their defender — moved him up to $7.575 million. Great for Spurgeon, who clawed up the ladder the hard way. As several executives pointed out, that will raise the bar for Faulk, Tyson Barrie, Roman Josi, Torey Krug, Jake Muzzin and Alex Pietrangelo.

11. Rasmus Ristolainen declined to answer if he has requested a trade, but other NHL clubs are operating under the assumption that he has. Both Zach Bogosian and Brandon Montour are hurt, and this is a big year for Buffalo. That may affect their decision-making.

12. As reported previously, both Carolina and Montreal are among teams looking closely at Dallas’s Julius Honka. I’d heard Calgary was, too, but that does not appear recent. Expect the Flames to be very careful with Juuso Valimaki. They will not rush him back. Long career ahead of him.

13. Teams trying to move bodies include Carolina and Vancouver. Both are tight to the cap and roster limits. The Canucks have made four or five players available, but I’m not sure Jake Virtanen is one of them. Head coach Travis Green was frustrated with Nikolay Goldobin last season, but GM Jim Benning opted for a longer view. Could be the same here. Calgary may have to manoeuvre something once Matthew Tkachuk is signed.

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14. It’s pleasantly weird to hear the NHL and NHLPA singing “Kumbaya” during labour negotiations. Two weeks ago, I thought the players were going to vote to re-open, purely as a negotiating tactic. That would have created an earlier deadline for an agreement, and deadlines spur action. A week’s worth of negotiations clearly put a majority of them at ease. You’re never going to get 700 guys to agree on everything, but according to one agent, “Players are comfortable where things are.”

But will there be urgency to continue on the same path? We’re human — we relax when things don’t need to get done immediately. That’s why there’s a full sink of dirty dishes my wife asked me to do. The players who weren’t crazy about the final vote worried about this. The majority, however, felt it unnecessary to toss any kind of firecracker into what appears to be a much smoother labour journey.

15. Earlier this week, the NBA informed its teams that the salary cap is projected to be $116 million in  2020–21 and $125 million in 2021–22. I think you’re going to see the NHL do a similar forecast. This season’s ceiling was announced just days before July 1, and it was lower than previously expected. That was a disaster for most teams, and many of the middle-class players. If, for argument’s sake, we go to $83.5 next year and $85.5 the season after, the NHLPA should be able to inform its constituency in advance about what escrow is expected to be, given the average growth everyone is used to. That might be the best way to handle the players’ biggest concern. Apparently, the possibility of an $84.5–$86 million cap for next season was raised at the Board of Governors’ meeting, but I can see a more modest figure being put in place.

16. Another idea that was thrown around during negotiations was a kind of “fake cap” on escrow. The league would create a pool, and if escrow creeped over a certain figure (7.5 per cent?) money from that pool would go to reimburse the players. (That’s similar to the transfer payments the league included in the 2013 settlement.) If the money doesn’t get used, it would go to the Emergency Assistance Fund, or something like that. Don’t know if that’s the eventual solution, but it was on the table.

17. Did Tyson Barrie think — on draft night — that he was getting traded to Vancouver?

“I did,” he said on a podcast taping. “I think everyone thought it was close to happening, and I’d heard that it was. It didn’t happen, so I thought maybe I was sticking around in Colorado…. Clearly not.”

He was laughing as he said the last part.

18. Barrie, who wore No. 4 in Denver, chose 94 in Toronto. What’s the significance?

“Feels like a Russian number,” he smiled. “Four is retired here. I was thinking of what number I’d like to take, and 22 was a bit boring for me. I’d worn it at the World Juniors, but it didn’t really feel like my number. I was honestly thinking for a week…. My dad used to wear No. 9 and he’s been the biggest influence in my career. I thought, ‘Why don’t I put 9 and 4 together?’ I could have [gone with] 49, I guess, but I didn’t like the looks of it. I said 94, and … that kind of [felt] like my number. I’m just going to go with it.”

Barrie’s father, Len Barrie, played 184 NHL games from 1989-90 to 2000-01, and later was part of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s ownership group.

19. One scout who watched the Flyers’ prospects a couple of times: “My goodness, Philadelphia is loaded.”

20. The most important of those prospects is Carter Hart, who solidified Philadelphia’s net during an unbelievable season of injury and misfortune. At the NHL/NHLPA media event in Chicago, Sean Couturier talked about how much of a difference a full-season of Hart can make.

“It was tough never knowing who was going to be the next goalie,” he said. “Guys were falling down like flies, but we found a way to stay focussed and make a push towards the end.” 

21. One NHL executive reached out to clarify some reporting I’d been doing on the various RFA bridge deals. Werenski’s third season is $7 million, McAvoy’s is $7.3 million and Boeser’s is $7.5 million. Teams will have to qualify those players at those numbers to keep their rights before unrestricted free agency, so I was simply adding that total to their current contracts for one year (Werenski/McAvoy) or two (Boeser). Basically, we’re saying Werenski signed for four years at $22 million instead of three at $15 million. He reminded me about “cram-down” arbitration, where, if the player hasn’t lived up to expectations, he might only get 85 per cent of that third-season number. So, for example, Werenski is guaranteed $5.95 million — not $7 million. No one expects any of these players to be anything less than stellar, but I appreciated the executive reaching out.  

22. Annual reminder: Pay attention to the second week of pre-season games more so than the first. It’s a better indicator of where a team truly sees itself.

23. Quietly, one impressive professional career recently came to end, as Corey Locke retired after 15 years of professional hockey. Locke won two Calder Cups (2007 Hamilton, 2011 Binghamton), a German League title in 2013 with the Berlin Polar Bears and was an AHL MVP. He spent the last three seasons in Austria, which he loved, but it became apparent things weren’t going to work in the Czech Republic — for family reasons.

“There was no international school, so my daughter and wife weren’t going to be with me,” Locke said this week. “I was not fully engaged without them. And when you’re not all in, that’s when something bad happens. I knew it was time. I messaged my dad (Don) at 6:00 a.m., asking if he was up. He called me 10 minutes later. I told him I was done. It was emotional, but it felt good.”

What did your wife (Chantal) say?

“She wasn’t surprised. She knew.”

24. Locke was a dynamite junior with OHL Ottawa. He had 164 goals and 373 points in 229 regular-season and playoff games. Listed at five-foot-eight, there were questions about his skating. But I remember interviewing him when he was selected by Montreal in the fourth round — 113th overall — in 2003. You never forget the smile of a drafted player — the look of pride they’ve made it that far.

“I remember that day so well.The [1985] birthdays were a good class of players. Back then, they did three rounds that first day. I really wanted to go on that day, to be honest. But the scouts had it right. I was ranked in the 60s among North American skaters, and I cannot fault where I was got drafted. It was my childhood dream to be a hockey player.”

Locke continued to score in the AHL and overseas. When Hamilton won its championship, he had 22 points in 22 games, but was robbed of the playoff MVP award by some guy named Carey Price.

“Oh God, please don’t write that,” he laughed. “When he got there, we wondered how he [had] ever lost a game in the WHL. I remember one playoff game at Hershey, he got a shutout with something like 40 saves. And these weren’t routine outside-the-dot shots. They were Grade-A backdoor chances. They couldn’t beat him.”

25. Locke played his 1,000th professional game last season in Linz, Austria, where he’d become tight with then-head coach Troy Ward. The team did a small celebration for him.

“It was kind of funny. My wife told his wife it was coming up, and the GM asked me if I could find my career statistics online.”

Locke went to Hockey DB to look them up, and the team presented him with a jersey and a plaque. He wants to stay in the game. He took classes online to get a Bachelor of Science Management while playing and is looking at the Hockey Canada certification process while being a dad to daughter Kendersyn.

There were two pieces of advice he followed throughout his career that I thought would be good to share for young players. First: “No matter what league you are in, wherever you are, be the best player you can be. No matter where I was, I challenged myself to be the best I could be. And I kept that through my whole career.”

Second, from junior coach Brain Kilrea: “Could I be consistent? Could I be the same player Friday night in Ottawa and then Sunday afternoon in Kingston? I always fought for that consistency. I was not a regular NHLer, but I loved challenging myself to start again every year to be my best again and again and again.”

26. Finally, Locke said he was “proud of [his] career” and he should be. He played nine NHL games, and picked up one point — an assist for Ottawa against the Islanders.

Does he remember it?

“It’s not that impressive,” he said, laughing. “It was a chip off the glass in the defensive zone. Nick Foligno picked it up, skated down the ice, cut in on the defence and scored. I was going to the bench.”

Did you get a plus?

“Ha, I don’t even know.”

(The answer is yes. I looked it up.)

Hopefully, Locke finds a way to stay in hockey. He’s got a lot to offer.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

27. Excellent trip to Saint John, N.B., where we did a special podcast with the Sea Dogs and some of their fans at Rocky’s — right next to the arena. We’ll be posting that one soon, featuring President/GM Trevor Georgie and defenceman Jeremie Poirier, a projected first-round pick. Small touch that I really liked: Above one of the doors leaving the coaches’ office was a sign saying “Praise Your Puppies.” Good reminder about dealing with teenagers. 

28. The Sea Dogs are trying something interesting with their arena, newly christened as TD Station. Behind one of the nets, they took out a section of seats, creating a standing-room “lounge area” for people to mingle and watch the game. This is a growing phenomenon at all levels in North America. Don’t be surprised to see new arenas/stadia across North America built with this kind of setup, or if current ones rip out seating to try this, too. The theory is that younger fans would rather watch games this way than sit in one place the entire night. In Saint John, fans can get into that section free with a ticket to the game. Food/drinks are extra.
 
29. Most meaningful new tattoo of the summer: on his wrist, Toronto’s Michael Hutchison has a hand-print of newborn daughter Lilah, at 12 days old.

30. When you’re in the business, you come across plenty of young people who want to break into hockey. One of them was Jack Han. On Twitter, Han became known for his “1MinuteTactics” videos. They were good little snippets of things teams and players could try to make themselves successful. He worked for McGill University’s women’s team until the Maple Leafs hired him in 2017. His feed went dark, but his future remains bright. Scrolling through the AHL Marlies’ website, I noticed he’d been promoted to a position as one of the team’s assistant coaches. Proof you can make an impact from different entry points.

31. Theo Epstein back to the Red Sox. Calling it right here.

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