31 Thoughts: Clock ticking for struggling Flames

Bill-Peters

Head coach Bill Peters of the Calgary Flames looks on from the bench during a game against the Los Angeles Kings. (Adam Pantozzi/NHLI via Getty Images)

• Regina’s Heritage Classic good sign for neutral-site games
• Checking in on Pietrangelo, Blues negotiations
• Penguins definitely looking to add

A look back before a look forward.

What a fantastic weekend in Regina. Everyone was in a great mood. The players, the fans, the media — even Bill Peters, who’d looked miserable all week. A party-licious atmosphere engulfed Saskatchewan. David Amber put on his make-up early, to look better for selfies with fans. 

I turned to Kelly Hrudey and said, “They should do a few neutral-site games per season.” 

He replied, “It better not be the same as it was when I played.”

He’s right about that. Some of you might not be old enough to remember, but the 1992–93 and 1993–94 seasons were expanded from 82 games to 84 so that each team could play twice in neutral cities. 

“I remember we played in Milwaukee, Phoenix (twice) and Sacramento,” Hrudey said. “There was no buzz, no lead-up. We just played the game and moved on to the next one.”

Some of it was about testing markets. The NHL was a 24-team league in 1992–93 and a 26-team league in 1993–94. Future league locations Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Minnesota and Phoenix were involved. Hamilton got the most appearances, with eight. Cleveland, Minneapolis, Sacramento and Saskatoon had six. (The other Canadian stop was Halifax, with three appearances.)

According to official NHL records, those games were played at 70 per cent of capacity. There was some awful scheduling. Of the 50 match-ups, none was held on a Saturday, with just four on Sundays and seven on Fridays. Hamilton’s last date was between Florida and Toronto. That drew 17,096. One month earlier, in the same city, the Panthers played Winnipeg in front of 6,291.

The last two games in hockey-mad Minneapolis — Buffalo/Islanders and New Jersey/Quebec — had crowds of 8,016 and 6,222. The project was euthanized shortly thereafter.

Regina was very, very different. This was an event. It started with a welcome luncheon featuring two exceptional presentations. Tribal Chief Edmund Bellegarde presented Commissioner Gary Bettman, Winnipeg owner Mark Chipman and Calgary President & CEO John Bean with gorgeous “star blankets” in NHL, Jets and Flames colours, respectively. 

“This is one of the highest honours we can bestow,” Bellegarde said. “This blanket represents … the strength of our grandmothers and our mothers.”

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In an unscheduled moment, Fred Sasakamoose — the first Canadian Indigenous player in NHL history — stepped on stage with his son, Neil. They held a statuette modelled after a stance from one of Fred’s hockey cards. The commissioner is rarely speechless, but this one got him.

“I cannot thank you enough,” Bettman said.

The alumni (Shane Doan, Dave Ellett, Kris King, Jamie Macoun, Lanny McDonald and Thomas Steen) were great, too. McDonald remembered coming to Regina as a WHL player and foolishly picking a fight with Clark Gillies. Macoun gave excellent advice for telling stories.

“Be loud and quick,” he said. 

That luncheon got the weekend off to a great start, but the players and fans made sure to keep things going. With both the Flames and Jets struggling coming into the game, you could tell they relished the opportunity for something fresh — not their regular league existence. The snowy conditions were a challenge, but Bryan Little and Matthew Tkachuk (the between-periods interviewees) refused to let that dampen their enthusiasm. At the first intermission, Little blew up our segment on difficult conditions by saying the pluses far outweighed the minuses. 

The fans? You could feel the energy. Mosaic Stadium was charged. It was a good reminder — the NHL may not be in Saskatchewan, but Saskatchewan is very much in the NHL.

The lesson in this is that the NHL shouldn’t be afraid to try one or two neutral sites a year, as long as it’s a weekend event — not some lame one-night fizzle. It doesn’t have to be a football stadium, either. If you have an arena — Halifax, Houston, Kansas City, Orlando, Portland, St. John’s, or even Seattle before it officially arrives — give it a shot. (Quebec City is obvious, but I’d bet the league would be wary of creating the impression that it would lead to expansion.) 

The business of the outdoor games is changing, with cities willing to assume some costs. One example would be policing/security. So doing it in an arena as opposed to a stadium could work.

There are enough people in the league office (including the commissioner) who remember the lame attempts of 25 years ago. But that’s no longer relevant.

Follow the Regina blueprint. Make it a party. Involve the community. Don’t do it too often. Absolutely worth another try.

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.

31 THOUGHTS

1. In the end, the Predators wisely decided that it was time to end the stalemate with Roman Josi. They’d agreed to the permanent no-move clause and front-loaded structure. The final challenge was getting over $9 million per year, which they eventually did. Now, it’s done, no longer an issue hanging over the organization, and all the focus turns to chasing the Stanley Cup.

Eight-year deals for 30-year-olds are controversial, but there are three critical things here: Nashville knows Josi better than anyone else; he’s one of the best defencemen in the NHL; and they are in the window to win. Would that window still be open if, in some crazy alternate universe, Josi walked in July?

It’s rare that these get announced on game days, but it added a jolt to Nashville’s evening performance. The Predators outshot Chicago 51–20, winning 3-0. Asked why his team was so dominant, coach Peter Laviolette replied, “I don’t know — Roman Josi Night, maybe.”

Exact residencies and planning can change the numbers, but if you look at the overall value of contracts in the states/provinces where defencemen currently play, Josi’s $72.472 million in Tennessee gives him the highest gross of any — just ahead of Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty. (Tyler Seguin is number one among forwards.)

2. Josi’s extension affects two players more than others: Alex Pietrangelo and Torey Krug.

I’m always hesitant to say things are slow on a negotiation front because it can change with one phone call and I’d look stupid. But one exec said word around the NHL is Blues GM Doug Armstrong and the captain’s representatives are circling each other like two elite cage fighters, waiting for their opponent to make the first move. Like with Josi, I find it very hard to see Pietrangelo in another uniform, but this is definitely a rougher path than expected. 

3. Krug has nine points in his first 12 games. Whatever the Bruins decide to do here, no one expects him to be dealt if he’s unsigned by the deadline. Boston is going for it, and he’s a big part of what they do. 

4. In the lead-up to Chicago winning the Stanley Cup in 2015, they smartly held an injured Patrick Kane out of the lineup. That allowed the Blackhawks to add Antoine Vermette before bringing back their cornerstone winger for the playoffs — with the cap no longer in effect.

One season later, St. Louis lost Alex Steen to a shoulder injury right before the trade deadline, opening up a similar opportunity for the Blues. Armstrong pooh-poohed the idea, saying at the time that if a player was ready, he didn’t like the idea of keeping him out of action. (Steen returned a week before the playoffs.)

Now, four years later, Vladimir Tarasenko will be re-evaluated in five months after shoulder surgery. The difference is that when Steen got hurt in February 2016, the Blues were comfortably in the playoffs, extremely unlikely to miss. No one doubts the defending Stanley Cup champions, but they’re 12 games into the season and it is a grind.

During his media availability on Tuesday, the GM said it was “100 per cent he will be back and be the Vlad Tarasenko we all know,” and outlined the cap crunch that could exist if they added someone. For now, it will be up to “players pining for a larger role — (they) will get that opportunity.”

5. You know who screams St. Louis Blues if they wanted to add? Chris Kreider. He’d be perfect for them.

6. Okay, let’s go through some names starting to make their way around the NHL. It’s going to be very interesting to see how things play out with Minnesota and Kevin Fiala. He could have played Tuesday night in Dallas, but the Wild decided to make him a scratch instead — the second time it’s happened in 2019-20. Coach Bruce Boudreau indicated the winger would be back in the lineup soon, “because we could use his offence,” but it’s clear this marriage is shaky.

It’s a tricky scenario because he hasn’t even been there a calendar year, and was acquired by a previous GM. He’s talented, and the contract is not prohibitive. In a perfect world, he’s part of the solution in Minnesota. But, they’re going to see what is out there.

7. Similar situation for the Red Wings and Andreas Athanasiou. I can’t say that Steve Yzerman has put him out there, but waiving Jonathan Ericsson indicates the status quo is not acceptable. Athanasiou started slowly in 2018-19, and still ended up with 30 goals. He’s goalless so far. Complicating all of this is it is a contract year, and the last one was a wrestling match.

8. Evan Rodrigues has played just six games for Buffalo. There are teams who really liked what they saw of him last season. He’d be perfect for both Ottawa and Toronto, although I’m not sure the Sabres would want to help the Maple Leafs.

9. Jake Muzzin’s health could change this, but Toronto would move Martin Marincin.

10. Pittsburgh is absolutely going to add. It’s just a matter of when GM Jim Rutherford decides to. It is also believed an extension with Marcus Pettersson is all but done. He can’t sign until Jan. 1, at the earliest.

11. The night before the Heritage Classic, Calgary captain Mark Giordano preached a little bit of patience. “I’ve been on teams that played worse than this one,” he said, “that weren’t 6-5-1.”

Both Giordano and Travis Hamonic discounted the idea the Flames were still recovering from the playoff loss to Colorado, but did admit that when things go badly, they’ve had trouble recovering. Then, against both Winnipeg and Carolina, they lost late 1-0 leads, getting just one point out of four. Peters is clearly unhappy with what he’s seeing.

GM Brad Treliving isn’t afraid of change. I don’t get the sense anything is imminent, but he’ll look to see what’s out there. Johhny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are struggling. Heading into Saturday’s game, Gaudreau led the league in zone entries (credit: Sportlogiq), which is expected. However, you can see he’s not himself when it comes to making plays once he’s there. That has a huge effect on Monahan, who needs to get it in prime scoring areas to finish.

12. Giordano is convinced he can be an even better defensive player than he was last year, when he won the Norris Trophy. “I’m not sure I’ll get 74 points, though,” he said with a smile. “A lot of things went my way.”

13. The other tense situation now is Chicago. The Blackhawks have played just three of 11 on the road and are tied for last in the West. Expectations were high. This was supposed to be a return to contention.

They’ve got delicate minefields to navigate with Corey Crawford and Brent Seabrook, two proud backbones of their championship era. Seabrook went public with his displeasure. There was an awkward dance last season where the organization wanted to see if he’d be willing to move, but the defenceman said the request was not specifically made to him. He’s got four years left at $6.875 million.

Crawford, always motivated by those who’ve doubted him, has to be wondering about his future, with Robin Lehner — six years younger — in Chicago on a one-year deal.

14. Typically, Braden Holtby shrugged his shoulders at questions about his future when he was in Toronto on Tuesday. Mature and mentally tough, he said, “When you’re a hockey player, you know what you sign up for.”

15. Holtby was really good discussing the system changes made in Washington. The Capitals are pressuring more but, as they adjust, it’s led to big-time chances against at times.

“It’s different,” he said with a smile, “but I like the challenge.”

What’s different about it?

“The odd-man rushes against,” he replied.

More of them?

“It’s more like they come at you from different places.”

He’s getting there, and so are the Capitals. They’ve played 14 games, tied for most in the league, but wake up Wednesday number one overall.

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.

16. John Carlson does not like the “John Norris” nickname. When asked about it during a taping of the 31 Thoughts podcast, he rolled his eyes and sneered at the mention.

His deception fooled Frederik Andersen in Toronto. One of the ways he was challenged in practice was not being allowed to pass or shoot the puck to where he was looking. “We knew he could hit the target if he saw it,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “Could he do it if he didn’t see it?”

Well, we’re learning the answer is yes.

17. I was in the scrum where Alex Ovechkin was asked about Toronto. “They’re still a young group of guys and I hope they’re going to learn but, again, it’s up to them how they want to do it,” he said. “If they want to win the Stanley Cup, they have to play differently.”

As you can imagine, that caused a five-alarm blaze. He wasn’t ripping them. He was asked a question and gave an answer from his own experience. The other thing that gets forgotten is English is not his first language, and because of that, Ovechkin’s always come across as blunt, even when he doesn’t mean to. What do we want? Guys to say, “That’s not my team, I won’t talk about them”?

I thought it was a great answer. I also liked Mike Babcock’s post-game comments: “Everybody in Toronto is in a rush all the time. I get it, but that’s not pro sport, that’s not real. You’ve got to keep building and building and building and steady on the rudder, keep going through things.” That’s 100 per cent true. One foot in front of the other, every day. Force yourself to try and be better.

18. Had a great conversation with J.T. Miller after Vancouver ran Florida out of the building on Monday night. He’s got 13 points in 11 games with the Canucks. When he was traded from the Rangers to Tampa Bay, he had 18 points in his first 19 games. So, he adapts well.

“This is way different, though,” he said. “They had (Brayden) Point, (Nikita) Kucherov, (Steven) Stamkos. Everyone was focused on them, I was under the radar. I have pride in a bigger role here. This team is way younger. They need me to be more of a leader on and off the ice. I challenged myself to make sure I got acclimated as quickly as possible.”

Miller started with Bo Horvat and had success. Coach Travis Green moved him with Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson. That’s working too. “Bo is bigger, we both like to be power forwards. It’s easy to play with him, because I want to be the same. Pettersson is a younger version of Stamkos and Kucherov. Sometimes when you don’t have a play, don’t try and make chicken soup out of chicken (bleep),” he laughs. “My dad (Dennis) laughs at me when I say this, because he’s been trying to tell me the same thing for 15 years. Now I see it.

“(Pettersson) has a chance to be so dominant. It’s the same way with (Boeser). That shot. They are younger versions of what we had in Tampa. I want to see them establish themselves as elite players. Winning’s fun.”

19. Miller said the biggest thing he’s learned is to stay true to his own identity. “It took a long time to figure out, but when I was younger and moved up to a higher line, I’d change my game to fit what I thought I needed to do or what the (other linemates did). Now, I don’t tailor my game to the line I’m playing on. I bring my game to that line. There are times to make a play. There are times to be direct. That’s the right way.”

He’s never missed the playoffs in his career. The moment he arrived in the NHL, he was in a room with some incredible gamers who expected a lot of him and themselves. “Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. Two guys who went above and beyond. Ryan Callahan. Would do whatever it took to win games. Derek Stepan, played tons of minutes.”

Is there a moment you remember?

“My first year, in Montreal, we were up a few goals with three or four minutes to go. P.K. Subban wound up with one of his blasts and Girardi blocked it. I said to myself, ‘I would not have done that.’” Then, he started laughing.

20. The Canucks say Miller is vocal, which is something they need, and you can tell on the phone. “I talk a lot,” he says. “I’m hard on myself, and on a young team, it comes more naturally to me to say something.” Has anyone ever told him, ‘Geez, give it a rest?’ “When I was 19 they did. The Rangers were like, ‘That’s not how this works.’” He’s laughing again.

“I’ve been chirped for it. But I like to give it and take it, as well.” Is his playoff streak important to him? “I’m not worried about my streak.” He makes it clear he knows Vancouver took a chance, and he wants them to be rewarded.

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21. Without Patrik Laine, the Jets lost 7-4 in Anaheim on Tuesday. It has not gone unnoticed how much he is working to do what Winnipeg has asked of him. He has 10 assists, a number he didn’t reach last season until Feb. 2. It makes him a more dangerous player, because we know he can score. One teammate paid him a nice compliment: “Last year, he thought, ‘I’ve got to score.’ Now, he’s thinking, ‘We’ve got to score.’”

22. On the pre-game of our Heritage Classic show, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was asked if there was any kind of deadline for Dustin Byfuglien to decide his future. “I don’t know even how to answer that question, in the sense that it’s a complicated issue,” he replied. Head coach Paul Maurice is in the last year of his contract. Is there any kind of decision looming there? “(He’s) is a great coach and for us, he’s a really good fit.”

23. Here was Luca Sbisa’s travel schedule as he went from being on a tryout with the Islanders to a contract with the Ducks to being claimed by the Jets: Last Tuesday, he took a 4:55 pm ET flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Los Angeles, landing at 8:30 p.m. He’s got a home in Newport, where he unpacked and got some sleep. The next morning, he left at 6:00 a.m. for the 90-minute drive to AHL San Diego, where he was supposed to play.

After dropping off his gear, he had a 30-minute drive to the building where he was to take his medical. That’s where he found out Winnipeg picked him up. It wasn’t a huge surprise. “We’d talked to them,” Sbisa said. So he made that 30-minute drive back to the rink, to get his gear. I forgot to ask if he left his car there or previously had a driver or what, but Sbisa then Ubered back to Newport to re-pack for Canada. How much was that? “About $180,” he said. “I was booked on the red-eye, and it took me 40 minutes to get to within a mile of LAX,” he laughed.

If you’ve ever been at this airport you know how bad it is once you get close. It took him 90 more minutes to finish the journey. Then there was a two-hour layover in Minnesota, and when he got to Winnipeg, there was a further delay because of a problem at customs.

Finally, Sbisa got through to take his physical, where he was told there was a 2:00 p.m. flight to Regina the next day. But, as he said, it’s all worthwhile to play in the NHL.

24. One free-agent note to keep an eye on: left-shot defender Connor Mackey of NCAA Minnesota State-Mankato decided to stay in school after last season instead of going to the NHL. There is word approximately seven NHL teams met with him in September to discuss his future. It is believed there is Canadian interest — father David was born in New Westminster, B.C., and played 126 NHL games for Chicago, Minnesota and St. Louis. I’d have to think the Jets would be among the interested parties.

25. I thought it would be proper to include something on the Islanders, who have won seven straight. Scouts and opponents are very complimentary.

“They are exactly what you would expect of a team coached by Barry Trotz and run by Lou Lamoriello,” one said. “They have great structure, and everyone understands their role. They are committed to defence, doing all the little things that win.”

Another scout had a great line: “Bricklayers don’t paint the ceilings. The players understand this.”

26. Something else about the Islanders: It does not go unnoticed that Mathew Barzal is trying to be a little more selfish, take a shoot-first mentality. His second goal against Winnipeg on Oct. 17 (at the :47 mark of the video below) is the kind of play where he always would have passed:

Convincing opponents otherwise makes him a much more dangerous player.

27. San Jose was never the fastest team, but always beat you with their skill and smarts. No one can overcome poor goaltending, and that’s an issue for sure. If there is another concern, it is that, for whatever reason, Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are not getting their regular opportunities. The last five seasons, Burns averaged 3.8 shots per game and Karlsson averaged 3.1. So far in 2019–20, Burns is at 2.8; Karlsson 1.9. Tough to tell if that’s small sample size or real concern, but those two are a huge part of the attack. 

28. Edmonton showed an all-forward four-on-three power play unit late in Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to Detroit: Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, James Neal and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

29. Presented without comment, from the outstanding Instigators radio show with Andrew Peters, Craig Rivet and Brian Gionta on WGR in Buffalo. In round one of the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs, Montreal led eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina 2–0. Saku Koivu had two assists in the first two games, and was injured by an accidental high stick in Game 3. But there was another injury, as Rivet — Koivu’s roommate — said in an incredible story.

After the pre-game skate and lunch buffet ahead of Game 3, they went back up to the room. While getting dressed, well, I’ll let Rivet take over:

“We sprinted down the hall, met at the bathroom at the same time…. Obviously because Saku was quicker, he beat me there. But I always had to have the last laugh, so I blew him up into the back of the toilet bowl. Water started pouring out of the toilet because we completely obliterated it, water was flooding our room…. He’s yelling at me, ‘Call the trainer! Call the trainer!’ He walks down the hall to grab his phone and all of the sudden I was gasping because there was blood all down his back, all down his butt — you couldn’t even see his butt, and he was naked, by the way. I wipe him down with a white towel — which is even worse, right? — just to see where the blood was coming from, and there was a gaping, open wound coming out of his back. It was the most disgusting thing; it was humongous how deep it was.”

Koivu missed the bus to the game because he was taken to a private hospital.

“He couldn’t touch his toes, but he was able to play. I don’t know how he did it.”

Koivu did get hurt by the stick, and Montreal lost four in a row as Carolina won it all.

How did the coaches not strangle Rivet?

“Because I think we told them he slipped on the floor.”

30. The only thing I can say about that story is I heard it six days ago, and still can’t believe it.

31. Jim Gregory’s passing was announced as I was finishing this week’s notes, so I apologize in advance if this isn’t as complete as I’d like it to be. Jim was absolutely one of the nicest people I’ve ever come across. He had great stories. He’d always get mad when I called him “Mr. Gregory.” Absolutely hated it. One thing he would not discuss: When Steve Stavro decided to replace Cliff Fletcher as Toronto’s GM in 1997, the owner wanted Gregory to take over. He declined, feeling it wasn’t the right fit.

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