• Clock ticking on Sens’ Duchene decision
• Pre-deadline stretch crucial for Oilers
• Could ’Canes deal Dougie Hamilton?
Midway point of the season, time to start thinking about NHL awards. No need to make any final decisions, but make a list, figure out who’s in the running, pay closer attention.
It is also time to reflect on old habits, and consider if there is need for change.
This will be my sixth time voting for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke, Lady Byng and Masterton Trophies, along with the All-Star and All-Rookie Teams. You never expect everyone to agree with your choices, which is fine. But I do try to be consistent and keep the same rationale.
This year, two of those standards are going to be tested — possibly even ignored.
In Calder voting, I have always considered Games Played. It is hard to play a full season as a rookie. The Derian Hatchers of the world may be extinct, unfortunately, but this is still a tough game played at high speeds. Injuries are a fact of life, whether caused intentionally or accidentally. Playing a full first season in the NHL is a real accomplishment, considering most of those eligible are not fully physically developed.
If there was a close race, I would look at Games Played to see if there was a major difference. It could be a factor.
For the second time, Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson is out of the lineup. He missed six games in October, and is expected to be out approximately two weeks after spraining his knee last Thursday in Montreal. He’s going to miss at least 10 games this season.
His top challengers for the Calder appear to be Dallas’s Miro Heiskanen (probably the top contender, an all-star selection like Pettersson), Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin and Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk. The latter has the same injury concerns as Pettersson; he’s missed 11 games.
Heiskanen’s been a stud on the Stars blue line, holding steady while seemingly everyone on the Dallas defence ended up in a hospital bed. At this point, he’d be a deserving winner.
But there’s something transcendent about Pettersson’s rookie year. He has breathed new life into the Canucks, altered the direction of the franchise and made his games appointment television. He leads all rookies in goals, assists, points and points per game (by almost half a point). There’s still half a season to play, and he’s got to be out there for a good chunk of them, but, at the very least, Pettersson has me asking, “How low is too low?”
Hart Trophy winners do not miss the playoffs. That’s the history and that’s the standard. Taylor Hall was a deserving winner last season. Claude Giroux, Nathan MacKinnon and Anze Kopitar would have been perfectly acceptable, too. McDavid — who was voted by his peers as the Ted Lindsay winner for most outstanding player — fell in the ballots because the Oilers didn’t get there.
I don’t like to tell anyone else what to do (mainly because I don’t like anyone telling me what to do), but I’ve thought a lot about this since I saw McDavid on stage in Vegas recognized by those who play against him. The awards aren’t the same; Most Outstanding and Most Valuable are different, but there has to be some deference to the people out there actually trying to stop him.
You’d think the Oilers were 50 points out of the playoffs the way things are going in Edmonton, but it’s only two as we wake up on Wednesday. They might get in, rendering this debate moot. If they don’t, we have to reconsider the wisdom of punishing McDavid for things that aren’t his fault. Entering last weekend, he had 28 points in 15 games, a lifejacket wearing 97 keeping the Oilers afloat.
1. Remember when the MLB Washington Nationals admitted in 2012 there was an innings limit for Stephen Strasburg and spent every day answering questions about it? I’ve understood since then why teams are loathe to make any of their internal deadlines public. Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion is not on the team’s trip to California, leading the Senators’ scouting meetings in Florida. He’s expected to meet with Pat Brisson, agent for unrestricted free agent Matt Duchene, next week. I asked former NHL GMs Brian Burke and Doug MacLean (who now ruin my Wednesday nights) how long a team needs to know before the trade deadline that a player is not going to sign. Burke said “14 days.” MacLean agreed. So did two current GMs. So Dorion’s got five weeks, if he chooses to wait that long.
2. There is no way Anaheim GM Bob Murray would want to fire Randy Carlyle in-season. He dislikes that route and has said he feels the coach deserves a full roster for proper evaluation. An 0-6-2 stretch will test even Murray’s patience, but that’s an absolute last resort for him.
3. As hard as Ken Hitchcock ripped the Oilers to the media after Saturday’s 4–0 loss in Los Angeles, he apparently went after the players even harder to their faces. He was angry about the poor effort and the lack of protection for McDavid, who was elbowed by Drew Doughty and run over by Jeff Carter. Edmonton was much better physically and emotionally one night later in a 4-0 win over the Ducks. Tuesday night in San Jose was a 7-2 beatdown and the season comes down to the final seven games before All-Star Weekend. Six are at home, and only two against current playoff teams (Buffalo, Calgary).
4. When there was no penalty on Hampus Lindholm for driving McDavid into the boards during that game, I wondered if the Oilers captain had a bad reputation among officials or something. In fact, I’m told it is the exact opposite — that he barely says anything and just goes about his business like a true professional. That penalty has to be called, though. Thankfully, there was no injury. You can’t call everything, but McDavid deserves better protection from the officials than that.
5. Second-angriest coach of the week: Florida’s Bob Boughner. During Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to Pittsburgh, the Panthers gave up shorthanded goals at 3:04 and 8:56 of the second period. Three players on the ice for both — Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Huberdeau and Keith Yandle — didn’t see a shift the rest of the night. Boughner said they were “out to lunch.”
6. Carolina is not in a position to allow its potential unrestricted free agents to walk for nothing. They are far, far apart in negotiations with Micheal Ferland, so it looks like “when” not “if” for him. Pittsburgh makes sense, and so does Edmonton, but there will be others. The Hurricanes have told teams they would prefer to wait a little longer before deciding on goalies Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek, although it can always change with the “offer you can’t refuse.” They are trying to re-sign another good depth winger, Jordan Martinook.
7. Here’s why I believe Dougie Hamilton could be dealt. It is well-known the Hurricanes are right-shot heavy. That’s one. Since Dec. 11, he has more games where he’s played under 16 minutes (four) as those where he’s played more than 20 (three). He assisted on Jaccob Slavin’s winner Tuesday night against the Islanders. Prior to that, he scored in three straight games. He’s got value. Contenders need defencemen who can score; Carolina needs scoring forwards. There are matches out there.
9. Drew Doughty got the All-Star nod, but Jake Muzzin has been Los Angeles’s best defenceman. The price is high, but someone is going to seriously consider it.
10. In a league that is starving for goaltending depth, keep an eye on Winnipeg’s Laurent Brossoit. He worked hard last summer under Adam Francilia, who repaired Connor Hellebuyck in 2017. Brossoit’s been very good for the Jets. One year from unrestricted free agency, teams will be watching to see how both he and the Jets handle his future.
11. Another Jet being watched? Brandon Tanev. Good depth player who is free this summer. Winnipeg will have tough choices to make. Sounds like a few teams have asked about Jack Roslovic, only to have GM Kevin Cheveldayoff swat their requests Mutombo-like into the upper deck. Roslovic’s getting more minutes now, with Nikolaj Ehlers injured.
12. There’s an obvious connection for Toronto GM Kyle Dubas to be at Tuesday’s Lokomotiv/CSKA KHL game: Lokomotiv’s Yegor Korshkov, taken 31st overall by the Maple Leafs in the 2016 draft. He’s a left-shot winger, and they like his talent. Injured for a good chunk of the season and only in his fourth game back, the goal could be bringing him to training camp in September.
Toronto has also dipped into the Russian free-agent market with Igor Ozhiganov and Nikita Zaitsev, and there are two potential contenders from that game. The first is 29-year-old left-winger Sergei Andronov, who was selected by St. Louis in 2009 when current Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen was running their drafts. He spent two seasons in the AHL before returning home. The other is 22-year-old defenceman Alexander Yelesin. There is definitely interest in him.
13. Several teams and scouts left the World Juniors for a couple of days to attend the Desert Hockey Classic at Arizona State. There were two free agents of particular interest: Minnesota State (Mankato) defender Connor Mackey and Clarkson forward Nico Sturm.
14. In the days leading up to the gold-medal game, there were rumours flying that Quinn Hughes was ready to leave NCAA Michigan for Vancouver. It never got close to that, but what is clear is the Canucks wished to ask him if he would consider the possibility. They decided not to, choosing to honour an agreement to wait until the end of the Wolverines’ season. But I suspect they really, really wanted to do it.
15. Michael Del Zotto didn’t want to say anything during Vancouver’s stop in Toronto, but it’s clear he craves a chance to get back into the lineup. Players want to play. I’ve heard there’s interest, but those parties want to wait until closer to the deadline to save cap space.
16. The Canucks were marvelling at Pettersson’s blocked pass before he got injured in last Thursday’s 2-0 loss to Montreal. “Who even thinks of doing that?” one player said.
17. When Tiger Woods quickly became the most dominant golfer of his generation, other players quickly got sick of talking about him. It is the reverse in Vancouver. His teammates are more than happy to discuss what he can do, marvelling about his brains and his brawn.
“Take a look at his first goal,” defenceman Troy Stecher said. “Most players, they step forward on their front foot and shoot it. Not there. He reached back and ‘sling-shotted’ it. No stride change.”
Stecher was even more impressed by another play he witnessed from the bench. He couldn’t remember who it was against, but Pettersson had the puck at the opposing blueline.
“Someone was coming at him, and I was saying to myself, ‘Dump it in, dump it in.’ Then he looked right at the guy, who backed off and gave him room to make a play. I asked him about it later. He said, ‘If I look down at the puck on the ice, he can charge right at me. But if I look at him, he has to respect that I could go right past him.”
18. Excellent gesture: Vegas coach Gerard Gallant had replicas of the Jack Adams Award created for all of his assistant coaches.
19. John Hynes’s extension in New Jersey keeps him under contract until July 2021.
20. Erik Karlsson was steaming mad when hit with a two-game suspension at Christmas. He’s unleashed his anger on the rest of the NHL. In six games since his return, he’s got one goal and 15 assists. Karlsson’s a zone-entry machine.
21. One executive on Montreal: “They play so much harder than last season.” He pointed out they picked up four out of six points when Antti Niemi replaced Carey Price for three straight games just before New Year’s, and should have beaten Tampa Bay — which was the loss.
22. There was some concern when Shea Weber returned that he wouldn’t fit on the newer, speedier Canadiens. Yeah, no need to worry about that. The Canadiens were outscored 81-74 before Weber returned, but are up 58-54 since he came back. Prior to Nashville’s 4-1 win over Montreal on Saturday, the Canadiens were first overall in shot share since he got back. (Explainer: They were taking almost 56 per cent of the shots in games they were playing. That doesn’t indicate quality, but it was a higher percentage than anyone else.)
23. The Predators are a great team because they have great players, but it doesn’t hurt that they practice very hard.
“I can’t remember if it was last year or the year before,” defenceman Ryan Ellis said this week, “But we had a practice during the playoffs where three guys went down. The coaches stopped it and said, ‘Hey, we have bigger goals we want to accomplish here.” Ellis laughed. “It’s not unusual for guys to say to each other, ‘I’m going to get you at practice.’”
24. It would not surprise anyone to hear that one of the most competitive players is Viktor Arvidsson, but another who got a few votes was Craig Smith. He smiled, but added, “There are a lot of guys you could say that about here.”
For his part, Smith said the most competitive guy he’s ever seen is San Jose’s Joe Pavelski. They skate together during the off-season.
“He’ll be on the winning teams in most of our three-on-three games. When we golf, he’s usually the best. Fishing? He’ll have the best catch.”
Don’t you just hate guys like that?
“Actually, I kind of admire it,” Smith said.
25. Stunning admission from this week’s 31 Thoughts podcast: Jay Beagle has an iPhone 1. Does he write with a dip pen?
26. A few people have made fun of Toronto’s thank-you videos this year for Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin. (It was a good gesture with Martin, who was very unhappy at the way things ended for him last season.) I’d much rather that than St. Louis ignoring Kevin Shattenkirk, who didn’t get any recognition when he returned for the first time.
27. From the moment he arrived in the NHL, Alex Ovechkin plunged into the world of promotion, trying just about anything even though English was not his first language. As a result, I’m always inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. As part of the upcoming CBA talks, expect the NHLPA to propose a way for players to skip All-Star Weekend without punishment. Maybe, for example, you go to five, you get the option to miss one.
The idea of increasing the penalty for missing the weekend from one game to two was brought up inside the NHL, but there wasn’t anywhere near enough support for the idea, thankfully. I know people hate All-Star and think it’s a joke, but there’s a business aspect to this. NHL cities badly want to host it. Sponsors love the event — it’s a big perk for them and their clients. They love the interaction with the players. I always see a ton of kids, and even a minute with a player makes a huge difference. You want to grow your game and your revenues, you have to make nice with your sponsors. Let’s call it a necessary evil.
28. Eliminate picking forwards and defencemen for All-Star rosters. Take two goalies per division, then take whatever skaters you want.
29. Everyone’s favourite topic — escrow — comes to the forefront as talks between the NHL and NHLPA continue this week in Las Vegas. The NHL wanted a decision on the 2020 World Cup by All-Star Weekend. But that’s a small part of the overall CBA discussion, so we’re getting to more serious conversations. My sense is both sides want to extend the CBA, but there are always hurdles. Escrow is the biggest, and it’s complicated.
It is there to even the split between the players and owners, so capping it or re-jigging the formula will take major concessions from the NHLPA. There’s really not much wiggle room because there is little incentive for the NHL to budge. If I were in the union, I would work backwards, knowing that the league would probably want to decrease the length of the maximum contract (currently eight years for your own player, seven for someone else’s) and limit the amount of signing bonuses on contracts.
Could the players propose something that would satisfy the league in exchange for something? Just a thought. It will take that kind of creativity.
30. Another way is for the players not to use their “inflator” on the salary cap. (They raised the 2018-19 number by 0.5 per cent to its current $79.5 million. Next year’s estimate of $83 million includes this as part of the projection.) But that’s divisive. Years ago, one team was voting on whether or not to use it, and a top player argued they shouldn’t. A pending free agent yelled back, “So, you get the advantage when you’re up, but I don’t?” The difference between now and then is players have stopped using the full five per cent as allowed by the CBA.
31. Friday night, NBC Sports Washington will air an “alternative feed” of its Bucks/Wizards NBA broadcast. This channel will feature gambling information and pop-up questions allowing viewers to “bet” on the action through the station’s website, with the chance to win $500. That’s the future, and it is getting closer. Meanwhile, I’ll take the over on uncontested layups scored against the Wizards.