• Byfuglien, Jets headed to arbitration?
• Struggling Sharks hitting critical point
• How Dermott, Hyman affect Leafs decisions
When Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff described Dustin Byfuglien’s future as “a complicated situation,” he wasn’t lying.
The defenceman’s future is complex and confusing. In the middle of it is his 2018-19 ankle injury, his post-playoff exit physical, Byfuglien’s own unique take on the world, and now, the NHL and NHLPA.
There’s a question I always ask when trying to find out why things occur the way they do: “What don’t I know?” In this case, the answer is “a lot.” This is probably going to arbitration, and, when lawyers are involved, certain information will be kept private until it must be presented.
With that in mind, it is foolish to claim I know everything. But here is what I can tell you, from both parties’ perspectives.
THE NHL AND THE WINNIPEG JETS
There’s a reason Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is being evasive. The clamps are tight, he’s trying not to pour gasoline on the fire. That edict is from the league itself, which will take the lead on Byfgulien’s file.
At issue is Byfuglien’s season-ending physical. Taken after the Jets were eliminated in the first round by the St. Louis Blues, multiple sources indicate it pronounced him “fit to play.” According to Brian Burke, who has some expertise in these matters, these checkups must be signed by the doctor, the medical trainer and the player. There is also something called “Form 25A” — which labels you as “fit” or “unfit” — that must be signed by the doctor. If a player disputes the findings on Form 25A, he can seek a second opinion.
It is, I’m told, the NHL’s position that those results were never disputed during the summer and that, when Byfuglien informed the team that he wasn’t going to play, he said he’d lost his passion for hockey. Therefore, his preference was to retire.
In the reporting of this story, one thing was made clear to me: the NHL will fight hard to protect the integrity of the year-end physical. A player signing it, then successfully disputing it months later would lead to major legal league-wide consequences.
The league also feels Winnipeg did nothing wrong in this situation and should not be penalized.
BYFUGLIEN, HIS REPRESENTATIVES AND THE NHLPA
During the 2018-19 season, Byfuglien had two lengthy absences due to ankle problems, returning to full-time action with a week to go in the regular season.
You know athletes. They play hurt. They put their bodies on the line, especially at playoff time. He played hard against the Blues, averaging 25:42, with eight points in six games. He feels the Jets were well aware he wasn’t anywhere close to 100 per cent. He didn’t dispute the finding of the physical, and figured that, with a summer of rest, any lingering issues would disappear.
Byfuglien didn’t complain about pain during the summer because he didn’t skate. He took it easy, thinking rest was best. It was only when he re-started skating immediately prior to training camp that he realized the ankle hadn’t healed.
He hasn’t spoken on this matter, but, according to a few sources, maintains that this was when he began thinking about retirement. The NHL season is a grind, and Byfuglien wasn’t excited about beginning it in pain. The proof, he feels, is that he moved his family back to Manitoba. If he hadn’t been thinking of playing, he wouldn’t have returned to the provincial capital.
Byfuglien recently had surgery to repair the damage. I’ve been told there was a broken bone in his foot, also fixed in the procedure. However, the timing of that injury is also in dispute. I don’t spend much time in my Twitter mentions, but, apparently, a few people took that to mean he injured it doing something else in the summer. I don’t believe that’s the case. From what I understand, the dispute is whether or not both sides already knew this and it isn’t a revelation.
This is, in the minds of the player, his agency (Octagon), and the NHLPA, a legitimate hockey injury. And they are prepared to strenuously defend that.
“DUSTIN BEING DUSTIN”
Right from the beginning, other teams questioned why, if Byfuglien was still bothered by his injury, he didn’t just show up to camp, accept a rehab assignment and get paid.
Anyone who knows Byfuglien is well aware of his unique personality. He’s his own man. Some of his friends and teammates have said no one is surprised he’d do the exact opposite of what should be done or what is expected.
“That’s Dustin being Dustin,” they say, with a laugh.
“If he can avoid going to training camp, getting poked and prodded, just resting on his own,” one former teammate added, “I think he’d like that. A lot.”
I can totally see that. But it adds extra layers to the dispute.
Another said not to dismiss the divides that occurred in the Jets’ dressing room last season, and how Byfuglien felt about all that. He believes those took a toll on the big defenceman, too. The organization has worked hard to address those concerns, from giving Patrik Laine much more responsibility, to captain Blake Wheeler promising a change in his leadership, to head coach Paul Maurice pushing a positive environment.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Byfuglien is out until the New Year. At some point, he’ll decide if he wants to play. And, it is very likely an arbitrator will be forced to decide what — or if — he should be paid.
He is in the second-last season of his five-year, $38-million contract. He is scheduled to earn $8 million this season and $6 million next. Because he is suspended, he hasn’t collected any of that. Barring any kind of settlement, what will have to be decided is when he’s eligible to be paid. I’d expect the league to argue it’s not until he agrees to report, and either go on a rehab schedule, or suit up to play. I’d expect the NHLPA to counter that Byfuglien deserves every penny.
There’s something else, though.
Let’s say Byfuglien does decide to return. Does he want to go back to Winnipeg? Do the Jets even want him?
Cheveldayoff isn’t saying, but the suspicion is the Jets know they are much better with him than without him. As for the player’s choice, well, it’s much less certain.
I don’t know who is right, but I know there are hard feelings.
1. I don’t think this will end up in a settlement/contract termination; Byfuglien is too important for the Jets to turn into an unrestricted free agent. But, for the sake of argument, there is recent precedent. In October 2015, Los Angeles and Mike Richards reached a settlement on the last five years of his contract, with the former King getting slightly less than 50 per cent of the $16 million owed to him. In June 2017, Anaheim and Simon Despres came to an understanding — one-third of the $16 million owed. Last September, Tampa Bay terminated the final season of Jake Dotchin’s contract, and a settlement was reached in July. More important to the Jets would be if any money stayed on the cap. Richards counts against Los Angeles’s number through 2031–32, but Despres is not counted towards the Ducks’ total.
2. Regular readers of this blog are aware that I keep a Nov. 1 stat. Since 2005–06, just nine of 59 teams four (or more) points out of a playoff spot after games on that date have reached the post-season. St. Louis took it to another level in 2018-19, coming back from last overall on Jan. 3 to win it all. This year, eight teams will try to recover from this early hole: Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minnesota, New Jersey, the Rangers, Ottawa and San Jose.
3. This is a critical time for the Sharks, whose first-round pick belongs to the Senators. Two very different games on the weekend. They responded very well to head coach Peter DeBoer using the dreaded “S” word on them — “soft” — outshooting Winnipeg 53–19 on Friday, but losing 2-1. (Every ex-player I’ve ever worked with said the worst thing a coach could call his players was soft.) Then, Vancouver pounded them 5–2 on Saturday.
The issues have been discussed: goaltending, declining shot rates from Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, the fact they’ve never depended on speed in a fast league. But, a couple of opponents have also pointed out that they’re not as deep as they’ve been. GM Doug Wilson saw that, which is why he brought back Patrick Marleau after initially declining to, but they might need more.
Another key might be the return of defenceman Radim Simek, who made a real impact in his rookie season before a gruesome leg injury took him out in March. Tim Heed was playing fewer than nine minutes per night, which taxed Burns and Karlsson. Entering Monday’s games, the former was second in ice time (26:15) and the latter was sixth (25:18). Dallas, with Miro Heiskanen (13th) and John Klingberg (18th), is the only other team with two blueliners in the top 23. Burns, approaching 35, is an absolute freak of nature. But at his current pace, he is looking at ice times not seen by a player that age since Scott Niedermayer 11 years ago.
4. Last Christmas, the Kings made it clear they were willing to move some of their veteran content for younger pieces. It’s a new year, but the plan has not changed. Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are staying, as are their younger prospects, many of whom are not with the NHL team. That leaves several veterans, and you don’t need me to tell you who they are. One of their most difficult decisions involves Kyle Clifford, a huge part of their culture and someone who is trying to convey the lessons he learned from the Matt Greenes, Rob Scuderis and Jarret Stolls onto the next generation. It doesn’t sound like there’s a ton of discussion yet about an extension, but word is you will have to work to make the Kings consider parting with him.
5. Teams needing anything fixed in the dressing room should consider Clifford. “He’s like Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor,” one former teammate texted. “Around (Manhattan Beach) everyone just hires people, but not him.”
The winger rebuilt his own backyard last summer.
“One of my brothers, he’s a huge handyman,” Clifford said Monday. “I was always FaceTiming him for advice.”
6. Pierre Dorion’s presence in Los Angeles and Nashville started the rumour mill. It’s known the Senators are looking for experience up front, but he warned not to jump to any conclusions. Ottawa had six days between games, so his primary goal was taking the opportunity to check out a few Western Conference clubs. The Predators are trying to move Kyle Turris, and the fact Dorion was watching them against Calgary had some wondering if the Senators would consider it. The GM wouldn’t discuss that, but I’m told it’s not happening.
7. One thing that is new about Ottawa: They have a presence in Russia looking at potential free agents. “You haven’t seen them dive into this pool that often,” one opposing team executive said. “Now, they’re here.”
8. I did want to give the Senators credit for getting a quick update on Scott Sabourin to Sportsnet’s Greg Millen during last Saturday’s game in Boston. When a player is conscious, talking with doctors and moving extremities after such an awful-looking injury — teams have to let fans/viewers know as fast as possible. Obviously, the player and his family are the first priority, but you can’t reach everyone as quickly as you’d like and people watching the game are agonizing alongside them.
9. The Karjala Cup is an international tournament beginning Thursday in Finland. There are at least two forwards closely watched by NHL teams: Finland’s Jesse Puljujarvi and Russia’s Konstantin Okulov. Edmonton GM Ken Holland is going, and last weekend, I asked Puljuajrvi’s rep, Markus Lehto, via text if the winger would consider returning to the Oilers now that things seem calmer. Lehto was very polite, complimenting Edmonton’s early-season success, but said a new address remains the preferred option.
“Jesse’s unwillingness to return has nothing to do with current coaches, management, the team, fans or the city,” Lehto wrote. “Like I have said multiple times, Jesse has just asked for a change of scenery and to get a fresh start somewhere else. Nothing wrong with that considering the past three seasons. It is very difficult for me to see that he would return there all of a sudden now…. If things don’t work out now with the right team and best possible fit, there is nothing wrong (with playing) the whole season in Europe.”
Chris Johnston reported last weekend that the Rangers are interested. It makes sense to consider pairing him with Kaapo Kakko.
10. I could see Edmonton making a run at Okulov, even though Montreal is considered the front-runner.
11. Most GMs who go overseas try to stay in Stealth Mode. Arizona GM John Chayka was photographed with Dan Milstein, who reps many Russian players. That is believed to be the third time Chayka’s visited winger Alexander Barabanov. The Coyotes are his most ardent pursuer.
12. Taylor Hall’s agent is scheduled to meet with New Jersey GM Ray Shero during the team’s swing through Western Canada. I think that’s going to be in Calgary.
13. I’m making my prediction: Colorado goes big-game hunting. They are banged up now, but looked dynamite when healthy. And they’ve got plenty of assets.
14. Nate Schmidt is back after a 13-game absence, and the Golden Knights badly missed him. Does Vegas feel the need to add mobility on the blue line? Opponents do think it is one of their few weaknesses.
15. May mean something, may mean nothing, but both Montreal and New Jersey sent a different mix of scouts to separate games in Buffalo. (First was against Arizona, second versus the Islanders.) When I first started, a GM told me to look for that kind of thing.
16. With Travis Dermott back and Zach Hyman nearing his own return, teams checking to see if Toronto wishes to move a big salary are being told the Maple Leafs are determined to give their strongest roster a chance. They want to see that group in action before making any rash decisions. That means, as expected, a team of 20 or 21; so two or three will be traded or waived.
17. One exec, seeing Nic Petan get four points last Friday in his AHL return last weekend: “He’s too good for this league.”
18. In the last week, both Alex Ovechkin (“If they want to win Stanley Cup, they have to play differently”) and Doughty (“If any team wants to be successful in the playoffs, they need their top scorers playing good defence and they need their best defenders chipping in on the offence. That’s the only way you’re going to win”) have weighed in on how the Maple Leafs play. While I thought the Ovechkin comments were totally blown out of proportion, there is an opportunity for Toronto. All of a sudden, Mike Babcock doesn’t need to pound it into the group, because their peers are doing it for him.
19. Speaking of the AHL, the deadline for applicants to replace retiring commissioner David Andrews was Oct. 31. There was a lot of interest; now we’re going to see who applied and who gets an interview. An announcement is expected in January. John Hoven reported Darren Abbott’s candidacy. He’s the president of AHL Ontario, and a legit contender. But there will be more. It’s a coveted job.
20. Eight more points for Boston’s top line in the Bruins’ 6–4 win over Pittsburgh on Monday night. Five for Brad Marchand, two for David Pastrnak, the other by Patrice Bergeron. I meant to include this a few weeks ago, but I was asking a few of their teammates about their consistent excellence. Take a look at two power-play goals scored against Tampa Bay on Oct. 17:
They aren’t even looking at each other. One of the Bruins said they are so good with the extra man because they’ve practised against their best defensive players for years, from Zdeno Chara on down. It’s a good point. If you practise like you play — against that level of talent — competitive nature and structure should make you better.
21. How bananas is this line for the 11-1-2 Bruins? In all situations, they are outscoring opponents 27–7 with all three on the ice, including 12–0 on the power play. After Monday night, do you know how many NHL teams had more than 12 power-play goals? Five. Boston has 15; Buffalo, Vancouver and Washington 14; Vegas 13. Bergeron/Marchand/Pastrnak alone are tied with or outscoring the other 26. The Bruins have scored 36 goals with Marchand on the ice; that’s No. 1 in the NHL. Bergeron and Pastrnak have been on the ice for 31 — tied with Roman Josi for fifth. Between them are John Carlson and Leon Draisaitl (34), and Connor McDavid (33). (Source: Natural Stat Trick.)
22. One more on Marchand: Boston’s scored 80 per cent of the goals that have occurred with him on the ice. There is only one player above 200 minutes who can say the same: Vancouver’s Jordie Benn (10-2, 83 per cent). He’s played 37 fewer minutes, though.
23. Josi and Ryan Ellis are both on a point-per-game pace after 15 games. Last defensive teammates to do that in at least 70 appearances? Al MacInnis and Gary Suter for Calgary in 1989-90. Only four defencemen this century have done it: Nicklas Lidstrom (2005-06), Mike Green (2009-10), Karlsson (2015-16) and Burns last year.
24. I don’t expect the Oilers to lose too often in overtime, but it happened Monday night at home — 3-2 to Arizona. Edmonton remains atop the Pacific Division, “but we are not satisfied,” defenceman Oscar Klefbom said last Friday. “We’ve had good starts before.”
Klefbom himself has nine points in 16 games, third in per-game ice time behind Thomas Chabot and Burns. He’s on the first-unit power play, and I asked him if catching his career-high 12 goals from 2016-17 was possible.
“Yes, I have to think it is,” he responded. “I have to be a threat to score, not just pass. What if one of Connor or Leon gets hurt? I have to be able to help.”
(Perish the thought, but you understand Klefbom’s motivation.)
25. Klefbom says the tone is entirely different. I’ve heard from a few people now that Holland gave a stirring speech the night before training camp began. Klefbom didn’t want to go deeply into it, although he did say that the GM “talked about how he’s won Stanley Cups, but isn’t satisfied and wants more.” (I believe a lot of the message was about Detroit’s path from NHL afterthought to Stanley Cup champion, and how Edmonton can follow the same path. From what I heard, players were willing to run through walls when it was over.)
Since then, it’s been about “building confidence in us,” Klefbom said. “(The coaches) want us to make plays, not just off the glass when we’re in trouble. But when something goes wrong, it’s a lot quieter.”
The Oilers have to build depth, but know cornerstones are in place. Got to make them believe.
26. Hours before Arizona beat Edmonton, former coach Todd McLellan was in Toronto running Kings practice. There was one point where he stopped a power-play drill and demonstratively explained to a group that included Anze Kopitar how he wanted them to rotate on a certain play. I asked him about it after.
“I was telling them that if they moved, they would force the defence to move, too,” he said. “But you can’t just tell them to do it. You have to show them why it is going to work. That’s what I was doing.”
In the same practice, McLellan was also playing the role of a pinching defenceman, pressuring the winger to keep the puck in the offensive zone. At one point, he actually bumped with Michael Amadio. I told McLellan he was pretty aggressive. He laughed and said, “I was terrible. I didn’t keep a single puck in.”
Someday, someone’s going to have to write a book about the last decade in Edmonton. There were good players and good teachers. How did it go so sideways?
27. One scout on the Coyotes: “Islanders West. Structure. Player buy-in. Know their roles. Only difference is the Islanders’ players will beat you up. In Arizona, the coach will do it.”
28. You watch some of the early-season surprises: Arizona, Buffalo, Islanders, Vancouver. Know what they have in common? A lot of players. You can debate how good they are or aren’t, but they can all play in the NHL. You need bodies who can hold their own at this level.
29. Ryan Poehling gets the call-up from AHL Laval for Montreal’s huge Tuesday night home game against Boston. The last time we saw him in an NHL game, he was getting a hat trick in his debut versus Toronto. Poehling had a strong pre-season, but was sent down after suffering a concussion late in exhibition play. He wasn’t as dominant as you’d hope in the American League, but one exec who watched him pushed back against that narrative.
“He got hurt, and no one should underestimate how hard it can be for a young player to recover from that injury so early in his career,” he said. “It takes time, especially getting used to the physicality.”
As a high pick and a centre, Poehling’s a target for other hungry players who want their shot, too.
“He will be an NHLer, for sure.”
30. One more story from the outdoor game in Regina. At the luncheon, I sat next to one of my favourite athletes, longtime Saskatchewan Roughrider Gene Makowsky. The retired lineman and Grey Cup champion is now Minister of Parks, Culture and Sport in the province. He’s a huge Oilers fan, and would always ask me what they were up to whenever we saw each other back in the CFL on CBC days. He told a great story about meeting Wayne Gretzky years ago.
When Gretzky found out who Makowsky was, the Great One peppered him with questions about the 2009 Grey Cup. The Roughriders appeared to have won the championship when the Montreal Alouettes missed a last-second field goal — only to be penalized for too many men on the field. Given another chance, the Alouettes made the kick to win the game. Gretzky wanted to know how that happened. I find that amazing. The mind can set the great apart from the merely good. The desire for detail. The willingness to learn how things go wrong, or how they go right. Makowsky was amazed by Gretzky’s curiosity, too.
31. Monday morning, I attended an event for the University of Toronto’s Basketball Excellence Program, featuring Nick Nurse, head coach of the NBA champion Raptors. Nurse was on his game during the 60-minute presentation. People always ask about books being read by decision-makers, so I’m happy to pass along that he’s read Freedom in the Huddle: The Creative Edge in Coaching Psychology “about 50 times.” Asked if he spoke to anyone in particular about what it takes to repeat, Nurse mentioned two names. The first was Bill Belichick, who told him to “get my ass back in the office. Get to work,” adding that working hard at it is the only way. (I’m paraphrasing here.) The second was Phil Jackson.
Nurse told a hilarious story about going on a long drive in Jackson’s truck, with the 11-time champion coach stopping to buy a bag of cherries that was consumed during their trip. One piece of advice Nurse got from Jackson is among the best he’s ever received: Imagine yourself holding a sword. Sometimes you’ve got to give your players the sharp tip. It has to happen. But there are other times you have to look at the handle, and realize you can’t always be so cutting.