• What led to Shero’s rushed exit?
• Seattle among possible Gallant landing spots
• Can Leafs swing a Georgiev deal?
Two absolute bombshells across the NHL landscape this week. We’ll start with Jersey and get to Vegas.
There was an exchange from last season that was forgotten about until Monday afternoon. I had received a tip that Ray Shero was getting a contract extension in New Jersey. He denied it. The source said it was coming. Shero denied it some more.
In April, it happened.
There wasn’t much time to focus on it with the playoffs approaching, but I went through that “annoyed reporter” phase for a few hours. You get over it — that’s life in the big city — but you wish you’d been able to close the deal.
Another exec heard about it. He reached out. “That (situation) is complicated,” he told me, but wouldn’t elaborate. The puck dropped to start the post-season, and everything else became secondary.
The next time we saw Ray Shero, he was the lottery-winning GM. He drafted Jack Hughes, acquired P.K. Subban, received a “checkmark” text message from Taylor Hall, signed Wayne Simmonds, and traded for Nikita Gusev.
The Devils and their fans were excited. Who could blame them?
Eight months after receiving that four-year extension, Shero was out — removed in rushed fashion. It was a stunning Sunday. As one GM texted, with gallows humour, “If we beat Washington and Tampa, am I going to get fired, too?”
We’re left to wonder, what exactly happened?
The first thing is obvious: the Devils tripped out of the starting gate with several brutal defeats that undercut their season. They blew a 4–0 lead to Winnipeg on opening night. Five games later, they couldn’t hold a 4–1 advantage against Florida and fell to 0-4-2. John Hynes was fired on Dec. 3. Thirteen days later, Hall was traded. Interim boss Alain Nasreddine stabilized things, with the club on a current 6-3-2 stretch.
That’s the easy stuff to figure. I’ve got no interest in kicking anyone while they are down, and Shero is yet to speak, but, from what I can piece together, the relationship between him and the rest of the organization withered as the stress of this season intensified. One particular bone of contention was decision making over the last year or two in goal — including insurance policies for 2019-20. MacKenzie Blackwood looks legit, but he was thrown into something he wasn’t ready for.
New Jersey’s made the playoffs once since the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, and everyone there is sick of the losing. From what I understand, there were different opinions on where to go from here, how to approach this particular fix. But, according to multiple sources, the philosophy itself was secondary.
All GMs have their “people,” a group of confidants who really know what’s going on. Some circles are tighter than others, a few notoriously so. Shero’s is very tight. That was his way in Pittsburgh, that was his way in New Jersey.
It became a problem. Co-owners Joshua Harris and David Blitzer are very involved, and were in conversation with Shero more than the average owner(s) would be with their GM. There’s an organizational CEO, a President and a team President. There were Shero’s right-hand men, Tom Fitzgerald and Dan MacKinnon. Martin Brodeur became more involved in the last few months. And there is the Devils’ analytics department, which has real juice.
When the analytics job was posted last year, it created the impression that the analytics department would have an open line to ownership and not necessarily report to the GM. The Devils liked two of the finalists, and decided to hire both (Tyler Dellow and Matt Cane).
I’m not saying that anyone submarined anyone else, but I don’t believe Shero was ever comfortable with all of this. The Subban trade was one where he felt pulled in a lot of directions, but ultimately made the decision. When the person above mentioned the extension talks being “complicated,” I think this is a big part of it. He closed his circle even further as Hall discussions got into the public domain. If there’s one word I heard a lot of around New Jersey over the past 48 hours, it is “collaborative.” There is desire for more people to be involved in the process.
I don’t believe Brodeur has any desire to be a full-time GM at this time. Maybe he stays as an advisor, maybe he goes into the “Shanahan spot” at the top of a hockey department. But he won’t be the day-to-day guy. External candidates (or those who figure to be) are wondering where the power lies and how much authority will be given.
It’s why I think Fitzgerald has a legit shot at keeping the job. He knows everyone here and has an understanding of how they want it to work. Of course, it has to be something he’s comfortable with, too. But he’s ready for a GM job, in New Jersey or elsewhere.
1. The immediate priorities aren’t difficult to decipher. There are the UFAs — captain Andy Greene, Wayne Simmonds and Sami Vatanen. Word is there’s been at least one legit offer for Vatanen, with more certain to come. Greene said Tuesday he hasn’t discussed his future with the organization, and has a no-trade clause. But, he added he wants to play next year (he’ll be 38 in October). Clearly, he still loves it. Simmonds admitted he doesn’t have control over the situation, but prefers not to go anywhere.
“You don’t sign with a team to stay for three-quarters of a season,” the winger explained. “You sign hoping to be there.”
2. The bigger question is what the Devils will do with veterans who have term. They could do very well in trades for Blake Coleman and/or Kyle Palmieri. (I always assume Lou Lamoriello wants Travis Zajac.)
“Aren’t those the guys you want to keep?” one Devil said. “If you’re trying to create an identity, aren’t players who’ve succeeded here the ones to keep around?”
This ownership oversaw the scorched-earth “Process” from the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, so they’ve got patience. But we know they’re sick of losing on the hockey side, and no team has more “comp” tickets than the Devils. You have to give your fans something to watch and you have to surround your young cornerstones with pros. Interesting decision.
3. Christine Simpson is working Montreal-Vegas this weekend, and was doing research on the Golden Knights’ website Wednesday morning. When she refreshed a page and saw Peter DeBoer’s name come up, she thought the site had been hacked. I can only imagine the email that went out from Hockey Operations on Wednesday morning. “Dear Rick/Travis — which one of you hasn’t made vacation plans?” Not even two years ago, Gerard Gallant directed one of the most incredible seasons in NHL history, taking expansion Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final. They lost their 2019 first-round series in one of the craziest ways imaginable, and he was set to be the Pacific Division All-Star coach next week. From what I understood about Gallant’s contract, it became guaranteed for a fourth season when they reached the final. Next year is year four, and the craziest thing about all of this is that the Golden Knights were talking about an extension with him. Instead, he’s out.
4. Like DeBoer and Hynes, who were each unemployed fewer than 40 days, Gallant will have his suitors. Seattle, for one. Jim Nill pursued him hard in Dallas, although Rick Bowness has Dallas going strong — the Stars finished a season sweep of Colorado on Tuesday night. Gallant’s got a long history with Steve Yzerman, too, but there’s no predicting what he’ll do. (There are mixed reviews on his French.) Bottom line is, people respect his work. That’s two Bizarro World firings for him.
5. That’s the seventh coach firing of the season. The record is 11. What an insane year.
6. Expect Vegas to continue its search for a mobile defenceman.
7. Gerry Johanssen, who represents both Brendan Gallagher and Carey Price, stopped in Montreal this week to see his clients. He would not discuss Gallagher’s injury status, but did say “there’s nothing going on” when it comes to Price’s future. Since his NHL arrival, few players have had as many crazy rumours surrounding them as Price, so I can understand the desire to snuff out trade theories.
8. The Canadiens’ cornerstone stood strong in back-to-back wins over Ottawa and Calgary, giving his team its first two victories since the Christmas break. Heading into that game against the Senators, Price was 45th among eligible goalies in save percentage from the slot and the inner-slot. (That’s from Sportlogiq. The “slot” is a home plate from the front of the net to the top of the faceoff circles. The “inner-slot” is directly in front of the net.) Last year, Price was ninth-best against the former and 13th against the latter. They need him back to that level. One other telling statistic: Detroit, New Jersey and Ottawa have a combined goal differential of minus-154. Versus the Canadiens, they are plus-9. Montreal is 2-4-2 against those teams.
9. Thought the Canadiens’ reaction to Ilya Kovalchuk’s overtime winner last Saturday showed some much-needed spirit. GM Marc Bergevin indicated he will make firm decisions on the roster next week, as the players go on their extended all-star break. He’s got 11 picks this draft, including three in the first two rounds, seven in the top four. His contract heavy-lifting comes prior to next summer with UFAs Gallagher, Joel Armia, Phillip Danault, Jeff Petry and Tomas Tatar. Some important pieces, there. If they decide to tap out on this season, can Bergevin afford to make his team worse (on paper) for next year? The Canadiens are struggling with their inability to lure top free-agent talent to Quebec. They have to keep what they draft, develop or acquire. The biggest decision might be Petry, because he has value now and will sign his next contract at age 33. Look what Toronto gave up for Jake Muzzin. You have to think the Canadiens do as well, if not better, because Petry’s a righty.
10. I was looking for Nicklas Backstrom comparables: players in recent memory who signed anything similar to his five-year, $46-million extension (11.29 per cent of the cap) at age 32. Here’s what’s close: Daniel and Henrik Sedin at four years, $28 million (10.89 per cent), age 33; Jason Spezza at four years, $30 million (10.87 per cent), age 32; Blake Wheeler at five years, $41.25 million (10.38 per cent), age 32; and Ryan Kesler at six years, $41.25 million (9.63 per cent), age 31. (info courtesy CapFriendly.)
“If you look at Joe Thornton, that’s how we projected Nick,” Washington GM Brian MacLellan said. “Remarkably consistent, few blips. Not a speed player, a thinking player. Nick makes plays, he’s a number one power-play guy. Speed was never his defining factor. We think it can continue.”
“Nick is a top-two centre. If you lose them, you can’t replace them.”
11. In his media conference, Backstrom said not to assume this contract will be it for him. Have he and Alexander Ovechkin asked the Capitals about tying their terms together? (The captain is up after next season.)
“Not with me,” MacLellan said with a bit of a laugh. “I assume those two have discussed it. They’ve been tied together since day one. That would be fitting.”
12. Some GMs don’t like negotiating directly with players, but MacLellan said that was never an issue.
“Nick and I have a good relationship. It’s direct — we say what’s on our minds. From the beginning, we both set the tone, that our main goal was for Nick to finish his career as a Capital. You’re not trying to win the deal, you’re trying to do the right thing. He deserves to be rewarded and we want to ice a competitive team. It was always about a fair number.”
13. Finally, MacLellan re-iterated that Braden Holtby’s extension remains a post-season discussion. As for the trade deadline, Washington is thinking “depth pieces, depending on our health.”
14. Pencil in a return to Edmonton for the 2021-22 Heritage Classic. We froze at Commonwealth Stadium in November 2003, but it was an awesome event with a massive 50/50 prize. That was the template for everything outdoor to follow, and it is time the Oilers get another opportunity. They are the favourites for fall 2021.
15. The San Jose Sharks last missed the playoffs in 2014-15, and that was their only miss since 2002-03. One year later, they went to the Stanley Cup Final. That is the mindset for the upcoming off-season. Surprises happen, but GM Doug Wilson has let it be known he is not interested in disrupting his core. There will be interest in Brenden Dillon and Melker Karlsson (their number-two forward on the league’s best penalty kill after Barclay Goodrow). Will be interesting to see what the Sharks do with Aaron Dell, who has pushed his way ahead of Martin Jones.
16. Wilson will have cap space. If you believe the surest predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, he will have an aggressive summer. Five years ago, he made a coaching change (we’ll see how that unfolds); signed free agents Joonas Donskoi, Paul Martin and Joel Ward; and traded for Jones. At the last minute, he decided against another deal that would have sent Tomas Hertl and the pick that became Timo Meier to St. Louis for T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk. Now, Hertl and Meier are big parts of what San Jose plans to do.
17. Anaheim GM Bob Murray is willing to use his cap space to ease other clubs’ salary issues. He can also go into long-term injury with Patrick Eaves and Ryan Kesler incapacitated. The cost is young assets. With so many contenders tight to the ceiling, it’s a smart play.
18. Carolina, despite standing third in shots allowed per game (29.1) and seventh in goals-against per game (2.72), is looking to change up its defensive mix. There were recent shutouts of Arizona and Los Angeles, but concern about the way they defended in several other games. It sounds like they’re looking for someone who thinks D-zone first. They’re not trading Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce or Jaccob Slavin, all of whom are playing at least 21:45. They won’t make a move unless they get what they want, but will discuss their other blueliners.
19. Toronto fans tweeted up a storm of Jeremy Bracco trades to get Alexandar Georgiev from the Rangers, but it will take more than that. Georgiev beat the Islanders 6-2 on Monday, and while New York is looking for a talented forward who is ready to play, they realize how good Georgiev can be.
20. The part of me who loved 1980s hockey didn’t support Zack Kassian’s suspension. He went after a physical player on the ice. The part of me who understands the reality of 2020 gets it. With everything we know about concussions, if there are going to be fights, they have to involve two willing participants. Last season, during another wild Battle of Alberta, Kassian went after Matthew Tkachuk, but wasn’t as uncontrolled and other players jumped in:
Milan Lucic got two games for punching Columbus’s Kole Sherwood, who wanted no part of it. The number of former NHLers who weighed in on Twitter was really interesting, from Teemu Selanne to PJ Stock to Scottie Upshall to Ryan Whitney. Passionate subject.
21. Tkachuk was not called by the Department of Player Safety. Kassian’s suspension ends in time for him to face the Flames in two weeks, and he’s made it very clear he’s looking forward to it. Since the Steve Moore incident, the NHL has warned teams prior to hot-button games, and occasionally sent senior executives to them. I’m going to guess this rematch is on that radar.
22. The Houston Astros’ punishment for sign-stealing (and Boston’s decision to fire ex-Astro Alex Cora) had me wondering about comparable cheating scandals in hockey. Brian Burke told me there were some buildings where you worried about the home team’s equipment staff measuring your sticks (members of the 1993 Los Angeles Kings have said they suspected the Canadiens did it and therefore knew about Marty McSorley). Some teams (Detroit) were known for fresh paint jobs in visiting dressing rooms before big games. The old Boston Garden was notorious for turning up the heat in visiting rooms for both hockey and basketball. But the most notable investigations have been for tampering or salary cap circumvention.
23. The biggest one in recent memory was St. Louis’s punishment for tampering with Scott Stevens, where the NHL did not get firm evidence until five years after the fact. St. Louis found a copy of an offer sheet and a received counter-signed copy dated before the Devils were eliminated in the 1994 playoffs. They forwarded this information to the NHL office. In January 1999, St. Louis was fined $1.4 million and forced to give up a first-rounder to New Jersey. The league also conducted a detailed investigation into the Brooks Orpik trade to Colorado, buyout and re-signing in Washington. That’s where they come after you. Leave a paper trail and you are in trouble.
24. I asked Luca Sbisa to give me a quote about the underrated and unappreciated Adam Pelech. Every third word was (bleep). It was so hilarious, I wish I could post it all. Here’s the gist: “Stick is always in the right place. He’s always in the right (bleeping) place. You watch him once, and you say, ‘What’s the (bleeping) deal?’ Nothing stands out. But you watch him 82 (bleeping) times and you realize how (bleeping) good he is.” Sbisa is an international treasure.
25. There are several unsigned goalies for next season, but all of the injuries have several clubs remembering you better have at least three you can depend on — four is a luxury. As a result, teams are looking overseas in addition to the North American market. I have heard three KHL names. In December, Sportsnet’s Luke Fox reported Toronto’s interest in Timur Bilyalov from Ak Bars. He’ll be 25 in March and isn’t massive like many of today’s goalies, but you can’t argue the numbers — first in goals against and second in save percentage. Two others to watch: St. Petersburg’s Alexei Melnichuk (22 in June, fifth in goals against, 18th in save percentage) and Sibir’s Alexei Krasikov (24, 12th in goals against and seventh in save percentage).
26. Don’t know what Dallas expected of Stephen Johns, but what a huge add he could be. Sidelined almost two years with post-concussion headaches, Johns had a goal and three assists for AHL Texas against Toronto last Saturday. His performance did not go unnoticed. The number one thing is his health; he could make a difference.
“Go to the middle,” the captain answered. “He’s very dangerous when he gets the puck there.”
28. Rasmus Sandin agreed to a contract with no performance bonuses, knowing it would be easier to reach the NHL quicker for cap-tight Toronto. You know who else structured their contract similarly? Nick Robertson.
29. Devils forward John Hayden, who has played 135 NHL games, proudly admitted that he is far from the best athlete in his family. He said that honour goes to younger sister, Catherine, who scored 29 goals the last two seasons for the University of North Carolina’s field hockey team. The Heels went 46-0 and won back-to-back National Championships.
“Their dressing room is nicer than some NHL ones,” he smiled.
But I laughed when I saw that her Twitter feed has a banner photo of the Rangers.
30. I wanted to save one thought for a shoutout to World Junior hero Akil Thomas, traded from OHL Niagara to Peterborough. He called the family of Steve Montador to ask for permission to wear number 44, and it was graciously granted.
Courtesy of Steve’s brother, Chris, check out the bottom left of Thomas’s jersey. Beautiful.
31. December 1989, back home from first year at Western for the break. Roll the Bones tour at Maple Leaf Gardens, Tragically Hip opening for Rush. My first in-person Neil Peart drum solo, him sliding between an acoustic and an electronic set in the middle of it. Those are moments you never forget.