31 Thoughts: Fast hockey, big personalities define start of NHL season

Mitch Marner chases Jonathan Drouin. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

• Update on Roman Josi contract talks with Nashville Predators
• Anthony Mantha breakout on the way?
• Oilers, Flames determined to make off-season trade work

We’re moving. Some of the changes are subtle, but, together, you can’t miss them.

I strongly suspect it wasn’t the original plan, but Toronto unveiled its captain at the end of opening night player introductions. Vancouver will do something similar, on-ice, at its first home game, Wednesday night.

Columbus released a video of rookie Emil Bemstrom making the team. It was hilarious footage, with GM Jarmo Kekalainen deciding to play the villain and coach John Tortorella being himself — happy for the 20-year-old Swede while warning him life would not be easy. The Maple Leafs countered with Mike Babcock awarding a Raptors basketball to the player of the game after every win. The first recipient, Auston Matthews, showed a handle that would make Steve Nash blush.

“I got lucky with the spin,” he laughed.

Babcock, by the way, wore a Raptors’ zip-up to his Saturday morning podium session. He joked that it was dark in his closet when he picked it out, and that he liked the price (free). Subtlety is not his way, and if you were wondering how the Raptors championship would affect the Maple Leafs, we have our answer. The coach is not going to let them forget it.

The Rangers, on their Twitter, released a clip of Mika Zibanejad talking about how a change in his training regimen and an understanding of what it really takes to be successful was a major factor in his hot start. They didn’t have to do that, but they did. It’s a small thing, but a big thing.

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After the Rangers beat Winnipeg in the season opener, Jacob Trouba explained how his knowledge of the Jets’ system allowed him to fire a breakaway pass to Zibanejad that tied their game 4-4. I’ve long felt players should be more open about discussing little strategies or things they see.

Vegas topped them all with a video so crazy I’m not sure any hotel on the strip could have thought of it. Marc-Andre Fleury, William Karlsson and Nate Schmidt were cowboys (to loud cheers from the crowd), while owner Bill Foley commanded a military helicopter.

Drew Doughty and Matthew Tkachuk continued their feud, spitting fire at one another in advance of Tuesday night’s game in southern Alberta. There’s genuine dislike, but it’s also two edgy personalities who like to needle with a smile, who like to dish it out, who need to be a little bit angry, a little bit ticked, to be at their best.

The most important thing is the product. It was a good first week. These teams look fast. Real fast. If you weren’t skating, weren’t going hard, it was noticeable. Slow stands out now.

But the true growth of the sport will come with the evolution of its personalities. On the ice, off it, everywhere. As the season progresses and the games get more important, it will be harder to keep this up. But you can see the effort is being made.

The history is to close that door, and I do understand privacy — what you want to make public and what you want to avoid. But the NHL has to continue on this path, one small step at a time.

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.

1. One negotiation that’s hit a snag: Nashville’s Roman Josi. There was momentum in the summer; that’s stopped. Unless you’re actually in the room, you’re never sure if it’s something serious or two sides grinding away. But there is surprise it isn’t done yet.

2. Fans roll their eyes when they hear the word “escrow,” but all of the teams near the cap means it is a big number for the start of this season — 14. There is hope this will be going down as soon as 2020-21, but it’s another reason to believe setting the ceiling for multiple seasons is going to be part of this labour process.

3. Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo’s game-winning goal in Monday’s victory over Toronto was the 23rd of his career, passing Al MacInnis for most in franchise history. Pietrangelo, as usual, politely answered all questions pre- and post-game, but declined to go into his contract talks.

“We’ll just see how things go,” the pending unrestricted free agent said. “I don’t want to talk about it. I just worry about playing hockey — that’s my job.”

Like Josi, other GMs would slice each other’s brake lines to talk to him. It is believed St. Louis wishes to use Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s eight-year, $66-million contract as a baseline. His agents (Newport) met with Blues GM Doug Armstrong on Monday.

4. Armstrong’s history with UFAs is pretty interesting. He’s not afraid to wait well into a season. Alexander Steen got a new deal in December 2013, just six months before he could walk. In 2018–19, as the team navigated a wild, roller-coaster season, Roberto Bortuzzo was re-upped in December, Carl Gunnarsson in March and Jay Bouwmeester on the eve of the playoffs. Brayden Schenn, realizing the Blues were not going to go any further, recognized his best offer was on the table now. The Justin Faulk contract was done in about 24 hours, with the player and both teams motivated to close it quick and not let it hang over the start of the season. This is bigger, because it’s the captain and a long-time franchise stalwart. The previous leader, David Backes, left for Boston in 2016, and the same parties are involved this time. 

5. During training camp, the team took the Cup to Colton Parayko’s house. It was there that everyone discussed how last year was last year, and it was time to concentrate on repeating, not celebrating. There are constant reminders: from the ring ceremony, to raising the banner, to a Tuesday celebration where they will donate one of those rings to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Next week, on an off-day, the Blues will visit the White House.

One of the biggest organizational concerns was that they need to play a hard, physical game to win. Would they still have the same commitment after reaching the ultimate goal? After all, that’s an exhausting way to play over 82 games. At the morning skate, it was obvious one guy hadn’t changed a bit: head coach Craig Berube, looking very much in charge as he did last June. They opened with three tough opponents — Washington, Dallas and Toronto. Five out of six points. They’ll be a handful. 

6. A name to learn: Alexander Barabanov. The Russian left-shot winger will be 26 in June, and word is a few NHL executives will be going to see him in person. His 46 points in 58 games for St. Petersburg were 18th in the KHL last season. He’s at three points in the first 12 games this year, but his ice time is down from 15:26 to 13:19. There’s always a concern that when a player in Barabanov’s situation sees that drop, it’s because the organization feels it will lose him.

“We’re already looking for Toronto’s ‘Russian Whisperer,’” one of my overseas contacts joked. That’s Senior Director of Player Evaluation Jim Paliafito.

7. Soft-tissue injuries are tricky, which is why Pittsburgh didn’t originally give an exact timeline on Evgeni Malkin. Depending on the damage, recovery can take a month or longer, especially if it’s a meniscus. Hopefully, it’s not bad — we all want to see Malkin playing. His health has a huge effect on the Metropolitan Division in general, and what the Penguins will do in particular. They looked energized by Sidney Crosby’s decision to fight Pierre-Luc Dubois last Saturday, scoring on the next shift then adding three more in a 7–2 win. Somehow, though, I’m not expecting him to do that every night. 

8. A lot of the trade talk on the Penguins blue line surrounds Jack Johnson, but another possibility is Juuso Riikola. He hasn’t got into a game yet.

9. Two very impressive wins for Detroit, beating the Predators in Nashville on Saturday and dropping Dallas to 0-3 one night later. The word on Anthony Mantha was that there would be 15 or so games where he’d be “quiet.” You just wouldn’t notice him as much as you should. If he could change that, we’d see a dangerous, potentially dominant scorer. We’ve certainly noticed him so far. Four goals against the Stars, five overall.

He told Mickey Redmond in the post-game interview that the last of his four versus the Stars (1:02 mark of the video above) is a designed face-off play where Tyler Bertuzzi is supposed to make room for him. Dylan Larkin won the draw, Bertuzzi bumped Radek Faksa and went to the front of the net, Filip Hronek put it on the tape, and Mantha sealed the deal. Beautiful play.

10. Monday night, the Red Wings made several roster changes due to injury, calling up defencemen Oliwer Kaski and newly acquired Alex Biega. Out are Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson. The Red Wings have a lot of bodies on the blue line, including three UFAs (Daley, Ericsson and Mike Green). Hronek, with two points in two games, averaging 22 minutes, looks like a keeper. If they wanted to, they could certainly be a target for anyone looking for defence (say, Winnipeg).

11. After Ottawa’s season-opening loss to Toronto, one veteran player wondered about Colin White’s confidence. Without last change, he played 4:40 against John Tavares and 3:31 versus Auston Matthews at five-on-five. The Senators outscored the Maple Leafs 1-0 during that time, but were outshot. At home Saturday against the Rangers, his main matchup was Brett Howden, although there was a steady diet of Mika Zibanejad. It can work — Mike Richards once discussed how getting served up to Saku Koivu and Mats Sundin as a young player made him better, but you have to manage it.

Getting Vladislav Namestnikov makes them a little more experienced, a little older. You don’t want to crush your kids as you rebuild. 

12. Florida’s Mark Pysyk is expected to make his season debut Tuesday against Carolina. The Panthers will try to move the pending UFA. There’s been interest (New Jersey, Vancouver looked at it last summer), but his cap hit ($2.73 million) and cash ($3.5 million this season) make it more difficult with so many clubs tight to the cap. 

13. On opening night, Vancouver’s Alexander Edler took advantage of Connor McDavid’s helmet loss to score for the Canucks:

McDavid risked a penalty by playing without it, but the new rule allows him (or anyone else in a similar situation) “a reasonable opportunity to complete the play before either exiting the ice or retrieving and replacing his helmet.” After the goal against, McDavid discussed the situation with referee Jake Brenk, but, in looking into the play, I was told that officials have been instructed to call the penalty if a player does not put his bucket back on when instructed to do so. If you listen to the audio, you can hear Break telling the captain to put it on. At that point, if McDavid doesn’t follow the order, he’s getting a penalty.

14. Through two games each, you can see both the Flames and Oilers are determined to make their off-season trade work. James Neal scored twice against the Kings, and got a couple of even-strength shifts with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the opener. Everyone saw Milan Lucic go after Nikita Zadorov in Colorado, but Calgary also put him out there as the extra man when they pulled David Rittich late against the Avalanche.

Lucic clearly has the aggression when he feels a teammate is being bullied — where he needs to recover it is during the flow of play. As the extra player, he stayed to the perimeter. Against Vancouver on Saturday, he skated with the puck up the left wing opting for a shot Jacob Markstrom turned away. If he uses these opportunities to go harder at the net, Calgary’s got something. 

15. I think the Oilers knew Vancouver was an option for Lucic, but made it clear to all parties they preferred Neal. 

16. You know what’s way up? Too-many-men penalties. Through the first 33 games, there were 15. That’s double the pace of both 2017–18 and 2018–19. Time to tighten those changes. 

17. What’s down? Goaltender-interference challenges. There were two in those first 33 games, one fewer than last season and four less than 2017–18. Coaches admitted in the pre-season that, of all the available review options, this one terrified them the most. It is more subjective than everything else, which makes it so dangerous to risk the penalty for being wrong.

If this were last season, Brock Nelson’s 2–0 goal in the Islanders’ 4–1 win over the Jets this past weekend gets challenged, zero doubt about it. The two who did challenge, Detroit’s Jeff Blashill and Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour, won. Blashill’s win was the fastest challenge I’ve ever seen.

18. Ben Hankinson, who represents Dustin Byfuglien, warns “not to jump to any conclusions” about the defenceman’s future. I’ve heard the Jets have to work to convince Byfuglien to return, but Hankinson said this is going to take some time before we know one way or the other. Winnipeg is clearly hoping he gets bitten by the hockey bug and decides to return. The health of his ankle likely determines all of this. 

19. I’ve written this before, but Connor Hellebuyck has a lot of Mike Weir in him. Weir rarely (at least publicly) took much blame for things that went sideways, instead saying he missed putts because of spike marks on the green or things like that. I later learned it was a specific plan set up by a sports psychologist because Weir’s confidence could be fragile. This was a way of dealing with that problem.

If Paul Maurice is going to send a message to Hellebuyck, now’s the time. Do it right away. But more important than what Hellebuyck says to the media is what he says and shows to his teammates. If they see him putting in the work, that’s all that matters. He’s in year two of a six-year contract. You’ve got to work at a marriage (or so my wife tells me).

20. Joshua Ho-Sang has made it very clear to any team who asks that he will not have a problem beginning anew in the AHL. He’s also taken pains to point out that his next organization will not be his fourth, fifth or sixth, simply his second. Teams are wary, but they are poking around. One exec said this trade could be slightly more complex if the Islanders look for conditions depending on how often Ho-Sang plays.

21. On After Hours with Scott Oake and Louie DeBrusk, Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk explained that he bought a bottle of red wine for each of his teammates and the training staff after he signed with the Flames. The inscription read, “Holdout is over, let’s do that hockey!” (He’s going to hear from the NHLPA for using the term “holdout.”) During a family golf trip last summer, Tkachuk shot 78 at Carnoustie and birdied 18 at St. Andrews in front of a crowd.

“Definitely a better feeling than I’ve had playing hockey — so far,” he said. 

22. On the off-day between Montreal’s loss in Carolina and win in Toronto, head coach Claude Julien showed Jonathan Drouin the shift that led to the 2-2 tying goal against the Hurricanes:

Julien wasn’t just talking about the rush up ice; he was thrilled with the winger’s puck recovery after the Canadiens lost it in the offensive zone.

“If you play like that,” he told Drouin, “there will be no problems.”

23. Ben Chiarot, who joined the Canadiens from Winnipeg, switched his stick flex from 105 to 95.

“It’s about getting the puck through, since there’s not as many slap shots anymore,” he said.

Chiarot did tell a great story about waking up at 7:00 a.m. the day the free-agent window opened. He saw that a team texted him at 12:30 a.m., half an hour after it was legal to do so.

“I told my wife that someone already reached out to me. We both thought that was pretty good. Then she said, ‘I think my water just broke.’”

Chiarot and wife, Jacqueline, navigated serious interest from five teams and the birth of daughter, Emmerson, before choosing Montreal. 

24. One guy who still bombs away? Shea Weber. At the morning skate before the Toronto game, he nearly decapitated Keith Kinkaid with a slap shot.

“Most don’t practise the power play at 100 per cent,” Kinkaid laughed. “Shea’s not most people.”

25. A friend of mine, a Sabres season-ticket holder, was there for Saturday’s opener, a celebration of the team’s 50th anniversary, followed by a 7–2 pounding of the Devils. As the scoring continued, he texted, “Loudest this building has been in 10 years.”

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26. It would have been 1978. Eddie Olczyk was a 12-year-old, playing in a national peewee tournament in Atlanta.

“(Flames GM) Cliff Fletcher was at the game,” Olczyk said Monday. “He had mentioned something like, ‘That kid will play in the NHL some day.’ That got back to my parents. They made sure I knew about it. My mom told me, ‘The gentleman from the Atlanta Flames was here. If you work really hard, eat your Frosted Flakes, your Flintstone vitamins, you can make it.’”

Olczyk laughed as he told the story. It’s one of many he included in his book, Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life, released this week (co-written by Perry Lefko). 

27. Like many retired players, he will tell you that “everything I have, I owe to hockey.” It’s great see him healthy, going strong in the NBC broadcast booth. The NHL dedicates November as Hockey Fights Cancer month, and Olczyk will be this year’s ambassador, two years after his own diagnosis of Stage 3 colon cancer. It is also why he decided to write the book.

“After I got sick, I felt that if I would have the opportunity to hopefully save someone’s life, I would take advantage of that platform.”

He remembers that phase of his life so clearly.

“When I got the call Aug. 4 (2017) at 7:07 p.m., I knew I had to look at my four kids and tell them I was sick. As a parent, the last thing you want to do is let your kids down or hurt them. Eddie was going to coach at Bemidji State, Tommy was going to play in the minors in Indianapolis, Zandra was going into her senior year at Alabama, Nicky was going to be a freshman at Colorado College. That was the one thing that was really, really difficult. You know you’re going to let them down. It’s hard to discuss and paint the picture. But, the most important people in my life have always known how I felt about them. God forbid, if something happened to me, they knew I loved them, and that helped me get through some of my darkest times. If I wasn’t going to be around, they knew what they meant. It would kill me if the most important people I know didn’t how much I loved them.”

Last season, the NHL Alumni Association named him as their Man of the Year. Olczyk gave a stirring speech about what his wife, Diana, said to him as he battled through chemo treatments.

“I remember,” Olczyk said. “It was the second treatment of 12. The side effects were awful, from vomiting to blood clots, nosebleeds, you have to go to bathroom, you can’t stop it. I was thinking, ‘How will I get through 10 more of these?’ I said was quitting, I was done — ‘I can’t do this.’ My wife looked at me, she said, ‘Fight for me, fight for our kids, and fight for all the people that love you. That lasted 30 minutes, and all I did was cry. I needed that.”

He started laughing and said, “I tell everyone that she grabbed me by the ‘short hairs’ and pretty much straightened me out. I never bailed on anything in my life and she prevented me from doing it then.”

28. I don’t want to ruin too many of the stories, but I did ask Olczyk how he met his wife.

“On an airplane. She was an American Airlines flight attendant. We were going from Chicago to New York. I always tell people, ‘I was one of the stars of the game in the afternoon, but on the plane I was first star.’”

29. It’s been 14 years since he coached the Penguins, and even though he loves broadcasting, you can see that he’d like to scratch that kind of an itch one more time if the opportunity presents itself.

“You always hope a door will open, because I loved the opportunity I got in Pittsburgh. I have a lot more to give our game in some capacity. If it materializes, great. But I will be the same guy regardless if it doesn’t happen.”

30. We’re going to know more in the next few days, but Cranbrook, B.C., will not be without high-level junior hockey for long. The WHL’s Kootenay Ice left for Winnipeg at the end of last season, but rumours are that the BCHL will fill the void. Word is there will be some NHL representation among ownership, but a key part of the puzzle will be Nathan Lieuwen, the No. 1 goalie for the Ice’s 2011 Western League champion. More as news becomes available.

31. Forgot to include this earlier, but our family’s summer vacation involved flying to Portland and driving south to San Diego. One of our quick stops was the Bonneville Dam, and this was parked in the lot:

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