31 Thoughts: Goalies at odds with NHL, each other over new equipment

Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby catches the puck against Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Connor Brown. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

• NHL goalie equipment causing friction
• Latest Leafs-Nylander meetings “productive”
• Will Blue Jackets move Bobrovsky?

Qaritaq Kusugak-Clark has known Jordin Tootoo since birth.

“My father (Pujjuut) was friends with (Jordin’s brother) Terence Tootoo,” Qaritaq said by phone Sunday night. “So when Jordin would come home, we’d play hockey at our house. He acted like just another person. Nice to everyone. Always around the community. Handing out awards at banquets, whatever people needed. He’s the inspiration.”

There was a trip to Nashville, the opportunity to see Tootoo play against Pittsburgh, Calgary and Colorado. There were visits to the dressing room, a chance to meet the players, every child’s dream.

And five years ago, when Kusugak-Clark prepared to leave home and move 1,600 kilometres from Rankin Inlet, Nvt., to Wilcox, Sask., Tootoo phoned to make sure he was prepared.

“Initially, I was all for it,” Kusugak-Clark laughed. “Then, as I was about to go, it hit me. I was freaking out at that point. He told me, ‘Give it all you’ve got, and it will work out in the end.’”

Was he right?

“Of course.”

Kusugak-Clark calls joining the Notre Dame Hounds “one of the greatest choices I have ever made. I recommend it to anyone looking to excel, in hockey, school or even life.” He’s graduated from school, but still proudly wears number 12 for the Hounds in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Like any soon-to-be-19-year-old, he wants to continue playing. Canadian university, American university, you name it, he’s interested.

Last week, however, he was tied up with the news that Tootoo, after 765 NHL regular-season and playoff games, was retiring.

“I knew it might be a possibility, but I was still shocked when I heard the news.”

Tootoo was in Brandon last Friday visiting his his junior rink, home of the WHL Wheat Kings. There were lengthy lines to celebrate him. Saturday, he was honoured by the Oilers during their game against the Predators.

Scott Oake asked him about this particular protegé.

“He is a tremendous kid,” Tootoo answered. “I had the opportunity to spend his whole childhood around him…. I’m very proud he’s the next generation coming up.”

Kusugak-Clark’s entire generation is likewise proud of Tootoo, who blasted through enormous obstacles becoming the first Inuk to play in the NHL. Terence took his own life in 2002. With the help of the Predators, Tootoo entered the league’s substance-abuse program in 2010 — the beginning of a powerful transformation.

Married now with a beautiful young family, Tootoo told Oake “this is my time to give back to my people. We all know [suicide] is a national epidemic. My brother was a tremendous leader in our community, he touched a lot of people’s lives. For me to raise awareness… tell people my story, the relationship that I had, that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

In Kusugak-Clark, he has a believer.

“I thank him for the inspiration,” Kusugak-Clark says. “He is proof to all of us back home that if you set your mind to it, you can make it. I’ve thought about it a few times… that when people look at me, they’ll see someone who did what I did. Just the way I thought about him.”

31 THOUGHTS

1. Very quietly, this is an uncomfortable time in the goaltender union. Some — including Brian Elliott, Connor Hellebuyck and Braden Holtby — went public with their complaints about the shrunken chest protectors. One privately said that when he declined to say anything to a reporter, others texted him their disapproval: “They said we all had a duty to speak out.”

Hard feelings don’t end there. There are those who feel they don’t need bigger equipment to be successful and aren’t sympathetic to those who do. It also is clear that some equipment companies were much better prepared than others, which adds to the frustration and may lead to certain netminders wearing gear they don’t endorse, since no one can see the labels.

There’s not much that can be done right now, as goalies were warned for years that if they didn’t get ahead of this, they would lose control of the situation. That’s exactly what happened, and changes were approved by both the NHL and NHLPA.

Earlier this week, Holtby told the Associated Press, “You can deal with bumps and bruises and stuff. It’s when you hope someone doesn’t get a broken bone or some sort out of it.”

No one needs that, but if it does occur, will those upset by the changes become more determined to make this a workplace-safety issue?

2. The NHL needs to hire an intern to track goals that would have been stopped by the previous chest-protectors and looser jerseys. That is not being counted so far, and it seems like valuable data. Someone somewhere undoubtedly would like to get a foot in the door.

3. The Blue Jackets aren’t thrilled with the rumour factory surrounding Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. So, without trying to separate fact from fiction, the situation with Bobrovsky appears… untenable. I believed the organization had the right approach in keeping both and going for it, since they have a good team. Panarin’s got nine points in eight games, and generally goes about his business. But no one within 100 minutes of Bobrovsky has a worse save percentage, and only one who has played more has a higher goals-against average. He looks very unhappy, and what Columbus must weigh is the effect it has on the roster. He has control over the situation with a no-move clause, but it is believed he has given an indication of teams he will consider. Even if you think Long Island is in Bobrovsky’s future, isn’t there some point this season he has to ramp it up to his regular level of excellence as proof of his worth?

4. How good is John Gibson? He’s played eight of Anaheim’s 10 games. The Ducks are last in shots for, with an average of 23.9. They are also last in shots allowed (37.9). Perusing NHL.com, only one team in history has a worse differential: the expansion 1974–75 Washington Capitals. (That team holds the NHL record for fewest shots per game in one season, with 23.1; they finished 8-67-5 as opponents averaged 38.3.) Despite that, the Ducks are a point out of first in the Pacific Division. There is no one carrying his team more than Gibson, who might just be the Vezina winner if he keeps this up.

5. As part of the Winter Classic festivities at Notre Dame, the NHL is planning a concert in the quad area in front of Touchdown Jesus. Not sure that’s been done before.

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6. You can’t get through any NHL news piece (written or broadcast) without a William Nylander update. The Maple Leafs and agent Lewis Gross are trying to keep a lid on things, but the prevailing feeling is their meetings earlier this week were cordial and productive. That said, we don’t have a deal (yet). On the long term, the team wishes to keep it under $7 million. On the short term, the player isn’t interested in something at or under $20 million on a four-year contract. It’s still a grind.

7. I mentioned to another agent that if I were in Nylander’s shoes, I’d consider two or three years and bet on myself. He said he understands why the advice might be against that.

“We’re headed into another CBA negotiation,” he replied. “You can’t be sure what’s going to happen to contracts as part of that. The term limits, the signing bonuses may be more limited than now.”

8. Also spent some time asking players what they thought about Toronto’s attempt to convince Nylander that he wouldn’t be signed and immediately traded, that he was an important part of what they want to build. After listening to their responses, I understand why this part of the negotiation is a challenge for Kyle Dubas. Players are curious about him, a young GM with different ideas running the biggest ship in the fleet. They are intrigued by his ability to pull off the John Tavares signing. But they are wary of the business decisions that must be made. As one player pointed out, “I was traded twice by the time I was 25.” Another added he was moved around so much he decided to save his money, not buying a house until getting a longer-term deal late in his career.

“Let’s say you do trust [Dubas],” said a third. “I could see [Nylander] wanting to, because he likes Toronto and [the GM] clearly believes in him. It’s not something you think about right now, because everything is going his way, but what happens if, for some reason, he’s no longer the decision-maker?”

9. Vladislav Namestnikov was down to 9:25 Tuesday night against Florida. There’s some interest in him, and you certainly see the Rangers willing to listen. I think there are a lot of things New York will consider as long as it doesn’t involve their cornerstone youth.

10. At least two GMs cancelled scouting trips because they felt it was wrong to be away from their teams.

“The heat is on earlier than ever,” one said, “and it’s not the time to be absent.”

Through Wednesday night, five teams had played 10 games.

11. We walked out of the jetway from our flight to Winnipeg Tuesday morning, and got a playful stink-eye from one employee.

“You guys are only here because it’s Toronto,” he said.

“No,” we replied. “That never happens.”

It was a fun couple of days as the Jets opened True North Square. The two teams have a lot in common. High hopes, high expectations, challenging salary-cap implications, rabid fan bases. The most interesting difference is how the Jets are able to lock down a lot of those contract questions.

Some of it is William Nylander’s ongoing saga, as it’s the most pressing contract situation in the sport. A lot of it is media concentration. You just can’t shut down things as easily in the Ontario capital as you can in Manitoba’s. There’s too much competition. The clarity in Winnipeg is that the Jets are all in for 2019. Every decision is about how they can win right now, and they’ll worry about the contract fallout later. For example, they’ve had no extension talks with Tyler Myers. This is one of several decisions that may be put off until later.

12. Jacob Trouba joked that he and Dustin Byfuglien “fought” last year to play with Josh Morrissey. No offence to Trouba, but he wouldn’t have been my pick in that fight.

13. If you believe the surest predictor about future behaviour is past behaviour, look at the signing history around Mike Liut, who represents both Patrik Laine and Mikko Rantanen. Vladimir Tarasenko’s eight-year, $60-million extension was done July 7, 2015 — six days after the expiration of his entry-level contract. Rasmus Ristolainen’s second contract of six years, $32.4 million was signed the day before the 2016–17 season began, narrowly avoiding missed games. Leon Draisaitl’s eight-year, $68-million extension was announced Aug. 16, 2017 — 47 days after his ELC was done. Liut bets on that third year.

14. The Blues want Tarasenko to be more aggressive. Sean Tierney, who runs a good website called Charting Hockey, helped me with some shooting data on him. Heading into last weekend’s game in Toronto, Tarasenko’s average shot distance was 26 feet and he hit the net 85 per cent of the time. That’s an improvement on last season, where it was 34 feet and 70 per cent. St. Louis feels he can be even more dangerous. He’s big and strong with a lethal shot. But his shot is so good, they feel he settles for it sometimes instead of bulling his way closer.

15. St. Louis is not the quickest team in a fast league. It was instructive to watch them practice last Friday, as coach Mike Yeo was pushing them to find ways to overcome that. Fast thinking, anticipating where the puck was going and, most importantly, being in the right spots to protect the front of the net whether the puck is there or not. Jake Allen takes a lot of their heat, but if you looked at many of the goals they gave up, he’s left incredibly unprotected. They brought the Maple Leafs to a standstill, then suffered a crushing meltdown in Winnipeg. The Blues are cap tight, but, in a year where they’ve got to do well, I can see them being a potentially stealth team for Bobrovsky.

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16. Colton Parayko is one of the nicest, most thoughtful players in the league. But he wasn’t keen to discuss something I’d heard last season — that he struggled to deal with the expectations of a new contract.

“I worked on not being as stressed about it,” he said, quietly.

Parayko was much more expansive about his off-season on-ice project, how to better prevent opponents from getting to the net. He’s a beast, but you don’t want to take penalties. Twenty years ago, someone with his physique would leave a trail of broken bodies. Can’t do that anymore.

17. Sportsnet features producer Chad Walker did a strong piece on Pat Maroon during our coverage of St. Louis/Montreal. Maroon was blunt about free agency, in which he signed a one-year, $1.75-million deal with his hometown Blues.

“It didn’t go as planned,” he said. “I thought I was going to get a raise — I really did. I thought it was going to be my home-run deal. From my understanding, teams were interested in me, but there were no real offers. Arizona offered me a two-year deal, New Jersey offered me quite a bit more money, but I took a chance on myself. I’m betting on myself, and I’m taking all the risk.”

It is rare to hear an NHLer publicly discuss this — not that I’m complaining. The positive is being able to see his son, Anthony, much more often.

“You can’t put a price tag on family,” Pat added. “I’ve seen him more in September than in the nine years I’ve been away from him. It’s been awesome.”

18. Los Angeles GM Rob Blake didn’t wish to expand on his visit to the dressing room after last Saturday’s home loss to Buffalo, but he made it clear to the players he considered the team’s poor start on them as much as the coaches. Blake’s been around long enough to recognize that when you’re treading water, other GMs throw you anvils, not life preservers. He knows he’s not dealing from a position of strength, has investigated the market and isn’t thrilled with what he sees. Going into the room this early in the season is very unusual.

19. Not specific to any situation, but it’s impossible to believe no one is doing due diligence on Alain Vigneault. It doesn’t hurt that he’s got two more years under contract to the Rangers, so there will be some sharing of payment.

20. Pittsburgh’s Derick Brassard stayed on the ice for extra practice last Thursday morning, hours before the Penguins faced Toronto. After his shoulder surgery he switched the lie of his stick from a six to a five to ease the workload on the joint.

“It worked very well,” he said, “But for some reason, I moved to a 5.5.”

That wasn’t cutting it. So he was putting in the time with the five, getting used to the feel once again.

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21. That morning, the Penguins were joking about themselves, rolling their eyes at their early-season stubbornness.

“We haven’t played a full game,” one of them said, “We aren’t taking things seriously yet. We know what it takes.”

It was obvious, however, they had a bit of a swagger about going into Toronto, red-hot at the time. At the season-opening media tour, Sidney Crosby said he had worked on his speed at age 31 in a league where the elite young players are quicker than ever. Publicly, he may not proclaim himself to be the best in the NHL, but, privately, his teammates knew how much the upcoming showdowns with Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid meant to his competitive side. They beat Toronto 3-0 and Edmonton 6-5, culminating with Crosby’s ridiculous overtime winner in the Alberta capital.

Crosby wasn’t on the ice for a goal against in either game. In 21:13 against Matthews/McDavid, the Penguins had 61 per cent of the shot attempts, scored twice and didn’t give up any.

Sports is an ageist industry. We defer to youth. But when the likes of Matthews and McDavid refuse to proclaim themselves as the best, it’s because they know things are much more complicated than that.

22. Sports Business Journal initially reported New Jersey’s sales partnership with sportsbook William Hill, including a main concourse lounge at Prudential Center. All leagues — including the NHL — are eying one possibility from the soon-to-be-launched Alliance of American Football. Its broadcast partner is CBS, and there are rumblings that the television coverage will involve live-action prop bets. (Multiple requests for comment were not returned.) If true, that’s going to be fascinating. It would make that league a lab rat for what everyone else can do. The NHL and its media partners will be watching closely.

23. Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber are unlikely all-stars for San Jose in 2019. The Bruins would want their captain to rest, and Weber’s still out of action. Despite that, don’t we all deserve one final hardest-shot showdown between these two behemoths? Who cares if they aren’t in the game? Bring them for the skills event, then send them on a wine tour or something.

24. Big early-season improvement: Officials announcing to the building (and the television/radio audience) exactly what is being reviewed by the Situation Room or challenged by coaches. Fans and broadcasters are no longer being kept in the dark. Small thing, but a big thing.

25. As marijuana became legal in Canada, GMs in both countries took pains to re-inforce to players and employees that carrying it into the United States remains a serious headache. That is probably their biggest concern.

26. It’s funny how many former goalies don’t want their children anywhere near the goalie position. Not so for Jim and James Rutherford. The Penguins’ GM backstopped 457 NHL games for Detroit, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Los Angeles. Not only is Jim unafraid of James following in his footsteps, he’s also unafraid of video games. James loves them. His mask last year was painted in honour of Pac-Man. This year, it’s Fortnite.

Looks spectacular.

27. We await commissioner Gary Bettman’s ruling on Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension after a lengthy seven-hour hearing. Why so long? Everyone’s tight-lipped, but the word is it was “cantankerous.” Sounds like quite an experience.

28. What a brilliant, beautiful speech from Ed Olczyk at the NHL Alumni Awards in Toronto. Olczyk, winner of the Ace Bailey Courage Award for his fight against cancer, held the audience at rapt attention with a description of his battle. He said his oncologist told him, “I’m here to cure you, not treat you. Do you understand the difference?” Then, after his second treatment, he was in such a bad place mentally that he felt like giving up. That’s when wife Diana demanded he “fight for me, fight for your children, fight for the people who love you.”

Olczyk was surprised to see a Blackhawks contingent show up, including broadcast partners Pat Foley and Troy Murray. Murray said that Olczyk called him in the morning, asking what he was up to, with Murray lying because he didn’t want to admit he was en route to the airport for his flight to the event. It doesn’t take much to get Ed excited, but their presence sure did.

29. Chris Hadfield, named honourary alumni, “dropped” the puck from the International Space Station at Toronto’s 2013 opener. Hadfield admitted they didn’t have a puck up in space, so he was preparing to colour a tuna can with a black sharpie as an improvisational device. But another cosmonaut came up with a different suggestion: holding a camera lens at a certain angle created the better illusion.

30. It is not NHL-related, but after being in Winnipeg for a couple of days, it is clear the future of WHL Kootenay and how it relates to Manitoba is a storyline that’s not going away anytime soon.

31. No one works harder at our place than radio/television/podcast/twitter host Jeff Marek. Over the last little while, Jeff’s been doing everything while keeping close watch over his father, Ed, who was in ill health. As you know by now, Ed Marek passed away Tuesday at age 86. It was one of two losses we suffered through this week, as an excellent cameraman, Jim Flaxman, died at age 69. All the best to both families, who lost great people.

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