31 Thoughts: Examining why a Nylander-Pietrangelo deal never materialized

Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues controls the puck as William Nylander of the Toronto Maple Leafs pressures at Scottrade Center on November 4, 2017. (Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

• Can Ovechkin break Gretzky’s goals record?
• Leafs doing due diligence on blueliners
• Would Chicago, L.A. discussing moving Crawford, Quick?

For years, David Amber’s been preaching to anyone who would listen that Alex Ovechkin will challenge Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals. This is always met with derisive mocking, including, on one occasion, from Ovechkin himself.

In an interview prior to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, the Great Eight was asked about it. He rolled his eyes and made it clear the suggestion was ridiculous.

“In this hockey right now, in this league, I think it’s impossible,” he said.

Tuesday night, Ovechkin torched Detroit for a hat trick, collecting a chapeau from three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who was at the game. (Keep that one for eBay, Alex. It might be worth something.)

It was the 21st hat trick of his career, a record for Russian players. It put him 12th all-time, tying him with Glenn Anderson and Rick Martin. And for all the talk this season about great young scorers such as Patrik Laine, David Pastrnak, Brayden Point and Jeff Skinner, those four wake up Tuesday morning four goals behind Ovechkin for No. 1 in the NHL.

Ovechkin has 25 goals in 30 games. That is ahead of his own pace from 2007–08, when he scored a career-high 65. How many of us saw the hilariously crazy Stanley Cup celebrations and said, “This guy is going to relax and enjoy life”?

Well, he’s clearly enjoying life, but there is no relaxation.

Maybe I should have realized it when, told there was nothing anyone could question him about anymore, Ovechkin replied with something akin to, “No, you tell me, what is the next question?” Clearly, he believed we’d think of something.

He’s conceded nothing. He still loves scoring and what helps is the Capitals know they are good enough to repeat.

What has changed is the league around him. In the two years since he said it was impossible, the NHL has continued to crack down on obstruction and slashing. Goalie equipment is smaller. It is much, much harder to defend now. That, as much as Ovechkin’s own talents, cracks open the door to history. But it’s still a huge challenge.

He started 2018-19 287 goals behind Gretzky, averaging 47 goals per season in his career. That puts him six seasons away. He’s 33, and the most goals scored by anyone that age or older is Jaromir Jagr’s 54 from 2005–06.

The most goals scored by anyone from ages 33-40 is 274 by Hall of Famer Johnny Bucyk from 1968-76. Different era, obviously. Father Time is undefeated, but when does he decide to take on Ovechkin?

The biggest question might be how much longer he wants to do this. Ovechkin’s got two more years on his contract. During our pre-season interview he was asked about Roger Federer, who rededicated himself as he became a father, wanting to be competitive when his children got old enough to understand.

Ovechkin passed on that one, but that might be the key. It’s a huge challenge and the odds are still against him. But we’ve learned not to bet against him.

31 THOUGHTS

1. It’s not a huge story — mainly because fans, media, even players and executives have labour fatigue — but escrow payments jumping from 11.5 per cent to 13.5 is a problem. That will cause unrest and jolt the negotiation process. The $83-million cap projection for 2019–20 mentioned at the recent Board of Governors’ meeting includes an “inflator” from the players. They will be less inclined to do it as escrow grows.

2. Kevin Bieksa, who said on the 31 Thoughts podcast that he is not retired, will represent Canada at the Spengler Cup.

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3. Nick Kypreos shook the masses last weekend, wondering on Headlines if Alex Pietrangelo would be a fit for Toronto. With a few more days to work off it, my guess is this: St. Louis put him in William Nylander discussions, but the Maple Leafs decided to keep the winger. I see two reasons. First, Nylander is six years younger. Second, they might not be able to fit Pietrangelo’s extension (he’s eligible in July) and would prefer someone with term in that particular trade. It doesn’t mean they can’t/won’t re-consider him in the future.

They are doing due diligence on defencemen. They’re not crazy about term, but may consider some length if the cap hit is small enough. The defenceman has trade protection, but if Novice-age teammate John Tavares can handle Toronto, no reason Pietrangelo can’t.

4. The biggest takeaway from all of this: The fact Pietrangelo’s name got out there indicates the Blues are willing to do it.

5. A couple more notes on the Maple Leafs, since those of you outside the Ontario capital can’t get enough. Toughness returned to the forefront after last Saturday’s loss in Boston, but you have to look at GM Kyle Dubas’s history. It’s been a yearly critique of his teams — OHL Sault Ste. Marie, AHL Toronto — and he ignores it. He’s undoubtedly focused more on Tampa Bay, the only team ahead of the Maple Leafs in the standings. The Lightning are built similarly to Toronto, and that makeup is in his own DNA.

6. Chris Johnston brought up offer sheets on the weekend. I’ve believed for years they are coming, and there are Grade-A candidates this summer. As one GM said this week, there’s only one bad thing about doing it to Toronto: “Who wants to be on the receiving end of their revenge?”

7. All right, let’s look through some other stuff. Philadelphia GM Chuck Fletcher joined his team for its Western Canadian road trip. He’s going to use it as an opportunity to talk face-to-face with several players. Wayne Simmonds is one. There will be a “re-start” in negotiations soon. No guarantees, but definitely an attempt.

While we wait for the on-ice moves, the office changes continue. The Athletic’s Michael Russo reported that, as expected, Brent Flahr will leave Minnesota to join his longtime compatriot. And no one would be surprised if former Buffalo GM Tim Murray follows in a scouting role.

8. The Flyers have made it clear they are looking for a goalie, but aren’t the first team to survey the market and not be thrilled with the options. Anaheim, looking to replace the injured Ryan Miller, claimed Chad Johnson on waivers and traded for Jeff Glass from AHL Toronto. Detroit’s made it clear it wants at least a first-round pick for Jimmy Howard. Craig Anderson’s carried a huge load for Ottawa, facing a ton of rubber without much rest. At least one team indicated it was concerned about acquiring him for that reason. Not convinced Montreal is willing to move Charlie Lindgren. As both Chicago and Los Angeles look to the future, and Cal Petersen (in particular) shows potential, could they be tempted to discuss Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick?

9. Both have had injury questions, but both would be improvements for a lot of teams. Quick has four more years, but his salary takes a big drop after $7 million this year and next. Crawford has one more season, at a $6-million AAV and $5 million cash. There would certainly be interest. The Blackhawks and Kings would be very loyal to those two, not putting either in a situation they didn’t want.

10. Los Angeles is also fielding queries from opponents looking for defence. I’d heard a link between Jake Muzzin and Tampa Bay, but that was debunked. Could also see Pittsburgh (among others) checking out both Muzzin and Alec Martinez, currently out of the lineup.

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11. Charlie Coyle had a good line to reporters after Minnesota blew out the Canadiens on Tuesday night, saying, “I’ve been [getting traded] to Montreal since five years ago. So it really means nothing.”

He’s right about there being no shortage of rumours, but there’s also no shortage of interest. There’s a lot to like about him. He keeps himself in good shape, he can play multiple positions up and down your lineup, he’s strong and he works hard. (He’s also notoriously hard on himself.)

Coyle won’t score as much as was hoped, but the Wild kept him despite temptation because they know his value. Even Tampa Bay took a look before getting J.T. Miller. Last summer, they told interested teams that they wanted to package him with a contract they wished to jettison. I can understand why he finds it frustrating, because the Wild, justifiably, haven’t made it easy to get him.

12. Tough to gauge who’s been named in more trades that haven’t occurred — Coyle or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. For one thing, Edmonton’s on a roll, and it doesn’t make sense to tinker. For another, Nugent-Hopkins is quietly turning into a really good player. It’s hard to get attention when Connor McDavid is making everyone fall off the couch three times a night, but he’s got 29 points in 31 games and competes all over the ice.

If Leon Draisaitl is going to spend most of his time beside McDavid, you need RNH’s production behind them. He’s still under contract for two more at a reasonable price by NHL standards. Don’t see how it benefits the Oilers to trade him, unless the return makes you say, “OK, that makes sense.”

The other thing about him: very low-maintenance. That’s incredibly important.

13. Boston’s been linked to Coyle. If he’s not the guy, wonder if someone like Jeff Carter would fit the Bruins.

14. They’ve also been linked to Kevin Hayes, but will have competition. Another possibility for the Ranger centre? Colorado. He’s exactly what they need.

15. There were rumblings that Buffalo, with four first-round picks in the next two years, might look at a rental to boost its chances. Looked into it, heard otherwise. Maybe for a younger player under team control for awhile, but not for a rental.

16. Ken Hitchcock said after Tuesday’s 6–4 win over Colorado that Oscar Klefbom will be out weeks after an injury suffered during that game. That’s brutal for a player who arguably was winning the unofficial Comeback Player of the Year Award, a horse on that blue line. There have been 14 30-minute games so far this season. Klefbom has three of them, more than anyone else. (Drew Doughty and Hampus Lindholm were next with two each.) In his absence, Darnell Nurse played 30:44 — fourth-most single-game TOI in the NHL in 2018–19. So it looks like a huge opportunity for him. (Most TOI in a single game this season is Jeff Petry, 33:51 on Nov. 19 vs. Washington.)

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17. Milan Lucic had an assist Tuesday night, giving him two assists in 10 games since Hitchcock took over. The scoring isn’t there yet, but what the Oilers have done is fit him with a “heavy” role alongside Kyle Brodziak and Zack Kassian. The only option is to keep trying to find a way and he’s looked a lot more like his old self. I remember then-Chicago GM Dale Tallon saying about Brian Campbell (paraphrasing), “Stop thinking about the money. It’s done. Be the player you were to get it.”

But it’s not always easy.

“You want to win, and you want to be relevant,” Lucic said Monday from Denver. “It is personal pride to sign a big contract and live up to it. I was upset when [Todd McLellan] was fired, because I let him down. I couldn’t be the player I really wanted to be for him.”

18. Before discussing his current role, let’s go back to the summer. Lucic wanted a new start, and asked to be traded. Has that changed?

“Yes, yes,” he answered. “I have embraced being in Edmonton and being an Oiler. I am here as long as they need me.”

The powerful winger met with a sports psychologist to change his attitude.

“We worked on changing my thought process. Stop living in the past. Stop thinking, ‘What if?’ Stop thinking so much about what happened in Boston. Yeah, it was great. But stop living in the past and trying to recreate the past. Focus on being part of a group trying to create something for the future.”

19. Obviously, it didn’t start great for Lucic and the Oilers, which is why there were changes. On Nov. 20, the day Hitchcock took over, the new coach spoke to him.

“He said, ‘You’re one of the best second- and third-effort players I’ve ever seen. We’re going to get you back to doing that again,’” Lucic said. “The league is all about confidence… instilling confidence in yourself. It is such a fine line. Sometimes it takes a period to get it back, [and] sometimes it takes a year. It wasn’t like I lost the ability to play hockey — it was more just confidence, second-guessing myself too much.”

After the Oilers beat Calgary 1-0 on Sunday, Hitchcock talked about his relationship with Don Hay, who won a Memorial Cup with Lucic in junior.

“When [Hitchcock] was hired, in my head it was, ‘Okay, here we go again like it was with Don, but that’s good,’” Lucic said. “Don got the best of me, knew how to challenge me. I’m not trying to bash Todd at all, but part of me was lifted because I knew Don and Hitch are similar.”

Hopefully for Lucic and the Oilers, the current path continues.

20. So, has Hitchcock really challenged anyone face-to-face yet?

“It’s still early,” Lucic laughed. “I’m sure it is coming.”

21. Finally on this topic: in our podcast interview, Andrew Ference said Lucic keeps in touch with former Bruin teammate Tim Thomas. Is that true? Where is he these days?

“Sort of. It is our wives who keep in touch. He was in Colorado, but the altitude was tough on him. I think he’s in Idaho now. He’s at home — three kids — being a family man.”

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22. Pekka Rinne, newly extended by Nashville, is off to a tremendous start. When he was in town for the GM meetings, David Poile discussed handling his top goalie after Game 7 of the Winnipeg series. First, he let Rinne have his space during the summer, texting a few times to see how the goalie was doing.

“When he came to training camp I could tell he really appreciated having the time, and he really appreciated that I’d reached out to him,” Poile said. “I just said, ‘Let’s get on the same page. You’re our guy, you’re our goalie, we have an opportunity for you to play your whole career in Nashville. It’s very rare — do you want to do that?’ Pekka’s been the most impactful player in our history. In the end, I still firmly believe he’s going to lead us to the promised land. If we’re going to be winning the Stanley Cup in the next three years — the length of his contract — he’s going to be a big reason why we do it.”

23. The Predators wake up Wednesday morning third in the NHL, behind Tampa and Toronto. Pretty good despite some annoying injuries.

“We didn’t make many changes. That came by plan… by request of the players,” Poile said. “They felt we didn’t have to change too much. So far this season, that’s worked out very well. Very focused, maybe with a bit of a chip on our shoulder. As I look at every year, the goal is to get in front of your team and say, ‘We’ve got a good team, we’re going to make the playoffs and we’re going to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. We are one of those teams.”

24. Finally, I asked if there was any GM with the reputation of getting overly tense at the trade deadline, that if you waited, you knew you could work things to your advantage. He laughed. “No, but if you could tell me who they are, I’d like to know.”

25. Did anyone else find it wild the Flyers made a show of chowing down on wings after beating the Sabres last weekend?

Certainly an appropriate meal for the city — no complaints here. But it came a week after Ron Hextall discussed the importance of a good diet and how he had brought healthier options to the post-game meal.

26. Not that you could tell by the numbers, but Connor McDavid felt the flu took a lot out of him in the fall of 2017. He didn’t miss any games, and couldn’t shake it. This year? He sat for one game. Small thing, but a big thing. You learn your lessons.

27. Jeff Skinner has three overtime goals in 2018-19, one more than in his previous eight seasons combined. To give you an idea of how completely things have changed for him, by my count, Carolina was outscored 11-4 in overtime with Skinner on the ice the last three years.

28. Don’t get the complaints about Bob Murray’s extension. Eight playoff berths in 10 years, five straight division titles ended with a second-place finish last season, Conference Finals in 2015 and 2017. Every GM has their regrets, but that’s pretty good.

29. Didn’t think much of it when Mike Smith’s mask was knocked off during Calgary’s 5–2 win over Nashville last weekend.

The referees blew the play dead as Rocco Grimaldi scored into the empty net. No goal, and I thought the correct call. But both Nick and Kelly Hrudey thought it should have counted, and after checking through the rulebook, they had a point.

According to Section 9.6, “When a goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask and his team has control of the puck, the play shall be stopped immediately to allow the goalkeeper the opportunity to regain his helmet and/or face mask. When the opposing team has control of the puck, play shall only be stopped if there is no immediate and impending scoring opportunity.”

Alexander Kerfoot’s score counted when Connor Hellebuyck lost his mask in 2017; same for Anders Lee and Alex Stalock in 2015. Smith’s was more serious-looking, and you can’t get annoyed at a referee for playing it safe, but it is not as cut-and-dry as you’d think.

30. With 31 and soon to be 32 teams, NHL clubs are working even harder to find diamonds-in-the-rough. The Channel One Cup doesn’t get a ton of North American attention, but there are more and more representatives going to Moscow to see if anything’s there. It’s a four-day event beginning Thursday with Russia hosting Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden.

31. Jeff Glass and Adam Cracknell were both traded from AHL Toronto during the team’s Christmas Party. “Could get a much worse present than San Diego,” one Marlie laughed.

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