31 Thoughts: Matheson suspension a potential sea-change moment

Florida Panthers defenceman Mike Matheson. (Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

• McDavid’s hot play pushing TOI norms
• Matheson suspension revealing on few levels
• Calgary city council reopening arena talks

Four games into our new season, Connor McDavid’s already broken an NHL record, scoring or setting up Edmonton’s first nine goals. Previous standard-bearer Adam Oates shouldn’t feel lonely. McDavid’s going to smash more than one.

It’s very early, but there’s something else to keep an eye on: how much he plays.

The Oilers’ captain skated 22:12 during Tuesday’s stunning comeback victory in Winnipeg, his lowest of the season. He went 23:34 versus New Jersey, 23:55 in Boston and 24:35 against the Rangers.

Entering the Jets game, his average was 24:01. Only one forward has averaged 24 minutes in a season this decade: Ilya Kovalchuk. He did it twice. McDavid’s number dropped to 23:24 by slacking off against the Jets (joke, folks), still 28th overall. He’s the only forward among the league’s 36 most-utilized skaters.

You’re going to see Kovalchuk and think, “OK, power play. He stayed out there for almost all of it. Surely, McDavid does that, too.”

Not so fast, my friends. The scoring streak was impressive, but the most incredible thing about McDavid’s small 2018–19 sample size is even-strength ice time.

As we wake up Wednesday, there are just two forwards averaging 19 minutes in this situation: McDavid (19:28) and Patrick Kane (19:08). To give you some perspective, Ryan Getzlaf was number one last year at 17:33, and he missed 26 games. (McDavid was second. Getzlaf beat him by three seconds.)

Since the NHL began keeping count of ice time, only one forward has ever averaged 19 even-strength minutes in a season. That was Pavel Bure, 19:12 for Florida in 2000–01. McDavid’s going to challenge that.

How can he not? If you’re Todd McLellan, you’re going to leave your nuclear deterrent on the bench?

In a week where we’ve been debating McDavid versus Matthews, the incumbent stepped up and delivered a statement so loud a banshee could have screamed it.

“You asked me this morning about players in the League,” McLellan said after the game. “I rest my case.”

McDavid played 20:07 Tuesday night at evens. That, in itself, is not incredibly unusual. Six (McDavid, Kane, Kyle Connor, Sean Couturier, Rickard Rakell and Mark Scheifele) have 20-minute even-strength games so far this season. McDavid is the only one, however, with two.

There were 214 such performances in 2017–18. McDavid had 10, including the top three. Twice he went above 26 minutes.

It is such a massive ask. But the greats do not shy from challenges. McLellan’s going to keep calling for 97. McDavid isn’t going to say no.

31 THOUGHTS

1. One more: Heading into Tuesday’s games, McDavid was the only player averaging more than one minute per shift (1:01). He dropped to 0:58.

2. What a difference two games make. Heading into last Saturday’s game at Madison Square Garden, the mood around the Oilers was tense. Daryl Katz was at practice the day before, and everyone knew how he felt. As far as owners go, Katz is on the low end of the hands-on scale. He’ll make his calls, but generally isn’t breathing down everyone’s necks. When I started studying the business of sports, some of the best advice received was to learn how ticket plans and luxury-box sales worked. Often, I was told, the answers explained why certain decisions were made. When Rogers Place opened, the suites came with three-, five- and seven-year options. The three-year term ends this summer. Now, do you think that adds importance to the season? You go from 0-2 to 2-2 and a excited fan base can’t wait to see what’s next at its home opener on Thursday.

3. Since we started (sort of) with Matthews/McDavid, let’s continue. Matthews has 10 goals on 22 shots, a percentage of 45.5. It’s not exactly going out on a limb to say he won’t keep that up, but what is his ceiling? The best recorded number in NHL history is Sergei Makarov’s 32.3 with Calgary in 1990–91 (beating our own Craig Simpson, who was at 31.6 three seasons earlier). This century, the sharpest shooter is Dallas’s Mike Ribeiro, at 25.2 in 2007–08. Two players gave him a run last year: Colorado’s Alexander Kerfoot (23.5) and Golden Knight William Karlsson (23.4). The difference between Matthews and most of the people he’d be chasing on these lists is he’s firing much more often. His 258-shot pace would put him behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux among the 25 most accurate seasons ever. Only two players this century have taken 200 shots and scored 20 per cent of the time: Brad Boyes and Milan Hejduk. Good challenge for Matthews.

4. There’s a lot of hysteria in Toronto about Matthews’s contract situation. (It’s all Nick Kypreos’s fault. Add “offer sheets” to “sports radio” and you’ve got an uncontrollable explosion.) We mentioned on Hockey Night in Canada that the solution to Toronto’s cap crunch might be shorter second contracts, and I do think there’s been discussion on a five-year deal for Matthews. That would eat up one year of unrestricted free agency. Some fans took that to mean he doesn’t want to sign for eight years, which is not accurate and remains a possible outcome. My sense is both sides are serious about getting something done, but it is grind time. An eight-year contract likely comes in between $12 million and $12.5 million ($12.34?) and the Maple Leafs undoubtedly want to keep their promise to John Tavares. I find it hard to believe GM Kyle Dubas hasn’t done the math on what a max offer sheet would do to his roster, and how he’d put things together once it is matched.

5. The Toronto Sun’s Lance Hornby broke the news that Dubas was en route to Switzerland for a face-to-face with William Nylander. The Leafs have discussed a bridge with their unsigned winger, but there remained a chasm. It’s somewhere between $4.8 million (a little more than Nikita Kucherov’s second contract) and $6 million (Artemi Panarin’s AAV). Nylander’s also worried about being traded if the Leafs’ cap situation becomes untenable. Keeping him is Toronto’s main goal. Dubas’s trip allows for two things: showing Nylander a) he’s serious and b) no one can say that Toronto didn’t try everything to get this done.

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6. Nick Ritchie is skating in Anaheim. That’s a sign things are getting close. Look for three years. Josh Anderson’s AAV in Columbus is $1.85 million. Not sure if this one will get that high, but it is the idea the Ducks modelled.

7. A few years ago, Detroit GM Ken Holland suggested reading Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About the Business of Life. There’s a chapter called “Authenticity,” described as the opposite of bad faith. “Bad faith,” French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “occurs when peer pressure and social forces combine to have us disown our own values. It is an accommodation we make with society to fit in, a psychological ‘selling out’ in which we forsake our own freedom and self-expression for the conformity of the crowd.” There’s a lot of speculation about coach Jeff Blashill’s future, but, for over a year now, Holland’s delivered a consistent message. He strongly believes Blashill should not be made a scapegoat, that this is a good coach put in a rough situation. The infirmary-laden blue line doesn’t make things easier. Not sure Holland re-read that chapter, but do feel its contents form his guiding principle.

8. Pat Brisson visited Toronto and Ottawa this week, discussing two prominent unrestricted free-agent clients — Jake Gardiner and Matt Duchene. Gardiner will be very tough for Toronto to fit. Duchene has made it clear he wants a distraction-free season.

9. Senators’ GM Pierre Dorion took heat for the delay before his “We’re a team” answer to a David Amber question on Kraft Hockeyville, but it is clear there’s a different feeling in the nation’s capital this year. Everything last season was tense, especially as things went off the rails. One visit to the dressing room was enough to see things are more relaxed. The players were determined to change the attitude, and three things have helped. First, they are playing more aggressively, which makes things more fun. Second, they see the talent in Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk. Third, and most importantly, winning covers almost every ill.

10. Justin Schultz is expected to return this season, but remember that Penguins GM Jim Rutherford likes to make his moves early. Not sure how confident they are in Olli Maatta, so he’s probably in the defenceman market anyway.

11. Carolina’s a good early story, and they’ll be interesting to watch for another reason: They’ve got unusual roster construction. The Hurricanes dress four right-shot defenders — Justin Faulk, Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce and Trevor van Riemsdyk. That type of player is always in demand and they’re all good enough to play. Scott Darling is due back soon, and, unless they want to carry three goalies, one of him, Curtis McElhinney or Petr Mrazek will need waivers. Assuming it’s not Darling, the others might be a Toronto target.

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12. Probably the most underreported story of the last week: that Calgary city council voted to re-open arena talks with the Flames. When we last tuned in to this saga, everyone was angrily storming away from the table. It will be interesting to see if there is different representation involved, some fresh faces breathing new life to the conversation. There is some optimism, albeit a long way to go.

13. Three years ago, Carolina’s Brad Malone took down then-Flyer Sam Gagner:

Gagner missed two months, an absence complicated by Philadelphia putting him on waivers when he was cleared to return. There was no suspension, yet that was one of the comparables for the NHL’s Department of Player Safety for Mike Matheson’s two-game ban. The difference? Our rapidly evolving feelings on concussions, for sure.

“Happened to a player on a Canadian team,” one exec said. (It’s a common complaint.)

As indicated in the suspension video, Malone’s manoeuvre was all in one motion while Matheson’s was into the boards and… a pause… before throwing Elias Pettersson to the ice. From now on, that’s going to be a key distinction.

Also, some of you won’t want to hear this, but there is still plenty of debate and disagreement about the weight difference between the two players.

One shift after Pettersson was injured, there was a wrestling match between Troy Brouwer (listed at 213 pounds) and Erik Gudbranson (217):

The Panthers winger went to the ice, but with the similar size and strength, no one was hurt. We haven’t heard the last of this argument.

14. If you’re Vancouver, what you really hope this means is that opponents are forced to think twice on how they attack Pettersson. He’s breathed new life into the franchise, instantly making him the focal point of everyone else’s defence. He’s smart and shifty, able to avoid a lot. Canucks fans just saw two decades of Sedinery, complete with all the abuse they took. That’s what’s coming for Pettersson. It’s the only thing that scared anyone about him — his slighter frame. If we’re actually headed into an unheard-of era where stars are extra-protected, the Canucks will be doing celebration dances down Granville Street.

15. In last week’s blog, we mentioned how there was at least one team that had Pettersson ranked first. With help from Jeff Marek, suspects include Nashville and Tampa Bay. The Predators drafted older brother Emil in 2013, so they had deep intel. Another team that had him highly ranked — but maybe not first — was Detroit.

16. Canucks head coach Travis Green passionately defended his team for not retaliating on Matheson, saying the players did not see what happened. One indicated they didn’t have a true idea until seeing the craziness on social media after the game, then asking what happened.

“We just beat Florida and Tampa,” he said, “and we’re getting killed for not fighting a guy for doing something we didn’t see.”

17. At the Canucks’ final home game last season — the emotional goodbye to Daniel and Henrik Sedin — fans in attendance at Rogers Arena spent an average of $22.33. I’m still not sure I believe it, but someone who would know swears it is true.

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18. Eight years ago, Keith Kinkaid completed his sophomore season at NCAA Union, and the professionals beckoned. Edmonton was among his serious pursuers, but there were many.

“You look through the depth charts, see who’s had their contract renewed,” Kinkaid said Tuesday, about an hour after the Devils shut out Dallas. “Craig Anderson had a new contract, so did Carey Price. You’re looking to see where you can challenge for an AHL starting job right away. New Jersey was close to home. Martin Brodeur was my idol growing up. I wanted to learn from him, that was a big key. And I knew he couldn’t play forever.”

Did you ever tell him he was your idol?

“I don’t think I would ever go up and say that,” he laughs. “But when I was debating what to do, I came here for a game and he gave me a stick. I still have it, in my childhood bedroom.”

Tough for anyone to beat that.

19. Kinkaid’s early reputation was “quiet.”

“That’s true,” he says. “I had learning curves, as everyone does. I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries. Once I knew the organization, my personality came out.”

Nowhere does that show more than in his Twitter feed, a smorgasbord of emojis after each Devils’ win. Tuesday, the organization released a key for fans to understand who is represented by what. Eric Gryba and John Quenneville haven’t scored yet, so their emoticons are yet to be revealed.

“Takes me five or 10 minutes to think of them. I can do it when I’m stuck in traffic.”

Does he get help or take suggestions from teammates?

“No, it’s all me. I like to have fun with it.”

The man also likes his wrestling, having attended the last three SummerSlams. Prudential Center is hosting the WWE next week, and he’ll be there. Favourite wrestler: Finn Balor. If Kinkaid tweets out “Dinner Time” it will really be something.

20. Of course, the reason Kinkaid’s really having fun is the Devils are 4-0. His 1.00 goals-against average and .961 save percentage are the early-season standards.

Cory Schneider’s hip injury last January opened New Jersey’s net.

“I’ve always believed in myself, but everyone needs that chance. It’s unfortunate that Cory’s injury opened the door. But you want the opportunity to get more playing time and show you can be consistent. I won my first three games and got too high. Then there were three straight losses. There was a lot I needed to learn.”

Like what?

“How to take care of my body. I used to feel like if I didn’t go on ice for an optional, people would think different things about me. Now I understand your body needs rest. And [coach John Hynes] is very good about letting us get that rest.”

Kinkaid says he benefits from living about an hour away during the summer, not far from the organization’s training staff.

“Last year, I wanted to prove wrong the people who said I’d never be more than backup, that I deserve the playing time. The playoffs were a great experience. Bronze at the World Championships…. We beat Canada twice, that’s always fun. You want to carry it into this year. Now, we’re off to a hot start. We may not be too highly talked-about, but we’ve got a good thing going.”

21. One former goalie coach wondered if Kinkaid would opt for stiffer pads, since he wore softer ones last season, allowing rebounds to stay closer to the net. That’s when I learned Kinkaid is the anti-Ed Belfour. The Hall of Famer was known for obsessing over the most minute equipment detail, to the point where he was given his own dressing-room key. That’s not happening here.

“I don’t even know (the brand name for) everything I use,” he said. “I think that if you think too much, you drive yourself insane. I’m a little strange.”

Most goalies are.

“I guess,” he laughed.

Don’t fool around with what works. That philosophy is definitely working for Keith Kinkaid.

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22. Trivia time: With St. Louis playing on Wednesday Night Hockey in Montreal, we were wondering about David Perron, who signed his fifth contract with the Blues over three separate stops in the organization. That led us down two rabbit-holes: How many players have joined the same team three different times, and how many have signed five contracts with one club? According to our crack staff, Perron is the 36th to do the former. Marty Burke is the only person to beat that. He had four different tours with the Canadiens from 1927–38. Meanwhile, Perron is one of only three to sign with one organization five times and play for at least five teams. Can you name the other two? Answer below.

23. Under-the-radar player gaining respect: Columbus defenceman Markus Nutivaara. (This was on the list before the Blue Jackets gave up 12 goals in two games in Florida, but who hasn’t done something they regret in the Sunshine State?) Everyone on the blue line gets lost there behind Zach Werenski and the injured Seth Jones, but he’s really stepped up. Not bad for a seventh-rounder.

24. Drew Doughty loves poking the Canadian media. He winds us up, laughs and leaves. I’ve always wondered if he’d really enjoy it on a day-to-day basis.

“I don’t think I would,” he admitted Monday.

Good news for the Kings.

25. Los Angeles is 0-for-21 on the power play, which likely ends any debate of Dustin Brown’s value. He was second on the team last season with 15 power-play points. In his absence, the Kings have tried Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Jeff Carter, Adrian Kempe and Kovalchuk as the net-front presence. Since he’s on long-term injury, Brown can’t return until Oct. 28 at the earliest.

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26. After his “ear-to-ear” showdown with Auston Matthews nearly broke social media, Chicago’s Patrick Kane told reporters referees considered calling Matthews for unsportsmanlike conduct. Thankfully, common sense prevailed; that didn’t happen. Following up, word is that was the correct decision, and there should only be a penalty if taunting is directed at the bench.

27. Not sure how many of you are NFL fans, but that league’s had a sensational start to the season. Rules changes have made it much, much harder to defend; skilled offensive players are taking advantage. The NHL has a long history of goal-scoring eruptions in October before chaos-hating coaches strangle everything. There is hope this season can be different, with the crackdowns on obstruction and slashing making it difficult on defenders. We’ll see.

One executive pointed to the last 11 seconds of San Jose/New Jersey on Sunday.

“The Devils clear the puck,” he said. “And the Sharks still get two chances. That never used to happen.”

28. In the aftermath of Austin Watson’s suspension being reduced from 27 games to 18, there were many calls for a specific domestic violence policy in hockey. I don’t get the sense that the NHL or NHLPA sees that as necessary.

First, the lack of a policy does not prevent commissioner Gary Bettman from suspending a player, with the CBA giving him latitude to do so. Watson did get a ban, and the league has made it very clear that Slava Voynov faces additional punishment if signed to a new contract.

Second, the league and the players feel that each case is different, both wanting the ability to rule on/respond to what occurs in specific scenarios. We know the NHL was upset by the arbitrator’s reduction, and that the Players’ Association was unhappy at the original punishment, the league’s reaction to the arbitrator’s ruling and the heat it took for appealing at all. We also know that Watson’s girlfriend released a statement absolving him of domestic violence.

I can understand wishing to decide on a case-by-case basis. What I don’t get is why the process can’t be explained with more transparency. If we knew why the commissioner chose 27 games, what grounds the NHLPA used to appeal, why the arbitrator ruled as he did or if anything in the original police report was disputed, everyone would be better off, including the people involved in the process.

29. I believe there is at least one owner who told his team Voynov is not an option.

30. Jim Diamond, who covers the Predators for Associated Press and Rinkside Report, pointed out that Shyam Das, who ruled in Watson’s favour, was fired by Major League Baseball after overturning Ryan Braun’s 2012 drug suspension. As per the CBA, a decision on Das’s future cannot be made until June 30, 2019. So, we’ll see if hockey feels the same way as its baseball brethren.

31. Trivia answer: David Perron signed five contracts with St. Louis, also joining Edmonton, Pittsburgh, Anaheim and Vegas. Nolan Baumgartner did it with Vancouver, also playing for Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Dallas. Finally, Wendel Clark for Toronto. His other teams were Quebec, the Islanders, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Chicago.

32. Bonus thought this week: Ben Falk, who formerly worked for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers, has an interesting website called Cleaning the Glass. Earlier this week, he published an article entitled, “Want to watch basketball like a coach or scout? Here’s how I learned.” It may be about hoops, but there are some good ideas to pull for hockey fans.

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