31 Thoughts: How NHL could give Jaromir Jagr a proper send-off

Montreal and Colorado had a physical affair while Hathaway ran over Gaborik and a few players were dumped into the bench.

• Special 2019 all-star invite for Jagr?
• NHL playoff format causing consternation
• Are Maple Leafs showcasing Kapanen?

There were three zeroes on the clock and Michael Hutchinson had beaten the NHL’s best team. Teammates mobbed him with congratulations, but he knew one of them would be slightly more sarcastic.

“[Dustin Byfuglien] always comes up with something,” a laughing Hutchinson said by phone, approximately one hour after Winnipeg beat Tampa Bay 3–1. “This time it was like, ‘Good thing you didn’t blow it.’”

No, he didn’t, closing a memorable 24 hours where Hutchinson competed in the AHL All-Star Event before making his return to the NHL. What a sweet day for someone who was so disappointed with his demotion to the Manitoba Moose that he declined interview requests all season.

“I knew there was a good possibility I’d be going down when we signed [Steve Mason],” he said. “You feel uncertain, you’re hoping for a trade, you’re really not in the organization’s plans, you get put on waivers, hoping someone will take you — and, no, you don’t want to be a distraction. [Mason] Appleton is having a great year. [Jack] Roslovic is playing great and gets called up. [Kyle] Connor plays great and gets called up to the first line. There are reasons I didn’t talk that I’m going to keep to myself, but those are the guys who deserved the attention.”

Hutchinson made sure to point out that his fiancé, Jenna Illchuk, helped snap him out of the funk.

“She let me mope around the house and be pissed off for a little bit,” he laughed. “It’s good to have someone who lets you do that, then puts their foot down and says, ‘Okay, time to move on.’”

“He’s been extremely good around the team,” Manitoba head coach Pascal Vincent said during a delay in his own travel back from all-star festivities. “Going through this last year with Ondrej Pavelec helped me in dealing with it. [Michael and I] had a small conversation when he first came down. I told him I knew he was not necessarily happy to be back here, but we would help him in any way we can. We are trying to build a good culture and do the right things, and all we asked is he not be in the way of that.

“He’s a good person, a smart young man. He’s been on a mission, making his point by performance, which is the only thing he can control.”

His performance? Spectacular. Hutchinson’s .942 save percentage is second behind Toronto’s Garret Sparks; his 1.95 goals-against average third behind Marlies teammates Sparks and Calvin Pickard. The Moose missed the playoffs last season. They lead the Central Division by 10 points right now.

“When the team is successful, everybody enjoys it more. Older guys tell younger guys that winning means a longer career,” Hutchinson says. “Teams want winners.”

Another thing that helped Hutchinson? He’s been around. You forget he was drafted 10 years ago, and has learned “that you have to separate business from hockey.”

“After my entry-level contract ended, Boston didn’t qualify me and I went to the ECHL. I took my experience from that. No matter what happens, you don’t let it take away your love of the game. In some way, it actually makes stopping pucks more enjoyable.”

Probably never more enjoyable than Tuesday night, his triumphant return to the NHL.

31 THOUGHTS

1. One more note on Hutchinson: Vincent said his greatest strength is ability to read the play. The goalie says there is a reason: He skates as a forward in the summer.

“I like it. It allows me to see the game from that side of the ice. And, it allows me to explain to the guys in front of me how I want them to play.”

Do you run over goalies like normal skaters do?

“Uh no,” he laughed. “I’m a perimeter passing player. I can’t believe guys block shots in so little equipment. I’m afraid to go near the net [without goalie padding].”

2. Let’s go through all-star weekend. I liked that the NHL tried something new. It worked in the accuracy competition, with the alternating targets. That was excellent. I liked the “gates” in the puck-control relay, although some players felt very differently. (One suggestion: cleaning the snow in front of them after each competitor.)

Fastest skater, accuracy shooting, hardest shot, puck-control relay — to me, those don’t need fixing. There’s buzz in the building and they move pretty quickly.

The changes I would make would be in the passing challenge and save streak. For the latter, four goalies instead of five, and shorten the delay between shooters. You don’t need to introduce each one, just have the goalie set, wave and go.

Fewer competitors in the passing event — eight was too much. And let’s have some ideas on how it could be done with the players in motion instead of stationary. These guys throw outstanding tape-to-tape passes while under pressure in games; it was a real eye-opener to see Drew Doughty struggle and admit he lacked confidence.

There will be pushback on having that event next year, but I hope they bring it back, with tweaks. As a guy who’s had at least one internationally recognized broadcast malfunction, I don’t think you should run away from your disappointments. I want to see Doughty and Nikita Kucherov go to San Jose next January and conquer it.

3. It is time for specialists. If there was a disappointment, it is that the NHL had trouble finding players willing to take on Connor McDavid in fastest skater. Jack Eichel was willing, Nathan MacKinnon was willing and Brayden Point gave it a great run, but others declined. A few also asked not to do hardest shot.

I do think there was some discussion about specialists, but a few hurdles emerged. First, unlike the NBA’s all-star weekend, players don’t go out of their way to attend. Second, a couple sources indicated there was an unwillingness to ask older veterans. The question for everyone involved should be: Do you want your sport to look good or not? As far as I’m concerned, both the league and union should be doing what it takes to get Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber into the hardest shot every year.

If they really wanted to make it spectacular, they wouldn’t tell anyone either player was there until just before the competition. Then the arena goes dark and Undertaker-style WrestleMania videos play on the scoreboard as they skate out.

Does anyone think Mathew Barzal, who told a team that suggested it may not draft him “good luck with that,” would be afraid of taking on McDavid? Let’s search out these players, many of whom comprise the future of the NHL, and put them in the spotlight. Oh, and even if Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski or Joe Thornton are not all-stars in 2019, they should be part of the skills competition in San Jose.

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4. Would it make any sense to involve alumni? Al Iafrate set the record for hardest shot (105.2 mph) in 1993 and held it until 2009, when Chara beat it.

“If I had time to try and get in better shape to do it, I think it would be neat,” Iafrate, now 51, said Tuesday. “As long as I shot over 80, right?”

Ah, we’d hope for higher than that. Do you think you could break 100?

“I’m not going to say I can break any records,” he replied, then paused. “But, yeah, I could.”

I want to see this. Mike Gartner took great pride in being fastest skater for a long time. But he isn’t so eager.

“I’m 58,” he texted.

Minor complication.

5. Only one NHLer broke 100 mph in the hardest shot. That was Alexander Ovechkin’s 101.3, done after he’d already clinched victory. That would have been fifth in the AHL event, held Monday in Utica. (Springfield’s Alexandre Grenier won with a blast of 104.1.)

Asking around, there are a couple of reasons for this. First, slap-shot usage is declining around the NHL because you can’t get your shot through if you take too long to release it. A quicker release may mean more accuracy, but not more speed. Second, NHL sticks generally are whippier than those in the AHL, due to individual deals. The stiffer the flex, the harder the shot. (Shea Weber won in 2016 with a 122 flex.) It sounds weird that AHLers would shoot harder than NHLers, but it didn’t come as a surprise to those I asked.

6. One person who knows Brock Boeser well describes him as “a humble person, but a fierce competitor.” Sometimes, younger players have difficulty finding that balance among peers. Not Boeser. That individual loved what he saw from the all-star MVP.

“I’ve seen that look in his eyes. Watching him last weekend, I almost could see a battle between his humility and [desire] to compete against the best in the world, if that makes sense.”

Yes, it does. And, as usually happens, the compete side wins out when the puck drops.

7. In an interview with David Amber, Brent Burns and P.K. Subban agreed to a side-bet in the hardest shot competition. The loser agreed to wear attire of the winner’s choosing for Nashville and San Jose’s next meeting, Feb. 22 in Tennessee. Subban had the better result, and here’s hoping this actually occurs.

8. Great weekend in Tampa, with the Gasparilla Pirate Festival adding a hilarious layer of weirdness/craziness to the whole thing. My first year of university was 1989–90, and I covered Western’s hockey team as a student-newspaper reporter. One of the Mustangs’ biggest rivals was Wilfrid Laurier. The Golden Hawks were excellent that season, losing in the national-championship game. Western was no match for them, but what really stood out was the Mustangs’ intense hatred for one particular player. He was the Hawks’ second-line centre, smaller than most, but very fast, very skilled — and, I was told, very dirty.

Years later, as we got to know each other in a professional sense, I told him this and he laughed. He moved into the sports-business world and is very successful, now CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Steve Griggs has come a long way. Congratulations.

9. The first time I ever met Jaromir Jagr, he put his shirt on with the hanger still in it. On purpose. Then he walked around laughing, the other Penguins giggling away. Another memory: At the 2004 World Cup, emergency starter Roberto Luongo and Canada held off a stiff challenge from the Czech Republic in overtime. We were waiting for an interview with the Czechs, but after such a tough loss, it understandably took time, so we were preparing to go off the air. That’s when Jagr pulled the door wide open and walked out. Because it was him, we re-jigged the end of the show to make time.

I didn’t know him as well as other reporters, which is too bad, because he has so much to offer. Circumstances conspired against a proper send-off, but there has to be a way to do it. If he continues to play overseas, we might not have a Hall of Fame induction for God knows how long. He’s another guy you could invite to all-star weekend, for no other reason than just one lengthy, final ovation.

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10. One of the rumblings around last weekend was that Joe Thornton’s injury had San Jose’s Doug Wilson being a little more active, seeing what’s out there. While I think he did make overtures, I’m not sure it’s a guarantee he’s going to do much. The Sharks have more than $20 million in cap space this summer, and I can’t see him tampering with that unless it’s a cornerstone player. There is also a sense San Jose is not willing to part with its first-rounder, especially not for a rental.

In 2016-17, Joonas Donskoi, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier and Chris Tierney combined for 30 goals. This season, they are already at 47, all in double-figures. As I write this, my guess is they try to hold until Thornton gets back.

11. Also interesting: the Jets. They are a legit contender, fighting through injuries to Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba. One thing I think they are considering: Is there a left-shot defenceman out there who can make them better? And by better, that’s someone who deserves to play ahead of Tobias Enstrom, Dmitry Kulikov and/or Josh Morrissey. Is there an option out there?

12. The question about Kasperi Kapanen: Is this a legitimate shot to stick with the Toronto Maple Leafs, or is it a showcase?

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13. The right side of the St. Louis defence is loaded, which could mean a new home for AHL all-star Jordan Schmaltz. Taken 25th in the 2012 draft, the 24-year-old is all but blocked from a significant role with the Blues. Don’t take this as they dislike him, but I do think he could be an interesting piece in a deadline deal.

14. Heard that the Dallas Stars signed Joe McDonnell, who runs their drafts, to a contract extension. McDonnell ran the show for Detroit before joining Jim Nill in Texas.

15. Connection I didn’t know existed: Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville played at OHL Windsor with Dylan Sikura’s uncle, John. (It was brief — John played six games.) Dylan Sikura, drafted by Chicago, has the option to be a free agent this summer. The Blackhawks very much want him.

16. Zach Werenski, asked if he ever looks up, sees Seth Jones attacking with him, and says, “Who exactly is playing defence right now?”

“Yes,” he laughed. “It’s happened when we’re both in front of the net. But [head coach] John Tortorella says he likes it, that it’s the forwards’ job to cover.”

Werenski added that Jones bought a radar gun to test the speed of both their shots, but they haven’t used it yet. I got the sense Jones is more confident about winning such a competition than Werenski is.

17. Minnesota’s Eric Staal will not be attempting to play until 45, like Jagr did.

“I can assure you, I’ll be gone by then,” he laughed.

Staal is only 33, but seems like he’s been around forever. He’s having a nice comeback with the Wild.

18. It will be interesting to see if any GM comes up with a serious plan for changing the playoff format at the March meeting. The NHL could wait to see if Seattle happens before making any alterations, but there is no question the Atlantic Division’s three locked-in teams are causing consternation. But remember: The players have a say, and nothing is easy between the NHL and NHLPA at this time.

19. As you have undoubtedly heard, there was a goaltender interference meeting last weekend, involving most of the coaches who were there, some GMs, Colin Campbell, Commissioner Gary Bettman, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and a couple of referees. They looked at a number of recent examples — including Auston Matthews vs. Jonathan Bernier, Viktor Arvidsson vs. Louis Domingue, Artem Anisimov vs. Frederik Andersen and Connor McDavid vs. David Rittich — and, while there was no absolute consensus, I understand the majority felt all of those should be goals.

When video review initially arrived, the idea was to prevent “egregious” violations from occurring, and that’s a reset the league wants now. A few people indicated it was a pretty honest conversation, which they liked. I don’t think anyone disagrees with the intention, but since this is a judgement call, there is concern it is wishful thinking.

20. There will be a push to have the Situation Room in Toronto make the final call, like it does with offside challenges. That could help with consistency, but would be a battle, as referees were promised this setup in agreeing to video review in the first place. Another solution would be putting an active referee in the Situation Room, as Major League Baseball does with its process. You could also pick a retired one. Bill McCreary lives in the Toronto area. Someone else suggested Rob Shick, although he lives in Florida and probably wouldn’t want the weather trade-off. One coach revealed a very interesting tidbit: that teams are getting a good idea on which referees hold firm on their calls, and which ones can be “bent” while on the phone with Toronto.

21. The night McDavid’s potential overtime winner was disallowed, he made a sarcastic gesture to check video review when he scored in the shootout.

He admitted later he was “frustrated.” That blew away a few guys at All-Star.

“He doesn’t do things like that,” one said.

22. Several years ago, the Montreal Canadiens were considering making Kyle Chipchura captain of their AHL franchise in Hamilton, but decided against it. From what I knew about him, I thought he’d be an excellent selection and wondered why they chose not to. The answer: He was in his early 20s at the time, and the organization felt, at that age, they didn’t want Chipchura to see it as a message that he might be more an AHLer than an NHLer. It was a really interesting conversation.

I was reminded of that a couple of times in the last few weeks. The Islanders called up Michael dal Colle, which raised eyebrows because he’s really struggled at AHL Bridgeport. But an executive from another team understood.

“If you believe a player can still help you, you have to give them a taste,” he said. “The longer your top prospects stay in the AHL, the more they are convinced you don’t see them as an NHLer. It affects them mentally, and, eventually, it affects their play.”

23. When Slava Voynov went back to Russia, his contract included an out after the 2018 Olympics. It is expected that he will try to return. There are a lot of angles to this. First, will United States Immigration allow him entrance? Second, the NHL has always reserved the right to extend its own punishment to Voynov, who pleaded no-contest to misdemeanor domestic violence in 2015. Third, look at what’s happening in the world around us, especially in Hollywood. This has to be handled properly, which is why it should be a lengthy off-season discussion, not a rush before the playoffs.

24. Last week, the New Jersey/Boston game was delayed approximately 10 minutes while officials figured out who would be first to leave the penalty box after a five-on-three. No announcement to the building was made, either. Small fix: Let the people in the crowd know what’s up.

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25. Twenty-six years ago, Pascal Vincent was a 20-year-old forward for QMJHL Laval when Montreal draft pick Greg MacEachern returned to junior. Suddenly, Les Titans were over the limit for 20-year-olds and Vincent was the odd man out. Bob Hartley coached that team with Michel Therrien as an assistant.

“They told me, ‘If you don’t want to go, you can stay and coach with us,’” Vincent said Monday, as he flew back from the AHL’s all-star weekend. “I wanted to play, so I was traded to Verdun, and we went to the Memorial Cup. But that was the first time I thought of coaching.”

Vincent is now in his second season as bench boss for AHL Manitoba, first in the Central. He said that as he stood on the bench during the all-star game, he thought of his road to that spot. After 57 games with the ECHL’s Knoxville Cherokees in 1992–93, he was getting ready to take physiotherapy at the University of Ottawa, but got an offer to coach Quebec midget hockey.

“I thought about it for a week, then decided to try it for one year. I called my parents (Jean-Claude and Lucille) and told them I was putting off university to take the job for $250 a week.”

What was their reaction?

“They were not too happy.”

Now?

“Every summer, I tell them I’ll finally go to school next year,” he laughs.

26. Vincent’s first big break came in 1999, when he was offered an assistant coaching job by QMJHL Cape Breton. He didn’t speak English, and the idea of being forced to learn it appealed to him. He never imagined how quickly he’d need to do it. The late Greg Lynch, who played a major role in getting the team to Sydney, decided to make a coaching change early that season and gave Vincent, then 28, the job.

“It was 10 games in,” Vincent said. “I remember telling him, ‘I don’t speak enough English.’ He said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’ The players were amazingly good about it, and it helped we had some from Montreal who were bilingual.”

Vincent said one of the ways he accelerated the learning process was taping hockey games on the old VHS (ask your parents) and listening for terminology, “repeating what I was hearing.” He’d read the dictionary for proper pronunciations, but there was a lot of television watching. Any particular shows that helped?

Friends was a real friend,” he answered.

He would eventually add the GM title, staying in Cape Breton until 2008, when he left for the Montreal Juniors.

27. Vincent interviewed with Montreal, the Islanders and Tampa Bay for AHL jobs. Then, in July 2011, Vincent was eating lunch in Montreal when his phone rang from a number with a 204 area code.

“I had no idea where that was. It was Claude Noel (then coach of the Winnipeg Jets). I didn’t know him, didn’t know anyone in Winnipeg. He introduced himself and said he was looking for coaches in the organization. He wanted to know if I had interest, because they were interested in me. He told me to speak to [girlfriend Josee Fournier] and would call back tomorrow. Then he hangs up. Bang.”

Vincent was convinced some friend had called, pretending to be Noel as a practical joke. But, the next day, Noel called back. The first conversation was on a Thursday. He flew to Winnipeg the next Tuesday. Vincent was back in Montreal two days later, driving, when the Jets called again to offer an assistant coaching job.

“It was an emotional moment. I cried like a baby — I really did.” (He credits Rangers coach Alain Vigneault for promoting him to a team he did not know.) They lasted two-and-half seasons before Paul Maurice replaced Noel.

“That was a tough moment. You felt it was coming, but didn’t know exactly when. They told us Claude and Perry Pearn were out, me and Charlie Huddy were in, for the time being. But they didn’t tell us the new coach was Paul Maurice, because it wasn’t a done deal yet. They just said the new guy will call you. When he did, he was very professional, asking a million questions with purpose… Knowing what information he needed to get things going. You don’t know how your relationship will be, but eventually he told us, ‘Don’t worry about next year.’”

28. Vincent stayed two more seasons on the Jets bench, moving to the AHL Moose lead job before last season.

“I wanted the experience to be an assistant coach. There are people I can learn from, and I tried to be a guy I would hire as a head coach. But I found it hard, because I knew inside I wanted to be a head coach. Being in the same organization is a real blessing.”

How much of a difference is there between being an NHL assistant and an AHL head in the same organization?

“When I got the job, there was a three-hour conversation. They told me, ‘We know you, you’re passionate, you want to win really bad, in the NHL you have a mindset that you must win every day.’ Not in the AHL. Here you develop, whether these players will impact the Jets for five or 20 minutes, your job is to get them ready for that. We use the same systems, same language, do the same type of practises. It’s like big brother. The younger brother does what big brother does.”

Vincent is like all AHL coaches, wanting the top opportunity. But he’s patient.

“If you do the right thing, opportunities will come.”

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29. Hockey savant Jeff Marek revealed a fantastic truth about newly retired Marc Savard when Savard appeared on the 31 Thoughts Podcast last week: insanely obsessive about stick-taping, he would grab teammates’ sticks and re-do them.

“I could have re-taped [Jason York’s] sticks every single time,” Savard admitted.

He hated any crevasses, crumpling or bunching.

“And you want to know who drives me the most nuts in the league? It’s Connor McDavid. He doesn’t tape his stick between periods. I find that just revolting.” (Understand he said that with a laugh.) Savard added he’s reached out to Milan Lucic about it, and Lucic replied that’s just the way McDavid plays.

30. I had Marc-Edouard Vlasic winning twice on my ballot for the Professional Hockey Writers mid-season awards. He was first for both the Lady Byng and for the Rod Langway, as best defensive defenceman. Other selections: Nathan MacKinnon (Hart); Victor Hedman (Norris); Mathew Barzal (Calder); Patrice Bergeron (Selke); Andrei Vasilevskiy (Vezina); Gerard Gallant (Jack Adams); George McPhee (GM); and Steven Stamkos (Comeback Player).

31. The Tim & Sid show brought back some amazing memories last week with video of The Score’s original XFL party.

Held in downtown Toronto, the big guest was Kurt Angle. The show opened with a limousine arriving — and me stepping out. Almost 20 years later, it is obvious how incredibly stupid it was to have my arrival lead off the program. It is therefore no surprise that I was lustily booed. Ah, good times.

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