31 Thoughts: How NHL teams are handling draft prep from a distance

Pierre Dorion fields the question as to whether changes to the Draft Lottery that might occur in response to the NHL's suspended season, and how that might affect the Ottawa Senators.

• How Dorion, Senators are prepping for the draft
• What social distancing is teaching Todd McLellan about young players
• Will KHLers waver on coming to NHL amid uncertainty?

You do not want to be on the receiving end of Craig Donaldson’s stare.

After three years with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, which culminated in the epic 1990 double-overtime Memorial Cup victory over Kitchener, Donaldson continued his career at the world’s greatest institution — the University of Western Ontario.

During that time, the Western hockey team’s regular coach took a one-year sabbatical and a co-worker of mine at the Gazette student newspaper wrote that the replacement coach should be made permanent bench boss. Donaldson showed up at the Gazette’s office and made his displeasure known. He never raised his voice, but those eyes glared right into your soul.

“I do recall the situation,” Donaldson laughed on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast this week. “It didn’t feel like a fair article — that’s why I contested it.”

Donaldson was a talented defenceman, determined. Longtime hockey executive Sherry Bassin told co-host Jeff Marek that Donaldson would not be outworked in the weight room. His Hockeydb.com page lists him at 186 pounds.

“That’s misleading,” he said, laughing again. “I could not put on a pound. I played the Memorial Cup Final at 159.”

Last Friday, several of that era’s Generals held a reunion on Zoom, champions joining in and dropping out, chirping each other over three hours. Most of us have extra time right now, but not Dr. Craig Donaldson.

He normally works 10 to 12 shifts per month in the emergency room at Headwaters Health Care Centre in Orangeville, Ont., but has added a few extra during the COVID-19 crisis. He’s also employed with two nursing homes: Chartwell Long-Term Care in Aurora (where there is a case), and as medical director at River Glen Haven in Sutton. He’s doing virtual care at the latter two for now, as his work at Headwaters makes it unsafe for him to be in contact with the seniors — among our most vulnerable citizens.

Before the government protocols were enacted, River Glen, in consultation with the families, decided not to allow visitors.

“(Our patients) don’t do well without visitors. It was not a great option, but it was our only option. The families were on board, and I’m glad for that.”

Donaldson admitted it bothered him that people went away for March break knowing what was happening.

“As tough as it is, social distancing is imperative right now,” Donaldson continued. “Capacity issues scare everybody. We’re trained with mass-casualty scenarios… where multiple patient demands kind of overrun your capacity. There’s difficult decisions that have to be made and you go for salvageability. I’m praying that we don’t go into capacity issues and ethics discussions like that.

“The people that are really at risk right now, it will be the best judge of our society how we treat these people.”

The good news is that Donaldson is seeing some of the best from people. As he works, neighbours are making sure his fridge is full. Easter wasn’t easy as wife, Kate, and children Blake, Alex and Darby are away so he can be in isolation, but Blake (who turned 11 last weekend) and Alex (who will be nine next week) received some surprise birthday wishes.

The night before we taped the podcast, Craig and I caught up for the first time in years. It was great to hear from him. He made sure he mentioned the “great spirit” of everyone working around him — the medical professionals, those manning the doors at the hospitals, the custodial staff, and others I’m surely missing.

There isn’t enough we can write or say to show our thanks.

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1. Three hockey items from our chat with Dr. Donaldson. First, memories of Eric Lindros, who showed up on the Generals as a 17-year-old, recording 35 goals and 72 points in 42 games: “He’d skate past the bench and you’d hear his skates cutting through the ice with every stride. One day he came down one-on-one in practice. He was holding the puck way back, trying to get me to bite on the toe drag, but I wouldn’t. I put my stick way out there, but maintained body positioning. The next thing I know, he’s taken his hand off his stick and put it around the back of my helmet…. That was his reach. I couldn’t (get to) the puck behind him but his arm could reach behind my helmet, pull me down and walk around me. I’m like, ‘OK, that strategy didn’t work. Back to the drawing board.’”

2. When Jeff reminded Donaldson that current NHL VP and director of officiating Stephen Walkom refereed that 1990 Memorial Cup Final, the first words out of his mouth were, “Perfect hair.”

3. Finally, we concluded our interview by wondering if the post-COVID-19 world will lead to adjustments to one of hockey’s great traditions — the end-of-playoff-series handshake. Maybe an elbow bump instead.

4. Draft-wise: A couple of teams have indicated their in-house scouting rankings showed more variance than normal. Senators GM Pierre Dorion said he hasn’t seen that in Ottawa.

“There’s always a variance, but we haven’t seen anything major,” he said. “We knew this was going to be an important draft and our staff was pounding (the pavement) really hard from the start of the year.”

5. Obviously, there’s a lot more video work being done.

“When you watch players live, then add video, it helps your evaluation,” Dorion said. “It’s only when you don’t watch players live that video is dangerous.”

There are Zoom chats with prospects. The lack of a scheduled combine — at least right now — is challenging for everyone, but Dorion says he has faith in whatever the NHL decides. There’s time, so we’ll see what the summer brings.

Dorion did tell local reporters in a conference call that Ottawa submitted proposals to the league for resuming the season, the draft lottery and the playoffs. A missed opportunity for necessary humour if the lottery proposal opened with anything but, “Give us the top two picks.”

6. The GM echoed what many of his peers are saying: It’s not easy to do contract business outside of entry-levels. Asked about players he thought took a big step, Dorion first mentioned Brady Tkachuk. That made me wonder if he’s thinking about naming a captain for whenever we resume play.

“That’s a conversation we’d have with D.J. Smith and others,” he answered. “I’m not sure yet that we need to have one, either.”

“Wait and get it right” is the philosophy.

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7. Dorion and Los Angeles coach Todd McLellan have two things in common: First, they praised their players for how hard they competed, regardless of record. It was noticeable how hard both groups worked. Second, they are preparing as if their teams could still play.

“We’ve had year-end discussions about our players among the coaches,” McLellan said Tuesday. “But not with the players themselves. They could see that as closure. We don’t want that yet. What if we’re told that we’re going to play?”

8. On his conference call, Drew Doughty said he didn’t think the NHL was going to resume this season, and wasn’t thrilled with the idea. He added that he never felt good in the 2016–17 season after the World Cup — and compared returning in the summer to that competition. I asked McLellan a hypothetical: Should the Kings return for a couple of games and no playoffs, would he consider keeping Doughty (and say, Anze Kopitar) out until whenever the 2020–21 season begins? While stressing it was his own opinion because no one has discussed it internally, the coach sounded as if I’d urinated on his front door.

“I’d be against that,” he said. “First of all, you’re going to make Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown play, and not those guys? That’s not what a team is about. Also, they are such an important part of our culture and what I want our young players to learn.”

9. I asked McLellan about competing against the Kings for all those years in San Jose and Edmonton, then seeing them up close every day.

“We had one of those team-building days where we took them to play beach volleyball. Jonathan Quick competes at everything he does. He was full of sand, sweating bullets, diving everywhere.”

McLellan was laughing as he told the story, although he clearly appreciated the mindset.

“Brown, also competitive. Carter’s hockey IQ. Kopitar may be the best player I’ve ever coached. You talk about two-ways, he’s terrific four ways: north and south, east and west.”


“He’s just so good. And he’s great for a team. In-game, so quick with his wit and words.”

10. Ever the coach, McLellan was disappointed the season paused as the Kings were enjoying success, a seven-game win streak.

“You’re always thinking, ‘How are we going to handle this?’ They’ve come so far, embraced everything we asked them to do. Are you going to continue to do the right things, or are you going to cheat, to ease your habits?”

The organization has a deep, talented prospect base and he’s looking to see how those young players handle the internal competition that will be created for NHL jobs. Asked to mention young players who took big steps this year, he echoed previous comments from Kopitar and brought up Alex Iafallo and Matt Roy.

“I was out of the league last year when Matt arrived, so I didn’t know him. Well, I know him now.”

He gave Roy some high praise, comparing him to Marc-Edouard Vlasic.


11. We had a good conversation about coaching young players, and McLellan says he’s aided by his sons, Tyson (24), who just finished at the University of Denver, and Cale (20), who is a good golfer.

“They are staying with us now. They teach me about social media… TikTok, whatever that is… and chirp me for still waking up at 5:30 when they get up at 8:30 or 9:00. But what really helps is they remind me how players think and how coaches think. When I’m driving to a game, I’m thinking from a ‘we’ position. When a player is driving to a game, he’s thinking from a ‘me’ position. That doesn’t mean they’re selfish. It means that they are thinking of all the things they have to do. It’s a reminder that sometimes I have to think micro and they have to think macro. We talked about Tyson watching his shifts, and asking if he ever asked his coach what he thought. So, it reminds me I’ve got to remember that.” And time, always a big one. “If you take too long to get your point across, you lose them.”

12. Finally, I asked which Kings coach looked most like he’d just come out of 15 years in the forest when they started their Zoom meetings. That one was easy.

“Bill Ranford. He said he never could grow a playoff beard under his mask. He’s making up for it.”

13. New Jersey’s Connor Carrick is launching his own podcast — The Connor Carrick Podcast, of course. He’s always been very good at explaining on-ice concepts to dumb reporters. He has some good advice for those struggling to get motivated when most of us are living the same day: the 15-minute rule.

“If I wake up in the morning and I’m not feeling it,” he says, “I don’t want to train, whatever, I’ll start, [but] if after 15 minutes … this isn’t going to be productive, I’ll go have coffee, hang out and re-start. I have a first-sweat rule. Once I’m over the inertia of not wanting to do something… I’ll find my rhythm. Like a lot of people on quarantine, my house is not the place in which I train. I go for a walk, play my pump-up songs or or a podcast like I would going to the rink. And by the time I do that, I’ve got the blood flowing, hopefully some sunlight, I’m ready to go.”

Good advice.

14. Here’s another Carrick suggestion: three breaths.

“In my career, when I make a mistake I do have time for three breaths (on the bench),” he laughs. “Usually, if I can force myself to have three nice, slow ones, the building’s not so hot any more. I’m able to focus and get out of my own way.”

15. Back in the 2012–13 lockout, Michael Del Zotto worked as a grocery bagger for a friend’s supermarket. Did anyone recognize him?

“A couple of people looked at me, but I don’t think they could believe it,” he laughed.

He was considering doing it again — “maybe helping prepare curb-side pickup” at Greco’s, north of Toronto — but NHL quarantine rules may prevent that.

16. Del Zotto’s not hurting for things to do. He’s hosting fitness classes on Zoom.

“I hate cardio,” he says. “I need competition. This gives me a goal with people.”

He’s taken online courses in global financial markets and learning to speak Italian. I was surprised he didn’t know how. If you grew up in the Toronto area and knew Italian families, you saw many grandparents who came from the “old country” pass down the language through the generations.

“Yeah, that’s a fumble by me,” he laughed. “I know the swear words — that’s about it.”

Del Zotto’s also working on his culinary skills. Here are some samples:

Del Zotto’s famous ribs, via his Instagram.
Almond flour cocount carrot loaf.
Coconut flour chocolate brownie.
Kale salad.

Del Zotto says the ribs are his specialty and a big hit. Because I would do anything for you, the reader, I asked for a recipe. But he says he doesn’t share them. He did say the Schenn brothers are satisfied diners.

17. I wanted to separate another of Del Zotto’s initiatives. He loves his music, and every Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET, he’s hosting an Instagram Live (his handle is @mdzofficial) session of spinning and DJing. This is his current setup:

Michael Del Zotto’s home DJ setup.

“I can’t do this at some of my in-season places because of noise regulations. But I’m in my home now, so it is fine.”

He’s hoping to raise money for families who need it during a tough time, and has set up a PayPal as part of this. I’ll be listening.

18. Talking about all of the interesting stuff he’s up to, I asked if this was a sign he’s thinking his hockey career is coming to an end. He didn’t let me finish the question. “No chance,” he answered. “Look, I know the end will come at some point, and I have no idea where life will take me. I’ll be 30 in June. I know we didn’t have the team success in Anaheim, but I had a great time there. It was phenomenal for me. And I still want to play.”

19. Del Zotto, by the way, is reading Never Eat Alone (And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time).

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20. I could see the possibility of AHL Bakersfield retiring Colby Cave’s 26.

21. We didn’t ask Keith Gretzky about that on the 31 Thoughts podcast, but we appreciated him juggling some internal meetings to talk about Cave. Gretzky wanted to credit Blair Reid, Boston’s amateur scout based in Western Canada, for pushing the Bruins to sign Cave as a free agent from WHL Swift Current.

“Anything that Colby got or accomplished was always because of hard work,” Gretzky said. “He was the underdog in Swift Current, the underdog in Boston and (AHL) Providence, same with Edmonton and Bakersfield. You always want certain guys to succeed — he was one of the guys. You’re saying, ‘Come on,’ hoping for him. If he was sent down, he was not going to drag his lip…. Captain material-type player.”

Beautiful scene in Saskatchewan, where, during an era of social distancing, people lined the side of the highway in their cars as the family returned home. A sad story, especially at a time where the people affected most don’t get the access to hospitals they usually could. All the best to Emily and the families.

22. I still think a “taxi squad” of AHL players to each NHL team is going to be a possibility if/when this resumes.

23. Edmonton GM Ken Holland said 2019 first-rounder Philip Broberg will stay in Sweden next year if training camp is not “normal.” He’d like to give Broberg a chance to compete for a spot, but if not on the Oilers, it will be Skelleftea.

24. If Holland had a Hart vote, would he pick Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl?

“I wouldn’t fill out the ballot.”

He knows he’s lucky to have them.

25. Some of those Swedish players might have an advantage. That country’s quarantine laws are a little looser — apparently some skating is happening.

26. Although Alexander Barabanov (Leafs) and Ilya Sorokin (Islanders — although he’s a draft pick) agreed to come to the NHL for next season, we’re starting to see some KHL players waver on coming to North America amid all the uncertainty. KHL offers are on the table now. Konstantin Okulov decided to stay. Vancouver’s Nikita Tryamkin — that’s a tough one. We knew their cap situation was tight, and now no one knows where we’re going to go.

27. A couple questions with no answers I’ve been wondering about: If the playoffs go into September, could the draft be held after CHL/NCAA camps open? Difficult situation for high-level picks and their junior/amateur teams. Would top picks even want to play at that point? How would teams feel about starting the season with a good player, them potentially losing them to the NHL in November?

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28. 1. Will the league and players — as part of their CBA discussions — consider a lower salary cap, with the players offering a salary rollback in exchange for some kind of escrow protection? (In addition to next year’s big number being paid out over time.)

29. Happy retirement to Kris Versteeg, one of the NHL’s all-time great trash talkers. Best voicemail greeting ever: “If it’s important to you, leave a message. If it’s important to me, I’ll return it.”

After he won the Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, the trophy came back from the engraver with his name spelled, “VERTSEEG.” (His name had been submitted with a spelling error.) He was given the choice to leave it as is or have it fixed. He chose the latter and if you look closely, you can see it was banged out and re-engraved.

He’s going to be in media for as long as he wants to be.

30. This is player agent Michael O’Rafferty (right) with the late Pat Stapleton:

Stapleton, who died last week at age 79, played 1,008 professional games with Boston and Chicago in the NHL, and Chicago, Indianapolis and Cincinnati in the WHA. O’Rafferty met Stapleton through Aaron Brand, a former Maple Leafs prospect who played professionally for a decade. The last time O’Rafferty saw Stapleton, the retired defender allowed him to hold the final puck from the 1972 Summit Series that “disappeared for awhile.” (Stapleton kept it, unknown to a lot of people.)

From O’Rafferty’s Instagram page:

[blockquote]To me Pat became a role model, advisor and life coach. Without a doubt he helped shape the way I see the world today. It always amazed me how, in a blink, he would turn an obstacle into an opportunity. An idea into reality. A prospect into a player. Pat was the most captivating and polarizing person I’ve had the fortune of knowing. He always made time for a coffee at his truck stop in Petrolia, Ontario, and would weave a valuable life lesson into a hockey story. He had the unique ability to extract the best out of the people he came into contact with. He made you think, laugh and reevaluate life all in one visit. He’d never reveal the answer without making you work and challenge your way of thinking. He was a true leader. But more than anything, he saw the best in everyone and was one of the few who knew how to extract it. To you ‘Whitey’, I owe many things, none more than my gratitude for the impact you had on my life. Rest easy my friend.[/blockquote]

31. Finally, it’s an overwhelming time. There’s NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sounding optimistic on Fox Business. There’s Dr. Anthony Fauci talking about games without fans in the summer. There’s Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti saying it’s difficult to see his city holding any large gatherings for sporting events before 2021. It’s overwhelming. There’s conflicting information. And no one’s really going to know anything for weeks, if not months. One step in front of the other, focus on getting today’s tasks done. We’ll get there together.

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