31 Thoughts: Oilers GM search leaving no stone unturned

Edmonton Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson. (Jason Franson/CP)

• Oilers have deep list of GM candidates
• Grabner return comes at perfect moment
• Voracek appeal challenges status quo

Aidan Grabner’s seventh birthday — last March 31 — wasn’t perfect.

He wanted his father, Michael — then in New Jersey — to get a goal. The Devils beat the New York Islanders 4-3, with Michael setting up Blake Coleman’s winner. But the 10-year veteran didn’t get his own.

“[Aidan] gets upset when we lose. It’s pretty funny, I try to put the game behind me, then I’ll see him and he’s crying,” Grabner said with a laugh on Sunday night. “Last year, on his birthday, he was sad because I didn’t score.”

In less than three weeks, Grabner will get another chance to brighten Aidan’s eighth birthday, during what will be a huge game against Minnesota. But, no matter what happens, it will be hard to top last Saturday’s celebration. In just his second game back from a gruesome Dec. 1 eye injury, Grabner scored twice to lead Arizona to a critical victory over Los Angeles.

Waiting for him after the game were Aidan, four-year-old sister Olivia and Grabner’s wife, Heather.

“My first game back (last Thursday against Calgary), it didn’t set in that I was playing again,” he said. “After that one, seeing my family, I felt like I was back.”

Hours after taking a stick to the eye against St. Louis, Grabner released an instagram photo joking “At least the stache is intact.” Those who saw him the night before were relieved, as the person they attended to was in agonizing pain. The idea of a light social media post was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

“I remember pretty much everything,” Grabner says now. “The pain, it was kind of weird. A different kind of pain. If you’re hit with the puck, or you break your arm, you know that kind of sharp pain. My first thought was that I was going to have a glass eye. Laying on the ground, the pressure goes up through your brain. I was nauseous, thought I was going to throw up until they got some medicine in me. It’s tough to explain.

“I didn’t see the blood running down. But my wife did.”

Did he think his career was over?

“I thought it could be, but the doctors said we wouldn’t know the damage for awhile. There was so much blood around the eye, they couldn’t see enough. I have a CAT Scan at home that makes me look like a cartoon character, because my eye was at the end of my nose with all the fluid.”

He continued: “The most frustrating thing is there’s no timeline the doctors could give me. It’s so hard to explain what I saw, and what I was not seeing. I couldn’t really express what was happening. They told me that with 10 different people, there could be 10 different outcomes and 10 different timelines.”

For three weeks, Grabner says his heart rate never got above 60. Heather helped him administer five different eye drops at different times of day. (“I hate touching my eyes. I don’t wear contact lenses. I couldn’t do the eyedrops myself.”) He had no choice but to wait it out. Meanwhile, “Aidan wouldn’t look at the eye, and Olivia looked at it the whole time,” he laughs.

But: “A lot of different thoughts go through your head.”

Eventually, Grabner began seeing shadows. That’s when he knew it was starting to heal. Doctors brought more good news. No detached retina. No optic nerve damage. No need for surgery. Grabner got back on the ice, but it was still a slow process. Headaches the first few days. Eleven weeks of skating by himself. He’s always been a popular teammate, and there were plenty of messages. They didn’t dry up, either, as the injury faded into the past. The encouragement was constant.

“I take life how it comes,” he says. “‘I’m not an optimist, not a pessimist, but a realist. Whatever happens. I was pretty good mentally… even though it was not pleasant to look at.”

He is not 100 per cent healed. There is “still some stuff” to deal with. He tried several different lenses, but says nothing made a big difference. He doesn’t want to say much about it.

“You know how this league is, I don’t want to give anyone an advantage. Maybe I’ll say more after the season is over.”

Eventually, Grabner got to the point where there was nothing else he could do.

Time to try. Or sit out the rest of the season.

His two goals against the Kings were noteworthy for other reasons, as well. The first was his fifth shorthanded goal of the season, best in the NHL. Sebastian Aho, Cam Atkinson, Patrice Bergeron, Anthony Cirelli and Mark Jankowksi — all second with four — have played between 25 and 41 more games.

The second was a breakaway. He is notorious for not scoring on those.

“Maybe I’m better now because I’m not thinking. Just shoot.”

He pauses and laughs.

“Or maybe I see more holes now.”

Whatever the case, it’s an incredible comeback for Michael Grabner. But this is no time to take it easy. He knows the true test is still to come. At the end of March, Aidan expects even more magic.

31 THOUGHTS

1. With Tuesday’s victory in St. Louis, the Coyotes ended the evening in a playoff position for the first time all season. When Derek Stepan was injured days after the deadline, Arizona GM John Chayka explored avenues to add another centre. You can’t trade for anyone on another NHL roster, but there are other ways. Teams can add a free agent from a European league and/or trade for someone on an AHL contract, with that deadline occurring one week after the NHL’s. In both cases, the newly signed player must clear waivers.

In the end, they decided against a move, but it is a good reminder of clever loopholes around the CBA.

2. In his magnificent Hall of Fame–worthy career, Patrice Bergeron has never received one first-place vote for the Hart Trophy. He has four seconds (all in 2014, which is the only time he’s received anything more than a fourth-place vote). Is it possible he is the most under-appreciated great player ever?

3. The number for Carey Price right now is 315, one more than Jacques Plante for most victories by a Montreal Canadiens’ goalie. But the other positive digit is five. That’s how many back-to-back starts he’s had in 2018-19, his personal best since the start of this decade.

4. When Toronto beat Montreal 4-3 on Feb. 9 in La Belle Province, our cameras caught an angry and disgusted group of Canadiens in the seconds after John Tavares’s overtime winner. I mentioned that to a couple of them. One said, “That’s the difference between this year and last year. We’re angry when we lose.”

5. Everywhere you went at the GM meetings last week in Boca, Edmonton CEO Bob Nicholson was meeting with someone. He was rarely alone, constantly picking brains for ideas and candidates. There’s been a lot of reporting on names, but the list goes deep and it will be interesting to see how many interviews are done.

Several executives from other teams advised him to take as much time as possible, that there’s no such thing as taking too long to get it right. It also gives the Oilers more time to see what shakes loose. For example, depending on what happens in Detroit, I could see Nicholson asking old friend Ken Holland what his future plans will be.

The Oilers are very comfortable with Keith Gretzky handling the job until everything is settled. As things progressed in Edmonton, Peter Chiarelli kept things very tight. The organization likes Gretzky’s internal openness.

6. Speaking of Detroit, when Tigers president and CEO Christopher Ilitch arrived at spring training, he was asked about Steve Yzerman by the Detroit Free Press’s Anthony Fenech. He replied, “There’s not a lot I can say about that, other than I know his contract is expiring this summer. We’ll leave it at that.”

7. There’s also been a lot of reporting on the Ottawa coaching job. Candidates range from those with plenty of experience — Marc Crawford, Jacques Martin, Michel Therrien and Alain Vigneault — to those who interviewed well last time around, including Brad Shaw and Mike Yeo. During that process, the Senators asked Toronto for permission to speak to D.J. Smith, but were denied. That’s something to keep an eye on.

There are several good AHL coaches out there, too, but it will be interesting to see if the organization considers Troy Mann, bench boss of its own affiliate in Belleville. As far as I can tell, Mann has interviewed twice for NHL assistant positions, never for a head-coaching job. Ottawa’s young players have improved under his tutelage, and the AHL Senators have points in 18 of their last 20 games.

8. One scouting report on the talented Erik Brannstrom: He is totally unafraid to lead the rush with the puck, but hesitates to jump up after passing it. He’s 19 — he’ll figure it out.

9. With all of Toronto’s injuries on the blue line, there were rumblings the Maple Leafs might give 2018 first-rounder Rasmus Sandin a look. But it doesn’t sound like that will occur. I’d love to see a game or two, but if he’s not ready, no rush.

10. Do you ever watch a Calgary game and wonder who Matthew Tkachuk is yelling at on the other team? So does brother Brady.

“I ask him all the time, ‘Who were you talking to?’”

What else do they discuss?

“I ask him about creating offence. Behind the net, net-front plays, that kind of thing,” Brady answered.

Not defence, right? That stuff’s boring. Brady Tkachuk just laughed.

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11. Last weekend, Anaheim GM and interim coach Bob Murray had a terrific Q&A with season-ticket holders. One of the comments he made was about Max Comtois, that he didn’t like having to send a 20-year-old player back for a fourth junior season. Murray wanted Comtois in AHL San Diego. The NHL-CHL agreement is up in another year, and this age-old debate is going to come up again. Big-league teams want the option for players in Comtois’s position. Maybe it is only for first-rounders in the NHL Draft — or something like that. Obviously, the junior teams will want no part of that, but not sure the conversation can be avoided.

12. As the NHL and NHLPA continue to discuss solutions to the players’ escrow concerns, I’m wondering if both sides are weighing a pre-set cap in exchange for less (or no) escrow.

13. Monday morning, hours before Tampa steamrolled Toronto, Ryan McDonagh reflected on his first full season with the Lightning. He is noticeably more impactful than when he first arrived at last year’s deadline, playing what looks like the best hockey of his career. He took slight exception to that.

“I’d probably say 2014, the year [the Rangers] went to the Stanley Cup Final,” he replied. “I was doing a little more then — the power play for example.”

But McDonagh did not disagree that his game is back to a high level. When asked why, he pointed to his right leg, from the groin area to just above the knee.

“I’m faster by a couple of steps. Feel powerful.”

McDonagh just wasn’t fit upon his Florida arrival.

“It’s very hard to play against top lines when you have to back away to compensate. You’re giving good players extra space and time. You can’t be aggressive with your angles. It was hard. They expected a lot more from me.”

If you know McDonagh, he expected more from himself, too.

14. I asked McDonagh how the Lightning keep sharp with a double-digit lead on the field. He mentioned two things: detail-oriented practices and a very competitive group.

“We have long practices, but we work on the same things over and over again. We make sure we have them right.”

So, who is the most competitive guy? McDonagh looked around the room and picked Victor Hedman.

“He tries to win everything. Can’t stand to lose.”

What’s he like when he loses — a bit of a baby?

“I think that’s fair,” McDonagh said with a big smile.

15. Excellent ceremony in Calgary for Jarome Iginla’s jersey retirement on March 2. Loved the idea of David Arrigo doing a “live” painting of Iginla’s family watching the banner raising.

I understand there is some discussion inside the organization of adding Al MacInnis’s No. 2 and Joe Nieuwendyk’s No. 25 to Lanny McDonald’s No. 9, Iginla’s No. 12 and Mike Vernon’s No. 30. MacInnis and Nieuwendyk were part of the “Forever A Flame” program, their numbers not officially retired. That could change, and it is a great idea.

16. Friday night, not long after Jason Zucker scored three times to lead Minnesota to a terrific 3-0 road shutout of Tampa Bay, the winger took a few minutes to reflect on a whirlwind two weeks. Nearly traded to Calgary at the deadline, Zucker didn’t sulk, scoring five times in the next five games.

“There was so much talk about it. I had people all over the place texting about it.”

He paused.

“It was a little weird. But you can’t worry about what never happened. Was it real or not? I may truly never know. For me I wanted to be here. I was happy about that.”

17. Zucker didn’t want to go into specifics about conversations he had, but it is believed he met face to face with Wild GM Paul Fenton before they played Winnipeg the day after the deadline. Down 2-1 with 1:27 to go, Zucker took a feed in the high slot from Ryan Donato and wristed one home to tie the game. Twenty-six seconds later, Joel Eriksson Ek won it.

“It’s almost like a weight off your shoulders in a way,” he said. “I had to be better. (Before the deadline), it was almost like, ‘I’m getting chances but they are not going in,’ making excuses to myself. You know, ‘I’m playing well, but not getting goals.’ I was fed up.”

Zucker had three goals in the season’s first four games, but one in the next 11.

“I thought that start was going to be a propeller for the rest of the year. Now, whatever happens, I’m going to push myself to feel great, keep playing, keep going mentally.”

Then, in typical hockey fashion, Zucker broke down his hat trick in a way that made it sound like his linemates did all the work and he was just lucky.

18. As we were finishing our conversation, I asked about Minnesota’s two newest players — Donato and Kevin Fiala. Zucker praised the latter before saying, “Donato’s got work to do.”

Why’s that?

“Because he’s sitting next to me on the plane, and the last guy who sat there was Charlie Coyle, the best man at my wedding.”

Then he laughed.

“He’s good. He played the first couple of games here on adrenaline.”

19. There were a ton of teams chasing Princeton’s Max Veronneau, but they knew Ottawa was serious when GM Pierre Dorion skipped seeing the Senators in Boston last Saturday to watch the winger’s final college game, a 6-5 triple-overtime loss to Brown.

Clarkson and Yale meet this weekend. After Veronneau, the most-watched NCAA player is the Golden Knights’ Nico Sturm, with New Jersey and Vancouver among the contenders. If the Bulldogs lose, leading scorer Joe Snively will end his college career and make a decision. Others looking for more of an edge will be watching the nation’s penalty-minute leader, Bowling Green’s Lukas Craggs, who also scored 13 goals.

20. North of the border, CHL players are free to sign at any time. Last Saturday, Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino waxed poetic about WHL Lethbridge’s Jake Elmer, who has scored in 15 of the last 16 games. A Dec. 31 birthday can be a big disadvantage, but Elmer’s worked hard to overcome that, and Cosentino is under the impression he’ll be signed. Another young player working hard towards the next level is OHL London’s Kevin Hancock, traded earlier this season from Owen Sound. Approaching 300 career regular-season points, he’ll have to start in the AHL, but this is not someone afraid of a challenge.

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21. Luke Philp is expected to be named Canadian University Player of the Year at the national championship, contested this weekend in Lethbridge, Alta. The Alberta Golden Bear is going to get a shot. Doesn’t sound like it will be with the Oilers.

22. Whatever the result, Philadelphia’s appeal of Jakub Voracek’s suspension goes down as one of the more interesting chapters in supplemental discipline history. Two-game punishments almost never get challenged, partially because anything below six cannot go to an independent arbitrator. In these cases, Commissioner Gary Bettman has the final say.

The last eight appeals this decade involved only one that ended up being fewer than 10 games. (That was Dan Carcillo’s 2014 playoff punishment for physical abuse of an official, shortened to six by Bettman.) I can find only one try for anything as low as Voracek’s two. That was Joe Thornton in November 2010, also trying to lift a two-game suspension — for a hit to the head of David Perron. He failed to move the needle, as Bettman upheld the original decision. So this is rare. In some ways, it is fitting the Flyers would be the ones to charge at the status quo.

23. Has there been a season where more star players have been suspended? Jack Eichel, Mark Giordano, Ryan Johansen, Erik Karlsson, Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid and Voracek. I’d take my chances with that being the core of my roster.

24. Before Bettman became NHL commissioner, former league president Gil Stein went through a phase where he handed non-game-day suspensions to players for on-ice incidents. For example, in Dec. 1992, Owen Nolan got four days for delivering a crosscheck to Richard Matvichuk’s jaw. The kick to the wallet for those four “days off” totalled approximately $8,500. The players fought back, which led to the low fines we still see now. There was discussion at the GM meetings about increasing them, but the NHLPA will have a say in that.

25. Another thing that came up was suspensions during the pre-season, the empty calories of the hockey world. One suggestion was to make it so that if a player gets, say, a one-game punishment in exhibition play, they also get one regular-season game. George Parros brought up an excellent point, that, for some, like anyone battling to make a team, sitting out exhibition games is very meaningful. So we’ll see if that goes anywhere. (And, yes, the players have a say in this, too.)

26. The league also discussed a “Leggio rule.” This is in honour of goaltender David Leggio, who has twice knocked the goalie net off its moorings instead of facing a two-on-zero. (He’d rather face a solo penalty shot.)

He did it first while playing for AHL Bridgeport Sound in 2014:

And then again while playing for Munich EHC in Germany in 2017:

When he did it in the AHL, an ejection was added for the offending netminder. When he did it in Germany, that league made it an automatic goal. That’s what the NHL is considering. You know someone wants to try this strategy.

27. Wanted to share with you some of the statistics the league provided to GMs and reporters at last week’s meeting in Florida. First, the 6.1 goals-per-game average this year is the highest since 2005-06 (6.2), and second since 1995–96 (6.3). Even-strength goals account for 77 per cent of scoring, the highest number in 41 years.

There are individual gains, too. From 2005-06 until 2017-18, the NHL averaged 28 30-goal scorers, six 40-goal scorers and three 100-point players per season. This time, we’re on pace for 50, 14 and nine. That’s below the roaring 1980s, but growth from where we’ve been.

28. More importantly, the NHL is seeing a rise in comeback victories. As he’s done several times, NHL Executive Vice-President Colin Campbell referenced the 2004 Stanley Cup Final between Calgary and Tampa Bay, where there were zero lead changes. This season, 12 per cent of games have been won by a team that trailed by multiple goals. According to the NHL, that is the highest number in history.

Forty-three percent of games featured a comeback win of at least one goal, second-highest ever. Overall, total lead changes (443) and third-period lead changes (89) are the most since 2006-07. The 29 lead changes in the final 10 minutes of regulation are the most since 1995-96.

29. Oddest note provided by the NHL: The bottom eight teams in the standings through Dec. 31 had a combined .452 points percentage (124-154-36). From Jan. 1, those clubs went .561 (100-76-20). Not sure I’ve ever seen such a group turnaround.

30. Back at Western University I had some buddies who played in the elite intramural basketball league. They were pretty successful, until Tyrone Williams walked onto the court one night. Williams, taken 239th overall in the 1992 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals, was also an excellent basketball player. He destroyed them, and they laughed about how ridiculous it was. But no one ever suggested he shouldn’t be allowed to play. That’s a bad look at Wisconsin, blocking Canadian Olympic goalie Anne-Renee Desbiens from participating in intramurals. You don’t get better without competing against the best.

31. Very difficult week for hockey. We lost Ted Lindsay, whose greatest legacy might be that his charity delivered what it promised; more than 85 per cent of the money raised towards autism care went to those who needed it.

We also lost a second Hall of Famer, the regal Harry Howell, who looked better at 80 than most of us do at 20, and Donn Clark. Donn wasn’t as known as younger brothers Kerry and Wendel, but, in his autobiography, Wendel wrote that Donn “was the closest person to me who had left home to play hockey, and he planted the first seeds in my mind that I could have a hockey career.”

Wendel was there March 1 to represent his brother when Donn’s name was added to WHL Prince Albert’s Wall of Honour as a builder. Donn died the next day. All the best to their friends and families.

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