31 Thoughts: NHL opening night promises intrigue, fireworks

Former Maple Leafs captain Doug Gilmour joins Lead Off to give some advice on what makes a great captain, and thinks John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly would all make good choices.

• Will Leafs announce captaincy on ice?
• McDavid, Pettersson a must-see matchup
• Should NHL add wild-card play-in?

One of the last conversations I had Tuesday night was with a GM who said, “I can’t wait for tomorrow. I’m really excited.”

The start of the season is one of the great days of the year. And there is zero excuse for the 2019 version to disappoint. In fact, it has the chance to be one of the wildest openers we’ve experienced.

It starts in Toronto, where the question is: Will the Toronto Maple Leafs pull a page from Vince McMahon’s scriptbook? Will they announce the captain on the ice right before the game — during player introductions? It would be bold; it would be different; it would be even better theatre than what you’d see a couple blocks northwest of Scotiabank Arena in the entertainment district. They’ve waited this long — let’s go all the way.

Watching all this will be ex-Leafs Connor Brown, Tyler Ennis, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and D.J. Smith — making his NHL coaching debut. Nothing could be better for them than ruining this party. How much money will be on the board in the Ottawa dressing room? Free dinners for weeks if the Senators pull it off.

Then comes the banner raising. St. Louis’s rings are beautiful and the team smashed it out of the park with a special delivery to superfan Laila Anderson. Enterprise Center will be afire with emotion while the Stanley Cup champions and the once-removed champion Washington Capitals await puck drop. The latter is a team looking to send a message of its own, ready to let everyone know they are perfectly capable of two victories in three years.

The Capitals are looking at each other, knowing the salary cap and unrestricted free agency could cost them a cornerstone piece. That’s a powerful motivator.

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Whatever happens tonight in the Alberta capital, it is already a victory for the Oilers. There were plenty of rumours during the summer Connor McDavid would not be ready opening night, but he’ll be out there with the “C” on his jersey, leading Edmonton against Vancouver. I went with Nathan MacKinnon as my Hart Trophy pick in our Sportsnet.ca predictions, but Elias Pettersson was very, very high on my list.

There are players in this league who recognize McDavid’s greatness, but want to make it clear to everyone they see themselves at the same level. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews are two of them. Pettersson is another. On the road, Vancouver does not control the matchup, but I hope we see Pettersson get a few shifts versus McDavid. Who gets that puck? How hard does the other work to get it back? This is a showdown we’ve earned, Travis Green and Dave Tippett. Give it to us.

It’s a massive season for Vancouver, too. Get out of the province if you want to talk about anything other than a playoff berth.

But the highlight of the night might be the finale, like a smooth port after a great steak — well, if that port punches you in the face. It took only two years for Vegas to work its way into the NHL’s hottest rivalry, an absolute hate-fest with San Jose. Just two months ago, Sharks coach Peter DeBoer and Golden Knights assistant Mike Kelly watched each other’s presentations at the Coaches Site conference in Toronto. DeBoer walked the audience through video of their historic Game 7, while Kelly, at the end of his own talk minutes earlier, said sitting through it was worse than a trip to the dentist.

Several players might be booking dental visits of their own if this game continues on-brand. The two teams will be playing their second game in four days after Sunday’s heated pre-season tilt, with another showdown looming Friday in California. One of the game’s toughest potential participants — Evander Kaneis suspended, but the dislike between these teams is so ingrained it probably doesn’t matter.

So, do whatever you have to do to get through work today, because tonight’s going to be awesome. I’m with the above GM. Can’t wait for things to get started.

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1. Before we resume regular NHL news, a return to my annual plea for some kind of baseball-style wild-card play-in. Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly are completely against a one-game showdown, feeling it demeans the regular season. Fine, but I’m not backing away from a seven-versus-10, eight-versus-nine two-game total-goals setup played on back-to-back nights with the higher-seeded team getting both at home. (The first game has no overtime. A tie is acceptable. The second game goes into playoff-style sudden-death if the two clubs are even.)

See those Nationals fans going wild last night, drenching each other with beer? Please. Hockey fans would make that look like a lame Bar Mitzvah. It’d be an enormous success.

2. Whatever you think about Kane’s suspension, he has to learn to control his anger against the Golden Knights. That’s the second time he’s been ejected for abuse of officials in Vegas in the past 10 months. The other came last Nov. 24 in a 6–0 loss. That one wasn’t physical, but verbal. He disagreed with a tripping penalty, and made his feelings perfectly clear. Ryan Reaves may drive him crazy, but Kane’s got to channel that into social-media volleying and entertaining media scrums. The Knights see they can get to him. San Jose needs him on the ice — especially as change makes him an even bigger part of that team.

3. In the words of one exec, “It is hard to believe things won’t work out between St. Louis and Alex Pietrangelo, unless, for whatever reason, one side doesn’t want to make it work.” The Blues are in Toronto next week, an opportunity for GM Doug Armstrong to meet with the captain’s representatives. This negotiation comes during a changing dynamic in the NHL, as the league gets younger and the dollars awarded to those players make up a greater percentage of team payroll than ever. Pietrangelo will be 30 in January, and, make no mistake, there are veterans who want to see him swing back the pendulum, make it very clear that in this era of sports science, there is no reason for hockey to be so ageist. The Blues outscored Boston 12-5 at five-on-five with him on ice during the Stanley Cup Final. There are tough negotiators on both sides of this one, which only adds to the grind. It is very hard to see him wearing any logo but the Blue Note.

The Blues are also taking a big run at getting Brayden Schenn extended.

4. A lot of the focus of the Justin Faulk trade was on Pietrangelo’s future. Two other reactions: First, getting him makes St. Louis better right now. A couple of their rivals in the West saw the move as a reminder to everyone that the Blues are serious about a repeat try. Second, Dominik Bokk, the prospect sent to Carolina, screams Rick Dudley, the Hurricanes Senior Vice-President of Hockey Operations. Bokk is talented, but will take time to be ready.

5. It’s impossible to know exactly what Lou Lamoriello is up to, but his comments about Josh Ho-Sang indicate a break is coming between the Islanders and the player. New York’s GM told reporters, “He came in and did everything that you could ask of a player to try and win a spot. In my opinion, he was given every opportunity and it just did not work out.”

During his time in Toronto, Lamoriello stashed Frank Corrado and Josh Leivo on the roster, but that was at the NHL level. This won’t be, and I suspect the hunt is underway to find Ho-Sang a new home. Lamoriello stressed this was not any kind of off-ice issue, but going through waivers unclaimed shows the reluctance. Hope he gets a chance at a fresh start — that can’t be easy for him. Jeff Marek is rooting for Edmonton, as Ho-Sang and McDavid were a lethal minor-hockey combo.

6. More from Ken Holland later, but it’s quiet on the Jesse Puljujarvi front. There was plenty of conversation during the summer and some interesting talents made available (Julien Gauthier, Klim Kostin, Alexander Volkov — although he wouldn’t confirm the names), but that’s slowed for the time being. He’s clearly hoping Puljujarvi’s overseas performance drives value.

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7. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford knew it — no way Tristan Jarry was going unclaimed. I was surprised Casey DeSmith got through, too.

8. The next team to keep an eye on goalie-wise is Arizona. The Coyotes claimed Eric Comrie, a risk the Jets recognized. Darcy Kuemper has re-signed on a two-year deal with an AAV of $4.5 million. Antti Raanta’s got this year and next at $4.25 million. When healthy, he’s been very good. If he’s still not 100 per cent ready, Adin Hill could back up their opener Thursday in Anaheim, as Comrie’s paperwork needs to get done. GM John Chayka likes to deal, and there’s a surplus here.

9. Another defender I think New Jersey’s looked at is Florida’s Mark Pysyk.

10. When Mikko Rantanen and Kyle Connor signed their new contracts on Saturday, most of us thought the RFA standoffs were over. But Julius Honka remains, and he’s got permission (with his agent) to talk to teams around the league. Dallas is looking for a reasonably high pick (second- or third-rounder) or a prospect, and it doesn’t help his situation that everyone was concerned about being cap compliant. Let’s see what shakes loose over the next little while.

11. My immediate reaction to the latest RFA deals? Someone is going to pass McDavid’s AAV of $12.5 million in the next few seasons. The best bet might be Nathan MacKinnon, although the field has time to beat him to it.

12. A lot of the contract focus is on Toronto, because the Centre of the Universe gets all of the attention. But there is a sense of relief in Winnipeg that much of that drama is over — for now. The Dustin Byfuglien situation remains unsettled and unpredictable, but with almost 15 pending free agents on the roster last season, there was a feeling from top to bottom that it hung over the room and affected their chemistry. Getting much of this business done is going to help them.

13. Watch Patrik Laine’s even-strength usage. In 2018–19, his 13:43 average was 144th among all forwards, 5:03 below league leader Connor McDavid. He needs to improve away from the puck, and the only way that’s going to happen is if both he and the Jets commit to making it happen. He has to play in those scenarios for growth.

Watch out for the Winnipeg Jets
October 01 2019

14. I’m one of those people who believe Toronto’s captain is John Tavares. And I’m also one of those people who believes it was decided three or four days before news of Auston Matthews’ disorderly conduct charge hit Twitter. (I suspect Matthews knew about it, too.) Not everyone is going to buy that, which is fine, because there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But I think a small group of coaches/executives had a vote, and while there was support for Matthews, Tavares had more. There was a rumour (which has been denied) that the Maple Leafs considered a “transition plan” where Tavares would be the captain for awhile before Matthews took over. I don’t know how that would work, but it appears not to be relevant anyway.

15. What happened with Matthews has been discussed by other teams, especially by their security people. Obviously, the first discussion topic is how to avoid the situation happening in the first place — to always have someone around responsible for saying, “Hey, this is not a good idea, we’re putting an end to it,” especially if alcohol is involved. It appears that the Matthews family felt they could take care of the situation without involving the Maple Leafs, but, as one security person said, “Even if you think you’re doing the right thing by not bothering your team, you’re not. Things like this can be calmed down by people who know how to do it.”

16. Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot will see a lot of Matthews over the next several years, but they reminisced last month about how the former was in the press box the night the centre opened his NHL career with four goals in the nation’s capital. “They saw it coming so they didn’t want to put me in the lineup,” Chabot said with a smile.

Were you up there saying, “I could stop this guy”?

“I don’t think anything was going to stop this guy that night,” he answered.

Matthews, in return, praised Chabot’s brilliant goal in Toronto on the first Saturday night of the 2018–19 season, where the defender undressed Igor Ozhiganov.

“That goal was pretty unbelievable. There’s not too many defencemen that can do that, where they skate the puck up and have the ability and the hands, and they’re dynamic enough to make that move.”

17. Ken Holland seems pretty calm in Edmonton. Some of that is the security of a five-year contract. Some of that is that he’s 63, and has seen everything. But, it’s also that, even though the fans and organization crave sustained success, he sees this as a slower process. Holland told ownership this was not going to be a quick fix and he is determined to stick to that.

“We’ve got some really talented young players, especially on defence,” he said Monday. “But, if they are going to be here, they’ve got to be ready to help us now, not help us in a couple of years. We’ve got our core: McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson. How can we make them better? How can we make the team better around them? You don’t want to make the playoffs once. You want to make the playoffs every year. How do we build toward that?”

18. Holland didn’t have cap room, and, as mentioned, he didn’t want to rush those who weren’t ready.

“I wanted to bring in some good professionals. Players who’ve been around, who know how to prepare, who understand what it takes.”

Most are on one-year deals, with Alex Chiasson getting two. That doesn’t tie them up long into the future, and opens room if any of their youngsters prove they are indeed ready. This might make some fans scream — and the GM won’t say it — but another lottery pick in a deep draft probably isn’t the worst thing for the Oilers.

19. The fanbase’s biggest fear is that McDavid gets fed up. You can see how badly he wants to win. He trained hard to recover on time, and that says a ton about his drive. Holland’s made sure to keep McDavid’s agent, Jeff Jackson, informed of his thought process and vision for the future. I asked Holland about the fans’ concerns about their supremely talented captain.

“What we are going to show is that we are going to build stability around him. Dave Tippett is a big part of that. Surrounding him with good professionals is part of that. Making sure we develop our young players properly is part of that. We will have cap room in a couple of years. It does not happen quickly. But it happens if you stick to what you believe.”

Nugent-Hopkins made it clear he wants consistency. He wasn’t the only player who conveyed that message. Holland believes he can create that, and the players will appreciate it.

20. Holland, asked if any of the young players he didn’t know impressed him, mentioned Ethan Bear.

“He surprised me, for sure.”

He added he also liked Tyler Benson.

21. Finally, I told Holland that another GM joked he’ll be happy in Edmonton because it’s closer to his British Columbia cottage. He laughed at that, then launched into a really interesting soliloquy.

“I’ve won one playoff series in the last eight years,” he said, referring to Detroit’s 4–3 win over Anaheim in 2013. “We had a tough loss up 3–1 against Chicago (that same year). We had a tough loss up 3–2 against Tampa Bay (in 2015). I miss the feeling (of winning). I believe we’re going to get there and I want to get back there.”

22. One exec on Montreal’s Nick Suzuki: “Boy, he’s come a long way in one year.”

23. Vancouver put Sven Baertschi on waivers because their trade efforts made them comfortable in the knowledge he would clear. With this year and next at just under $3.67 million, they understood how things would develop. What I wouldn’t assume is that the organization has given up on the idea he could help them at some point. The impressive Adam Gaudette has to prove he can stick, and there are several forwards who could be in and out of the lineup. Baertschi will have the opportunity to write better chapters in his Vancouver story.

24. It will develop as the season continues, but it’s harder to find a better training-camp story than Colorado’s Conor Timmons. The 21-year-old defender made the Avalanche after missing all of last season with a concussion. It’s great to see he is healthy, and it’s even better to see the injury did not eclipse a promising career. Great stuff.

25. Every two summers, the NHL brings together its off-ice crew supervisors from each building for a seminar. For the first time, the league expanded the group, bringing three people from each market to Pittsburgh in August for an even bigger conference. Along with the overall supervisor came the lead official scorer and the manager responsible for overseeing the counting of statistics — hits, blocked shots, ice time, giveaways, etc. With puck-tracking coming, each arena was given new laptops allowing them to integrate with the new system. There are always debates about accuracy; everything from hits with the Islanders and shot numbers in several buildings, and the people who run the department are constantly auditing whenever there’s a complaint.

Funny story: A couple of years ago, one of our broadcasts was complaining about shot totals in Carolina (the Hurricanes were getting credit for invisible attempts, we thought), but when we counted them, our numbers backed up the stats-keepers, much to the NHL’s merriment. There are discrepancies, but what I didn’t know is that there’s a 200-plus page guidebook to counting these stats. It was put together years ago with the input of GMs and coaches.

26. I have heard coaches complain before that their face-off stats are different than the NHL’s, and for the first time, I understand why. According to the league’s guidebook, a face-off win occurs “when the actions of the centre result in his team gaining possession of the puck following puck-drop, or when the face-off centre clearly causes the puck, with or without retaining possession, to travel in an intended direction.”

So, if Patrice Bergeron cleanly wins a draw, but the opposing winger beats his teammate to it, that still goes down as a win for Bergeron. (It has to be a clean win for this to occur.) Some insider/panelist I am, because I didn’t realize this was the case. There are teams who don’t count it that way, but, to this point, none of them has been able to change the guidelines. If you’re scoring at home, you now know who to give that victory to.

27. Two notes about hits: “A hit should involve forceful contact. A shove with the arms or just getting in the puck carrier’s way should not be scored as a hit.”

But “standing a player up and ending his forward progress with the puck on a one-on-one rush should be scored as a hit.”

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28. It wasn’t the biggest story, but hockey lost a quietly significant person last week when long-time coach, executive and scout Nick Polano died at age 78.

“I got to Detroit after he was hired as head coach (in 1983),” Ken Holland said, “but you could see why the Ilitch family asked him to change the culture of the Red Wings. He was tough on his players, but in a way that made them better…. As for me, he showed confidence in someone who was very green as a scout.”

There’s a pretty funny story about Polano being in his 70s and someone making fun of his typing style, only to see him get up and threaten to fight over it. But where Polano really made history was in bringing Petr Klima to Detroit.

29. The world’s changed so much that it’s hard to explain to someone who wasn’t around then what a big deal Klima’s defection was. With knowledge that the winger wanted to leave the former Czechoslovakia, the Red Wings drafted him 86th overall in 1983. Two summers later, Polano flew with Detroit executive vice-president Jim Lites to Nussdorf, Germany, where Klima was supposed to leave the team hotel and meet them near a forest. Polano did once admit he didn’t think they were going to pull it off.

“I always felt good when he was next to me,” Lites said with a laugh on Monday. “He looked like a bodyguard. That whole process, he was so good with the details. What we had to know, he knew. I remember waiting in our car at 1:00 a.m., myself our interpreter from Detroit and Nick. We were supposed to make a quick exit. Petr climbs out of the window during a team dinner after an exhibition game. He knocks on the door of our car, and says, ‘I’ve got to go back and get my stuff.’ We’re telling him, ‘Forget the stuff, you don’t need it, we will buy what you need.’ But it was his personal stuff and he wanted to go. That was the longest 15 minutes in history. We were just winging it. But when we got away safely, he told us he wouldn’t leave unless we got his girlfriend out, too. He wanted to make sure she was safe.”

30. The same people who helped the Red Wings get Klima were re-hired to bring his girlfriend.

“We paid them cash to get her from Prague,” Lites said. “We left Petr and the interpreter in Germany while Nick and I drove to Austria, near the Czech border. We showed them the cash, something like $35,000. They showed us a picture of her. When they saw the money, they drove back. Then they came back to the same checkpoint. There was a fake trunk in their car. They opened it up, and she pops out. We had to look for the birthmark on her cheek, and that’s when we knew it was her. She gets in the car with two strange men for the drive to Frankfurt. No talking.”

Lites chuckled at the memory.

“Nick would have enjoyed the Russian Five book and movie. But getting the Russians in the ’90s was much easier than Klima in the ’80s.”

He paused.

“Hockey’s a little less good with Nick gone.”

All the best to his family.

31. The current climate of labour serenity is spreading beyond the boardroom. This weekend, the NHL and NHLPA will celebrate a historic milestone: the first known wedding between league and union employees. NHLPA Senior Manager of Business Affairs Eric Epstein will marry NHL Account Executive, Partnership Marketing Kyla Csumrik on Saturday in Orillia, Ont. Hopefully, those in attendance aren’t too distracted by the evening’s 13-game schedule, the local casino or impromptu CBA bargaining sessions to enjoy what should be a terrific evening. Congratulations to Eric and Kyla.

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