31 Thoughts: Maple Leafs not sweating goaltending situation

Brian Burke talked about the Maple Leafs' woes in goal ever since letting last season's reliable backup Curtis McElhinney go.

• Leafs likely to start Kaskisuo on Saturday
• Breaking down Kovalchuk’s healthy scratch
• Stars’ stars brushing off criticism

About two hours apart, Jamie Benn and Jim Montgomery listened to the same question.

“I’m not with your team every day,” they were told. “What would you say to those of us who think this sounds like what happened last year?”

“Chill,” the Dallas captain answered.

“You are way oversimplifying it,” the head coach responded.

Forgive us if we thought differently. Eleven months ago, Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites unloaded on Benn and fellow franchise cornerstone Tyler Seguin as the team hovered at the post-season cutoff line. Sunday, after a 3–2 overtime loss in Winnipeg, Montgomery didn’t mention either by name, but left no doubt who he was referring to by saying, “You need your No. 1 centre, you need your No. 1 left winger to step up and do more.”

Montgomery apologized to the two in particular, and the group in general, after practice in Calgary on Tuesday.

“We win as a team, we lose as a team,” he said. “I’m disappointed I let my emotions get the best of me.”

“I appreciated the apology,” Benn said. “But I don’t think I needed it. I don’t know why we’re talking about this at all, but I guess you need to talk about something.”

Does any of this make you think of life outside Dallas?

“No, not at all,” he answered. “I love playing for this organization. It’s a big part of my life. I haven’t thought twice about this. I want to be here and I will be here.”

(For his part, Seguin told Matthew DeFranks of the Dallas Morning News, “Coaches are allowed to say that stuff. I’m not losing sleep over it. I’m a great judge of my game, too…. It’s a results business. Results aren’t there right now.”)

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This is a huge year for the Stars. After adding Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera, expectations were high — Stanley Cup high. After starting 1-7-1, Dallas won seven of eight before the Winnipeg defeat. But with Roope Hintz and John Klingberg out, Montgomery needs extra from his best.

“Everyone has a role on our team, and everyone is expected to do their roles,” he said. “With those two guys out, you need those top six forwards and top four defencemen to produce more. What I’m asking for is a more aggressive mindset by me, and by the players. The best predictor of people’s future is their past. If we can get them up to their normal rates, that will help us win more games.”

He added that Benn is most dangerous when he’s “driving his legs at the offensive blue line; getting to the blue paint, inside the dots. You can tell everything about him in the offensive zone.”

As for Seguin, you know he’s on when “he’s working at possessing the puck in dangerous offensive areas. We believe (both of them) are going to work their way there.”

Montgomery did not mention Alexander Radulov, but it’s believed the Stars feel he’s got another level, too.

The key reaction is Benn’s, however. A year ago, he was furious at the critique. This time, he’s brushing it off like Thanos against one Avenger.

“We’re more comfortable with each other. We lost Corey Perry before the season and three players in our first game. When you look like you’re unravelling right away, even though your team seems great on paper to fans and people outside of your organization, it’s the end of the world. They expect results, and when you don’t get results, people panic and wonder what’s going on. We’ve got new players. They don’t gel right away. It takes practice and time to figure it out.

“We’ve got it figured out now. We know what we need to do to win, and we believe.”

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1. Wanted to get to Los Angeles and Ilya Kovalchuk next. GM Rob Blake and JP Barry, who represents the Russian veteran, declined to comment in the process of reporting on this, but prior to last night’s 3-1 victory over Minnesota, Blake threw some cold water on the idea that Kovalchuk was done playing for them. He’s never lied to me about anything, so I wanted to throw everything out there. According to multiple sources, the Kings met with Kovalchuk Tuesday morning and told him they were going to remove him from the lineup. He left the arena and did not take the morning skate. There were several options that came up, including: working on a trade; leaving the team; staying until his bonus is paid in December, then leaving; mutually terminate (although I can’t imagine Kovalchuk walking away from the money unless it is coming from somewhere else); and, apparently, some pushback that he shouldn’t be forced to leave if he doesn’t want to.

During Blake’s availability, he repeatedly referred to Kovalchuk as “a healthy scratch.” Asked specifically if the winger could dress Thursday against Detroit, the GM replied, “Yeah, he’s a healthy scratch. I don’t know – there’s not much else I can say.” (Thank you to Jon Rosen for the transcript.) Post-game, head coach Todd McLellan added, “Just like the rest of the players, he’ll get his opportunity to come back in. We have to treat him like any other player.”

Captain Anze Kopitar: “Obviously not a great situation. (Kovalchuk) is a good guy. There’s nothing that’s wrong with the attitude or anything…. It’s just for whatever reason, it’s not working on the ice, and that’s about all I can say.”

So, there are a few moving parts.

2. The Kings have tried to move Kovalchuk for awhile, so they know the market. Maybe it gets easier after the December bonus, as his salary for the remainder of the season is a pro-rated $700,000. Maybe it gets easier in the summer, when he’s heading into the last year of his contract at a bonus-free $4.25 million for a club needing to get to the floor. Who knows? Because he signed as a 35-plus contract, the hit stays on the cap of whoever owns his rights until the end of next season. Even if he decides to play in Russia, it sticks. “He could get abducted and probed by aliens….still counts,” texted one helpful capologist.

3. The Kings mean business. Tyler Toffoli was scratched, then Kovalchuk. They later put Toffoli on the top line to showcase him, but, as they train their next generation, they’re demanding a high standard. He’s not going to be the last big-name benching.

4. Bo Horvat played 27:06 in the Canucks’ 5–3 win over Nashville on Tuesday. That makes him the first forward this season to play 27 minutes in a non-overtime game. Connor McDavid had a 27:27 versus Washington, but 1:18 was in overtime.

5. By the way, watching that game reminded me of going to Vancouver at the beginning of the decade, when the Canucks were at their peak. Alive building, fun team to watch, great energy, players who pull for each other. The excitement for Elias Pettersson scoring twice on his birthday, the happiness for Adam Gaudette’s multi-point game, and, most importantly, Thatcher Demko wearing a Hockey Fights Cancer hat in post-game interviews to honour Jacob Markstrom, whose father just died from the disease.

“We wanted to prove to him we’d play hard again for him. He might not have been playing, but guys were thinking about him and playing for him.”

6. A couple of sources said they heard Ryan Donato’s name out there, but I think Minnesota’s plans are to be patient with him. This could be a case where teams are trying to see if a talented young player can be poached because he was acquired by the previous regime.

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7. Buffalo’s been eying forward help for some time. Vladimir Sobotka’s long-term injury adds to that desire.

8. If things stay consistent, Kasimir Kaskisuo will make his first NHL start Saturday night in Pittsburgh. That’s the second half of a back-to-back, although the Penguins will be playing Friday night, too. It’s a huge test for the 26-year-old Fin, who signed as a free agent in March 2016 out of NCAA Minnesota-Duluth.

“I wouldn’t have thought this was possible last season,” said one exec, who sees plenty of the AHL. “But since the playoffs began, he’s been much improved.”

Despite four shutouts (third best in the league), Kaskisuo was 38th in save percentage and 39th in goals against among AHL goalies in 2018–19. Among those who played 10 times in the Calder Cup playoffs, he was first in both categories. This year, he’s 13th (save percentage) and 14th (goals against).

9. The Maple Leafs appear less worried than everyone else about the position. They didn’t win any of Michael Hutchinson’s starts, but don’t appear hell-bent on chasing outside the organization. They passed on Louis Domingue at least twice, once on waivers and once as a trade target. One obvious play would be Arizona’s Eric Comrie, with the same cap hit as Hutchinson, albeit one more year. But I can find no evidence Toronto’s inquired. Others who make financial sense are Minnesota’s Alex Stalock ($785,000 for two more seasons) or the Pittsburgh duo of Tristan Jarry ($675,000 this year and an RFA) or Casey DeSmith (his $1.25 million for the next two seasons might be too pricey).

A lot of this uncertainty goes back to Michal Neuvirth, who had a great opportunity to snare the role in camp. But he was hurt and didn’t seem to have his heart in it.

10. Last Friday, I attended a “7th Man” fundraising dinner for the men’s hockey team at Western University. I’ll have more about it next week, but one player I met was goaltender Dan Davies. He skated with some of the Maple Leafs during the summer, as they needed a goalie. I asked if anyone stood out, and he said he was so impressed with what both Jason Spezza and John Tavares could do around the net.

“No matter how close he was,” Davies said, “Spezza could always get it up high.”

Here’s a guy battling to stay in the NHL, and he’s still got elite skill. Shows you what it takes.

11. With Mitch Marner out, Nic Petan deserves the opportunity. But I’m wondering if Pierre Engvall works his way into Toronto’s rotation. He’s got 12 points in 13 games and has played very well.

12. Both New Jersey GM Ray Shero and Taylor Hall’s representative, Darren Ferris, were tight-lipped after last week’s pizza summit in Calgary. The one thing about Ferris is, his history is to tell his clients to wait (especially the UFAs) and see what their market will be. That’s not a no to the Devils, but if Hall listens (and there’s no evidence he won’t), they know an in-season decision is unlikely. Hopefully, no one got no-cheese pizza. That’s disgusting.


13. The AHL has formed the selection committee in charge of finding a successor to longtime president and CEO Dave Andrews. Included are Lyman Bullard, a governor on Portland’s previous AHL team; Manitoba owner Mark Chipman; Syracuse owner Howard Dolgon; Dallas GM Jim Nill; and Rick Pych, in his 27th year with Spurs Sports & Entertainment, owner of the San Antonio Rampage.

14. The NHL’s GMs meet next week in Toronto. There will be conversations about replay, including two recent rulings. The first involved Colorado’s Jared Bednar, who challenged a Radek Faksa goal last week in Dallas. Faksa scored as his stick snapped seconds after being hit by a shot. Bednar asked for for the goal to be overturned because of a missed stoppage, although a player taking a shot as his stick snaps would not be a stoppage — unless he continues to play with it and gets a penalty. Bednar was not going to win that one.

The issue here is that officials are not allowed to tell coaches they can’t review something. (I believe there are some “hint, hint” moments, but let’s stick to the letter of the law.) We’ve all seen NFL games where referees tell a team something is not reviewable, but the NHL operates from the reverse — that coaches should know the rules. Basically, what it comes down to is the league doesn’t want games slowed down by lengthy bench conversations. Do you want to challenge? Yes? Let’s go. The problem with Bednar’s situation is that the penalty is severe: that one was four minutes because he had an earlier wrong try. And a few colleagues/executives didn’t like the way he was embarrassed. So we’ll see if anything comes of it.

15. The second conversation has to do with last Tuesday’s Boston/Montreal game where a Bruins goal was disallowed after Charlie Coyle used his skates to steer the puck over the blue line. I’ve heard a lot of arguments that Coyle did have control and the goal should have counted. I certainly agree that he knew what he was doing, and today’s players are skilled enough to pull it off. My heart says it should count. My head says if they do count it, it’s going to open up a can of worms that will lead to a disaster of unintended consequences.

16. The Rangers sent out a tweet from their “Stats & Info” account that got me thinking. They referenced Tony DeAngelo, and the fact he’s got 30 points in his last 41 games — including 14 so far in 2019-20. He was a nomad, three organizations in his first three seasons, and the Rangers have done an excellent job with him. It will be interesting to see where this goes. DeAngelo did not sign until Sept. 20, despite not having much leverage. This summer, however, he will have arbitration rights and these numbers are going to look nice.

The Rangers have got some talented young puck-movers. If you don’t believe me, watch how Adam Fox reads Bryan Rust on the overtime winner Tuesday night:

17. One coach told me his team’s internal metrics indicate that no one spends more time in their own zone than the red-hot New York Islanders. He wondered how that was possible, so he took a look. Answer: “They let you go where they want you to go — on the outside.” You get time, but you don’t get quality.

18. There is one GM who constantly texts me about Nathan MacKinnon being “robbed” of the 2018 Hart Trophy. (It is not Joe Sakic.) With Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen out of the lineup, Colorado’s alternate captain has 11 points in seven games. The Avalanche are outscoring opponents 8-5 with him on the ice at five-on-five and 11-7 overall. It’s early, but he’s making a case. By the way, it’s 11-5 and 14-5, respectively, when Calder Trophy Cale is out there.

19. Internal critique from a Vegas player: “We step off the gas too much.”

20. Last Thursday was huge for Malcolm Subban, a start in his hometown against the Maple Leafs. The Golden Knights lost 2–1 in overtime, but Subban was excellent — making 35 saves, looking very confident in doing so. According to a couple of teammates, the night before was pretty hilarious, with teammates doing what they could to keep him from getting too nervous or excited. They watched the live-action version of The Lion King in one of their hotel rooms, and the Raptors’ 124–120 defeat of Sacramento.

“We reminded him what a terrible jump shot he has,” Nate Schmidt said.

21. Thursday’s 31 Thoughts podcast includes an interview with Mark Stone. I’ve always wanted to ask him about one particular Ottawa goal of his, from an Oct. 21, 2017 game against Toronto. The Maple Leafs closed a 3-0 deficit to 3-2 at 8:34 of the third, only to have Stone score seven seconds later:

“Yeah, I was paying attention to them, I knew that they were talking about it before,” he said. “I kind of figured they were going to try that.”

So you just jumped on their play?

“I was just sitting on it, yeah…. You can kind of see them huddling together to look at plays, and for centre-ice, there’s only one or two, so you just kinda have to guess.”

Great guess.

22. Montgomery on Joe Pavelski: “He’s doing what we’ve asked him to. He makes six-to-eight great support plays per game. And he’s been carrying our power play the last four-five games.”

I’d heard Benn flew from Victoria, B.C., to Texas to meet with Pavelski when the latter visited before signing, but he laughed that off.

“I live in Dallas year-round. He came over to my house, him and his wife, (vice president, Communications & Broadcasting) Tom Holy, we had a couple of beers and talked. The next day, I was at the rink working out, we went for lunch, and I told him why he’d like it here. Obviously it worked.”

23. Montgomery is blunt. I don’t mind that, and, last year, several of his players indicated they appreciated his approach. I asked him about that in our conversation.

“Some people, it does scar them, but it’s the way I was raised,” he said. “I’ve had a better relationship with people who’ve been honest with me than with people who try to mask things.”

That reminded me of how the Flyers have responded to Alain Vigneault, who is not afraid to call out his players publicly. Two of them, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, told reporters they were okay about it because Vigneault said it to their faces first.

24. Voracek said Philadelphia’s camp was “the hardest” of his pro career. Why?

“A lot of skating,” he answered, “hard, with pace.”

In talking to various Flyers, it was foreshadowing for how they were going to play, and a major factor in their 10-5-2 start.

“We are much more aggressive,” Ivan Provorov said. “We aren’t waiting for the play to come to us.”

25. Provorov credited that for his improved play. I’ve written before about the belief his contract affected him last season, but he disputed that during an interesting soliloquy while the Flyers were in town.

“That was not a problem for me. I always knew I was going to be playing in the NHL this season. More difficult was coming from Russia to play in the USHL (as a 16-year-old), or going to WHL Brandon (one year later). At those times, I didn’t know my future. I’m just more comfortable with the way we are playing.”

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26. Matt Niskanen had a pretty funny line about the change in systems between Washington and Philadelphia.

“Teams play pretty much the same, with minor differences,” he said. “In Washington, I was supposed to get back towards the centre of the ice. There were a couple of times earlier in the season where I was doing that here, before realizing, I’m supposed to be over there!”

He plays his old team for the first time on Wednesday.

27. Finally on the Flyers: Put down Travis Sanheim as one of those players who doesn’t mind playing on his weak side.

“It gives me a better view of the ice when I come off the boards,” he said.

28. There is one player in the NHL with more than 100 minutes of ice-time who has not been scored against. It is Boston’s Par Lindholm. Jinx!

29. You know who gained a lot of respect around the NHL last week? Winnipeg’s Adam Lowry, for accepting a challenge from Ryan Reaves — upset at a hit on Alex Tuch. Reaves is out of Lowry’s weight class. But not only did the Jet agree, he more than held his own. That did not go unnoticed.

30. There’s a story Ken Holland loves telling about his mother. It was 1985, and after his eighth AHL season, he was considering the next phase of his life. Lee Holland saw a job advertisement for an Electrolux vacuum salesman and pleaded for her son to take it. He starts laughing when delivering the next line: “She told me she’d be my first sale.”

Of course, Holland passed on that career option and took a different fork in the road as a Red Wings scout. Wise choice. Thirty-five years later, he’s got four Stanley Cup rings and is on a new mission in Edmonton. The Hollands have plenty of hockey tentacles. Ken’s brother Dennis is an amateur scout for the Stars, and his son, Brad, is a pro scout in Edmonton. This week, they are mourning Lee, who passed away at age 87. All the best to the family.

31. It’s very hard to explain the seismic nature of the last 72 hours. We jokingly called Ron and Don “The Circus” when they travelled. Together, they were larger than life — I won’t work with anyone else in my career who commanded the attention and had the profile Don has. There were a few of us watching together last Saturday, and we were slack-jawed in amazement. The whole thing is sad. There are no winners. The aftershocks will continue for a long time, exacerbated by this media tour. I felt horrible for co-workers hurt by it, for viewers who felt targeted, for the ugly never-ending social media battles, for Ron, and for any career to end that way. There but for the Grace of God go I.

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