31 Thoughts: Trying to remedy the NHL’s goalie interference controversy

One week ago, we left warm-weather Tampa Bay, a sea of drunken pirates in our wake. Out came a memo on goaltender interference, asking for a return to the spirit of the rule: only “egregious” violations should result in scoring cancellations.

As Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said days later, the pendulum immediately swung from benefiting goalies to benefitting goals. The era of good feeling lasted two days.

At the All-Star meeting, it was agreed that Ryan Strome’s disallowed goal from Jan. 25 against Calgary should have counted. After all, Connor McDavid took the puck into the crease because he was trying to score, not trying to interfere.

So, when Boston ran into Jake Allen before a David Krejci goal one week later, I knew two things: it was going to count, and the Blues were going to be furious.

For once, I was right twice.

Some in the NHL love to poke at us, say we only care when controversy erupts around Auston Matthews or McDavid, or the Toronto Maple Leafs in general. Not this time. Detroit coach Jeff Blashill was furious with Florida’s game winner Saturday night, and that got national play. Hours later, Jason Demers, who was not in the lineup for Arizona, tweeted his disgust with a goal Los Angeles scored against his Coyotes.

You didn’t have to agree with either take to know we’ve arrived in a bad spot. Too many people, from Bob Boughner to Henrik Zetterberg, are saying they don’t know what’s going on and can’t predict the outcome from challenge to challenge.

That’s why there is a growing pool of GMs wondering if it is time to get rid of video review. Many of them concede they don’t believe the league wants to do that. And, according to one retired referee, it shouldn’t.

“If they get rid of the review, they are going to have to adopt the international rule,” he said, echoing a recent column by Sportsnet’s Paul Romanuk. “There are too many players going hard to the net, especially in the playoffs. You can yell at them to move, and they don’t. Eliminating the challenge won’t solve the problem.”

The International Ice Hockey Federation’s Rule 595 blows play dead if an opposing player stands in the crease, sending the ensuing face-off into the neutral zone. I can’t see the NHL wanting to adopt that idea.

Last Friday, one NHL general manager sent a note to his compatriots and some senior league officials. (Asked for comment, he texted that he intended the correspondence to be private, and declined.) But what he asked for is the best solution.

Several years ago, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety began posting videos of each decision. It was a victory for transparency, and, even though it’s a worldwide right to argue about suspensions and their consistency, it has given us a much better idea of what they are looking for.

This GM asked for a similar setup, albeit in private. Since only the situation room in Toronto and the referee on the headset know what is being discussed, he requested an email go out to the managers with video of the play and an outline of the logic in the decision. That way, they will be able to tell their coaches and players why each ruling was made.

It should happen, but it’s not the only necessary change. As much as the referees will hate to hear it (and I’m already preparing for blowback from one in particular), the final call needs to be taken out of their hands. They were promised this power, but it isn’t working. It’s silly to have them looking at iPads while Toronto has the newest technology in a rapidly expanding office.

Bonus peace-offering: Wes McCauley still gets to go viral with his calls.

But I think the biggest change has to be putting a small group of people in charge of it — similar to the player safety setup. Kris King, Rod Pasma and Kay Whitmore are often in the Situation Room for this. It could be one of them, or a former referee like Dave Jackson, who is hanging up the skates at the end of the regular season. Decrease the number of people with power to make the call, increase the consistency of the outcome.

One official said this is too much controversy for something that affects less than one per cent of goals scored. Boy do I agree. And the fix is not ridiculously complicated.

31 THOUGHTS

1. One thing to remember about the Rick Nash sweepstakes: the list might not matter. A general manager who thinks Nash may help his team and is willing to make a serious offer can always ask for permission to try and convince him. It’s happened before, but, usually, the team won’t go to the player unless it knows it wants to make that particular trade. It would surprise no one if both Nash and Michael Grabner were dealt and then went back to the Rangers in 2018-19. I can see Boston being in on Grabner. And don’t underestimate the interest in Nick Holden for depth, too.

2. Trade that might make sense only to me: something around Justin Faulk from Carolina to Detroit for Andreas Athanasiou.

3. Wrote a couple of weeks ago that teams might ask Colorado about its plans for Tyson Barrie once he returned to action. The Avalanche have some good defence prospects, including Andrei Mironov (now in the NHL), Nicolas Meloche (AHL San Antonio) and world junior gold medalists Cale Makar (NCAA UMass) and Conor Timmins (OHL Sault Ste. Marie). But none are ready for full-time duty and the Avalanche are making the second-most surprising run of the season, after Vegas. For that reason, I think they keep him — unless someone stuns them with an offer for a forward.

4. A few tweeters from Vancouver wondered about a discussion from our 31 Thoughts podcast about a GM who is unhappy with the toll the job takes on his family. They asked if it was Jim Benning. It wasn’t, but it’s something he has publicly admitted. This is an interesting time for the Canucks. Trevor Linden is supportive of his GM, but it’s clear ownership is waiting for…something. They asked the Sedins for some clarity about next season by the deadline, but that is unlikely. They are taking a run at re-signing Erik Gudbranson, but it will be interesting to see if both team and agent are on the same page. Among those whose value they are testing: Ben Hutton and Anders Nilsson. Hutton is due $2.8 million next year, Nilsson $300,000 less.

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5. Toronto is at the maximum 50 contracts, which is not where you want to be approaching the deadline. As Nick Kypreos reported last weekend, Josh Leivo asked for a trade. He made it clear he prefers to stay and play, but I think Kasperi Kapanen’s call-up was the last straw for him.

It’s tough when you are on the roster all year, then passed by someone else. Some people were wondering if he made a mistake signing an extension for next season, rather than going to unrestricted free agency. I’d say no, because he probably settles for a two-way contract instead of the one-way he did get. Also likely: Nikita Soshnikov, since he is no longer waiver exempt and there is no way he goes unclaimed. The concussion scared some, but there is definitely interest. Teams have said in the past Toronto has asked a higher-than-expected price for both players. I also think the Maple Leafs would keep money to help Matt Martin find a new home. No doubt they have checked with the Islanders.

6. Calgary is getting asked about 2017 first-rounder Juuso Valimaki, but that’s not happening.

7. When I first started covering baseball, Hall-of-Famer Bob Elliott told me he always looked to see if two or more different scouts from the same organization showed up to watch one particular team right before the trade deadline. Both Columbus and Pittsburgh did it last week with Buffalo.

8. There were some rumblings about Ryan O’Reilly, but those were shot down by multiple sources. GM Jason Botterill witnessed Pittsburgh overpower teams down the middle, and if the Sabres lose O’Reilly they do not have an in-house replacement. And when uberprospect Casey Mittelstadt is ready, isn’t he better off with both O’Reilly and Jack Eichel there?

9. We’ve been patiently chronicling every potential add for Pittsburgh at centre from Derick Brassard to Mark Letestu to Jean-Gabriel Pageau to Tomas Plekanec to Derek Ryan and more. Depending on what Minnesota would like to do, would anyone be surprised if the answer turned out to be Matt Cullen?

10. As Marc-Andre Fleury returned to Pittsburgh, I was reminded of the fact that he once said his greatest practical joke was leaving a year-end team party to hide a dead fish in then-teammate Ryan Whitney’s new car. Whitney sheepishly admitted it took him almost a week to locate the offending stench.

11. Three others to keep an eye on: Chicago needs cap relief. With Brandon Saad dropped down the lineup, wonder if they look to give him a fresh start somewhere else. Another who fits the same profile is Boone Jenner of Columbus. He’s shooting 4.4 per cent, by far the worst of his career.

I’m wary of giving up on unlucky players, but the Blue Jackets have major contractual decisions to make and he’s up after this season. He’s arbitration-eligible, too. Arizona’s Tobias Rieder is another arbitration-eligible player. His numbers are down and he was a healthy scratch on Tuesday, but there’s more there. Not sure those are in-season moves, but they stick out to me.

12. Quote of the week is from Steve Yzerman, asked what he learned about his team without Victor Hedman: “I like our team better when he’s healthy.”

13. The Lightning are going through a rough stretch, tortured Monday by Connor McDavid’s four-goal game. Since the calendar flipped to 2018, Tampa Bay’s power play is 28th (15 per cent) and penalty kill 18th (76.6). They were first and 24th, respectively, from the start of the season until New Year’s Eve. (The penalty kill may be higher in the rankings, but the percentage actually dropped.)

They are still very, very good and one of the few teams with enough assets to do almost anything. Yzerman never tips his hand, but will do what it takes to make them better. I was talking about this with a GM the other day: is there a single available difference-maker Tampa would not be able to trade for?

14. Yzerman was complimentary of Slater Koekkoek, who got an opportunity when Hedman went down. “He acquitted himself really well,” Tampa’s GM said. “You can see he’s getting more comfortable.” There’s been a bit of interest in him (Ottawa, for one) and we’ll see where it goes.

15. Guess there were a few NHL teams watching Ottawa’s Max Veronneau pick up three assists for NCAA Princeton last week at Quinnipiac.

16. It is not always easy to rank Nashville’s defencemen for the Norris. During All-Star weekend, I asked Predators coach Peter Laviolette who he would vote for. This, of course, went nowhere. “Is that a serious question?” he answered, with a laugh. “Do you really expect me to answer that?…That’s why I like it when I’m asked to vote and not allowed to choose my own players.”

17. Anaheim head coach Randy Carlyle delivered a message of discipline prior to Monday’s loss in Toronto. The Ducks have been shorthanded more often than any other team, but it’s not unusual for them — nor is it something they’ve historically cared a ton about. They led the league last season, too, and were second in 2015-16. They weren’t scared of driving you through the boards and into the Pacific Ocean if they felt it would soften you up.

But, in talking to the players, they mention the kinds of penalties. In losses to Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto they received: three for hooking and interference; two for slashing and tripping; one apiece for delay of game, goaltender interference, high-sticking, roughing and too many men. That’s not exactly intimidating. They’re not making you pay for the opportunities.

18. The Predators were angry about Filip Forsberg’s three-game suspension — none more than Mike Fisher on Twitter. But the Ducks felt it was fair, not seeing much difference from the hit that got Andrew Cogliano banned for two games.

19. Opponents can see that Ryan Kesler is really gutting it out.

20. Very interesting take from one head coach on the Michael Frolik mistake that started Vegas’s ridiculous comeback in Calgary last week: “Twenty years ago, he throws it off the glass into a safe place and Calgary wins the game,” he said. “Now, no one is allowed to throw it off the glass.”

21. Some of my favourite draft stories involve smaller players, and the lengths teams will go in trying to figure if there is any growth spurt on the horizon. An NHL team (which admitted it under the condition I not say who it is) drafted one such player after meeting the rest of his family.

Add Boston’s Danton Heinen to the list. They took him as a 19-year-old, unranked by Central Scouting, from BCHL Surrey. Heinen wasn’t the size he is now, but legend has it some of the Bruins’ staff shook his father’s hand and noticed how big it was. Boston liked his skill/hockey sense, and took a fourth-round bet that he’d fill out a bit. That one worked out nicely.

22. From Daren Millard: the Islanders wake up Wednesday with 58 points, tied with Columbus for the East’s second wild card. They are last in goals-against average, at 3.63. The last team to make the post-season despite being worst in this category: the 1987-88 Los Angeles Kings. About time someone else did it.

23. Downloaded Downhills Don’t Come Free, written by Jerry Holl. It’s a fun read about the author, a husband and father who quit his job in May 2012 to cycle from Alaska to Mexico. At the time, son Justin was 20, a Blackhawks’ draftee finishing his sophomore year at the University of Minnesota. Last week, almost six years after the life-changing experience, Jerry watched Justin score in the latter’s first and second NHL games.

Holl, an emergency call-up, went back to AHL Toronto when the Maple Leafs got healthy, but graciously answered a couple of texted questions about his father’s experience through a team spokesman. First, how much did Jerry’s decision to quit his job and live a dream influence your own route?

“It definitely had an impact on me,” he wrote. “Mostly just the general theme of you can do way more than you think, and if you want to do something, just go out and do it.”

I followed by asking what his favourite part of his father’s journey was, and he referred to a bike crash late in the story. “Again, it’s the theme of no matter how strong you are, how well-prepared you are, things always have the potential to go wrong, but you have to ask yourself is it a big thing or a little thing? Overall, most of the problems you have in life are little things.” Great advice, and a highly recommended read.

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24. I was waiting to pay for lunch at Whole Foods when David Nemirovsky stepped up and introduced himself. Now 41, he played 94 games for the Florida Panthers from 1996-99, but kept his career alive in Russia until 2014. Born in Toronto to parents who left the former Soviet Union, Nemirovsky suffered a concussion during the 2010-11 season, returning to North America because he felt care would be better. But he wanted to end on his own terms and worked to come back, which he did for 16 games in 2013-14.

One year later, he was offered a job in one of the more remote KHL outposts, Vladivostok Admiral. Located near Russia’s borders with China and North Korea, running that team is a challenge because it is a lower-budget club and the geography means lengthy road trips. “It’s a pretty nice city,” he said. “The rink is brand new, the people are nice, the bridges remind you of San Francisco, as they were built for (the Eastern Economic Forum).” He said Jonathan Blum, who will play for Team USA at the Olympics, did very well there because he was willing to embrace the region.

25. Nemirovsky was hired as an assistant GM, with additional responsibilities on the bench. His role kept increasing, eventually running the forward lines. Admiral reached the playoffs in 2016 and 2017, losing in the first round both times. This year, they are in trouble. There have been three coaching changes and the general manager was let go, too.

“I was offered the GM job, but said no,” Nemirovsky says. “It isn’t a good situation there. But I enjoy learning and it was a great experience. The mentality is totally different back there — Eddie Shore, yell at them, put them down, not the way I believed. Our coaches were more forward thinking, but we did get some pressure to be more (old school). We had success the other way.” He says he has some “stuff on the table” back in the KHL, but is looking for other opportunities before making that decision.

One-time teammate Robert Esche runs AHL Utica, and Nemirovsky went to that league’s All-Star Weekend to network. “I have a lot to learn and am interested in any hockey job I can get. I wouldn’t close the door on coaching or management.” In the meantime, he’s watching son Easton learn to skate and play. “He seems way more aggressive than I was,” Nemirovsky laughs. “I don’t want to push him, just have fun. My dad says he’s better than I was.”

26. Being in Vladivostok allowed him to see the “smaller” Vladimir Tkachev up close. That’s the one who signed with Edmonton in 2014, only to have the contract voided because he was still draft-eligible. Does Nemirovsky think he can eventually make the jump back? “Now, I think he can. Ask me a year ago, maybe not, because he did not get the other side of the game. With the puck, he’s unbelievable. Not with it, he wasn’t there. But, towards the end, he was becoming a different player. He’s still young (22), and if it goes the way it went last year, he can do it. He needs to get stronger and he knows it. Another year.”

27. One of the Olympic hockey subplots will be Ilya Kovalchuk. Unlike last summer, when New Jersey held his rights, he is unrestricted this time. And, if he comes back to the NHL, it is believed his eyes are on New York.

28. There are interviews you remember. One came late in the 2014-15 season, a nightmare year for the Buffalo Sabres. Down 3-1 to Toronto, they came back to win 4-3. I interviewed Mike Weber after that game, and the next day, Doug MacLean told me he was struck by how passionate the defenceman was about winning in a year the organization was tanking.

“I do remember that,” Weber said Monday, one week after a knee injury ended his professional career. “I’m a kid from Beaver County, PA, half an hour out of Pittsburgh. Told I’d never make it, I worked hard to make it. I took such pride in the jersey. I cared so much, I was willing to die — for a lack of a better word — to represent the organization properly. Every single guy cared so much that year…everyone wants to be on a winner and we understood what the organization was trying to do. They got (Jack) Eichel, and he’s a huge part of what they will be. But our jobs were on the line, our careers were on the line. We took pride in the emblem, but it tested a lot of the players. It definitely made me stronger.”

29. Taken 57th overall in the 2006 Draft, Weber played 351 NHL games with Buffalo and Washington. He spent 2016-17 at AHL Iowa, and started this season with Frolunda in the Swedish league.

“I was hurt last year, but trained all off-season to give it another shot,” he said. “I love hockey and would do whatever to keep playing. But the knee couldn’t hold up. I couldn’t battle and compete like I had to.”

Weber missed the birth of his second child after being traded to Washington. The boy was born earlier than expected, and he couldn’t get back to Buffalo on time. He and wife Janine are expecting their third child in March, and were prepared to do it overseas. “She told me, ‘You did all you can do, gave it everything you had. Let’s go home.’”

Best memory? “Hearing my name called at the draft, walking down to the floor, seeing Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff, telling them, ‘I won’t let you guys down, I will do my best to be here.’ Getting the phone call to make my NHL debut, after only nine AHL games. My third year, I played the whole year in the minors. That reminded me nothing is easy, nothing is given and you have to keep grinding to be better.” He paused. “I was always appreciative of opportunity. I left it all out there and have no regrets. It was a fun ride.”

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30. Weber played junior at OHL Windsor and is thrilled Trevor Letowski offered a role in his coaching staff. It is a career he intends to pursue. “The last few years, I’ve been writing down things I liked. At Iowa, it was almost a player/coach role, helping out with penalty kill meetings and making sure younger players knew what to expect.” Maybe someday he will cross paths again with the young man who sat next to him in the Frolunda dressing room. That was likely number one draft pick Rasmus Dahlin. “Great kid. You guys will all find that out pretty shortly.”

31. When I first broke into the business covering the Toronto Raptors for The Fan in Toronto, Jim Christie occasionally worked the beat for The Globe and Mail. Jim made his name as one of Canada’s great amateur sports reporters, and basketball was a little out of his comfort zone.

I was new and learning, and he was really the first established veteran to ask me questions about some of the things he needed to know. It was flattering in a small way, and Jim repaid with good advice and the professionalism he was known for. There were a couple of times I called him at his desk, and he would answer with a kind of crescendo, “This…is…Jim Christie!” I always laughed at that. Jim died last week at age 65. He will be missed and I always appreciated his help.