31 Thoughts: Is Vegas thinking about re-visiting Erik Karlsson deal?

Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

I don’t have much of a rooting interest for one team over another, but, watching the hilarious videos of the Capitals storming through Washington serves as a vivid reminder of something I wish to witness — a Canadian Stanley Cup victory.

Never covered one, so I don’t care which team it is. Just want to see the celebration, and how it compares to this.

The ringleader is Alex Ovechkin, the captain and Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

Prior to this victory, with all of the debate about his legacy, it was easy to forget Ovechkin’s popularity at the beginning of his career. He was Washington’s leading scorer by almost 50 points, he beat out Sidney Crosby for the Calder Trophy and, even though English was not his first language, he threw himself into interviews as best he could. He was not afraid, on the ice or off.

It took one informal skate for Olaf Kolzig to proclaim Ovechkin the real deal. Kolzig was notoriously careful with praise for young players, but this was something special.

“We didn’t have a lot of big names,” said Jeff Halpern, the captain in that 2005-06 season. “We were journeymen … good players, but nothing at his level. We were basically eliminated from the playoffs in October, but he gave us a little bit of hope, a belief the team would move in the right direction.”

Halpern was injured, but on the trip when Ovechkin scored the signature goal of his rookie season — a twisting, falling, blind backhand past Arizona’s Brian Boucher.

“We were in Anaheim the game before, and he had a hat trick to beat the Ducks,” the 976-game NHLer recalled with a laugh. “We had a couple days off, so we asked the coaches for a bit of a longer rope. We were going to have our rookie dinner. That year, Brendan Witt was at the end of his contract. The whole night, whenever he tried to talk, we drowned him out with ‘one more year.’ He couldn’t even speak.”

“When Ovie scored that goal, Witt was on the ice. When they huddled up, I heard Ovie yelled ‘one more year’ at him. That was [Ovechkin]. He just wanted to fit in and be part of the group.”

After the season, worried their star wouldn’t say no to any request, the organization dialled it back. When a young player gets that much attention, there can be jealousy, but that first year, it wasn’t a problem.

“Michael Farber [from Sports Illustrated] came to do a story on him, and interviewed Halpern for awhile,” said Nate Ewell, who handled day-to-day media relations from 2005-2011. “After it was over, I asked Jeff, ‘Is it too much?’ He replied, ‘Absolutely not. He’s way better than anyone and he deserves it.’”

Everybody’s got an opinion on when it started to change. Was it the 2009 loss to Pittsburgh? The 2010 Olympic crushing in Canada? Sochi 2014? Pittsburgh 2017? The fire stick? You name it, someone’s got a theory. When you’re the star, and you make the most money, you get the credit. But you also take the heat.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the low moment might have been April 2, 2014.

The night before, down 3-0 at home to Dallas, Ovechkin gave up on a backcheck, allowing Ray Whitney to set up Dustin Jeffrey for a score – Future Cup teammate Alex Chiasson was on the ice at the time, too.

At a team meeting the next morning, a few teammates blasted Ovechkin. I heard rumours a few weeks later, and asked Barry Trotz about it when he became coach. He wouldn’t discuss it, although it was clear he knew it happened, and neither would any players.

It was a nasty, painful tongue-lashing — and Ovechkin didn’t defend himself.

(The story I’ve heard is that he didn’t say anything because he was so upset that he “forgot his English.”)

In the aftermath of that incident, the organization decided two things: It would demand more of its captain, while surrounding him with accountable but encouraging players.

That was the summer Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik were signed, with Orpik, in particular, becoming a major, behind-the-scenes positive force. T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams followed.

“Whether you want to admit it or not, Ovie evolved” one former teammate said. “Look at all the other things he does so well now.”

It should not go unnoticed that, four years after that internal meltdown, Ovechkin may have saved Game 5 with a brilliant backcheck on a Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s shorthanded breakaway. Ovechkin cleanly picked his pocket from behind, not even allowing a shot.

Hall-of-Famer Mike Bossy, working the series for French-language TVA, said, “Hard work beats skill, but when elite skill works hard, you can’t beat that.”

Still, there was the painful Pittsburgh defeat of last May.

When the Capitals won last week, I thought of Ewell. His time with Ovechkin coincided with my time as a Hockey Night in Canada sideline reporter. I would interview the Great Eight, and he’d be there. Friend and protector, as Sergey Kocharov is now.

“It was real emotional, seeing him win,” Ewell said. “It was something I always thought would happen, but probably last summer started to think it might happen somewhere else.”

A trade?

“Not now,” he answered, “But maybe at the end of his contract, that’s when he goes and wins the Cup like Ray Bourque. I never had any doubt it would happen, he’s that good and that driven. I didn’t buy for a second that he was washed up. That’s the thing people never got … how much he wanted to win. …

“I lost it when Ovechkin lifted the Cup. And it was worse when he lifted it with [Nicklas] Backstrom.”

Ewell compared the Capitals beating Pittsburgh to the Boston Red Sox beating the New York Yankees in 2004.

Two weeks after that monumental comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship Series, the Sox ended an 84-year World Series drought with a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals.

It wasn’t that simple for Washington, but it makes a lot of sense. Both teams breathed much easier after eliminating a rival that tormented them mercilessly.

“I figured Ovie would score 60 next year with the weight off him,” Ewell laughed. “He would play with joy again. But watching those videos, he might be too hungover.”

And the party hasn’t even reached Russia yet.

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31 THOUGHTS

1. Let’s empty the Stanley Cup notebook before we go around the league, starting with Niskanen on Trotz: “It was February or March, I can’t remember exactly when. But he told us the reason we always lose to Pittsburgh is because we let little guys like Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust win battles against us. I don’t know if that stayed with anyone else, but it sure stuck with me.”

2. Trotz reportedly made $1.5M last season. Coach salaries aren’t public, but, from what I understand, that is lower than anyone currently under contract who has won a Stanley Cup.

Anaheim’s Randy Carlyle is believed to be around $2 million. Peter Laviolette and John Tortorella are believed to be in the mid-twos. Dan Bylsma (still under contract to Buffalo) and Mike Sullivan are three-ish. Darryl Sutter’s last deal was $3.5 million. Claude Julien’s contract has been publicly reported at five, while Mike Babcock and Joe Quenneville are over six.

The even-better news for Trotz is that the numbers go up the more recently you win. During the Final, GM Brian MacLellan said there was plenty of time to sort this out before the coach’s contract ends July 1, and both said all the right things during the celebration. Sometime after the parade, we will truly see where we are.

It’s rumoured that, after ugly losses in Nashville and Colorado on Nov. 14-16, he was facing the coaching guillotine with a home defeat Nov. 18 against Minnesota, but the Capitals won 3-1, taking 11 of the next 14.

He, along with several of his players, marvelled at how their luck changed from playoffs past, starting with Game 3 in Columbus. Cam Atkinson hit the crossbar, inches away from putting the Blue Jackets up 3-0. Later, the puck pinballs off Lars Eller for the double-overtime winner.

“If neither of those things happens,” one Capital said, “we aren’t here right now.”

If you are looking for more insight into Trotz, when he did some studio work for Hockey Night in Canada several years ago, he presented us with a copy of Fearless, by Eric Blehm. Trotz said it resonated with him for two reasons: Faith, which is important to him and his family, and the idea that people have layers to them.

“What you see at the beginning is not often the full picture.”

3. It’s well known that Orpik pressed for Oshie to be re-signed last summer. MacLellan agreed, saying the winger’s positive attitude was essential.

Asked about it, Oshie said, “I just don’t understand negativity.”

What makes you angry? Oshie thought about it a little.

“People who don’t treat the trainers well. People who get out of the way instead of blocking shots. Selfish things like that.”

4. Prior to joining Washington, Oshie was in St. Louis, another historically strong organization that hasn’t climbed the mountain.

Asked if he saw any similarities between the Blues and Capitals, he replied, “I thought we had a great team in 2015. Just as good as this one. The difference between then and now is we couldn’t score when it mattered and we are getting the saves.”

That St. Louis club finished fourth overall with 109 points and lost 4-2 to Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs.

5. Two years ago, coming off a post-season where he scored two points in 12 games, Evgeny Kuznetsov sat in the interview room before the World Cup of Hockey. He pointed to his head and said, “What I have to fix is in here.”

The day before the Capitals clinched, two of his veteran teammates said they were very surprised.

“I have never, ever seen that to be a problem,” Jay Beagle said.

“I’m not sure about that,” Orpik added. “To me, it’s all about how hard he comes back. You come back with speed, you turn up ice with speed. Look at the series-winning goal against Pittsburgh. Perfect example.”

Whatever the case, Kuznetsov was spectacular.

One habit: he never looks at his shifts.

Even when you play this well?

“No,” he smiled. “Because I’m always thinking, ‘You could have done this, or I could have tried it this way.’ I know when I’m good … or when I’m not good. I’m better at forgetting now when I’m not good.”

6. Beagle is an unrestricted free agent, and centres are hard to find.

He stayed three years ago, but it was tight.

Make no mistake, his teammates love the guy. After he blocked a shot and hurt his foot, he explained that he never removes his skate until the game is over.

“I learned that the hard way in 2012. I took the skate off, and couldn’t get it back on.”

That was on an Anton Stralman shot, forcing Beagle to miss Games 6 and 7 of a second-round loss to the Rangers.

“So, if there’s any doubt, I never remove it in the intermission.”

7. One Capital skated in the optional between Games 3 and 4 — Jakub Vrana. Asked why, he replied, “I hope it’s good luck.”

It took an extra few days, but he was rewarded with a beautiful goal in Game 5.

8. Speaking of lucky (or unlucky) bounces, the NHL has tracked posts hit since 2010. The Vegas Golden Knights pinged three in both Games 3 and 4. That ties the most in any Cup Final game.

9. What comes next in Vegas will be fascinating. They’ve got a ton of cap room, a boatload of flexibility and players from all over the league asking their agents about going there. It’s a destination.

Gerard Gallant’s reputation for being a players’ coach is growing, too, with Reilly Smith saying he’s never had someone “with a shorter memory.”

Beagle praised them as “a team built on hard work.” Can that happen again? Or will the business of the sport seep in now that some will be paid and some won’t be?

A Marc-Andre Fleury extension seems certain. After him? Well, the biggest contract they’ve given out so far is Jonathan Marchessault’s $5 million. That puts him right in line with Smith (although that deal was done by Florida) and just under Tomas Tatar’s $5.3 million (signed in Detroit).

If UFAs James Neal and David Perron want to stay, you have to assume the club wants them in that area. Same for William Karlsson. He’s arbitration eligible, but two years from unrestricted free agency. Even with the Game 4 healthy scratch, Perron may be kept on a shorter-term deal.

10. The Golden Knights came close to acquiring Erik Karlsson at the deadline. After seeing how the Capitals locked down the neutral zone and point men in the final, you can see how they might revisit something like this.

Word is one of the biggest hang-ups at the end was Cody Glass, drafted sixth overall last June. Vegas didn’t want to include him.

The Knights have just one pick in the top three rounds (a second), and since they’re still creating a prospect pool, a Karlsson deal could be very tricky. It’s why they’re being linked to John Carlson, because he only costs you money.

11. For those of you praying for the chaos and carnage of offer sheets, here are this year’s thresholds, along with the draft picks that must be surrendered as compensation if the original team doesn’t match.

Remember: you must use your own original picks, not those acquired from somewhere else.

Offer Sheet (AAV) Compensation
$1,339,575 or below None
Over $1,339,575 to $2,029,59 3rd
Over $2,029,59 to $4,059,322 2nd
Over $4,059,322 to $6,088,980 1st, 3rd
Over $6,088,980 to $8,118,641 1st, 2nd, 3rd
Over $8,118,641 to $10,148,302 (2) 1st, 2nd, 3rd
Over $10,148,302 (4) 1st

Personally, I believe we are getting closer to the day it happens, but my prime pick for 2018, Mark Stone, seems less likely because Ottawa has a ton of cap room. The league average salary for 2017-18 was $3,115,115 — up 3.4 per cent from last season. And, NHL teams have the option to walk away from a salary arbitration award at $4,222,941 or more.

12. The NHLPA hopes to let the league know by June 18 how much it will raise the salary cap for 2018-19.

The league indicated the limit will be between $78-$82 million, with the players having the option to raise the ceiling by up to five per cent.

It has done the max every year but two. The first was 2006, because the cap went up 13 per cent. The second was last summer, because of high escrow. Last year’s percentage was 1.35, which bumped the number $2 million.

13. Twenty-three years ago, as I prepared to cover my first NBA draft, inaugural Raptors GM Isiah Thomas warned: “Around the draft, everybody lies. Remember that.”

We’re still a couple of weeks away from most teams getting serious about their offers to move around in the draft.

Buffalo isn’t moving. Carolina GM Don Waddell indicated the Hurricanes will likely stay put, and they probably will, but this is a new regime and we are still learning its true approach. We know owner Tom Dundon is unafraid to think differently – I’m curious to see if we get a surprise.

If Carolina decides to stay put, the draft starts with Montreal. GM Marc Bergevin is looking for centres and defencemen, telling anyone who will ask that the players they need are only available here.

We’ve all heard the rumours about his interest in Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi, but there are teams who believe he’s really interested in one of the top blue-liners. So he’s got everyone guessing, which is the idea. If Bergevin wishes, he can trade down a little and still get what he wants.

I’m not sure about Ottawa and Arizona, although, at some point, I imagine Senators GM Pierre Dorion will ask Colorado if there’s something he can do to erase the stipulation that he must give one of his next two first-rounders to the Avalanche. You have to assume the price would be high.

I don’t think Detroit is moving, barring an offer that gives them great assets for their rebuild. After that sixth pick, teams willing to move are Vancouver (at seven), Edmonton (at 10) and possibly the Islanders (11 and/or 12).

(Addendum to the Thomas warning: One year later, he me told six weeks before the draft he was going to pick Marcus Camby. Gave me the scoop. I didn’t believe him. He took Camby. I said, “I thought everyone lies.” He gave that million-dollar smile and said, “That time, I told the truth.” I could only laugh.)

14. I do think Montreal is a stealth destination for unrestricted free-agent-to-be Jack Johnson.

15. There were reports Montreal began some preliminary discussions with Max Pacioretty, who is one season away from unrestricted free agency. There’s a serious sense that those brief discussions are being prompted by other teams curious to hear what the winger is looking for on an extension.

A sign-and-trade makes a lot of sense for the Canadiens, too, as cost certainty makes him more valuable. Technically, he can’t sign a new contract until July 1, but there can be a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” verbal agreement.

Somehow, Los Angeles is going to add scoring, and I can see the Kings being one of the clubs involved. Evander Kane’s seven-year, $49-million extension is good news for James van Riemsdyk, Pacioretty and maybe even the Penguins and Phil Kessel – you can certainly see a team considering the four years and $6.8-million AAV remaining for Kessel rather than something like Kane’s commitment, and the Penguins might be willing to eat money, too.

16. The Kings have been linked to Jeff Skinner. Enter Florida in that market. The Panthers, who narrowly missed the playoffs after a late-season charge, are looking to add.

17. I have a theory on Dundon: when he said everyone was available (except Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas), his real goal was to learn the trade value of all the players.

Carolina’s going to make some moves, but isn’t trading 18 guys. Dundon’s new. He wants to know how everyone else thinks and how the league works.

18.Trade that might only make sense to me: Scott Darling for Marian Hossa, with the Hurricanes keeping money on the goalie.

Blackhawks clear cap room and gain security if Corey Crawford is unavailable. Carolina can go elsewhere in net and save actual dollars.

I have been told that the league isn’t thrilled with the idea of Hossa being used as a trade chip, but the Blackhawks need the room.

19. There’s a chance the changes in Carolina may mean the end of Glen Wesley’s time there, too.

The defenceman, who played 1,457 NHL games, joined the old Hartford Whalers in 1994, and has been with them ever since, minus a seven-game stint in Toronto.

After retiring in 2008, he moved into player development and has been there since. However, another former Hurricane may be returning, as Jeff Daniels is under consideration to join the coaching staff.

Daniels joined the organization in 1995, staying until 2015 as a player, NHL assistant and AHL bench boss and has been on the scouting staff since then.

20. After his Game 5 scratch versus Nashville, Tobias Enstrom let Winnipeg know he won’t be returning. The Jets/Thrashers are the only franchise he’s known during his NHL career, but it’s time for a change.

There have been some talks between the team and Paul Stastny, but it doesn’t sound too in-depth. As Winnipeg prepares to pay the price for good drafting/development plus success, I wonder about someone like Mathieu Perreault. He might be at a number the Jets can’t afford. You have to think there’d be interest.

21. Mike Hoffman is very much in play for Ottawa. The ask is high.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Senators tried to recoup some draft picks. They have two firsts, but no second- or third-rounder.

22. We’re dealing with some verbal semantics when it comes to Milan Lucic in Edmonton.

I’d heard rumours he’d asked for a trade, but that was denied. However, it’s clear he and the Oilers are working together to gauge interest. It doesn’t look like an easy trade to make without taking back a big contract, but the team seems confident there will be a fit.

23. Pittsburgh has shown legit interest in Max Domi – there’s a long history between Tie Domi and Mario Lemieux.

Toronto is looking for a third-line centre, Tampa Bay a right-shot defenceman.

I’m curious to see what the Rangers do with Vladislav Namestnikov. He’s arbitration eligible, and the numbers are very good.

24. Another very interesting arbitration case: Devante Smith-Pelly. Seven goals in the regular season, seven big ones in the playoffs.

Two years ago, the Capitals signed Brett Connolly to an $850,000 contract. He scored 15 goals, and was rewarded at two years and $3 million total. Smith-Pelly is one year from unrestricted free agency, and those numbers are too low for him.

I wasn’t surprised to hear he had to give up soccer to concentrate on hockey, with the great plays made by his feet to create his goals.

25. Oshie signed his eight-year extension last summer at age 30 and rewarded the Capitals with an impactful season.

He was a physical force in the final, with his Forsberg-esque reverse hits taking a toll on Colin Miller in particular.

Seeing that makes you wonder the impact it will have on Wayne Simmonds’ future. The powerful winger played hurt, still scored 24 goals and turns 30 in August. He’s also one year away from free agency.

Simmonds is a great teammate – the only complaint I’ve ever heard about him is that he can’t put on weight, a problem I’d love to have.

In a sporting world that’s becoming more and more ageist, Oshie’s performance is good news for comparables like Simmonds.

26.The market for Philipp Grubauer starts with Carolina and the Islanders. We’ll see if it grows from there.

27. Others believed to be out there: Anthony Duclair and Tomas Jurco from Chicago; Minnesota’s Tyler Ennis.

28. Coaching stuff: It’s expected Lindy Ruff will stay with David Quinn in New York.

There are rumblings Dan Bylsma may return somewhere as an assistant coach if he’s not on the Islanders’ radar. A logical spot would be Detroit, since he and Jeff Blashill just worked together at the World Championships.

We’re all wondering about Trotz and the Islanders. Lou Lamoriello is a DJ Smith fan, too.

There’s little doubt Jacques Lemaire will join Lamoriello in New York, and I’m wondering if he suggests Michel Therrien for some kind of role. His teams tend to start well when he arrives.

29. It’s believed assistant GM Mike Futa — linked to almost every job opening in existence — signed an extension with Los Angeles.

Mark Hunter, involved in almost as many rumours, has been linked to Detroit, Montreal and the Islanders. We’ll see. He’s (officially) unavailable until July 15.

30. Word at the combine was Netflix is out, Fortnite is in. This is all Jeff Marek’s fault.

31. Years from now, when we’re all gossiping over Mahjong at the retirement homes, I hope we look back at the last 12 months as a time hockey changed for the better.

I’m not talking as much about the play, but the presentation.

When the puck drops, it’s about the game, and it always should be about the game, but the celebrations around it are going to a new level, and it needs to happen even if future sites don’t include Nashville and Las Vegas.

Some things might not work, but we shouldn’t be afraid to try – I’m told Hockey Operations wouldn’t allow fire on the ice, which is probably a good call. (For example, if Toronto ever gets in, I want to see Drake sitting on the CN Tower – for real.)

As a reporter, the last two Cup finals have been among the best things I’ve covered because they were fun and different. I think the fans and players liked it, too.

Sometimes, we confuse personality for selfishness. That’s wrong. Yes, the lines can blur on a person-to-person basis, but it’s time hockey allowed its players to show themselves on social media, to wear something stylish but different to the rink, to step out from its conservative nature.

If you really want to sell and grow the game, that matters to the “reality generation.” And, I’d bet that the vast majority of players who took advantage would still be serious and competitive when it mattered.

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