31 Thoughts: What’s next for Benn, Seguin and the Dallas Stars?

HC analyst Brian Burke weighs in on Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites’ comments about the club’s top players, says he was definitely offside, but you can’t just let the Seguin and Benn off the hook, as they have underachieved.

• The Edmonton Oilers likely aren’t done dealing
• Alexander Edler‘s future a big question in Vancouver
• Ottawa arena deal in the spotlight this month

Let’s begin the first blog of 2019 by wrapping up the biggest story from the end of 2018 — the Dallas Stars.

Owner Tom Gaglardi was at home in British Columbia when CEO Jim Lites criticized Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin to local reporters. He is now in Texas. According to a couple of sources, Gaglardi met face-to-face with Benn on Monday and is supposed to meet with Seguin Wednesday. (He would not comment.)

The conversation was intended to clear the air, indicating that the organization stood behind its message that the two players needed to be better — but recognized the delivery went over a cliff. It was too personal and too graphic. After the hammer came the velvet glove, some cold water on a blazing fire.

Lites’ comments reverberated through the sport like a 9.9 earthquake. Benn and Seguin were stunned, although they knew the organization was unhappy with the way things were trending. Both players received advice on how to respond, ranging from “no one can criticize anything you say, because you were dragged into this” to “don’t let anyone think they got to you.”

Coming from Boston, Seguin knew how to handle it. Benn is different. Sometimes we mistake quiet for weak. Publicly, Benn is quiet, but he is definitely not weak. He doesn’t have a great poker face; his emotions come right to the surface. He was furious, and it showed.

“I don’t play for (Lites),” he said last Saturday. “I play for every player in this room, the coaching staff…I am proud to be a Dallas Star and I am proud to go out and battle with these guys in games.”

That was a great response. There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t hated a boss at one time. It’s not an excuse to do a bad job. It also doesn’t mean things won’t heal with time. Dallas is a great place to play.

Besides, Brian Burke and I didn’t talk for a year, now we sit next to each other. (It was all his fault.)

That said, there’s something…off…between Benn and the Stars, a rumbling that they haven’t been happy with his play for the last season-and-a-half. When going, he’s an unstoppable rhino. But, as one coach said last week, “We tell our guys not to rile him up.” As a guy who has been criticized before, I loathe anyone thinking that their criticism makes me do my job better. Undoubtedly, Benn and Seguin want no part of that narrative, either. You don’t get to where they are without your own drive and desire to do so. The Stars, however, could not afford the status quo.

Twice in the past two weeks, head coach Jim Montgomery has been angry at the concentration level during morning skates. In a 3-1 loss to the Islanders on Dec. 23, the Stars apparently had four scoring chances.

For me, the biggest part of the story was the “why.” Why would an organization do this? If you grew up in the Harold Ballard or George Steinbrenner eras, you saw it all the time. But now? So rare. Burke wondered why not just bench them. They answer is simple: the Stars need them in their lineup, at their best.

Dallas simply cannot afford to be post-season barren for a third straight year. The payroll is more than $85 million in cash, one of the highest in the NHL. According to several sources, they are 23rd in the NHL in ticket revenue. That’s a bad combination. It can’t be a coincidence that the comments came four days before it was announced the Stars will host next year’s Winter Classic. They can’t have a playoff miss ruin the lead-up to that.

It is a critical time for the franchise.

Both Benn and Seguin have protection in their contracts, so they control their destinies. Gaglardi did say last week in a statement that this was not about trading either player, or firing GM Jim Nill. The Stars beat Detroit and lost to Montreal in overtime in the first two games afterwards, so three of a possible four points is a good start.

But, one thing is clear, no matter how the message was delivered: if they don’t make the playoffs, there will be consequences.

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31 THOUGHTS

1. Some more on the Stars: it was correctly pointed out in several places that the team is much more successful when Benn and Seguin are on the ice. At five-on-five, the Stars outscore opponents 24-11 with them, and are outscored 50-39 without them.

This reminds me of a Garry Galley story. We were doing a playoff series and someone was struggling to score. He said he was getting chances, though. When we went out after the game, Galley said he once saw Harry Sinden tell Cam Neely the Bruins needed him to get going. Neely said he was getting his chances, just couldn’t finish. Sinden replied (paraphrase), “Hey, I don’t pay you to get chances. I pay you to score.”

2. There will be more from Barry Trotz later in the blog, but last weekend I asked him about a comparison between this situation in Dallas and last season in Washington, where it became clear he was not the preferred long-term coaching choice.

“I would say to (Benn and Seguin) that the most important thing is you focus on how you play, not what people perceive you to be,” he answered. “Don’t be defined by this. It’s a tough one, because what was said is hurtful to you, so it’s hard to enjoy playing. But you have to take your anger and be positive. It can’t kill you, but it can make your life harder, so you have to have the right attitude. Stick it up their ass, you can use it in a positive way. Play above it.”

3. Alright, let’s move on. Calgary GM Brad Treliving said defenceman Juuso Valimaki is out until at least late January with a high-ankle sprain. The 20-year-old is a tremendous talent with an excellent future, but the Flames wonder what this means for a return to full speed in 2018-19. They are looking at left-handed options for the blue line.

4. The Flames had a brushfire this week, with agent Allan Walsh’s tweet wondering if Michael Frolik’s lack of use meant head coach Bill Peters wanted to “run a good player out of town.”

The winger was back in the lineup Monday night, with two assists in a wild 8-5 victory over San Jose. That was important for him, the Flames essentially saying, “No excuses about your recently injured ankle, we’re putting you on a good line, you better produce.”

Treliving and Frolik had to know Walsh’s tweet was coming; he never does it without consulting a client or trying to work it out with the team. The history is that a Jonathan Drouin or a Jaroslav Halak or a Max Pacioretty eventually gets traded, and no doubt the Flames will check the market. But, in a year where they are thinking they’ve got a shot, they won’t do anything just for the sake of it. Unless a Frolik trade makes them better or gives them the assets to make themselves better, he’s staying. He is a good player.

5. I think Vancouver’s looking to see what’s out there for Nikolay Goldobin.

6. Some other teams to keep an eye on: Pittsburgh, as the Penguins have righted the ship, looking to make themselves better; and Minnesota, with the Wild beginning Wednesday five points out of the playoffs. The tough thing for them is that unless they change what they are willing to do, there’s kind of a paralysis. Philadelphia’s been a constant, but now the question is, are they adding or selling? The Rangers will sell, but may decide to wait until closer to the deadline. And who is Winnipeg’s 2019 version of Paul Stastny?

7. Another question for contenders: how long does Ottawa wait for commitments from Matt Duchene and/or Mark Stone? The Senators have also talked with Ryan Dzingel, another pending unrestricted free agent.

8. Also in the same boat? Carolina’s Micheal Ferland. There’ve been talks, and if he doesn’t sign, he goes on the market. He’s got edge, and contenders will look.

9. Stone gets all the Jan. 1 headlines as someone on a one-year contract now eligible for an extension, but there are others. Vegas’s William Karlsson is another season from becoming a UFA, as is St. Louis’s Joel Edmundson. The Blues extended Robert Bortuzzo, but doesn’t sound like there’s much going on with Edmundson, and this year undoubtedly is making them rethink everything. They’ve thought very highly of him, for good reason. An interesting one is Brock Nelson from the Islanders. He’s a centre, he’s unrestricted and Trotz has liked how he’s played.

10. Three of the players involved in Edmonton’s two Sunday trades — Brandon Manning, Alex Petrovic and Chris Wideman — were subjects of recent emails on the general managers’ trade chain.

When GM Peter Chiarelli says they made these moves with the health of their defence in mind, that says they don’t think they will get much from Andrej Sekera. Surprised they would trade Drake Caggiula. He’s produced on a team that’s struggling to score, and while he may not be a giant, he competes hard. I’m also not convinced the Oilers are finished making moves. There’s a lot at stake. Jesse Puljujarvi’s future is uncertain.

11. Alexander Edler is now first all-time among Canucks defencemen in games played and points. He is five goals behind Mattias Ohlund and 28 assists back of Dennis Kearns for number one in both of those categories. He laughed when told he was still more than 1,000 penalty minutes from Garth Butcher. Can he catch that one? “Probably not,” he said. “I hope not.”

12. Edler’s looked very good since returning from injury. He’s played at least 25 minutes in five of his past seven games, as Vancouver’s surprisingly moved into the playoff debate. Jacob Markstrom’s been dynamite and as the veterans get healthy, people move into more sensible roles. What would he have said if someone told him they’d be in the race on New Year’s Day?

“I’d have said that’s a good spot to be in,” Edler replied. “We have a young team. There’s a lot of things you have to learn to win. In December, we showed we have learned some of those things.” Like what? “Like how to play more as a team.”

13. The biggest question is Edler’s future. An unrestricted free agent, he will be 33 in April. He loves Vancouver and still meets with Daniel and Henrik Sedin for lunch every once in a while. “What a great city. The fans and everything. From the time I came here, I saw how exciting it was to step on the ice every night. I have said many times that I would like to stay if they want me.” Have you had that conversation yet? “No, we haven’t talked.” Edler is clear he’s got more to give. “Yeah, I think I do. My body feels good. I’m in good shape. I want another chance to go far in the playoffs.”

14. Finally, Edler on Elias Pettersson: “Everyone sees how skilled he is offensively. I don’t know how much he’d played centre before, but he was trying to learn playing both ends of the ice. The way he was taking pride in that part of it is what people don’t see that much. He works hard.” When Pettersson broke up the two-on-one in overtime last Saturday in Calgary, did he tell the defencemen, “That’s how it is done?” Edler laughed. “No, but he should have.”

15. As surprising as Vancouver’s burst is, it’s probably second to the Islanders’. When John Tavares left, no one was expecting much, but they are two points back of Buffalo and Montreal for the Eastern wild card spots with games in hand. Some of their players indicated they were pleasantly surprised to see how things were structured under Lou Lamoriello and Trotz.

“I’m a builder, I saw this as a great challenge,” Trotz said hours before the Islanders shut out the Maple Leafs in Toronto. “I told them I just experienced winning a championship, and I wanted them to have the same experience. The way you do that is you play as a team, with accountability, structure and work ethic. With Lou Lamoriello, everything is about winning. They saw how organized and detailed we were. We told them defence can be fixed, if you are willing to sacrifice the cheating in your game. All the guys bought in.”

16. When did he notice they realized it could work? “We beat Pittsburgh twice,” Trotz answered. Those were back-to-back games, 6-3 on Oct. 30 and 3-2 in a shootout on Nov. 1. The Penguins weren’t going great at the time, but they are still the Penguins.

“When John left, the others understood they needed each other if they were going to win.” He likes Nelson, given a bigger role. Same for Josh Bailey. Johnny Boychuk is “our pillar, a great sounding board and Anders Lee does everything the right way.” Then there is Mathew Barzal, who had a hat trick against the Maple Leafs. “He was trying too hard to be John’s replacement. Overhandling the puck. Too much one-on-one. But it’s part of growth. We knew he was going to be okay.”

17. Trotz on his 2018: “I’ll always remember the journey of winning. I was not going to be defined by winning a Stanley Cup. It’s the same thing I said to (Alexander Ovechkin): Never stop chasing. I call it the year of enlightenment. It’s a whole life thing, the importance of giving you my best. That’s not going to change. I’m going to enjoy this journey, too.”

18. The Islanders will have some interesting decisions to make, with Barzal eligible for an extension on July 1. Unrestricted free agents include Nelson, Lee, Jordan Eberle, Valtteri Filppula and Robin Lehner. Not that under Lamoriello we’ll be getting a lot of updates. Many of Tavares’ old linemates suffered through a serious drop in production after leaving but, so far, Lee is an exception. Heading into last weekend, his points per game was up from 0.7 alongside Tavares, to 0.75. He’ll be 29 in July, a problem in the now-ageist world of sports, but they know his importance.

19. Lamoriello and Trotz put Filppula and Leo Komarov around Josh Ho-Sang in the dressing room. I’d heard he had an assigned seat on the plane next to Komarov, too, but that’s not confirmed. Whatever the case, putting those two together is a great idea. The young Toronto players swore by Komarov.

20. Four years ago, Brandon Pirri had 22 goals in Florida. Then it was down to 14 with the Panthers and Ducks, eight for the Rangers, and prior to last season, a return to the Sunshine State — on a professional tryout. He didn’t make it. “When I was released, I took it hard,” Pirri said Tuesday night. “I had close friends on that team. It was tough.”

The AHL season was about to start, and he asked agent Matt Oates to “get me to Chicago.” Wife Elyse was pregnant, she’s from the area and it was best for them. It didn’t hurt that the Wolves are Vegas’s affiliate. After all, the Golden Knights’ coach is Gerard Gallant, who watched Pirri’s best season from a few feet away, behind the bench. Son Luca was born — “We had to give him an Italian name or my nona was not going to be happy,” Pirri laughs — and with the perspective of fatherhood, things started to change.

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21. Pirri was one of the oldest players on the Wolves in 2017-18. His 29 goals tied for the team lead. “It was a good situation, (coach Rocky Thompson) was good to me. Being one of the oldest was an adjustment. It forces you to be a better teammate and person, not panic, handle high-pressure situations. I don’t stress as much. I’m having fun, life’s good. I smile more.”

According to one coach, Pirri is much more competitive without the puck, an important change in his game. In a brief call-up, he had three goals in two games. There was interest last summer, two other clubs who were serious, but they were two-way deals. If he was going to take that, the right choice was to stay. He’s got six goals and nine points in seven games for Vegas this season, including the winner Tuesday against Los Angeles. I can’t understand how he doesn’t stick.

“You need someone to go to bat for you. Turk (Gallant) goes to bat for me. Last year, I was in a really good spot with (William) Karlsson and (Alex) Tuch. This year, it is Tuch and (Paul) Stastny. He’s a wizard out there, makes my life easy. If I have the puck, I tell him I’m giving it to you and I’m getting open, going to the net. Turk tells me to keep shooting, and if I’m not shooting, he tells me something that’s not so nice.” Pirri laughs. “I owe him my career now, and I want to reward him for sticking out his neck for me.”

22. Finally, Pirri had some praise for Nate Schmidt: “There’s not a lot of standstill shooting in the NHL. Right now on the power play, Nate is on top. We go to practice and he’s laying it in there, so it’s up to me to adjust and get the shot through. Life is easier when everyone comes to work every day. More reps, less thinking.”

23. Alexander Ovechkin scored 29 goals before Christmas, just missing Jaromir Jagr’s recent (unofficial) record of 32 from 1996-97. Ovechkin’s career-high of 65, set in 2007-08, featured just seven slap shot goals. This year, he’s got 13, five ahead of Steven Stamkos. Even though he’s a decade older now, the power remains. Ovechkin’s fastest shot from 11 years ago was 101.7 miles per hour. As of last week, this year’s top mark was 101.

24. In a league where slap shot use is down, Stamkos is another who remains lethal with it. He’s on pace for 17 such goals, which would be two more than his career-high from 2009-10. Stamkos was surprised to hear that, since he only tries them with one-timers. The Lightning have no shortage of good setup men.

25. Tampa is on-pace for 344 goals. That would be the most since Pittsburgh scored 362 in 1995-96.

26. The first 18 goals of Auston Matthews’ season were scored from either the middle of the ice, or, more likely, the left. Number 19, in a 6-1 Dec. 20 victory over Florida, was the first to be completely on his weak side. He’s a smart guy, and I figured it was intentional to throw off defences, but he told me I was reading too much into it. It was a funny conversation, with Matthews adding, “I think I can score from anywhere,” as if I was questioning his ability to do so. He said he was more surprised that it was a one-timer, because “I didn’t know I had that in me.” (Most of his goals are wrist shots.) Nazem Kadri wasn’t buying it. “He’s being modest.”

27. Like the NHL trying different outdoor locations. It is no longer about the TV audience. You go and have a great time. It’s very hard not to have fun on them, you really have to be a Debbie Downer. Regina will be terrific. Dallas is a bit more of a gamble, but I’m intrigued by the league waiting to see who the opponent will be. Las Vegas had strong TV numbers for this year’s classic, making the Golden Knights a surprise contender. But if the league goes to West Point — which would complete the military trifecta — owner Bill Foley’s Army history might mean the Knights go there. Colorado likely gets Los Angeles for its game at Air Force.

28. Twenty years ago, I covered Toronto City Council when the NBA Raptors negotiated to buy Canada Post’s Toronto Delivery Building and turn it into what is now Scotiabank Arena. That was some seriously boring work, and I hoped never to do anything like that again. Now comes more multi-government excitement, Ottawa.

Here’s what we do know: the partnership between John Ruddy and Eugene Melnyk expires Jan. 24. What happens then is anyone’s guess. At some point last fall, Commissioner Bettman reminded the city of the importance of a downtown arena, and the message is understood. The key thing is that the NHL itself doesn’t consider this a dire situation, which means it has options it is choosing to keep to itself. At the October Board of Governors meeting, it was mentioned that a “below-market” offer to buy the team from Melnyk had been rejected. That’s $400 million at most, although some have suggested it was lower.

29. It’s been reported Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson didn’t want this coming up during the municipal election, and it was explained to me that it is expected the federal government will follow the same script with an election due by late-October. That’s going to push things back at least a year.

Some Senators fans brought up Devcore’s announcement saying LeBreton’s federal governing body is “legally obliged” to negotiate with it now that the original winning partnership is over. This is really out of my expertise, but I looked into it anyway. According to a couple of sources, Melnyk has felt for some time this would happen. At one point, he sent a lawyer’s letter to the governing body, indicating that is not the legal mandate and he would take action if it occurred. As far as he’s concerned, the whole process needs to start from the beginning. I don’t know if he’s right or he’s wrong.

30. All of the paperwork is embargoed until the official termination of the agreement. But, when it becomes available, we’re going to find out the downtown arena was going to be owned by the city — through some sort of governing body. The Senators were going to be responsible for 100 per cent of the operating and lifecycle costs during a 25-35 year lease, and would repay their share of the debt financing (50 per cent) over that time.

It sounds like they were going to get a lot of the revenues, but, without seeing the full fine print, it’s hard to say how fair/unfair the deal was for the city, Melnyk or Ruddy. As far as the NHL is concerned, who owns the building isn’t important. Who operates and gets revenues is. Confused? Me too. My father was a builder, and I thought his work was boring, too.

31. Spent a couple of days over Christmas in Manhattan, witnessing one of those only-in-New-York conversations. We had an awesome evening at The Illusionists, featuring Darcy Oake. (Scott was there that night, too.) So we went out after, but not before Darcy grabbed a table leg he needed for an appearance the next morning on The Today Show.

We go into Smith’s bar near Times Square. The bouncer looks at Darcy and says, “What is that?” He tells him it is a table leg. The bouncer, with an incredulous look on his face, asks why he’s carrying it. The response is, of course, he’s a magician and needs it for his act. Someone else blurts out, “He’s using it on The Today Show tomorrow!” By this time, the bouncer is laughing, not knowing whether or not to believe this ridiculous story. He basically gives up, shakes his head and waves us in. A great smile to end 2018 and put us in the right frame of mind for 2019. Have a terrific year, everyone.

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