• Oilers need audit, not just GM search
• Leafs targeting Pesce, Muzzin?
• A few contenders will consider Kunitz
“There’s something in the water,” Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson said Wednesday, “here in Edmonton that we don’t have right.”
It’s time to start swimming in a different lake.
I’m not buying the “old Oilers are interfering” narrative. Oh, they’ve got opinions, but how much did they really stand in the way of anything Edmonton did or didn’t do the past four seasons? I’m not convinced it happened often, if at all. And it will be important for the organization to line up in support of Nicholson during this search, rather than splintering into separate fiefdoms.
But, what must be addressed is if there is a comfort zone with familiar ideas. Or, more importantly, if the organization falling further and further behind what other teams are doing in the areas of scouting, sports science, analytics, draft research or whatever else you can think of. You don’t have to believe in everything, but you have to know about them. I have a theory: that there are more “quiet hirings” in these positions across the NHL than anyone wants to admit.
For Edmonton, this is more than just a GM search. This is an audit, an investigation into every pore of the Oiler way. For several months now, this has been happening throughout the business side of the operation. Now it is time to extend into hockey. Nicholson made one immediate change in philosophy: more AHL time is coming for younger players. But why stop at that? The timing allows him the opportunity to talk to a wide swath of people. Information is powerful currency. Interview lots. Ask about best practices. Find what else is out there. There is plenty to discover.
No matter what you think of the situation, there is going to be no shortage of interest. The Oilers are resource-rich, featuring a nuclear weapon as the number-one centre. (A “Weapon of McDavid Destruction,” as NHL Network’s Stephen Nelson called him.)
As Doug MacLean said Wednesday, Nicholson has to gauge Steve Yzerman’s interest. It’s unlikely to be a fit, but you have to shoot your shot. Nicholson has a long history with the Hall of Famer, although one executive joked, “Doesn’t everyone have history with Nicholson if they are Canadian?”
Potential first-time GM options include Bill Guerin, Mark Hunter and Kelly McCrimmon. Sources indicate all have been discussed internally, and not just in the last few days. Hunter (a serious candidate) could be an immediate hire if that’s what the Oilers wanted to do. I don’t know if Winnipeg assistant GM Craig Heisinger desires the job, but if I’m Nicholson, I’m asking. The Jets, in an intense market, held off pressure to deviate from process and are reaping the benefits. The Oilers should be asking how Winnipeg management sold its vision and stayed on path despite criticism for doing so.
Nicholson promised not to trade their young players and assets for short-term fixes, but the playoffs are not merely an option. They are an expectation, a directive from ownership. Daryl Katz has made that very clear, even to the players themselves. There will be temptation to do what you don’t want to do.
That is also Ron Hextall’s strength. There is some doubt he wants to jump back in so quickly, but, again, no harm in asking. Nicholson’s history with Doug Armstrong and Ken Holland puts them into the picture if their current situations change. I’m not sure if Mike Gillis is a candidate, but it would be a waste if the Oilers didn’t reach out. He brought a lot of different ideas to Vancouver, an organization with similar location-related issues as Edmonton. Why not hear what worked, what didn’t, and what he’d do differently?
You know the old saying: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” Time for the Oilers to commit some grand larceny.
1. Tyler Dellow, who worked for Edmonton from 2014 through 2016, is going to be hired by another NHL team. The question is not if, but when. If there’s one thing I believe, it is that we are always being judged and graded by the right people. He’s blunt, but his work in The Athletic is not going unnoticed by those people. And I’d bet there are still some in the organization who respected his stuff. He grew up an Oilers fan. Why let him help someone else?
2. On Monday, McDavid told assembled media, “If there’s guys that believe [this group can’t get it done], they should get out of the room. If you don’t believe in this group and you’re in the locker room then you need to leave.”
Apparently, he told his teammates the exact same thing he said publicly. There’s a lot of Mats Sundin in McDavid — goes about his business, loyal to the cause, determined to succeed no matter the circumstances. There’s a lot of debate about his mood. He despises losing, but it is not DEFCON 1.
3. The thing I liked most about Nicholson’s presser was that, given the chance to throw Peter Chiarelli under the bus one final time for the Mikko Koskinen signing, he didn’t do it. He called it a collaborative effort. The Oilers checked in on Washington’s Andre Burakovsky, but a couple of sources threw cold water on that. They like Detroit’s Andreas Athanasiou, whose speed seems a perfect complement to McDavid, but there’s no guarantee the Red Wings want to do anything and the price would be costly. There were also rumblings they were talking to Chicago about something bigger and are trying to move Tobias Rieder to open some cap room. Whatever the case, it should be a smooth transition for Keith Gretzky, since he’d be part of the group working on these files.
4. There was a rumour flying around yesterday that, in all the craziness of the last few weeks, at least one team asked about Evan Bouchard. It went nowhere.
5. A final one on Chiarelli: In the fall of 2016, a few sources indicated he came close to a blockbuster at the 2016 NHL Draft, days before the Taylor Hall–Adam Larsson deal. Asked about it, he laughed but said he wouldn’t tell. Believe me, I tried. The Oilers had the fourth selection, snaring Jesse Puljujarvi after Columbus grabbed Pierre-Luc Dubois. There was a potential three-way that would have moved the Flames to third, the Blue Jackets down a spot and the Oilers to sixth. That obviously never happened.
In Monday’s 31 Thoughts: The Podcast interview, Arizona GM John Chayka admitted the Coyotes were working on something with the Oilers to make sure they got Clayton Keller. (They succeeded, staying in the seventh spot.) There are two teams suspected to have taken big swings as well: the Rangers and St. Louis. New York did not have a pick until 81st, but, as Jeff Marek has said several times, loved Keller. The Blues were picking 26th. Someday, it will all shake loose.
6. Koskinen’s extension will have an effect down the highway in Calgary. Because that’s a contract for a pending unrestricted free agent, it cannot be used as an arbitration comparable for David Rittich. The Flames’ rapidly improving goalie is a year from UFA status, but if he keeps trending in this direction, they’re going to be happy to take care of him.
7. On Burakovsky: The Capitals have asked for a couple of mid-to-high round draft picks in exchange (seconds and thirds would be a good get) for him. That would give them more flexibility and assets to chase what they need. Even with a seven-game losing streak, absolutely no one is writing them off.
8. How to interpret Toronto GM Kyle Dubas’s proclamation that the Maple Leafs are having good dialogue with Auston Matthews? My take is this: both team and agent Judd Moldaver see an eight-year deal as extremely unlikely. The salary would be too high for the team, which wants to keep the best possible team around him and knows Mitch Marner’s agent, Darren Ferris, is waiting to see Matthews’s cap number. A four-year contract walks him right to unrestricted free agency, so that’s not happening. We’re looking at a five- or six-year contract. That puts the number under Connor McDavid’s $12.5 million, but exactly where is what’s still to be decided. Dubas’s proclamation that they’d like to know before the deadline means February will be an important month in the process.
9. The highest five-year contracts in the salary-cap era belong to Sidney Crosby (2008–09 to 2012–13) and Evgeni Malkin (2009–10 to 2013–14), at $8.7 million. The largest six-year deal went to Dany Heatley (2008–09 to 2013–14) at $7.5 million. Assuming Matthews and the Maple Leafs choose either of these lengths, we’re going to have a new record. This term — rather than the max eight — will be the choice for some teams and their restricted free agents.
10. Why? One reason is the choice to keep the AAV down as younger players increasingly grab a larger share of the salary pie. Another is speculation on the next U.S. television deal. (NBC has two more seasons on its current contract.) If the NHL gets a spike, some will want the ability to capitalize sooner. Not every player (or their agents) feel this way, but others do.
11. The CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Wednesday in Red Deer gave teams a choice the night before: either the similar CJHL event in Okotoks, Alta., or the Hurricanes/Flames in Calgary. The Maple Leafs chose Option B, but I don’t believe the scouting target was Dougie Hamilton. Process of elimination indicates Brett Pesce, but I can’t say it for sure.
12. If Dubas chooses a left-handed option, the top target is Jake Muzzin. But he has made it clear to those who have asked that Kasperi Kapanen is a no-go and 2018 first-rounder Rasmus Sandin has similar status.
13. Nick Kypreos reported Ottawa’s eight-year, approximately $64-million offer to Matt Duchene last week. We all know tampering does not exist in the National Hockey League, but those numbers getting out allows other potential suitors to decide how that fits in their plans. According to a couple of sources, Mark Stone’s situation is slightly different. The Senators did not initially present an offer as much as a “concept” of what they’d be comfortable with. I believe that cap number is higher than Duchene’s. There is a quiet optimism Ottawa can keep Stone, but hurdles always exist.
14. As of earlier this week, didn’t sound like there was much negotiation with Ryan Dzingel. Contenders always look for scoring. Ottawa should get some nice assets if that’s the route they choose.
15. I think a few contenders (Calgary makes a lot of sense) are considering Chicago’s Chris Kunitz. It makes a lot of sense. Another Blackhawk being watched is John Hayden. He’s had nine straight games under 10 minutes, and Drake Caggiula’s arrival affects his role. He’s got an edge, and someone else might see some value.
16. Tuesday night, Vancouver GM Jim Benning told Sportsnet 650 radio hosts Scott Rintoul and Andrew Walker that he will begin conversations with Alexander Edler about the defender’s future with the team upon returning from the two prospect games.
17. The mystery of Sergei Bobrovsky’s future continues in Columbus. The Blue Jackets are wisely playing this very close to the vest, and there’s an understanding he will consider other situations — but has he actually committed to them on paper? One of the theories was that he and agent Paul Theofanous verbally considered some possibilities, but didn’t want to give Columbus an actual written list. Once you agree to that, the team has more control.
18. BSN Denver’s Adrian Dater reported that Rangers scouts consistently tailed the Avalanche over the last little while. Unless that’s about something Colorado would want the Rangers to take from their roster to facilitate, say, a Kevin Hayes trade, I don’t think New York’s primary interests would be at the NHL level. The obvious connection is Shane Bowers, who Rangers bench boss David Quinn coached at Boston University. But the Rangers will be seeking much more. The Avalanche will zealously protect their most appealing draft assets.
(EDIT: Several Avs fans have reached out to suggest this may be about Vladislav Namestnikov, not Hayes.)
19. Colorado, however, will see what Nikita Zadorov can return.
20. Alexander Radulov did Dallas a huge favour, accepting blame for his first-period benching last Thursday against Los Angeles. The last thing the Stars needed was more controversy, especially as GM Jim Nill works on repairing the relationships with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. According to a couple of sources, Nill wants to show them the last few weeks “are not who the Dallas Stars are.” If Radulov reacts negatively, it is another five-alarm blaze. Instead, they recover with a great win over Winnipeg and get their schedule break at a perfect time. No one needs a refresh and reset more than the Stars do — it’s an excellent opportunity for a mental clean-out.
21. In addition to Valeri Nichushkin and Brett Ritchie, Dallas is also dangling Mattias Janmark. A couple of years ago, they felt his injuries removed sorely needed speed from the roster. Janmark scored 14 even-strength goals in 2015–16, and, after returning from injury, 13 more in 2017–18. He’s got just three in 49 games this season. He’s better than he’s shown.
22. For about 10 seconds, Anders Lee admitted, the Islanders were annoyed at themselves for losing a point Tuesday night in Chicago. Then, the players remembered Mathew Barzal lining up on the wrong side of the ice to take his shootout attempt.
“How could we not laugh and razz him?” the’ captain asked, the smile obvious through the telephone.
What a first half for the Islanders, the NHL’s most pleasant surprise — leaders of the Metropolitan Division. Asked about All-Star Weekend vacation plans, Lee said, “I’m going to be with half the league in the Bahamas.”
But you’re going there much happier than most, right?
“Yes, we’ll have bragging rights,” he replied with a laugh. “We’re going to walk around proudly.”
What would he have said if told in September this would happen?
“‘Where do I sign?’”
23. Another NHL executive said the Islanders’ strength is that they play their system so well they keep themselves in games. That increases the chances of finding a way to win.
“Every night we have a feeling that there’s not much to worry about,” Lee said. “We’re poised on the bench. Calm. If you stick to the plan and play the right way, you’re in a good spot. Getting production from different guys every night is a huge part of the morale. A lot of us believe in the guys in our room and who we have. The work we have done is validating that. It’s different. Things are different.”
24. Did any of Lou Lamoriello’s rules surprise him, or seem unusually difficult?
“Well, I can barely grow a beard, so that’s not much of an issue for me,” he laughed. “You just do it. Don’t argue.”
“We needed it in a way. If you understand what I’m saying here, the rules were easy to follow because they are perfect timing for us.”
25. Lee is unrestricted this summer. “This is my home. I don’t see anything that makes me want to do anything different. I’m not worried about it.”
26. Whenever I’d ask Garth Snow or Doug Weight about prospects to come, both would mention Devon Toews. That prediction is looks better by the day.
27. In the weeks after All-Star, the league will bring something new to the three iPad Pros on each NHL bench. Currently featuring real-time video highlights, what is called the SAP-NHL Coaching Insights App will be added to the system. These will be data-based, eliminating the wait for printed sheets for updates. Done in consultation with the teams and their coaches, each staff will be able to customize what they wish to see.
“For example,” said David Lehanski, the NHL’s senior vice-president of business development & global partnerships, “a team could set up notifications for a certain amount of time on ice. Once a player reaches the threshold set by their team, his name could turn red or be highlighted.”
Another thing the app can do is show faceoff results in each circle as opposed to each zone.
“Our job is to put the information out there, and [teams] can decide what and how much to access,” he said.
28. Lehanski said most teams were curious about ice time and faceoff numbers. Were there many disagreements?
“Shootout stats,” he replied, after thinking about it for a few seconds. “Some teams said they knew who their guys are. T.J. Oshie, for example, is going out no matter what, whether he’s hot or cold. Some teams wanted more histories… current streaks or certain player versus certain goalie. Tendencies versus each other.”
Do teams ever say, “Oh my God, enough with the iPads, we want our guys watching the game?”
“There was concern in 2017 when we launched before the playoffs…. Nobody wanted to change what they were doing. But it got back to us the behaviour was not as bad as feared. Players came back with interesting insights into what they were looking for. Sometimes it is different than what coaches look for. Players and coaches want to be the best they can be.”
29. You guys want to know, so I always ask: Will this be available to the public?
“Yes,” Lehanski says, “but we don’t know exactly what. We haven’t sat down and completely gone through this with the NHLPA and the people here. But it is part of the plan.”
30. Saskatoon Blades forward Kirby Dach — who played for Kelly Hrudey at the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game — is No. 2 among North American skaters on the Central Scouting 2019 NHL Draft list. But that’s not the most impressive thing about him. Dach joined with the Howe Foundation to create a program called First Blades, giving kids the opportunity to skate. The initiative gifts a pair of skates to those who might not otherwise be able to purchase them. It’s a great thing.
31. Twenty-Five years ago, I was a young magazine reporter looking for an interview with Calgary Stampeders quarterback Doug Flutie. I was new. The startup publication I worked for, The Sports Pages, lasted two issues. But I called the Stampeders, who were going to Hamilton, and made a request. A few days later, following their day-before walkthrough, I was talking with Flutie for five minutes in the middle of Ivor Wynne Stadium. It was definitely not what I expected, and it was appreciated. Most people remember Peter Watts as a reporter. I didn’t know him too well in that role, but I was always thankful how, in a brief stint as Calgary’s media-relations contact, he was generous to a young reporter. All the best to his friends and family.