31 Thoughts: Will NHL players fight for change to playoff format?

During Saturday Headlines the panel discussed the Senators looking for a hockey operations president, the return of both Quinn Hughes and Austin Watson as well as if there will be any changes to the current NHL playoff format.

• Roberto Luongo’s greatest impact
• No hire imminent in Sens’ president search
• Players unhappy with playoff format

Roberto Luongo wasn’t supposed to play Monday night in Toronto. The idea was for him to watch the Panthers and the Maple Leafs from the best seat in the house, the backup goalie position on the visitors’ bench. Head coach Bob Boughner was saving him for Tuesday night in Montreal.

You know what they say: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It was a hellish evening for Florida, grasping at shrinking playoff odds. Starter Samuel Montembeault lasted 4:21, exiting with Toronto up two goals. Enter Luongo, who stopped 28 of 33 shots in a 7–5 loss.

Afterwards, Boughner said the Panthers weren’t sure who’d face the Canadiens. Back-to-backs are a big ask for a 20-year pro, but this is something different. It will be emotional. For years, Luongo’s rote answer to the retirement question was that he’d play as long as he could.

Now? Things are different.

“I can see that (Florida) is considering bringing in someone else,” he said after the morning skate in Toronto. “And [Montembeault] has played well. I’m turning 40 next week…. This season has been very difficult. We’ve got six games left. After, we’ll sit down — myself and the team — and figure this out.”

Would he go somewhere else if the Panthers want to try something new?

“No,” he answered. “This is home. To move my family, my children from where they are happy? I couldn’t do that. Family comes first.”

So, here we are, pondering what could be the end of a magnificent career.

Only Martin Brodeur (691) and Patrick Roy (551) have more wins than Luongo’s 486. Five years ago, it was almost like we expected him to fade into obscurity when dealt from Vancouver to Florida. Instead, until this season, when his body really betrayed him, Luongo exceeded the league’s average save percentage. He played 61 games as a 36-year-old, and 62 more at 37 — when he led the Panthers to the playoffs.

It won’t count in the Hall of Fame discussions, but, in a lot of ways, Luongo’s greatest impact was in becoming the NHL’s first social-media star. In 2013, he was the picture of frustration, complaining, “My contract sucks. I’d scrap it if I could right now,” when a rushed trade-deadline deal to Toronto fell apart in the last minutes. His move to Florida came after he didn’t get the start in Vancouver’s “outdoor” game at BC Place.

Luongo let down his guard on Twitter, revealing his great personality and awesome sense of humour while initially refusing to admit the @strombone1 account was his. His popularity grew. Other players saw how he won over the public, realizing that social media could be embraced rather than feared. All you had to do was control it, instead of letting it control you. Others followed his lead, but few did it as well.

With greater appreciation of his personality came greater appreciation for his play. In a way it is unfortunate the fans across Canada in general and Vancouver in particular may not get the chance to say a proper goodbye, but Montreal and Ottawa get their shot. And we know some kind of honour will come in Canucktown.

As our quick conversation ended Monday, I felt a little disappointed. Luongo is one of those players you always look forward to seeing. Always full of intelligent answers and excellent ideas. If this is it, I’m interested in his next chapter. But his book should include the Hall of Fame.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Luongo’s future has ramifications for both the Panthers and Vancouver. He’s got three years remaining on his 12-year, $64-million contract — formulated under the “back-diving” structure now banned in the CBA. Although his cap hit is $5.3 million annually, his actual salary totals $3,618,000 over the remaining term. If he retires, the Canucks face a penalty of $2,840,124 to their cap space for each of the next three seasons. Florida’s punishment is $1,287,209 — lower because it did not benefit as much from the contract structure. This can be avoided if he is stashed on Long-Term Injured Reserve, and his body certainly would qualify for it. The only risk is that if Luongo is ever cleared (and he would have to take at least one physical per year), the cap penalty actually gets worse for the Canucks, and better for the Panthers. The most ridiculous scenario is Vancouver being smashed with an $8.5-million hammer in 2021-22, which would be the first season of Elias Pettersson’s next contract. It’s an incredibly unlikely situation, but could you imagine?

2. Last Friday, at the end of comments about his relationship with Kyle Dubas, Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock remarked, “You guys live in Toronto, too, don’t you?” It was his way of pointing out that he should have been asked the question before the accusation. Heard it loud and clear.

3. I wondered if the decision to keep Ilya Kovalchuk at home during Los Angeles’s trip to Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver meant he would be kept off the roster the rest of the season. The Kings say no, that’s not the case.

4. When Ottawa contacted Philadelphia about Dean Lombardi’s availability (first reported by John Shannon), the Senators indicated the open position was going to be more of a Senior Advisor role. Now, they are calling it a President of Hockey Operations, so we’ll see how this evolves. The team made sure to indicate GM Pierre Dorion is safe.

It sounds like the NHL is involved in the process, and one of the names that jumped out to me is Don Maloney, now Vice-President of Hockey Operations in Calgary. The league likes him, particularly for what he did under difficult circumstances in Arizona. Via text, Maloney wrote, “At this stage of my life, I would like to try to win something. We have such a good group of people here in Calgary, with a chance to win, I would be reluctant to go anywhere. I guess you never say never but I can tell you I’m really happy where I’m at right now and not looking for something more.”

5. The word from the Senators is that no hire is imminent, and the search is just beginning. People say there won’t be interest, but don’t kid yourself. There are only 31 (soon to be 32) of these jobs, and they are coveted. But we’re in a feeling-out process with lots of questions being asked, including: How will this work? What, exactly, is the job description? Who has decision-making power? What is the pay?

One executive said that, in a previous job, he had a contract that spelled out what moves he could make without specific ownership permission. Would Eugene Melnyk be agreeable to that? (Melnyk’s going to have to answer a lot of questions, anyway.) If the Senators are looking for someone to manage the owner, be the face of the franchise and let Dorion work, they should expand the search to people who have been in media. You’ve got guys who’ve run teams as a GM (Craig Button), done everything (Doug MacLean) and could handle the opportunity (Ed Olczyk).

6. Lombardi has now rebuffed overtures from two Canadian teams. (Someday, we’ll discover the truth about Vancouver.) We’re not that bad, Dean.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

7. Mike Gillis’s summer flirtation in Ottawa ended badly, so he’s not a candidate for that job. But there’s something odd going on in Edmonton. After a very difficult week, there’s less certainty about what’s going to happen. I’ve heard that Gillis’s name has been brought up for an interview, although not everyone is thrilled with the idea. I’ve also heard he’s indicated he wouldn’t consider the Oilers without being able to make significant changes. Overall, though, the organization’s interview wish list remains lengthy, with many potential outcomes.

8. Jason Botterill, Ron Francis and Ron Hextall are forming a “triumverate” as Hockey Canada’s management group for this year’s World Championship.

9. Last week, I mentioned Todd McLellan as a high-level candidate for Los Angeles’s permanent coaching job. Add Dave Tippett. Four months ago, he said, “I’m happy in Seattle, and I will be staying here.” But there is word the coaching bug has bit him again, and it is believed at least one team this season asked him about a return.

10. You can see Montreal trying to ease Shea Weber’s workload wherever possible. In November and December, he led Canadiens’ defenceman in ice-time for all 16 games he played. That was down to seven of 11 in January, nine of 13 in February and six of 12 so far in March. One opponent: “You can see he’s not 100 per cent, but no one’s getting him to sit.”

11. More than ever, players are letting it be known to the NHLPA that they are unhappy with the playoff format. I was a little skeptical because it is CBA time, and no one easily gives up anything during negotiations. However, the complaints are legit. It is unlikely that things will be changed for next year, but the players have to sign off on anything longer than that and have asked for more proof that the current setup works as intended.

While it has fuelled rivalries in California and certainly Pittsburgh/Washington, it hasn’t given a Battle of Alberta, a Battle of Ontario, a Montcalm/Wolfe re-enactment, Islanders/Rangers or even Florida/Tampa. If we had more of those, there’d be fewer complaints. One of the reasons the previous method was changed was NBC wanted more certainty of match-ups in the second round. In theory, you could go to brackets (1-vs.-8 winner faces 4-vs.-5 winner, etc.) as opposed to the previous re-seeding.

12. “What I would like to see,” Keith Yandle said Monday, “is the No. 1 team pick its playoff opponent.”

Honestly, I asked him, could you see anyone actually agreeing to do this?

“Yeah, not really,” he smiled. “That’s tough.”

Then, he started trying to talk himself into it.

“The way the game is going, all the [advanced statistics], you could pick the team you match up best with. Better travel, everything.”

The “Selection Show” would be a ratings smash, for sure.

13. St. Louis can clinch a playoff berth Tuesday night if Arizona loses to Chicago. Jordan Binnington is going to be one of the most fascinating voting cases ever. The most games he can play is 34. Goalies who’ve won the Calder this century played 66 (Evgeni Nabokov), 61 (Steve Mason) or 57 games (Andrew Raycroft). Brian Boucher was sixth in 2000, playing 35 games. John Gibson was seventh in 2016, with 40.

Highest recent goalie finish was Matt Murray’s fourth in 2017. He played 49. My guess is Binnington — at worst — will be fourth. But his role in the Blues’ rise from ashes certainly could push him higher. I’m very curious to see if enough voters knock one of Rasmus Dahlin or Miro Heiskanen off the podium. Can’t see any way Pettersson isn’t there.

14. After two controversial net-off-the-moorings calls in Toronto (March 13 vs. Chicago and March 15 against Philadelphia) the NHL sent out a memo asking, among other things, officials to be more diligent about replacing nets that are jarred loose. That note scorched Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk in Monday’s 1-0 loss to Nashville. In the third period, seeing his own net dislodged, he went to the bench for an extra attacker, knowing that the rulebook dictates the Predators cannot score in such a situation:

The rest of the Wild were fooled by this move and took a too-many-men penalty. But it could have been worse, as the net was put back in position during play by one of the officials. In that case, the Predators could have scored.

Dubnyk admitted later to reporters that he saw the Rangers’ Alexander Georgiev do the same thing during a 3-2 loss in Edmonton and thought it a smart play. Here’s the problem: the date of that game? March 11 — just before the two controversial plays and ensuing memo. In case anyone forgot, what happened Monday will be a reminder.

15. On Sunday, officials noticed a mistake on the roster sheet, that Justin Bailey was listed as out and Phil Varone in for Philadelphia against Washington. It was supposed to be the other way around. If that had happened after puck-drop, neither player would have been eligible. Since it was found before, the change could be made and Bailey was allowed to play. That’s the second time that mistake’s been caught recently (though I can’t remember who was involved in the other). Officials are looking for it.

16. Word in Buffalo is the Sabres are working under the belief that Jeff Skinner wants to stay, but it takes time to negotiate your way there.

17. Carter Hutton had an interesting perspective about his first season with the Sabres. Nashville and St. Louis, where he played all but one of his 136 previous games, were either better or stingier teams.

“I faced a lot more shots this year, better chances,” he said. “That was new for me. I will be better prepared to handle it next year.”

18. Carolina’s affiliate in Charlotte is first in the AHL with 96 points, six up on Syracuse. The Checkers’ coach, Mike Vellucci, is unsigned for next season. He’s got a long history of development, going back to his days with OHL Plymouth.

19. Scottie Upshall, who has played 759 career games with Nashville, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Columbus, Florida and St. Louis, says, “You’re damn right I’m trying to come back” in 2019-20 after successful Posterior Cruciate Ligament surgery. The recovery prognosis from PCL operations generally is very long-term, but Upshall received a vote of confidence this week from Dr. Robert Laprade, who performed the work.

“I had surgery the first week of November. I’ve been stick-handling around the house, but I can’t wait to put on skates. That will happen in a couple of weeks.”

20. Last summer, Edmonton offered him a tryout, which Upshall accepted.

“A week before I went there, I strained the calf in my left leg. When I got there 10 days before camp started, my knee blew up with fluid like I’ve never witnessed in my life. The trainers had no idea. I went home and iced it, but I could barely walk. The next day, the doctor looked at it and said, ‘We need to drain this right away.’ They drained 90 ccs of blood.”

Upshall couldn’t pass his physical, but stayed to get healthy and work on his own.

“You show up early and stay late. Make an effort. Be a guy that wants to lead by example. Show the young players you can get through an injury, give them an idea of what it takes.” 

Finally, he was a day away from making his exhibition debut.

“In the last practice, my knee began to hurt. I went to Todd (McLellan) and told him, ‘I’m really sorry, but I can’t help the team. It’s not fair to someone else who needs to play for me to go in there.’”

Upshall said former GM Peter Chiarelli was great to him.

“He said he could tell I wasn’t right, but I could stay until the team went to Germany (for the start of the season). He offered me the opportunity to go to AHL Bakersfield, that there would be a spot for me when I was ready.”

That’s close to his residence in Newport Beach, Calif., but after two weeks, his knee filled up with blood again.

21. Upshall says that’s when he went to see Dr. Laprade, who told him that the ligament, first injured when he was 21, caused the bleeding due to instability. Two screws were installed into his shinbone.

The Anaheim Ducks have built a new facility in Irvine, and he’ll skate there. Upshall said he plans to film his skating sessions to show teams what he can do, and will attend the BioSteel camp in Toronto in August for a true five-day test of his repaired joint. He’s looking for another tryout offer and isn’t afraid of that. In September 2017, he signed with Vancouver on a PTO, and did well enough to be signed by St. Louis.

“I look at this as a positive,” he says. “I ruptured my kidney at the end of last year. My knee isn’t the only thing that needed to heal.”

Pinder and Steinberg
Elliotte Friedman: Doughty's comments about Tkachuk, Norris trophy and the Senators
March 25 2019

22. Last summer’s recovery success story was Ryan Kesler. He made it very clear he didn’t like anyone doubting his ability to return for this season, so he grinded away and got to game 1,001. After the Ducks finish on April 5, there will be a sit-down with the organization about his future. Telling him he can’t play is counter-productive, because it might get Kesler’s back up. But there will be discussion about whether or not what he’s putting his body through is truly productive for his long-term health.

23. Anaheim is being more careful with information about Patrick Eaves, who beat the odds with a powerful comeback from an undetermined illness that weakened his body for much of 2018. He has not played since Feb. 23, and GM Bob Murray indicated that Eaves is going through similar issues. The Ducks were so happy to witness his initial recovery. You can see their concern for him now.

24. Kyle Okposo said that, of all the text messages he received during his lengthy absence from hockey, one that stood out was from former Islanders GM Garth Snow.

“Snowy and I, we had a really good relationship towards the end, [but] we hadn’t talked since I left. He texted me, and I really appreciated that.”

25. Okposo was willing to discuss his recovery from a concussion and mental-health issues for Hockey Night in Canada because of the response to his original comments in The Athletic.

“I was standing in line at Chipotle a couple of months ago. A cop comes up to me and tells me he was in a fight and he had a bottle broken over his head. He went into a dark, dark place…. It was really bad for awhile and he didn’t know if he was going to get out of it. He said, ‘Just reading your article lets me know there’s life at the end of this,’ and he can get out of it. That’s why you share stories of mental health. For other people. Especially in the position that I’m in, to have the platform that I do…. I’m really grateful that I can share my story and help other people. It’s huge.”

26. While we were driving from the arena to his home, Okposo laughed and admitted he loves hockey gossip.

“I’m a hockey nerd. I watch a lot and I read a lot. I try to know what’s going on in the league.”

He wants to stay in the game when he retires. GM?

“No, I don’t know if that’s for me. But an advisor or something like that? Yes.”

27. With two weeks to go in the season, three forwards are averaging 18 minutes of even-strength ice-time per game. That’s Connor McDavid (18:51), Patrick Kane (18:40) and Dylan Larkin (18:04). Since the NHL began to track this two decades ago, there’s never been a season where three players broke 18. Pavel Bure’s record 19:12 is safe from an earlier-season McDavid challenge. Because McDavid missed four games, Kane is on-pace for the highest individual total, at 1,511:23. That would be third-best in history, behind Bure (1,574:36 in 2000–01) and Jaromir Jagr (1,517:06 in 1998–99).

28. Johnny Gaudreau (92), Elias Lindholm (77), Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk (76), and Mark Giordano (72) give Calgary five 70-point scorers. The Flames are the first team to do that since the 2000–01 Pittsburgh Penguins: Jaromir Jagr (121), Alex Kovalev and Martin Straka (95), Robert Lang (80) and Mario Lemieux (76 in just 43 games).

29. Tampa Bay’s 5–4 win over Boston on Monday puts the Lightning’s goal differential at plus-100. Last team to cross that barrier? The 2005-06 Ottawa Senators, at plus-103.

30. Remember last week’s story about Mikhail Grabovski leaving his car on a Toronto street before a game because he was late? And equipment man Bobby Hastings having to run two blocks to recover it? There is controversy! One source texted to indicate that the car was actually six blocks from the rink, and a different employee ran in his suit on a hot September day to move it. Next week, we’re going to hear that Mats Sundin had to go get it, and he didn’t even need to drive it to the arena — he picked up the automobile and carried it to the parking garage.

31. Finally, a shout out to students at Victoria Park Collegiate Institute in Toronto. I was supposed to speak to them last Tuesday with Brian Burke, but had to cancel to go do the Okposo interview. That’s the worst. I will make it up in the future.

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