The pathway is suddenly less cluttered.
Not just for NHL players to return to the Olympics — a bombshell development dropped by Elliotte Friedman on Headlines — but also for the league to enjoy an extended run of labour peace where it can focus on growth and new opportunities.
The most obvious of those is the creation of an international schedule of events, something that’s been long discussed but always hit a hurdle or roadblock before it could take shape. Then one year bleeds into the next one — and you have stars like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews having to wait until their mid-20’s, at the earliest, to pull on their country’s sweaters in a best-on-best event.
However, with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation finally willing to play ball on issues such as travel and insurance costs, plus marketing opportunities, a door has swung open.
It could pave the way for a steady stream of international tournaments: Beijing Olympics in 2022, World Cup in 2024, Olympics in 2026 and World Cup in 2028.
The NHL still doesn’t love the idea of halting its schedule for an Olympic break, but recognizes how important the issue is for the membership of the NHL Players’ Association. And with the sides set to resume collective bargaining discussions Tuesday, it feels like a wall has been knocked down.
The Olympics was always an unusual issue in those negotiations because in some ways the NHL and NHLPA were actually more aligned than opposed — in that they had a shared interest in getting something tangible back from the IOC for participating, which they now appear capable of achieving.
Of course, actually getting the NHL players to Beijing likely won’t happen unless a CBA extension can be hammered out.
It’s believed that a fair bit of progress was made in CBA talks over the summer, but those have been on hold since September when both the league and players elected not to trigger a re-opener clause.
Typically, you need the pressure of a deadline to encourage the give-and-take needed to make a deal. In the case of past dealings between the NHL and NHLPA, it has required the pressure of negotiating anywhere from three to 10 months beyond that deadline and flirting with mutually-assured destruction to get things done.
But the climate feels different this time around.
The current CBA doesn’t expire until September 2022, but the true deadline for a decision on Beijing Olympic participation arrives much sooner. Let’s say June 2021 at the absolute latest because of scheduling for the 2021-22 NHL season? And ideally well before.
So maybe, just maybe, this can all be tied together to achieve multiple aims — the most important of which is arguably setting the league down a road it’s never before travelled.
Scouts trailed the Los Angeles Kings during their trip through the New York area over the last few days, including multiple representatives from Winnipeg and Vegas for Saturday’s game against the Devils.
Both of those teams are in the market for a defenceman and keeping eyes on Alec Martinez. He’s signed for one more year beyond this one at a $4-million AAV and represents one of the few non-rental blue-liners likely to be moved by the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
Los Angeles got an early start on the selling season with this week’s trade of Kyle Clifford and Jack Campbell to Toronto, and have plenty of interest in 27-year-old winger Tyler Toffoli. The asking price on the pending UFA has been set at a second-round pick and prospect.
Pittsburgh, Boston and Calgary are among the potential fits for the right-shooting Toffoli.
There isn’t another team in the league with the roster flexibility of the Ottawa Senators, who not only have 10 pending unrestricted free agents but just four non-ELC players signed beyond next season (Thomas Chabot, Nikita Zaitsev, Colin White and Bobby Ryan).
Pierre Dorion has kept his cards pretty tight to the vest when it comes to trade deadline plans, including with the players likely to be affected and their representatives, and isn’t believed to have even broached contract discussions with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Mark Borowiecki — two homegrown players from the Ottawa area enjoying good seasons on expiring deals.
Pageau would be the Sens biggest trade chip, and arguably the most effective rental forward available on the entire market, if an extension doesn’t materialize. Right-shot defenceman Dylan DeMelo, veteran Ron Hainsey and Borowiecki should also draw some interest.
Potentially goaltender Craig Anderson, too.
The ruthless dismantling of the 2017 Senators team that reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final has already crammed the organizational pipeline with intriguing young players and prospects, and left it with a surplus of future draft picks.
And Dorion’s got more cards to play.
Equipment changes, much like rule changes, don’t come about quickly or easily in the NHL.
But it’s notable that a discussion has started about the possibility of mandating wrist protection during a season where Martinez, Cal Clutterbuck and Ilya Mikheyev all suffered dangerous cuts from a skate blade.
That happened in a recent meeting of the laceration task force during all-star weekend in St. Louis — a gathering that brought together representatives from NHL hockey ops, the NHLPA, team trainers and medical personnel.
Coming out of that meeting, every team is now making the four approved brands of cut-resistant wrist guards available to players: Swiftwick, Cut Shield, CCM Bulletin and Kozo. The plan is for interested players to try those out during practices and games, and provide feedback before the task force meets again in June.
The league and players’ association ultimately control whether wrist protection will become a mandatory piece of equipment — with both having to sign off on that kind of change — but given the potentially catastrophic nature of these injuries, it’s getting serious consideration.
And it’s an important conversation to be having.
• Impressive turnout for the final game of the U.S./Canada Rivalry Series at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., on Saturday night: 13,320, setting a new record for the largest crowd at a U.S. national women’s game on home soil.
• Arizona, Toronto, Vancouver and San Jose have each traded away their 2020 first-round draft pick, but only the Sharks’ selection is free of conditions. It goes to Ottawa no matter what. As for the others: The Coyotes pick to New Jersey is top-three protected; the Leafs pick to Carolina is top-10 protected; and the Canucks pick to Tampa only transfers this year if Vancouver qualifies for the playoffs.
• Ilya Kovalchuk has two overtime goals during his rejuvenating 15 games with Montreal.
• Several NHL teams sent scouts to Stockholm for the Beijer Hockey Games international tournament over the weekend. They’re all looking to unearth the next Artemi Panarin, David Rittich or Ilya Mikheyev — among the diamond-in-the rough finds from Europe in recent years.