We recently sat down over coffee with the late-night host to chop it up about the moves those Western Canadian teams have made this off-season as all four try to position themselves for a return to the playoffs.
“What’s exciting about the late shift is breaking down the players in those games: McDavid, Gaudreau, Laine, Monahan,” Amber says. “This great group of young players on the Canadian teams, and it’s going to be exciting on Saturdays to showcase what they’re doing and the maturation in their games.
“To show these teams on the upswing. Teams heading in the right direction, and I don’t think it’s blind excitement. What Calgary has done in the last few weeks is exceptionally promising.”
Here is the rest of our conversation…
SPORTSNET.CA: Zero Canadian teams in the playoffs. That can’t happen again, so which ones make it in 2017?
DAVID AMBER: C’mon now. Put it this way: It’s hard to make promises about playoffs, but Calgary will be a much improved team. Calgary two years ago was a playoff team with great goaltending. Brian Elliott is a proven No. 1 goaltender. I like the direction they’re going. Troy Brouwer was one of the quietly great free agent pickups. He’s a leader. They have dynamic young players in [Johnny] Gaudreau and [Sean] Monahan. Here’s a guy to help them in that regard. You add [first-round pick Matthew] Tkachuk, if he makes the opening day roster.
Edmonton will be improved. I know Taylor Hall is gone, but they’re shoring up their defence with [Adam] Larsson. They had [fourth-overall pick Jesse] Puljujarvi fall to them. Connor McDavid healthy for a full year. Milan Lucic—they needed to get bigger and stronger. There is going to be improvement.
Last year, five of the bottom six teams were Canadian. All seven teams were in the bottom 12. That’s not going to happen again. The teams will be relevant again.
Clearly the Leafs will be more exciting and dynamic with Auston Matthews and if [Mitch] Marner and [William] Nylander make the team. Montreal will be better if Carey Price is healthy for the full year. So there’s an understandable excitement around the Canadian teams.
What did you make of the Subban trade?
It surprised me. It didn’t strike me as a hockey trade as much as it was shuffling the deck to get better chemistry on the team. I’m not in the dressing room, so I’m not to say what the specific issues were. I’m very reluctant, though, to trade a 26-year-old guy in his prime who’s as dynamic as P.K. is.
Shea Weber is an incredible player, an all-star, but he has four years and 300-plus more games under his belt—and that’s not a good thing. Subban is going to have an incredible year in Nashville. P.K. Subban is a game-changing player. I did a number of rinkside games in Montreal last year, so I watched them quite close. There are few guys in the league that have that innate ability, like P.K. or Erik Karlsson, to break a game. To move one of them in their prime is a dangerous move.
It could haunt them for years.
It really could. I wonder why they couldn’t try to resolve whatever issues there were to move on. When they were winning, everyone seemed to love P.K. Whether it was management or teammates, I’m not sure where the problems fell, but I think this could come back to bite them.
What do you make of the Canucks’ off-season?
The [Erik] Gudbranson deal I liked. A big, solid, 24-year-old blue-liner? I really like that deal. That was a smart move. The Loui Eriksson deal I liked. Another Swedish guy who will fit in well with the Sedins. He doesn’t have to play with them; they could spread out the offence a bit.
What’s going to happen with the Sedins is the big question for me. Jim Benning might be handcuffed because they’re a package: Move both of them? Move neither? Will they allow themselves to be moved? Of all the Canadian teams, they have more question marks surrounding the exact direction they’re heading in, but they also have some incredible chips to play.
Vancouver didn’t bottom out the way Calgary and Edmonton did, though a lot of people, myself included, think you need to bottom out. Although, with the Sedins, you can’t. They keep you at a certain level.
The Winnipeg Jets appear like the Western Canadian team most likely to get back in.
Of all the Canadian teams last year, they had the most disappointing end, how things unfolded. Adding [Patrik] Laine is a huge thing. I think he’s going to be a superstar, and we’ve seen another Finnish superstar go through there before. That’s going to inject good, young enthusiasm. A huge, fresh face. I love his brashness, almost cockiness. I think he’ll fit in nicely, and he’s ready to prove himself.
Can they play a more disciplined brand of hockey? That haunted them last year. They took a lot of penalties at the wrong time. Going into last year, they had the [Andrew] Ladd and [Dustin] Byfuglien contracts hanging over them. That played a bit of a role in what happened. On paper, the Jets have a good chance. The biggest thing working against them is they play in the toughest division in the toughest conference. Had they been in the Pacific Division last year, they might have made the playoffs.
You live in Toronto, but you’ve been staying up late to watch West Coast games, right?
Last two years I’ve been the host of the Edmonton Oilers’ regional games, so I’ve watched a ton of Western Conference hockey. I cannot wait to see what happens with Edmonton this year, and I don’t think Peter Chiarelli is done making moves. Connor McDavid is the most exciting player in the game, and we only got to see him for half a season.
Should he get the C this fall?
Why add that extra burden where he has to do every interview, pre-game and post-game. I don’t think at 19 years old you need to put that on him. Certainly he’s going to be the captain, but I don’t think you have to anoint him now. People understand his role on the team already. He’s going to have a leadership role because of his skill set. I think you can wait a year.
What was up with Taylor Hall? Was there something beyond hockey going on?
Peter Chiarelli’s No. 1 thing was he didn’t want to be inactive. They’ve tried that for four or five years—stick with the great young forwards. The skill set of those players is redundant in a sense. They need a guy like Milan Lucic to open up space for skill guys who can do creative things. Jordan Eberle is fantastic when he gets space, but he can’t always get space. Bring in Lucic, bring in Patrick Maroon, bring in [Zack] Kassian. Bring in some size and some weight like his Bruins teams, and it creates space for the skill players.
As far as Taylor Hall goes, I’d heard rumblings [of off-ice friction], but Chiarelli was pretty defiant that had any rationale (behind the decision) here. It may be addition by subtraction. We need new blood, new culture. Start things over. Hit the reset button. I think that’s what this was.