Quick Shifts: Anger, pain, trade speculation swirls in Buffalo

Montreal Canadiens general manager Mark Bergevin spoke to Hockey Central about why the opportunity for his team to get into the playoffs will be valuable experience for the Canadiens' younger, inexperienced players.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. New, improved lottery odds! You now have a 12.5 per cent chance of finishing this week’s column without getting bored to tears.

1. In recent springs, the end of the NHL’s regular season has triggered a hockey version of Black Monday. Hot seats, hotter quotes.

This year? More of a Grey Wednesday.

With only seven (instead of 15) clubs officially shuttering their campaigns this week, don’t expect much carnage. Detroit, Ottawa, Anaheim and Los Angeles have embraced patient rebuilds. And Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman said the coach on the perceived hottest seat, Jeff Blashill, is safe.

New Jersey, San Jose and especially Buffalo tread into more intriguing territory. They’ll have plenty of time to sit and think about what they did wrong.

San Jose’s Doug Wilson watched his group fall from the Western Conference final to outside the top 24. He’s vowing this season is an aberration and predicting a huge bounce back from Erik Karlsson as he tries to jump right back in the hunt next winter. For now, he’s leaving interim coach Bob Boughner to twist in the wind.

There’s obviously no rush, but the Devils need to start sorting out business from the top down. Do they remove the interim tag from GM Tom Fitzgerald? (Judging by his excellent trade deadline work, I’d vote yes.) They’re already interviewing head coaches. Do they hire one now, or wait to see if more candidates hit the market as more teams get eliminated?

Sabres coach Ralph Krueger may be one of the only people helping Jack Eichel from not losing his mind in Buffalo, and owner Kim Pegula already announced that Jason Botterill will return for a fourth season as GM.

“We can’t complain. It’s a waste of energy. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Krueger said Friday, balancing the fury with hope.

“What I feel right now in my heart is that this group, when they get to play again together, is going to be extremely hungry to work toward that next level. I really have that impression after 11 weeks of interaction with them.

“I know there’s pain out there, and I know there’s anger, but I feel so many positives after one year experience.”


2. Jack Eichel may well be the most valuable player to his team. (Hey, Mark Scheifele made that case.) But the Sabres’ failure to earn a spot among hockey’s top-24 teams in Eichel’s fifth season harms his Hart chances.

No matter how Herculean his efforts, Eichel’s task has been Sisyphean. The boulder rolls back down the hill. Listen below. This is feeling like rock bottom, or darn close.

In this arena, what is the value of the excellence if it ultimately leads to more losing?

Buffalo’s NHL-worst playoff drought (nine years) is more than twice as long as the second-worst slump (Detroit, four years). Eichel’s vent on Thursday echoed that of an entire worn-down fan base.

Holding court Friday, coach Krueger did his best to inject optimism about the future, which is easier to do when you’ve only been in the mud for a year.

Ryan O’Reilly is an optimistic cat, but a culture of coming up short eventually got to him. He found happiness elsewhere.

“Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” said Krueger, tackling Eichel’s honesty head-on.

“I like the anger. I have no problem with people outing frustration on the past. But then let’s move that conversation forward, real quick, and let’s figure out what we’re going to do about it.”

3. Just because the seven eliminated teams are free to make trades with each other, I’d be stunned to see any transaction of significance.

Why pitch to just 20 per cent of your trade market?

Add the fact that most deals involve movement of draft picks, and we don’t even know the draft order let alone the draft date, and I wouldn’t be refreshing your Twitter feed searching for that Rasmus Ristolainen blockbuster just yet.

Regarding Ristolainen, the 25-year-old defenceman with two more seasons at a $5.4-million cap hit, Botterill identified him as “a core player” and Krueger described him as “a centrepiece.”

“The National Hockey League is a world of moving pieces. I want to coach Risto next season,” Krueger said.

Ristolainen said he wants to win “if it’s in Buffalo or somewhere else” and realizes losing necessitates change.

“If changes will happen, I know I’m one of the first ones probably who is going to get traded. It’s part of the business and I’m ready, whatever happens. I have really enjoyed my time in Buffalo. It’s home for me,” said Ristolainen, who has begun wondering what a winning culture even looks like.

“I haven’t really seen it before or in Buffalo. I think this year we built our culture a little bit better than previous years,” he went on.

“We are young. I don’t know if a lot of guys have been in winning teams or winning organizations. Personally, I haven’t. Unfortunately, the team I played for when I was back in Finland it was in the same position, coach got fired every year, players got traded, GM got fired, so I don’t really know what is it. I haven’t seen it. I wish.”

It’s not imperative Botterill move Ristolainen to remodel the roster, and losing the O’Reilly trade so severely will make him think hard here.

The Sabres have committed less than half of the expected $81.5 million salary cap to their 2020-21 payroll, and there’s room to wiggle without, say, buying out Kyle Okposo or giving up on Jeff Skinner after a down season.

Committing to the right RFAs will be just as critical as trades, and there is a sense the highest profile one, Sam Reinhart, will present a challenging negotiation. The forward (and close pal of Eichel’s) now has arbitration rights.

“Buffalo has a bright future,” Ristolainen said, “but we’ve been saying the ‘bright future’ for seven years now when I’ve been here. And I’m not sure when is it?”

4. I totally respect the Lightning and Hurricanes for voting against the return-to-play format. Don’t agree? Speak your piece.

But there were two different tones struck by those franchises after the format was approved.

Player rep Alex Killorn and the Lightning released this fun, creative video, rooster-tailing toward Phase 2, while throwing lighthearted shade at rivals Boston and Toronto:

The most notable reaction from Carolina’s camp sprung from coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I think the bigger issue felt like, what was the 68 games we played for? What did we grind for?” Brind’Amour said on ESPN on Ice. “The bulk of the season was completed, and they just threw that out.”

The Hurricanes won one more game than their best-of-five opponent, the New York Rangers. The Rangers and Hurricanes played four times in the regular season. Carolina lost all four.

Boston president Cam Neely, too, voiced frustration at the minimal advantage his club has gained from a Presidents’ Trophy–winning effort. No home ice. No guarantee of top seeding.

Wiser is captain Zdeno Chara’s Zen-like approach.

“You can’t really blame anyone or feel that it’s unfair,” Chara said.

“We have to be grateful for the opportunity we’re getting. When you kind of look at (it) in a real-life perspective, what people’s families and businesses have gone through… and they will never get the same opportunities, so we have to be grateful for the opportunity.”

And then there was this rhetorical question to the bracket haters, from Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno: “If you’re that worried about all the situations, are you that confident in your group?”

5. Columbus is a strong candidate to be a hub city. And while the NHL is considering flying home teams away from their host city to negate any advantage, that seems a bit of a stretch with no fans in the crowd. (Would eastern teams really play in the Pacific time zone and vice versa?)

Foligno made clear he’ll chase a Cup wherever he is sent.

“It’s gonna be hard for me, I don’t doubt it for one second. But hopefully we can make sure it’s worth something and come back with a Stanley Cup, then my wife will forgive me for leaving her with three kids all this time,” Foligno said.

“It’s not easy. I don’t think anyone’s happy about the situation. You know, a big part of the NHL world is the family, focus on family. We always talk about that. I mean, that’s one of the mandates on our team: Family first, then hockey. So, it’s a hard thing to wrap your head around.”

Foligno gave a thoughtful answer to a hypothetical scenario where the Blue Jackets are competing in Columbus, but quarantined in a hotel with his wife and children living just down the street.

“You can’t really police somebody that hard when it comes to families. I mean, that’s a priority that trumps all, I think, in a lot of cases. So, you know, if somebody’s going to tell me I can’t see my family, there’s going to be a fight at some point — in that kind of setting,” he explained.

“I’ve gone away to world championships and haven’t seen my family for a month. That’s by choice. So, I think there’s got to be some better understanding or protocol for that, especially if we are in that city. I think guys will respect it. I don’t think guys are going to be ignorant. If that’s what’s needed to play, there is sacrifices everyone has to make. You know, I’ll be leaving my family here in Sudbury (Ont.) until it’s safe to have them return (to the U.S.), so there’d be a sacrifice on my part.

“But I could see if you’re in the same city, your family’s there, it’d be very hard not to want to see them, and I respect that because I’d probably be in the same boat. But I would assume there would be a visitation thing or something that they can be screened and tested as well, and that would have to come into play for the host cities that have families there. I mean, that’s just human. That’s just, to me, bigger than the game.”

6. Foligno, 32, is actively involved in the Players’ Association and the nuanced debates surrounding the potential return to hockey.

Lingering beyond that is new CBA and the long process of the league’s economic recovery. (Anyone else notice that zero hockey players appeared on Forbes’ list of the 100 highest-paid athletes of 2019?)

Foligno sent a strong call-out for his peers to get more involved in the business and future of the game they love.

“That’s where our players have to do a better job. It’s easy to voice your concerns after things, but let’s get involved a little bit more here, especially as this starts to get to crunch time. I urge all the players. Our team has been outstanding on getting on all the (NHLPA) calls; I think we had half or maybe more of our team on one of the calls. It’s also based on how your team stresses it,”

More information leads to better decision-making and high voter turnout.

With Foligno, David Savard and Seth Jones leading engagement in the Blue Jackets’ room, Foligno asserts, “There’s nothing we miss,” when it comes to union issues.

“If you want things done a certain way and you have a strong enough opinion, you gotta make sure you voice it. That’s the only way it’s gonna get heard,” Foligno said.

“I laugh. Someone told me: It’s the same thing as an election. If you’re not willing to go out and vote, you lose the right to have an opinion. That’s kinda the flow here. If you have a real concern – big or small – I urge any player in the league to get involved. The door’s open.”

7. Funny how life can work.

When coaches Peter DeBoer and John Hynes got fired midseason, it was as if they were absorbing all blame for the Sharks and Devils being not so great at hockey.

Now, their old clubs are in the middle of what could be a — what? — 10-month off-season, and DeBoer and Hynes are busy gearing up for a shot at the Cup.

DeBoer, who reached the Cup final with both the Sharks and Devils, made a pretty bold statement on his Golden Knights, who earned themselves a bye into the Sweet 16.

“It’s the most talented team I’ve had in my coaching career,” DeBoer said on The Chirp with Daren Millard podcast. “It seems like a great combination of talent and character and leadership.”

“I’m a big believer that everything that happens in hockey happens for a reason,” DeBoer said. “One door closing, the way my career has gone, another door opens with a better opportunity. For me, as tough as it was to leave San Jose 33 games after going to the (2019 Western Conference final), the Vegas situation is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

As for Hynes, it seems like poetry that his Predators will be facing off in the qualification round against Taylor Hall’s Coyotes. So, while New Jersey’s interim GM looks to hire a not-so-interim coach, the two most significant castaways of the 2019-20 Devils live on to battle each other.

8. A low-key advantage of starting an expansion franchise is the ability to create this type of brand synergy with your farm club.

Given a blank canvas, the Golden Knights came up with a pretty great name and logo for their newly unveiled AHL club, the Henderson Silver Knights.

The warhorse supporting the knight, the silver being one step below gold, the horse’s golden eyes focused on the prize of elevating to the next level… there’s a lot going on here.

Also: Nevada, the Silver State, is home to the largest wild horse population in the U.S.

I’ve always been a massive fan of subtly disguised letters in team logos, a contributing factor to my purchase of old-school Milwaukee Brewers and Montreal Expos caps.

Vegas and Henderson have done some nifty work with the V and H. Man, this franchise does marketing right.

9. The NHL’s return-to-play plans hog all the headlines, understandably. But more important in my household (and perhaps yours) is our return to play. My son has been asking about when he can lace up his skates again, and I’ve been wondering the same about my summer shinny.

While games are still a no-no, interestingly (and perhaps predictably) the independent rink we normally play at is already booked solid every day with small-group or individual training sessions, presumably being conducted at a social distance. We can’t imagine that ice coming cheap.

The Greater Toronto Hockey League formed an 18-person committee to drum up ways to cut costs for kids in the upcoming 2020-21 season and surveyed parents with some yes-or-no questions surrounding the return of minor hockey in the city.

In some cases, the questions themselves are as interesting results:

10. Us writer types typically cast our NHL Awards votes after the regular season but before the puck drops on the playoffs. I was curious if voting might now be delayed until after the play-in qualification round and if individual performances in that brief lead-up to the playoffs could sway some tight races.

Not so.

The PHWA plans to vote before the 24-team tournament begins.

At the time ballots are collected, MVP candidate Artemi Panarin will have brought his team just as deep as Leon Draisaitl brought his. Calder candidate Cale Makar will have helped the Avalanche to higher stage than Quinn Hughes (top rookie scorer) did the Canucks. John Carlson is guaranteed a playoff spot; Roman Josi isn’t.

Curious to see if team standing has any impact on the voters’ decisions.

11. I remember laughing my spleen out the first time I saw this Conan O’Brien bit where the talk-show host practises with the Maple Leafs, but I’d completely forgot about the sketch until Team Coco resurfaced it on social media this week.

Thinking a smile wouldn’t hurt this week.

12. Line of the week.

During a media Zoom conference this week, a reporter asked Bruins president Cam Neely how the social distancing has been treating him.

Neely’s snap deadpan: “Oh, I’ve been practising that for years.”

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