A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Yes, we’ll trade your player before he packs his bags and exits the bubble.
1. When I spotted Dale Hawerchuk at a charity event — because that is where you spotted Hawerchuk in his 50s — the reporter in me was taken over by the kid in me who was raised in awe of ’80s hockey.
I got the kind of nervous one gets when they have a chance to meet someone they admired growing up, but I knew I’d kick myself if I let a chance to request an interview slip. I say meet your heroes. They’re not all jerks.
So, three playoffs ago, well before his diagnosis, Hawerchuk was kind enough to sit for a beer to simply talk hockey with a stranger holding a mini recorder.
Upon learning of his death Tuesday — at 57, much too young — I Googled back to re-read our conversation. Here are a few highlights to give you a glimpse into how he viewed some stars of today.
On Jonathan Toews: “People ask me who I cheer for, and you have a closeness with the teams you played for. But honestly, I just love watching a good game. Jonathan Toews is the epitome of a great centreman. He’s the Bryan Trottier of this era. Not because they’ve won Cups, just the way they played. So selfless. But they’ve had good wingers. When I teach my kids, I say, ‘Let’s watch video on Jonathan Toews. That’s how you play in your own end. If you want to learn positioning, he’s the guy.’ ”
On Mark Schiefele: “Some people say I’m a players’ coach, I’m an offensive coach, I’m a creative coach, whatever. I never want to take that away from a player. The guys who play for me know it all starts before they get the puck. If you’re not good defensively, you don’t get the amount of touches you want to get. Mark has learned that so well. Each year in our league (the OHL) he got better and better. Now I watch him in the pros, he’s one of the top centres in the league. If you want to be the best, you have to keep pushing yourself. He’s a pusher.
“He was the dream kid coming into junior hockey. His attitude surpasses so many people’s. He loves walking into the rink, grinning ear to ear, and can’t wait to work hard. He almost makes the coach’s job easier because he pushes the pace all the time, and everyone tries to keep up. People don’t know this: They think I really steered Winnipeg onto Mark. No. Winnipeg called me once. They said, ‘We just interviewed this kid. Is he really for real?’ That was their only question. I said, ‘Oh, yeah. He’s the real deal.’ He blows you away when you meet him — you see the passion in his personality, and he brings it out in his game.”
On not being named to the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players list when he totally should’ve been: “A lot of people called wanting to interview me. I said, ‘Look. It’s 100 years. That’s one player a year.’ There’s so many great players on the list; there’s so many great players off the list. I didn’t lose any sleep over it. It would’ve been an honour, for sure. It’s not going to change my life. A lot of people that were there came back and told me that a lot of the (top-100) guys were saying that (I should’ve been included). You know what? Everyone’s got their opinion. It is what it is. I watched it; it was great. I loved all those players. I was a student of the game. I love the history of the game. Those old guys — they were great players. How can you argue with that?
On coaching against a young Connor McDavid: “His speed. Think how fast the game is. Who thought someone could be that much quicker than the rest? It’s like Bobby Orr when he broke in. And his vision’s like Gretz — sees everybody on the ice. Pretty good release. Mario had that release, that quick snapshot. He used to play in a summer hockey league here with OHL guys. He was worth the price of admission, and it was free to get in. (laughs) Some of the stuff he’d do was incredible, and it was on a nightly basis. Only a select few like him come along.”
Ditto for Dale.
2. Teams curious about acquiring Johnny Gaudreau from the Calgary Flames this off-season must absolutely be concerned about his ability to perform in big moments. Gaudreau’s 0.96 career points-per-game production rate in the regular season shrinks to 0.63 points per game come playoff time.
But there will be a great financial incentive here. Once Gaudreau collects his $3.5-million signing bonus cheque for 2020-21, an acquiring club could get two seasons of a dynamic offensive weapon and great power-play asset for a total of $10 million.
In an era where plenty of owners are looking to save money, that’s fantastic value for a player who gets you 60-plus points in his sleep. Worst case, if he’s not a good fit, Gaudreau would make a heckuva deadline rental at the 2022 deadline.
Think of a potential Gaudreau trade along the lines of Toronto’s Phil Kessel deal to Pittsburgh: Don’t expect him to be The Man to carry your team, but he’s absolutely valuable as a complementary star if cast in the proper role.
Understanding the pros and cons, the Penguins sacrificed futures and may not have won a Cup or two had they not been so bold. As for the Maple Leafs, they understood they were giving away the best player, but it was time.
Neither side regrets the trade.
3. Given 48 hours to calm down, John Tortorella was much more generous with insight into his eliminated Blue Jackets Friday than he was after his group let a Game 5 lead slip to Tampa.
Tortorella shared his thoughts on Pierre-Luc Dubois’s development and the two-sided coin that is Alexander Wennberg’s infuriating/encouraging performance.
He also gave us a window into his end-of-season process. Tortorella explained why he still hasn’t spoken to his players after the loss and now allows management to handle all exit interviews.
“It just doesn’t prove beneficial, with all the emotions being so raw, to speak with the players right after the season. So, I stopped doing those exit meetings,” Tortorella said.
“The coach and the players are with one another every day, especially in the bubble here. I’ll wait a couple weeks. And during the summer I tick along and talk to players that way instead.
“Players need a release. After the series, they go out and enjoy themselves a little bit.”
4. So much is made of the New York Islanders’ suffocating defensive game, and rightly so, but it’s time to give Barry Trotz’s offence some love.
The Isles arrived to the Toronto bubble with the second-weakest regular-season offence (to Columbus). In making relatively quick work of the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals, the Islanders lead all Eastern Conference teams in both post-season goals (30) and goals per game (3.33).
Through nine games, New York has seen six players pitch in a minimum of three goals apiece and seven players contribute a minimum of five points.
The second line of Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey, in particular, is on a heater, racking up a total of 26 points.
— Empire State Building (@EmpireStateBldg) August 21, 2020
5. May we all be blessed with some Nathan MacKinnon confidence.
When the Hart Trophy finalist was asked if he felt tired after logging 21:30 in Colorado’s Game 2 win over Arizona, if he was concerned about playing Game 3 with under 24 hours’ rest, this was his response:
“No. It’s why I win fitness testing every year. I’ll be buzzing tomorrow.”
MacKinnon then went out and skated 23:33 on the second half of a back-to-back. He’s an animal. Of his eight games since the NHL returned to action, MacKinnon has recorded at least a point in each one and erupted for four points en route to eliminating the Coyotes in Game 5.
6. There is no obligation for an NHL star to take a political or social stance, but it is refreshing when a guy like Blake Wheeler feels increasingly comfortable using his voice.
7. In reference to the wagon that is the Colorado Avalanche and all the hype around a playoff star Nazem Kadri, Kris Versteeg brought up an interesting point on Will Butcher.
Speaking on Sportsnet’s Lead Off, Versteeg whisked us back to the summer of 2017, when Colorado’s hockey team was in the dumpster and the Hobey Baker Award winner decided to spurn the club that drafted him and exercise his rights as an NCAA free agent.
Butcher instead signed with the New Jersey Devils. Versteeg wondered if Butcher could even crack the Avs’ top six today. Erik Johnson–Nikita Zadorov is a pretty sturdy third pairing.
Incredible how much a couple short years can change perspective on hockey decisions that seem like a good idea at the time.
8. Rod Brind’Amour and Torey Krug touched on the oppressive nature of being stuck in the bubble during the Bruins-Hurricanes series. Washington Capitals coach Todd Reirden alluded to the bubble as motivational hindrance to his group.
Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness dived in on this unique challenge after his team booted the Calgary Flames 7-3 in a sloppy Game 6:
“It’s tough to explain, but I don’t think people understand how tough it is living in the bubble,” Bowness said post-game. “This bubble living is not what you think it is. Until you’re living it day to day, you don’t understand what everyone is going through.
“Did we have a messy start? Yeah. Did they kind of lose it a little bit? Yeah. You look around the league and that’s what’s happening, but a lot of it has to do with [living in a bubble].
“I can only speak for myself. I’ve gone a couple of days where I haven’t even gone outside. Because the way we’re set up here, the hotel is connected to the rink, so you walk from the hotel through the tunnel, get to the rink, then you go back to your room. You’ve really got to make a concerted effort just to get outside and get some fresh air.”
Bowness gave credit to league’s safety and testing protocol, which has a perfect record thus far.
“That being said, it’s not like we’re walking out to a park. We’re going to a courtyard and there’s three other teams sitting there. You go to the gym and you’re working out with the people that you’re playing against that night.
“Again, kudos to the league. But people think living in a bubble is great. It’s tough. It’s mentally tough, and everyone’s making the best of it.”
Stray thought: I wonder how much the Eastern Conference teams that advance to the final four will benefit mentally from a simple change of scenery, a slight shakeup in city and surroundings. A new bubble.
9. David Krejci, 34, finished fifth in team scoring during the regular season but has raised his game in the bubble.
Like most Bruins, Boston’s second-line centre coasted through the round-robin, but he exploded for eight points in Boston’s five-game series victory over Carolina, filled in admirably for David Pastrnak on the top power-play unit, and now leads the team in points (nine).
Over his career, only Ray Bourque has amassed more post-season points as a Bruin.
President Cam Neely compares Krejci’s offensive approach to that of unsung ’90s star centre Craig Janney, who consistently put up 751 points over a 760-game career.
“He makes those nice, soft, feathery passes. He’s more of a pass-first guy, but he’s worked on his shot. He’s scored some big goals for us over the years in the postseason, but he sees the ice extremely well,” Neely said.
“He does like to slow the pace down a little bit when he gets into the offensive zone. He really wants to see what his options are to move the puck. What I’ve found with him over the years is that if he doesn’t see a pass right away, he won’t be afraid to put it on net.”
10. The founders of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which runs the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia 76ers, is doing much more than tweeting a supportive statement.
HBSE unveiled a company-wide plan to fight systemic racism, beginning with a pledge of $20 million to fighting systemic racism and championing equality, including a $10 million contribution from the 76ers to the NBA’s new foundation to drive economic empowerment in Black communities.
“As leaders and stewards of community pillars, the eyes of the world are on us to do better, and they should be. While we will never be able to correct the past harm and injustice faced by Black Americans, it’s our duty to provide resources that enable tangible action and greater opportunities for equality,” HBSE Founder Josh Harris said in a release.
“We are committing to a fundamental change in our business strategy by embedding our organization with Black communities and businesses through significant and sustained investment and support. We are deeply committed to fighting for a better, more inclusive future and we pledge to be leaders in doing so.”
11. Keep an eye on the Columbus Blue Jackets this off-season. They have no unrestricted free agents to take care of and cap space to spare.
“Everybody’s screaming about our power play. How can we make that better? How can we better hold the lead at the end of games? Those are things we’ll have conversations,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said Friday.
“I don’t believe in the July 1 signings to be the answer or recipe for success. That’s been shown very many times. It’s going to be a different date, obviously, this off-season. But growing from within is going to be a key for us.”
Top-line centre Pierre-Luc Dubois (restricted free agent), who thrived under playoff pressure, is deserving of a hefty raise but lacks arbitration rights. Second-pairing defenceman Vladislav Gavrikov, too, needs a manageable pay bump.
Most franchises would kill for a goalie tandem and blue line at the price point Kekalainen has built, and the list of affordable, young forwards here — Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alexandre Texier, Eric Robinson, Liam Foudy — is enticing.
While so many Eastern Conference contenders are struggling with a flat cap ceiling, there is opportunity in Columbus to bring in another impact forward or two either via free agency or trade.
Judging by the tea leaves, we’d be shocked if RFA Josh Anderson isn’t used as a trade piece. The Jackets are flush with physical middle-six wingers, and competitors will want what he brings. Anderson’s recovery timeline is Sept. 2.
“It’s easy to be the armchair GM, or whatever they call it, and say, ‘OK, trade this guy for that guy.’ There’s 30 other teams,” Kekalainen reminded. “They’re all pretty smart people, and they don’t just give away their players. It’s a little harder to make a trade than a lot of people imagine.”
12. Some personal news.
For the first time in 163 days, I played shinny this week. It was weird and sanitized. The benches were shortened, the dressing rooms were locked, and I had to arrive at the rink in full gear like a six-year-old.
Also: It was glorious.
That was the longest I’ve gone without making errant passes and shooting pucks directly into the goalie’s logo in my adult life.
I realized I missed playing the game even more than I missed reporting on it.
Here’s to a return of beer leagues and kids’ leagues, however cautiously it has to come.