A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. So what if NHLers aren’t participating in the next Olympics?
Only one member of Team Canada’s IIHF World Championship roster was not recruited from the NHL, and his journey is a wonderful one that bucks convention.
Ontario-born, Nashville-based Chris Lee played four years of NCAA Division III as a forward before finally making his first pro team, the ECHL’s Florida Everblades. That was two lockouts ago. He’s now 36.
Toward the end of his first season in Florida, he was pushed back to defence.
“I had a position shift at 25 years old, and I was willing to accept that opportunity,” Lee told a Vancouver sports radio station. “Maybe I should’ve started playing defence a little earlier.”
It took Lee three seasons to graduate to the AHL, a stint that culminated when Pittsburgh called him up for an NHL game versus the Senators in 2009-10. Mark Eaton had awoke that morning with back spasms, and it appeared Lee’s big-league debut was imminent.
The veteran prospect took pre-game warmups in Ottawa before Dan Bylsma informed him Eaton was good enough to go after all. So Lee worked out, watched the game with the injured Penguins and flew away from his dream.
By the time Lee neared 30, he ventured to Europe to collect hockey paycheques and see the sights. First the German league, then the Swedish, then the KHL — each circuit of higher calibre than the previous one. One year swelled into seven, his wife and children patiently waiting in Tennessee.
“For some reason I keep getting better as I get older, and I have trouble explaining it,” Lee said.
When Canada’s Tyson Barrie got injured play-wrestling a teammate in the hotel (true story), Lee was summoned from the press box. He has two assists and 13 shots through five games for his country. In Canada’s 3-2 win over France, only Marc-Edouard Vlasic skated more than Lee’s 20:07.
Lee will be 37 when the puck drops on the 2017-18 NHL season, but he’d love to relocate his Cinderella story back to North America. So he turned down a chance to re-sign with KHL power Metallurg Magnitogorsk to become a free agent. Imagine: An NHL debut at 37 years old?
Canada is advancing to a semifinal versus Russia on Saturday and has a great chance to three-peat. This is Lee’s showcase. He said “a couple teams” are kicking tires already.
“Things work out for funny reasons sometimes,” Lee said. “This is one of the biggest things I’ve got to experience.
“I’m just living in the moment.”
2. Toronto’s Mike Babcock left scouting the worlds early to catch Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference final in Nashville. Apparently he was offered a spot in a suite for Game 3 but figured he could get lost in the Bridgestone Arena crowd. Shoulda worn mustard.
The Maple Leafs want to secure a defenceman. They added two more lefties this week with depth signings out of Sweden.
The Ducks are the perfect trade partner. Babcock needs a right shot for his top four.
Sami Vatanen, 25, offers cost certainty for three years at a $4.875-million cap hit. That price slides nicely between the salaries of Morgan Rielly ($5 million) and Nikita Zaitsev ($4.5 million).
Cheaper, less-experienced right-shot options are Brandon Montour, 23, and Josh Manson, 25.
3. A second theory.
What if Babcock and Lou Lamoriello are also looking at veteran centre Mike Fisher, who’s set to become a free agent? Purely a hunch, but I doubt Brian Boyle returns to Toronto.
Now, Nashville wouldn’t like to lose its captain two summers in a row, and a guy married to Carrie Underwood is probably happy in Music City, but the Predators are about to shell out a lot of dough to give forwards Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson raises.
When the Preds came through Toronto in the winter, Babcock was asked an innocuous question about Fisher helping Nashville.
He gave this long, complimentary answer:
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know Fish at all. I just know from coaching against him that he competes every night, he’s a heavy body, he’s 56 per cent in the face-off circle. He does it right. He’s a pro,” Babcock said.
“So how much better does he make their penalty kill? Because he does it right, he makes everyone else do it right. That’s what you want from your older guys. You want your older guys to set the tone not by what they say but by what they do. Fisher, to me, is a good example of that.”
Fisher was injured in Game 4. He is from Peterborough, Ont.
4. George McPhee has a history with Alex Ovechkin. McPhee is managing a Vegas Golden Knights team whose depth chart is pretty wide open on left wing. McPhee spoke publicly and favourably about Ovechkin in light of the Capitals’ exit from playoffs.
“I was disappointed that people were pointing fingers at Alex,” said McPhee (via the Washington Post).
“Because Alex does nothing but show up every year, produce at an elite level in the playoffs and in the regular season, hits like a truck and doesn’t miss games, plays through everything. And I was disappointed that people were pointing fingers at him.”
In that same Post, er, post, talk-show host Larry King also sticks up for Ovechkin. The world is not completely filled with Great Eight hate.
“Knocking Ovechkin is like knocking Chris Paul for not winning an NBA championship, Ernie Banks for never winning a World Series. It’s crazy. Ovechkin is a superior player. Did he give up that one defensive lapse? Yes. But the guy who won that game  was Fleury. It wasn’t the Penguins. It was Fleury!” King said.
“The Caps should have had five goals in the second period. How is that choking?… The Caps are a better team. The Caps are a better team than the Penguins, but Fleury won that game. But that doesn’t mean they choked.”
5. Even with all his healthy and unhealthy scratchings, Nail Yakupov skated in about half of the St. Louis Blues’ games this season. He was less effective than he ever was in an Oilers uniform.
Three goals. Six assists.
Over 292 NHL games played, he’s a minus-91 player. He didn’t participate in the playoffs due to knee surgery. To call Yakupov the biggest first-overall bust since Patrik Stefan isn’t fair to Patrik Stefan.
But! He’s only 23. There is time for a resurgence. (And, no, he’s not Chris Lee. A move to defence probably isn’t the solution.)
Yakupov is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1. He’s a $2.5 million player. Fat chance the Blues qualify him, and Yakupov should be exposed in the expansion draft.
He reportedly is not interested in a return to the KHL, where he put up 18 points in 22 games waiting for the NHL to end its 2012 lockout.
Surely he’s worth a short-term, small-money gamble in Vegas or another club desperate for offence, like L.A.
6. Italy finished dead last in the 16-team IIHF World Championship, but it’s the way it went out that’s kinda embarrassing. This own-goal by Alexander Egger is an all-timer. Egad:
Italy and the tournament’s other winless team, Slovenia, will be relegated in 2018.
7. On a more positive note, William Nylander is having a killer tournament, his first as a member of Sweden’s senior men’s club.
The Toronto Maple Leafs wing is lighting it alongside Nicklas Backstrom, a man partially responsible for cutting his first playoff experience short.
Nylander’s six goals and six assists lead all Swedes and place him third overall in tournament scoring, behind only Russian superstars Artemi Panarin and Nikita Kucherov.
“William is a world-class talent. When you put him with Backstrom you’re going to see some magic,” teammate Victor Hedman told the IIHF site. “Backstrom played with William’s dad [Michael] in Washington so there’s some chemistry already.”
8. A popular response to Ryan Johansen’s comments on Ryan Kesler’s unsavoury style was, “Oh, boy. Kesler is in his head. He’s got him right where he wants him.”
It’s a juicy storyline except for facts. Johansen outplayed the Ducks’ antagonistic centre by almost every measure in this series.
Johansen has one goal, three assists, three even-strength points, nine hits, and is a plus-4.
Kesler has no goals, one assist, no even-strength points, four hits, and is a minus-1. He does have more face-off wins and jock shots, but he always has more face-off wins and jock shots.
A more reasonable conclusion to draw from Johansen’s funny complaint would be that he was trying to indirectly point the officials’ attention toward Kesler for Game 3.
9. Senators defenceman Chris Wideman has difficulty falling asleep after games.
“I read. I try to read and calm the mind a little bit. The night before games, sometimes you sleep, sometimes you don’t,” he says.
“I read a lot of [athlete] biographies. I can’t really get into what I’m reading right now. It’s kind of personal, but I like to read and learn from other people.”
10. Although he’s in a slump of late, your playoff goal-scoring co-leader is Jake Guentzel, a veteran of 55 career NHL games. The 22-year-old was born in Nebraska. He’s a mid-season call-up, skating on Sidney Crosby’s right and every fourth puck he shoots finds twine. Hockey people were still asking him how he pronounces his surname Wednesday (it’s GEN-zel, silent T, by the way).
I asked him if any of this feels real.
“No,” he said. “Not at all. I’m trying to pinch myself.”
11. I asked Bobby Ryan, a practitioner of Ottawa’s suffocating 1-3-1 trap, about the most difficult defence he’s ever confronted and how that affects an offence-hungry player mentally.
“Thinking back now, going into New Jersey years ago was always tough when I first came in, with the way they played. They were able to keep us outside all night, and you felt like you had the puck all night, but you wound up with two shots and a minus-1 somehow every time you went in there,” Ryan said.
“During the regular season. You don’t worry about it as much because you’re playing them once and you’re moving on. When you’re dealing with them seven games in a row, you have a chance to try to crack it.
“Mentally, when you get into those games — and I can only speak for myself going into that building — by the third period, you’re extremely frustrated because you felt like you weren’t inside all night. You felt like you couldn’t get to the net.”
12. The Penguins should start this guy in Game 4: