A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. If nothing changes, John Tavares will become an unrestricted free agent in less than six months.
The heart, soul and face of the New York Islanders is on target for the greatest season of his life in the most important season of his life.
If he can maintain his pace for another 41 games, Tavares will finish with a career-high 44 goals, 100 points and is my bet to scoop the Hart Trophy — if the Isles make the playoffs.
That’s a heck of an if.
Despite his heroics, and the emergence of Josh Bailey and Mathew Barzal, the Islanders rank dead last in goals against and their penalty kill is an open invitation.
The year New York must prove to its star that it can go deep in the playoffs, the club has lost four straight, allowing a head-shaking 21 goals over that tiny span, and has tumbled out of playoff position.
Tavares himself is smartly keeping mum on his future and concentrating on filling nets, so Thursday we asked his former teammate and good friend Matt Martin if he’s surprised Tavares is still unsigned.
Martin was thoughtful in his response.
“I don’t know if I’m surprised. Few players earn the right to take their time and make a decision with where they want to play the rest of their life. He’s earned that right,” Martin said.
“I know for sure he loves Long Island. He loves being there. He’s weighing his options, and he’s put himself in a position to do that, so why wouldn’t he take advantage of that? I don’t know every detail that goes through his mind, but he should be able to take his time.
“It’s a pretty important decision because it’s the next seven or eight years, whether he decides to go or stay. That’s probably where he’ll close out his career. He’s a focused guy who’s having a great season again. He knows his contract situation can be solved quickly, so he’s taking his time.”
Martin winters in Toronto but still spends his off-seasons on Long Island. He believes the Belmont Park arena deal was of utmost importance to the community and the hockey business.
“For players signing, knowing there’s a permanent home is only going to help,” Martin explained.
“Getting an arena back on Long Island is big for the fan base, big for the organization, and big for the players. I think they make a bigger deal of the commute to Brooklyn [than necessary], but there was always a rift: Fans want the team in Long Island. It’s important they have a home, and people can be confident they won’t end up elsewhere.
“The new ownership has done everything they can to make it a first-class organization, and it sounds like this Belmont rink won’t be any different.”
The unknowable question remains: Does Tavares believe he can win where he is now?
If he’s waited this long, why wouldn’t he, like Steven Stamkos, at least peek behind the curtain and talk to the opposition during the late-June UFA courting period?
2. Evengy Kuznetsov is one of my favourite NHL characters.
With the Washington Capitals back in familiar confines, the Metropolitan crow’s nest, the centreman decided to try his hand at tending goal during practice Thursday because hockey can still be for fun:
Grubauer is out there shooting on him, too. pic.twitter.com/qTY4jcMlQ8
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) January 4, 2018
According to the Washington Post‘s Isabelle Khurshudyan, Kuznetsov was granted permission from coach Barry Trotz to strap on some of his teammates’ old gear and flop in front of a few pucks, on one condition: “Do not get hurt.”
Kuznetsov made an undisclosed bet with defenceman Dmitry Orlov that he could outduel his teammate and countryman in a shootout — and was victorious.
“We have a challenge and we play not for fun,” Kuznetsov told Khurshudyan. “He lose twice, so he got to get better…. I picked the not the toughest opponent, you know?”
Whatever Kuznetsov won, “it will taste better for sure.”
3. The year the NHL cracks down on face-off cheating, Logan Couture — who memorably called attention to the act — stops taking face-offs.
For the first time in his career, the San Jose Sharks centre should finish with fewer than 300 draws, less than a third of the number he’d normally take during a healthy 82-game slate.
Couture, who wins just 41 per cent of the 3.9 draws he does take per game, says he doesn’t miss it at all. He hates them. The task has been shifted to his second-line winger, Tomas Hertl, who’s humming along at a 51.1 per cent success rate. The definition of a centreman is getting flexible.
The common trend with young pivots is increased face-off success with experience, but Couture watched his winning percentage drop in each of the past four seasons and hit a career-low 39.4 per cent over 753 draws last season, so Peter DeBoer’s tactic makes sense.
“I’m glad I don’t take ’em,” Couture says. “Hertl’s good at them.”
In an unrelated story, Couture is on pace for his first 30-goal season in six years.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning bench boss Jon Cooper tapped Mitchell Marner on the shoulder with a IIHF World Championship gold medal on the line for Team Canada in a shootout last spring.
Marner missed, and Canada settled for silver, but the very mention of the kid’s name gave Cooper pause Tuesday.
“Mitch Marner… so many things in my head right now,” said Cooper, grinning.
“Tell us all of them,” I suggested.
“I wish. I want to. I’d rather he be here, though, when I said them. He was a pleasure to coach for me. His hockey IQ is off the charts, but the one thing I loved about him… you can be the gold medal game and it can be 1-1 and there’s tension all over the place, but if there’s one guy who knows how to break the tension, it’s Mitch Marner.
“But his competitive nature, the way he sees the game, is unreal. We ended up not winning the game, but it was a meritocracy of who was going to shoot in the shootout, and he was one of the guys. He meant so much to our team and a big reason why we finished where we did.”
As he walked away from the microphones, Cooper turned, shook his head and said, “Mitch Marner… what a beauty.”
5. The morning before Nazem Kadri tore off a chunk of Joe Thornton’s beard, the Sharks held an optional skate.
San Jose coach Pete DeBoer spoke about how he’s encouraging his veterans to take the option and save their legs for the game. Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski obeyed their coach Thursday; Thornton, however, elected to get the blood running early.
“Even though Jumbo’s out there today, Burns stayed off, Pavs stayed off. They’ve recognized over the time I’ve been there the value in it. They don’t always take my advice; they ignore it sometimes,” DeBoer said. “I think we’ve worn them down a little bit on it, and I think it’s helped.”
Thornton, 38, explained why he chose practice over some bonus downtime.
“You’ve just got to loosen up the old body, just get a little sweat in. I’ve always done it. I’m not going to change now,” he said.
“If you want to stick around for 15, 20 years, you have to have a love of the game, a passion for the game. You gotta enjoy coming to the rink every day, and I sure do.”
Evidently, he was prepared for puck drop.
6. The clean-shaven Marleau gets his share of funny looks from fellow players when they discover one of his mid-game peculiarities.
“You do what?!” they say.
Marleau will often gear down and go hop in the team cold tub to shock his senses during the second intermission. It’s partly to cool off, but mostly it’s to give his body the illusion that he’s getting ready to start the game, even though it’s already 40 minutes deep.
It’s become part of league lore.
“When I was playing in Philly, [one-time Shark] Jody Shelley mentioned that to me, that [Marleau] liked to do that,” Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk says.
“I didn’t think much of it until I saw him playing his first game with us here. He just jumped in and out of the cold tub to give his body a little shock before the third period. Whatever works…. You can’t really argue with the success he’s had with it.”
7. Talk is nice, but the Vegas Golden Knights got real about changing The Plan when they re-signed Jonathan Marchessault to a hard-earned, six-year, $30-million extension this week. The plan has changed.
Marchessault would’ve been the world’s greatest expansion team’s best trade asset this winter, with his scoring touch and $750,000 salary making him easy to slide under any contender’s cap.
Interesting that Marchessault, 27, will carry the exact same cap hit as fellow Florida castoff Reilly Smith, 26, Vegas’s only core forwards signed beyond 2020.
Eyes now shift toward James Neal, 30, and David Perron, 29, who are both older and may be hunting the kind of payday that sets them up for life.
Does GM George McPhee simply treat the veteran wingers as his own playoff rentals, or does he try to lock them up for shorter-term deals? Selling either at the risk of disrupting the Golden magic seems unwise, as many teams would kill for the chemistry going on in Sin City.
The Knights’ marketing department has smart timing.
At the height of an eight-game winning streak and the Marchessault signing and the national buzz, the club began pushing a “Can’t Wait List” for 2018-19 season ticket buyers for the 2018-19 season.
A deposit of 100 bucks gives you first dibs on where you sit to watch the Knights defend the Cup.
There’s more. Vegas drops two official Golden Knights wines on Jan. 15.
The 2015 VGK Chalone Chardonnay — “hints of lemon, nectarine, apricot, orange zest and vanilla” — and VGK Foley Johnson Meritage — “flavours of black plum, currants and cherry notes with hints of toasty baking spices and vanilla accents” — are each priced at $50 a bottle.
8. On Dec. 19, van Riemsdyk scored the 20,000th goal in Maple Leafs history and had no idea of its historical relevance.
“I broke that stick I scored the goal with, so it’s kinda funny. They had to do some dumpster-diving to find it. I don’t know if they found all of it. I know they found the bottom half,” JVR told me.
The stick, or what was salvaged of it by the Air Canada Centre staff, will be displayed in the Hockey Hall of Fame later this year.
“The puck? There’s going to be some negotiations for that still. We’ll see what happens,” he said. “Maybe I can get a sliver of it.”
Must feel unique to be included in the Hall of Fame when you’re still active, eh? Yeah, van Riemsdyk says, but it’s a case of been there, done that.
“It’s kinda funny. It happened after world juniors, too. I think I had a pair of gloves in there for a while,” JVR says. “To be part of the history of the game is a cool thing.”
9. The last time the Czech Republic competed for a medal at the world juniors, a teenage Roman Polak won bronze. That was 13 years ago in snowy Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Outside of the 2016 Clarence S. Campbell Bowl he helped win as a Sharks rental, that’s the closest Polak has ever come to a major championship. Yet he has no idea where he put his WJC medal.
“Why do I need the medal?” Polak said. “I know I won it.”
Line of the week.
10. Not unlike the way Charlie McAvoy soaks knowledge from Zdeno Chara, it’s difficult to overstate the impact Tampa’s seasoned defensive studs like Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are having on 19-year-old Mikhail Sergachev.
“It’s huge when you watch them play. They’re so good — with the puck, without the puck, anywhere on the ice. I don’t just watch my videos. Sometimes I watch Heddy’s videos. It helps me a lot,” Sergachev told me this week.
Play-making comes naturally to the offensive-minded rookie, so he studies Hedman’s D-zone play.
“He has a great stick and good body position—that’s what I’m trying to learn from him. It’s almost all positioning,” explained Sergachev. Despite being only 40 games into his NHL career, he doesn’t feel overwhelmed.
“If you’re in good position, nobody’s going to get around you—even Auston Matthews. He’s a special player, sometimes he will, but most of the time, if you’re in the right position, he won’t.”
Just one of a list of reasons Tampa is on a ridiculous 13-3-1 run since Nov. 28.
11. The worst among us came out after Patrick Maroon clipped Drew Doughty’s head. Doughty immediately forgave the hard-nosed Oilers forward, who was served a two-game ban; a select few Edmonton fans did not.
Maroon’s girlfriend, Francesca Vangel, tweeted that she was threatened by some Oilers fans over the incident.
Kelly Talbot, goalie Cam’s wife, voiced her support for Vangel on Twitter: “So sad people stoop that low! Disgusting that the ‘trolls’ come after someone’s family! This is a game our husbands work extremely hard to be their best and win. Do people come to your work when you mess up and threaten you? I know the true Oilers fans are not behind this!”
Good on these women for calling out the keyboard bullies.
12. Andreas Athanasiou’s record-tying, six-second OT goal this week underscored the Ottawa Senators‘ lack of execution this season, but it also serves as a reminder of what could be the Detroit Red Wings‘ most valuable trade chip.
Right-shot, top-four veteran defenceman Mike Green — a pure rental — is the most likely Wing to be dealt before the end of February.
Detroit has to lock up Dylan Larkin, but Anthony Mantha, Martin Frk, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Athanasiou are also turning RFA and will be gunning for significant raises this summer.
The speedy Athanasiou and Detroit underwent the longest contract dispute of the summer before settling on a team-friendly $1.39-million pact. How damaged is that relationship?
Opponents would love to get their hands on a 23-year-old centre with his skill set.