A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. The Canucks weren’t chasing goals. They were chasing culture when they made their pitch for Mats Sundin.
Former Vancouver GM Mike Gillis paid a hefty price to bring in a 37-year-old, nearly retired Sundin as a late-December, free-agent gamble in the 2008-09 season.
That’s both in terms of dollars per goal — one the greatest Maple Leafs of all-time, Sundin plummeted from 32 goals in his final Toronto season to a mere nine in 41 games as a Canuck — and in terms of blowback from fans, media and fellow execs.
“I’d rather have a guy who wants to make sure in his own mind of what he is doing, as opposed to a guy who plays (halfway) just to collect a paycheque,” Leafs GM Brian Burke said at the time.
Gillis explained Friday at the TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference in Toronto that Sundin’s leadership and citizenship were more important to him than his point-per-game production for Vancouver in the post-season, which he did before calling it a career.
Vancouver had a young core of Scandinavian studs in need of a mentor. Sami Salo, Alex Edler and the Sedin twins all bubbled with admiration for Sundin. Seeing how a European Hall of Famer lived his daily life and carried himself like a professional was invaluable, albeit during a four-month denouement to Sundin’s career.
“We got crushed for it, but he was instrumental in changing the fabric of that team,” Gillis maintained Friday, addressing one of his most controversial moves.
“He elevated our level of professionalism internally, even though there was a cost associated with it. We didn’t realize people would be so critical of Mats. It took him a while to get going, but the level of criticism he got was just remarkable.
“We can’t even calculate the benefit we got out of that guy.”
2. Gillis also shed light on another of his oft-panned decisions: making Roberto Luongo the NHL’s first goaltender captain in 60 years.
Gillis and his staff would first identify a problem and then work toward a solution, caring little if the answer fit into NHL norms.
Once Markus Naslund left in 2008, Vancouver was starved for leadership. No one was stepping up.
“There are no born leaders,” said Gillis, dismantling a cliché. “Leaders are developed.”
Head coach Alain Vigneault pitched their all-star goaltender for the C to both fill a void but, more importantly, as a method of challenging the player.
Gillis’s staff initially balked at the idea but eventually decided the pros would outweigh the cons and saddled Luongo with the captaincy for two successful seasons.
“We made Roberto Luongo the captain to try and get him in a leadership position because he was so reluctant to do that,” Gillis said. “We got crushed in the media for it. But our purpose wasn’t to make a goalie a captain. It was to get better leadership out of that particular player. It actually worked. He became a better leader and a better player.”
If offered a mulligan, would Gillis do it again?
“You know, we got benefit out of it. I didn’t like all the scrutiny and difficulty that it caused in hindsight. I’m not sure. I would think about it a lot longer and a lot harder, knowing what I know now. But we didn’t know then, that we’d get a reaction like that. We were just trying to help our team get better and help our goalie,” Gillis said.
“He reacted quite well. I think he grew as a player, as a person. He realized that you just can’t be the goalie. It’s a team, and when you have these responsibilities, you have to do certain things. He was great. It wasn’t a problem between him and the organization. It was certain people in the media making a big deal of it.”
Though he wouldn’t wear a C in Florida, late-career Luongo conducted himself like an unofficial captain of the Panthers, acting as a voice for the room and garnering the utmost respect of his mask-less teammates.
3. Luongo was also the catalyst for a hormonal study Gillis had begun on the Canucks prior to his ouster in 2014.
“That was born out of Roberto, who suffered from a degree of performance anxiety. We were always trying to find a way to get him over that hurdle,” Gillis says. “He’d go through almost a physical change. And you would see [it] when he was answering questions with the media when he was preparing for a game. He’s a really sensitive guy with a great sense of humour, and his sense of humour would go away and his sensitivity would increase.”
Gillis had read about research conducted on an English rugby team that gave blood at various points in the day, so the club could monitor players’ cortisone levels. Some players’ cortisone levels were relatively steady before, after and during games. Others spiked wildly 20 minutes prior to game time. (The U.S. military is looking into a saliva test for this, so it can protect anxious soldiers from high-stress situations.)
The Gillis regime was trying to allow certain Canucks to recognize a hormonal spike was occurring in an attempt to deal with it. The initiative had only scratched the surface of a solution.
“We were just getting there when we all got fired,” Gillis lamented.
4. Sources say there is strong interest from multiple teams in UFA defenceman Ben Hutton despite lingering on the open market three weeks after free agency opened.
Hutton sticks out among available D-men due to his age (he’s only 26) and his heavy usage (he averaged 22:21 per game in 2018-19, more than any UFA still on the market, including Jake Gardiner). Despite being unqualified in Vancouver, he’s got the legs and the mind to contribute. He wants to stick in the NHL, preferably as a second-pairing guy.
A number of teams interested in signing Hutton wish to make further roster moves as they’re unsatisfied with their D-corps as currently comprised. There is a sense that once a few of the high-profile, Group-2 RFAs finally come to terms, several teams will be freed to start filling in around the edges of their rosters, be it with minor trades or grabbing some of the neglected UFAs.
5. Leafs coach Mike Babcock was once asked about William Nylander discovering an extra gear whenever he faced friend David Pastrnak’s Boston Bruins.
“He plays well when No. 88 is on the ice. We just need another 88 on the other side of the ice,” Babcock said.
Nylander switched his sweater digits to the snowmen that have brought him so much success on the international stage — and Leafs alumnus Eric Lindros approves.
Mitch Marner said Nylander has wanted No. 88 since Day One. (Lou’s rules?)
“Now he’s got it,” Marner said, “and it’s gonna look good on him.”
6. Michael Dal Colle came out to support his longtime friend at the Marner Assist Fund charity event this past weekend.
The Islanders forward chuckled thinking back to their major peewee days, when they tore up minor hockey on the same line.
“I think that was the most points I got in my life. He was only about three feet tall in peewee,” Dal Colle said.
“What can you say? He does it all. He’s definitely a top forward in the National Hockey League. You knew from a young age that he was going to be a special player, and you’re seeing it come to fruition in Toronto.”
I asked Dal Colle about watching Robin Lehner’s remarkable comeback season on the Island.
“An awesome person,” Dal Colle said. “What he went through, it was amazing for me, as a young guy, learning from a guy like that.”
7. Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli, heading into his sophomore campaign, said April’s sweep by Columbus taught him that the playoffs are simply a different game. He saw up close just how difficult it is to win, how seeding can get meaningless fast.
“It shows how good the league is. Obviously, it sucked. It took a couple of days to digest what happened,” Cirelli said. “We’re going to bring it into next season and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“When it gets to that point in time, we’ll know what to do.”
While so much attention north of the border is on the unsigned Canadian-team RFAs (Marner, Matthew Tkachuk, Brock Boeser, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine), Tampa’s Brayden Point is arguably the best of the bunch.
“Unbelievable player,” said Cirelli, who’s been in touch with Point during the off-season. “He’s great to be around. He’s one of my good buddies on the team. He drives our team, he does everything well, he’s a big piece of our team.
Cirelli, who will turn RFA next summer, believes Point and Tampa have plenty of time to figure out a contract.
“So he’s taking it slow. I’m sure they’ll get something done,” Cirelli said.
“He probably doesn’t get the credit that he deserves for how good he really is. He scores goals, he makes plays, he’s good defensively, he’s super fast, he’s super smart. He has a little bit of everything and does everything really well. He’s a crucial part of our team.”
8. Tweet of the Week (in response to the Story of the Week):
Bravo, Bread Man.
In a world where pro athletes (and the vast majority of non-athletes) find it easier to not rock the boat, your stance against Putin takes guts.
9. The storytelling highlight of the Coaches Conference at Ryerson University featured San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer sitting down with Behind the Bench author Craig Custance and spending well over an hour breaking down film of Round 1’s infamous Game 7 versus the Golden Knights (with Vegas assistant coach Mike Kelly in the audience, but wishing he was undergoing a root canal instead).
“It was the craziest night of hockey I’ve ever been involved with,” DeBoer said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Watching highlights from his club’s epic and controversial 5-4 overtime thriller, DeBoer precisely explained tactical decisions (why he benched, and then went back to, OT hero Barclay Goodrow) and behind-the-scenes conversations as momentum shifted drastically and often.
It was fascinating that when the Sharks’ first power-play unit scored at the end of a long shift to tie the game at 3 during the playoffs’ most infamous major penalty — Cody Eakin’s phantom cross-check of Joe Pavelski — DeBoer was ready to send Joe Thornton‘s second unit over the boards.
“Joe looked at me and said, ‘Leave ’em out there,'” DeBoer recalled.
The coach took the player’s advice.
Twenty-eight seconds later, with the first unit on fire, but running on fumes, Kevin Labanc scored their fourth power-play goal.
DeBoer gets emotional when he thinks of the selfless Thornton, “a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” realizing the best thing for his team would be to sit.
“It still gives me chills,” DeBoer said.
10. Once Erik Karlsson re-signed, DeBoer realized there was a distinct possibility he’d be losing Pavelski to free agency.
“But it never sunk in. I always held out hope that we could find a way. I think Pav did. I think Doug [Wilson] did. Knowing the realities of today’s cap, you can’t keep everybody. You have to make tough decisions,” DeBoer said.
Days after Pavelski opted to sign in Dallas, DeBoer was still in denial. The coach sent this text message to his lost captain: “I still find it hard to believe I’m not going to see you at training camp this year because of what you meant to our group.”
DeBoer expects Pavelski’s absence to hit him all over again once he gets to camp.
“You don’t replace him. We just have to move forward,” said DeBoer, taking comfort in knowing his leadership group is deep and includes two former captains in Karlsson and Thornton.
So what if he doesn’t have a contract yet? Jumbo’s return is a non-issue.
“He’ll be back. When I saw him working out two days after our season ended, I knew he was still going to play, and I knew he still had gas in the tank. I’m not thinking about if he’s coming back. I’m just excited to work with him again,” said DeBoer, who sees Thornton as almost a player-coach hybrid at this stage.
“For sure. I think modern coaching staffs now, you have to include those guys in the process. That’s critical, especially when you have an older team.”
DeBoer also offered thoughts on the two key RFAs resigned by the Sharks.
On Labanc, who took a $1 million contract despite putting up 56 points and going by the nickname “Banker”: “I’m happy to have him back. I think Banker’s smart enough to know that he’s going to make money playing the game. He’s going to get paid. I think he recognizes the situation in San Jose — he gets to play with great players in a great organization. Sometimes it’s not all about the bottom line.”
On power forward Timo Meier, who committed for four more years: “He has another layer of growth to his game. You just started to see it. He’s a great blend of power, speed and finesse. He’s a hardworking, honest guy on top of that, but he definitely has another layer. I don’t know what that’s going to be, but he’s a huge piece of what we’re going to be going forward.”
11. A recent study by Casino.org looked at the severity of the championship hangover across the major sports.
Among the four major North American leagues, NHL champs are most in need of sunglasses and Advil, with a winning percentage of just 54 per cent the season after lifting the Cup.
Blame parity, fatigue, injuries and the salary cap.
The Los Angeles Kings rank No. 1 for worst NHL hangovers, with a 13 per cent drop in win percentage after their two Cup victories.
And the Maple Leafs own the most single-year hangovers among all franchises, with a 31 per cent win decrease following 1948’s Cup, a 29 per cent win decrease following 1951 and a 22 per cent win decrease following 1942.
12. The operation Robert Thomas underwent on his left wrist — an injury that kept him out of most of the Stanley Cup final — was a success.
The Blues’ emerging star isn’t yet cleared to be on the ice, but isn’t worried about lagging behind at camp.
“I’ll be good to go, for sure,” Thomas said.
The youngest 2019 Stanley Cup champion will be bringing his prize home to Aurora, Ont., on July 29, and his Cup day planner is already rammed, from the moment he gets his mitts on the mug at 10 a.m. until he has to kiss it goodnight at midnight.
His billet dog is making a road trip from London, Ont.
“It’s still pretty surreal,” said Thomas, who just turned 20. “Every time someone calls you a Cup champ, you still don’t believe it.”
We’ve seen the Blues fill Stanley with margaritas, toasted ravioli, spaghetti and meatballs.
“Everyone who gets it tries to one-up the guy before him. Everyone is thinking outside the box and trying to come up with some cool ideas,” Thomas said.
“I got cooking something up, but I’m not going to share it yet. Someone’s going to steal it if I do, so I’ll keep it a secret.”