A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. You cannot be considered an all-time great until you have a story about how you almost ended up a Maple Leaf.
Maybe this is old news to some, but Paul Coffey dropped a little nugget during Thursday’s radio appearance on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.
Embroiled in a monetary dispute with Glen Sather in 1987, Coffey did not report to the Oilers at the beginning of the 1987-88 season. The Toronto Maple Leafs came knocking when Coffey was sitting at his parents’ home in Malton, a neighbourhood of Mississauga, Ont., watching the NHL season begin without him.
“Garry Lariviere called me up. He was an assistant coach [for the Maple Leafs] and my onetime defence partner in Edmonton. [The late John] Brophy was the coach, and they talked about it. Garry said to me, ‘If the Leafs can swing something, would you come?’ I said, ‘I’ll be there in five minutes,'” Coffey recalled on-air (listen below).
“That never happened. They obviously couldn’t put the players together Edmonton wanted.”
Gord Stellick, now a broadcaster and analyst, was a member of Toronto’s front office during that era. I asked for his insight on how close Coffey came to wearing blue and white.
Stellick says it was “weird time” in Leafland. Brophy assumed an informal power rarely wielded by head coaches because then GM Gerry McNamara had fallen out of favour with owner Harold Ballard and would be fired three months after Coffey was dealt to Pittsburgh.
“Brophy had got an over-the-hill Dave Semenko added to our team that year. He would have loved to have had Paul Coffey, and I can see him sharing that with Coffey,” Stellick explained.
“What Brophy wasn’t fully aware of was that in no way would Ballard be the one to give Coffey the contract he was looking for. So it never really got anywhere officially.”
Coffey, Dave Hunter and Wayne Van Dorp were traded to Pittsburgh for Craig Simpson, Dave Hannan, Moe Mantha and Chris Joseph.
Could Toronto have won a Cup with a defensive engine like Coffey? Would Pittsburgh have won in 1991 without him? File under: What If.
Presumably Edmonton’s ask from Toronto would’ve been Wendel Clark plus.
“Craig Simpson was a huge young prospect and Chris Joseph was considered somewhat like that as well, so Gerry was reluctant to deal young guys,” Stellick says. “But the money would have been a deal breaker. So with an 86-year-old owner who didn’t want big salary contracts, it never really got close.”
Even though he never slipped on the uniform, Coffey keeps a special place in his heart for the Leafs.
“It was my favourite team growing up,” the Hall of Famer said. “I took a 20-year break, and it’s still the team I cheer for now.”
2. Jack Eichel was happily saddled with $80-million worth of expectations at age 20. Since the 2015 second-overall pick inked that eight-year pact, the Sabres — for a laundry list of reasons — have been nothing short of a disaster.
They’ve won once in their past 10 outings, and that was against a floundering Oilers team that barely showed up.
Understandably frustrated, Eichel himself has been fine if not spectacular.
His shooting percentage is abnormally low, his stat line is not benefitting from a power-play bump (18 of his 19 points have arrived at even-strength or shorthanded), and he’s improving his skills as a penalty killer. Still, Eichel is not living up to his own internal standard.
“He wants to play better like we all do,” Sabres defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen says. “He’s handling himself well.”
Eichel’s $10-million AAV doesn’t kick in until next season, but I was curious if his new price tag has affected his thoughts.
“I don’t think the contract weighs on me. I already signed it, right?” Eichel said.
I clarified that $80 million is a ton of money: “Have you put pressure on yourself to live up to that kind of salary?”
“It’s a lot of money. I think if you’re thinking about it like that, you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball already,” Eichel said.
“I don’t think I’m trying to put pressure on myself to live up to a contract. I’m putting pressure on myself to be the best player I can be. Obviously our team hasn’t had a whole lot of success, myself included. I think I’m putting pressure on myself in terms of trying to help our team do better. It has nothing to do with the contract. It hasn’t crossed my mind until you just said it.”
Eichel insisted that the extension was a bit of business taken care of before puck drop so hockey could be the sole focus.
“It’s a huge testament to the Sabres organization for believing in me. I’m going to put pressure on myself to succeed but not because of the contract—because of the fact I want to be a successful hockey player and help this team win games,” he said.
People view wealth differently.
Next season, Eichel will supplant fellow centre Ryan O’Reilly as the club’s cap-hit leader. O’Reilly signed a whopper himself in 2016: seven years, $52.5 million. It came with an immediate $10-million signing bonus.
“You have an expectation of yourself now. It can be tough at times. You always want to do more. You’re getting paid to be that guy,” O’Reilly says. “I think he’s mature enough that he can handle it.”
Despite the just-OK results, Sabres coach Phil Housley says Eichel has looked faster and has been getting better shooting looks of late, a result of the player’s work ethic.
“You can see he’s very determined right now,” said Housley, steering the conversation to the whole room.
“I’ve never seen one player win a hockey game.”
3. A majestic buffalo head hangs in the Sabres dressing room like it’s the Water Buffalo Lodge. Lindy Ruff was the stable grand poobah for 16 years. Since his firing, the team has run through four coaching changes in four years.
“It’s a small thing,” O’Reilly said of the behind-the-bench changes. “It’s us now. We’re the guys going on the ice. We’re playing the game. They’re not going out there. It’s us as a group, starting with myself.”
Housley has described his players as “tentative” and “nervous.”
Losing and winning are both drugs. Consider the room’s experienced core members: O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Jason Pominville, Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane, Matt Moulson, Robin Lehner. The longest playoff run any of them have enjoyed is Pominville’s 18-game with Buffalo — and that was 12 seasons ago. The Sabres have no captain.
Don’t be surprised if GM Jason Botterill goes hunting for a couple of veteran winners the way Carolina and Toronto did this past off-season.
Any dig into the Buffalo’s struggles has to begin with the blue line. Rasmus Ristolainen’s nine-game injury was a massive blow to an already-thin D core. “He’s a backbone back there,” Eichel says.
Sad Trivia of the Day: The Sabres have zero goals by defencemen this season.
“It’s been long weeks where I couldn’t help the team,” Ristolainen says. “Right now it’s a tough time for us. Everyone wants to win, but we can’t do too much. You just gotta do your job.
“We’ve got to still be patient.”
Ditto for their fans.
4. There are little turning points in a team’s season that can occur long after the buzzer has sounded and the cameras are packed.
The two-time Presidents’ Trophy–defending Washington Capitals were bouncing around the mushy middle of the Metropolitan Division pack when they travelled to Denver and got stomped 6-2 by the Colorado Avalanche.
“We recognized how poorly we played, especially in that Colorado game,” head coach Barry Trotz says. “We were no-shows.”
The Capitals had a scheduled day off following that stinker, but a couple unnamed members of the team’s leadership group approached Trotz in confidence with a different plan.
“You know what? I know you’re thinking we’re all tired, but we want to go out [and practice] because we owe you a day,” the players told Trotz.
The Capitals came to the realization on their own that they’d been cutting corners. Trotz believes they may look back on this a pivotal moment in their season. Since that skipped day off, the Caps won four of five before losing to L.A. Thursday.
“That says a lot when your leaders will come to you and say, ‘You know what? We’re embarrassed by our last game. We owe you a day. We don’t want the day off.’ Not too many guys will say that,” Trotz explains.
“The strength is in the group. When they decide they’re determined to do something, any group of people can move things. That might have been a chance for them to come together.”
“So, which players asked you to cancel the day off?” I ask.
“Nice try,” Trotz says, with a smile.
5. Because I’ve been fixated on the psychology of losing after spending time in the Sabres and Oilers dressing rooms and reading Erik Karlsson’s strong comments on free agency, here’s a couple more in that vein.
When the last-place Arizona Coyotes came through Toronto in November, they brought with them a two-game winning streak. They led the game wire-to-wire and were clearly the night’s better team, but they refused to believe they had the game wrapped up until the buzzer sounded — even after potting two empty-netters.
“Even when we made it 3-1, 4-1, guys [on the bench] were yelling, ‘It’s not over! It’s not over!’” coach Rick Tocchet said. “That’s what happens.”
6. Let’s present a situation worth watching, especially in light of Pittsburgh and Edmonton’s lack of goaltending depth getting exposed with injuries to Matt Murray and Cam Talbot, respectively. (Still wondering why these clubs let Calvin Pickard slip through waivers, by the way.)
Lottery-bound Arizona’s top goaltender, Antti Raanta has been solid when healthy: .914 save percentage behind a mediocre defence. Problem is, he’s back on IR and has only played 613 minutes this season.
The Coyotes have no goalie under contract for 2018-19. They must be wondering whether or not to commit to Raanta after a limited sample size as a No. 1. If they don’t see a four- or five-year fit, he could be a nice little bit of trade bait for a contender looking for goalie depth in February, and anyone can afford his pro-rated $1 million cap hit. (Arizona could always rent him and re-sign him in the summer, too.)
Raanta, however, does not want to be anyone’s backup.
“It’s a dream come true,” he recently told me of being a starter. “I’ve been working four or five years for this chance. Now I’ve got the chance, you do everything you can to be successful. It’s been fun even though that first win took a while.
“I’m just living in the moment.”
7. Love hearing George McPhee tell Prime Time Sports that the Vegas Golden Knights will go for the playoffs if they’re still in the hunt at the trade deadline. What a story that could be. My hand is ready to shoot up to volunteer coverage like I know the answer.
Interesting notes from that McPhee interview include the team hiring two NHL security reps (a gaming expert and a veteran Vegas detective) while most teams have just one to keep players informed and in line, and the fact McPhee sits and watches/explains every game with club owner Bill Foley. He said Garth Snow and former Islanders owner Charles Wang did the same thing, and that helped their relationship.
“This is a good team, but that shows you about the NHL now. The parity in the NHL is unbelievable,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said of the Knights.
“The other thing about it is they’ve got a whole bunch of free agents. They could trade them all and they could sign them all and again the next year. It’s quite a setup, to say the least. They’re a real good team and, I mean, Gerard [Gallant] does a good job. He did a good job with Florida and they’re organized and they’re having fun and playing with house money and enjoying it.”
8. Auston Matthews only gets to play his ol’ U.S. national team pal, Matthew Tkachuk, twice a season, but they stay in touch through the magic of data plans.
“He’s, honestly, notorious for saving videos of his highlights on his phone,” Matthews told reporters in Calgary. “He’s actually got one of him and Zach Hyman when they played in Michigan and they got into it pretty good. He’s funny. He has a lot of videos and he’ll send them at random times throughout the year and you’re just like, ‘What do you want? I’m about to play a game.’”
I love that Tkachuk is trolling his buddies from two time zones away.
“He seems to be agitating more people this year,” Matthews said. “He’s a guy that plays with a lot of passion and he doesn’t mind getting under your skin. Definitely a guy I’d love on my team and, as you can see from a lot of other guys in the league, not a guy you like to really play against.”
In his own scrum, Tkachuk paid compliments the other way.
“It’s hard for a guy to go into a hard market like [Toronto] that young and be looked at to be that type of player, and he’s handled it really, really well. I don’t know if I could handle it as well as he has, but he’s done an awesome job,” Tkachuk said.
“That’s no easy thing walking into a team that wasn’t good a couple years ago and then last year being a really, really young team and bringing them to the playoffs and then having expectations this year. It’s hard for them. I feel for them. They have a lot of pressure, but they’re all handling it really well.”
9. The Flyers’ nine-game losing skid could signal the end of a nice 26-year streak of consistency. Not since 1993-94 has Philadelphia missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
Buyers surveying the Flyers’ roster will be disappointed to see a thin group of rentals. Valtteri Filppula (modified no-trade clause) could be a versatile depth forward add. Left-shot defenceman Brandon Manning ($975,000 cap hit) might improve a contender’s third pairing for cheap. And that’s about it… unless Ron Hextall cuts into his core.
10. Anatoly Golyshev, a 2016 fourth-round draft pick by the New York Islanders, has played in the KHL for five seasons. The 22-year-old scored his first-ever hat trick Wednesday, rallying Yekaterinburg Automobilist from behind to defeat Spartak Moscow.
And then he delivered this wonderfully psychotic one-knee goal celebration, counting to three with his thumb and making great use of a death glare:
11. On the real hockey trade that was Sami Vatanen for Adam Henrique:
• Ducks GM Bob Murray had to act fast. No team has been hit with more severe injuries than Anaheim, who’s in win-now mode, and Murray realizes the standings hole could not deepen.
• The Ducks rank 27th in goals per game (2.64), and Henrique has 50-point potential still.
• Don’t underestimate the role of Ducks RFA Brandon Montour in this deal. Anaheim had so much money and term tied up on its blue line, something had to give. Hampus Lindholm ($5.2-million cap hit), Cam Fowler ($6.5 million) and Josh Manson ($4.1 million) are all on the books through 2022 or longer. Montour should complete a balanced lefty-righty top four.
• Ray Shero, who’s done a remarkable job turning around the Devils, had to give a centre to land a top-four D-man. Winning Nico Hischier in the lottery made parting with Henrique conceivable.
• Henrique was beloved in Jersey. He said “shocked” would understate his feeling when he got the news.
• If you’re bummed in Toronto or Edmonton because your GM didn’t grab Vatanen, ask yourself if you’d want to part with Nazem Kadri or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. James van Riemsdyk plus prospect/pick or Patrick Maroon plus prospect/pick wouldn’t have got it done. The Ducks wanted a centre.
• Andy Greene, Sami Vatanen, John Moore, Will Butcher… fantastic left-side depth in New Jersey.
12. This is fun trivia on some Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon hockey nerd tip. Just in case you needed another reminder that Jaromir Jagr is old before you start your weekend….