A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. My Nexus interview with border officials this summer consisted of five burning questions:
What do you do for a living?
Oh, how do you feel about Kawhi?
When is Marner going to sign already?
Could you please move one step to the right for retinal scan?
Seriously: Do you know anything about Marner? Anything?!
We’re under two weeks before players report for physicals, and the cluster of unsigned restricted free agents remains the hottest topic in all NHL conversations, be they on daytime talk radio, at family barbecues or inside airport security offices.
The angst is real.
In speaking with several players and others around the game, the consensus is a domino effect should take place as the hours towards camp’s opening dwindle.
“It’s obviously a unique situation where there’s a lot of star players sitting out right now,” Oilers captain Connor McDavid says. “It’ll just take one domino to fall, then they’ll all fall pretty quick. Someone’s gonna have to set that mark.”
Mitch Marner, the most discussed of the bunch, might not be Domino 1, however.
Openly flirting with Zurich, Marner’s camp appears to be using every morsel of leverage possible, and agent Darren Ferris is comfortable having his clients miss Toronto Maple Leafs camp to crank up pressure on the GM.
(Just a guess: Too far apart on dollars for a long-term deal, and too fearful of a Nylander redux, Marner and Kyle Dubas eventually sign a bridge and kick this problem two or three seasons down the road).
Maybe it’s Brayden Point in Tampa that sets the bar. Imagine the Lightning following up their playoff sweep with stories about a young, dynamic centre not appearing at camp. Yikes.
Despite this feeling of a brave, new world where RFAs push for more money and less term — totally within their rights — most hockey players don’t have the stomach to join the group late.
Jordan Binnington was also an RFA this summer. He backstopped the St. Louis Blues to their first-ever Stanley Cup. Not a bad bargaining chip.
But he took a bridge.
“It’s good for now,” Binnington says of his two-year, $8.8-million contract.
“Those guys are pretty elite players, and they’ve put themselves in a situation to look out for themselves, but at the same time you want to be part of the process for a whole year with the team and the group and building together.”
Could Binnington have grinded Doug Armstrong for more? Probably. But he figures the agreement is fair enough, considering his small but excellent body of NHL work.
“You need a good team to win, so it’s a fair deal in that aspect,” Binnington says.
“Obviously I’m confident in myself and believe I deserve more and will earn more. That comes with time and experience. You have to understand the process and keep building.
“Let the money chase you.”
2. One team that swiftly reached agreements with its stud RFAs and ducked all this drama is San Jose. The Sharks dished out a four-year, $24-million deal to 22-year-old, 30-goal-scoring Timo Meier in July and re-upped with 56-point man Kevin Lebanc for a paltry $1 million.
When every other stud RFA is playing the waiting game, why in the name of Hasso Plattner are the boys in teal so quick to sign?
“Culture is a word that’s thrown around,” says Logan Couture, a strong candidate to inherit Joe Pavelski’s captaincy.
“Ever since I’ve been there, we’ve been a team that guys coming off their entry-level deals have taken deals that are for the team more so than themselves — and that starts from the top. Jumbo [Joe Thornton] and Patty [Marleau], when they were young and with the Sharks, they could’ve taken a lot more money. They could’ve taken money elsewhere when there was more, but they wanted to win in San Jose. They wanted to win with that group we had.
“When I was coming off my entry-level deal, I thought I could’ve fought for more, but I wanted to help our team [and signed a two-year bridge at $2.875 million per]. We had some good runs in those two years, and you do get rewarded.”
Couture hit a home run last summer with his eight-year, $64-million extension.
“If you play the way you’re capable of, you will get rewarded at the end of the day,” he says. “The main goal when you’re in the NHL is to win a Stanley Cup, and in San Jose that belief is from top to bottom.”
Take it as shade, or just take it as truth.
3. I caught up with Couture after one of his August training sessions outside London, Ont., with a healthy group of pros including Drew Doughty, Boone Jenner, Corey Perry, Dylan DeMelo and Max Jones.
He’s since joined a dozen or so guys in San Jose for pre-camp skates. That group includes the unsigned Thornton and Marleau. While it’s assumed Thornton will be back where he belongs, Marleau’s fate — traded and bought out at 39 — is more of a question mark.
“I watched a few of the Leafs games last year. I believe he still can play. He can still skate. Obviously he’s not going to play top-line minutes like he used to, but he’s still got something left,” Couture says.
The latest round of rumours has Marleau and the Edmonton Oilers — too thin and too young on the flanks — exploring a potential fit. Unprompted, three people around the league have recently said they believe the Oilers are in need of a stronger veteran presence in the room.
Dominic Moore (not one of those people) can relate to the predicament of Marleau, Dion Phaneuf and these other UFAs still lingering on the board.
“There’s a lot of quality veteran players on the outside looking in that can play at a high level that are not getting that opportunity,” Moore says.
“It’s musical chairs. That was me in summer 2016, when I signed with Boston [on Aug. 30]. You have faith you know you can play; it’s just whether there’s a seat at the table. Musical chairs.
“There’s no doubt in guys like Marleau’s mind. He knows he can play. It’s just a matter of whether someone’s going to give him that opportunity. I think they will. There’s no guarantees of that. In my case, there was no guarantee of that. But you just stay ready and hope things fall into place. It’s not an easy position to be in.”
— alden (@aldentanaka) August 29, 2019
4. It is August 31. Do you know where Jake Gardiner is going to play hockey?
Once Erik Karlsson extended, I swore Gardiner would be the most coveted UFA defenceman, even ahead of Tyler Myers, and am stunned he’s still looking for a job.
Is he being too picky?
Does he have a tacit agreement in place with a team still waiting to sort out its RFAs or a trade?
Did he overplay his hand?
“Part of it is the GMs have a very busy schedule. End of season – exit meetings, draft, development camp, free agency, and then after that week, they feel the need to take stock, let the dust settle and see where they’re at before they make the next move,” explains Moore, who acted as his own agent.
“So if you don’t agree [on a deal] right away, you have to wait it out, just based on how the calendar momentum works. But he’s too good a player to not have opportunities. He’s just going to have to be patient for now.”
I see the best fits for Gardiner in Montreal or Detroit. Elliotte Friedman floated out Winnipeg as a possibility, which is interesting considering how close it is to his Lake Minnestonka home.
Listening to Wayne Simmonds speak with focus this week about his one-year redemption pact with New Jersey, I couldn’t help but imagine this being the best route for Gardiner to take.
If the RFA signings do create a domino effect, a high-profile UFA like Gardiner should tumble too.
5. Brett Connolly is a great, candid interview. It’s always refreshing in this business when a player doesn’t default to cliche mode. And, yes, we spoke about topics other than Evgeny Kuznetsov.
While Connolly signed far and away the richest deal of his life, $14 million, with the Florida Panthers on Canada Day, he’s not a fan of the extended UFA courting period.
“It was overwhelming. It’s too long. I think it should be a week. It’s crazy. You’re talking to teams, you’re waiting. It’s just a slow process. For me, it was frustrating a bit. It’s all you think about nonstop. If they could shorten it up a bit, I think it would be better for the GMs, better for the players. It was definitely stressful,” Connolly explained.
“That was my first time through it. You want to make the right decisions. You want to go where you want.”
Connolly has flown to Sunrise twice since the deal was solidified but did all his negotiating by phone. He can’t fathom a free agent flying around to meet with tire-kicking teams in-person.
“If you’re doing that, your summer’s going to be ruined,” Connolly said. “It’s crazy, right? It’s like a puzzle piece. One team’s in and then they go for that guy, and you get put on the side for a bit — especially with the names that were out there. It came down to three teams, but there were 10 or 12 teams that I talked to at the beginning.”
Connolly says he had a solid conversation with Joel Quenneville in mid-July and believes joining a new team at the same time as a new coach will be of benefit. Less catch-up. As a nine-year NHL vet with relationships around the league, he’s already done his research on Q.
“I’ve heard that he’s very fair. He expects a lot out of his players, there’s no question. He’s gonna push guys. He’s gonna push me. I’m going to go through periods in the next four years of my deal where he’s not going to be happy with me, I’m not going to be happy with him. That’s just the way it is,” Connolly says.
“Coaches each have different ways of motivating players, and I’ve heard that he’s very intense. He’s fair. If you do what’s asked of you, he’ll love you. And if you don’t, he’ll let you know. That’s nice — you want to know what the coach thinks.”
6. Do yourself a favour and find you someone who speaks about you the way Tom Wilson speaks about the recently retired Brooks Orpik.
“I’m surprised he’s not holding an auction for who wants to get him into their organization. He’s such a valuable guy. We were very lucky to have him in Washington, and I know he’s going to stick around and help whatever way he can. He’s a guy you can learn something from every day. Just awesome off the ice. We’re going to miss him. He made a lot of impressions on guys, and we’re going to try to carry those values forward in our locker room,” says Wilson, who’s been texting with his former teammate recently.
“I think he’s going to enjoy retirement, but I wouldn’t be surprised if 10, 20 different teams are calling him. He’s one of those guys who’s valuable in so many different ways. He’ll do something in hockey down the road, I’m sure, and he’ll do it amazing. That’s just who he is. We’ll be lucky if he decides to stick around.”
7. Wilson is walking off the ice at BioSteel Camp when he spots Max Domi giving an interview to a scrum of four reporters.
Grinning, Wilson pokes Domi in the butt with his stick. “Give ’em a headline! Give ’em a headline!” he chides.
Wilson is referencing Domi’s comments earlier in the week (watch below) in which the young Canadiens play-maker compared his club’s fan base to that of his father’s.
“Montreal is a whole other level. I get it. Toronto got their fans and Leaf Nation is pretty big, but there’s nothing even close to Montreal and their fans down there. The fan base of the Montreal Canadiens is second to none, and it wasn’t anything I wasn’t prepared for, but you don’t know what to expect until you step on the ice and you experience skating around the Bell Centre, playing in front of a sold-out rink of 20,000 passionate fans that know exactly what is going on in your life and how your game is going,” Domi enthused Monday.
“It’s spectacular. It really is. Even when you’re not playing well, it’s awesome because it brings out the best in you and forces you to play better and get out of your little slump. I get it: It’s for a unique personality, but at the end of the day, when you’re playing in Montreal, you’re the luckiest dude in the world.”
Asked to elaborate on the difference between Toronto and Montreal fans, Domi smiled: “Oh, are we getting into the Leafs vs. Habs sort of thing?
“They’ve won 24 Stanley Cups. That’s all that needs to be said, really. Sorry,” he chuckled. “It’s a pretty simple answer.”
The atmosphere on Leafs-Habs Saturday? There’s nothing like it—if the game is held at the Bell Centre, Domi believes.
“Montreal’s better. It’s fantastic, man. I love it. I can talk about it all day.”
Because hockey news is scarce and players seldom compare their fans to others, Domi’s comments stirred a minor hubbub on Toronto sports radio this week. But I took his words more as an endorsement for the city that traded him, less as a slight on Toronto.
And if Domi is creating some pre-season bulletin-board material? Fantastic. Let’s kick up.
*Whispers:* Also, the Bell Centre is louder on Saturday night. *Ducks*
“It’s not overwhelming kinda loud. When you get out there, it’s a weird feeling. You can’t really describe it until you actually feel it yourself,” Domi explains.
“You’re so dialed in because of the atmosphere, the rink, the jersey you’re wearing and everything that goes with it. It’s a one-in-a-million feeling.”
8. Tyler Seguin believes a 36-year-old Jason Spezza could score 15 to 25 goals in Toronto. Spezza hasn’t had more than eight in a season since 2016-17 and is all but assured of a bottom-six role, so that’s a tall order.
But goals, ironically, aren’t what the Leafs need from the man.
“Character. Leadership. A hockey nerd, if you want to call it [that]. He’s great in the locker room. I’m going to miss him,” says Seguin, impressed by his former teammate’s knowledge of the game and its history.
Seguin can see Spezza as a GM one day.
“He’s the first guy I text or call when it comes to hockey, and he’s going to do a great job with all the young guys in Toronto,” Seguins goes on.
“He’s a guy who just loves the game, loves making players better, loves figuring out what his role is on a team and trying to do that to the best of his ability.”
Was Seguin surprised Spezza would sign for just $700,000, the league minimum?
“I don’t think he needs any more money. He’s made enough,” Seguins cracked.
Only $88,177,928. Before endorsements.
Could Seguin, 27, ever envision pulling a Spezza and signing in hometown Toronto at the tail end of his career on a character-guy deal?
“I see myself as a Dallas Star the rest of my life,” Seguin replied, definitively, “and hopefully that works out.”
9. You know you’ve drummed up a creative use for the championship trophy when Wing Stop gives you a shoutout.
Charlotte Checkers star and AHL playoff MVP Andrew Poturalski flat-out does Buffalo proud…
— Wingstop (@wingstop) August 27, 2019
10. When I spoke to Nazem Kadri this week, he was getting ready for his move to Denver over the long weekend. I asked if he and Tyson Barrie were indeed swapping houses as well as teams.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kadri laughed. “It’s not completely confirmed, but for me and him, we’re trying to keep whatever’s most convenient available. It definitely potentially could happen.”
Kadri has three seasons remaining on his deal, but Barrie is entering a contract year. Makes sense that the defenceman would rather wait to invest in Toronto real estate until he knows where his $56 million is coming from.
11. Not till Aug. 19 did the New York Islanders sign RFA Josh Ho-Sang to a modest one-year, $874,125 contract — hardly the type of deal a first-rounder (2014) hopes to land coming out of his entry-level contract.
Ho-Sang put up nice numbers in Bridgeport last season (43 points in 53 games) but managed to get into Barry Trotz’s lineup just 10 times, scoring once.
His trajectory is a curious once, considering he played 22 NHL games in 2017-18.
He’ll turn 24 this winter. At what point does he break through and stick as an NHLer? How many more shots until he’s ruled a Round 1 bust?
“I don’t know,” says trainer and BioSteel founder Matt Nichol, who’s worked with Ho-Sang for years. “He’s so talented. He’s got a very unique skill-set that not a lot of guys have, and one of the misnomers for anyone who doesn’t know him is that he’s not a bad person. He’s a very good person. He’s a kind and caring guy. He’s not wild or a bad apple or any of that stuff. He’s a good kid.
“I struggled to get to high school when I was a kid. Mornings were tough for me. I eventually had to figure it out or else I wasn’t going to be able to keep my job if I ever showed up late. Eventually he figure that stuff out. I don’t know. It’s hard to say.”
Most intriguing here is that the Islanders need offence — they ranked 22nd in goals scored — and Ho-Sang has a gift to create them.
“That’s the reason he’s got as much leash as he’s had. And I agree with you: At some point, your time does run out. But he sees the ice in a very unique way. He knows how to create space, and his stick-handling is next level. He’s got some of those skills that are extremely hard to develop,” Nichol says.
“You can show up every day and work your ass off in the gym and never have the level of talent he has, so hopefully there’s going to be someone who can find that button that needs to be pushed.”
Ho-Sang himself declined to speak this week, per BioSteel public relations, which is too bad because he’s one of the more thoughtful and interesting hockey players to chat with.
12. There are two reasons I started fetching lunch early — around 11:45 a.m. — once I started working at Sportsnet. One: The older I get, the less tolerance I have for lines. (Word to FastPass and Nexus.) Two: I wanted to be back in front of my desk by 12, hovering over a carton of butter chicken, earbuds tuned to Hockey Central @ Noon to hear what Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean had to say about the news of the day.
Nick and Doug were good at their jobs, finding that sweet spot between delivering well-sourced information, telling old war stories and providing entertaining debate. They were also A+ teammates. My butter chicken won’t taste quite the same.