31 Thoughts: Maple Leafs’ fortunes will decide deadline approach

NHL analyst Brian Burke joins Lead Off to discuss whether he thinks the Maple Leafs should look to make a hockey trade for Tyson Barrie, not just to get something for the pending UFA, but to make the team better.

• Leafs “investigating every good defenceman on the market”
• Montreal not interested in rentals
• Remembering Kobe Bryant

Clinton Merck remembers when the hockey bug bit him.

“It was when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009,” he said Tuesday. “The intensity of the (playoffs). The dedication of the players. I watched that Game 7 against Detroit in my bedroom in my parents’ house. I had the volume down so I didn’t disturb them. I had to be up at 4:00 a.m. for my summer job.”

Merck was 20 years old, living in a small town near Akron, Ohio. His summer job was sealing cracks for a county road crew. A decade later, he still loves the playoffs, as does his wife, Kelsey. There’s one detail he messes up about the epic Pittsburgh victory over the Red Wings, though. He thought Game 7 went to overtime. It didn’t, as Marc-Andre Fleury robbed Nicklas Lidstrom in the final seconds to preserve the win.

There’s something funny and ironic about that. Merck is now a PhD Student in psychology at The New School in New York City, studying the social aspects of memory and how groups remember events. He’s working on his thesis: “Social Identity and Public Event Memory: The Role of Event-Centrality in Event Memory Formation and Maintenance.”

He’s got a question: What are your four biggest memories from Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final?

As you read this, Merck is hours away from finishing his research, with that event at the epicentre. The link to his survey was re-tweeted into my timeline last week. I clicked on it, answered the questions and reached out for an interview. He asked to wait until this week, because he was worried added attention could corrupt the sample.

This is the third stage of his research. The first survey was put up right after the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, for a two-week period.

“That took longer to put together,” Merck said. “About eight hours over a few days. I had to set up the survey flow; what team (you) are a fan of created paths to answer the questions.”

How many people filled it out?

“About 450,” he answered.

Once those paths were set up, it was quicker to finish the next surveys. The second one dropped the day after the Stanley Cup Final, again for two weeks. The third was released Jan. 15, to conclude Wednesday.

“I wanted to see what people remembered immediately, to establish a baseline,” Merck said.

Seven months later, he’s testing for accuracy. What does he expect?

“I have some theories from prior research,” is the reply.

This is not the first time Merck has used sports to test memory. His father taught him to love Cleveland sports, fondly recalling the 1964 NFL Championship Game. The Browns beat the Baltimore Colts 27-0, that city’s last Big 4 championship until LeBron James’s Cavaliers beat Golden State in the 2016 NBA Final. That same year, the Indians lost to the Chicago Cubs in an epic World Series. He posted surveys in the aftermath of both events.

“Being a fan doesn’t lead to reliable memory,” he said. “Details vary with winning and losing. And they shift over time. The way you remember them then is different from the way you remember them now.”

There’s also the matter of how important each memory is to a particular group.

In his survey about the 2016 NBA Final, Merck said Cleveland fans had the same memories — “the shot, the stop and the block,” as he called them.

“The shot” and “the block” were easy for me. The former was Kyrie Irving’s 25-footer with 53 seconds left in Game 7, the winning score in the series. The latter was a ridiculous defensive play by James, an incredible stuff of a layup attempt by Andre Iguodala with 1:50 remaining. (Where did my memory fail in this case? I thought Steph Curry was the one rejected.)

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

I had zero recollection of “the stop,” but it was a defensive possession by Kevin Love, standing in front of Curry before the great shooter missed a three-pointer after Irving scored.

“That was a collective memory by Cavaliers fans,” Merck said. “It was shared widely, a strong part of their identity.”

However, Cleveland baseball fans, remembering Game 7 of 2016, did not emphasize things that went well for the champion Cubs.

“That was kind of unexpected. They remembered good for their team, rather than the Cubs winning.”

Number one was Rajai Davis’s shocking eighth-inning homer off Aroldis Chapman that sent Game 7 into extra innings. A couple of others you’d never guess.

“There was a foul ball by Jason Kipnis. It wasn’t a home run — you won’t see it show up in the highlight videos. And they remember the rain delay: ‘We had all the momentum and the rain delay killed it.’” (With the game tied 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth, Kipnis hit a long fly ball that curled foul short of the right-field wall. The rain delay was in the 10th. The Cubs scored the eventual winning runs right after it ended.)

“The personal circumstances in which you witness things are called ‘flashbulb memories,’” Merck explained. “Every American has a flashbulb memory of 9/11. Where were you, what you were doing, who you were with. This is a place to really study flashbulb memory. When the Cavaliers won the NBA title, I couldn’t watch. At halftime, I boarded a plane from New York to Denmark for a conference. I was so upset. From Copenhagen, I took a train to a city called Aarhus. When I heard the Cavs won, I teared up. Later, when I told people, fans had to tell me all about their experience.

“Flashbulb memory doesn’t make a lot of sense. Memory in general is not consistent. We reconstruct things every time we remember, update our memory with the current context. But people have high levels of confidence or vividness of memory.”

Merck said that when it came to the Cavaliers, 90 per cent of people who took the survey ranked their confidence level as a seven out of seven on what they remembered.

“And a lot of them [had been] drinking.”

There were three vivid memories for me from St. Louis’s Game 7 win over Boston. The first was Alex Pietrangelo’s goal at 19:52 of the first that made it 2-0 Blues. The second was Brayden Schenn’s 3-0 goal midway through the third. The last was Chris Thorburn, a hugely popular teammate who’d been through an emotional year, being one of the first Blues handed the Stanley Cup despite playing just one NHL game all season.

In the original post-Final survey, the Pietrangelo goal was heavily mentioned, because it featured a rare mistake by Brad Marchand. There is no grey area with the Boston winger. Good or bad, he’s never ignored. Jordan Binnington received several votes “for playing out of his mind,” with special dispensation for a third period save on Joakim Nordstrom when it was still 2-0. (I’d forgotten about that one.)

“The Blues fans expected Binnington to be great,” Merck said. “The Bruins fans were saying, ‘Who expected him to be so on fire?’ They don’t end up sharing the same details.”

He was not surprised to hear that I didn’t have four vivid memories, since I didn’t identify as a fan of either team.

“For Blues fans, (Game 7) is more central to their identity than [it is for Bruins fans]. We’ll see how those ratings have changed from the last survey to this. I’d expect Bruins fans to forget more, remember fewer details.”

I’m curious to hear the results, but I’m betting Blues fans will say they haven’t forgotten a thing.

31 THOUGHTS

1. There will be more on Kobe Bryant at the end of the blog, but there’s at least one NHL connection. When Brad Richards was a heavily pursued free agent in the summer of 2011, Los Angeles was determined to get him. Part of their pitch was a recruitment video. Bryant was one of those who recorded a message.

“That was before I met my wife,” Richards said Monday.

Like everyone else, he was shocked by news of the crash.

“I told her about the video. She was surprised. ‘What do you mean he was talking to you?’”

What did Bryant say?

“He talked about his championships. What it was like to win in L.A. … how great it was to win there. I’m not a big basketball fan, but I watched as much of Michael Jordan as I could. Kobe, to me, was on the same level. Wayne Gretzky was in [the video], so was Clay Matthews…. They found out I was a Packers fan. They all talked about how much they loved winning. You’re in a fog, trying to jam in a lifetime decision. I’m thinking: ‘Why is [Kobe] talking to me? Who am I?’”

Richards chose the Rangers, and continues to work for them in an advisory role.

“I wanted to go back east, and that was the right choice. But the Kings made it harder than I expected.”

Does he still have the video?

“It is with my parents in Murray Harbour (Prince Edward Island). I’ll go back and watch it at some point. And I’ll appreciate it more.”

2. Toronto GM Kyle Dubas has had this to say to other teams regarding his team’s approach at the deadline: “Our players will decide what we do.” Their fortunes will determine whether or not the Maple Leafs pursue a right-handed defender or test the market on their UFAs-to-be. They played very well in a 5-2 win over Nashville in their first game back from the all-star break, with a tough game in Dallas coming up on Wednesday. They have looked into Minnesota’s Mathew Dumba, who fits with Toronto’s modus operandi — he has three years remaining on his contract. As one exec said, “They are investigating every good defenceman on the market.”

3. Montreal’s message is the Canadiens aren’t interested in rentals, and the most likely scenario is they don’t do a ton. Even though the 2020 playoffs are a long shot, they want to be in the race for 2021. Trading those who can help them next year (Jeff Petry, Tomas Tatar) doesn’t make sense barring something they absolutely can’t turn down.

4. Joe Thornton opened the door to the possibility of a trade, but told San Jose-area reporters he would need to think about it first. My guess is this: The only way the Sharks would even consider it is if it came at his request.

5. Other players at all-star weekend think Chris Kreider really likes being a Ranger. The biggest challenge could be what offers they get for him. There will still be an extension conversation. If New York goes five or six years at around $6.75 million per, what will he say?

6. Kreider told a great story last Tuesday about Henrik Lundqvist dominating a shootout competition.

“I could have gone 15 times and not scored,” he said.

Lundqvist may not be playing as much, but he hasn’t lost any of the fire. This is not a confident prediction, but no one would be surprised if the Rangers punt their goalie decision until the post-season — keeping Lundqvist, Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin for now. They don’t want to rush into a move they later regret. They may be looking for someone to help AHL Hartford in case Shesterkin goes to the NHL for good.

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7. Every year, Brian Burke tells me the trade deadline is going to be a dud, and every year I tell him something big will happen that we don’t see coming. This is his best chance to be right. I don’t sense much excitement with what we know is available on the rental market. There could be more interest in the price points of players who wouldn’t jump to the top of most of our lists. One example is Dylan DeMelo. His future is as much in Ottawa’s hands as his own, but DeMelo’s solid 2019–20 has not gone unnoticed.

8. The Sabres resumed their season with a 5–2 home loss to Ottawa on Tuesday night. At all-star weekend, I heard some talk of the frustration around the organization and how much the losing is wearing on owner Terry Pegula. We’re coming up on nine years since he bought the Sabres. At that media conference, he promised to spend, which had Sabres fans dancing with joy. He’s spent on players, coaches, executives, scouting — everything. They made the playoffs that first season, losing in seven games to Philadelphia. But there have been no playoff berths since, and the team is 80 games under .500 in that span.

Players credited Ralph Krueger with changing the attitude around the team, and Jack Eichel’s having a Hart Trophy-calibre season. But they’re 10 points out as we wake up on Wednesday and there are no easy answers. The disappointment is not going unnoticed.

9. Didn’t realize until this weekend that Chris Pronger, senior advisor to Dale Tallon with Florida, only signs one-year contracts.

10. Speaking of contracts, sources indicate that John Hynes received a one-year extension when hired in Nashville and Peter DeBoer two in Vegas. The former is now under contract through the 2021–22 season and the latter through 2022–23.

11. There was NHL interest in CSKA Moscow’s Nikita Nesterov, who played 132 games with Tampa Bay and Montreal from 2014–15 to 2016–17. (I think the Kings were one of the clubs nosing around.) But there is word he will sign a long-term deal in Russia.

12. George Parros, head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, is in Edmonton for tonight’s Battle of Alberta resumption. He will stay in the province for Saturday’s rematch. It is believed to be his first travel for specific deterrence since the 2016–17 season, when he and then-department head Stephane Quintal went to Vancouver for a Maple Leafs-Canucks rematch after Nazem Kadri was not suspended for a massive hit on Daniel Sedin. Parros is not expected to meet with the teams before the game, but has previously spoken to both GMs.

13. Alluded to this on Twitter the other day, but the NHL is not giving up on attempts to hold regular-season games in Russia. There was a desire to do it for next season, but logistical challenges will prevent that from occurring. However, the league will try for 2021–22. The NHL would not confirm the teams, but, if it were to have happened next season, it looked like St. Louis vs. Washington. It would be incredible to watch, something that someone born in 1970 (like myself) never thought they would see in their lifetime.

14. Had a chance to debrief all-star weekend on Tuesday with the NHL’s Chief Content Officer, Steve Mayer. There were a couple of key takeaways from our conversation. First, it looks like the female players are going to be a consistent part of the festivities. The biggest newsmaker of 2019 San Jose was Kendall Coyne-Schofield. The three-on-three game was one of the best events from 2020 St. Louis.

I didn’t know much about Canadian goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens, but I do now. It’s a big stage, and she shined brightest. Performance determines your future, and they’ve earned their spot.

“The game was very well-received,” Mayer said.

I don’t know that putting the women in the actual All-Star Game is a possibility — but Mayer hinted, without any specifics, at some kind of competition.

“It needs to be fun,” he added.

Hilary Knight and Marie-Philip Poulin were in the Shooting Stars event; the accuracy competition makes sense, too. (They are going to brainstorm other ideas.)

One suggestion: There were some NHLers who wanted to go on the respective Canada/U.S. benches to watch the game and support the players, but they were confined to the tunnel. It would look good if they could do so.

15. Interestingly, Mayer said he sought out several players to get their feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and he’s considering more input from a select small group this summer.

“What are their thoughts?” he said. “What do they want to see?”

I said one of them had to be Patrick Kane.

“He was pretty vocal,” Mayer answered. “Opinionated. I appreciated that he cares enough to comment.”

What did he say?

“He wanted styrofoam targets (for the accuracy event).”

Mayer made sure to talk to players with different amounts of all-star experience — Quinn Hughes, Seth Jones and David Pastrnak among them. Personally, I thought the Skills competition needs to be 30 minutes shorter.

“That is one thing we’ve asked: ‘Does everyone have to participate?’”

St. Louis’s crowd was enthusiastic, the alumni were a big hit, and there were five-hour-long lineups to be photographed with the Stanley Cup. I loved the visuals of the all-stars walking through the crowd to get to the shooting-stars platform. That one is going to be back, with some tweaks to make the scoring less confusing.

Mayer wanted to credit his executive assistant, Francesca Ranieri, for coming up with the Justin Bieber mask. He wouldn’t comment on this, but I heard it was no coincidence Tomas Hertl ended up wearing it. Someone with a big, fun personality was necessary, and Hertl certainly qualifies.

16. Again, Mayer didn’t want to go too much into it, but I got the sense that next year’s “international theme” will try to go beyond the regular Canada, U.S., Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden format. He wants to see if there’s a fresh approach. I wondered if a KHL team or other international players would be invited, but that appears unlikely.

17. We did discuss Green Day’s “colourful” appearance. I laughed it off. Some parents get upset at that language, but I’ve always looked at it like it’s my responsibility to explain what’s acceptable and what isn’t. (Not that my eight-year-old listens to anything I say.) The league went over the lyrics with the band. I guess Billie Joe Armstrong was feeling a bit … constrained by the clean version. There is another year remaining on Green Day’s contract with the NHL.

“We’ll let the dust settle and re-engage later. There are no specifics for any future performances other than (this) all-star,” Mayer said. “We’ll see.”

18. I will say this until I am blue in the face, but after watching Shea Weber dominate the hardest shot, the NHL is missing out on a perfect made-for-TV moment if it does not put him and Zdeno Chara against each other one more time before they retire. Chara’s won five times and Weber four. Send both of them (and their families) to Florida next January and give us our showdown!

19. I thought Calgary’s David Rittich would have been a good all-star MVP choice had the trophy not gone to David Pastrnak. Rittich said he would’ve voted for Hertl. Then he smiled and added, “I’d share it with him.”

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20. Commissioner Gary Bettman, asked if there was a deadline for 2022 Olympic participation, made it very clear he wasn’t going to be bound by IIHF President Rene Fasel’s wish for an answer this summer.

“[Fasel] also said last summer that he wanted an answer by December, and he didn’t get one,” Bettman said. “I actually think that the deadline is really more one that we would have to impose in terms of logistics. My guess is if at a point in time we said we wanted to go and we could handle the timing of it … the IIHF could as well.”

The commissioner indicated the release of the 2021–22 NHL schedule is the “game-changer one way or the other.” As a reference, this year’s schedule was released on June 25.

21. There might be no more important player in the second half of the season than Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck. I asked him if he felt as good as he looked in the first half of the season, and he answered that he did.

The best of the best in anything know when they’re going well and when they’re going poorly. He came across as very comfortable in his own skin, feeling very positive about everything from tracking the puck to overall patience.

“I feel way more patient than I did before,” he said. “I feel way more on top of reads. I feel like I’m challenging very well, making more controlled saves.”

As the all-star break arrived, he looked tired, giving up eight goals in first periods against Tampa Bay, Chicago and Carolina. He carried the Jets through the first four months, so it was understandable.

“I think mental fatigue is worse than physical fatigue. I could play 82 physically, but mentally there’s no way. There’s certain games that really drain on you mentally because you might not get a whole lot of shots but you have to read the play over and over again. Just because it doesn’t get to the net doesn’t mean it wasn’t a whole lot of mental effort just in case it did, right? I think that’s the biggest thing. When you get a lot of pressure, you’re constantly making decisions. Not only that, but you’re trying to identify when is your moment, when is the moment you’re going to have to come and take a shot, and when is the moment you’re going to change the play…. That weighs on your brain, you know?”

22. The good news for Winnipeg and its fans is when I asked if he was worn down, Hellebuyck pooh-poohed the suggestion.

“I think this break’s huge. I wouldn’t say it’s ever been too much yet because I’ve managed it pretty well, and I’ve been turning my brain off when I need to. Definitely there’s some moments when I needed some rest and I think I got those. I think this is going to be really good for me now to just kind of wipe everything clean and come back right where I started at the beginning of the year.”

23. It was a Twitter user named Janna (@helloyorick) who noticed that Jacob Markstrom was wearing a suit designed by Yoyuu, a clothing company founded by Godfrey Gao:

Gao, a popular actor and model, died last November of cardiac arrest while filming a television series.

“We had mutual friends,” Markstrom said on Saturday, hours before his Pacific Division won the three-on-three event. “When we played in China (2017), I left him tickets.”

After Gao’s death, Markstrom reached out in support, hoping to keep Gao’s memory strong by wearing the suits.

“I have five or six, and that one is rain-proof,” he said, making it perfect for Vancouver.

Markstrom also surprised his mother and uncle, who made the trip to St. Louis, by choosing the anthem of the Swedish soccer team his father played for as his intro music at the skills’ competition. (Markstrom took a leave of absence in December after his father’s death.) You could tell how proud he was that they were pleasantly surprised to hear it. Small things are big things, always.

24. One of the things I’m really looking forward to getting with puck and player tracking is more detailed analysis of passing. Quinn Hughes is absolutely incredible at it, and he talked at length about setting up both Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson for one-timers on the power play.

“Elias likes a certain spin, and I’ve been working on getting it right,” he said.

Pettersson deadpanned that “(Hughes) still hasn’t figured it out.”

What does he want?

“I like it flat along the ice, outside the foot.”

25. Did Pacific coach Rick Tocchet consider starting Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid and Matthew Tkachuk together? He smiled.

“I thought about it. But I would get killed.”

Seriously, all of the all-stars combined probably couldn’t take Tocchet.

26. I asked Tocchet what he learned by seeing McDavid up close for a couple of days.

“His calmness,” the coach replied. “Wayne had that. Mario had that. No wasted energy. He knows what he has to do, and that’s what he’s focussed on.”

27. Dr. Mark Lindsay, the in-demand chiropractor and soft-tissue specialist who basically lived with McDavid during his recovery, says he will be doing a research paper for Queen’s University on last summer’s process.

28. The Blues ended a three-game losing streak with Tuesday’s 5-4 shootout win in Calgary. They are really good, and it wouldn’t be a stunner if they repeated. What was interesting is that their players and coach Craig Berube said they never talk about it.

“When we were in last place last season, we realized that you have to focus on what you are doing in the moment,” captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “You can’t look ahead. That’s what worked for us.”

“Probably about two or three weeks after we won, we got an email from the coaching staff saying, ‘It’s time to start preparing for next year and this is what we expect,’” laughed David Perron. “At the time, I was thinking, ‘Come on, we just won.’ But, looking back, I thought that was excellent for getting us in the right place mentally.”

29. A few of the Eastern Conference players said they can see confidence growing in Florida’s Sergey Bobrovsky.

“He went from an airtight defensive team to one that isn’t,” an all-star said. “That takes time.”

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

30. Sounds like the AHL is weeks away — if that — from deciding on a successor to outgoing President Dave Andrews.

31. It’s so hard to formulate thoughts about Kobe Bryant. First of all, you think about the player. Back when I covered the NBA, I always looked forward to his visits to Toronto. There are two particular games I remember. The first was a 94–88 Raptors loss in December of the 1999–00 season.

At the end of that game, with the outcome already decided, the Raptors tried a spectacular alley-oop off the backboard for Vince Carter. It didn’t work, but if it had the place would’ve gone crazy even in a loss. I remember Bryant laughing as that happened. It was like he was saying, “Do you want to win the game, or do you want to win the crowd?” When you’re the home team and you’re about to lose, I don’t have a problem with trying to send the fans home happy. But I remembered the look on Bryant’s face. To him, showing well in a loss … it just didn’t matter.

A year later, the Lakers came in again and beat the Raptors 104–101 in overtime. That game, the Lakers led the whole way, and the Raptors caught them in the fourth quarter. Then the Lakers took control again and won in overtime. Bryant had 40 points on 29 shots — that’s a good ratio. Carter had 31 points on 32 shots. He got hot in the fourth, but generally had a rough day. I remember in the post-game, we were all raving about how Carter got the game to overtime. Now you have to understand: That day, Bryant played 52 of the game’s 53 minutes, and he looked at us like: “Who had the better day, the guy who played 50 minutes, or the guy who played 10?” I say all this not to make fun of Vince Carter, but it was in those moments I recognized the competitiveness of Kobe Bryant.

As for the accident, I think of all of the families affected, and especially the children. It’s been 37 years since my mother passed away on her 35th birthday. I was 11 years old then, and I had two younger sisters at the time. When something like this happens, I think about how the moment affected me — then and now. It’s hard to say that any positive comes out of something like that, but I think and I know that there are lessons learned that shape you and help you recover. You gain a greater appreciation for things. You recognize what really matters and what doesn’t. I know that in a very weird way, and a difficult way to explain in writing, that I’m fortunate enough to be where I am as a person and as a professional because of the lessons I learned in the aftermath of that.

I hope that in 35 years from now, the children affected by Sunday’s helicopter crash will be able to say the same. I hope that in time they will be successful, they will be happy, and that out of the darkness of this moment came positive lessons that shaped a bright future. I know that was the case for me.

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