31 Thoughts: Expect Canucks to be aggressive in post-Sedins era

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stops a shot by Vancouver Canucks centre Brandon Sutter during the first period of an NHL game Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/AP)

I’d bet your house it won’t happen, but I’d love to see Daniel and Henrik Sedin’s NHL careers end Thursday night with a lengthy ovation, followed by an announcement the Canucks are immediately retiring their numbers. Down come the banners as Rogers Arena goes bananas.

Here’s all you need to know about the respect they earned: Their retirement was not a secret. Dan Hamhuis told Scott Rintoul and Andrew Walker on Sportsnet 650 that he was informed before Vancouver played in Dallas two weeks ago. It sure sounds like the twins told some opponents on the ice, late in games.

And it didn’t get out.

Nineteen years after a stunning draft-day trade that united them in Vancouver, the Sedins did something few superstars get to do — orchestrate an exit on their own terms. There was opposition; as recently as last weekend people were trying to talk them out of it. Or, at least, asking them to think longer before announcing a final decision.

One of them was long-time agent JP Barry.

“Having been through this before (with Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin), I just wanted them to be sure,” Barry said Tuesday. “Both Daniel and Mats took some time, decided they weren’t ready to retire, and played somewhere else. Daniel and Henrik never considered playing elsewhere, it was all about Vancouver, but I wanted them to make sure they didn’t want one more year.”

According to Barry, the decision was made approximately two months ago.

I remember the first time I covered a Hockey Night in Canada game in Vancouver. Watching them rinkside from the Zamboni entrance, I realized that television did not do them justice. The subtlety of their style did not fully translate to the screen. You had to be in the building to truly understand what they could do.

Too often, we equate toughness with growling and throwing punches. Toughness is also about grinding every day. It’s about doing your job to a high standard no matter how much your body aches, how sad your children are when you can’t be around, how annoyed your spouse is with you, how much you might despise your boss, or, in hockey, pushing through the stick to your ribs or the glove in your face.

There is a famous story about the 1994 Campbell Conference Final between Toronto and Vancouver. Gino Odjick was roughing up Doug Gilmour, putting Toronto’s star off his game. Wendel Clark skated up to Pavel Bure and told him, “If you don’t tell your buddy to leave him alone, you will pay for it.”

Odjick left Gilmour alone.

That’s gone now. Stars take the abuse. People said the Sedins weren’t tough, weren’t gritty. That’s garbage. No referee will call all the penalties in the playoffs that could be called. They took it and kept coming. In the last two decades, plenty wilted where they didn’t.

The toughest thing about being an athlete is your disappointments play out publicly. Everyone sees them. After Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, the Canucks dressing room was a predictably despondent place. Owner Francesco Aquilini angrily let the media know how he felt. Eight years earlier, Anaheim’s Steve Thomas called the Ducks’ Game 7 loss to New Jersey the worst non-death experience of his life.

The pain of that room paled in comparison to Vancouver’s.

The Sedins stood there the longest, facing wave after wave of questions. So many reporters thanked them for their time and patience during the post-season. It’s the last thing they wanted to hear — you could see it in their faces. Not surprisingly, they were beyond gracious.

There are much better stories about them. Former Canucks Assistant GM Laurence Gilman told one about their 2009 contract negotiation, a difficult conversation that took almost a year and ended with the twins leaving money on the table.

“Days later, they and their wives announced a $1.5-million donation to the children’s hospital,” Gilman said Monday. “They never told us. We had other negotiations where players said, ‘If you give us this, I will do this,’ but it never entered their negotiations at all. They had it in their minds they were going to do it no matter what.”

On the final day of the 2013 season, Henrik played one shift against Edmonton to keep his consecutive-games streak alive at 629. When he first heard about the idea, he despised it, and said he didn’t want to extend things under those conditions. According to Gilman, then-head coach Alain Vigneault said he didn’t care what Henrik thought, he was the boss, and Henrik was going to play.

Sedin lost that argument.

Former GM Dave Nonis told one about going down to the locker room postgame and seeing coach Marc Crawford all smiles.

“Daniel had been clipped with a high stick,” he said. “I asked Marc what he was so giddy about and he replied, ‘At least I will be able to tell them apart for a few weeks.’”

When Derek Dorsett retired, he said that, at his first Canucks’ training camp, Kevin Bieksa pulled out some photos of the twins at a Whistler restaurant. It became a quiz. “Which one is this?” “How about this?”

“I think I’m one of the quickest to tell them apart, personally,” the Bieksa texted. “Hank used to be chubbier until Danny forced him to work out harder. Danny only said ‘exactly’ or ‘absolutely’ for his first five years in the league when speaking English. Danny lived in a treehouse for his first 10 years… and Henrik a mansion.”

Bieksa, still merciless.

The Vancouver media said they could easily tell them apart. When the Canucks came to Toronto this season, one of them came up to say hello. Apart, I had no idea which one it was. He knew it and laughed.

One journey is complete. Another begins. Their numbers will be retired and they are going to the Hall of Fame. As a viewer, I loved the ride.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Did the Sedins’ decision catch Dan Murphy and John Shorthouse by surprise? They said they should have known it was coming when the Canucks announced bobblehead nights for both players.

2. All of a sudden, Vancouver has more than $20 million to play with for 2018–19. Word is they were very interested in Mikael Backlund before Calgary re-signed him. They have young players with top-six skill — Jonathan Dahlen, Adam Gaudette and Elias Pettersson — who might not be ready for full-time top-six roles. How do they bridge that one-, two- or three-year gap? One possibility is they offer some short-term, bigger-money contracts to the group of available free agents.

Their interest in Backlund has opponents thinking they could be an aggressive participant in the market. The other is by leveraging their cap space like Vegas did last summer. We’ll help you, the Canucks can say, but you are going to help us. Two calls I’d be making would be to Chicago and Ottawa. Could the Canucks pitch taking some or all of Marian Hossa’s cap hit and/or Bobby Ryan’s contract, as long as the Blackhawks and Senators make it worth their while? (Ryan would have some control over his destination.)

3. GM Jim Benning joined Murphy during an intermission of the Canucks’ shootout loss to Vegas and said they planned to give Dahlen a taste of the NHL during this last week, but his Swedish club’s playoff success made that impossible. If Timra had lost Monday, Dahlen would have played against Arizona and Edmonton. He might end up at AHL Utica, which is playoff-bound.

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4. Entering Wednesday’s games, Edmonton had 127 points from defencemen, 27th in the NHL. (Nashville is best, at 195.) That is something the Oilers will address in the off-season. It’s a priority.

5. One agent said this week he made a list of the five top free-agent centres — John Tavares, Joe Thornton, Paul Stastny, Tyler Bozak, Riley Nash — and made two predictions for each. First was where they would end up, second was their next contract. He sealed it and said he’d check it after all four signed. Feel free to play at home.

6. Ilya Kovalchuk is still going in the KHL playoffs, but turns 35 on April 15. At that point, any NHL team can talk to him, although he can’t officially sign until July 1.

7. Two of the top free-agent wingers are Vegas teammates: James Neal and David Perron. Will the Golden Knights be willing to go above Reilly Smith’s $5-million AAV for either?

8. Doug MacLean said on our Wednesday-night telecast of Ottawa/Buffalo that the Senators see a drop-off after the first seven picks of the 2018 Draft. They could finish anywhere from 27th to 30th with two games to go, and don’t have to decide on giving up their first-rounder to Colorado until the pick is due. But if it is lower than seven, Doug’s intel suggests a pass. We’ll see.

9. A few weeks ago, I was preparing for a Blackhawks broadcast, and an opposing coach kind of snickered at Duncan Keith on their power play.

“[Keith] can’t shoot anymore,” he said.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus wrote recently about the future Hall of Famer flirting with one of the the worst shooting percentages in NHL history. He scored an enormous goal Wednesday night, a power-play snipe that put St. Louis’s playoff hopes in jeopardy. I have no rooting interest in the Western playoff race, but good for for Keith, who doesn’t deserve such mockery and has taken a ton of internal responsibility for a difficult Blackhawks season.

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10. Interesting conversation last week with Winnipeg’s Kyle Connor. In the 2015 draft, he thought he was going to Florida. The Panthers were picking 11th, “and I had a lot of good conversations with them,” he said. “But I remember that Lawson Crouse was supposed to be a high pick and he dropped down to them. So I understood why it didn’t happen.” From there, Connor wasn’t sure. Neither were the Jets, although every team knew Boston, which picked 13, 14, and 15 had a different list than almost everyone else. Most teams agree that Vancouver had Brock Boeser ranked higher than almost everyone else, but when I said that on-air a few weeks ago, someone reached out to say there were two teams the Canucks privately admitted they were afraid of. One was Minnesota, which was common knowledge. It took me a while, but I finally figured out the other. It was the Jets. If Connor was gone, Boeser was going to be the pick. Worked out for Winnipeg — and Vancouver.

11. Remember that the Jets’ season began with ugly losses to Toronto and Calgary by a combined 13-5. Asked what prevented things from going off the rails, Paul Maurice answered, “Nik Ehlers’s 3-2 goal the next game against Edmonton.”

The Jets blew a 2-0 lead in that one, only to have Ehlers score a natural hat trick to win it. Connor Hellebuyck is probably the biggest reason, but it’s interesting to hear the Jets players talk about Maurice.

“He uses the same words almost every time. Same message,” one said. “When we’re practising, it’s all about fast-and-simple, fast-and-simple,” Brian Little explained. “Do this drill fast-and-simple.”

After their 3-1 win in Toronto, Patrik Laine said his team was “on the puck” and “above the puck.”

Those phrases are also constants from the Maurice playbook. He doesn’t cram their heads with much. Craig Simpson, by the way, said he was impressed at how many Jets can make plays in small spaces. That seems good for the playoffs, no?

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12. I think that if the Jets have any concerns, it’s about having enough healthy defencemen. They always seem to be battling injuries back there.

13. Florida’s Aleksander Barkov, asked if he feels he deserves more attention: “There are a lot of people in this room who deserve more attention.”

14. Barkov had a very interesting answer when asked what he liked about Auston Matthews. There are similarities between the two, especially when it comes to protecting the puck, or getting it back after they’ve lost it. Barkov said that, of all the things in Matthews’s game he noticed, the one that stood out most to him was Toronto’s franchise player blocking a shot with five seconds left in a 1–0 Maple Leafs victory over Florida on Feb. 20.

15. Panthers GM Dale Tallon said his team, still battling for the playoffs, won’t be creeping up in average age any time soon.

“We’re gonna go younger again next year, we’re gonna add a couple more pieces to it,” he said on the 31 Thoughts Podcast. “I love young players. We did it in Chicago and we’re doing it here in Florida. We’re just gonna let them learn on the job.”

Unfortunately, Tallon would not reveal how much money he won golfing against Michael Jordan.

16. Two weeks ago, there was a jolt of excitement in Buffalo as Casey Mittelstadt left the University of Minnesota to join the Sabres. It’s not a huge coincidence that Alex Nylander got a call-up from AHL Rochester shortly after.

“They looked good playing together at our development camp,” GM Jason Botterill said Monday, hours before Buffalo lost 5-2 in Toronto. “Alex got hurt after that, and it took him a while to get going.”

That’s true. There were rumours the Sabres were getting fed up with their 2016 first-rounder and would look to trade him. In a previous conversation, Botterill denied that, saying it was way too soon. Nylander had 13 points in his first 32 AHL games, 13 in his last 16, and has earned a test drive. The GM wouldn’t come right out and say it, but there’s a sense it isn’t easy for Alex to see older brother William’s success in Toronto. William was a point-per-game guy in two AHL seasons and a full-time NHLer by age 20.

“Alex has to understand that he could still be playing at OHL Mississauga,” Botterill said. “He’s got plenty of time to make an impact.”

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17. The Sabres will finish 31st and have the best lottery odds for the No. 1 draft pick. It’s been a tough year for Botterill and head coach Phil Housley. They came from organizations with demanding coaches, but there’s no doubt a lot of the tone in Nashville and Pittsburgh is set by the players. In talking to some of the Sabres, they see the “cycle of losing” affecting the younger guys.

“Look at Rasmus Ristolainen,” one said. “He’s a really good player. But he’s been here the longest. [Losing is] all he knows.”

Opponents say they’ve taken advantage of Jack Eichel’s obvious on-ice frustration. I mentioned these comments to Botterill and we had a really good conversation about it.

“[Eichel’s] last injury came at such a bad time. We went to Western Canada, beat Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. Our power play was on a 30-per cent stretch, and he hurt his ankle.”

The GM shrugged his shoulders in frustration at the memory.

“You just want see him have some success. We need to win games. It’s not just Jack’s team. We need to help him. Teammates need to help him. When he is challenged, he responds in a good way. You talk about changing culture. How do you do that? You can’t always just trade for it. That’s why it’s so important that Rochester made the playoffs. Those young players are going to understand what it is like to play meaningful games, what it takes to win them.”

He told a story about Linus Ullmark, who will get every chance to be Buffalo’s No. 1 goaltender next season. In a December game against Belleville, Ullmark lost a shutout with one minute left.

“Some goalies would be upset, but Ullmark was celebrating in the room with everyone else. All he cared about was the win. That’s what we need.”

18. Buffalo likes what it has at centre with Eichel, Mittelstadt and Ryan O’Reilly. The Sabres believe a healthy Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe will help Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson, because they’ll be properly slotted.

“We’ll make some changes,” Botterill said, “because you can’t come back with the same group. We have talent, but we don’t have consistency. We’ve beaten Boston three times. We won at Tampa Bay, and we just beat Nashville on the road in a game we were losing 3-1. But we don’t build off those. Here’s another example. [On March 19], we lose 4-0 at home to Nashville. We work hard at practice the next day, then forget what we practised on the Wednesday (a 4-1 loss to Arizona). You have to develop those habits and stick to them.”

Botterill’s father, Cal, is a longtime sports psychologist and his sister, Jennifer, owner of three Olympic gold medals, is relentlessly positive. Has he spoken to them much?

“Actually, the person I spoke to about this is John Hynes,” referring to the Devils’ coach who worked with him at AHL Wilkes-Barre. “We discussed the balance between being angry at the way things are going and saying, ‘OK, today is going to be a work day. We are going to fix some of our problems, and we are going to be optimistic.’”

19. In recent history, the Sabres have thrown a lot of free-agent money at their problems. Will that be the plan again? Botterill: “We’ll see.”

20. I asked if any under-the-radar prospects took strides for Buffalo. Botterill mentioned three. First was CJ Smith, a 2017 NCAA free-agent who leads Rochester with 17 goals. Second was another AHLer, Sean Malone.

“He’s going to a carve out a role here, the way he is going.”

Third is 22-year-old Victor Olofsson, a 2014 seventh-rounder who led all scorers in the Swedish league with 27 goals.

“We’d like to give him a look, see if he can score here with our guys.”

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21. Dave Jackson retired as an NHL referee after 1,600 games, three decades and two major injuries that threatened his career.

“I loved it,” he said Wednesday, “and I hope to stay involved. It feels weird…. It’s like I’m waiting to go on the next road trip.”

Jackson’s 1,000th- and 1,500th-game celebrations were highly attended affairs in his hometown of Montreal and adopted hometown of Denver, but his last game was quieter, because he wanted a smaller group. He picked Los Angeles, because his wife, Jill, used to work for the Kings.

“It was funny,” Jackson laughed. “One player wanted to shake hands and say goodbye, but I’d just given his team a power play and told him it probably wasn’t the right time.”

22. Jackson’s favourite story goes back to his AHL days in the late 1980s when current Canadiens coach Claude Julien captained the Halifax Citadelles.

“They had a young player named Marc Fortier, who went too far in something he said. So I gave him a misconduct. Claude skated up to me and said, ‘Dave, you are wrong on this one. I’m his roommate on the road. He doesn’t speak any English. You misunderstood.’ I said, ‘Claude, I’m from Montreal, I speak fluent French.’ Claude tapped his stick on the ice, said, ‘Well that was a good call then,’ and skated away.”

23. We talked a little about the state of the game, the relationship between players and referees. Both have said there isn’t as much dialogue as there used to be. Some of that is social, and some of that is that leagues don’t like it.

“The biggest change was when we started. Players and coaches didn’t take charter planes. So, if you had a problem with someone on the ice, they’d see you at the airport, you’d sit down over a beer and sort it out. That doesn’t happen anymore. The league is also younger, although I find some of the most respectful ones are those who had fathers in the league.”

He appreciated getting goodbye messages on sticks from the likes of Cal Clutterbuck, Sidney Crosby, TJ Oshie, Alex Ovechkin and Mats Zuccarello. Is the job tougher now?

“The two-referee system has created more scrutiny for sure. Under the old way, it was understood you’d miss something. Now, with two refs out there, it’s expected you will catch everything.”

Should we go back to one, then?

“No, no way, you couldn’t. It is so fast now and the higher standard of obstruction and slashing — which I think is a good thing — would make that impossible. You forget there was a red line in play when it was one referee. Now, if you were down at the goal line and the defending team fired a long pass out to centre, you could never catch up.”

24. Jackson said that if he has one worry, it’s that hockey associations aren’t putting money into supervisors for officials.

“When you are starting out, doing several games a day, you need someone to come into the room at the end of the day and say, ‘I really like what you did out there, and this is why.’ There aren’t as many of those people, so often the only things you hear are coaches or parents yelling at you, complaining.”

Sounds like something he could help with, for sure.

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25. The fathers of newly signed Los Angeles King Daniel Brickley and 572-game veteran Trevor Lewis used to chow down on garlic burgers at a Utah bar called Cotton Bottom. They played on the same men’s league team, which I understand was named The Spa. Don’t tell me I never give readers useful information.

26. The OHL Draft is this weekend. Sudbury has the first-overall selection and is expected to take six-foot-four right wing Quinton Byfield. He’s the consensus No. 1 choice, and he’s going to report.

27. The night before the NHL officially moved the goaltender interference calls to the Situation Room in Toronto, it sent out a league-wide memo asking executives, coaches and players to stop complaining about the reviews. Clearly, Carrie Underwood wasn’t cc’d. Yikes.

28. The NHLPA and its registered agents met Tuesday in Toronto. That’s a big deal, because the organization usually holds multiple get-togethers in different locales, giving the representatives an opportunity to stay close to home. For almost a year, three agents have pushed for a review of union leadership. It turned into a nasty battle that ruined friendships and created serious tension because no one likes looking weak by airing dirty laundry a year before collective bargaining. It wasn’t an easy story to cover, since people I trust on both sides of the debate accused the others of spreading misinformation, and without documentation, it’s hard to prove anything.

Here’s an example: Last week, one reporter said he was told Anaheim, Colorado and Columbus voted in favour of the review. But another source said that wasn’t true, and both were adamant in their positions. There was plenty more where that came from, including accusations that the proposed independent review committee wasn’t really independent. In recent meetings with players, executive director Donald Fehr re-iterated that if they lose confidence in his leadership, he will resign. (According to a couple of sources, Fehr has a shorter termination window than I thought, somewhere around two months.) In Tuesday’s meeting, Fehr said, “If the players lose confidence in me, I will leave. But it is their decision to make, not the agents’.” So expect this to cool down if players themselves don’t push it.

29. One of the agents asking for a review is Kurt Overhardt. (His client list includes Kevin Bieksa, Ryan Johansen, Ryan Kesler and Jacob Trouba.) He left the meeting early, which raised eyebrows, to say the least. When contacted about it, he said there was a personal matter that did not allow him to stay the full day.

30. From a media point of view, I love the free-agency window prior to July 1, but I learned this week many agents can’t stand it. They believe the NHL is gaining too much intelligence about the market during that time.

31. It wasn’t unusual to be preparing for Hockey Night in Canada during a week where something big occurred in Montreal (when doesn’t something big occur in Montreal?) and see Donald Beauchamp’s name pop up on screen. My greeting would be followed with, “Hello, Elliotte, this is Donald Beauchamp from the Montreal Canadiens. I just wanted to see if you needed any help with understanding what happened this week?” We’d go over things — sometimes I’d use his information, sometimes I wouldn’t. But I always appreciated the effort. That’s the toughest media market in the NHL, and it’s not close. Twenty-five years in that job is a success by any measure. The Canadiens will miss Donald, and I will miss those calls.

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