31 Thoughts: Breaking down major NHL Awards races

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning breaks down what the Canucks have planned for the future and what he thinks of the 10th overall pick.

• Does Pettersson have Calder competition?
• Panthers not done after Quenneville hire
• Is Jack Hughes a lock for New Jersey at No. 1?

Let’s start with the annual tradition of the NHL Awards ballot. The league frowns on everyone revealing their votes, preferring to leave some mystery for the night itself. Two of my winners will be clear. The rest is more of a general guideline. (All ballots become public after the winners are announced. I think it’s had a huge effect on the outcome.)

Remember: If I didn’t vote for someone you thought was deserving, it is because I hate them, their team, and — most importantly — you.

HART TROPHY

Under consideration: Sebastian Aho, Viktor Arvidsson, Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Patrick Kane, Nathan MacKinnon, Brad Marchand, Connor McDavid, Ryan O’Reilly, Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos. The McDavid situation is incredibly difficult. It’s the hardest thing about any of my choices on the entire ballot. Almost 15 years later, Crosby and Ovechkin continue to raise the bar.

It came down to: Nikita Kucherov. It’s been 23 years since anyone had 128 points. There’s a lot of “He’s on a great team … come on!” out there, but look at it this way: Stamkos was ninth in league scoring and Kucherov beat him by 30. No leading scorer on any team outpaced whoever was second by that much. (Kane was closest; he beat Jonathan Toews by 29.) Kucherov drove that bus. Bonus: On a team that had reason to coast from January, he looked mad every night. He’s never satisfied, a major reason both he — and his team — are as good as they are. The only negative on his resumé? That haircut

NORRIS TROPHY

Under consideration: Brent Burns, John Carlson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Victor Hedman, Roman Josi, Kris Letang, Ryan McDonagh, Morgan Rielly. Someone thought it was weird I was considering two Lightning on the ballot. McDonagh was terrific; probably his best season. Tampa was 23-6-0 in games Andrei Vasilevskiy did not have a decision. Hedman/McDonagh were a huge part of that.

It came down to: Giordano. How many teams exceeded expectations more than Calgary? Gaudreau was a huge part of that and a Hart Trophy candidate on his own. Giordano, though, went to an incredible level. He had 74 points, third-most by any defenceman aged 35 or older (Ray Bourque 82, Nicklas Lidstrom 80). At five-on-five, the Flames had 57 per cent of the shot attempts and 61 per cent of the goals when he was on the ice (credit: Natural Stat Trick). 

CALDER TROPHY

Under consideration: Anthony Cirelli, Rasmus Dahlin, Carter Hart, Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk. Cirelli deserves a lot more attention than we’re giving him. You can see why Ottawa bet on Tkachuk.

It came down to: Jordan Binnington, Miro Heiskanen and Elias Pettersson. Heiskanen is getting shafted. If he played in a Canadian market, people would be showing up at our houses demanding we vote for him. Quietly, he’s had an impressive season — a steadying force on Dallas’s back end.
 
Three years ago, there was a mega-debate about Connor McDavid’s games played. He lost the Calder for one reason and one reason only. He played just 45 times, which is 55 per cent of the year. Binnington played 32, or 39 per cent. His impact was incredible. Not only did he save St. Louis’s season — he saved people’s jobs and blew up potential trades. 

Pettersson didn’t get Vancouver into the playoffs, but he changed the direction of the franchise. He, too, saved jobs. If he loses the Calder, it’s because people are going to look at his back half and say, “His production dropped.” I don’t think that’s fair. The NHL is a hard, hard league and Pettersson became everyone’s target when Vancouver was on the schedule. St. Louis was supposed to be a great team, Vancouver wasn’t. He carried the Canucks into relevance. They ran out of steam when he did.

This was not an easy decision.

SELKE TROPHY

Under consideration: Sebastian Aho, Mikael Backlund, Aleksander Barkov, Patrice Bergeron, Sean Couturier, Phillip Danault, Jonathan Toews. Barkov’s defensive numbers were not to his lofty standards.

It came down to: Sidney Crosby, Ryan O’Reilly and Mark Stone. Crosby and O’Reilly are proven face-off winners and forechecking demons, while Stone is a puck-recovery machine. It’s kind of funny that the award was created for Bob Gainey, but no winger’s won since Jere Lehtinen in 2003.  

LADY BYNG TROPHY

Under consideration: Mitch Marner, Sean Monahan, Ryan O’Reilly, Alex Tuch.

It came down to: Aleksander Barkov, Morgan Rielly and Jared Spurgeon. One defenceman’s won this award since 1954 — Chicago’s Brian Campbell in 2012. As rules changes make the game harder and harder to defend, that seems unfair. Spurgeon played the eighth-most minutes in the NHL, committing 10 minor penalties. (He drew nine.) Rielly was 15th in time-on-ice, drawing one more penalty (eight) than he committed (seven). Both face tough opposition. Either is a worthy winner, although Barkov’s four minor penalties taken and 34 (!) drawn is very difficult to ignore. 

The broadcasters’ association votes for the Jack Adams. There was a real rise in momentum for Jon Cooper in the final weeks of the season. The floor was tilted towards Barry Trotz most of the way. The GMs vote for the Vezina, with Andrei Vasilevskiy expected to lead the way over Frederik Andersen and Marc-Andre Fleury. Missing the playoffs will cost John Gibson and Darcy Kuemper in the voting; both carried their clubs for a good chunk of the year.

31 THOUGHTS

1. This week’s blog comes out at the same time as a massive 31 Thoughts podcast with Jeff Marek, so there will be some crossover. Roberto Luongo had his exit interview Monday with the Panthers.

“I told him that I would like him to just sit on it for awhile,” GM Dale Tallon said prior to the Draft Lottery. “I think he’s owed that. I don’t want any rash decisions.”

The two will meet again before Tallon leaves for the World Under-18s later this month in Sweden.

“We’ll have really good discussions about what’s best for [Luongo] and the Panthers.”

2. Prior to the Devils winning the first-overall selection, by far the biggest story in the NHL was Florida landing Joel Quenneville as head coach. Tallon shared the timeline, saying he and owner Vinny Viola met last Tuesday and Wednesday, deciding to ask Chicago for permission to speak to him on Thursday.

“By the weekend, (it was a) done deal,” Tallon said.

The Athletic’s George Richards was first to report the structure, the initial season at $6 million — about 70 per cent of which will be paid by Chicago. After that, it is all Panthers, starting at $5.25 million, with the possibility of escalators to $7 million. Here is one way those escalators work: There are bonuses for things like winning one round, going to the Stanley Cup Final, winning it all, etc. If you reach a bonus, not only do you get that payout, but the amount is added to your base salary for the remainder of your contract. 

3. The word on the Panthers is they were the most aggressive team on Quenneville, refusing to take no for an answer. They made it clear this was not a search, but his job if he wanted it.

“That is very true,” Tallon said. “We had an idea Philadelphia was aggressive and wanted to get there as well.”

Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher did not wish to discuss their pursuit of Quenneville, but it is believed they met face-to-face with him around the end of March. Multiple sources indicated Quenneville’s first choice was the Panthers. Tallon hired him in Chicago. He and Viola know of each other from their shared interest in horse racing. (There’ve been a lot of jokes about the number of tracks there compared to say, Pennsylvania.) They promised him a say in personnel decisions and made a commitment to spend to the cap.

Quenneville informed other pursuers of his decision last Saturday, but there were rumours 24 hours later that only prodded them to up offers in a final attempt. Was Tallon worried he’d lose his grip?

“No, I was pretty confident,” he replied.

What does the GM want his new coach to fix?

“To instil a positive, confident, assertive attitude,” Tallon answered. “I think our kids this year kind of lost their confidence and got a little flustered…. The composure was not there. Our game management was not very good. We really didn’t play smart hockey when we had leads in critical situations in games. It really backfired on us. Those are things Joel will address and fix.”

He added he hoped Quenneville’s arrival will help Aaron Ekblad and Michael Matheson go to another level. 

4. The Panthers are going out of their way to speak positively about Bob Boughner, Jack Capuano and Paul McFarland. Boughner and McFarland were officially let go, while Capuano is in limbo but not expected to be part of the new staff. Florida wants to let him interview for open positions right away and will grant permission to interested teams.

“They say he is, unfortunately, caught up in circumstances,” one executive said. “This was a lot more about the coach they got than the coaches they had. We’d heard that if they didn’t get Quenneville, Boughner was staying.”

Prior to Quenneville’s arrival, the Panthers had six coaches the last decade. Five were in their first NHL stop. (Gerard Gallant was in his second.) Boughner was in San Jose prior to South Florida, and Logan Couture tweeted out support for him. Word is McFarland, 33, who came from OHL Kingston, was rocked, considering his main responsibility was the NHL’s second-ranked power play. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of either one.

5. Florida is not done. You’ve all heard the rumours about Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin being a package deal for the Panthers. Adding Quenneville has done nothing to squelch them.

“In our situation in Florida, we needed to make a statement,” Tallon said. The biggest was made by the owner.

Next Tuesday, Fort Lauderdale city council votes on a proposal for a new practice facility. On and off the ice, the is their biggest gamble since Pavel Bure.

“Vinny’s committed,” said Tallon. “He’s unbelievable. We lose $28 to $30 million a year and here he is, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go to the cap. Let’s get Joel. Let’s do what we have to do.’ So, God bless him.”

6. Where do the Flyers go? Fletcher said Scott Gordon remains a “strong candidate,” and that he’s “going to take the time to get it right.” You’ve got to think they look at Alain Vigneault. It has been noted that when Todd Richards brought Dan Bylsma to AHL Wilkes-Barre as an assistant coach, it was on a recommendation from Fletcher. He was assistant GM in Pittsburgh at the time. But, by Fletcher’s own words, what happens to some of these teams in the playoffs will be a factor.

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.

7. The Fourth Period’s Dennis Bernstein reported Wednesday morning Todd McLellan was closing in with Los Angeles. It certainly was trending that way prior to the Sabres’ leap into the process. He’s a western guy and the Kings, who had said they were going to consider a search, decided not to waste time. At the end of his time in both San Jose and Edmonton, McLellan did not see eye to eye with his GM. He’s got a positive history with Rob Blake, who played for him on the Sharks. There is a limit to where the Kings will go. They had Darryl Sutter in the $3.5-million range, and that was after he won two Stanley Cups. Up the road near wine country, Peter DeBoer was extended for what is believed to be in the $3.25-million range. The Kings are not afraid of term, but if the Sabres throw a bigger bag of cash at him, it would be a stunner if Los Angeles matched. He’d have to make a choice. Which roster would you rather have: Buffalo or Los Angeles? 

8. This may be irrelevant quickly, but if McLellan goes elsewhere, the assumption is the Kings’ next targets will include three others with ties to Blake: Tony Granato (played with him in Los Angeles); Bob Hartley (played for him in Colorado); and Patrick Roy (played with him in Colorado). Outside possibility: Doug Weight. In the past, they’ve eyed offensively minded coaches. (After this was initially published, a couple sources reached out to say I was missing the possibility of Dave Tippett in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.)

9. Buffalo GM Jason Botterill did confirm interest in McLellan: “Certainly, he’s a person of interest. He’s on our list.”

The coach will be in Buffalo for the Frozen Four. Son Tyson plays for the University of Denver. 

10. Much of this predates Botterill, but this will be the Sabres’ fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired in February 2013. What is he looking for?

“We’re open to anything,” Botterill replied. “You’re certainly looking for someone who has command of the room… that presence in the room. We have skill. We need to continue to develop that within our organization, bring some more in. We want to play a fast, uptempo style. We want to get our defencemen up in the play…. But it’s, as much as we want to play that offensive game, it’s having a little more structure defensively. That’s a big area where we can have improvement there.”

He added the internal debate is not about experience.

“We’re looking at someone who has that communicative ability, has that accountability, has that presence. That’s why we’re going to be looking at all different options.”

It is believed they have a list of about three they plan on interviewing. It is also believed they want to keep assistant coach Steve Smith.

11. Botterill on the percentage chance that Jeff Skinner is a Sabre next year: “I sure hope it’s a high percentage.”

He added that it is a mutually beneficial relationship.

12. Word is that a number of teams have closely scouted Rasmus Ristolainen since the deadline. He had a rough year. But he’s a right-handed shot approaching age 25. If Botterill wants to consider moving him, there will be interest. There is a feeling that, outside of the fiery Jack Eichel, a lot of his young players are too relaxed or passive. It’s not the worst idea to see how that evolves.

“If we can bring some established NHLers to help out (our young players), we’ll certainly look at it,” Botterill said.

Marek asked if he’ll move more firsts like he did for Brandon Montour.

“Where the first one’s going to be (seventh), its always going to be difficult to move that one…. You’re probably holding on to that one.”

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13. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Lane Lambert get some traction whenever the Islanders are done. He won a Stanley Cup in Washington, then went to Long Island with Barry Trotz and they had a great year. Edged out by Jared Bednar for the Colorado job after Patrick Roy left. Might be his time.

14. Edmonton’s GM search starts now. Man, does the name Mike Gillis bring a reaction. I think he gets an interview. Others I’m guessing are on the list: Mike Futa, Keith Gretzky, Mark Hunter, Kelly McCrimmon, Bill Zito and more. Possibly Sean Burke. Possibly Bill Armstrong from St. Louis. Not sure about Ron Hextall. As mentioned last week, don’t think Ron Francis is available. At the season-ending media conference, Bob Nicholson said they are not looking for a President of Hockey Operations, just a GM. Shoots a big hole in my Ken Holland/Keith Gretzky theory.

15. Among those contacted by Ottawa: Francis, Trevor Linden, Dean Lombardi, Joe Nieuwendyk and Steve Yzerman. All are believed to have said no. If necessary, the Senators are prepared to play the long game. In the meantime, GM Pierre Dorion has the authority to hire a coach. He won’t have to wait for approval.

16. Great night for the Rangers at the lottery, with the organization moving into the top three for the first time ever (I was blown away after hearing that). The end of the Columbus/Tampa Bay series will launch the meat of their search for Glen Sather’s replacement. The top two names are John Davidson and Steve Yzerman, both involved in that series. Davidson is the most logical choice. But the Rangers do want to gauge Yzerman’s interest. Word was Sather planned to be aggressive this summer, and his departure as president has not changed that. 

17. Is Jack Hughes a lock for New Jersey?

“He’s rated No. 1 in a lot of places,” said Devils GM Ray Shero, who knows his father, Jim, very well. “I’ll say the chance to draft someone like Jack is fantastic for our franchise.”

What was Shero laughing at when they introduced him at the lottery?

“It was Luc Robitaille next to me, because they showed Kenny Holland… and he just started saying something about Kenny. I started laughing. And then they come on to me, and I’m laughing… and all of a sudden it goes to Luc and he’s just deadpan. He’s the one that cracked the jokes.”

18. So what’s it like to be locked in the secure room, knowing you’ve won and can’t say anything?

“They take your phone and put it in an envelope like it’s toxic or something, and then they put it in a drawer,” said Devils President Hugh Weber, who represented the organization. “They hand you a sheet with a thousand number combinations on it that you can’t keep track of. So it’s not like bingo.”

The numbers were 12-4-2-10, a combination that lined up with New Jersey. After the first three were drawn, the odds favoured the Devils, who had four of the 11 possibilities for the final ball. Philadelphia had three. The others belonged to Colorado, Los Angeles, the Rangers and Vancouver.

“At that point, it’s kind of like you know what everyone’s getting for Christmas but you can’t tell them,” Weber continued. “You’re stuck in this room and super excited. But you don’t want to be too excited because you’ve got your peers around you and they’re not as happy.”

How long are you in there, knowing you’ve won?

“It took an hour and a half — felt like six days. Candidly, I wanted to take a shower. Before they even started on air, we were done.” 

19. After the Devils won, Shero talked about their final game of the season. Up 3–1 in Florida, they gave up two goals in the last four minutes. With less than one second remaining in regulation, Jonathan Huberdeau shot the puck over the glass. Travis Zajac won it on an overtime power play.

“You can’t help but read, ‘If we do this and L.A. does that…’, [but] it’s not the way it works. Your players want to win,” he said. “That lowered our chances (of winning the lottery). The whole idea of players or teams, you can’t control it. This is how it goes.”

20. There’s plenty of time, but the draft really begins with Chicago. Hughes and Kaapo Kakko are one-two, pick your order. The scouting-room brawls are in the three-spot. 

21. I asked Vancouver GM Jim Benning if there is an added urgency to the next two seasons, with Quinn Hughes and Elias Petterson’s entry-level deals expiring in July 2021.

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “These are young, exciting players and we’re going to have to start paying them. We know that. We have cap room available, we just have to be careful that we have enough money to pay what they are going to be worth, or what they are asking for.”

Twice during our interview, Benning said something along the lines of, “We took a step this year and we want to take another step next year.” He politely declined to discuss his conversations with Francesco Aquilini, but, from top to bottom in Vancouver, there is an understanding that a step backward is not an option. We’ve all heard the rumours the organization may hire a president, but Benning seems comfortable with his situation. While the Canucks have said they will pursue a top-six forward and a defenceman, “I don’t necessarily know (if we’re going to make) big headlines,” the GM said. He laughed when we reminded him that every move is a big headline in Canada.

22. Benning denied the process of getting Alexander Edler signed is harder than expected.

“No, it hasn’t. He’s played his whole career in Vancouver. We just have to figure out what the deal looks like, but he wants to be here. He was our best defenceman. When we did our exit meetings, we talked to some of the young guys: ‘Who do you look up to? Who do you talk to when things aren’t going well?’ Alex’s name always comes up. (Pettersson) looked up to him.”

He said they will discuss approaching Jacob Markstrom about an extension, adding he felt good about both Markstrom and Thatcher Demko going into 2019-20. (Either would make an excellent trade chip, but after what happened with their depth this past season, the Canucks’ best decision may be stability.) They have plenty of cap room, but fascinating decisions on Edler, Markstrom and Brock Boeser. If you believe in a scorer, get him locked up. When you wait, how often does the salary number go down?

23. AHL Utica was a source of controversy for the Canucks. Following the lottery, Benning is going to OHL playoff games in Guelph and Oshawa, before heading to his affiliate this weekend.

“We had five or six young players go (to Utica) this year,” he said. “For some of them, it didn’t work out like the player wanted, or like we wanted, but that’s going to happen when you have six young players show up at the same time. Some players are going to fall by the wayside…. That’s just the way it is. I think our guys are organized down there. They have good communication with the players, their expectations for the players are high.” 

The Program
Jim Benning reacts to dropping in NHL draft lottery
April 09 2019

24. Word is Montreal is high on Russian forward Konstantin Okulov, but his KHL contract extends one more season.

25. It would not be a surprise if Cale Makar shows up in Colorado’s lineup following the Frozen Four.

26. Dallas/Nashville is going to be an absolute grind of a first-round series. Not a lot of room; a lot of ill humour. Stars goalie Ben Bishop will have huge role in determining the outcome, with the organization hoping he can stay healthy. Producer David Azuma did the research — Bishop’s missed a combined 37 games due to injury after March 1 since 2012. That’s eight different occasions. They need him healthy.

27. There was a theory that if Jake Gardiner elected to have back surgery, his season would be over. He said that wasn’t the case.

“I would have been able to play,” he said.

But they didn’t want to go down that road. 

28. Ryan Johnson on Tampa’s Adam Erne/Mathieu Joseph/Cedric Paquette line: “There hasn’t been a game this year where someone isn’t pissed off at them.” 

29. Tampa Bay finished with a combined power-play/penalty-kill percentage of 113.2, which, according to my crack research, is best since the 1977–78 New York Islanders totalled 114.9. Recent highs included 2015–16 Anaheim (110.3) and 2010–11 Vancouver (109.9). That’s an impressive accomplishment. Other interesting statistical accomplishments: For the fourth consecutive season, Brent Burns took 300 shots. Others who did it that many times are Ray Bourque (10), Al MacInnis (6) and Bobby Orr (5). Not bad company. Meanwhile, only one other defenceman this century’s done it even once: Dustin Byfuglien in 2010-11 (347).

Ottawa and Toronto became the 12th and 13th teams to allow more than 4,000 attempts. The Senators’ 4,421 was 62 behind the 2014-15 Sabres’ for most ever. The Maple Leafs’ 4,102 is ninth-most, but they are the only one of those 13 teams to have a positive differential (plus-294). Columbus (28th), the Islanders (29th) and Nashville (31st) made it the first time since 1986-87 that three of the four worst power-play teams got into the playoffs. Montreal (30th) just missed making it all four.

30. My personal Nov. 1 statistic: Two teams (St. Louis, Vegas) made the playoffs despite being at least four points out after games on that date. Three (Detroit, Florida, Los Angeles) did not. That’s nine of 59 who’ve crawled out of that hole since 2005–06.

31. The most I’ve ever sweated before a playoff meeting was during a Boston series several years ago. I’d told Bob Cole that Vladimir Sobotka’s name was pronounced So-BOAT-ka, not So-BOT-ka. He asked if I was sure, and I said yes. So he did it that way. After the morning skate for the next game, he was saying it like that and Claude Julien looked at him funny.

“Why are you saying it that way? That’s not how he pronounces his name.”

Julien knew how much Bob valued getting it right. Julien turned to Matt Chmura, Boston’s Vice President of Marketing & Communications, who said he didn’t think that was correct, either. I was whiter than a ghost. That would be very, very bad. You know when you’re right, but you start to doubt yourself? Bob, glaring at me the whole time, said that we were going to come back early, grab Sobotka and ask him personally. Chmura/Julien agreed.

So, more than two hours before the game, the four of us are waiting. Sobotka comes down the hallway we ask him. Bob asks, “How does your father pronounce your last name?” (That’s the way he always does it.) Sobotka’s looking at us like we’re insane. Julien nods for him to answer. He says, “So-BOAT-ka.” Chmura and Julien looked at each other in surprise. I almost cried tears of joy.

I missed those days with Bob when I moved into the studio. The morning of Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, Kevin Lowe saw Bob. The Oilers’ GM wistfully told him how he still got shivers hearing, “Folks, there’s a new bunch on the block,” while watching video of their first Stanley Cup victory in 1984. It was always amazing to see how people reacted to him.

I was usually the driver during those series, with Bob (mostly) liking my aggressiveness, although he hated when I’d tailgate. It got so bad once that he punched me while we were on the highway, much to the laughter of everyone in the van. (That was in Philadelphia. Fitting.) Just great, great times.

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