You can talk all you want, but actions speak. Any long-time fan can remember a time when their team made a big trade — and totally collapsed. Whether it was the white flag on a season or a superstar who wanted out, a demoralized carcass of a roster remained.
That did not happen in Columbus on Saturday. The opponent was the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who were 3-0 on the season with a victory over the Blue Jackets under their belts less than 48 hours earlier. Captain Nick Foligno tied the game 17 seconds after Victor Hedman opened the scoring, en route to an impressive 5–2 Blue Jackets win.
“We have a great room. We have really good leadership here,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen said on Monday’s podcast. “Guys love playing for each other and going to battle. That’s the way it looked like again on Saturday…. There’s certain values we don’t compromise. Doesn’t matter who you are, you have to live by those values.
“You could see some joy within our team in Saturday’s game. We finally looked like a team, and they played great. I’m proud of the guys.”
Kekalainen knew for months that Dubois wanted out. He and Winnipeg compatriot Kevin Cheveldayoff knew for months that each other was likely their best option. Every time these two GMs spoke to other clubs about their disgruntled forwards, whatever was offered had to beat what they could get from one another.
During his Hockey Night in Canada pre-game interview with Ron MacLean, Cheveldayoff said the Jets tried to address their needs on defence but were unable to do so. It’s believed that when they spoke to Philadelphia, the ask of the Flyers included Ivan Provorov. Philly obviously wasn’t doing that, but it illustrates what both the Blue Jackets and Jets were thinking.
Columbus hoped it could mend things with Dubois, but he had no interest and accelerated the process by sleepwalking through last Thursday’s game. It couldn’t continue. Kekalainen took one more trip around the NHL on Friday, but no one could beat the Jets. It was done Friday, although medical reviews weren’t completed until Saturday.
Jack Roslovic is overshadowed by the rest of the star power involved, but his inclusion was critical to Kekalainen.
“We were adamant right from the start we wanted both of these players in the deal, and it wasn’t happening one for one,” he said.
While necessary, it had to be a painful trade for Columbus. The Blue Jackets — trusting their instincts — disavowed conventional wisdom to select Dubois third overall in 2016. If they had taken Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton would have snared Mikhail Sergachev with the next pick and P.K. Subban would have been traded from Montreal to Vancouver so the Canadiens could grab Dubois. How much would be different?
Instead, their astute gamble forced an eviction after just three seasons. Having recently seen Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin walk as unrestricted free agents makes it hurt even more. In response, Kekalainen launched into a passionate defence of the Ohio capital.
“The one thing I know, there’s misconception that there’s something wrong with Columbus. This is a great city. I could live here for the rest of my life…. We’ve got great fans, we have a great building, great ownership here and people are excited about hockey. It can give you the small city, safe feeling… with great schools and some of the best golf courses in the United States if you love that.
“I can’t say enough about Columbus, how great it is here.”
One of the theories (although I don’t believe it applied in this case) is that players want out because the Blue Jackets grind them when they have the hammer due to the way arbitration and free agency are set up. Do they have to change their approach?
“No, I don’t feel that way at all,” Kekalainen answered. “We have certain rights in the CBA…. You know what they tell me when they become (an unrestricted free agent)? ‘Here’s what I want for money, or I’ll leave.’”
He was laughing when he said that.
“When we have the rights — and you don’t have arbitration rights, for example — we’re going to say, ‘Well, we think this is a fair contract. Here’s why, here are the comparables and let’s agree on a deal.’ We’re never going to try to squeeze you and put an unfair offer on the table. Sometimes negotiations get a little bit hard if the other side’s unreasonable, but I don’t think we’ve ever been unreasonable. I think the contract once (Dubois) finally wanted to sign took me and (agent) Pat Brisson 10 minutes to get done.
“We just signed Oliver Bjorkstrand to an extension, and he’s very, very happy about it…. (If a) player wants to leave for other reasons, there’s nothing we can do. We offered Artemi Panarin one of the biggest contracts in the entire league because we felt he’s worth it and one of the best players in the entire league. Once you’ve earned it, we’re going to pay. But we also have a cap to manage and now it’s going to be flat for awhile. So if we just hand out money… then maybe the players will like us or our negotiations more, but we’re going to be losing players and not .. able to keep the team together because we’ll be over the cap.
“We don’t get any sympathies from the players and agents when they have the right to ask for whatever they want. We either have to say yes or no when they become UFAs. We’ve got to conduct our business the right way, but we’re always going to try to be fair about it.”
1. Let’s empty the notebook on this deal. Before the season, Montreal might have considered the possibility of Nick Suzuki as part of a trade for Dubois. But any chance of that was eliminated by his performance to start the year. His growth is exceptional.
2. Dubois repeated one particular theme in his post-trade interviews: “Sometimes you have to remain true to yourself, how you feel and how you think.”
It’s cryptic, but a window into his thinking.
One Blue Jacket said, “If you cross him, or he makes up his mind on something, he doesn’t change it.” So, in that respect, he was certainly true to himself.
I don’t believe this was about money — the belief is Columbus was willing to go into the eight-times-eight range to get this done. There are a ton of theories, including: Dubois wanting to be in a place where hockey was more in the spotlight; his relationship with John Tortorella (a factor, although multiple sources have indicated it’s not “the” factor); some kind of dispute with teammates (denied by one source, although they were very unhappy with his performance this year); and, lastly, Dubois being worried if he signed long-term that other Blue Jackets would go elsewhere and he’d be left behind. Maybe we’ll never know the real truth.
3. On the podcast, Kekalainen said Columbus “tried like hell” in 2016 to move up from third to second overall so they could draft Laine. Did he ever think it would happen? “No, they weren’t moving the pick.”
4. As for Winnipeg, Blake Wheeler pushed back against the idea Laine was bullied out of the organization.
“If I have any regrets, my regrets would be some of the frustrations that took place over the years,” the captain said. “Every time we communicated, it’s been nothing but positive. Never any fighting, never any yelling at each other…. So maybe I could have communicated a little better instead of just getting frustrated. Never once was I hard on Patty — far from it. If anything, I was very respectful and coddled a young teenager and 20-year-old.”
Whatever the case, one thing is very clear: Not everyone was 100 per cent comfortable with everyone else. That’s not necessarily fatal. Take a look around your own workplace — there are always factions, egos and petty jealousies. What matters is if everyone shows up to play, and Laine’s opener was out of this world.
What can screw up everything is money. The winger’s number is going to be high, and I don’t think the Jets were willing to go there. Look at their salary structure — everyone’s reasonably close. That, to me, is what ultimately set the move in motion.
5. Vince Dunn was off the second power play in St. Louis’s morning skate Tuesday at Vegas. Coach Craig Berube would not reveal his lineup, but will that mean a healthy scratch?
Dunn has had a rough start, but his talent is respected. St. Louis had a lot of trade talks about him in the summer before signing him. They are believed to be looking for a first rounder.
6. Some things to keep an eye on: Anaheim is looking for scoring.
8. The Canadiens are so deep and going so well that Victor Mete can’t get into the lineup. There’s going to be interest. The one thing you really notice about Montreal is their confidence. That team believes it’s good.
9. It was DEFCON 1 in Vancouver over the weekend as the Canucks dropped to 2-5. I can’t imagine ownership is thrilled with the way the season’s begun, but I don’t sense any desire to do something rash. This season presents unique challenges, which makes change riskier and more difficult to complete. You’ve got to lean into the headwind.
If the start to the year’s proven anything, it’s that team identity was altered by the departures of Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev. They were security blankets on and off the ice. When Elias Pettersson needed counsel, he went to Markstrom. When Quinn Hughes needed it, he went to Tanev. You could count on Markstrom to cover up mistakes, while Tanev was a calm presence who could make a strong outlet pass. That eased the pressure on Hughes’s workload; now he’s even more of a target.
I’m a fan of Corey Sznajder’s online work (@shutdownline on Twitter). He does a ton of individual tracking, and has noticed Hughes’s workload has gone up a lot — although defensive injuries have something to do with that, too. Opponents are making sure to finish their checks on him.
10. There’ve been reports the Canucks have talked to former Los Angeles assistant GM Michael Futa. He works with Sportsnet now, so it’s not something I’m really comfortable talking about, but I don’t believe these conversations are new. There was contact several months ago with GM Jim Benning, but nothing available.
11. Sznajder’s data had some interesting insight into Pettersson. His five-on-five numbers so far this season are stunningly poor for such a fantastic talent. For example, he had just five offensive-zone entries with possession in the team’s first six games. It’s simply not what you expect from him. Can’t help but wonder if some of that was J.T. Miller’s early-season absence. They have tremendous chemistry and look for each other. Now that Miller’s returned, the Canucks hope things get back to normal, although it’s certainly strange to see the pair get no points on a night where Vancouver scores seven against Ottawa.
12. Senators coach DJ Smith unloaded following that 7–1 defeat.
“We got some guys that are taking for granted positions in the NHL,” he said. “And we’ve got to give some other guys opportunity to see if they want to play a little harder than some of the guys that are playing now.”
I didn’t mind Smith leaving in Matt Murray; this is a long-term investment, and he needs to work on things. That probably gets Colin White back in the lineup, as he’s only played twice. Teams have called the Senators to see what their intentions are, but again, they’re not anxious to give up talented young players.
13. Almost 27 years ago, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman suspended Mike Keenan for 60 days and fined him $100,000 for signing a contract with St. Louis while coaching the Rangers in the playoffs. The Blues were fined $250,000, and Detroit (which also tried to get him) was fined $25,000. Even adjusted for inflation, John Chayka’s suspension, which amounts to 17 months through Dec. 31, looks very steep by comparison.
A couple of executives said they weren’t surprised Bettman would send a powerful message enforcing contracts because owners wouldn’t want their GMs following any precedent. But it’s hard to make true judgement without seeing the full ruling.
New Jersey asked for and received permission to speak to Chayka — a private plane was sent for the interview — so I’m really curious to read it. In a lot of ways, the next move is the Devils’.
14. The 2021 NHL draft wasn’t a major focus for the league until the season started. Now that it’s under way, teams are being asked for their suggestions. Obviously, there’s a fear about making already-challenging evaluations with so few games. (One scout was laughing last week, realizing the last viewing he had of one prospect was a game from last February.)
There are several brainstorms, including moving the draft back to December or January, and one idea I really love — two drafts in June 2022 in Montreal, several days apart. The first would be for late-2002/2003-borns, the second for the next year. The NHLPA has to approve this, and a significant problem would be about preventing some very talented players the possibility to be in the NHL next season. That’s why I wonder if a solution is one round in July, the rest later.
15. One thing we’ve learned about the NHL’s COVID-related absences list is that cancellations depend on positive tests, not exposures. Seventeen positive tests in Dallas means cancellation (and for good reason). Washington had four players on the list, but only one positive test (Ilya Samsonov), so they played. Carolina didn’t play, so it’s clear they had several positives. The Capitals weren’t thrilled they had to play shorthanded, but that might actually be better for them long-term. Carolina, Dallas, Florida and Tampa Bay will all have more “game days” than off days for the rest of the season.
16. The fallout from the four Capitals — Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Alex Ovechkin and Samsonov — was interesting. No one disputed that the NHL has to enforce its rules, because governments need to be confident special privileges will be protected. And everyone is struggling under COVID, so it’s not the right message that anyone should be exempt. But there is concern about the mental well-being of the players.
Montreal opened the season on the road for almost two weeks. Ottawa is spending six days a row in Vancouver. You’re very limited in what you can do, and, like everyone on the planet, players can’t wait until there’s more freedom to move. I moved into a hotel for the first five days of the season, and felt like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I get it.
17. If there was anything that bothered some players, it was the impression the four Capitals were guilty of an egregious violation. Players are uncomfortable with the public nature of the COVID list — my feeling is it’s unavoidable and better than the alternative — and they felt those players were publicly unprotected.
18. When the Capitals first addressed the incident, head coach Peter Laviolette made sure to point the finger at himself, too.
“I made a mistake. I dropped my mask (at the end of a game) in the celebration. I’ve got to do a better job, too.”
Small thing, but a big thing.
19. I really feel for the AHL, its team and its players. It’s a financial mess and an enormous challenge for everyone involved. Last summer, the Professional Hockey Players’ Association (which represents AHL and ECHL players) agreed to pro-rated salaries for this season. Back then, the league was talking about 56 games with 31 teams. Now we know three are out, and no one will play 56 — with the Canadian teams coming in as low as 24. Ontario has not yet given permission for Belleville or Toronto, and Stockton’s team looks like it’s headed to Calgary. One player said he was looking at the possibility of $30,000 pay for four months work, which he said he couldn’t afford to do.
The NHL teams, who recognize the importance of their prospects playing, are prepared to help out to the tune of guaranteeing at least 40 per cent if the season cannot be completed due to COVID, with the PHPA countering at 60 per cent. There were calls going on today to see where everybody stood, but, as you can imagine, there are raw/hard feelings everywhere. It’s brutal.
20. When Jesse Puljujarvi went back to Karpat in 2018, he was given a dressing-room seat next to 34-year-old Shaun Heshka of Melville, Sask. (Before Puljujarvi returned to Edmonton this year, he was sandwiched between two Canadians, Heshka and 30-year-old Cody Kunyk of Sherwood Park, Alta.) When Oilers coach Dave Tippett said last week Puljujarvi was being promoted to the top line, Heshka re-tweeted the news on his Twitter timeline.
“We watch the games,” Heshka said Tuesday. “I couldn’t think any more highly of him — people here are rooting for him. Our job was to talk to him in English as much as possible, build his confidence, get his love for the game back. We felt we did that here, and it’s great to see him doing well.”
What do you remember about Puljujarvi when he came back to Karpat?
“He looked like he needed a hug,” Heshka answered. “He went there with a picture of how things were supposed to work, and (they) didn’t work out that way. For him, it’s not about money. He wanted to play because he loves playing, and we told him, ‘This is your team and we’ll all trail behind you.’”
What’s the difference now as opposed to then?
“He figured out how to play the game — how he can use his teammates to further himself. He doesn’t have to do it all himself. He just really matured as a person, and he’s the hardest player to train with here. There are a lot of young players around, and he sets the example. They all look at him, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ He sets the tone.”
21. Heshka signed as a free agent with the Canucks in 2006 after three years with WHL Everett. Traded to Arizona in 2009, he played eight games for the Coyotes in 2009–10.
“I remember being on the bus (for AHL San Antonio), and the coach called me up to the front and said I was going to the NHL. I was like, ‘Whoa, really?’”
His first game was in Anaheim.
“In warm-ups, you see Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh man, I’m in over my head.’ I cherish my one cup of coffee.”
Twelve days later, he thought he’d scored his first goal and the Coyotes players were ecstatic for him.
“It was against Carey Price. In between periods, Radim Vrbata said he tipped it, but wasn’t going to tell anyone. But the league reviews all goals, and they switched it to him.”
Geez, that’s such a downer. They should have pretended they didn’t see it. Heshka had two assists in eight games. The other was on Paul Bissonnette’s first NHL goal.
“I banked it off him. He’s talked about it on his podcast,” Heshka laughed.
22. From Arizona, he’s been to Austria, the AHL, Finland, Russia, Sweden and back to Finland. He won the Spengler Cup with Canada in 2017. This is his fifth straight season in Karpat.
“When I started in Finland (2012–13), I played in Pori, and they won their first championship in about 30 years. It was a big deal; I didn’t realize how big it was in the scale of things. People were coming up to us crying in happiness when we’d sit down for dinner. It boosted my reputation in the country. I was doing an interview with a Finnish writer and he said I was one of the most consistent defencemen in the league the last 10 years. It does get harder every year, but my game was never about speed. I’m a good passer and see the ice well.”
He’s there with his wife, Laura, and children Makayla, Willem and Taylor. They go back to Winnipeg in the summers. Great journey for him and his family — and the Oilers appreciate his guidance with their talented young forward.
23. One name stood out for me when I was looking over AHL rosters — 27-year-old defenceman Ryan Murphy from the Henderson Silver Knights. Taken 12th overall in 2011 by Carolina from OHL Kitchener, Murphy played 175 NHL games for the Hurricanes, Wild and Devils before going to the KHL in 2019–20.
Joining the Vegas organization is no coincidence. On the Golden Knights staff is his OHL coach, Steve Spott.
“There was a point where I was in Minnesota that I thought I’d be going to San Jose to be with him. I wanted to get back with him — he knows me. [Vegas is] a team built on second chances, a perfect place to start a new career.”
24. Murphy could have stayed in Russia for more money, but the pull of the NHL was powerful. His desire to take another run intensified when he saw two old friends win Stanley Cups — Jordan Binnington in 2019, and Barclay Goodrow in 2020. Both have lent their support.
“Picking Jordan’s brain. How he handled himself. He’s a big supporter of mine, always saying, ‘Murph, this is your year.’ The whole story, the negatives, he never gave up. Kept his confidence. (Barclay) and I have baby pictures together on the ice. He beat the odds — people never gave him a chance. I couldn’t have been happier to see Bark win.”
Murphy also credits Peter Renzetti, a long-time personal trainer who also works with Cole Perfetti, among others.
“He’s a mental coach, too, making sure I have that ‘Eff you’ mentality. ‘Have your confidence, you’re a hockey player.’ I felt I failed a lot of people that I didn’t have a 500-game career.”
We had a really good conversation about how being a hockey pro for a decade is an incredible accomplishment, something most boys and girls would sacrifice an important internal organ to achieve.
“When I’m older, I’ll see it that way,” Murphy said. “But right now, I’d like to accomplish more.”
He credited the KHL with helping him get his groove back, especially coach Craig Woodcroft at Dynamo Minsk.
25. Murphy had a good story on one of his biggest adjustments to Russian culture.
“I didn’t know for the first couple of days in Tatarstan (where he played last year for Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik) that it’s pretty normal to shake hands in the morning to say hello.”
So instead of just saying hi, you shake everyone’s hand the first time you see them every day.
26. One of my buddies got a Theragun over Christmas and loves the thing, so I was intrigued to see that Johnny Gaudreau is the first NHL player to endorse it. (Other endorsers include Paul George, DeAndre Hopkins and Maria Sharapova.)
“He had a relationship with the product. He uses it,” said Corey Gross, president of Three Point Sports, who signed this deal for the Calgary winger. “They were attracted to his story. An underdog. Overlooked and now he has success at the NHL level.”
In the digital age, that’s the focus over national or regional commercials.
“Socially driven,” as Gross says.
Key for Flames’ teammates? Part of the partnership is a supply of Theraguns. So they should start asking. I’d bet Ryan Leslie already has.
27. After 911 NHL games for St. Louis, Toronto, Phoenix, Calgary, Pittsburgh, the Rangers, Winnipeg, Boston (twice), New Jersey and Carolina, Lee Stempniak has two new homes. The first is just outside Boston, where he lives with his wife, Lindsay, and children Reese, Lucy and Brooks.
The second is with the Arizona Coyotes. He is their hockey data strategist.
“As I played, I gained so much experience and knowledge. I was the beneficiary of guys going out of the way to help, and I wanted to do that, too.”
Who helped you?
“Bill Guerin, Doug Weight and Paul Kariya were very generous. Kariya, I’d eat lunch with him every day after practice for one year, and I was like a sponge. Keith Tkachuk, he’d say, ‘You carry the puck through the neutral zone, and I will be here.’ He owned the front of the net, and all the small things I saw him work on in practice made him an exceptional player.”
28. We actually discussed skills development as much as analytics, because we started talking about The MVP Machine, a fantastic baseball book about how some players honed their skills. I brought up the chapter about Trevor Bauer, while Stempniak mentioned Mookie Betts and how he changed his swing after being the American League MVP.
“I was a guy that tried to squeeze every last talent out of myself,” he said. “At the end of the day, hockey ops wants to win. Any edge more info will give goes into helping you win. Being better at some small things can do that. If you can break out, make a good pass, pull the puck off the wall to make a play efficiently, accelerate into pucks, objectively see what you need to work on, break down small parts of great players’ games…. Let’s say a great player can do X, Y and Z. Maybe you can’t do X and Y, but if you get a little more of Z, you can improve your game. The best in the NHL are in a never-ending quest.”
I asked for some examples of the true perfectionists.
“Patrice Bergeron scores on that power play soft-area one-timer all the time. He works so hard at it. Sidney Crosby works at everything. Protecting pucks, being strong on pucks, knifing through the neutral zone. He chases perfection and adds new ways all the time.”
29. As for the numbers, Stempniak sees his role as “the conduit. Taking all this raw data and making it into something more usable in hockey terms.”
His first exposure to it was in Calgary, with their resident genius, Chris Snow.
“It was very basic — shots and shot location. ‘This is where you shot the puck from. This is where goals were scored. And when you scored more last year, this is where you shot from.’”
Stempniak has an economics degree from Dartmouth and tried to learn more about the ideas.
“There can be such a disconnect between hockey ops and analysts. I’m going to try to make it more user-friendly on both ends, make sure everyone gets what they are looking for. More efficient. Everyone just wants to see how it’s relevant.”
30. Stempniak said one of his career highlights was scoring Winnipeg’s first playoff goal after the Jets’ return to the NHL. He’s helping Freddy Meyer, who played 281 NHL games, coach a school team and told some funny stories about the kids.
“They ask me, ‘Do you know Bergeron? Is he your friend?’ I say, ‘Yeah, he is,’ and they’re so impressed,” Stempniak laughed. “I feel very fortunate for where my career took me.”
31. It’s a weird feeling covering the NHL this season. I’m not working a single game involving a U.S.-based team. Does anyone else feel cut off from those outside their favourite team’s division? I didn’t like last week’s blog for that reason; I felt there wasn’t enough on those other teams. Strange challenge.