31 Thoughts: Why Tom Wilson needed a stronger punishment

Tom Wilson crosschecked a defenseless Pavel Buchnevich in the back of the head before slamming a helmetless Artemi Panarin to the ice and punching him in the face. Wilson then flexed in the penalty box afterwards before being sent off the ice.

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I generally don’t get riled up about player-safety decisions, but I didn’t like this Tom Wilson ruling.

What it comes down to — for me — is that Wilson should know he can’t take free shots at Pavel Buchnevich and/or Artemi Panarin. They aren’t equipped to deal with him, and he should recognize there’s a limit. If he’s delivering a ferocious open-ice hit, or making some kind of tough “hockey play,” I am more understanding. But this was neither.

When Wilson hit Brandon Carlo, there was enormous internal debate before his seven-game suspension. The league interpreted its rules in an almost unprecedented manner and not everyone liked it, but the decision was made. It’s proof there is room for manoeuvring, if necessary.

And there’s a lot to pore over here. If you watch the second period leading up to Monday’s incident, it’s clear Wilson is losing his temper. He’s upset at a roughing call against him from earlier in the period, then gets mad when the officials think he shouldn’t be on the ice for a face-off. So he’s doing a slow burn, and that contributes to what happened.

Some said that Panarin engaged Wilson, so he brought what happened on himself, but I’m not buying that.

For one thing, Panarin was defending Buchnevich and Ryan Strome. Second, there was a point where Wilson realized who he was tangling with and could have ended it. We’ve all seen fights where someone stops because their opponent is overmatched.

But Wilson didn’t end it, and Panarin got hurt. He won’t play the rest of this year, but it could have been much, much worse.

“Everybody in our organization is very disappointed,” Rangers head coach David Quinn said. “A line was crossed: (Panarin) didn’t have his helmet on, vulnerable, he got hurt. To me it was an awful lot there to suspend (Wilson).”

“(Panarin) with no helmet on — a superstar in our league — I think it’s a joke,” Strome added. “As players, you want the league to have your back in those situations, and I think a lot of guys in our dressing room just feel like they didn’t.”

When the NHL punished Tim Peel, it was about “protecting the shield,” and there’s a similar argument to be made here — it’s just not good for the league to have this all over TMZ.

Minutes before the brawl, John Carlson lost his stick in the defensive zone, and Wilson gave the defenceman his own, knowing Carlson needs it more than he does. That’s an alert player who can think quickly — and properly. Whatever you may think of Wilson, he’s a high-level talent.

“I think the message (from us) to Tom is he’s big, he’s strong and when he gets into scrums and wrestles you’ve got to be careful,” said Capitals coach Peter Laviolette. “With the attention on him, he gets looked at a certain way. He has to play his game, he has to be hard to play against, he has to be physical, but in the same sense he’s got to know that eyes are on him as well.”

I used to have an awful temper, and my father would tell me, “It’s on you to control it or you will pay the consequences.” In this situation, Wilson should be held accountable to control himself much more than he did.

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.

31 THOUGHTS

1. On another matter, I think Washington is running out of patience with Evgeny Kuznetsov. Laviolette said Tuesday the status of the centre and goalie Ilya Samsonov, who did not play Monday because they were late to a meeting, is uncertain for Wednesday’s rematch. The coach added the Capitals are “working through things inside the room.”

2. In Carolina, it sounds like the Hurricanes have a verbal agreement with Rod Brind’Amour to stay as coach. That’s where he wants to be and everyone knows it. What he’s asked, however, is for his assistants, goalie coach, trainers and equipment people to be re-signed. That’s not done, and the negotiations are grinding.

The Hurricanes are a Stanley Cup contender — and could be for years to come. Brind’Amour will take less than he’d get on the open market, so the situation already is enough of a win that I’d get things done.

3. Carolina did take care of one other important piece of business, making sure improving Alex Nedeljkovic did not become a unrestricted free agent. By playing in his 22nd game of the season on Monday night (of at least 30 minutes), the goalie’s status moved to restricted free agent.

4. Right-shooting Shea Weber skated with a left-shot stick on Monday, not using his injured left hand. There were rumours he would be out long-term, but I was reminded, “Always assume Shea Weber will do everything possible to avoid being out long-term.”

5. Bob Hartley is now in Riga, coaching Latvia at the upcoming World Championships. He just led Avangard Omsk to the KHL’s Gagarin Cup. He’s got a long history with Ilya Kovalchuk, who at 37, played a critical part in that victory and terminated his contract with the club right after. Does he want to come back?

“No doubt,” Hartley answered without hesitation. “He wants to play in the NHL.”

The coach said he called an unsigned Kovalchuk earlier this season, telling him to come to the KHL “and show the NHL you can still play…. Kovy was a huge help for me. His dream is to win a Stanley Cup.”

Hartley also talked up Reid Boucher, and there is some interest in him, too.

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6. One of the conversations that might come out of Winnipeg’s late-season swoon is coach/management control of rosters. At the trade deadline, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said he wanted to see more of Ville Heinola. On Monday, head coach Paul Maurice talked up Logan Stanley — especially when it comes to the grind of playoff hockey.

There is generally a separation of church and state in the NHL. Management sets the roster, coaches choose who plays and how much. The best relationships are where the parties understand each other’s wants and needs, but there’s a recognition of who historically controls what space.

Baseball is very different. Managers are now reduced to a vessel for organizational thinking. The slower pace allows that, but you have to make in-game decisions much quicker in hockey.

There is still time for the Jets to sort this out — playoff victories mean previous sins are forgiven. But it doesn’t mean the overall philosophical conversations won’t continue.

7. The situation can’t be easy, either, for 24-year-old Sami Niku, who has played just six games.

8. Interesting expansion-draft tidbit told to the Kraken: If they select anyone who has already been paid a July 1 bonus, they must re-pay it to the player’s previous team. Something else to calculate in your mock drafts.

9. Under expansion rules, Seattle must select at least $48.9 million under the salary cap. Other teams are thinking they will target the minimum — unless incentivized to do otherwise. That would allow for maximum weaponization of their space.

The first player Vegas ever signed was Reid Duke, who had a connection to GM Kelly McCrimmon from WHL Brandon. I wondered if there was a player with a similar connection to the region, and Estevan Bruins director of marketing and operations Danny Ewen tweeted the name Cole Fonstad. The winger plays for WHL Everett, and went unsigned after Montreal took him 128th overall in 2018. No guarantees — just an idea.

10. Zach Werenski switches agents during a critical time for Columbus. Judd Moldaver, who now represents him, pushed Nashville (Roman Josi) and Toronto (Auston Matthews) into places they didn’t want to go. Werenski (two years from unrestricted free agency) and Seth Jones (one year) are eligible for extensions this summer. The Blue Jackets are expected to step up to the plate for both, and will want clarity — especially with Jones — before the puck drops next season.

11. Monday was the craziest night of this NHL season:

• Cole Caufield scored his second-straight overtime winner, as Montreal snared its third consecutive comeback victory — 3-2 over Toronto. The Canadiens moved into a third-place North Division tie with reeling Winnipeg.

• Down 5–3 after two, Minnesota beat Vegas 6–5 thanks to two goals in 26 seconds late in the third.

• Tyler Seguin returned to action after an arduous recovery from hip and knee surgeries. He scored his first goal of the season as Dallas came back from three two-goal deficits before losing to Florida in overtime.

• Nashville, seeking to eliminate the Stars as soon as Wednesday, blew a 3–0 lead to Columbus thanks to an Emil Bemstrom third-period natural hat-trick — before winning in overtime.

• Connor McDavid ridiculously moved within nine points of 100 as Edmonton clinched a playoff berth.

• Anze Kopitar picked up career points number 998 and 999 as the Kings beat Arizona.

• Colorado came from down 4-2 early in third to beat San Jose and eliminate the Sharks from playoff contention.

• And then there was Michael Houser.

12. As news spread that the 28-year-old goalie would make his NHL debut for Buffalo, his circle of friends burned through smartphone data thresholds in celebration.

“Seconds after I put out a congratulations on my Twitter and Instagram,” Columbus defenceman Scott Harrington said Monday night, “my phone blew up with messages from former teammates, billets, everyone I know that knows him. We were all so thrilled for him.”

Houser’s mother, Monica, said her phone had more than 100 messages after head coach Don Granato made the announcement, and 60 more right at the buzzer when the Sabres closed their stunning 4-2 win over the Islanders.

She watched the game with husband Bill and another of their children, Alex.

“All of us achieved (Michael’s) dream,” Alex said. “He will always be able to say, ‘I did it.’”

Houser became the 13th member of the 2011–12 London Knights to play an NHL game — joining Josh Anderson, Andreas Athanasiou, Max Domi, Seth Griffith, Harrington, Bo Horvat, Olli Maatta, Greg McKegg, Vladislav Namestnikov, Chris Tierney, Jarred Tinordi and Austin Watson.

13. It was a long, challenging road. Born with bilateral club feet, Houser had 14 surgeries by the age of two, and two more by 11. The Knights found him in 2009 playing for the Des Moines Buccaneers, a last-place team in the USHL. They needed a backup for Michael Hutchinson; Houser was their man.

Houser was supposed to be the backup in 2010–11 to highly touted prospect Igor Bobkov, a third-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks. Instead, he ripped the job from Bobkov’s hands, and never gave it up. The following season, he played 62 of the team’s 68 games, as injuries wreaked havoc on their backup situation.

“I’d go to him and say, ‘We’ve got three games this weekend; which ones do you want to play?’” laughed Bill Dark, then the team’s goaltending coach. “He’d say, ‘All of them.’ So we’d play him in all three.”

“Here is someone who was told he shouldn’t be playing any sports,” Tinordi said. “And he played so well. It’s crazy.”

The Knights went all the way to the Memorial Cup Final, losing 2–1 in overtime to hometown Shawinigan. Houser was the CHL Goaltender of the Year and the OHL’s MVP.

There are great stories about his time there, from him seeing Wayne Gretzky at a practice and not giving up any goals while the Great One was watching, to Game 1 of the league final against Niagara. Dougie Hamilton scored for the IceDogs in double overtime, then did a somersault in celebration. It was an ugly goal, and, as an annoyed Houser left the ice, he was told he had to stay for a drug test. Fired up, he allowed just seven goals over the next four games as London won the series 4–1.

The family can’t say enough good things about how the Knights treated their son, and the bonds between players remain strong. (Rumour has it that on one vacation with his ex-London teammates, Houser got a beer company’s logo tattooed on his back.)

14. McKegg and Tinordi are now Boston Bruins. They weren’t dressed for Monday’s 3-0 win over New Jersey, “and we were paying attention through our phones,” Tinordi said.

Harrington didn’t dress for the Blue Jackets’ loss to Nashville. Did he watch Houser?

“You’re going to get me in trouble,” he laughed. “Actually, the timing was perfect. During the break before our game started overtime, I was able to see the end of Michael’s win. I haven’t been that nervous in a long time. It’s a cliché, I know, but he is the ultimate teammate and friend. He never made you feel bad for a mistake on the ice.”

As much as people loved him, it took a long time for the NHL to love him back. The 2012 Draft — right after his hugely successful season — was in Pittsburgh, where he lived. Houser didn’t attend the event, “but we had a plan that he would go to the rink when selected,” says agent Paul Capizzano.

Houser was never taken. Florida signed him as a free agent. He’s bounced around since then, mainly in the ECHL. Heading into Monday’s game, he had only two AHL appearances in the last five years and hadn’t played in any game since March 7, 2020.

“He had chances to go to Europe,” Capizzano said. “And he’d say, ‘No, I’m going to be in the NHL someday.’”

“All you ever hope is he gets a chance to play,” Bill Houser said. “I didn’t doubt it would happen. The question was how much longer would he have to wait to get a break. You never hope for injury, and there were some years he played very well, but nothing opened up in front of him. Teams would be healthy and there wasn’t anywhere to go.”

Until Buffalo in 2021. Only in this year of unpredictability and insanity could the Sabres lose Carter Hutton, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Linus Ullmark. Houser and Luukkonen became the first tandem to play a full season together in the ECHL (Cincinnati, last season), then debut for the same NHL team in the same season.

Buffalo was down 2–0 midway through Monday’s game, both scores on deflections. Adam Pelech scored the first and set up the second, not easy for Capizzano — who also represents the Islander defender.

Dark was groaning while watching from home.

“Some nights, regardless of how you play, you’re not going to get the puck luck,” he said. “(Houser) wasn’t behind the play at all. He looked like he did nine years ago. There was no hint of fighting the puck.”

“He didn’t flinch,” Bill Houser said. “We were so proud. And the Sabres played really well in front of him.”

Yes, they did. Buffalo took control and charged back. Rasmus Asplund tied it with 8:35 to go, before Sam Reinhart scored twice to win it and clinch it. Bill, Monica and Alex Houser looked at each other and cried.

“We’ve never been so excited to see an empty-net goal in our lives,” Alex said.

“Absolutely amazing,” added his mother.

Yes. Yes, it was.

15. There are a lot of great memories of Ryan Miller from my rinkside reporting days while he was in Buffalo. After his performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Elton John asked to meet him during a tour stop in Buffalo. It wasn’t just his stellar play, but things he did when not in plain view. There was a time a prominent sponsor was set up to meet Miller after a practice, but the goalie forgot and left beforehand. The Sabres had to phone him, and Miller, realizing his mistake, turned around without hesitation.

There was a tense negotiation during the 2012 lockout, where he confronted fearsome Chairman of the Board Jeremy Jacobs. When I emailed to request an interview about it, Miller declined by saying (paraphrasing), “There’s nothing wrong with two people passionately arguing their positions.”

He cracked heads with the NHL on goalie equipment too. He once autographed a female fan’s leg, and later heard it was turned into a tattoo.

16. Looks like the goal is for U.S. teams to start the playoffs on May 15. Canada could be a few days later.

17. I’m not crazy about the lack of playoff races, but hopeful that this will mean an even better opening round, because it allows games off for those who really need it. Within an hour Saturday night were terrific overtime-winner celebrations for Nashville (Erik Haula) and Montreal (Cole Caufield). You could see the excitement and relief in the team-wide happiness. It’s why we watch.

18. I don’t know if a team is ever exempt from criticism, but I find it really hard to be critical of the Stars not making it, should that occur. A large outbreak (the first one), incredibly condensed schedule, the Texas power grid failure that led to some players/team employees having their houses flooded and needing temporary homes. That team is banged-up, on fumes and has given everything it’s got.

19. Calgary is making a big run for the upcoming World Women’s Hockey Championship. As IIHF president Rene Fasel told Ron MacLean last Saturday, Alberta is the likely destination.

20. Last weekend, teams and players were notified the NHL is “currently contemplating” updating its COVID protocols for fully vaccinated players and teams. A team’s travelling party must be 85 per cent vaccinated to be considered.

21. Interesting wrinkle: Some players who live in Canada but play in the U.S. would rather stay in place once eliminated, working out at their team’s facilities until restrictions loosen in this country.

22. I didn’t realize this until Sharks coach Bob Boughner said it Monday, but the seven teams that did not reach the 2020 playoff bubble will miss the post-season this year, too.

23. I was recently talking to a friend of a current NHL rookie and asked how the player was adjusting to the NHL. He said the player really enjoyed it, but was startled at how little his coaches talked to him. It’s a foreign feeling to me, though I rarely talk to my bosses. But it’s a reminder that this generation craves it much more, and we’ve got to be aware of it.

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24. Another KHLer who wants to return to North America is Chris Wideman. He led all defencemen in that league with 41 points in 59 games for Torpedo.

25. As mentioned, the Predators can clinch a playoff berth on Wednesday, climbing off the mat to avoid a fire sale, as the players did their best to ignore the noise.

“We didn’t talk about it too much to be honest,” captain Roman Josi said on the 31 Thoughts podcast. “At the time, we weren’t playing well, so it’s not always easy for players if you see rumours about yourself. But it wasn’t much of a topic in the team…. We started playing a lot better. You could see there was this belief that we can make the playoffs. I said before the trade deadline, ‘I really like our team, I like our group, there’s a lot of belief in the room.’ We were definitely happy it didn’t go (the fire sale) route.”

Does he ever ask to talk to GM David Poile? Ask what’s going on?

“Not much, honestly,” Josi answered. “David has been in the business for so long. He knows what he’s doing, he’s really good at his job. He does everything he can to have a successful organization. Especially throughout the season, you try to focus on your game, the team game…. There’s not a lot of time to talk about that stuff.”

26. In preparing for the interview, another Central Division coach said, as Nashville revived, Josi was even better than he was during last year’s Norris Trophy season.

“I wasn’t happy with the way I started this season,” he admitted.

He missed seven games in March with an upper-body injury.

“After my injury, I’ve been playing a lot better.”

Other teams have said they treat him almost like a rover, that he can go anywhere he wants. He laughed a little at that.

“My game is to jump up, to be involved in the o-zone and I definitely get a lot of freedom. I think it’s always up to the player to see what’s possible and what’s not…. (Head coach John Hynes) definitely allows me to do that. Then it’s up to the player to know what’s too risky and what’s not.”

He called his first head coach, Barry Trotz, “unbelievable, one of the nicest guys. He gave me a lot of confidence right away.”

Then, Peter Laviolette was “all about defencemen jumping up in the play, being involved in the offence. He let us play, wanted us to be active…. A lot of pinching, a lot of speed, hard forechecking. As a d-man, when you come into the league, you kind of find your game a little bit, to see what makes you successful. He gave me and our defencemen freedom to find that.”

27. We did ask Josi, once one of the NHL’s most underappreciated defenders, to pick other blueliners who don’t get their deserved attention. He tried to pick Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, but we refused to accept that answer because everyone now knows how good they are. So Josi went with Vegas’s Shea Theodore.

“He’s more well-known now, because he had a really good playoffs and he’s having a good year this year. Even before that, I always thought he was an unbelievable skater and (had great) hockey sense. Great puck mover. Still underrated.”

28. Finally on Josi, we share one thing in common besides ridiculously good looks: meditation. I’ve started to do it at least 10 minutes per day. He picked it up a couple of years ago.

“I feel it really helps me balance, keeps me more calm, especially in seasons like this where you play every other day. In hockey, there’s a lot of highs and lows, to keep that balance really helped me.”

How often does he do it?

“I started trying to do 10 minutes per day. Then, once the pandemic started I actually got a lot more time… 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes at night, which is a lot.”

With the season going on and the gift of son Luca born to him and his wife, Ellie, there’s less time. But any amount is excellent, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

 
McDavid and Matthews continue to reach new heights
May 04 2021

29. Auston Matthews is at 0.81 goals per game through 48 games. The only players to be above that for a season in NHL history: Mike Bossy, Phil Esposito, Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Jari Kurri, Mario Lemieux, Lanny McDonald, Alexander Mogilny, Cam Neely, Bernie Nicholls, Maurice Richard, Teemu Selanne and Charlie Simmer.

30. Last week, I mentioned that there seemed to be uncertainty surrounding draft-eligibles like Brandt Clarke, who spent 2019–20 at OHL Barrie and 2020–21 in Slovakia. There is something in the updated NHL/NHLPA CBA about this. Any undrafted prospect who played outside of North America this past season — but never before — is subject to regular NHL/AHL/CHL rules. So, for purposes of this draft, imagine him as a Barrie Colt.

31. Wanted to send the best to Travis McKenzie, who produces Jeff Blair, Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch on Sportsnet Radio 590. Years ago, he showed up as a fresh-faced radio intern, now shows the weathered scars of a veteran radio producer. He announced last week that he’s moving on, and we’ll miss this valued member of our team.

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