32 Thoughts: Canadiens commit to foundational change, Olympic optimism dims

Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson leaves after speaking to the media on Monday, November 29, 2021 in Brossard, Quebec. Molson addressed reporters today after a front-office shakeup on the weekend saw the dismissal of three top Canadiens executives, including general manager Marc Bergevin. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

• Canadiens don’t wait to get their guy
• Sharks willing to retain salary in Evander Kane trade
• Harder and harder to be optimistic about NHLers going to Olympics

There’s a lot to unpack from Montreal. Not just a suitcase or two, but a houseful of moving boxes.

Canadiens owner Geoff Molson was going to make changes on Monday morning. He got within 36 hours of pulling it off undetected. And, it’s clear that while the Canadiens trudge through a painful post-Stanley Cup Final season, Molson mixed the cement for foundational changes.

What we know:

• Jeff Gorton was going to be high on all the lists for available management jobs. Molson aggressively removed him from the market, with what is believed to be a five-year contract. When you want to dance with someone at the prom, don’t allow space for anyone to cut in.

• Molson created the framework for a two-person structure, knowing that it is critical for a “face of the franchise” to be able to communicate in French and English. Gorton doesn’t seek attention. It was perfect for him in New York, where John Davidson is comfortable in front of the cameras. He won’t have a problem with a Daniel Briere (or someone like him, more below) in that position.

• The Canadiens may be headed for a full rebuild. “Nothing scares me” about that, Molson said.

• Molson revealed, unprompted, that he’s directed his medical staff to create a mental health strategy and infrastructure to better protect the players. The organization’s seen two high-profile recent mental-health cases — Jonathan Drouin and Carey Price. You can shrug your shoulders and say, “That’s life in the big city,” or you can respond with, “That’s always going to be the case here, but what can we do to ease the pressure?” Development isn’t just on the ice, and we’re doing more to address that.

Marc Bergevin, built much better than most mere mortals, dealt with similar burnout after a decade in the white-hot Montreal spotlight. The stress of the position aged him like a two-term president, and Molson made it clear this is no longer a one-person job.

For a decade, Bergevin and Molson were like Edge and Christian, a true tag team. Other managers would say Bergevin had one of the best GM/owner setups in the league with true backing and support from the top. (Another is San Jose: Hasso Plattner/Doug Wilson. Get well, Doug.) Bergevin received a lengthy extension three years after being hired, and Molson backed him until now — even when the fanbase didn’t.

“I’ve never interfered with the hockey decisions,” Molson said on Monday. “I’ve always been somebody who asks a lot of questions, finds a way to be supportive. Today you see me making a difficult decision, and that’s because I’ve reached a point where I’m not supportive anymore.”

Even then, he added Bergevin did a good job in Montreal. The GM’s greatest strength is his conviction. You have to believe in yourself, and Bergevin clearly does.

Their relationship strained as last season’s playoff approached. The two were discussing an extension, but Bergevin was thinking it might be time because of the toll the decade took on him. That’s totally understandable; a lot of us are reconsidering our lives, especially as the pandemic redefines what’s important to each person.

The playoff run was two months of unexpected joy but, even then, fissures arose. Bergevin and Molson were not close on compensation, drafting Logan Mailloux and the ensuing fallout was terribly handled, then, the Canadiens fell to 29th in the NHL. Ownership took a long look at Bergevin’s trusted deputy, Scott Mellanby, as the Gorton-level replacement, but ultimately decided on “a fresh start.”

32 THOUGHTS

1. Even before Gorton’s hiring, multiple sources indicate Daniel Briere’s name came up internally as a possibility for the GM position. So, ECHL Maine’s president is going to get a long look here.

I always assume there are candidates I’m not yet aware of, but other legit options include: Tampa Bay director of hockey operations Mathieu Darche and, depending on his desire, Anaheim assistant GM Martin Madden. One of the questions candidates at that level may ask is, is it really a promotion to go from their current position to Canadiens’ GM with Gorton already there? Roberto Luongo would make sense, too, and he’s going to be a GM someday. The lure of the Canadiens is tempting for anyone from the province, but is the timing right for him? The Panthers have a good thing going, and he’s learning a ton.

2. There’s zero harm in talking to Patrick Roy. What it comes down to is what everyone, including Roy, is willing to accept.

3. Shea Weber was in Montreal for a physical, the second time he’s been asked to meet with team doctors this season. (The first was when the Canadiens were in Seattle.) Generally, players on long-term injury who aren’t expected to play are only required to get checked out at the start of training camp, but Weber’s drawn extra scrutiny from the NHL. I think he’d be playing if he could, but this is where we are.

4. If Bergevin wants a less-stressful environment, Vancouver doesn’t make sense. Mellanby knows that organization, having worked there under Mike Gillis. The Canucks have made it very clear they are not making any long-term decisions until they have done their due diligence, and that’s definitely underway. They considered Claude Julien and Scott Walker as coaching options, but decided against it. I do think other organizations will look at Travis Green if he is free.

5. There are two questions on Evander Kane: First, is there anything that isn’t public teams need to be worried about? If the answer is no, we move to: What is his salary? If it’s the current $7 million, the market is very limited. If it’s $3.5 million — San Jose has let teams know they are willing to eat half — the market grows, and potentially even more if a third team is involved to further lower the hit. A reminder that Kane has a three-team trade list, and, like many players, he manipulates it so that it’s hard to move him. For example, I believe one of the teams on his list is Winnipeg, and we know that’s not happening.

6. Kane won’t go on the AHL Barracudas road trip to Abbotsford and Stockton that extends through Tuesday, which means his debut likely comes Dec. 11 at home. During his first media availability, he again disputed reports that he doesn’t have a good relationship with his Sharks’ teammates, although he admitted he hasn’t spoken to any of them.

“I’ve been doing my own thing,” Kane said. “As I’m sure they have.”

Barracuda coach Roy Sommer said it best: “He wants to get back to the NHL. This is his first time he’s ever been in the minors, so it’s probably a shock. But he knows if he does things right he’ll get back there.”

7. The Bruins have Anton Blidh injured, Brad Marchand suspended and multiple COVID-19 cases at AHL Providence making call-ups impossible. Coach Bruce Cassidy is in protocol, too. Jake DeBrusk asked for a trade — something also investigated last summer — and Boston would like to accommodate it, but their unstable roster situation makes things trickier. St. Louis has been a rumoured destination for a while, for example, but there’s a lot of interest.

This is a personal brainstorm, but I wonder if there’s a fit with Seattle in a Mason Appleton-type move. Appleton found a niche in Winnipeg last season, but it’s been harder with the Kraken. DeBrusk will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights and a qualifying offer just above $4 million.

8. Appleton scored his first two goals of the season Monday in a 7-4 win over Buffalo. Another name to watch.

9. Jeff Marek reported Saturday that Carolina called Dallas about John Klingberg. The Stars are not ready for that, yet.

10. Rod Brind’Amour was fined $25,000 on Tuesday for inappropriate conduct during Sunday’s 4-2 loss to Washington. He was furious at a late-game slashing call on Sebastian Aho, but I didn’t think his reaction was anything crazy, and all he said post-game was, “It’s a tough way to end a game. It was a great game, great hockey game. What are you going to do?”

The explanation comes from an Oct. 18 memo sent to GMs and coaches indicating the league had “already seen several instances of head coaches making unacceptable public comments critical of officiating and video replay decisions, as well as unprofessional conduct on the bench in response to penalty calls, non-calls and even icing calls. All General Managers and coaches are hereby put on notice that, effective immediately, all such public comments and demeaning displays that are critical of officiating, video replay and supplemental discipline specifically, and, more generally the League and the game, will result in an automatic fine of not less than $25,000. Any subsequent violations during the 2021-22 Regular Season and Stanley Cup Playoffs will result in a doubling of the fine.”

That served as an industry-wide warning, with the advice that “if you do not like a call or a non-call, a video replay decision that did not go your team’s way or a supplemental discipline decision, you are free to say that you ‘saw it a different way’ or that you ‘disagree with the decision.’” Again, I didn’t think this was too bad, but Brind’Amour was fined during the 2020 bubble playoffs for officiating criticism. So there’s some history. Maybe the league doesn’t like jacked coaches.

11. The biggest criticism of Jack Hughes’ extension is that he hasn’t played much: 55 points in just 119 games due to injury, with no arbitration rights. The only others at ages 20-24 to reach $8M in fewer games are Kirill Kaprizov (55, but five years in the KHL) and Cale Makar (101, with 35 more in the playoffs). The others: Zach Werenski (335 games), Sebastian Aho (242), Mitch Marner (241), Charlie McAvoy (235), Miro Heiskanen (205), Brady Tkachuk (198), Auston Matthews (196), Thomas Chabot & Adam Fox (134), Connor McDavid (127, and it’s ludicrous to use him as any kind of comparison).

I look at it this way: New Jersey knows him better than anyone else. He’s a cornerstone for their franchise. If you really believe in Hughes, sign him for as long as you can, because, chances are his price isn’t going down. Let’s see where we are in three years. I’d bet the Devils will be thanking God they didn’t go bridge.

12. Chuck Fletcher is patient, and the Flyers GM proved it Tuesday by saying, “I’d really like to see what we have before making changes,” and “we need to play better with what we have.” When New Jersey dominated Philadelphia at five-on-five during Sunday’s 5-2 win, I thought something might have to give. But it’s not a surprise Fletcher prefers otherwise. After Wednesday’s game at the Rangers, the Flyers have three days off before an extremely stiff challenge. Five games in seven days starting with a home back-to-back against Tampa Bay and Colorado, a day off, at New Jersey, a day off, followed by a back-to-back in Vegas and Arizona. That is brutally tough and seems risky for the players — especially on an already-shorthanded team.

13. There are hard feelings between Matt Murray and the Senators. Murray clearly feels he is a scapegoat, with injuries and illness preventing him from being at full-strength. Ottawa, not performing as well as hoped, feels it’s been patient enough and the results aren’t there. It doesn’t sound like there were many trade talks prior to the waiver move, and we’ll see if there’s any fit while Murray tries to get his game back at AHL Belleville.

Buffalo makes the most sense, but will want salary retention or some other sweetener. The Sabres are definitely looking for an upgrade. Wondered if Toronto would consider it, but when you look at their cap situation — even Murray at 50 per cent doesn’t really work for them.

14. Unfortunately, we are going in the wrong direction with COVID-19. “Yesterday, we were all talking about Montreal,” one exec said Tuesday. “Now, we’re all talking about Omicron.”

The AHL has several rough situations and it’s not trending well in the NHL, either. The Olympic deadline — without penalty — is Jan. 10, and barring a rash of postponements that make it obvious, the NHL and NHLPA will wait as close as they can to the deadline.

Someone sent a wild story from The New York Times explaining how a Polish luger, Mateusz Sochowicz, fractured a leg during a training run in November on the Olympic track. According to the report, Chinese authorities said he could not travel for two weeks due to protocols, so Sochowicz was stashed on a cargo plane from Beijing to Milan, where he took another flight to Warsaw. This is the exact situation that has NHL teams pulling their hair out, although some players have said they remain unfazed and still want to go to the Games. Imagine your favourite Olympian sent home around boxfuls of staplers. As the COVID cases grow, it’s harder and harder to be optimistic about Beijing.

15. Vegas All-Star weekend was supposed to involve something with the Bellagio fountain. Would love to see it, and maybe being outside saves that event. There are going to be strict protocols in Vegas. I’m sure everyone will be crushed if media day is postponed.

16. Carolina’s in a rough spot with COVID. They have three positive cases and come to Canada next week. There’s a possibility that some of them could return to play at home, but not be allowed to go to Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and/or Vancouver under border rules.

17. Brendan Lemieux received a five-game suspension for biting Brady Tkachuk, and the league explanation video inferred there was an aggressive defence as to what could be proven. The cut is clear on Tkachuk’s right hand, but it is specifically noted that “while circumstantial evidence supports the argument Lemieux may have bitten Tkachuk multiple times during this fight, we are limiting our review of this incident to the bite that occurs almost immediately after the players fall to the ice.” That is to the left hand.

“Due to a lack of evidence, this decision does not include an analysis of how Tkachuk ended up bleeding from his right hand,” the narrator in the NHL’s video added. The NHL said it used video evidence supported by the officials’ report and medical information submitted by the Senators. By keeping the suspension under six games, an arbitrator doesn’t get involved. The only appeal is to the commissioner.

18. From what I understand, this is now the longest suspension for biting in NHL history. The previous record was Dave Manson (then of Chicago), who got three games for chomping on Scott Stevens in February of 1990. Both players were given match penalties. Manson for biting, Stevens for gouging. What a clash that must have been, two killers.

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.

19. I’m guesstimating $875 million as the purchase price for Pittsburgh until told otherwise.

20. Four goalies have been pulled by concussions spotters in the last two weeks — Jake Allen, MacKenzie Blackwood, Sergei Bobrovsky and Jake Oettinger. There’s no evidence of any memo being sent to let teams know it is a point of emphasis, but that’s definitely a trend.

21. Mentioned last week about the concerns regarding a rise in slew-footing with the cross-checking crackdown. First, Kevin Labanc, now Brad Marchand. This foul will now be penalized much more harshly than we’ve seen in years.

22. Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm looked absolutely stunned at being bloodied by Gabriel Landeskog during the Predators’ 6-2 loss to the Avalanche last Saturday. One reason: it is extremely unusual to see Swede-on-Swede crime. Because Marek is the super-nerd for this stuff, I asked him if he remembered any other fights between two players from that country. He found two: Klingberg and Patric Hornqvist last season; Viktor Arvidsson and Carl Hagelin in 2017. I was also surprised to see that Mats Sundin had 1,093 penalty minutes. Total goon.

23. Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras revealed how he won $100 from St. Louis’s Ryan O’Reilly by beating him in a faceoff, with the Blues’ captain sending the money by e-transfer. Zegras also challenged Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, but lost. “I did end up getting the $100, but I think I beat him twice,” Draisaitl said during last Saturday’s pre-game show. “He asked me twice, so he still owes me $100.”

24. Draisaitl laughed at the idea his stick flex is 120. “I’m not Zdeno Chara.”

25. The best story of Arizona’s season is goalie Karel Vejmelka, who’s played very well as a 25-year-old rookie from the Czech Republic. Vejmelka snared his first shutout Monday night, a 1-0 victory over Winnipeg on a night the Coyotes were outshot 46-15. During training camp, the team was stuck in traffic returning from a bonding experience when it was decided the rookies would sing to pass the time. To everyone’s surprise, Vejmelka belted out a terrific version of “Sweet Caroline.” Apparently, it was bedlam on the bus as he did it.

26. Pierre Engvall on David Kampf, who has made a significant impact on Toronto: “He looks like he can skate all day.”

27. Tuesday is a big night for the Bowness family as Dallas head coach Rick Bowness coached game 2,500 against Carolina. His entire family flew in for the game. That’s more than any other coach in NHL history.

28. Milan Lucic’s sixth of the season gave Calgary a 1-0 lead over Pittsburgh on Monday night. During a second intermission interview, Flames host Ryan Leslie pointed out that three of those goals were through the five-hole and “nobody’s figured you out yet.” Lucic laughed and added, “All the same play too, coming with speed down the left wing. Even if you miss those ones, (it’s) a high-percentage shot for a rebound. Thankfully this year, they’ve all seemed to go in.”

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29. A free-agent getting interest: 20-year-old Henry Rybinski from WHL Seattle. The Vancouver-born forward was drafted in fifth-round in 2019 by the Panthers but not signed. Since the Thunderbirds have a few draft eligibles that will be selected, Rybinski is getting extra looks.

30. As proud as Jarome Iginla was to go into the Hall of Fame, he’s probably even happier that daughter Jade was named this week to Canada’s Under-18 national women’s team selection camp. The Under-18 women’s Worlds are Jan. 8-15 in Sweden.

31. Brad Gushue won the Canadian men’s Olympic curling trials, meaning he will return to the Games for the first time since gold in 2006. According to NBC Sports’ Nick Zaccardi, the only person to go more than 16 years between Winter Olympic berths is former NHLer Petr Nedved. He competed for Canada in 1994 and the Czech Republic in 2014.

32. Saddened to hear that James Rocchi died of a heart attack last weekend at age 53. We attended Western at the same time, where he did entertainment writing for the student newspaper. Didn’t realize he made a career as a film critic before moving into teaching. Rocchi could be very blunt. He ran for student council president, and the fact he was too honest is one of the reasons he lost.

During my last year (1992-93), a growth developed on my ear that would need to be surgically removed. Even my good friends tiptoed around that, and they were generally ruthless about my slovenly appearance. The first time James saw it, he yelled, “Good Lord, Elliotte! What is that on your ear?” right in the middle of our Gazette offices. Fifty-three is way, way too young. All the best to his friends and family.

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