32 Thoughts: Canucks slowly moving towards inevitable changes

Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat talked about how the team's performance so far this season has been unacceptable and gave some reasons as to why that may be.

• “What are you hearing about the Olympics?”
• Why it’s an interesting time around Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment
• Martin Brodeur and the Devils’ third jersey

The aftermath of Vancouver’s 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh was so awkward, so cringeworthy, it was impossible to believe something wouldn’t change on Thanksgiving Thursday. One longtime executive said “it’s almost a mercy killing after a night like that.”

There was JT Miller rolling his eyes at a “Do you think everyone is buying in?” question, responding with “I don’t know,” because he didn’t want to say what he really thought.

There was captain Bo Horvat sighing, “It’s exhausting. We talk about the same things all the time.”

Everyone in the organization knows changes are coming. Whether in the front office, on the bench or on the ice, they are coming. The question is the timetable. There’s some push for a quick move, but also a realization you can’t rush yourself into something insane. One executive told me years ago you worry in times like these about making a “tombstone trade,” a deal so bad that it is remembered forever. I think that’s the biggest current internal wrestling match: How fast do we do this and what is the first move?

There were a few hours on Thursday I thought something was going to happen. I really thought those who believe “we have to do something right now…anything!” were going to win the day. That obviously didn’t occur, whether in Vancouver or Columbus, where the team practised in advance of Friday’s game against the impressive Blue Jackets. (The Athletic’s Thomas Drance reported Miller snapped at a poorly-organized drill.)

We will see what Friday brings. There are so many rumours right now, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Some of that is because the organization is doing external research on potential candidates, both in the front office and behind the bench. Obviously, you try to keep that as quiet as possible, but there’s always the risk of leakage. Team Canada is expected to name Claude Julien as its head coach at the upcoming Channel One and Spengler Cups, with the added possibility of coaching the Olympic Team if NHLers don’t go. (Bruce Boudreau and Scott Walker are the expected assistants.)

It is believed that if the Canucks wished to speak to Julien, for example, Montreal would not block permission.

It’s stressful, and everyone internally — from the offices to the dressing room — is on-edge waiting for something to happen. Best way out is for everyone to row in the same direction, but that clearly isn’t happening.

Canucks Hour
Patience or panic?
November 25 2021

32 THOUGHTS

1. It’s now a daily question: “What are you hearing about the Olympics?” The answer: more and more concern. There’s the COVID issue and the moral dilemma, as the women’s tennis tour remains unconvinced about Peng Shuai’s safety. With 46 days until the NHL can withdraw from competition without financial penalty, 70 days until the women’s competition begins and 76 before the men drop the puck, it’s very possible the questions get even more pointed. Diplomatic boycotts are being floated, although that means athletes could still compete. Undoubtedly, some are already wrestling with the desire to validate all of the work towards your life goal of Olympic participation, versus the moral imperative of human rights.

And then there’s COVID. As we are being reminded, we don’t control the virus. The virus impacts us. On that issue, it’s likely Sidney Crosby spoke for many last Saturday night. Following Pittsburgh’s 2-0 win in Toronto, Team Canada’s captain-to-be said, “Everyone feels pretty strongly they’d like to be there, but I try not to think too far ahead…some of that stuff you can’t control. I’m preparing like we’re going. That’s the best way to look at it.” Players have stuck to the mantra that this was promised in the most recent CBA, and it remains incredibly important to them. No one needs an explanation of how meaningful it is to be an Olympian. Generally, the NHL has plugged its nose and said, “We made a promise.”

2. Last week, however, things took a negative turn. Three Ottawa postponements certainly hurt, although I don’t think three rescheduled games will be enough to cancel participation. What’s the red-line number? Not sure there’s a specific answer. What was of greater concern is how doctors felt the need to cancel games because COVID could not be contained by enhanced protocols. Unvaccinated players/staff (and, as far as we know, that’s only one person) are tested every three days, but once there are positives, everyone is tested daily.

“You look around the league, it’s very rare that (only) one guy gets it,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said after defenceman Ethan Bear tested positive. “It’s an unfortunate thing everybody’s dealing with, and we’ll take it as it comes.” Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello added Zdeno Chara to the team’s expanding COVID list on Tuesday, and there are a lot of questions about why that team hasn’t had games postponed. All you have to do is watch Lamoriello’s media conferences to understand how he feels about the situation. Doctors are making these calls, and they believe that situation is better contained than Ottawa’s, although things are unpredictable. That’s not going to satisfy the Islanders or their fans, but San Jose had seven players on the list (plus coach Bob Boughner) and no cancellations.

3. According to the Athlete’s Playbook released last month by the International Olympic Committee, “The location and length of your isolation period (after a positive COVID test) will be determined by the Chinese health authorities, depending on the severity and symptoms of your infection.” But, the possibility of three weeks has been raised, longer than NHL protocols. And that has individual teams spooked to Everest-like heights. There’s a lot of frustration about testing, with the amount of false positives — one of them requiring Detroit’s Dylan Larkin to be pulled in-game — but this is a whole other level.

The Islanders freaked when John Tavares broke his leg in Sochi, but there’s got to be an understanding injuries happen. As we get closer to February, more and more clubs are looking at the landscape and saying, “Yeah, we don’t like this.” It will be a 10-week sprint to the playoffs once the Olympics conclude. There are a lot of places where you can go out and have fun: Chicago, Montreal, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York — and Vegas, where a chunk of Olympians will attend All-Star Weekend right before a flight to China. At least one of the NHL outbreaks is connected to a team rookie party, so strict protocols are being considered for All-Star. But Vegas is still going to be a challenge. It’s never quiet there, which is why we love it.

4. You’re going to see trade chatter pick up over the next week or so. Biggest challenge: so many teams are cap tight. Hard to pull off dollar-in, dollar-out.

5. On Kevin Fiala: Minnesota’s at the top of the Central Division, and GM Bill Guerin is not going to make his team worse. He’s also not going to trade Fiala simply because of a slump, although the forward scored a big one in Tampa and another in the shootout Wednesday at New Jersey. So, if anything does happen, it’s going to be part of a plan to make them better.

6. Buffalo has to be looking for a goalie. Aaron Dell was pulled following the first period of Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to Boston. Unfortunately, Craig Anderson’s return date is not certain, and the Sabres need to give their young players help behind them. The challenge is teams still in the race might not be willing to give up any of their top three goalies for their own insurance. You want an option that can help you. How many are available?

7. As reported locally, Evander Kane resumed skating in San Jose. Apparently, he’s been doing so for a couple of weeks. The Sharks are being beyond careful about commenting on his status, with Kane’s suspension a week away from conclusion. My personal theory is he goes to the AHL to get some games, but again, that’s a personal theory. I do think the Sharks have let it be known they would be willing to retain salary in a trade, but it’s hard to see a market at this time. (TMZ had an update on Kane’s legal situation Monday.)

8. It’s incredible to watch Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That’s not news, but it doesn’t get said enough. Draisaitl is the only Oiler besides Wayne Gretzky to have 40 points prior to 20 games. That’s mind-blowing. Really wanted McDavid to make a charge at Gretzky’s record 51-game point streak to start a season. His 17-game run ended in Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Dallas. The Stars outshot the Oilers 7-5 during the 12:37 of five-on-five Miro Heiskanen played against McDavid. There are performances during the season that put you on the Norris map, and that’s one for Heiskanen.

9. Was disappointed to see McDavid take heat for the Architectural Digest spread. We want hockey players to show more personality, let down their guard — and there’s flak for doing so. Can’t have it both ways.

10. Also having a Hart Trophy start: Alexander Ovechkin. He’s a reminder that the great ones evolve no matter age or obstacles. With three assists Wednesday against Montreal, he has 18 in 20 games. That’s the same as last year (in 45 games) and one fewer than 2019-20 (in 68 games). The most he’s ever had in a season is 59. The only person who could stop this might be Nicklas Backstrom — taking all those assists when he returns to the lineup. Ovechkin’s also on-pace for 39 wrist-shot goals, which would be 10 more than his previous career-high (2015-16); four slapshot goals, which would be one fewer than his career-low (five in 2010-11). Most impressively, he’s never had more than 112 points or been in triple digits since 2009-10. Right now, he’s trending at 135. Very impressive.

11. It’s going to be an interesting time around Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Prior to making its push for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Fenway Sports Group — through an intermediary — approached MLSE about the possibility of a merger. This was 12-18 months ago. It wasn’t the right time and didn’t go far, but that would have been one monstrous powerhouse, potentially featuring Liverpool, the Leafs, the Raptors, Toronto FC, Scotiabank Arena, the Argonauts and a baseball team. (That would have been the incredibly interesting one. FSG owns the Red Sox, while my employer, Rogers, owns the Blue Jays along with 37.5 per cent of MLSE. So, something would have to give.) There’s change at the top of our company and The Globe and Mail reported that could mean a sale of the Jays. “Everybody is watching what Fenway is doing,” one source in the banking industry said. “And it’s not going to be the last time MLSE is asked.” That same person, by the way, said Fenway is aggressive and far from finished, beyond the Penguins.

12. It was denied, but one of the names rumoured in the mix for Pittsburgh was Ryan Smith, who owns the NBA’s Utah Jazz. From what I’ve read and heard about him (on ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast), he’d be a good get for the NHL.

13. One thing that could get traction at the next GM meeting: is the cross-checking crackdown leading to increased kneeing and slewfoots? If you know there’s a greater chance for a penalty, do you kick out your skate or lead with a knee? But we’ve seen more fines for dangerous trips and/or slew foots — and a one-game suspension for San Jose’s Kevin Labanc. That was the first suspension for this offence in almost seven years. Meanwhile, Aleksander Barkov, Drew Doughty and Dmitri Jaskin have been injured by knees.

14. When Colorado slightly stumbled out of the gate, there were some questions about whether Jared Bednar was in any trouble. Someone warned I’d look like an idiot if I went down that road, and the Avalanche recently announced a two-year extension, believed to be in the $2.25M per year range.

15. Earlier this season, Bednar spoke about the mission for Colorado this season: “We’ve been a good team, how do we become a great team?” He and his players have done reading on the topic, including From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t, by Jim Collins; and Raise your Game: High-Performance Secrets from the Best of the Best, by Alan Stein Jr. The thing that stood out about the conversation is how much Bednar believes the group has the right on-ice approach.

“Our commitment to check is there,” he said. “Our group has bought in. When I first got here, we were a high rush-volume team. We didn’t have much o-zone play. We used to give up a lot on the rush and in d-zone coverage. We had to change: an aggressive forecheck, early reloads, pressing other teams.” Several of Colorado’s players have said the mental challenge was their biggest failure last playoff versus Vegas, and Bednar agrees that’s what they are trying to address. “Don’t be too high or too low. Shift to shift, always look forward to what’s coming next.”

16. Dallas is 2-0 since the 7-2 loss in Minnesota when Riley Tufte was a late scratch from what would have been a “home game” for him and his family. I wondered about spillover from that, because I’ve seen it seriously affect teams before. It happened in Toronto with Jason Spezza and in Arizona with Kyle Turris. The best medicine is to prevent them from happening in the first place, but it must be managed properly in the aftermath. You have to make it right with the player and the teammates.

17. One of the major reasons Calgary’s been so strong? Tuesday’s 4-2 win over Chicago was the first time all season Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk were on-ice for a five-on-five goal against. Reed Johnson tied it 2-2, before the Flames scored three straight. Gaudreau’s been on for 19 five-on-five goals, Tkachuk 15.

18. Nashville spends three nights in Montreal, then falls behind 5-0 to the Canadiens in a 6-3 loss. Crescent St. remains undefeated.

19. Think Team Canada was hopeful Quinton Byfield’s rehab schedule might allow him to be available for the World Juniors, but the timing doesn’t look great. Still a ways away.

20. Small thing, but a big thing: during Toronto’s 6-2 victory over Los Angeles on Wednesday night Auston Matthews made sure to credit Nick Ritchie for a screen on Jason Spezza’s goal. Ritchie is clawing for success, and that wouldn’t go unnoticed or appreciated.

21. Know everyone’s talking about New Jersey’s “Jersey,” but I really, really love the shoes. Jillian Frechette, New Jersey’s Senior Vice-President of Marketing, explained the organization was impressed with the work of the Newark-based Dirty Soles Footwear Group, which led to a collaboration. Several pairs will be auctioned, benefitting the Devils’ Youth Foundation. They’re sharp, very impressive.

22. Frechette arrived in New Jersey three years ago, months after franchise legend Martin Brodeur returned as Executive Vice-President of Business Development. The Devils’ third jersey quickly became a high-priority project for both. What did it teach Brodeur about the business? “How many people are involved and how much detail is involved,” he answered. “When you play hockey, it’s ‘What time do we practice and what time do you need me to show up?’”

Also liked that when they were initially going over ideas for the jersey, Frechette sent Brodeur a photo of his late father Denis representing Team Canada as a concept. During the 2012 Eastern Conference Final between the Devils and Rangers, I was on the train from Manhattan to Newark and said I was going to New Jersey during a phone call. This led to a hilarious exchange with a couple of fans where we debated if it was acceptable that I, as a Canadian, referred to it as “New Jersey” and not simply “Jersey.” In the end, it was decided that I, as a guest in the state, should simply accept what the locals call it and not be a rude visitor. (In hindsight, I wish I recorded this conversation.) So, when Brodeur said “Jersey” was selected for the front of the sweater because that’s what people from there call it, I get it.

23. Brodeur fought for black, feeling “players look bigger, stronger, meaner” in the colour. Frechette talked about the balance between simple and overloaded, the contrast of a black jersey and white ice, the drop-shadow on the lettering. You forget how much goes into this. Brodeur said he asked about the possibility of using actual goal-net twine for the laces below the neck, but it wasn’t feasible. Would have been a great little touch. What would Lamoriello have thought about it? “He would shake his head for sure,” Brodeur laughed, then he added that Lamoriello has shown on Long Island that he’s willing to bend — a little — for the times.

24. Which Devils alumnus will ask for the most freebies of this apparel? “Oh, Ken Daneyko for sure,” Brodeur said without pause. “Maybe Colin White, too.”

25. New Jersey’s shown staying power, and not sure too many of us expected that with Jack Hughes out of the lineup and Mackenzie Blackwood battling injuries. Very much in the race as we hit the one-quarter mark. Brodeur credited increased depth up-and-down the lineup, more players able to step up and fill roles. “(Nico) Hischier, (Damon) Severson, (Jesper) Bratt…they’ve been in this league a while now,” he said. “They understand what it takes now to win.” Jonathan Bernier’s been big for them too. One of the more impressive storylines of the season is how many teams — Anaheim and Columbus leading the way — have been better than we thought.

26. Never seen more Twitter DMs waiting for waivers news than from Devils fans waiting on Nathan Bastian. Glad you were rewarded.

27. There’s been some excellent reporting around the USHL Omaha Lancers in the past week, as players fought back against ownership/management due to cost cutbacks and the treatment of former head coach Chadd Cassidy. As that situation continues to develop, one of the macro concerns involves ownership and/or franchising of teams by parents who have sons on the roster. That was the case in Omaha. The team is run by Anthony DiCesare, whose son, Christian, used to play for the Lancers. It’s not unique in that league, there are several similar situations. What this has done is heightened sensitivity to, coming out of COVID, could we see more of this, and how do we prevent that from happening? You don’t want to go through this anywhere else.

28. One of the great stories of this NHL season is Washington’s Zach Fucale becoming the first goalie in franchise history with a shutout in his NHL debut. Five years ago, he played with the ECHL’s Brampton Beast, and the staff there was thrilled to see that success. “There was no entitlement from him at all (considering he was a second-round NHL draft pick),” said Cary Kaplan, who was the team’s President and General Manager. “He embraced it.” After the cleanup was done following Beast games, staff would rent the ice to play some pickup. One night, Fucale asked to join them. “He comes up and says, ‘Mind if I play?’” Kaplan said. “He paid for the food and drinks that night. Our staff was saying they’d remember it for the rest of their lives.” Did Fucale play goal? “No, and he was still the best player on the ice.”

29. Other key thing about Fucale in Brampton: “He had tremendous focus. His mindset…he always talked about himself as an NHL goalie. He’d be at the rink two or three hours before the rest of the team, because he wanted that extra time.” It’s a great reminder, control what you can control.

30. Jeff Marek reported last weekend the NHL did have a phone conversation with Quebec City, but it’s not seriously on the radar. Publicity stunt, and I don’t like to see true fans jerked around.

31. At Monday’s roast of Brett Hull for the Jamie Daniels Foundation, an autographed Nikita Kucherov hat with “$18M over the cap” written on it went for almost $500. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a bargain. Great buy for a great cause.

32. My son skates Sunday afternoon, where, in an adjoining rink, there’s a Leaside girls team that practices. Last weekend, there was a great scene where two of the players had a standoff to be the last one to get off the ice after it was over. They were laughing about it, and so was a coach trying to get them to move as the Zamboni got closer. It was nice to see, a realization of how much younger people missed over the last year. Good to see them playing and having fun again.

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