• Taking a look at the free agent coaching market
• Why a lot of people will be keeping an eye on qualifying offers this off-season
• James Neal still playing, and scoring, in the AHL playoffs
We’re two days into the Stanley Cup Conference Finals, and here’s my question: could we be witnessing the greatest playoffs ever?
Game 7 Rangers/Carolina was a dud, unfortunately, but it was the sixth deciding game of these playoffs. That’s one away from the record, set in 1994 — equaled in 2011 and 2014.
The last of those years had the epic Chicago/Los Angeles Western Conference Final, two rounds after the Kings came back from 3-0 down to shock San Jose. However, a playoffs cannot be truly great without a Stanley Cup Final that tosses your emotions like rags in a spin cycle. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that year as the Kings were too good for the Rangers.
That did happen in 2011. Boston/Vancouver was a monumental final, three rounds after the Canucks “slayed the dragon” during a series for the ages with Chicago. From a coverage and teamwork standpoint, Bruins/Canucks remains the most memorable Stanley Cup of my career — not just because I accidentally wore my wife’s Lululemon pants on a cross-country flight. I really liked dealing with those two teams, the hockey was excellent and, as a group, we had a little too much fun.
But there is something about 1994.
Rangers/Canucks was a defining moment. Mark Messier raising the Cup as Madison Square Garden went berserk; New York ending 54 years of frustration as Vancouver made a valiant charge, nearly ruining the dream. One of my favourite conversations over the years was with Kevin Lowe, reminiscing about how the extra day between Games 6 and 7 saved the championship for Manhattan.
This was one round after another incredible series with so much on the line: Rangers/Devils. The Messier guarantee, Valeri Zelepukin sending Game 7 into overtime with 7.7 seconds remaining, Stephane Matteau’s double-overtime winner. Several earlier series that went to the max had crazy moments. New Jersey eliminated Buffalo one game after Dominik Hasek pitched a 70-save, four-overtime shutout. San Jose won its first-ever playoff series, eliminating Western Conference regular-season champion Detroit, then took Toronto to Game 7 (some of my Leaf-loving friends still can’t believe Sandis Ozolinsh passed with Felix Potvin at his mercy).
Vancouver’s run to the final started with Pavel Bure’s double-overtime winner to eliminate Calgary. I’ll admit to a bias that, for me, strong Canadian performances add value, and 1994 featured the last time two Canadian clubs met in the semifinal, the Canucks over Toronto in five games.
That was some year, the one that stands out.
Also great: 1987, featuring a seven-game final of the NHL’s two best teams (Edmonton over Philadelphia); the Easter Epic; a Battle of Quebec; sitting with high school friends in the top row of Maple Leaf Gardens (if there was any fibre in those hot dog buns, it had to be Rayon); the crazy Boxcar Ed Hospodar pre-game fight in Montreal.
The first two rounds this spring have been outstanding, excellent display after excellent display of skill, competition, nastiness and drama. A Battle of Alberta, which was long overdue. Game 1 Edmonton/Colorado was spectacular. Game 1 Tampa Bay/Rangers wasn’t quite as spectacular, but it reminded us that New York is more than ready to trade haymakers with the two-time defending champions.
So far, an incredible ride and we’re not ready for it to end.
1. 1992, by the way, has the record for the most opening-round Games 7, with six. (This year had five.) What I’d forgotten is that the rest of that post-season was u-g-l-y. Five of the last seven series were sweeps, including both Stanley Cup semifinals (Pittsburgh over Boston, Chicago over Edmonton) and the Final (Penguins overwhelming the Blackhawks). Total clunker of a finish.
2. One thing I’d like to correct from the Western Final Game 1 broadcast: the linesmen on-ice do not make the final review call on Cale Makar’s goal. The Situation Room makes that call; same with goaltender interference. The on-ice officials get ultimate say on reducing major penalties to minors and on double-minor high-sticks.
3. Some final comments on the disputed Makar 3-2 goal. The more I thought about it, the more it came down to: if you’re a hockey player in any league that doesn’t have a super-fancy room jammed with 8K screens, that goal was offside. Imagine that play with your beer-league team, your university intramural team, your minor hockey team or your child’s team. It’s offside. Chances of it counting: minus-10,000 per cent. That’s why my immediate reaction to Makar’s goal was, “No way.”
Yesterday’s blog illustrated these same examples, but it’s worth including them again, because, in the NHL, things changed on March 19, 2017.
This goal altered the future as, in the five years since, that’s the way this has been called. People may not like it (and many of you clearly don’t), but this is now the way this play is called. A lot of us (including myself) are combing through the rulebook like a 49er panning for gold, but the video examples are more important because they evidence the evolution of the call. One video coach said his team started practising how to handle this play right after the 2017 Chicago goal was scored. Again, here are the other examples.
Feb. 4, 2020 Charlie Coyle against Vancouver:
Jan. 23, 2021 Brendan Gallagher in Vancouver:
April 6, 2021 Michael Bunting against Los Angeles:
It’s super-tricky because it’s so counter-intuitive. Several video coaches felt awful for their Edmonton compatriots, knowing the Oilers were going to lose the challenge. Vancouver, for example, would never have done it, being on the receiving end twice.
4. There was much, much less disagreement with the outcome as compared to the Blake Coleman disallowed goal in Game 5 of the Battle of Alberta. Players themselves remain the most vocal opponents, feeling Makar had “more control, was doing more stickhandling” than Charlie McAvoy and Tomas Tatar, in particular, from the above examples. With another day to research, talk and think about things, one linesman said that if there were two things he could change about the original column I wrote, he would have called the play “a mini-delayed offside” and hammered even harder that, in the eyes of the rulebook, Cale Makar and Valeri Nichushkin are viewed very differently in what they can do.
Makar is onside. The puck is in the neutral zone when Makar first touches it. He is allowed to pursue the puck, even after it goes into the Edmonton zone. If there’s an argument for overall rulebook simplification, this is it. Too many were confused by the 83.3 language. Makar is onside, not attempting to pursue a puck while offside. Play continues if offensive players who preceded the puck into the zone (Nichushkin) return to the blue line and tag it. Scouting the Refs, an excellent resource, added: “These are the players who can’t touch the puck, engage a defending player, or attempt to gain possession.” Hopefully, that helps everyone. If you look at the previous examples, you see this has been called a certain way for years. I understand how many of us without NHL-level video scrutiny would look at that and think it’s wrong. In almost every league, it would be.
5. A few of you have asked why Jay Woodcroft always stands during media availabilities. He had back surgery several months ago, which makes total sense.
6. It’s hard to say how long everyone is willing to wait, but several coaching sources said things are gummed up while Barry Trotz’s future unfolds. Trotz has informed interested teams he won’t rush, making sure his next NHL stop is best for him and his family. It’s difficult to predict a timeline. What’s also difficult to predict is how long some of his pursuers wait before asking another date to prom. Some teams aren’t in a huge hurry, as there are a lot of good candidates and not all are available as of yet. Several of them have begun interviewing other potential hires, but I’m not sure anyone is close. I do believe Winnipeg is very, very serious about Trotz, to the point I’m not convinced they’ve done detailed interviews with anyone else. He’s also believed to have communicated with Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia and Vegas.
7. Florida’s decision is getting closer, but I’d be lying if I said I knew 100 per cent where this is going. I’d be wary of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
8. Newly-free assistants who will be on the radar: Calgary’s Kirk Muller and possibly all three of Craig Berube’s staff (Jim Montgomery, Steve Ott, Mike Van Ryn). I’d heard Muller’s name in a couple of places, including Philadelphia; he’s now been an assistant for three Cup-winning coaches (Ken Hitchcock, Claude Julien, Darryl Sutter). As mentioned on Monday’s podcast, there’ve been rumblings Scott Arniel could end up in Winnipeg in one role or another, but I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s a guarantee, yet. It’s possible he’s interviewed or gets interviewed elsewhere, too. Another name I heard recently was Ryan McGill, who was on the Vegas bench from franchise inception in 2017. The Golden Knights’ young defenders — Nic Hague, Shea Theodore, Zach Whitecloud — got better under his tutelage.
9. Another European-based coach who may be getting North American attention is Serge Aubin, with Eisbaren Berlin in Germany. Born in Val D’Or, Quebec, Aubin played 374 NHL games for Colorado, Columbus and Atlanta before heading overseas. It could be for an AHL coaching role.
10. The OHL Final has a couple of ex-NHLers to watch for: Jay McKee (Hamilton) and Marc Savard (Windsor). Jeff Marek has reported Dallas’s possible interest in Savard, who coaches Wyatt Johnston — taken 23rd overall by the Stars in 2021.
11. Had heard San Jose talked to agent Allain Roy about its GM opening. He wouldn’t confirm or deny, but said, “My goal is to be the top agent for the next 20 years.” Rangers assistant GM Ryan Martin is also on the radar there.
12. There are a lot of eyes on qualifying offers. Cap space is tight, and the arbitration walk-away number this summer is $4,538,958. (Teams can’t “walk-away” from any award below that number.) If they’re not convinced a player’s production matches, teams may choose to let them go free in July rather than risk an arbitration award they can’t escape. Toronto followers were confused by an Ondrej Kase Instagram post where he thanked Maple Leafs fans, taking it as an indication that he might be leaving. That’s premature, I think there are talks underway, but it’s not wrong to think the team would be spooked by an arbitration award in a tight cap situation.
Others to watch include: Ethan Bear (Carolina), Denis Gurianov (Dallas), Kasperi Kapanen (Pittsburgh), Dylan Strome (Chicago), Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha (New Jersey). It’s not to say all of these players are guaranteed to hit the market. It’s more like, teams are watching to see what decisions are made.
13. There’s no doubt Toronto’s Rasmus Sandin is getting a qualifying offer, but what’s less certain is how things will play out for him. He was going very well until injured late in the season, and couldn’t get back into the lineup once healthy during the playoffs. The Maple Leafs were very happy with Jake Muzzin’s post-season performance, leading to a left-side logjam with Muzzin, Sandin, Morgan Rielly, Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie (who prefers his weakside). Toronto’s cap situation doesn’t afford Sandin contract room. Good player and the team knows it, but the numbers make everything a tight puzzle.
As for Jack Campbell, the last I’d heard is there hadn’t been any contract conversations for months and anything that was discussed — I’d heard the two sides were far apart — was, in the words of one source, “no longer relevant.” All his agent, Kurt Overhardt, would say is “there’s been no material contract conversation” since the end of the season.
14. As Carolina fell in Game 7 of its series with the Rangers, Jordan Martinook played 7:14 of the third period. That’s more than any forward not named Sebastian Aho (7:23). You could see (and hear) the disappointment from Rod Brind’Amour, as no one wears their heart on their sleeve more than he does. The Hurricanes conducted exit interviews over the past two days, with the most interesting comments coming from Martin Necas. The talented forward admitted he took a “step back” this season, losing his confidence. “It was a tough season for me and I have to learn from it.”
No play embodied it more than a glorious look he got from the high slot in the first period of Game 7, but he passed to a surprised Andrei Svechnikov, smiting the opportunity. Necas said he’d like to move back to centre. “Me and Roddy gotta trust each other a little more.” You know how this league works. People will hear that and ask what Carolina’s thinking. Necas is a restricted free agent, and word is the ask (and I don’t have exact timing) was a little too rich for how the Hurricanes saw things. We will see where this goes, but it’s not like Carolina to sell low. Necas is only 23.
15. New Jersey is going to be fascinating the next few weeks. Number two pick in play, making a list of players they would consider trading for it. One guarantee is if they do move it, it’s for talent with a lot of team control. Same with Ottawa at seventh overall.
16. Strange things happen, but I don’t think anyone’s expecting David Perron to hit the free-agent market.
17. The Flames don’t want any Andrew Mangiapane slander — that he’s not as valuable to them as Johnny Gaudreau or Matthew Tkachuk. But they do recognize the salary slot will be lower than those two, which is why negotiations start with the first-line wingers. Once Calgary knows their landscape, they’ll know what else can (or needs) to be done. Gaudreau wanted no talks during the season and kept to that promise. There were minimal (if any) conversations. When they start talking very soon, it will be a completely new discussion. Don’t think the Flames will come tiptoeing into those negotiations, either. No time.
18. Mark Stone on brother Michael: “I was proud to see him show everyone he’s an NHL regular.”
19. The question came during a telephone call last Friday: “Did you hear who scored a game-winning goal with five seconds left the other night? James Neal.” Neal’s goal at 19:55 of the third period gave AHL Springfield a 4-3 victory over Charlotte in Game 2 of their Atlantic Division Final, a series the Thunderbirds would sweep in three games. Neal made St. Louis after coming to camp on a tryout, played 17 games before being put on waivers, then two more before being sent down. Injuries and time on the COVID list derailed his season, as Logan Brown, Dakota Joshua, Alexei Toropchenko and Nathan Walker passed him on the depth chart. He was dispatched to Springfield on Jan. 26. “I remember walking around the dressing room that day, thinking, ‘I’m done,’” he said Wednesday.
20. Years ago, I did a story on Wade Redden when he was sent by the Rangers to AHL Hartford. He thought about retiring, but longtime friend Curtis Leschyshyn told him to go because “you can’t retire angry at hockey, you’ve given your whole life to it.” Redden agreed and re-discovered his joy.
Neal said that several of his Blues teammates — mentioning Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Perron and Robert Bortuzzo — told him to go to Springfield for that reason. “They said, ‘You’ll be back in a month.’ It didn’t happen, but I appreciate what they said and they were right to tell me to go.” Neal scored twice in his first game, finishing with 14 goals and 26 points in 28 games. He’s got five points in five playoff games. Most importantly, he’s in a great headspace. “I got to play on top lines once again, and it felt great to score. The AHL schedule,” he said with a laugh, “three games in three days, you’re on the bus to the rink, stay for five hours to play a game, then back on the bus…but when you’re feeling good about yourself, you really enjoy that grind. Now, the best thing about scoring goals (like last week’s winner) is you feel great about doing it for this group of players. I really want to help them win.”
The Thunderbirds are in the Eastern Conference Final against Laval. Will you be back next season? “Yes, that’s my plan. It’s going to be a short summer, we could play until end of June. But this has been great for me, I love it again and I want to play next year.”
21. Longtime NHLers who go to the AHL have legendary stories of being challenged or chirped. “It didn’t happen right away,” Neal laughed, “but a few games in, one guy on the bench asked me if my tape job was from 2008. I said, ‘Yeah, because I was in the NHL in 2008 and that’s the way we taped our sticks.’”
22. It was pointed out to me that Dominik Zrim’s name is no longer on the Chicago Blackhawks website. Zrim, the co-founder of CapFriendly (essential to any reporter covering the sport), joined the organization in May 2021 as manager of hockey strategy. Basically, he assisted with the cap, contracts and in formulating strategy. It’s believed he resigned shortly after the Feb. 2 town hall. Reached this week, Zrim wouldn’t say anything negative about the Blackhawks: “I left amicably and enjoyed being there.” He’s back with the website and consulting for a few teams.
23. From friend of the blog Michael Leboff: the over/under for Game 2 of the Western Conference Final is 7.5. If it stays there, it will be the first playoff game above seven since at least 2005-06.
24. The most points in one playoff year during the salary cap era is Evgeni Malkin’s 36 in 2009. Connor McDavid is at 29, Leon Draisaitl 28. Only two players — Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux — have ever reached 40.
25. McDavid is averaging 22:28 ice time per game. There’s no doubt he can handle it, none at all. It may not mean anything, but no team has won a Stanley Cup since 2012 with a forward playing 22 minutes per game. That was Anze Kopitar at 22:03. Others who have done it are Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour (23:52) in 2006; Tampa Bay’s Brad Richards (23:28) and Martin St. Louis (22:52) in 2004; Detroit’s Sergei Fedorov (22:20) in 2002; Dallas’s Mike Modano (24:40, what a number) in 1999; and Detroit’s Steve Yzerman (22:41) in 1998.
26. One of the great things about the Colorado/Edmonton matchup is that Woodcroft and Jared Bednar are completely unafraid to match McDavid and Cale Makar against each other. Doesn’t matter who is at home. The two teams have played four times this season. Head-to-head at five-on-five, they’ve played 8:10, 8:37, 8:57 and 14:16(!) in Game 1 (credit: Natural Stat Trick). The first two games were pretty even, McDavid had an edge the third time and the series opener went to Makar. Can’t wait to see more of this.
27. In Game 6 against St. Louis, Darren Helm went eight minutes without a shift late in the third period. Bednar then called on him three times in the last five minutes, culminating in the series winner with six seconds to go. On the ensuing faceoff, Darcy Kuemper smartly refused to freeze the puck when the Blues shot it at him — knowing they were trying to give O’Reilly one final chance to set up a scoring chance off an offensive-zone draw.
28. How good were the Rangers in Game 1 against Tampa Bay? The great Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine on Twitter) pointed out that Florida had two cross-seam passes against the Lightning at five-on-five all series. Toronto had seven. The Rangers got one on their first shot, and had seven for the game. That’s crazy, and as much a credit to New York as a display of rare Lightning sloppiness.
29. An odd thing about Game 1: Tampa captain Steven Stamkos was late to the bench in both the first and second period. He actually walked through the crowd to get there from the Zamboni entrance. You can do that at Madison Square Garden, although it’s both funny and strange to see nowadays. Back in the rinkside reporting days, one of the Olsen twins always sat at the glass…right in front of where Stamkos would have walked by.
30. Stamkos on Andrei Vasilevskiy: “It’s like Mariano Rivera in his prime. It was just automatic. That’s kind of the feel we have. If we’ve lost a game in the playoffs, the next one, it’s like, ‘Okay, (he’s) got us, let’s go out and do our part.’ Clinching game? ‘We just need one goal.’” You know Vasilevskiy will be on a mission in Game 2.
31. Per Ron MacLean, this is the first Final Four since 1980 where every team has a number-one pick on its roster. Colorado and Edmonton have two: Erik Johnson (2006, by St. Louis) and Nathan MacKinnon (2013) for the Avalanche; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Connor McDavid (2015) for the Oilers. The Rangers have Alexis Lafreniere (2020) and Tampa, Steven Stamkos (2008). Forty-two years ago, it was Gilbert Perreault (1970, Buffalo); Denis Potvin (1973, Islanders); Mel Bridgman (1975, Philadelphia); and Bobby Smith (1978, Minnesota).
32. Wanted to recommend Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers. It’s the oral history of the network, written by James Andrew Miller. This is not a light read, at almost 1,000 pages. But it’s excellent, and gave me a lot to think about.