• Kane, Toews decisions could come around 10 days before trade deadline
• NHLPA nears decision to make Marty Walsh next executive director
• Flyers ask fans for patience through another tough season
Fixing All-Star weekend is now an NHL priority.
However you feel about All-Star, it is an important showcase, and, at least on Sportsnet, our executives say the skills competition tends to outdraw the game itself. So, it can’t be flat and uninspiring, as it was — for the most part — on Friday.
Toronto’s last All-Star Game, back in 2000, was the quietest one I’ve been to, so energizing the audience in 2024 will be critical. What to do? I have ideas:
• Two hours for skills, max. (One of our executives said it probably has to be two hours and 30 minutes to account for commercial time, but you get the idea.) Be strict.
• Start with a bang. Grab everyone’s attention right away. There was bad luck with Cale Makar wiping out to start the fastest skater competition. He went first for a reason: the hope he’d blaze a great number, get the juices flowing.
Apparently, a few players wondered about bringing back the draft. On Feb. 19, the NBA All-Stars will do their draft, then immediately play the game. It’s a great idea, but I’d do it the night before, make it the official All-Star starting point. First thing: announce the captains, pick the teams. Fans on television and in attendance would love it.
And the players have shown they are great at it. The previous drafts were excellent entertainment.
As I understand it, this was eliminated for two reasons. First, the NHLPA didn’t like the embarrassment of someone being picked last and, second, the NHL didn’t like the fact alcohol was consumed in 2016 because it took things too close to the line. The second one is easy to solve. Being picked last? It happens to everyone.
We’ve got to have thicker skins than that.
Some of you suggested picking the teams through the time-honoured hockey tradition of throwing in the sticks. I like it, good idea. But not as entertaining. This could be fantastic.
• Make a change to the fastest skater competition. No more tight corners. What happened to Makar is not something worth risking. Consider pre-taping, and instead of quickest lap, award the title to who can reach the highest top speed. Use a frozen pond/lake, or create a straightaway track of the NHL’s own. Plenty of room to go as fast as you can, and award the winner that way.
Possible pushback: I’ve heard there could be a move away from taped events. I understand it on some level; there’s concern pre-taping isn’t as exciting for the in-arena crowd, even if the event is good. (I loved the visual of a soaked Sidney Crosby standing in the dunk tank as David Amber interviewed Mikko Rantanen. It was hilarious, and if Crosby can play along like this, everyone should.)
Reason I’d keep this one: you’re going to need something to transition the arena floor from draft to the rest of the events, it has potential to be great and you can edit it tight.
• Make sure people with tickets are in their seats. If not, put kids in the seats. Do something to get butts in the seats. You cannot have an empty-looking building, it’s awful, whether the events are taped or live.
Florida just opened a Jameson’s Whiskey Bar, and I confess I went in there during the skills competition to see what it was like. It’s terrific. Busy, people were having a great time. But every person in there means they’re not in an assigned seat.
Toronto’s notorious for empty seats close to the ice.
• The accuracy shooting and hardest shot were the best parts of this year’s event, so keep them. It’s unfortunate the momentum was lost before Nazem Kadri and Connor McDavid went head-to-head in the accuracy semifinals. It was riveting how McDavid — who really wanted to win — didn’t miss a target and still lost to the hugely competitive Kadri.
The NHL should consider using a skills consultant to come up with any other ideas. There are so many creative players who can do more than ever. Whether it is Darryl Belfry or Jari Byrski or Adam Oates or Yogi Svejkovsky or whoever, bring in someone who can design an event or two that will challenge players and entertain fans.
• The players have to buy in. Some do, but others don’t. This is a big weekend for sponsors and television. It doesn’t have to be a car crash like Flames-Rangers, but it’s got to have some positive viral moments. That’s important.
• Finally, there was a minor hockey tournament (the Florida Exposure Cup) going on at the same time, for 2007-, 2008- and 2009-born players. It was unaffiliated with the NHL, but I saw some of the kids at the skills competition. Lot of good teams and players there. It might not be a bad idea for the league and union to host a tournament of their own during the weekend. Don’t know if you could fit championship games into the main arena schedule, but seeing them in attendance made me think there’s some kind of opportunity.
1. For the record, Jim Rutherford denies he is considering resigning from the Canucks. Vancouver’s got a lot of decisions to make, on and off the ice, but he’s determined to lead that process.
2. While trade talk has picked up, it’s still a poker game between the buyers and the sellers. The sellers are asking big returns, with the buyers claiming they won’t pay it. There’s still time, with the biggest pieces including Timo Meier, Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly, Jakob Chychrun and Patrick Kane.
3. We’re going to have a better idea what Kane and Jonathan Toews are thinking around 10 days before the March 3 deadline. On some level, they hoped that there could be a way to stay, but that’s dissipating. The Blackhawks want to move on and the reality of what Chicago is doing has set in on both. The big question is, how many teams both players are willing to consider. A few players at All-Star praised Kane for playing through something that clearly is bothering him, especially since Chicago is hoping what they get in return benefits the rebuild.
4. Dylan Larkin had a good line about what fellow All-Stars were saying to him in Florida: “Guys are asking why it hasn’t got done yet, stuff like that.” That tells you what you need to know, that his peers believe Larkin when he says he wants to be a Red Wing.
5. We’ll see if Bo Horvat’s eight-year, $68-million extension moves the line for Larkin and Steve Yzerman. Generally, Yzerman digs a trench and doesn’t go much further, although Nikita Kucherov pushed Tampa Bay’s ceiling to $9.5-million two months before Yzerman resigned from the team. I don’t believe that’s where we’re going here, but what it shows is that sometimes, things can move.
Larkin’s best attribute is that, as a centre, he’s difficult to replace. Top-line centres are very hard to find. My guess is this ends somewhere in the eights. If Yzerman believed he couldn’t sign Larkin, he would have traded him last summer before the captain’s no-trade clause kicked in.
6. Now that the Islanders have Horvat signed long-term, I think GM Lou Lamoriello uses the next five-to-seven games to determine what he does for this season. Same goes for Nashville.
7. Buffalo’s long-term strategy — latest with Dylan Cozens — is the smart one. If you have a cornerstone player, lock him up for as long as you can. The price never goes down. My belief is Montreal desires the same path with Cole Caufield. Get term.
8. I mentioned before that Boston has looked at left-shot options such as Jakob Chychrun and Vladislav Gavrikov. The Bruins also appear to be considering Luke Schenn on the right.
9. The Flames are believed to be in on Schenn too, although they might wait to see if it makes sense for them based on the standings. You can see the possibility because of Chris Tanev’s injuries. Tanev is as big a gamer as they come, but even he can’t overcome everything. There’s been a push from some in the Canucks organization to keep Schenn. I think it depends on what’s offered. If Vancouver deems it too low, they won’t move. But there’s plenty of interest, which generally pushes up the price.
10. I don’t think Toronto trades for a goalie unless the Leafs are convinced it’s a better option than what they have in the NHL or even the AHL. The Maple Leafs have limited cap space and trade capital. Going for a goalie makes it harder to do other things. They want to add both on defence and up front.
11. As U.S. Secretary of Labour Marty Walsh prepares to take over the NHLPA, the thing heard most over the last week was, “No matter what anyone thinks, we have to present a united front.” A fractured union gets crushed in negotiations, and, in hockey, we’ve seen that before.
Because the search committee did a great job of keeping Walsh’s name private until last week, questions and concerns spilled out very quickly. First, there were revelations about Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs’ donations to Walsh. The Boston Globe reported the Red Sox, principally owned by John Henry (who has added the Pittsburgh Penguins to his portfolio), contributed $10,000 to Walsh’s 2014 mayoral inauguration and transition in Boston. As someone who isn’t crazy about politicians of any party, I find that world greasy and expect nothing less. But those around the NHL/NHLPA long enough to remember the Alan Eagleson days are extremely sensitive about this. They desire information giving them reason to believe this won’t be the same thing; they want the process to slow down, to be convinced the players aren’t rushing into a mistake.
A nasty, anonymous email was circulated to agents last week arguing against the hire. Initially, it tried to rally support for Mike Gillis, but then removed his name. (I can’t imagine Gillis would have wanted his name on that.) Whatever the case, the selection committee pressed forward, conveying excitement about Walsh. That enthusiasm has convinced the rest of the players to back the choice.
12. Another connection for Walsh: his chief labour counsel in Boston was Alexis Finneran Tkachuk, from the hugely successful Fitzgerald/McNeil/Tkachuk family.
13. Walsh’s most important job will be getting to know the rank and file, and he should immediately dedicate himself to doing that. While he may be a hockey fan, he doesn’t intimately know this group. On his way out, current executive director Donald Fehr warned the next few years (heading into CBA discussions) will be extremely challenging. Look at the ages of the selection committee: Kyle Okposo and Kevin Shattenkirk (34), Ian Cole and Sam Gagner (33), Nate Schmidt (31), Justin Faulk and Zach Hyman (30). What are the wishes of the younger players, who will form the backbone of the union for years to come?
14. Heard that one of the other serious contenders for NHLPA leadership was CFLPA executive director Brian Ramsay. He played a decade as an offensive lineman with Toronto, Hamilton and Edmonton, before negotiating two CBAs between players and the CFL.
15. 2023 Hobey Baker nominee Jackson LaCombe from the University of Minnesota has indicated he will sign with Anaheim after this season. One of the NCAA’s top-scoring defenders, LaCombe — taken 39th overall in 2019 — could have become a free agent this summer. There would have been plenty of interest. That’s a good keep for the Ducks.
16. There’s also interest in Ethen Frank, who won the AHL’s fastest skater competition this week. He’s with Hershey on a non-NHL contract, but there is word Washington wants to sign him and is expected to do so. If not, there would be others chasing him.
17. There is word former Belleville head coach Troy Mann began the process Tuesday of defending himself against allegations of impropriety. A few weeks ago, Jeff Marek heard that marriage was headed to divorce, but not sure anyone saw it playing out this way. Mann has another year left on his contract and was not fired for cause, so I took Ottawa’s release of philosophical differences at face value. There is evidence the NHL Senators were not happy with what was happening at the AHL level. Then came reports of a loss of trust, and that story spread at the AHL’s All-Star event. Mann has no choice but to fight back. You can’t let that stand if it’s untrue.
18. Over the next few weeks, expect the Senators to begin culling the herd of potential ownership groups.
19. Speaking of the AHL, it appears Henderson (Las Vegas) and Coachella Valley (Seattle) have been as impactful in that league’s revenues as their parent teams are in the NHL. Strong additions.
20. I thought an 84-game schedule might be on the docket in March’s GM meetings, now I’m not so sure. What I do think we could get is a discussion on cutting down the number of pre-season games.
21. As mentioned during All-Star, the NHL is legitimately looking at an outdoor game in Florida. But, last weekend, we witnessed the conundrum. Two days of outstanding weather (which was awesome), then a day of driving rainstorms that had cars up to the top of their wheels in water. That’s a big, big worry.
22. Nashville pitched an outdoor awards show this summer, basically where the concerts were held during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. It’s a fantastic idea, and my guess is there’s some element of it. But, again, there was concern about committing to a full outdoor show. Too unpredictable.
23. Philadelphia has had two days of interesting announcements. First, a note from coach John Tortorella detailing where he thinks the Flyers stand, featuring the line: “I’m not going to lie to you — and I want to be clear about this — we’re not there yet. This year was the first step in building the future of the Flyers and restoring our reputation as one of the most respected teams in hockey.”
The Rangers scored big when they did this a few seasons ago, a clear, honest message of what they were thinking. Philadelphia has had trouble admitting a rebuild, but this is unmistakeable. The fact that Tortorella was chosen to be the face of this message is a sign the organization feels their fans will accept it most coming from him.
Second was telling fans with season tickets that the cost of April’s three home games will be credited toward 2023-24’s renewal. (Those with a half-season plan get two games’ credit.) Ticket prices in the main bowl will not increase for the fourth straight year. If you’re going to ask your fans for patience, you better reward them. Smart play.
24. Great teammate tributes for Jamie Benn as he played game 1,000 on Monday, against Anaheim. A T-shirt worn by all the Stars, everyone taking warmup helmetless like he does. And, most importantly, a win. He looks rejuvenated playing with Ty Dellandrea and Wyatt Johnston, definitely looks like he changed his workout style, too. A notorious attention-avoider, I’ll always remember his post-game interview from the 2014 Olympic semifinal when he scored the only goal in a 1-0 Canada win over the U.S. We joked off-camera that the goal meant he’d have to do a lot of interviews, and he said with a laugh, “That’s the only bad thing about scoring it.”
25. I can’t find the video, but David Backes chased Benn after the opening draw in St. Louis’s first meeting against the Stars after those Olympics. Something he said to Backes got under the Blues’ captain’s skin. Benn scored the winning goal that game.
26. Some fits that may make sense: Anaheim’s Dmitry Kulikov for Pittsburgh, on the left side.
27. Also: James van Riemsdyk in Minnesota. The Wild are looking for scoring.
28. Jacob Trouba was the main topic of conversation after the excellent Flames-Rangers game on Monday. But what really stood out to me was Sammy Blais going right after the fearsome Milan Lucic. That’s a player who knows he’s on the roster bubble. He knows if he doesn’t play hard for a coach that craves it, he’s in danger of waivers.
29. Boston’s Brandon Carlo did some research into an off-season adjustment. He switched his skate to a Bauer boot, and went to a Marsblade underneath it. The chassis of the Marsblade “rocks” on the blade, and Carlo said that’s had a positive effect when he turns and battles.
30. Arber Xhekaj’s younger brother, Florian, is getting attention at OHL Hamilton. Draft guru Sam Cosentino thinks he gets selected in June.
31. Take some time and listen to Bill Belichick on Tom Brady’s podcast. There’s a lot worth listening to, but the way Belichick describes Brady’s ability to “see” the field stood out.
“The things I learned from Tom as a quarterback was how to see the game as a quarterback, instead of as a coach. Tom would say, ‘You know, I can’t see that. I’m not really looking at that.’ I’m going to stop coaching that then, because if you can’t see it, nobody else is going to see it. So let’s see how you see the game, and let me learn from you.”
There’s more and it’s so good. Recently, I recommended a book called Super Bowl Stories, and just finished it over All-Star weekend. The whole book was about why teams had success. There’s one overriding arc — that the players and coaches got to a point where they understood what each other was trying to do. They didn’t always agree, but they got it. One of the quotes is along the lines of, “In college, you can win with great talent or great coaching. In the pros, you can’t win without both.” Man, do I believe that, and I believe it even more in media. There was so much good advice on the podcast and in the book of why good teams are successful. I really found all of this eye-opening.