32 Thoughts: Maple Leafs fallout and off-season questions around the league

Maple Leafs captain John Tavares discusses his confidence in this core group bouncing back next year, breaking through and completing their ultimate goal.

• Will the Penguins be able to keep Letang and Malkin?
• Coaching market is deep and full of options
• What will the Sharks do with Burns and Karlsson?

What an outstanding opening round. 

Initially, there was concern about too many blowouts, but longer series made up for that, with the most Games 7 since 1992 and, for just the second time ever, two Game 7 overtimes on the same day. Great, great theatre. Great, great competition.

That leads us to the Battle of Alberta (about freaking time), the Florida Feud, the O’Reilly Roundup and Sullivan’s vs. Smith and Wollensky. Going to be fantastic.

Let’s look at some non-playoff business:

Count me, initially, in the group of: this was not a massive failure for Toronto. Some of their previous losses (the second one to Boston, Columbus, Montreal) were much more egregious than a hard-fought, seven-game, one-goal loss to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. A lot of their players improved, with career-best seasons. Even if the Lightning looked beatable, they are still the Lightning, with an indomitable will and several future Hall of Famers.

But a big chunk of the fanbase doesn’t see it that way. They’re not interested in “better,” “closer,” or “tougher” losses. In their jobs or industries, not succeeding for this many years means consequences. This is what Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas must navigate. From their perch, they see improvement — a team that finished fourth in the NHL with 115 points. Their customers don’t see enough.

“We will not be making changes just for the sake of making changes,” Shanahan said. 

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I don’t disagree with that, but what I heard from Shanahan and Dubas on Tuesday was “we think we’re close, but we’ve got a fatal flaw to fix.”

One of the most challenging things about this dilemma is a lot of it is between the ears. Toronto is good enough to hold leads over Washington in 2017, Boston in 2019, Montreal in 2020 and Tampa this time around. But the Leafs are 1-9 in those series with a lead, and winless in five consecutive deciding games — a record. Years ago, I listened to Hall of Fame basketball coach Larry Brown discuss “being afraid to win.” He explained it as some players not really believing they were good enough or had what it took to beat a particular opponent when it mattered. But he also believed a killer instinct can be taught. (From my own experience, I believe that, too. If I didn’t strengthen my mental game, I was going nowhere in life.)

What I’m wondering is if everyone in the organization is going to be made to feel a little uncomfortable. I can’t imagine my employer (Rogers), with 37.5 per cent ownership of the team, is thrilled. We’re very much in “business mode” now. Dubas has one year left on his contract. After last year’s loss to Montreal, he backed his best players. Privately, he challenged them, but was publicly supportive.

He’s going to think big. That doesn’t mean he will end up making some massive franchise-altering trade, but I think he’s going to take a long look at what’s out there. He’s going to consider things he wouldn’t have entertained a year ago. He doesn’t have a ton of draft capital, but thinks highly of the prospect base.

For the record, I don’t believe that includes Mitch Marner or Auston Matthews. (Let me just say I’m glad to hear he’s “doing OK” after the carjacking incident on Monday night. That’s frightening. No one can imagine how they’d be affected.) In fact, I’m curious to see if the organization broaches the idea of making them both centres, turning John Tavares into a hybrid-style forward who can still (very effectively) take faceoffs on his strong side while owning less of the position’s open-ice responsibilities. 

Over the years, Toronto’s brought in several useful veterans to prod the youth: Kyle Clifford, Mark Giordano, Ron Hainsey, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton et al. The younger players have talked at length at how much they learned. One thing they haven’t had much of recently is an experienced, nasty piece of work who can play top-six forward minutes with their core four. An absolute (fill-in-the-blank with your adjective of choice). Those are hard to find, but a priority on a winner. 

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1. Manitoba’s population is approximately 1.39 million. It sounds like each provincial resident is prepared to donate toward Barry Trotz becoming coach of the Jets, and the team was interviewing him on Tuesday. Several sources are drawing a line from Trotz to Vegas, but I’ve heard the Flyers, who have seen him firsthand in Washington and New York, have a deep, deep respect for him and his work. He’s a top candidate there. If he’s more interested in management, which has been speculated, a return to Nashville might be his best fit. (It’s possible, too, that his next coaching job includes a move into the front office later in term.) A lot is on the table, there is much interest in his services. The true question might be: What really interests him?

2. Philadelphia is getting closer to starting its interviews. They know how critical this hire is for them, determined to leave no stone unturned in finding the right person. What’s been on their minds is a coach with a strong track record, demands accountability from players, gets buy-in right away and makes teams harder to play against.

Also with Philly: Ivan Provorov’s end-of-season media conference, where he angrily defended his play, had some Flyers fans wondering if that would be his ticket out of Philadelphia. After looking into it, I don’t think it’s a guarantee. The Flyers will consider everything — they were a 60-point team — but they still see his potential and aren’t crazy about the idea of him reaching it somewhere else. They’d like to see him have a season with Ryan Ellis. Not sure how to handicap the chances he stays/goes, but there’s definitely serious thought about not overreacting to end-of-season comments after a hard year.

3. Now that the first round of the playoffs are over, some of the coaching searches are going to heat up. Was talking to one executive on Monday who is looking around. He said, “There are a ton of them out there. More prep and background work than ever.” I started going through names, and he’s right. Think of how many former NHL coaches still have it in their blood. Claude Julien is 62, leading Team Canada at the Olympics and World Championships. Randy Carlyle, 66, has indicated he’d like to get back behind a bench (and his long connections to Winnipeg make him a person of consideration there). You can keep going: Peter DeBoer (although he has another year under contract, so can afford to wait); David Quinn, Scott Arniel, Rick Tocchet, Travis Green, Jeff Blashill, Kirk Muller, Paul Maurice, Jim Montgomery, John Tortorella.

I know someone is going to be insulted by their omission, but this is to give you an idea. These are just the people with NHL head coaching experience. There are going to be current assistants and fresh faces. The Islanders took Lane Lambert off the board, keeping him for themselves. Jeff Marek has mentioned Tampa Bay assistant Derek Lalonde as a Detroit possibility, and I wouldn’t be surprised if teams want to get to know Jeff Halpern, too. Spencer Carbery, Brad Shaw, Pascal Vincent and Mike Vellucci are other assistants whose names I’ve heard. 

4. Then there’s the Martin St. Louis effect. Are there any recently retired players outside the NHL sphere who are motivated to get back in by what they saw from him?

5. I made a point to ask about any particular Europeans who might get traction. Rikard Gronborg’s name has been around for a few years. One other name I heard was Dan Tangnes, a Norwegian who just coached Zug in the Swiss league to its second consecutive championship. It’s hard to say if they are being considered for head-coaching jobs or associate roles, but it’s clear some teams are trying to broaden their horizons. Swedish World Junior coach Tomas Monten probably isn’t in line for an NHL head spot, but could end up part of a staff or in the CHL.

6. Don’t believe there’s been much negotiation with UFA-to-be Jack Campbell. But I do think there’s been discussion with Mark Giordano to return at a lower salary. There’s a path for that to occur.

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7. There was a lot of head-scratching about Sheldon Keefe’s “lot of respect in that handshake line” quote. I was scratching my head at that one too. It’s like, “My wife’s boyfriend was nice to me as he left the house.” The key, as I understand it, is the next line: “It was a much different tone and much different feeling of respect from the other side from what we’ve experienced previously.” Apparently, some of Toronto’s previous playoff conquerors really trashed them in victory. Tampa — pushed to a Game 7 only by the Islanders during their two championship runs — was very complimentary.

8. The Athletic’s Rob Rossi exploded heads in Pittsburgh on Monday by reporting the Penguins’ best offers to Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin were three years and $15 million. I’m always careful with this stuff because negotiations are a moving target, but here’s what I’ve heard: Malkin and the team definitely discussed a three-year term so he could line up with Sidney Crosby, but the two sides were far, far apart on the number. As for Letang, the last I heard was a four-year offer, at a bit less than his current average salary of $7.25 million. 

9. Had a long talk with a reporter who has dealt with Fenway Sports Group, new owners of the Penguins. Asked what to expect from them as the organization essentially decides its future. The key response was, “Can you justify your decision-making process?” And we’re not talking a run-of-the-mill bar argument over chicken fingers and mozzarella strips. The Penguins haven’t been afraid of data, but FSG really loves data. It might be too soon to put all of that in place now for decisions on Malkin and Letang, but it’s the future.

10. Several negotiations (not just Pittsburgh) will be affected by Seattle. Teams (and especially agents) are eager to learn of the Kraken’s plans to add offensive talent.

11. Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom raised eyebrows admitting his hip is very problematic. “I want to be back to normal, not worrying about this,” he told reporters on Sunday. GM Brian MacLellan said, under current conditions, “It’s hard for him to play.” One factor is the challenge of rehabbing a significant hip surgery at age 34, with the mileage on his body. It’s a gruelling, lengthy process. Not to say it’s impossible, but difficult. What should be noted is that Capitals teammates talked about Backstrom like the Canadiens discussed Shea Weber years before 2021. The effort he made to so much as dress for games.

12. When Lambert was originally mentioned as a possibility to replace Trotz with the Islanders, a regular narrative came up: how hard it is to move from assistant to head coach on the same team. Morphing from good cop to bad cop isn’t easy, players don’t always accept that kind of change in a personal relationship.

I should have realized Lou Lamoriello would care less about that kind of narrative than anyone. He’s made this move on a few occasions, most notably in 2000 when Larry Robinson replaced Robbie Ftorek in New Jersey. The Devils won the Stanley Cup that season, and lost Game 7 to Colorado in 2001. It’s clear Lamoriello believed in something I do consider important: if you’re going to block someone like Lambert from pursuing legitimate opportunities for promotion, you have to be prepared to promote them yourself. 

13. Not counting hiring himself and Doug Carpenter (who he inherited as head coach of the Devils in 1987), Lamoriello’s had 19 coaches. Only Jacques Lemaire (378 games from 1993-98) lasted longer than Trotz (288). 

14. Some Islander fans were in a panic that Mathew Barzal indicated something like he wouldn’t sign an extension if Trotz stayed as coach. I don’t believe that is true. 

15. We should get some clarity on Dallas in the next few days. After an incredible 2,500 games behind the bench in one role or another, 67-year-old Rick Bowness has to decide about his future. GM Jim Nill (64) has another year on his contract, and how does he feel? Internally, the Stars are looking at the way they process things. Nill loves experience, thinks it makes such a difference in the post-season. But he’s certainly built a foundation for the future with Miro Heiskanen, Roope Hintz, first-round MVP Jake Oettinger and Jason Robertson.

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16. San Jose is paring its GM list. Have been thinking about candidates aside from the obvious names, since the Sharks have indicated they will examine some different paths. In a couple of interviews, team president Jonathan Becher mentioned “league experience.” Ray Whitney, who joined the NHL’s department of player safety in 2017, was drafted by San Jose in 1991. A connection that made me think a little.

17. San Jose talked to two teams about Erik Karlsson, but I don’t believe anything was close. He’s got a total no-move clause and five years remaining on his contract. Brent Burns can be traded to three teams. He’s got three years left and the actual salary on his deal drops a little. Unfortunately, having two elite right-hand shots who need power-play time hasn’t worked as well as everyone hoped. The contract situation makes Burns a less complicated move, and there is interest — although he has a lot of control. It would be very weird not to see him in a Sharks lineup, and boy would it change the personality of the group. 

18. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck told the Jets he was happy to stay with the team as long as the plan is not to rebuild. Mark Scheifele did not ask for a trade in his meeting with GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. Still unsure what will happen there, but it could depend on Pierre-Luc Dubois’ next contract.

19. There were no suspensions handed to Jacob Trouba nor Nikita Zadorov for their head-contact hits in Round 1, both defensible under the rules. What did happen was conversations about, “Do we have to modify the rules?” Too early to say where we go from here, but there will be conversations — especially among players — about what might need to happen.

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20. A few of you asked if there’s ever been a hearing followed by no suspension. The answer is yes. Last season, the Rangers’ Ryan Lindgren was cleared after a big hit on Joonas Donskoi (then of Colorado), very similar to the one this year on Rickard Rakell.

21. During the World Under-18 tournament in Germany, a few NHL teams met with Ivan Miroshnichenko. The talented prospect is in the country to undergo his final round of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. At the time, he wasn’t skating or doing much in the way of heavy workouts. His father is a track coach, and they were going for hikes and long walks as exercise. But he was upbeat, and the meetings were taken as a good sign.

22. A decision from Russian free agent Andrei Kuzmenko isn’t expected in the near future, but after initial interviews concluded with the likes of Edmonton, Nashville, Vancouver and Vegas, other teams reached out to make sure they would get their shot. One was believed to be Anaheim.

23. One under-the-radar goalie to watch: Eric Comrie. Comrie, who will be 27 in July, does not have 28 career appearances of at least 30 minutes each. That makes him an unrestricted free agent. He had a good year and there will be interest.

24. There are teams that believe the Wild will find a way to keep Kevin Fiala. We’ve learned one thing about GM Bill Guerin — he won’t be afraid to try things others avoid. I’m just not convinced he thinks there’s a way to do it that makes sense. There’ve been a lot of rumours about New Jersey and Ottawa. Here’s another idea, purely from my head: Los Angeles. Kings need a scorer. And they’ve got the young talent Minnesota will need with the Wild’s cap penalties.

25. Whether or not Patrice Bergeron returns next season, the Bruins will invest in offence. As part of that, they’ve made it very clear they’d like Jake DeBrusk to be in their future. “I was proud of the way he played,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said. (The organization made a point of telling him that in person, too.) The forward has not rescinded his trade request — and will take time to think about it — but DeBrusk handled himself extremely well. Sometimes a relationship needs to hit rock bottom before it can improve, and at least one teammate felt DeBrusk saying what was on his mind emotionally freed him to play his best. Another thing that helps: his contract is in place for the next two seasons, so there’s no need for a negotiation. 

26. The Edmonton-Los Angeles series featured Mike Smith and Jonathan Quick — a combined 76 years, 144 days old at the time of Game 1. That was the “oldest” goaltending matchup since the Boston-Tampa Bay 2011 Eastern Conference Final, with Tim Thomas (37 years, 42 days) outdueling Dwayne Roloson of the Lightning (41 years, 227 days) 1-0 in Game 7. Before that, you’d have to go back to 44-year-old Jacques Plante versus 33-year-old Ed Giacomin when the Rangers beat Boston in 1973. Oldest matchup ever is a combined 81. That’s Plante (then 41) over 40-year-old Gump Worsley as St. Louis defeated Minnesota in 1970. Very impressive performances by Smith and Quick. 

27. By starting the playoffs on a Monday, the NHL created a situation where Games 7 could be played on a Saturday and Sunday. That was a big success. Does it become permanent?

28. Some thoughts about the next round. There are incredible teenage and university memories tied into the Battle of Alberta. The last one was such an emotional rollercoaster. I knew Flames fans who taunted Oilers fans after Theo Fleury’s Game 6 overtime winner. In return, the Oilers fans were absolutely merciless when Esa Tikkanen won Game 7. The game Tikkanen played that night, it was incredible. Exhorting his teammates to get going after falling down 3-0, then scoring to get Edmonton on the board. The shot of Mark Messier, one of the toughest players ever, unable to join his teammates in celebration because of the physical cost he paid.

I’m so excited for this. Connor McDavid has toyed with the Flames at times, but that is one deep and mature team. The year Calgary won its only Stanley Cup, the Flames were pushed to Game 7 overtime by a Vancouver team that was 43 points behind them in the regular season. The spread between the Flames and Dallas Stars wasn’t that large this time, but this was just as tight and tense for Calgary. Is it an omen? 

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29. Florida-Tampa will be a mean series. The Panthers cannot stand the Lightning, for all their success and the fact they think Tampa gets away with on-ice felonies. (The Panthers aren’t exactly choirboys, either.) Unfortunately, health plays a big factor in this one. Ben Chiarot, Aaron Ekblad, Mason Marchment and Brayden Point all come in hobbling. If the Panthers are going to beat the Lightning, this would seem the year. Biggest concern: goaltending. That’s Tampa Bay’s biggest advantage. 

30. Unlike last year, St. Louis has a shot against Colorado. The Blues are getting healthy on the blue line, which is critical. They are deep, they can score, they pushed back hard against Minnesota. Going back to last year, the Avalanche felt they fell apart mentally against Vegas. They worked hard on preparing for that this spring. That’s what we watch for here. When the Blues get them in trouble, which should happen in this series, how does Colorado respond? Do they keep their identity? If the answer is yes, they can win it all. 

31. The Penguins-Rangers first-round series changed when Sidney Crosby was injured and Igor Shesterkin regained his confidence. In some ways, Shesterkin was better here even more than during his phenomenal regular season. During the playoffs, it’s not like to you can say, “Ride Georgiev for a week while I sort this out in practice.” Your teammates are depending on you, which is a major responsibility. You feel it; you have to put it together in a hurry. Shesterkin found a way, and was very good in Game 7. (As, it should be said, was Tristan Jarry, while far from 100 per cent.)

The Penguins controlled quality of chances in the series, which is good news for Carolina. The Hurricanes are deeper than the Penguins, a relentless group of attackers at forward and from the blue line. They can beat you any way you want to play. Antti Raanta came through in two particularly big moments: Boston’s onslaught at the start of Game 1 and in the deciding Game 7. He’s never had this intense a workload, but he won the games that mattered in Round 1.

32. In the previous 32 Thoughts blog, we told the story of Grant Gilbertson. The 18-year-old forward with the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League’s Peninsula Panthers died in a car accident in January, on the way to a team practice. In his memory, there will be a hockey tournament Aug. 12-14 in North Saanich, B.C. For details, email ggmemorialtournament@gmail.com. All proceeds go to the Grant Gilbertson Memorial Scholarship Fund.

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