32 Thoughts: NHL should create salary cap exceptions

NHL Network’s Kevin Weekes joined Tim and Friends to discuss Sharks' Evander Kane’s 21-game suspension and what he would like to see from the player in the future.

• Where do Evander Kane and the Sharks go from here?
• Claude Giroux in Ottawa?
• What could Jack Campbell’s AAV be on an extension?

Beaucoup de complaints about salary-cap strangleholds last weekend. Toronto snares so much of the spotlight that few realized Colorado had an even more legitimate gripe.

Thanks to two COVID-related absences (Jack Johnson, Nathan MacKinnon), an injury (Valeri Nichushkin) and a suspension (Gabriel Landeskog), the Avalanche could only fit 17 skaters — one under the maximum — in their 5-3 loss to St. Louis. That number dropped to 16 as Stefan Matteau went down with an injury.

The Maple Leafs needed the University of Toronto’s Alex Bishop as an emergency backup when Petr Mrazek was hurt two nights earlier in Ottawa. Pandemic shutdowns in Canadian intercollegiate sports mean that, last Wednesday, he played his first competitive game in 20 months. Toronto could have sent Timothy Liljegren to the AHL Marlies, but with Justin Holl out and Jake Muzzin not 100 per cent — this was as unattractive as early-morning Highway 401 roadkill.

Bishop is a regular on the emergency goalie circuit, so the Leafs know him well. (Varsity Blues’ assistant coach Mike Zigomanis said the two have joked that it could have been “Alex Bishop Night” instead of “David Ayres Night” had it been his turn that fateful February Saturday.) Last year, the NHL created a taxi squad to eradicate this problem. That option, however, is gone.

One moderately bright GM pointed out that not everyone realized the impact of the minimum-salary increase. It rose $50,000 (to $750,000) this year. In 2023-24, it will go to $775,000 for the final three years of the current CBA. With the cap flat this year — and looking at a $1M increase next season — it’s not insignificant, decreasing bottom-of-the-roster flexibility.

Complaining about the salary cap is like complaining about social media. Yeah, the latter’s turned us into dopamine-addicted zombies, but it’s not disappearing, so you better learn to navigate it. I can’t stand the salary cap, but it’s not going anywhere. And, to be honest, there are some with zero sympathy for teams who get into trouble — especially those who flirted with 21-man rosters.

“You know the rules,” one executive said. “They’re not a surprise.”

Yeah, here’s where I disagree.

As I write this (Monday night), there are no plans to create exceptions. But this weekend convinced me there should be.

Colorado and Toronto are fully vaccinated. It doesn’t mean you can’t catch COVID; simply safer to yourself and the people around you. The league and players deserve credit for such a high rate. At season’s start there were just four unvaccinated players.

Shouldn’t we be rewarding everyone for that?

Without necessary protocols, Johnson, Holl and MacKinnon might not have missed any games. Putting them on long-term injured reserve makes no sense. Instead of forcing teams to play a man short, eliminate that penalty in COVID-related cases for those who have complied.

The next argument is going to be about “money outside the system.” As far as that goes, if you don’t want to give teams a freebie, treat the one-game salary as a bonus overage to be applied this year or next. Something can be figured out.

Even the most careful human doesn’t control the virus. Teams shouldn’t be penalized for doing the right things, taking all possible precautions to contain it.

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32 THOUGHTS

1. Evander Kane’s 21-game suspension for using a fake vaccination card will be his sole penalty. There is no further punishment — eliminate the rumours or idea there could be a contract termination. I don’t believe the league sought it to any legitimate level and the NHLPA would have fought it. The winger is eligible to return Nov. 30, but now we enter the next phase of this story. The Sharks’ organization has been both supportive of him and disappointed in him, as is clearly indicated in its statement. One of the challenges is that, as players were upset last season, the organization pointed out Kane was undergoing counselling and tried to balance between acceptance and discipline. That’s not an easy thing to do. As the Sharks prepared to play Montreal on Tuesday, everyone chose their words very, very carefully. “We’ve got a while to deal with this,” head coach Bob Boughner said. “I think this is going to be a decision that is first made by management and ownership. After that, I think it trickles down. We haven’t even brought that up.” Would Kane be welcomed back by the players? “We’ll see once the suspension is over,” said Marc-Edouard Vlasic. “I’m not in a position to say if there is or isn’t. My job is to help the team on the ice.” “Out of my control, out of our control in the dressing room,” added captain Logan Couture. “Our focus is on our room, on Montreal tonight and starting off a hard road trip…That’ll work itself out. In that room it’s hockey.” Watching San Jose’s season-opening 4-3 win over Winnipeg, you could tell there is significant emphasis placed on creating a new, positive energy amongst the group — which stood up for each other when challenged and is trying to ride enthusiasm created by fresh blood (Jonathan Dahlen, William Eklund, Jasper Weatherby). There’s a lot of speculation that maybe Kane doesn’t come back, but this is easier said than done. Whenever there’s been a report or bankruptcy-court filing indicating his contract could be terminated, there’s always pushback that the NHL and NHLPA don’t support the idea. A trade seems unlikely. Somewhere else to play? Unpaid or paid leave? All of this will be discussed, I’m sure.

2. This situation had others wondering if there was reason to be concerned about more usage of fake cards. No one else is under investigation.

3. Jack Eichel’s agents aren’t commenting on this one, but I think I see their strategy if this continues without medical resolution or trade: Eichel’s been seeing doctor after doctor in search of support for the artificial disc replacement. The more support they get, the more they will argue it is an acceptable practice and that the new CBA agreement is not meant to prevent what could be seen as a reasonable medical choice. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t predict if that will work, but it’s definitely the basis for some kind of legal challenge/grievance should we get to that point.

4. The Sabres’ strategy is patience. I’ve heard ownership was very happy with the Rasmus Ristolainen return in particular, and liked how GM Kevyn Adams waited it out until he got what he wanted. While the Sabres have made it clear they will accept a contract to balance out a trade, they are steadfast against retaining any of Eichel’s salary. In a league where half the teams are in long-term injury, it’s not easy to trade a $10M cap hit for the next four seasons. For example, Colorado called about the possibility (imagine that team with a healthy Eichel), but never got into players because the Sabres said no to retention. Vegas knows its injured players are coming back, so you’ve got to make that fit. The Golden Knights don’t want to move Nic Hague or Peyton Krebs. Hearing about the Avalanche’s interest makes me wonder who else is out there we aren’t aware of.

5. Nikita Kucherov is going to see a specialist to determine the extent of his injury. So we may not get clarity on his situation for a few days. But head coach Jon Cooper said it isn’t as long-term as last year, while Mikhail Sergachev told The Athletic’s Joe Smith Kucherov is “going to get some rest, get ready for the Olympics.”

6. As Jeff Marek reported Saturday, Dallas defender John Klingberg is asking for somewhere between $62-$65M to stay with the Stars. I actually don’t think the Stars’ counter is far off, but they’ve made it clear they’ve gone as far as they are willing to go. This is a “go for it” year in Dallas, everything is about chasing the Cup now and they’ll worry about the future later.

7. According to a couple of sources, Rangers’ coach Gerard Gallant personally called Vitali Kravtsov to ask the forward to consider returning. Kravtsov is in Russia, but several teams say they’ve been told he wants to play in the NHL, not stay overseas. He went home to find a comfortable spot to skate and be ready. Getting him to come back to New York will take some serious convincing, as it’s not his preference. He’d like a fresh start. New York is asking a high price for the 2018 first-rounder, but there’s legitimate interest. It’s a poker game.

8. What a huge, huge week for Ottawa. First was getting Brady Tkachuk done long-term, obviously. As I’d said/written, I’d have bent to a bridge deal if Tkachuk stayed true to his short-term stance, but the Senators convinced him this core will stay together. Players want to play, and with 20/20 hindsight, it’s clear Tkachuk wanted no part of missing games. So, he listened to their plan and made the plunge. A lot of trust needs to be built between fans and ownership, but that was a massive step. They’re ecstatic. The team also deserves credit for holding him out until Thursday. I don’t think I’d have that self-control.

9. Another good omen for the Senators: they beat Dallas 3-2 on a night where the Stars scored on their first shot. Last year, Ottawa loses that game 10-1. But Filip Gustavsson held strong and they found a way. Big step.

10. The next item of business for Ottawa is Erik Brannstrom. You can read the tea leaves, it will be tough for him to find a consistent spot. But the Senators do recognize his talent, and they will ask real value from teams calling about him.

11. Hall of Famer Al Morganti stirred up something last week when he suggested unsigned Flyer Claude Giroux would be happy to play in the Canadian capital. For what it’s worth, there were rumours about the two teams talking last summer, but I looked into it and got multiple denials. We will see what the future holds.

12. Small thing — but a big thing — in Philadelphia: Alain Vigneault did not pull Carter Hart when the goalie looked shaky during Friday’s 5-4 shootout loss to Vancouver. Then, the coach said post-game “Carter got a little bit unlucky on two of those goals.” Last year, he wouldn’t have been so charitable. In the off-season, there was a lot of internal conversation on how communication with Hart needed to be massaged. On night one, Vigneault delivered.

13. Edmonton is 2-0. GM Ken Holland told Oilers Now propagandist Bob Stauffer “my history in Detroit was when the team was good and we have a chance, I’ll spend.” (Stauffer did specify not a rental, but someone with term or team control.) Probably not smart to make any judgments after two games, though. “If you’re in the top eight and you think you’ve a real chance,” Holland added, “the time is now, we’re trying to take another step.”

14. Vancouver’s decision to grant Travis Hamonic a leave of absence instead of suspending him without pay (no doubt in consultation with the NHL and NHLPA) is a sign that a suspension takes everyone down a road no one yet is willing to travel. Several sources have warned this is more complicated than meets the eye, which is why the Canucks are being patient.

15. Watch these two Quinn Hughes keep-ins at Philadelphia’s blue line during Friday’s Vancouver shootout win. Just great plays. The first one makes me think of Adam Oates and Garry Galley. Oates always talks about how hard it is to make that backhand stop on your weak side. Think of how hard that puck is coming at him. Galley said Ray Bourque practised that over-and-over again, the best Garry (who played 17 years) ever saw at it.

16. Several Rangers, including Chris Kreider right before the start of a period, made a point of tapping Jonathan Drouin’s shin pads (or talking to him) in support of his public commentary about anxiety and depression.

17. Good stat from Caroline Cameron (and stolen by Kevin Bieksa): John Gibson has 36 career penalty minutes — 14 on opening night. Took two minors Wednesday versus Winnipeg. Guy gets wired for those games; one was for roughing Pierre-Luc Dubois, who actually avoided him. (Gibson strikes me as one of those “personal space” people.) I’m convinced he saw Connor Hellebuyck at the other end, and said, “This is the guy I have to beat to start for Team USA in Beijing.”

18. The Ducks are 2-1 and could be a huge power broker as this season develops. Ryan Getzlaf, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Rickard Rakell all unrestricted. No sense extensions are close in any case. All good players who could help a team.

19. One thing you’ll see Hellebuyck correct: going down on his right knee but staying up on his left. That negatively affects his glove hand, and NHL shooters will expose that. It happened on Weatherby’s 2-2 goal in San Jose last Saturday.

20. I was surprised Johnny Gaudreau did not get a letter in Calgary. I know he’s an unrestricted free agent-to-be, but that’s not automatically disqualifying.

21. It’s ridiculous to say three games in, but the home opener Tuesday night feels huge for Chicago. Down 3-0 to Colorado nine minutes in, 1-0 to New Jersey on the first shot (although that’s a little misleading), 4-0 to Pittsburgh in 12 minutes. It’s not always fair, but coaches take the heat when teams don’t start on time. There’s also been concern about ticket sales. Nothing cures that more than winning.

22. Morgan Rielly’s free agency gets the attention in Toronto, but it won’t be long before attention swings to Jack Campbell. Cal Petersen’s three-year, $15M extension in Los Angeles raises the bar if Campbell continues to carry the load.

23. It’s only two games, but it bears watching: Anze Kopitar’s offensive-zone starting percentage is 64. Last four years, it was 48, 42, 48 and 46. As a team, the Kings have 46 offensive zone faceoffs, 37 neutral-zone and 31 defensive so far, so you expect the numbers to skew that direction. However, opponents watching them can see the plan, the Danault Effect. Per Natural Stat Trick, when Kopitar was on the ice last year, LA’s scoring-chance percentage was 48. If this continues, he’ll be well over it, good news for the Kings and bad news for the rest of the Pacific Division.

24. Dylan Larkin publicly accepted his one-game suspension, but was extremely upset that Jamie Benn’s hit from last year and Mathieu Joseph’s from last week went unpunished — while he was. (Larkin said he and Joseph exchanged text messages to sort it out.) If anything has showed how much hockey has changed, it’s the Larkin-Joseph incident. Larkin was suspended because Joseph would not have been expecting a punch. A generation ago, no way Joseph isn’t expecting one. There would be a full-out brawl.

25. It’s noticeable how teams like Anaheim, Detroit and San Jose are trying to build identity by standing up for each other. And if Canucks fans weren’t aware how much opponents hate Conor Garland, well, Filip Zadina made sure they know now.

26. Quote of the week: one friend asked that the next time I talk to the commissioner, I ask to “abolish the wind-up drop pass power play zone entry.”

27. In a perfect marriage of history and technology, 10 Gordie Howe NFTs are coming to market. The official announcement is scheduled for Thursday, with proceeds going to the Howe Foundation and the NHL Alumni. Mark Howe joked his son Travis (Gordie’s grandson) has tied him up for months on this project. The family hired a local artist from Detroit to do the work and tell the tales. One is the famous train story that led to Mr. Hockey getting number nine, another called “Hockey Dad” shows Gordie with sons Mark and Marty as members of the WHA’s Houston Aeros. Looking forward to seeing them.

28. For a second time, Mark Howe is retired. The Hall-of-Famer ended his playing career in 1995 and, after last season, retired as a scout. “I remember asking dad when I was still playing, ‘How do you know when it’s time?’” Howe said Monday. “He answered, ‘You’ll know.’ He was right. It hit me then and it hit me again.” Howe said he wants to spend more time with his partner, Sharon, recognizing that is more important to him now than work. “I’ve been compensated very fairly. I strongly believe in Steve Yzerman and his plan. Steve is the hardest-working guy I’ve seen. He demands the same of others and he should. But I wasn’t just tired, I was burned out. It is time.” Howe went out of his way to praise the Red Wings and the Ilitch family. “They were great to me, and us. To share my father with the rest of the world when he passed made a difficult time very nice.”

29. I really enjoyed the conversation with Howe. Two more topics from it. First, his memories. There are so many. “Seven years playing with dad, six on his line,” was first out of his mouth. The 1979 WHA All-Star event was actually a three-game exhibition against Moscow Dynamo in Edmonton. “On a line with dad and Wayne Gretzky, who wouldn’t pay $1M to do that for three days? I wanted to get out of the pictures, because I thought I was ruining them. I’d never have left Philadelphia if we won a Stanley Cup, but I wanted to chase it. We called four teams — the Rangers, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Pittsburgh was my number one choice, but they never called back. Detroit was second, and I’m very lucky on that.”

30. Finally, we talked scouting. Howe had an excellent reputation. Typical of someone with high standards, when I asked about his biggest “hit” as a scout, he said he thinks more about the ones he missed. One example: Brenden Morrow. Howe saw him in Kalamazoo of the old IHL and the nine-game stretch didn’t grab him. Obviously, Morrow became a heck of a player. Howe did say he “always fought hard to maintain a good room. Detroit had one, and it was very important to me.” His personal rules: “I never went to a game without finishing my reports from the previous game. Even if it was a doubleheader, I skipped dinner to finish. Never get behind.” Also: “Always take fresh fruit.” He had his own set of abbreviations and changed them from time-to-time so no one could figure them out. “’S’ was I like his skating, or a good skater. You could also get an ’s-plus’ or an ’s-minus.’” He laughs. “Connor McDavid is an ‘SS.’”

31. Wanted to send the best to AHL Henderson head coach Manny Viveiros, who has taken a non-COVID medical leave of absence from the Silver Knights. His intel on other teams while coaching Austria at the 2014 Sochi Olympics helped me get through those games.

32. The first time I met Rod Black was when the Raptors announced the team name. He hosted the media conference. That was a big deal, and a coup to be the face of it. The thing I noticed most about him is the way he treated people in the field. His star was — and is — higher than mine, but he didn’t act like it. Friendly, listened to what you had to say in conversation. At one of the Canadian Opens Tiger Woods played, a few of us followed Woods on a practice round. It was clear he preferred us to watch only a few holes each, but didn’t mind Rod sticking around a little longer. Looking forward to his next move.

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