32 Thoughts: As the noise of Kent Hughes’ hiring subsides, the real work begins

Faizal Khamisa and Eric Engels discuss the Canadiens hiring of former player agent Kent Hughes as general manager, what he brings to Montreal and how they think he’ll work with VP of hockey ops, Jeff Gorton.

• The Canadiens found their GM. How close are the Canucks to finding theirs?
• What is the latest on the Evander Kane investigation?
• Amid the Oilers’ struggles, is the front office looking at acquiring a goalie?

Kent and Ryan Hughes grew up on the West Island of Montreal. Ryan played for the Canadian National Team, went to Cornell and was drafted 22nd overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1990. Kent played at Middlebury College before becoming a successful player agent.

Both taught at Phil Stock’s hockey school, a few years older than another instructor, Phil’s son PJ.

“There were a lot of kids who grew up on the West Island who wanted to be like them,” PJ Stock said on Tuesday, before pausing and laughing.

“When Kent played, he didn’t have the size and speed many did. So he needed to find other ways to to beat you. He would outthink you, he would outwork you, and if he had to, he’d spear you in the spleen.”

Quebec’s unique dynamics mean Hughes immediately starts with his stick up, preparing for his introductory media conference on Wednesday. There was a social media referendum the moment the Canadiens announced his hiring. He may be a Montrealer, and he may speak French very well, but that won’t be enough for some.

That’s life. Everyone’s got an opinion, and most of us splash those opinions all over social media. You can’t escape it. I understand the sensitivities, but what you can do is not let meaningless muttering distract your agenda.

Days after Gorton was hired, a couple of sources suggested the GM job was Hughes’ if he wanted. The two discussed it back then, but the circumstances didn’t work. What that conversation did was buy Hughes time. Time to think, time to figure out an exit from his agency, Quartexx. (As a couple of agents explained to me, those departures are complicated.)

Undoubtedly, the biggest question Hughes had to answer: was he ready, at 51, for a life-altering decision? You don’t go from being an agent, to being a GM, and back to an agent again somewhere down the road. Once you’re gone, you’re gone.

Obviously, the answer was yes.

So, here are the next questions I’m curious about:

• What other hires are to come? In particular, what is future of the amateur scouting department, as the upcoming draft is a crucial start to the rebuild?

• Who, exactly, is untouchable on the roster?

• Have there been — or will there be — conversations with the core of this team about their desire to stay or go?

Tuesday was noise. Wednesday the real work begins.

The Jeff Marek Show
Marek & Friedman: The 411 on Kent Hughes
January 18 2022

32 Thoughts

1. Other front-office situations: There are still interviews to be done in Vancouver. Getting mixed messages on whether or not Patrik Allvin is the frontrunner. There is intel that it may not be him. It’s disinformation season. It’s also believed current director of player development Ryan Johnson is due for an increased role.

2. In Anaheim, there is a list of 10-12 candidates. I don’t get the sense there’s a rush. It gives the internals — Martin Madden, Dave Nonis and interim GM Jeff Solomon — the potential to pilot the ship through the trade deadline. That would seem a big advantage. I think Colorado assistant Chris MacFarland is one they’d like to talk to.

3. Chicago is bracing for change even if Kyle Davidson stays. There is expected to be staff turnover.

4. The NHL interviewed Evander Kane last Friday as part of its investigation into his flight to Vancouver. Still no clear timeline on a ruling.

5. Elsewhere, I think Edmonton’s looking harder at acquiring a goalie. Remember: Jaroslav Halak has control in Vancouver and doesn’t seem inclined to move.

6. The Oilers are changing course on this issue because missing the playoffs is not an option and the frustration is boiling over. Scouting meetings are in California this week, so owner Daryl Katz can be heard first-hand.

I don’t get too riled up about the Jim Matheson-Leon Draisaitl skirmish. It happens, particularly when teams are losing. I’ve been on the receiving end; try to roll my eyes and move on.

The added challenge now is, with restricted access due to Covid, there’s no opportunity for a media member and a player to privately sort things out. Only adds to the disconnect.

What I would be concerned about from an Oilers point-of-view is the open frustration from Connor McDavid, Draisaitl, Zack Kassian and others. It’s multiple people over multiple days. That’s really bad; only wins stop an avalanche of negativity.

7. This thought could go really badly, but it’s relevant. One player wondered if that reporter-player exchange doesn’t happen south of the border, simply because NHLers feel life is a little less stressful there.

8. More optimistic for Edmonton: the Oilers’ five-on-five shooting percentage is 7.7 per cent with McDavid on the ice (per Natural Stat Trick). That’s the worst number of his career. Second-worst is 10 per cent in (2017-18). (Best is 11.2 in each of the past two seasons.) It’s a difference of 13 goals from last year’s to this year. You have to think (hope!) it tracks back to where is normal.

9. Last week, mentioned that Carolina and Colorado will be in every trade rumour. I’d like to add Florida — for a defenceman. (There are teams who suspect they are in on Jakob Chychrun). It’s an all-in year for the Panthers. They’re really good and one more defender would be perfect for them.

10. Stealth add: Rangers. The East and West are completely different. The West will have a playoff dogfight, particularly in the Pacific and wildcard. Meanwhile, as improved as Detroit is, it will take a massive collapse for any of the eight current post-season teams not to make it. New York is in and Chris Drury keeps quiet, but I could see them taking a surprise swing.

11. Toronto isn’t against clearing space to prepare for a deadline add.

12. Several teams and agents have indicated that, if they know their unrestricted free agents aren’t being moved, there’s no point in rushing extension talks until there’s a better idea of what this month’s Canadian attendance caps do to the previously expected $1-million cap increase. Every cent matters.

13. Dallas has increased efforts to move John Klingberg. In the minds of everyone involved, it’s time.

14. Another unrestricted defender to watch is Philadelphia’s Rasmus Ristolainen. There was a time this was headed in the direction of the player testing the market. We will see if it changes.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

15. Purely my opinion, but I’m wondering about Patrik Laine. He needs a new contract next season before unrestricted free agency beckons. He’s shown he’s not afraid to play for his qualifying offer (did that this year). It comes down to Columbus. Do the Blue Jackets feel it is the best use of their resources — not only now, but down the road — to extend him at a big number and term?

16. The lack of cap space will be the biggest impediment to making trades. So many teams are so tight, or in long-term injury. Arizona is using two of three retained-salary slots (Darcy Kuemper and Oliver Ekman-Larsson), so the Coyotes can only do one more. Other teams with space (Buffalo, Columbus, Detroit, Ottawa) could be kingmakers here.

17. A lot of people equate toughness with throwing punches. I equate it with grinding every day, determined to do what you have to do. Last Thursday night, Connor Brown broke his jaw in warmup of Ottawa’s 4-1 win in Calgary — although he didn’t realize it until the next day. In that game, he had one goal, one assist, five shot attempts and, according to analytics genius Corey Sznajder, 10 zone entries, five of which led to scoring chances. That’s tough.

18. Calgary absolutely needed that 5-1 win over Florida on Tuesday night. That defeat was the first time in 10 games the Panthers trailed by at least two goals, going all the way back to a 4-1 loss to Los Angeles on Dec. 16. They hadn’t trailed at all since Jan. 6 in Dallas, outscoring Carolina, Vancouver, the Stars (at home this time) and Columbus by a combined 25-8.

19. We could see the updated non-Olympic schedule as soon as Wednesday. The All-Star Game is Saturday afternoon, Feb. 5. There will be teams playing the following Monday.

20. Love blunt Nathan MacKinnon. The more the better. He got his wish of Nazem Kadri in the All-Star game, after saying he didn’t think every team should have someone there, “(It’s) not a participation game.” This argument comes up almost every year, privately if not publicly, but the league holds firm. It feels very strongly every market must be represented. Unlikely that changes with Commissioner Gary Bettman in charge.

21. One (welcome) change for this year’s event: that players not named to the game itself will be able to compete in the skills event.

Call it the “Zegras rule.” He’s the type of confident, talented young player everyone rushes to promote, but circumstances lined up against him. Calgary wants Jacob Markstrom to rest, and he’s been battling an injury. So the Pacific needed a goalie to pair with Thatcher Demko, and John Gibson makes a lot of sense. For Last Man In, the Ducks wanted a deserving Troy Terry nominated. That punted Zegras, until the league resuscitated the breakaway challenge. He will be brought to Vegas to compete in it.

That’s a great idea. Get your most talented players to the event. Even if they don’t play in the game itself, put them on television, kiss babies, whatever. Just have them there. You could do that with veterans, too. An older star prefers not to play? Okay, but come. Eat some lobster, talk to the media, play some craps, go home. Zegras could possibly end up as an injury replacement for the game itself, if needed.

22. In that vein, hope Zdeno Chara says yes to hardest shot. Will this event even exist in five years? We want to see those bombs while we still can, Big Z.

23. As per Jeff Marek, the fastest skater competition will be between McDavid, MacKinnon, Kyle Connor, Adrian Kempe, Chris Kreider, Jordan Kyrou, Dylan Larkin and Cale Makar. Pretty, pretty, pretty good.

24. I do think some players are still mad about the Olympics and made it clear they didn’t want to go to Vegas.

25. Taxi squads are scheduled to end at the All-Star Break, and, at this time, that’s the plan. The NFL reduced testing for vaccinated, asymptomatic players on Dec. 19 and the NHL is scheduled to follow after All-Star weekend. As long as rates continue to decline, the league and NHLPA will meet on Jan. 31 to ease protocols. If that happens, a league memo states, “There will be a single test upon re-entry to club facilities post-All-Star, after which there will no longer be asymptomatic testing, or testing of fully vaccinated close contacts.”

At that point, testing will be held for vaccinated players and/or staff who develop symptoms or need it to cross the border.

26. In the memo, the NHL indicated approximately 73 per cent of players have tested positive — 60 per cent in the last five weeks.

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27. Two final notes about the Bob Clarke interview that sent shockwaves through the sport. First, I had a few people who reached out and said that if anyone deserves an apology, it is Nolan Patrick. “He’s trying to get his career going, and he was thrown into a controversy he didn’t deserve,” one exec said. “He didn’t need that brought up again.”

28. Second, another scout reached out to say that he didn’t always agree with Ron Hextall’s level of secrecy, but did point out that, as a former player, Hextall is incredibly sensitive to names being leaked in trade rumours. Hextall has seen the effects in-person, and tries to protect against it.

29. Last Friday, Colorado beat Arizona 4-3 in a shootout. If the Coyotes had won, they would have been the biggest underdog to emerge victorious in an NHL game since at least 2005-06. (Thank you to Evan Abrams, Action Network’s head of research.)

30. Tuesday was a big day for the Premier Hockey Federation, which announced a Board of Governors’ commitment of more than $25 million over the next three years. That means each team’s salary cap leaping from $300,000 to $750,000, and adding two expansion franchises next season. One will be in Montreal, the other in an as-yet-to-be announced American city.

This is going to be an intriguing time for women’s hockey. At the end of this Olympic cycle, some players are expected to consider front-office jobs with different NHL teams while others will look to extend their careers. The PHF’s announcement was widely celebrated on social media, and to make sure the target audience was reached, several non-PHF players received direct messages with the news. There was mixed reaction to that, to say the least.

31. Boston and the NHL had a unique challenge with Willie O’Ree’s jersey retirement event since he couldn’t be there in-person, but rose to the challenge with an excellent ceremony. O’Ree’s speech was tremendous.

Earlier in the day, The Carnegie Initiative held its first-ever summit. Named for Jean Beliveau’s Quebec Aces teammate, Herb Carnegie, it is co-founded by his daughter, Bernice, and Bryant McBride.

Back in the 1990s, there was no real relationship between the NHL and O’Ree. McBride tracked him down in San Diego, and began the process of changing that — to everyone’s benefit. Shouldn’t be forgotten.

32. Question of the week: one friend reached out to ask, “Are you refereeing a game tomorrow night?” I didn’t understand this line of questioning. He replied, “If Tim Peel is breaking stories on Twitter, I figure you can referee games.”

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