32 Thoughts: The state of the RFA market as training camps open

Elliotte Friedman explains why the Toronto Maple Leafs are the Canadian team under the most pressure this season.

• What’s next for Jack Eichel and the Sabres?
• Marner, Matthews know 2021-22 season has sense of urgency
• Is there reason for Panthers fans to be concerned about Aleksander Barkov‘s contract situation?

Of all the pre-Hockey Night in Canada assignments I miss, Spring Training is right at the top. Escape from the February blahs, fantastic weather, everyone in a good mood, the players don’t hate the media — yet. Everyone relaxed, tremendous vibe.

The pre-season NHL/NHLPA media tour is similar. Between the Canadian event (Toronto) and the American one (Chicago), we did 38 interviews last week. So great to have actual face-to-face interaction with the people we cover. I’m really excited for the season; can’t wait to get to work.

Same goes for the players. God knows where the next 10 months will take us, but they’re excited about the possibilities of full arenas, screaming fans and facing more than just seven opponents all season.

“When you’re at home, (fans) are driving you to play better,” Drew Doughty said last week. “When you score a goal, you feel the goosebumps. We haven’t had the goosebumps in a long time without the fans there.”

Then, a smile came across his face.

“Nothing better than getting booed by the entire crowd in a road city. Then you score and make them all quiet…that’s a good, good feeling. I miss the fans so much.”

“Fans, it makes such a huge difference,” added Ottawa’s Tim Stutzle. “That’s what we all play for.”

Stutzle passionately talked about getting the opportunity to play against the Sidney Crosbys, the Alex Ovechkins, the Nate MacKinnons, the Cale Makars. He’s not alone.

“I think everybody’s excited to play every team again,” said Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele.

A new season is always about optimism. According to multiple sources, the league and teams are hopeful revenues can make a meaningful recovery. The last 82-gamer (2018-19) saw the number hit $5.09B. Not sure that’s realistic, but spurred by the ESPN/Turner television deals, somewhere in the fours is not unreachable. Not every team has great ticket numbers, but many who agreed to discuss it feel their fans can’t wait to get back in the building.

However, no one controls the coronavirus, and as one governor said this week, “It could give us a bumpy ride.”

On the 32 Thoughts podcast, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said he was recently asked, “Putting COVID aside, what is your biggest challenge?”

“You can’t put COVID aside,” he responded. “COVID defines everything we do and everything we’re going to do, unfortunately.”

The NHL can’t control how various governments will respond to potential outbreaks; what that could mean for attendance in a gate-driven league. That’s why — in conjunction with the players’ association — it took a very hard line on protocols for non-vaccinated individuals. Your best chance for success comes from taking the most possible precautions.

Columbus and San Jose had to find new assistant coaches, and the Blue Jackets uninvited Zac Rinaldo from their main camp. The Islanders revealed one unvaccinated player will not be allowed to join them. Russia/Eastern Europe was tricky in some situations because of non-NHL approved vaccines. Daly estimated 98 per cent of players will be vaccinated by opening night.

Hockey can’t escape the same issues affecting the real world. There were very hard, intense conversations between a few players, agents and their teams, especially after the protocols were confirmed.

There are players who did not want to get vaccinated, but eventually did so because they want to play, didn’t want to risk their salaries and were reminded their teams are depending on them — especially if the organization stuck out its neck to sign or acquire you. Not getting your shot(s) could put their clubs at a competitive disadvantage under current league and government rules. That absolutely resonated with some of the final converts.

So here we are. Another training camp. Knock on wood: a full, 32-team, 82-game season. Eight pre-season games on Sportsnet, starting with Montreal/Toronto on Saturday. Let’s go, already. My family is sick of me.

32 THOUGHTS

1. I know there’s a craving for Jack Eichel information. One longtime executive said this week “this is the most complicated situation I’ve seen” during his professional existence. (He’s not involved, but, obviously, everyone’s talking about it.) This is what I’m expecting over the next few days: Eichel comes to camp, but does not pass his physical and is not cleared to play. I also think there’s a very good chance Buffalo removes his captaincy. What I don’t know is if they’ve settled the medical path.

I heard there were some trade talks a couple of weeks ago, but I think people want to see what the doctors say. As you can expect, there is a ton of frustration. Eichel was hoping to be recovered from disc surgery by now, and, another player said not to underestimate what playing in the Olympics would mean to him. But the Sabres are unhappy too, with the promise of the “Eichel era” completely dissipated and hard feelings about how things fell apart. Really a shame for everyone involved.

2. At the media tour, Dylan Cozens was Buffalo’s representative. Asked about Eichel’s situation, he replied, “It’s not our jobs to worry about that.” When all the news was bad at the end of last season, Cozens took it upon himself to send a positive message during his goodbye media conference. “It’s been a tough decade for Sabres fans,” he said last week. “I just wanted to bring some positivity to them. Let them know that we do have a really bright future here, that we’re not going to let this keep going.” The Sabres desperately need someone to bring that vibe.

3. Four restricted free agents to watch now that Kirill Kaprizov and Rob Thomas are signed: Rasmus Dahlin, Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson and Brady Tkachuk. No issues with the Kaprizov deal here. When you’ve got a cornerstone player, you sign them for as long as you can. The Wild offered him eight years, but he wasn’t willing to do it. They pushed for five, held firm and got it done. This is a financial bet you’re confident to make.

4. At times, the Kaprizov negotiations were tense, but that’s a feature, not a bug. It happens. I’m not one who freaks out when players are unsigned before training camp. Teams and coaches don’t like that — perfectly understandable — but players take good care of themselves and work hard to be ready for the start of the season. The true pressure point is regular-season games, still three weeks away. When you worry is hearing players want out.

Things can change at any time, but I’m not hearing that in any of these cases. (Actually, I heard it in one, but it was denied very forcefully.) Matthew Tkachuk set Ottawa aflame with a twinkle in his eye, but took pains to point out Brady loves it there. Jack Hughes defended criticism of Quinn’s play, but made sure to mention his brother loves it in Vancouver.

5. So what are we looking at? This is what I can piece together. In Ottawa, they’ve talked long-term with Tkachuk and we’ll see if short-term is necessary to get it done. I’m not sure they are far apart in actual dollars, but structure, with the Senators not being a team that gives much in bonuses. I’m also wondering if another skirmish is over no-trade or no-move protection at the end of a long-term deal.

6. In Vancouver, both team and Hughes/Pettersson have been grinding hard on almost a daily basis. Sounds like there’s a bit of a stalemate in both cases, and Pettersson joined his teammate in Michigan. It’s believed the Canucks are currently thinking short term in both cases, but Kaprizov’s deal makes me wonder if the true solution is Mikko Rantanen’s six-year, $9.25M contract that would buy the Canucks two years of free agency. (See above rule: sign cornerstones for as long as you can.) There’s been pushback to rumours the team might move a player to open room, especially since Tyler Motte is injured. I can understand why the Canucks wouldn’t be crazy about that right now.

7. The rumours on Dahlin have been all over the map. Several months ago, I heard things started very well. Then I heard Buffalo wanted short term not because of anything Dahlin did (or didn’t do), but because of overall frustration and desire not to commit long. Now the defence market has exploded. It’s possible Dahlin, Hughes and their representatives are watching to see who goes first.

8. It was quiet on Thomas before he signed. I think St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong told teams he wasn’t interested in trading the player, because there definitely are admirers.

9. Word is that Johnny Gaudreau will say at his first media availability that he will not answer questions about his contract status now that training camp has started. GM Brad Treliving told Sportsnet’s Eric Francis this week the team won’t be providing updates, either. Gaudreau is an unrestricted free agent in July. No distractions.

10. Nathan MacKinnon confirmed a good little rumour — that Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid skated as linemates at a Montreal camp; some pre-Olympic practice. MacKinnon half-joked he didn’t like it, because they won every game. “Way to keep it fair,” he laughed. The Avalanche forward, by the way, spent a lot of time on a line with Mitch Marner.

11. Marner and Auston Matthews were scheduled to spend a week practising together in Arizona, but that was ruined by the centre’s wrist surgery. They did send each other video clips with ideas on how to “be better in small areas,” according to Marner. A few Maple Leafs have said the organization’s made it clear there’s a sense of urgency, that unless there’s some post-season success there will be changes. Matthews said the playoff defeat weighed on him for a few weeks.

“It was hard not to look back,” he said. “(But) there’s nothing that I or we can do to change that, unfortunately.”

He’s got an assassin’s mentality to him, I don’t think he worries too much what others think. The team has asked Marner to gravitate in that direction, not let what others say affect him so much. There’s a very fine line between using it to properly motivate you (there will be examples from Doughty and Steven Stamkos later in this blog) and letting it smother you. “I’m trying to block out that noise,” the winger said. Added MacKinnon, who is a big fan: “I said some words (to Marner) I probably shouldn’t say here…From the outside I think, he just can’t care” what is said about him.

12. Sportsnet deserter Sid Seixeiro tweeted he was spellbound by Amazon’s All or Nothing series on the Maple Leafs, due Oct. 1. I’ve also heard great things. There were also some battles on what could and couldn’t stay in. The agent, Lewis Gross, would not discuss it, but William Nylander’s representatives were unhappy with how he was portrayed at certain points and fought to have those removed.

13. Shea Weber is on Montreal’s training-camp roster, but all eyes will be on his physical. Several Canadiens did not like that Weber was even questioned about his body’s condition, since they see up-close what he goes through to play.

14. Tyler Toffoli will return to Los Angeles for the first time since his 2020 trade. That means a video. “My dad said I’m going to cry,” he laughed. “I said, ‘I’ll bet you $100.’”

15. Columbus locked up Elvis Merzlikins at five years and a $5.4M AAV on Tuesday. Good week for the Blue Jackets, who saw top prospects Yegor Chinakhov and Cole Sillinger shine at the Traverse City prospects tournament. After a very challenging year, they are focussed on re-establishing a steady environment. Locking up Merzlikins is big, but the most critical move was Zach Werenski. Just don’t dare call it a rebuild anywhere near him.

“I don’t want to hear that word around the locker room or around the rink,” he said. “I have high expectations for our group. If you don’t go into a season with high expectations, then you shouldn’t be playing.”

As for re-signing, Werenski said once he decompressed from the season, it wasn’t a difficult decision. “I just wanted to sit back and have everything in front of me before I made a decision. I didn’t think elsewhere, I didn’t think about anything…I just wanted to see what the plan was, who the coach was going to be. Once I saw the plan, I was all in on it.”

16. Werenski signed his six-year, $57.5M extension days after former teammate Seth Jones verbally agreed to an eight-year, $76M deal with Chicago.

One of the things we discussed with Jones was how he raised the bar for other blueliners with his new contract. He took real pride in that, while recognizing the limitations of a cap system — he’s always had a good understanding of sports business, for obvious family reasons. He’s very excited about Chicago, especially playing with brother Caleb, but we did ask him if he ever thought he was going anywhere else. He answered there was a “one-year thing” discussed. Colorado? He tried to avoid confirmation, but under significant and brutal cross-examination, basically admitted it. That situation “had a great chance to win it,” he said. “In my heart I wanted to be somewhere that I was going to be the rest of my career.”

17. We did talk about Columbus for a few minutes. Jeff Marek asked him about the rumours politics caused a rift and Jones looked stunned.

“That’s what you guys heard? Wow,” he replied. “It wasn’t that, I can tell you that. I don’t think anything happened, it was just a bad year. Nothing clicked. No one could get on the same page with the style we wanted to play. The season of drama. (Pierre-Luc) Dubois trade (was) not supposed to happen until the end of the year from what I was hearing…once that happens, it’s kinda tough to bring it back. We had new guys come on, it just didn’t seem to work.”

A few days earlier, Dubois said he doesn’t know if he will ever reveal why he asked for a trade: “Sometimes saying less is better.” Dubois pointed out that the Blue Jackets were the ones who drafted him and believed in him, so he’s not convinced it’s the proper thing to do. “We didn’t think anybody on the outside needed to know. (It was a) hard part in my life, I went through it and I’m still alive,” he said.

18. Dubois said he skated a lot more than he usually does in the summer, as he readies to erase a lost 2020-21. “I didn’t have a great off-season (in 2020),” he said. With opportunities limited in Montreal due to shutdowns, he stayed in Columbus only to have an outbreak interfere with his conditioning there. “I knew my game wasn’t where I wanted it to be, but physically I wasn’t where I wanted to be either. Usually I can rely on that. Usually I can say, win your battles, do these things physically and the rest will follow. It’s not just hitting, it’s protecting the puck, it’s being down low…winning those battles. To not feel your body is where it should be, it’s never a good sign.”

Then came the trade and Canadian quarantine. He never caught up. Interestingly, he watched video of players who do an excellent job of protecting the puck, naming Leon Draisaitl, Anze Kopitar, Aleksander Barkov, Sebastian Aho and Artemi Panarin. “He’s not that big, but he’s the best puck-protecting guy I’ve played with and against.”

19. Can’t pin down an exact date for when the investigation into Evander Kane will be released, but it’s expected to be this week. He told ESPN’s Linda Cohn that he believes he will be cleared of accusations that he bet on hockey and against the Sharks, denying both scenarios. Kane also shrugged off reports teammates were unhappy with him. Tomas Hertl, one of the NHL’s friendliest players, politely declined to discuss this issue, saying, “I don’t want to get deep into that yet…First thing, everybody has to discuss it in the locker room.” He added that he wanted to respect that Kane is “not in an easy situation.” I include that because it was one of the complicating factors in everything that happened with Kane and the Sharks last season. Kane, as he admitted to Cohn, was getting help for his gambling addiction and the organization was committed to being supportive of that.

20. I don’t think Edmonton is done in goal. That storyline sticks around for a while. Mike Smith will be there, but what happens around him?

21. We’ve talked before about Aleksander Barkov’s tennis skill. Rumour has it no one aside from head coach Joel Quenneville will play him. When was the last time you lost a match? “I lost some doubles matches this summer,” he replied. That doesn’t count. What about singles? Suffice it to say it’s been a while. We tried to pry into his contract status, but Barkov wasn’t giving much. (He can be an unrestricted free agent next summer.) Is there any reason for Panthers fans to worry? “I hope not,” he said with a smile. We’ll see, but it doesn’t sound like this is a five-alarm blaze.

22. Jakob Chychrun tweeted a sad emoji after Christian Dvorak’s trade to Montreal. He threw cold water that it meant anything deep about his future. “No not at all. I absolutely love playing in Arizona. I call it home…That Dvorak trade was tough for me.” They lived together last year, Chychrun called the departed centre his “best buddy” on the team. “It’s part of the game, I understand it.”

23. Drew Doughty is disputing the famous 2010 Olympic Gold Medal story told by ex-teammate Mike Richards on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast. Richards revealed Doughty slept in and arrived at the arena way later than necessary for the victory over the United States, atoning with a brilliant performance. Last week, Doughty said that version of events is untrue.

“I was not late for the bus, actually. The bus left without me. We have to clarify that. I’m going to get the guy that was controlling the buses to clarify this because everyone thinks I was late, but I was not late.” Doughty said he always took the first bus to the game, but didn’t prior to the last one because he was shipping his gear back to Los Angeles instead of taking it on an upcoming road trip. He planned on taking the second bus instead. “They thought I was on the first bus, so the (second) left without me.”

He couldn’t just hop in a cab, so he took a shuttle as close as he could to the arena.

“The lineup to go through the metal detector is like 500 people. And all the people in line (are saying), ‘Drew Doughty? You’ve got a game in like an hour and 45 minutes, what are you doing?’ And I’m like, ‘Can I please bud you guys?’” Doughty texted Fleury, not dressed as the third goalie, to get his gitch ready, while the bus driver snuck him in. “One minute after I walked in, the coach’s meeting begins. The only people that knew are Mike Richards, Fleury and this bus guy. I didn’t even tell my parents!” Listen to the upcoming podcast to get full value on this one. It’s so worth it.

24. Over the last few months, Doughty “worked my butt off to get in the best shape I could. I’m excited for this season to start.” He was very happy with the Kings’ summer after pressing the organization to push forward. “It wasn’t just me, (Kopitar was) thinking the same thing but he’s not going to say it. He’s reserved, unlike me, I kind of just talk. But everyone was thinking it. Who wouldn’t be thinking it? We’re not getting any younger. It was in their plan anyways, it wasn’t because I said anything.” He made it very clear he “took a lot of blame for himself” about the Kings’ recent struggles.

As he has mentioned several times, Doughty is highly motivated to play for Team Canada, notices when he’s left off Olympic projections and, as he says, “could win 10 Cups and I’d still want more.”

25. Speaking of motivated, do not think the Lightning are satisfied. Captain Steven Stamkos said Tampa was just as hungry last season as they were in winning this core’s first Stanley Cup in 2020.

“(We still had) that burn because there were people saying it was in the bubble, there was this, there was that and I think that pissed some guys off a little bit.” He added they “didn’t care where we finished in the standings,” simply worried about getting back into the post-season because they knew they were good and had an edge. “Even up 3-0 versus Montreal, there’s still that little fear in your head that propels you,” Stamkos said. “We were genuinely pissed we lost that game…(it was) eerily silent in the room after that game.”

This will be an even bigger challenge without the Blake Coleman-Barclay Goodrow-Yanni Gourde line.

“We are absolutely going to miss that line, no doubt,” he replied. “A huge part of our success. But with (Andrei) Vasilevskiy, we have a chance.” Then he pointed out who is back and who they added. On Corey Perry: “As soon as free agency opened up, we wanted him. In our room, we thought he was (Montreal’s) best forward…Why can’t we do it again?”

26. Stamkos agreed with what others have said about him: that winning a championship (and now two of them) has brought him a new level of zen. There was a rumour during last year’s playoff that he was considering retiring, since his body’s taken significant punishment. But he said not true: “No, not even close. Never, never ever have I thought about retiring.”

27. Tim Stutzle said he carpooled to practice with Josh Norris and Tkachuk last year, and they are scheduled to do the same again this season. Which one is the worst driver? “It’s me in Canada, that’s for sure,” the German forward admitted. “I’m not used to driving so slow.”

28. Jason Robertson won Dallas’s 2020 Fantasy Football league, mainly because Ben Bishop traded him Stefon Diggs for Todd Gurley. That’s malpractice.

29. Saw Darnell Nurse give an excellent talk to some of Anthony Stewart’s young prospects. He recommended The Mindful Athlete to them, which was suggested to him by Jujhar Khaira.

30. Sounds like the NHL has an early January deadline to avoid financial penalty if it needs to back away from the Olympics.

31. Some of the biggest free agency news this season might be in the executive offices. Two-time Stanley Cup champion Julien BriseBois and last year’s finalist, Marc Bergevin, are both unsigned for 2022-23. (St. Louis’s Doug Armstrong has a club option for next year.) Lightning owner Jeff Vinik told The Athletic’s Joe Smith there are “tremendous odds we’ll extend his contract.” Bergevin’s negotiations have been discussed for some time, with one of the biggest questions being his own desire to continue in that stressful seat. Since he signed his last contract, he’s been surpassed in the salary department by others who may not have his experience — or now, a conference championship. Does that now add another wrinkle?

32. Tough summer. Said goodbye to some great people moving on to other things.

Craig Battle edited this blog for years. It’s not easy. I send it in parts, re-write on the fly, things change, it’s a mess. I’m convinced that drove him out of Sportsnet entirely, but he laughed and said it isn’t true. Thank you, Craig. Writers are useless without good editors, and he saved me many times.

Many of you wouldn’t know Rhonda Kirkpatrick, a long-time associate director on the show. Didn’t say a lot, but trusted by her peers. Command of her role. Legitimately played hurt last summer in the Edmonton bubble. No excuses, do what you’re supposed to do.

Jim Hughson called his own shot, and we’re very happy for him. The high standard he had for himself, the preparation. Everyone has their own memory of him, my favourites were away from the show. He loves a good concert, and I can’t tell you how many times he’d know about a great show on the road that I would have missed if he wasn’t there. I have great admiration for how he handled the past year and the choice he made.

Chris Johnston is now at The Toronto Star, and his media empire will continue to grow. I’m going to miss weekly crypto updates, Blue Jays opinions and reaching out to him to say, “You have a good source here, can you check something for me?” knowing this great teammate would nail down the news. The 2020s will be The Decade of Johnston.

Then there’s producer Sherali Najak. Seventeen years ago, he played a major role in my hiring. No one is universally liked, but he’s close. People both in-front-of and behind the scenes would run through fire while drinking gasoline for him. We had great times and we battled, occasionally. But he always had everyone’s best interests at heart. He loved to play practical jokes, and I fell victim to one bad one that’s on tape somewhere. I take all this back if it ever ends up in public.

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