• With Staal moving to Buffalo, is Dumba next on the block?
• Canucks looking to overhaul blue line
• Dubas has received interest on Andersen
If every GM were Bill Guerin or Jim Rutherford, our lives would never be boring.
Rutherford’s way is simple: I know what I want, and once I get it, I’m making the move. Meanwhile, Guerin’s boldness and confidence have transferred from the ice to the office. It doesn’t hurt that he was Rutherford’s understudy in Pittsburgh, re-inforcing this philosophy.
“We’re trying to build a better team, and sometimes you have to take some drastic measures,” Guerin said. “If I don’t make moves, nothing will happen. We’ll just stay the same, and that’s not the idea.”
It is not a secret that the Wild are looking to acquire a first- or second-line centre, which added to the surprise level of moving Staal. But a couple of other executives said the above quote is definitely not fiction — that Guerin has made it clear he wants to toss a grenade into what is too comfortable a room.
No one on that roster should feel comfortable, unless they have full protection. If Staal can go, anyone can.
Johansson will get a chance to play in the middle, although reviews from his previous attempts are mixed. (Minnesota coach Dean Evason knows the player well from their days in Washington. Guerin said Evason endorsed the idea.) On his post-trade media call, Guerin was asked he would still prioritize the middle. He answered No. 1 centres are hard to get, and he was prepared to attack things committee-style if he couldn’t add anyone.
His current crop includes Johansson, Joel Eriksson Ek, Nick Bjugstad, Ryan Donato, Nico Sturm and Victor Rask. It was interesting that Guerin specifically mentioned Rask as someone who needs to play. To me, that’s smart. It’s always better to try to fix your problem rather than accept a loss on it.
But it also tells me he’s going to continue trying. Which brings us to Matt Dumba.
Last season, when the Wild started poorly, Dumba’s name got out there. So did Jonas Brodin’s. Guerin made one thing very clear: He had a specific price, and nothing was going to happen until he got it. Brodin’s now extended and isn’t going anywhere. Dumba is a good player signed to a good contract. Of course there’s interest, especially since there’s a Seattle expansion situation that will, eventually, force the Wild to make difficult decisions.
Guerin was asked if he had reached out to Dumba after the Brodin contract was announced. The answer was no.
“I know the business well enough from a player side, and I wouldn’t want to make an empty promise. I don’t have to rush,” Guerin said. “We can play all year with him. We like Matt Dumba. He’s a heck of a player. He’s a great kid. We’re very happy with him, and we think our top four will go up against anybody. I’m confident in that.”
The most obvious interest (to me, anyways) would come from Winnipeg. The Jets are screaming for a right-shot defender. He fits their mold: cost-controlled with term. But barring the involvement of another team, they can’t do it for a centre. Would Minnesota be tempted by a skilled winger, instead? Same with Vancouver. Dumba fits the idea of what the Canucks are looking for, but, again, a centre in return would not be an option and I’m not convinced they want to do a Brock Boeser deal. Calgary could do it. When Paul Fenton was Minnesota’s GM, he pursued William Nylander hard (this was before Nylander signed), but the Maple Leafs weren’t inclined to do it then, and I’m not convinced that’s changed.
Guerin’s been steadfast and patient. Everyone knows what he wants. Now the expansion clock is ticking. The antes are in the middle and the poker game is under way.
1. It was a smart move by Buffalo, although Staal, who is building a retirement home in Minnesota, was completely caught by surprise — and disappointed he found out when his phone blew up. (In case anyone was worried he wouldn’t report, I’m told that’s not happening — he’s going to play.) The Sabres were not on his 10-team no-trade list, I think, because he didn’t expect them to be a pursuer. Staal turned down multiple trade ideas in the past two seasons (Boston was one), all from contenders. Buffalo didn’t fit the mold of teams eying him, but he’s exactly what the Sabres need. A No. 2 centre and some support for Jack Eichel, who can’t be thrilled with reports of a $70-million payroll. Buffalo is also investigating upgrading its goalie options.
2. Once eliminated, Canucks GM Jim Benning began making his due-diligence calls around the NHL. My sense is he’s trying to see if he can sign his UFAs and work backwards from there. There’s a desire for all of Jacob Markstrom, Christopher Tanev and Tyler Toffoli to return, but there are challenges (although there’s some positivity this week with Toffoli). The Canucks will want flexibility into the expansion draft with Markstrom and Thatcher Demko. My sense is Markstrom would consider movement protection after Seattle makes its picks, but could want contract concessions in return. Vancouver has a number it won’t go past. The challenging thing for everyone involved is that I’m hearing the market for Markstrom is strong.
3. As part of this, the Canucks want to begin an overhaul of their blue line. One coach said it was noticeable how differently Dallas could handle Vegas as opposed to Vancouver. The Stars have a big, strong, mobile defence that consistently broke down the Golden Knights’ offence. After he said this, I spent some time re-watching the games, and you can definitely see it. The Canucks clearly felt they had to pack in the middle and defend from there, while Dallas felt very comfortable aggressively challenging Vegas and were successful doing it. The contracts and free agency get the headlines, but this will be a critical part of Vancouver’s planning. (This coach, by the way, also said another difference between Dallas and Vancouver was the Stars sustained pressure in the offensive zone, which forced Vegas’s best forwards to change instead of rushing the puck up ice. Small thing, but a big thing.)
4. Got some spare time? Go and figure out what players have been paid their bonuses and have low salaries remaining for this year. That’s attractive. Frederik Andersen is one, for example. So is Derek Stepan. And P.K. Subban, although he does have one additional season remaining.
5. Toronto GM Kyle Dubas has reached out to Andersen at least twice to tell the goaltender other teams are interested. Dubas has said he’s not actively shopping Andersen, and is not interested in anything that he doesn’t see as an improvement.
“I’ve coached against him so long and he’s played against the teams I’ve coached for so long, it was almost like, ‘Well, we finally get to work together,’” Laviolette said. “He’s disappointed about not going further in the playoffs.”
One Capital said he knew right when the team came back from the pause that it wasn’t going to work. The spark was missing. How will Laviolette re-ignite it?
“It’s not like you have to go in and build this from nothing, or from no success, or very little success. That’s what’s exciting…. Just add a layer. Not reinvent the wheel, but somehow add a layer and push and motivate, get these guys to climb the ladder just a little bit higher.”
One thing I heard Washington wanted to address: Their defence corps was “off” last season. The group just didn’t work well together. That unit flourished under Laviolette in Nashville. The Capitals watched Andre Burakovsy and Chandler Stephenson blossom elsewhere, so trying a new approach was the preference.
7. The moment the Capitals committed to a coaching change, word filtered that Laviolette was the favourite. During the hiring’s media conference, GM Brian MacLellan said there were two in-person interviews. Those were Laviolette and Mike Babcock. There was a conversation with Bruce Boudreau, but it didn’t go far. There was a zoom connection with Gerard Gallant, but border quarantines affected his candidacy. Because MacLellan was in the U.S. and Gallant in Atlantic Canada, face-to-face meetings were logistically challenging.
Babcock’s interview apparently came during some kind of socially distanced family dinner/cookout, and there was some buzz it went so well it tightened the race. (MacLellan would not comment.)
In the end, I think Laviolette was the choice anyway. However, another coach told me that he believed Washington was a little concerned about the “noise” around Babcock, especially since we don’t know when next year will begin. Without games, the focus is on the past, not the present or future. To be honest, I’m not sure Babcock would be crazy about that reality either. For the time being, he remains a guest coach at NCAA Vermont, helping the Catamounts prepare for their season.
8. Great, great to see Jim Montgomery back on a bench. If Babcock had gone to Washington, Montgomery may have ended up there. All the best to him, Emily and their family. One day at a time.
9. Toronto wasn’t the only team that asked for permission on Manny Malhotra. Vancouver wasn’t going to stand in the way of a promotion.
10. If there was one thing that surprised Florida GM Bill Zito in our conversation, it was that I’d heard Panthers’ ownership wished to cut payroll.
“No one said that me,” he said after a pause. “That’s news to me.”
What is the mandate, then?
“Moving forward as if they had just acquired the franchise. Make the best, most prudent decision you can for the benefit of of the franchise. Not necessarily for tonight, but for the best interests of the franchise. We’re there with you, and we’re gong to support you.”
(One GM said the Panthers have said they don’t want to make ridiculous deals to simply cut cash, that their moves will have “purpose” to them. )
11. Existing hockey operations staff were frustrated with being kept in the dark while Zito assembled his cabinet, bringing in Rick Dudley, Paul Fenton, PJ Fenton, Gregory Campbell and Blake Geoffrion. There’s definitely more change coming, although Zito said he wanted to “assess what’s going on without being knee-jerk and thinking I have all the answers.”
He’s met with players who live in the area, spoken to captain Aleksander Barkov and a certain goaltender he knows from Columbus. Zito believes in Sergei Bobrovsky, the goalie coach (Rob Tallas) and the need for greater consistency in front of Bobrovsky on the ice.
“Cut the guy a little slack,” the GM added. “It’s a new environment, different structure, a different team, different system. If I’m going to bet on anybody to right the ship, to figure out what he needs to do to improve himself, it’s that guy. Whatever it is he can do on his own, he’s doing it. I’m non-plussed. Bob will be fine."
12. What’s next?
“We have to attack the roster,” Zito answered. “Who can grow, what we have to address. We have to build towards a consistent, concerted effort. Look at the Islanders — they do it the best. Columbus does a pretty good job of it. Can we follow that pattern? Then we’re off in the right direction.”
(Zito then challenged me to say “consistent, concerted effort” without tripping during an on-air segment.)
In one of his local interviews, Zito talked about creating the “value sheet” the Blue Jackets did in Columbus. What is that?
“Years ago, we sat with the leadership group and said, ‘What do we stand for? What are we all about?’ Blue Jackets’ values. It was something the players were proud of. Credit to (captain) Nick Foligno and the leadership group, because it did become what we were about. I look forward to doing it here. What is it we’re about, what do we want to be, what’s important to us?”
Is there anything from those values you’ll want to bring?
“I don’t what to share too much of that…. It’s not my place. But, also, I don’t want anyone to hear (something) and say it. I want it to be organic and real. What do they think? Because it’s their thing that, at the end of the day, is our thing. It pulls everyone together. I’m in. I’m going to do everything I can to help (the players). But what do you think you guys are all about?”
13. My guess: Zito’s going to be asked about Barkov (no chance), Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau. He’s going to explore moving one of the big tickets on his blue line to create flexibility. All he would answer is, “I’m going to listen to anything. But I’m going to say no to most things.”
14. Finally, from Zito: It’s been a hard few years, not only on the ice, but off. Differing factions with bad blood between them. Some employees may not leave quietly, especially since they feel left in the dark at this time. Former GM Dale Tallon is under league investigation for use of a racial slur, which he denies. Assistant coach Mike Kitchen was let go this week during an investigation into a physical altercation with a player after a water bottle was accidentally spilled on the coach. (The player has asked for privacy, choosing not to comment.) Kitchen, also choosing not to comment, denied anything happened that was over the line, but a teammate did back the accuser. This predates Zito, but it could affect what happens.
“I can only control what I have control over,” he said. “Every day I will do what I can to move the organization forward.”
15. Didn’t specifically ask Zito about him, but I think Florida is a potential Mark Borowiecki landing spot.
16. Florida interviewed Garth Snow as part of its search process. The ex-Islanders GM clearly wants to get back in, and this Final Four run can’t hurt. The Panthers also asked to speak to Hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero. This is an interesting one because it won’t be the last time we hear her name. Cassie Campbell-Pascall said last weekend she could see the four-time U.S. Olympian as commissioner of a WNHL (should it ever happen), and, apparently, the NHL thinks very highly of her. Ruggiero worked for one season in the Islanders’ business-side operations around 13 years ago, got her MBA at Harvard and is now CEO and co-founder of Sports Innovation Lab. When she received this call from Florida, Ruggiero asked for a few days to think about it. By the time she was willing to say yes, they had decided on Zito.
17. Arizona informed its staff Wednesday that Bill Armstrong would leave St. Louis to become its new general manager, although final signing of the contract remains. The Coyotes locked in on the Blues’ assistant GM last weekend. This is a challenging time in franchise history, and Armstrong prepared a massive presentation outlining what he’d like to do. Steve Sullivan, who was working in the interim, collected a ton of information on the value of Arizona’s players, and it will be Armstrong’s decision on how to proceed.
Calgary, Carolina, Chicago, Edmonton and San Jose are among the teams who have asked about Darcy Kuemper. Boston, Calgary and Edmonton have checked in on Oliver Ekman-Larsson (there undoubtedly are more), and Colorado on Niklas Hjalmarsson (again, probably more). Rick Tocchet has one year remaining as head coach. Armstrong would have a lot of intel from Craig Berube, one of Tocchet’s closest friends (and, apparently, a morning coffee buddy in the bubble).
18. These jobs are coveted, but Arizona’s situation scared some candidates. The late per diems during the playoffs. Delayed bonuses. (Some clarity here: Instead of direct deposit, the Coyotes asked players for addresses to mail the cheques. That wasn’t received very well, seen as a pure delay tactic, with the NHL/NHLPA eventually stepping in.) That situation didn’t get attention until Sept. 1, when several NHLers were affected, but it first came up in July when the organization was late with a $45,000 bonus due to AHLer Tyler Steenbergen. Originally, he was told the cheque had been mailed, before the money was deposited two weeks later. Last week came an arena lease dispute with ASM, which manages the facility. It claims the Coyotes owe rent, although a couple of sources indicate the team wants to either re-negotiate the lease or wait until closer to next season to pay. Whatever the case, it’s a lot to absorb. Armstrong, however, was not deterred. He refused to back away from the challenge.
19. Geoff Ward’s head-coaching contract in Calgary is for two seasons. Ward went on Hockey Central this week and talked up Johnny Gaudreau. He refused to place any blame on Cam Talbot for leaving the bench in the emotional aftermath of the playoff defeat to Dallas. I like that about him. You have to be careful throwing gasoline on the fire, especially in Canada.
20. With the free-agent courting period kiboshed, will more teams follow Montreal’s lead by trading low-round draft picks for targets like Joel Edmundson? Conditional picks based on a player signing are no longer allowed, so the Canadiens had to risk it, but it’s clear they had a goal and aggressively pursued, closing a four-year, $14-million contract. GM Marc Bergevin made it clear he wanted a left-shot defender during talks with teams last week.
21. The Phillip Danault situation is interesting. His name is “out there,” and there definitely is interest, but opposing GMs aren’t truly certain Bergevin wants to do it. He’s a good two-way centre possibly asking for a bit more in free agency (after next season) than Montreal wants to do. Does Danault want to stay or go? And will the rumours alter his approach?
23. Initially, Chicago and Corey Crawford were not seeing eye to eye on the dollar value of an extension. Crawford knew there would be a cut. How much was the issue.
25. I think there will be teams who wait to see what Tampa Bay does to be cap compliant.
26. Colorado is the team to watch. Next year is an “all in” year before they have to re-sign Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar. Loved Landeskog sitting on the bench to encourage his teammates after suffering his season-ending injury in Game 6 versus Dallas. Reminded me of Zdeno Chara doing it in last year’s Cup Final.
27. Jamie Benn on Rick Bowness: “He’s the best coach I’ve ever played for.”
Why is that?
“Great person who really cares about you. He’s fun.”
Benn pauses to chuckle a little.
“You hear him hooting and hollering… and you know outside of hockey he’s there for you.”
28. When the Stars re-convened for July training camp, Bowness tinkered with their offensive system.
“We put the first three days of our camp strictly on offence in terms of breakouts, in terms of net-front, weak-side D joining the rush, in terms of cycling the puck, using our D more, getting them rotating along the blue line. Those first three days we put a lot of work into our defence joining the rush, spending a little more time in the offensive zone. And, also, putting more pucks on the net…. We just want to do a little more with the puck, and hang onto it a bit longer.”
Only three times all season did they have three or more goals in a 6:30 span. They did it four times in five games during the Calgary and Colorado series.
29. Benn, in particular, has been a beast. The better he plays, the more he has to answer questions about his least favourite topic: himself.
“We’ll see about that,” he replied.
A few players on different teams have indicated that the Conference Finals have stoked their juices because you know the real prize is getting close.
“That’s definitely true,” Benn said. “You can smell it.”
Benn is running over people and turning away, not getting goaded into silly penalties or scrums. There was one versus Vegas where he gave a hard bump to Paul Stastny at the end of a period, and skated away as Stastny tried to engage.
“The period was over,” he said dryly. “I figured I should get off the ice.”
Did Benn ever worry, when this season started 1-7-1, that things weren’t going to work?
“No, not a single thought about it. I remember having some chats with (GM) Jim Nill, talking with him, ‘We’re fine, we’ll get through it.’ No panic.”
Benn pointed to their 10th game, a 4–1 win in Philadelphia as “the night things started to change.”
They remind me a lot of St. Louis last season, right down to the shocking goalie run out of nowhere, and Benn says the Blues were top of mind for the organization.
“We knew we’d have to get through them, and we added pieces to address it.”
30. The most impressive thing about Anton Khudobin’s performance? At 34, he’s played 19 games in 40 days. He’s never before done that in his NHL career. His heaviest stretch to date was 17 in 37, for the 2013–14 Carolina Hurricanes. There’s not much else even close. He joined Johnny Bower (1963), Gump Worsley (1965), Eddie Johnston (1972), Arturs Irbe (2002), Dwayne Roloson (2006), Tim Thomas (2009) and Thomas Greiss (also this year) as goalies who got their first-ever playoff shutout after their 34th birthday. What an incredible run.
31. Victor Hedman’s eight goals are the most by a defenceman in any playoff year since Brian Leetch had 11 in his 1994 Conn Smythe season. Most impressively, Hedman didn’t waste any of them in the round robin. Paul Coffey set the record — 12 — in 1985. That was in 18 games; Game 5 against the Islanders was Hedman’s 18th. It’s also not unusual to Hedman to play at least one shift with the six other defencemen Jon Cooper dresses every night.
33. Looking back at the final few moments of Game 2, I wondered if Casey Cizikas’s injury (rumoured to be a detached retina) contributed to Nikita Kucherov’s game-winning goal with nine seconds remaining. Cizikas took a big hit from Luke Schenn on his final shift. Coach Barry Trotz then went with the Mathew Barzal line, followed by Brock Nelson’s. So, next had to be Cizikas (who was hurt) or Jean-Gabriel Pageau, with Leo Komarov and Andrew Ladd. It was a tough spot for Ladd, who hadn’t played in six months. If Cizikas is healthy, is there a different group on the ice? Kucherov’s score put the Lightning up 2–0 in the series.
34. The Big Ten’s decision to bring back college football has led to rumblings that Midwestern/West NCAA teams may consider a “pod-like” system for this season. It would be a true bubble (sealed off from the rest of the world), but something where a group of teams could play in the same place. One suggestion I heard was an American Thanksgiving to Christmas schedule at somewhere like, say, Notre Dame. Intriguing idea and we will see.
35. Yeah, I don’t get the Kawhi Leonard hate. Guy brought Toronto (and Canada) an NBA title, which seemed impossible before he arrived. He could drive around my neighbourhood with the Larry O’Brien Trophy dragging from his car à la George Costanza and I’d say, “You won, do what you want.”