31 Thoughts: Where NHL's Olympic participation stands as off-season begins

Canada's Sidney Crosby waits for a face-off against Sweden during the first period of the men's gold medal ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (Matt Slocum/CP)

• Where the NHL's Olympic participation stands
• What will the Canadiens look like next season?
• The latest off-season news on the Leafs, Flames, Oilers and Canucks
• Can Tampa re-tool to pull off a three-peat?

The Stanley Cup is awarded; fun time is over. Now we get down to business.

The buyout window is open until July 27. Protected lists for the expansion draft are due next Saturday. The Seattle Kraken select their players July 21. The NHL Draft goes July 23-24, with free agency following on the 28th. There’s a lot going on, and it’s going to happen fast.

In the middle of this, the NHL and NHLPA are trying to finalize Olympic participation. During their media conference prior to Game 1 of the Final, commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly said they would honour their deal with players to go to Beijing in February 2022 — provided an agreement could be made with the International Olympic Committee.

You didn’t need to be a Negreanu-esque poker player to recognize they weren’t thrilled about it.

“We have real concerns about whether or not it’s sensible to be participating,” Bettman said.

For many elite-level players, especially those who haven’t been Olympians, this was a supreme downer.

“This might be the last chance I get, so it sucks to hear,” said Victor Hedman, who would lead Sweden’s defence.

“As players, we’re expecting to go,” added Connor McDavid, who may crack Canada’s top-nine. “We’re expecting the league to make that happen.”

One major hurdle is COVID-related insurance. What happens if a player misses time due to a COVID-related illness after the Olympics? From what I understand, only a small percentage of NHLers who would be participating are covered for that, and the NHL/NHLPA are being told this insurance is no longer available to be bought. My response was, surely some high-risk insurer would do it, albeit at a ridiculous price, but the answer is always, “No, they won’t accept that risk.” So, the question is how that is covered and who assumes it. (In 2014, the last time the NHL went to the Games, the International Olympic Committee paid the insurance costs, estimated at approximately $11 million U.S.)

The IOC knows the power of the rings. When I worked Olympics for CBC, it was almost without fail that our analysts proudly wore a ring with the logo or had the emblem tattooed somewhere on their body. Ask them about it, and you’d get a huge smile and lengthy discussion of the competition and/or the social life. There’s a magic in it and I loved hearing their stories.

NHL players are no different. According to multiple sources, the NHLPA has canvassed its membership since Bettman/Daly’s comments, and the response has been “we want to go.” Even if it is not the Olympics as we are used to.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that the IOC is asking competitors for the Summer Games, scheduled to begin in two weeks, sign waivers before competing. “I agree that I participate in the Games at my own risk and own responsibility,” it reads, “including any impact on my participation to and/or performance in the Games, serious bodily injury or even death, raised by the potential exposure to health hazards such as the transmission of COVID-19 and other infectious disease or extreme heat conditions… To the fullest extent admissible under applicable laws, I irrevocably release the Released Parties from any liability for any loss, injury, infectious disease or damage that I, or my property may suffer in relation to my participation in the Games.”

Personally, if I was covering the Olympics and got sick, I’d be expecting my employer to handle it, but that's not going to happen in this case. Players are going to have to accept that risk. And their answer, as things stand now, is, “We’re in.” I wondered if Jonathan Toews’ admission to The Athletic that he’s “probably” a COVID long-hauler might create some pause, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. He got it before vaccination was readily available in North America.

That’s why, whenever, the NHL schedule is released, I’d expect to see the Olympics on it. But — and this is a big “but” — I’d also expect in any closing negotiation with the IOC an understanding that if things take a turn for the worse in the days/weeks/months before February, there will be some kind of alternate or cancellation plan.


1. During his end-of-season media availability on Friday, Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said, “I have one more year under contract, and I will honour that.” He added the last 16 months were "tough on me. Mentally, it was very difficult.” Prior to the end of the regular season, there was plenty of reason to believe owner Geoff Molson was firmly in Bergevin’s corner and had offered the GM an extension. But one source warned to be careful. He said Bergevin was burnt out and may not want to return.

At the very least, today’s comments are some confirmation of that. Staying another season gives everyone time to breathe, but it’s not like the white-hot spotlight of Montreal is going to decrease. I do wonder if Bergevin and Molson discuss a new front office structure, where Bergevin moves up to a President of Hockey Operations-type role and either Scott Mellanby or Martin Lapointe becomes GM.

2. After the Canadiens beat the Pittsburgh Penguins and lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2020 bubble, Bergevin doubled-down on his theory that his team would be a tough out in the playoffs — if the Canadiens got there. That proved to be correct, as Montreal became the first team since the 1965 Chicago Blackhawks to reach the Stanley Cup Final despite going pointless in their last five regular-season games. (The 2020 Dallas Stars finished 0-4-2 before the pandemic pause, while the 2015 Blackhawks went 0-4.) Now we see how that factors in his decision-making.

Two key immediate decisions: expansion draft and Phillip Danault. Expansion: does Montreal protect the “big four” defencemen, risk one unprotected or cut a deal with Seattle? As for Danault, who confirmed turning-down a long-term deal before the season, Bergevin said, “He's still in our plans and we hope he remains with our team.” It is believed team and player were $500,000-$750,000 per year apart on an extension.

The Canadiens appear strong down the middle with Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jake Evans (who Ducharme clearly trusts), plus Ryan Poehling ready for the next level. But Danault led them in playoff ice-time among forwards (by one second over Suzuki). Montreal became the first team since 2001 to play 20 post-season games while having their most-used forward score only once.

3. We’re all expecting Montreal to get Dominique Ducharme locked up. And no one’s going to be stunned to see Alexandre Burrows coaching AHL Laval. Luke Richardson’s contract is up, too. Does he stay or look elsewhere?

4. Chicago and Edmonton have been grinding away on a Duncan Keith deal for almost two weeks now, and we’re getting to the point of, “Does this happen, or not?” It’s believed Edmonton’s turned down some of the asks, such as Ethan Bear and/or Ryan McLeod. There’s definitely a desire for finality.

5. I also believe the Oilers have begun talking to Darnell Nurse about an extension. He’s eligible this summer, with one more season before unrestricted free agency. In goal, it sounds like they are juggling multiple balls, from Mike Smith to someone younger.

6. Calgary has begun extension discussion with Johnny Gaudreau. This is purely my guess, but Flames probably have to jump over Matthew Tkachuk’s $7 million per season. He’s at $6.75 million now.

7. Don’t know if it still works, but Toronto liked Tyler Bertuzzi this season — moving elsewhere when it became obvious he wasn’t going to be healthy. Barring a major change, Zach Hyman won’t be back with the Maple Leafs, a big loss for them. It’s expected Detroit will be among his pursuers, although the Red Wings won’t be the only ones.

8. There’s a lot of linkage with Toronto and Rick Tocchet for the open assistant coaching job. It sounds like the Maple Leafs reached out pretty quickly. If Richardson hits the market, that might make sense, too.

9. Vancouver’s looking for defence and a centre with some heft. Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre reported Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson are looking at short-term deals for cap reasons. As has been reported, they are working to find a new home for Nate Schmidt.

10. There were rumours Jack Eichel backed away from the disc replacement surgery and would consider a fusion instead, but several sources refuted that. Not true. There was a time I thought a trade might happen sooner rather than later, but after the expansion draft looks more likely. Who’s in there? My guess is Anaheim, Calgary, Minnesota and Vegas, with Boston, the Rangers and possibly Los Angeles on the periphery.

Tough to read the Kings on this one. The Sabres are looking for youth. High-level prospects and picks. The complicating part is Buffalo’s been very careful with Eichel’s medical records. They want to make sure trading partners are serious before allowing access. That’s a little different than St. Louis, which has indicated it will make Vladimir Tarasenko’s available.

11. Tarasenko and the Blues will do everything possible to facilitate a move. He asked for a trade, but the organization also recognizes it is time. This one will be very challenging due to the shoulder injuries and the fact his actual cash is $9.5 million next season.

12. I’m going to stress that this situation has been described as “not acrimonious” to me, but Philadelphia and Jakub Voracek have discussed that it might be time for a change, as well. Voracek is expected to be left unprotected for the expansion draft (and was told so), where former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol would weigh in. Should that fail, Philly will look elsewhere. There are three years left on his contract, with cash slightly lower than his cap hit of $8.25 million. Both sides are also prepared for the possibility a trade won’t occur, so he stays put. But there will be a legit attempt to move him.

13. The Seth Jones-to-Philadelphia discussions appear off, for now. The Flyers can’t get the commitment they want from Jones. That’s his right, to wait unless he’s certain, but Philly won’t make the deal without it.

14. Goaltending situation to watch: will Carolina qualify Alex Nedeljkovic? It seems crazy to ask, but there are rumours the Hurricanes are not crazy about his arbitration award potential. I’m not always good with comparables, but Vancouver’s extension with Thatcher Demko put his last two non-UFA seasons at $2.5 million and $4.5 million (including a $1-million signing bonus). Same situation Carolina’s going through with Warren Foegele. There’s been a lot of interest with him.

15. One Coyote who teams definitely are interested in: centre Christian Dvorak. He’s signed for four more years at $4.45 million — although it is back-ended. He’s a good centre, and they are valued.

16. Even with Viktor Arvidsson, wouldn’t be surprised if Los Angeles looks hard at another winger, a Brandon Saad or Jaden Schwartz type.

17. My bet is Gabriel Landeskog gets done in Colorado, but I could also see the Kings around there. Possibly the Blues if they can move Tarasenko. Landeskog is the kind of player St. Louis lusts after.

18. I didn’t think we’d see many eight-year deals, but stretching AAV over term (Joel Eriksson Ek, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) is becoming a thing.

19. You know the old line: you don’t know how much you miss something until it’s gone. What an enjoyable end to the season, being on the road for big games. Montreal was a lot of fun, especially a lot of us on the Hockey Night team hadn’t been together all year. The people were obviously excited, although the Lightning showed their enormous killer instinct by wrenching Game 3 from the Canadiens moments after the puck dropped.

The full arena in Tampa Bay was really something. Sometimes crowds are nervous. Sometimes they are confident. That Tampa crowd was wired for Game 5, and they had zero doubt their team was going to win. The whole trip to Florida was an adventure because of Hurricane Elsa. Not long after arriving, we got an emergency alert on our phones to stock up for three days, which is why I had that giant jug of water.

Fortunately, the worst missed us. This may be recency bias, but if there was a tournament featuring all the salary-cap era Stanley Cup winners, I’d bet on the 2020-21 Lightning. Back-to-back cups under these circumstances? That’s incredibly impressive.

20. The moment the clock hit zero, one exec texted: “The tampering is underway for (Blake) Coleman and (Barclay Goodrow).” There was a tearful laughing emoji at the end. In all seriousness, I think those kinds of players will be heavily pursued. There are varying degrees, but we’re talking those who play a hard game and can line up with good players. Hyman falls into that category and so does Joel Armia.

21. I’m very, very curious to see what Tampa Bay is going to do here. If we’ve learned one thing about the Lightning, it’s that they will do everything possible in the pursuit of victory. Even with difficult decisions to make, count-out a three-peat at your peril. A couple of agents and executives feel they will have an easier time moving Tyler Johnson if that’s still the goal, because he played well and also because his contract is now with three years to go instead of four. There will still need to be a sweetener, but it appears as if his perception is improved from last fall. Mathieu Joseph is definitely ready for a regular role. But, would anyone be surprised if they pulled off some shocker to accomplish what they wish?

22. Thanks to Nikita Kucherov, I learned something new. There’s a specific exemption for players to endorse “malt beverages” in the CBA. They can’t endorse other forms of alcohol. Is this still necessary? Seems archaic. As for his crazy post-game media availability, we can’t complain players are boring and then rip them when they aren’t. Laughed my head off, while also recognizing the Canadiens are going to hunt him down in their first meeting next season.

23. Kucherov has 127 points in 113 playoff games, 1.12 points per game. Among players with that many post-season appearances, only Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Bossy, Jari Kurri and Peter Forsberg scored at a higher rate. Really impressive.

24. One fan who was thrilled to see Steven Stamkos raise the Stanley Cup: 21-year-old Zach Kennedy from Kitchener-Waterloo. Zach, who is battling Ewing’s Sarcoma, is a massive Stamkos fan, and has received both a signed stick and personalized video from the Lightning captain. During a recent stay in hospital, Zach kept a Stamkos jersey next to his pillow for inspiration while watching the games. Wonderful the Kennedy family was able to enjoy the victory.

Zach Kennedy, a massive Steven Stamkos fan from Kitchener-Waterloo who has Ewing's Sarcoma, smiles broadly wearing the Lightning captain's jersey. (Photo provided to Elliotte Friedman for Sportsnet)

25. Saw Martin St. Louis in a hotel room on NHL Network on Wednesday and assumed he was in Tampa Bay for the clincher. Bad guess, he was in Buffalo with his son, Lucas, for a tournament. Lucas was just taken 20th overall by Dubuque in the USHL Draft, and St. Louis' eldest son, Ryan, who plays for the US National Development Team, looks like a mid-round selection in the upcoming NHL Draft. Good luck to him and the family.

26. As I watched the Lightning overpower Montreal, I thought how good the Islanders were to push them to 1-0 in a seventh game.

27. This is a true Jeff Marek nerd special: Seattle assistant coach Jay Leach scored one career NHL goal, an empty-netter — which makes him part of a unique club. Jeff also knew Boston’s Zach Senyshyn is another. I can add a third, Jim Vesey (father of current NHLer Jimmy Vesey). I was in attendance at Maple Leafs Gardens for his only goal, which clinched a 7-5 win for visiting St. Louis.

28. Expect a deep dive on crosschecking this off-season. A few years ago, it was slashing — which became heavily penalized.

29. Commissioner Bettman mentioned the possibility of a Heritage Classic next March. The last time this was on the radar for Canada, Edmonton was the desired city. The Oilers hosted the first one, and it’s their time once again.

30. When the Rangers acquired Adam Fox from Carolina, then-GM Jeff Gorton took heat. It was widely-believed Fox wanted to be in New York, and if he went back to NCAA Harvard for one more season, they could get him for free. Why waste the assets? Instead, the Rangers brought him in and got his pro career started. One season later, he’s the Norris Trophy winner. It’s a lesson: if you really want someone, don’t wait. Go get them.

31. There are a lot of really good young or youth coaches out there who crave information, and I’d like to support them as much as possible. Florida Panthers video coach Andrew Brewer launched a new project this week, called 200 Foot Coaching. His goal is to provide affordable personalized training for coaches at all levels. If you’re truly interested in improving, information is power. Good luck to Andrew, and to all coaches with a dream.

32. Before wrapping up the blog for this season, I wanted to re-state that I hope the day will come that we get clarity on what happened in Chicago 11 years ago. When the NFL fined Washington $10M last week after an investigation into the team’s culture, attorneys who represent 40 former team employees blasted the decision to keep the report private. (It should be noted that some lawyers have told me they prefer private reports because people won’t be as honest if things are made public.) This will not go away quietly.

33. This is the end of the blog for the 2020-21 season. Things change too quickly around this time of year to do it as properly as I’d like. And, after free agency, I’m going to need a mental break. Thank you to Sportsnet’s editors. If you saw how I submitted this stream of consciousness, you wouldn’t believe it. They do a fantastic job and I am appreciative. But mostly, I’d like to thank you, the reader. There’s no point in doing this if no one is interested. Thank you for investing your time in this gibberish. You’re what it’s about.

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