31 Thoughts: With Stanley Cup awarded, NHL faces new questions

• Will fans be able to attend games in 2021?
• Tampa not satisfied with one Cup win
• Buffalo not trading Eichel

The Stanley Cup is awarded. The draft is next, with free agency to follow. Then … what?

We live with uncertainty in 2020. You can go online and find 1,000 quotes to inspire you, to frame “uncertainty” in a way that seems appealing or inviting. But the truth is most people hate it. We want to know where we’re going.

In sports, we are creatures of habit. Season ends. A couple months off. Next season begins. Repeat, re-use, recycle. Stanley Cup. Draft. Free Agency. See you in September. Well, it’s October. See you in … January? Maybe?

This is a personal opinion, but I think the NHL would be very interested in a Jan. 1 return. I’d be shocked if there was a Winter Classic without full attendance; that's wasting a great event. But it’s become a major day on the league calendar, and you could symbolically tie in a fresh start for both hockey and, well, society itself -- “Good riddance, 2020. Now let’s drop the puck!”

The problem is, right now we’re all guessing. We don’t know what’s going to be happening in three minutes, never mind three months. As both Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly correctly pointed out, waiting as long as possible to make decisions was the right call.

So, in the absence of answers about next year, here are the questions:

WHEN WILL FANS BE ABLE TO ATTEND?

In both his State of the Union address prior to Game 1 and as he presented the Stanley Cup to the Lightning, Bettman went out of his way to mention how much the fans were missed. It was a smart move, because a) it’s true, and b) their engagement will be critical to resuscitating revenues.

Owners across the NHL have a consistent phrase when it comes to the 2020–21 season: “We need to see a path to attendance.” Bettman doesn’t do “random thoughts,” which made it noteworthy when, unprompted, he tossed one out there last week: “It’s conceivable that we start without fans, that we move to socially distant fans at some point and by some point in time maybe our buildings are open…. How we start doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how we have to finish.”

So much of this is dependent on factors Bettman can’t control: governments, general public behaviour, the border, eventual medicine/vaccines, you name it. But half the NHL’s revenue comes through this avenue, and continuing without them is useless. I did ask Bettman if there was any possibility the NHL does not resume until next fall, and he pooh-poohed it. Several sources then reached out to say, “That is absolutely not what he wants.”

They’re watching other leagues to see how fans in stands works, but it’s not exactly apples to apples because many of the examples are outdoor stadiums. (Exception: the Dallas Cowboys.) European hockey may give the best evidence, but it’s still too soon to say there’s any real data. Ask yourself how comfortable you would be entering an arena, and how many people you’d want around you.

One exec said Tuesday that he didn’t envy Bettman’s position: “He just pulled off (the playoffs), which no one thought he could do. Now, he’s got to do it again, but somehow find a way to get fans involved.”

Which brings us to …

HOW WILL REVENUE-SHARING WORK?

One of the theories is that the NHL will consider “short-term” bubbles in markets fans can attend. Teams go there for two weeks, then go home. In theory, that makes sense. In practice?

What if your biggest revenue-driving markets won’t allow crowds? What if your options are markets that have a history of low attendance, or little interest in anyone but the home team?

Does it make any sense to go down that path?

Completing the season didn’t make the NHL any money. It allowed the league to fulfill its commitments to television and sponsors, plus award the Stanley Cup. The bubble costs are estimated at $75 million to $90 million (USD), which was helped by playing in Canada -- although safety was the primary reason this country hosted both sites.

Even revenue titans are feeling the strain, so imagine how the teams who count on sharing are feeling. Because I am contractually obligated to discuss how everything affects the Leafs, let’s say the Canadian/Ontario government rules, “Sorry, Toronto, no fans for you.” Imagine that ripple effect down the NHL. Would the league have to put all revenues in a pot and split them 31 ways?

And then …

WILL THE PLAYERS BE PAID FOR 82 GAMES REGARDLESS?

This is going to be a big one. Honestly, I missed how big an issue this could be.

The NHL and NHLPA put their abrasive history behind them to reach a long-term CBA extension before the return to play. In it, the players accepted a 10 per cent deferral and a 20 per cent escrow deduction, which means they are entitled to 72 per cent of their gross salaries in 2020–21. There is also an agreement that the NHL not use specific powers that allow it to reduce salaries if COVID-19 eliminates games for 2020–21.

Basically, the players are saying, “We’ve given back enough.” Owners are saying, “We can’t be expected to pay for games that won’t be played.”

Of note, players who are under contract for next season who were also on a roster at the time of the March “pause” are due one paycheque by Oct. 31.

That is why, even though it is extremely unlikely we get an 82-game season, Bettman continues to state it as a target. I don’t know how this one will be settled, but it’s delicate.

31 THOUGHTS

1. As much as the last two months exceeded all expectations, I don’t think there’s much that will be incorporated from it as the NHL returns to normal. One thing I wondered about was weekday triple-headers. People enjoyed the extra hockey without another game at the same time. Could late-afternoon playoff games become a regular occurrence? The answer appears to be no. I understand why. Regular work schedules will resume, and afternoon games tend to mean lower food/alcohol/concession sales.

2. Before we get to the news of the week, I wanted to look back at the Stanley Cup Final. The last three champions — Washington, St. Louis and Tampa Bay — had all considered blowing it up. The Blues are a bit of an outlier because they didn’t have the sustained record of the other two teams, but GM Doug Armstrong resisted mass surgery months before they won.

When you have great players signed long-term, the lesson is to bet on their talent, find depth, challenge everyone to get better and nastier. One year ago, Jon Cooper, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy had to eat it while Kenan Thompson skewered them at the NHL Awards. The Lightning were supposed to be soft. Look who they beat: Columbus, Boston, Islanders, Dallas. Not a wimpy team among them, and they gave as good as they got. They were 10-1 with the long change.

After the team had zero rebound chances in Game 5, Brayden Point followed his shot to score the Cup winner on one. At five-on-five, Conn Smythe winner Victor Hedman played 157 minutes with Kevin Shattenkirk, 150 with Zach Bogosian, 63 with Jan Rutta, 52 with Erik Cernak, 42 with Luke Schenn, 30 with Mikhail Sergachev and 10 with Ryan McDonagh (courtesy: NaturalStatTrick). Who does that? He also shrugged off a forechecking Ross Johnston like a rag doll. Vasilevskiy played every minute. Only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have had more assists in one post-season than Kucherov did.

That’s not an asterisk — that’s an exclamation mark.

I’ve heard that Cooper has a thing for post-season montages: Hockey Night in Canada’s, “One Shining Moment” from the NCAA Tournament, etc. Betting this one will be his favourite:

3. When Dallas won the Cup in 1999, I remember seeing Roman Turek walking out of the arena, knowing his days with the Stars were done. As Chicago celebrated in 2010, they knew it would be the last time they’d be together. Some of that exists with this edition of the Lightning, too. It sounds like GM Julien Brisebois has done a lot of the internal legwork already, knowing which players are (or are not) willing to waive no-move or no-trade protection. (Several have indicated they prefer not to.)

The Lightning are not satisfied with one win — they want to maintain themselves for a shot at more. Expect Brisebois to think unconventionally. I think teams will ask if Sergachev wants a bigger role. He’s on the left side with Hedman and McDonagh.

4. One staffer the Lightning could lose: assistant director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski. Arizona is hot for him to run its department with Ryan Jankowski.

5. Dallas was the one team that never moved from arrival to departure. They stayed in the same hotel for two months straight. Just imagine it. If they’d won two more games, they would have been the first team since the 1995 New Jersey Devils to win the Cup without a single player getting a Hart Trophy vote.

Their blue line is excellent, and it will be interesting to see how they navigate new contracts next summer for Miro Heiskanen and the vastly improved Jamie Oleksiak. They will try to move one big salary, although trade protection is an issue. Corey Perry had five goals in the regular season, same in the playoffs. Joe Pavelski had 14 in the regular season, 13 in the playoffs. At 34, Anton Khudobin battled through the heaviest workload of his career. He’s probably priced himself out of Texas. Ben Bishop’s full no-trade becomes a partial, but his actual dollars drop now to three years at $3.5 million. That’s manageable for the Stars.

6. Okay, now to the news. We start with one GM absolutely trashing all the rumours: “How much money do you think is out there?” Some business is getting done. If teams want to spend on someone, they will.

7. The Rangers made Henrik Lundqvist’s buyout official on Wednesday, but expect them to bend over backward to treat him as royalty. One thing they’ve adamantly refused to do is speculate on his next steps, believing it is the future Hall of Famer’s right to address it.

8. No confirmation from team and/or agents, but word is Carolina was willing to look at eight years, $7.5 million per year on an Andrei Svechnikov extension. That’s not low, but the player is willing to bet on himself to do even better, which is why this might end up being a bridge deal — for now.

9. Not sure it is even possible, but I think Arizona and Vancouver had an Oliver Ekman-Larsson conversation.

10. Minnesota asked Dustin Byfuglien if he wanted to play for them. If there was one team he’d consider, it was probably the Wild. But agent Ben Hankinson doubts the big defender ever plays in the NHL again. Too bad.

11. On the Instigators radio show, Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams told Andrew Peters and Craig Rivet: “People make phone calls and ask about players every day. My job is to listen…. We have no intention and we're not looking to do anything with Jack Eichel.”

The Sabres paid Eichel a $7.5-million bonus this season. Seventy-five per cent of his 2020–21 salary is paid. It is absolutely senseless for them to make an Eichel trade for this reason. But if things don’t get better, we are going to revisit this topic next spring.

12. When it comes to Patrik Laine, it sounds like he and the Jets are trying to solve an issue before it really becomes a problem. Winnipeg has term with Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. That’s what they like and it’s why I think an Ehlers trade, as has been rumoured, is not Winnipeg’s want. Laine’s next negotiation will be massive. In the meantime, the winger wants guarantees of playing with Scheifele, which the Jets aren’t so willing to give. My sense is the Jets are saying, “Let’s try and do this now before we have to negotiate again.”

There’s a legit chance it happens. Columbus, hoping to make a major move, is in there, but is there a match? Same with Carolina. Two teams that could do it: Los Angeles and Philadelphia. I’m just not sure they would. I also wonder about the Islanders. It’s the kind of stealth move Lou Lamoriello would love. But they’ve got cap issues and it’s not like he’d give us a hint.

13. No change as far as I can tell on Alex Pietrangelo. He, his agency (Newport) and the Blues are going to take one more run at this. A lot of tough negotiators here. The biggest question: Do the Blues believe he will leave?

14. New Jersey’s 18th and 20th picks are in play. (Not the seventh, I don’t think.) The Devils could do a lot of things: move up, move down or trade for immediate help. If the move is for a player, they are looking for youth (maximum 26) with term or team control. It’s a specific target.

15. Mackenzie Blackwood took a huge step for the Devils this year, but opponents suspect their lack of overall organizational depth at the position has Russian goalie Yaroslav Askarov on their radar. Askarov is the true wild card of next week’s draft. Among the teams suspected of eyeing him in the top 15: Ottawa, New Jersey, Minnesota, Carolina and Edmonton.

16. Anaheim is not averse to trading down a few spots from six.

17. Washington is trying to move money to keep Brenden Dillon.

18. The sheer volume of free-agent goalies is affecting the trade market at the position. Teams are wondering if it is worth giving up an asset when they can simply sign someone. Pittsburgh has run into that issue as it tries to clear its crease.

19. Therefore, it’s not a total surprise that word seeped out Arizona’s preference is to keep Darcy Kuemper. I wouldn’t put that in stone because anything can happen, but the winds are blowing in a different direction.

20. I don’t believe Vegas desires to buy out Marc-Andre Fleury.

21. Calgary is checking in on every available goalie. I think the Flames talked with Columbus, too, but that’s cooled down. Depending on what’s available, they could do a big revamp of their blue line. When talking about Taylor Hall with New Jersey, Noah Hanifin’s name was discussed.

22. I also wonder if the Coyotes test the market on Clayton Keller.

23. Back in November 2005, Anaheim traded Sergei Fedorov to Columbus. The Blue Jackets then put Todd Marchant on waivers, where he was claimed by the Ducks. At the time, then-GMs Brian Burke and Doug MacLean claimed there was nothing fishy — “just a coincidence!” — but they are bad liars. Plus, they’ve now admitted it was set up to get around Marchant’s no-trade. Patric Hornqvist realized that Pittsburgh could have put him on waivers, and Florida was going to claim him. The Panthers wanted him badly.

24. Hornqvist is one of Florida assistant GM Paul Fenton’s best draft picks, and it wasn’t a surprise Fenton would go after the winger. I wonder if there’s a Ryan Donato/Henrik Borgstrom-style swap in the future. The former is another Fenton favourite, while the latter could use a change of scenery.

25. This is purely me thinking out loud: if, sometime down the road, there’s any doubt about Florida’s direction, could Joel Quenneville end up in Seattle? There’s no evidence of any issues with the Panthers, but he was hired by a different GM and who knows how everyone feels next summer.

26. Before Toronto zeroed in on Manny Malhotra for its coaching staff, the Maple Leafs investigated the possibility of Joel Ward.

27. Last week on Hockey Central at Noon, Hart Trophy Winner Leon Draisaitl told Jeff Marek that he calls his “canoe paddle” of a blade “the burger flipper.” Love that.

28. As the league gets more into gambling, it will need to clamp down on the NHL.com roster report. There were some snafus during the playoffs, and you can’t have that so close to game time. Too much money on the line (and not just my own).

29. Nikita Soshnikov has two goals and 11 points in seven games for KHL Salavat Yulaev. He’s a free agent next summer. Someone’s going to try to bring him back.

30. You probably heard Monday night that Pat Maroon became the eighth player to win back-to-back Stanley Cups with different teams. The others: Cory Stillman (Tampa Bay 2004, Carolina 2006 — lockout in between); Claude Lemieux (New Jersey 1995, Colorado 1996); Al Arbour and Ed Litzenberger (Chicago 1961, Toronto 1962); Ab McDonald (Montreal 1960, Chicago 1961); Lionel Conacher (Chicago 1934, Montreal Maroons 1935); Eddie Gerard (Ottawa 1921, Toronto St. Patricks 1922, Ottawa 1923). There is, however, another.

Celebrating in these photos is Lethbridge-born centre Mark Hartigan, who played 102 NHL games with Atlanta, Columbus, Anaheim and Detroit during a decade-long professional career. Hartigan, now working in real estate with Coldwell Banker Fort McMurray, won with the Ducks in 2008 and Red Wings in 2009.

31. Two-time Stanley Cup champion Bob Nevin died last week at age 82. He played 1,141 games between the NHL and WHA, with 310 goals and 741 points. He was an avid golfer. A friend told a hilarious story about being one foursome behind Nevin at a charity golf tournament, and pulling up to the tee as the retired forward was about to hit at a par-three. It was one of those “get a hole-in-one, win a car” deals. Nevin swung, unleashing a beautiful shot that hit the green and rolled into the cup. My friend (and his group) went wild with excitement, then noticed a lack of emotion from Nevin’s quartet, which was laughing a little.

“Why aren’t you celebrating?”

“Because I put my first try in the water,” Nevin replied.

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