31 Thoughts: How Stanley Cup Playoffs could affect the blueliner market

Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Dougie Hamilton. (Terence Leung/Getty)

• Stanley Cup Playoffs highlighting blue line value
• What’s Makar’s next contract?
• Can Canadiens withstand Vegas’ depth?

Lots of connecting ideas to begin this edition: the Norris Trophy, defensive depth, Dougie Hamilton and the Seattle Kraken.

NHL Awards reveals began Monday with Pekka Rinne winning the prestigious King Clancy Memorial Trophy over the equally deserving Kurtis Gabriel and P.K. Subban. The Norris announcement comes during the Stanley Cup Final, and it was, for me, the hardest decision of all. I’d gladly take a blue line of those who didn’t make my ballot: T.J. Brodie, Jakob Chychrun (who was on my third All-Star team), Roman Josi, Charlie McAvoy, Darnell Nurse, Adam Pelech, Jeff Petry, Alex Pietrangelo, Jaccob Slavin and Shea Theodore.

Montreal, the Islanders, Tampa Bay and Vegas have deep, versatile, nasty and skilled defensive corps that can beat in you multiple ways. The Golden Knights’ defence combined for three goals and six points in Monday’s Game 1 win over Montreal. Meanwhile, the Canadiens eliminated Toronto with two points from their blue line — none in the first five games. The unit tied that output on the first goal against Winnipeg, finishing with 11 points in four games.

All four have studs and committed role players. (I’m putting Pelech in that elite class. He deserves to be there; every game, I regret his omission from my Norris ballot more and more.) The Lightning don’t have a playoff goal from their defence, but their third pair is David Savard/Mikhail Sergachev, which is ridiculous.

It’s a good time to be a defender, because that part of the recipe for the semifinalists’ success is not going unnoticed.

As the Stanley Cup semifinals began, we learned that Carolina gave Dougie Hamilton permission to speak to other teams. It’s an interesting move. Talks between organization and player broke off during the season, and the benefit to the Hurricanes is it allows Hamilton to find out if his best deal actually would be in ’Canes Country.

There’s going to be a lot of interest. As news broke Monday, teams started their Hamilton research. I thought Philadelphia might be among the more aggressive pursuers, but the Flyers’ defensive targets seem to be elsewhere. Another that makes sense is Seattle. And, if you can’t do the Dougie, there will be other options. Over the next two summers there are plenty of good defencemen who could hit the market. There are top-of-the-chart types (Seth Jones, Colton Parayko), strong mid-levellers, good depth pieces, older, younger, you name it.

The key to all of this could be the Kraken. The surest predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, and when Ron Francis was GM of the Hurricanes he was a compulsive hoarder of defencemen. Seattle will have an exclusive negotiating window with free agents prior to the expansion draft. That window (or the draft itself) is an excellent opportunity for Francis to build his own unit, or do what Vegas did — acquire assets to be flipped elsewhere.

The Golden Knights traded four defencemen (Alexei Emelin, Marc Methot, David Schlemko and Trevor van Riemsdyk) for two second-round picks, a third-round pick, a fifth-round pick and a prospect. Seattle could do the same, and, depending on what teams like Calgary, Minnesota and Nashville decide to do, there could be some really intriguing unprotected blueliners.

Would they be more valuable to the Kraken, or to another team? One thing’s for sure: These playoffs prove a deep, versatile blue line is coveted by everyone.


1. Gerard Gallant gets four years to coach the New York Rangers. He was the favourite from the beginning, but the Rangers wanted to do some other interviews and make sure neither Rod Brind’Amour nor Mike Sullivan would be available. They decided late last week to move on from the Brind’Amour idea, and offered Gallant the job on Monday. If the Rangers thought passion was a missing ingredient, he’ll bring wagonloads of it to Manhattan.

If there was any disappointment around the NHL, it was that long-time coach Jerry Dineen was let go. Last year was Dineen’s 27th season with the organization; his last role was as video coach. He’s very popular and highly respected among his peers. They were upset to hear the news.

2. The danger in writing anything at this time of year is it blows up in your face, and you end up being featured on @oldtakesexposed. But here goes: It sounds like Brind’Amour remains in Carolina with most of his staff. This has been a challenging process; he reached a verbal agreement some time ago, demanding his entire staff (including trainers and equipment people) get taken care of, too.

Brind’Amour met with peer pressure from other coaches who wanted him to push for a higher number. I’m incredibly torn about this. I’ve never wanted to be someone who others could use to hold down salaries, but I also recognize it’s your life and you’ve got to do what makes you (and your family) happy. If you’re another coach in the NHL, you have to argue that Brind’Amour’s situation is unique and shouldn’t affect your negotiation. It looks as if others (Travis Green in Vancouver) were successful in doing that.

3. As I write this, only one Hurricane staffer has permission to talk to other teams: assistant coach Dean Chynoweth. The more you think about it, the more the Chynoweth/Hamilton news fits with Carolina owner Tom Dundon’s philosophy. He puts a value on everything, and won’t go past it — basically saying, “If you can get that number somewhere else, you have my blessing. But it won’t be here.”

4. There’s definitely some momentum with Rick Tocchet and Seattle, but no indication a final decision’s been made. Had to wonder if Francis would want to talk to old friend Paul Maurice, but the Jets indicated their coach is returning. I was one of those people who thought, before this season, that maybe Joel Quenneville would end up in the Emerald City, but no idea how that could be possible after the terrific season Florida had. And, if something was going on there, we’d probably be hearing about people interviewing with the Panthers.

5. Arizona interviewed St. Louis’s Mike Van Ryn on Monday, he’s a legit contender there. Heard the Coyotes were impressed with Dallas assistant Todd Nelson. Still unavailable: Islanders’ associate coach Lane Lambert. No one is going to risk Lou Lamoriello’s wrath by asking to speak to Lambert while New York is still playing. (Possible outcome: Toht’s face-melting from Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

6. There were some rumours/theories over the weekend, but I don’t think Jared Bednar is going anywhere. When the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks lost in the first round of the playoffs, owner Mark Cuban was asked if he’d change coaches. I liked his answer: “You don’t make a change to make a change,” he told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. “Unless you have someone that you know is much, much, much better, the grass is rarely greener on the other side.”

Despite their disappointment, my sense is the Avalanche feel the same way. They believe in Bednar.

7. No vacation for the Avalanche, with plenty of decisions to make. There’s a lengthy list of unrestricteds (including captain Gabriel Landeskog and Vezina Trophy finalist Philipp Grubauer), Nazem Kadri’s future to figure out, and planning for Nathan MacKinnon’s massive payday — two years from now. The linchpin to everything is Cale Makar’s next contract. There’s some evidence the two sides are going to try for term. That could be a massive number for the Norris finalist — and the only defenceman to average a point per game.

Colorado wasn’t crazy about trading Ian Cole, but did it to make room for Bowen Byram. Minus Cole and the injured Erik Johnson, they missed some edge on the blue line. But, before they can address several things, they’ve got to know what space (and expansion maneuvering) is available.

8. I think the Sabres give Don Granato an indication soon as to what they’re thinking. The Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s Joe McDonald reported the Sabres asked permission to speak to Jack Capuano after a successful World Championships run, but Ottawa denied the request. This is true — there are hard feelings about it, and it could get messy between Capuano and the Senators. He does not back down from a challenge. It is consistent with Ottawa’s history, however. My feelings on the issue: I disagree with standing in the way of an external promotion unless an internal one is guaranteed.

9. I did ask around to see if the Sabres gave anyone permission to talk to Jack Eichel, but don’t believe that’s the case. Everyone’s gone into the cone of silence. From what I can tell, the team and its captain are negotiating the next steps of his recovery. Multiple sources indicate that if there’s any deal involving either Eichel or Sam Reinhart, do not be surprised if the Sabres end up with a second high first-round selection in July’s draft.

10. Will catch up with new Columbus coach Brad Larsen for the next blog. Before promoting him, the Blue Jackets took a long look at Gallant, who they know well. They also twice interviewed Pittsburgh assistant Mike Vellucci.

11. I’ve thought a lot about the Blue Jackets since the Seth Jones news broke and what I’d do if I were in charge. Answer: Don’t allow a slow water torture. Rip off the band-aid and eliminate the pain as quickly as possible. See where you stand with your players and make your decisions now.

I’m curious to see if Florida asks about Patrik Laine. He and Aleksander Barkov have a good relationship. The Panthers are expected to be aggressive in pursuit of improvement.

12. Boston GM Don Sweeney showed some strategy at his season-ending media briefing on Tuesday. The Bruins will try to avoid signing any of their UFAs before the expansion draft in order to maximize their protection list. I believe he will be respectful of David Krejci/Tuukka Rask’s timelines for making decisions on next season. The only request will be to allow the Bruins time to adjust their plans if the answer is no. They’ve been talking to Taylor Hall about an extension for some time.

Captain Patrice Bergeron will return, and, as he said, he’s on a year-to-year basis now. He’s got one season remaining on his contract, and I do think Boston will ask him if he wishes to be extended.

13. Another unrestricted free agent who has permission to talk to other teams: San Jose’s Kurtis Gabriel.

14. Arizona’s given permission for teams to talk to Liam Kirk, who just had a terrific World Championships for Great Britain. The Coyotes have his rights for another year, so a trade needs to be worked out. But Kirk can talk to other clubs.

15. Philadelphia’s got a lot of balls in the air. I figured they’d be in on Hamilton, but, as mentioned above, he doesn’t appears to be their top target. I’m speculating here, but my guesses would include Seth Jones and Matt Dumba (who GM Chuck Fletcher knows very well). It also wouldn’t be a shocker if they have asked the Coyotes about 2019 first-rounder Victor Soderstrom. The Flyers liked him at that draft, and Arizona actually flipped picks with them to move up and take the Swedish defenceman.

16. The Buffalo News’ Lance Lysowski reported that New Jersey had interest in Rasmus Ristolainen. I’d heard similar. I’ve also wondered if the Devils would consider Shayne Gostisbehere, with a sweetener included, but Hamilton makes sense there, too.

17. Edmonton and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are grinding to find common ground.

18. Had an interesting conversation with a scout who was at Worlds. He was very impressed with Canada captain Adam Henrique, who had a very hard season in Anaheim and ended up on waivers at one point. He said it was clear Henrique was re-energized by the captaincy, the team’s success and his defined role in it. He added that he wouldn’t be surprised if interest in Henrique picks up because of this performance.

19. 2021–22 All-Star Game prediction: Vegas. It will be somewhere in the West, because players going to the Beijing Olympics will leave from that event. First year of the new American TV deal plus the market’s success — I like the odds of this choice.

20. Last week’s 31 Thoughts podcast interviewee, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment CEO Scott O’Neil, told a great story about being kicked out of Lou Lamoriello’s office — twice. It would have been around 2001, when Lamoriello added CEO of the New Jersey Nets to his Devils duties. O’Neil was a young executive working at the NBA’s league offices.

“My boss, (Commissioner) David Stern said, ‘Get over to New Jersey and tell me what the heck’s gong on,’” O’Neil recounted with a laugh. “I reached out to Lou’s office and was fortunate enough to get a meeting two days later. I waited outside his office in this awful, uncomfortable chair. So, 45 minutes I’m waiting, and I can’t sit still, so I’m getting up and pacing around — come back and sit down for two minutes, get up, pace around…. I walk into his office and he’s like, ‘Who’re you? … Who sent you here? Stern? David Stern?’ I’m like, ‘Yup, the commissioner sent me here.’ ‘Next time come back and wear a tie.’ And I said, ‘Are you serious?' He’s like, ‘Get out.’ So I get back to my office, my phone rings. It was the dreaded 8300 extension, which was David Stern. I pick up the phone, already with a cold sweat, knowing I was going to get the thrashing. ‘How did it go?' ‘I don’t know — he wouldn’t let me in.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I didn’t have a tie on.’ He’s like, ‘Put a tie on and get back there.’”

Imagine being 30 and in the middle of Lamoriello and Stern.

“Two weeks later, (Lamoriello) invites me back … or I beg my way back — same deal. Sitting in that uncomfortable chair, pacing around his office, I finally get let in. He’s sitting behind his desk, he throws a book at me, ‘Don’t come back until you read this.’ I catch the book, I look down, and it’s about Vince Lombardi. I have to go and read this now, and he’s like, ‘Out.’”

O’Neil gets the phone call from Stern. He tells him what happened, and hears, “Well, read the book!”

A third meeting was set up, with O’Neil telling Stern not to send him alone because “I don’t think (Lamoriello) cares about me. I don’t think he has any respect for what I’m going to say.”

When the meeting began, Lamoriello put O’Neil on the hotseat. When he was done speaking, he thought he was going to be thrown out for the third time.

“He goes and opens a covered whiteboard. Everything I had walked him through, he had written on the board. It’s a good lesson on so many fronts. One, never underestimate Lou Lamoriello. Two, whenever you go into his office, (you better have) a tie on, read something about Vince Lombardi and be prepared.”

21. The other story O’Neil confirmed is he was one of three Madison Square Garden executives pinned to the boards at the same time by Adam Graves during a pickup hockey game.

“He asked, ‘You ever hit anybody?’ No. ‘Take a run at me.’ I skated as fast as I can — which was slow — tried to put him into the boards, and I bounced off like a superball. And I was running my mouth off the whole time, which wasn’t a great idea.”

When Graves did pin him against the boards, “I felt pressure on my body like I’ve never felt before. It felt like an hour, but was probably a minute, me and two other guys immobilized.”

O’Neil’s new book, Be Where Your Feet Are, is a good read.

22. When Ryan Pulock played at WHL Brandon, he would occasionally go on the ice to help out during rookie camp. During those skates, he was was not allowed to take a slap shot. Wrist shots only.

23. Pulock blew one by Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Game 1 winner over Tampa Bay:

Goalie whisperer Kevin Woodley reached out to say that these kinds of goals are a strange weakness for the phenomenal Lightning netminder. According to Steve Valiquette’s Clear Sight Analytics data, Vasilevskiy gave up 18 low-percentage goals in the regular season, sixth-most in the league. Maybe he likes a good challenge, because his “tough-save” percentage is at the top.

By comparison, fellow Vezina finalists Marc-Andre Fleury and Philipp Grubauer allowed six and seven low-percentage goals, respectively. Pulock’s goal would also be considered a clear-sighted shot. Vasilevskiy allowed nine of those, second-worst. Semyon Varlamov gave up three. I find this very odd considering how good he is. Maybe he gets bored.

24. When the Islanders reached the second round in 2019, we were all surprised. When they got to the Eastern Conference Final last year, it was more like, “We better get used to this, but is there another level?” This season, we’ve found out the answer is yes. What hasn’t changed is their commitment to a system, an acceptance of roles and hard-charging identity.

What has changed, I think, is their threat to score. In 2019, they shot 6.7 per cent at five-on-five, 11th of 16 playoff teams. That jumped to 8.9 in 2020 (fifth) and 9.7 this year (first). Goals per game jumped from 2.38 (12th) to three (fifth) to 3.46 (second). In the playoffs, you have to grind and you have to check. But you also need to score. They can do it, and it’s taken them to another level.

25. I’ve started to call Montreal “Islanders lite.” Vegas will be a huge challenge for them because the Golden Knights are deeper than Toronto or Winnipeg. But the Canadiens have committed to playing a certain way — disciplined, hard to work through, with human eraser Carey Price as the backbone. They’ve got some terrific finishers to capitalize on mistakes, too. Seeing Price wink at a teammate after a huge save on Mark Stone would thrill me if I were Montreal. You’re under siege, he’s making ridiculous saves, but, in that moment, he’s the calm, cool Carey Price you need.

I liked their Game 1 start, but they ran out of steam during second-period penalty trouble and got overwhelmed. Biggest question now might be Jeff Petry and Shea Weber’s injuries. Petry is wearing a modified glove in practice that has the ring finger and pinkie sewn together. The captain, who has a bad thumb, was noticeably uncomfortable on Monday. Of course, no one would be surprised if he were to cut it off, put it in a bag of ice, and re-attach it in July.

26. Watching the Canadiens every night is Karl Alzner, bought out by Montreal last October. He did not play in 2020–21, but skated in Kelowna last off-season with a group who lives there — Weber, Ethan Bear, Joel Edmundson, Curtis Lazar, Tyler Myers, Brent Seabrook and the Schenns among them — and will do so again this summer. He has not given up on a return.

“I’m open to anything, willing to go anywhere,” he said Monday. “I have something to prove, and if anyone’s looking to bring in someone with a chip on their shoulder, I’d be the guy.”

Alzner’s focused on his skill development, specifically mentioning Connor McDavid and Power Edge Pro. If our conversation revealed one thing, it’s that he’s very determined.

27. Onetime podcast guest Ben Cooper — now an assistant at Red Bull Salzburg in Austria — reached out during Game 1 to mention how Peter DeBoer was one of the first coaches he knew of to have specific face-off pre-scout meetings for his teams. Many coaches do five-on-five, power play and penalty kill with some face-off notes included. DeBoer made face-offs a mandatory session on its own. Cooper worked in Florida for Bob Boughner, who bought into that practice. The Golden Knights made life difficult for Colorado and Montreal (in Game 1) off the draw. Win or lose, have a plan.

28. I think Alec Martinez is going to do very well in unrestricted free agency.

29. Mentioned it on Saturday Headlines a couple of weeks ago, but wanted to include it here, too: St. Louis made Vince Dunn available, and several teams are taking a long look.

30. It went a little under the radar, but there was a draft showcase last week in Erie, Pa. Teams enjoyed the opportunity to see some mid- to late-round players they didn’t get a chance to watch this season. Scouts were even more paranoid than normal about revealing anything, since any edge this season will be enormous. Another previous podcast guest, Andrew Perrott, whose father, Nathan, played 89 NHL games with Nashville, Toronto and Dallas, organized it. Andrew himself is undrafted, and will return to OHL Owen Sound for his overage season. He did a lot of work to put together the camp, and it did not go unnoticed.

31. It’s been a couple weeks, but I was thinking a bit about Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open. Osaka announced prior to the event that she was not going to do media conferences, citing her mental health. When she held to that promise after her first win, she was fined $15,000 and threatened with removal from the tournament and/or future suspensions. In return, she stepped away.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder: Was there not a better way? It doesn’t benefit anyone that Osaka isn’t playing. Isn’t it incumbent on all the stakeholders — Osaka, her people, reporters, French Open/Grand Slam officials, the women’s Tour — to get together as a group and figure out some kind of solution?

I think we understand that some people are comfortable in front of media and some aren’t; some like talking and some don’t; and that can change on a daily basis. Some days people want to talk to you; some days they don’t. You find a way to make it work. Maybe some days you don’t talk; maybe some subjects can be avoided unless impossible to do so. But that situation is far better than Osaka not playing and the negative reaction to concerns for her comfort level.

I always believe there’s a solution. You just have to broker it.

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