31 Thoughts: What’s next for Seth Jones, Blue Jackets?

Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Seth Jones celebrates a goal with Boone Jenner. (Paul Vernon/AP)

• What’s riding on Leafs-Habs Game 7
• Jones, Columbus headed for a split?
• NHL cap could stay static through 2024–25

San Jose in 2014. Vancouver in 2011. Washington, several times in its history. Calgary in 1989. How many teams had more riding on a first-round Game 7 than Toronto — and Montreal — do tonight?

For the Maple Leafs, it’s as if their entire vision is on trial, with judgement scheduled for late Monday night. If the 2016–17 Penguins, 2018 Capitals and 2020 Lightning taught us anything, it’s that you always bet on talent — elite, driven players will learn from hardship, eventually to celebrate the most glorious of victories.

A loss means enormous pressure to veer from this course, much like its organizational brethren, the Raptors, did in 2018. That turned out to be a franchise-altering summer, and the decision to trade a cornerstone player was rewarded with an NBA title. The Maple Leafs will be unable to avoid that comparison.

For the Canadiens, it’s a crisis of fanbase faith. Slowly but surely, you can see the Suzuki-Kotkaniemi-Caufield era unfolding. But who will lead it? The architect of their arrival, Marc Bergevin, is on uncertain ground. With one year remaining on his current contract, he’s discussed an extension. But there is some question about whether Bergevin, at times stressed and worn down, wishes to continue. How much does Game 7 answer for both the GM and coach — as Dominique Ducharme’s future is tied to Bergevin’s?

“We have confidence,” Ducharme said Sunday. “We’re going to Toronto so we can go to Winnipeg.”

That’s an excellent line. This is no time for doubt. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe used the same positive approach, although more philosophical than bold, saying his team is “right where we’re supposed to be.”

There’s no other option. So much negativity surrounding them; they cannot allow it inside.

There is a fatalism with being a Maple Leafs fan. The moment Suzuki scored in Game 5 to send the series east along Highway 401, my phone dinged with emotional carnage.

“Why the $%#@ do I do this to myself?” read one message after another.

Saturday night, after Kotkaniemi guaranteed a Game 7, it was doomscroller’s delight on Twitter.

One of my closest friends, Dave Gelbloom, was born one month before me (Aug. 27, 1970). He’s a huge Leafs fan. He said that when Kotkaniemi scored, “I screamed something you can’t print in your blog. My kids were afraid to be near me, that I’d explode in anger. So I took the dogs for a walk, to clear my mind.”

His son, Noah, 19, loves the Canadiens. He grew up at a time Toronto wasn’t making the playoffs, latching on to Montreal during Jaroslav Halak’s momentous 2009 run through Washington and Pittsburgh. They’re watching this series together.

“It’s stressful,” Noah said on Sunday afternoon. “Every time Montreal scores, (Dave) looks drained of his happiness. I feel a little bit guilty, but I want my team to win. I celebrate the goal, then look over and say, ‘Sorry, Dad.’ He does the same thing when Toronto scores.”

“If you have kids, you know that when they are happy you’re happy,” Dave replied. “You want your kids to be happy more than anything.”

“But I want Toronto to win.”

Hearing this, Dave’s daughter Maya, 16, laughed in the background. “They’re always bickering,” she said.

In this household, there is a penalty for excessive celebration.

“When … if Montreal wins,” Noah said, changing his initial wording because his father was listening, “I will not be rubbing it in his face. I know I will be calm. If I gloat, I have to wear a Leafs jersey the rest of the playoffs.”

Same rule for his father. If Toronto wins and Dave gloats, he’s got to wear a Canadiens jersey as long as his team continues.

Dave and Noah likely represent a lot of Maple Leafs/Canadiens fans on this Monday morning. Montreal supporters thought they were done after home-ice losses in Games 3 and 4 — now their confidence is rising with back-to-back overtime victories. Toronto’s faithful? Shaken, expecting the worst, but grasping for the best.

You still believe, Dave?

“Absolutely,” he answered, without hesitation.

For millions of hockey fans, that faith gets tested Monday night.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Commissioner Gary Bettman upheld Nazem Kadri’s eight-game suspension on Monday. I don’t think anyone is surprised by this result.

Per Bettman’s ruling, the NHLPA argued the punishment was “exceptionally severe,” that four games was more fair. The major argument for this position was, unlike previous suspensions for “hot-headed, reckless and emotional actions,” this was more of a hockey play. Bettman wasn’t buying that, and Kadri’s final option is appealing to independent arbitrator Shyam Das, who will have final say.

As I write this, the formal papers haven’t been filed, but you can expect Kadri to take this step. This is where you can see the strategies. Das is the arbitrator who reduced Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension to 14. Kadri undoubtedly knows that.

Bettman clearly had it in mind when he (or his lawyers) wrote this ruling. Take note:

“While I am not bound by any formula, a comparison with discipline levied in similar circumstances confirms my decision. In 2013, I suspended Patrick Kaleta for 10 games for a Rule 48 violation. That was Mr. Kaleta’s fourth head-related suspension (he had also been fined twice) and it was twice as long as his most-recent prior suspension. The incident that led to the 10-game suspension … had not resulted in an injury. By contrast, the incident here involves the sixth suspension of Mr. Kadri and it did involve an injury. Even taking into account that the eight-game suspension here may consist entirely of playoff games, it is proportionate when compared to the Kaleta suspension, particularly in light of the intervening eight years of experience that Mr. Kadri has had playing under Rule 48. The 14-game suspension of Tom Wilson in 2018 provides another useful benchmark. Arbitrator Das in his opinion analogized Mr. Wilson’s record to Mr. Kaleta’s record and thus approved a suspension that he treated as roughly equal to twice as long as Mr. Wilson’s most recent prior suspension. That suspension was Mr. Wilson’s fourth suspension for a head-related penalty, as compared to Mr. Kadri’s six — also for head-related penalties.”

You can see what Bettman is doing here. He’s drawing from Das’s previous rulings. There are five games remaining in Kadri’s suspension.

2. Let’s get into some other news of the week. The Draft Lottery is Wednesday and I’d expect conversation picks up once we know where everyone’s slotted. Columbus will be one to watch now that Seth Jones has informed the Blue Jackets he will not sign an extension at this time and plans to test free agency, as is his right. Two years ago, they held onto Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin in the same circumstances. That was the correct call because the Blue Jackets were at their best, and owed their fans a run to reward them for all the support. I would have done the same thing.

This is different. The team is coming off a hard season, and their identity is changing. It’s time to build something new, and the return for Jones will be a big part of that. It’s a complex transaction, because unless someone is willing to give up a major package for Jones as a rental, this is essentially a trade and free agency at the same time. But he’s a hell of a player, greatly respected, and there will be a ton of interest.

3. I understand the angst in Ohio. I always try to find the positives in every situation. Here’s what I’d say if I were Columbus: After this season, it’s time to try something new. The Blue Jackets are very good at identifying players, and there’s still plenty of talent there. John Davidson could sell a leaded-gas-guzzling 1971 sedan to Elon Musk; he’ll walk the market through it.

The best way to build a new core is to be the first place young players get a chance. Determine who those targets are and create that bond. There are a lot of theories as to why several players have left. Some are outside of the organizations’ control (market size, for example), but some aren’t. They’re going to have to be honest with themselves about their shortcomings, whether it’s negotiation style or anything else. Every organization goes through this — it doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

4. A couple of other notes on Columbus: In their search for centres, I think they’ve talked to Buffalo about Sam Reinhart. The Sabres are looking at goalies; Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins would be a sensible target. This theory of mine was received with mixed reactions when mentioned on last week’s podcast. No guarantee it happens because there will be other options for both teams, but they are sensible trade partners.

Davidson’s history in New York makes me believe the Blue Jackets will talk to David Quinn about their vacant head coaching position, if they haven’t already. Gerard Gallant, Todd Nelson and Rick Tocchet are among their other interviews. (Tocchet’s also talked to Buffalo, the Rangers and Seattle.)

5. In Pittsburgh, Mike Sullivan will be back. Anytime a team’s had the same voice for six seasons, it’s always fair to wonder if change is necessary. But he’s a great coach with three years left on his contract, and he’s likely to lead the U.S. Olympic hockey team. The organization recognizes that.

6. I’m betting that Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are back, too. The playoff loss is still very fresh, but my sense is the Penguins see themselves as a good team that didn’t get the necessary goaltending. That will be their upgrade, finding either a veteran to play with Tristan Jarry or a new No. 1.

7. The 12-week rest and recovery period Buffalo asked Jack Eichel to take ended on the weekend. Everyone’s being very quiet about this, because it’s already gotten enough public attention, but there will be conversations this week on where this goes from here. I do believe both the Sabres (with the NHL) and Eichel (with the NHLPA) have discussed what their options are if there is still disagreement about the next steps. The likely outcome is a trade.

8. Famous last words, but I don’t think the Sabres are in any hurry to conclude their coaching search. In addition to Don Granato (who I thought was excellent in his end-of-season media availability), my sense is their circle includes Bruce Boudreau, Greg Carvel of NCAA champion UMass, Penn State’s Guy Gadowsky, Providence’s Nate Leaman and Tocchet, among others.

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9. Arizona’s looking for a new assistant GM and a head coach. Nelson has interviewed there. Lane Lambert is a potential target (and probably is elsewhere, too), but he’s off limits as long as the Islanders are playing.

10. One coaching name I have not heard: Claude Julien. Staying under the radar. I find it hard to believe he hasn’t been contacted.

11. I do think there’s been some contact with Jim Rutherford. There are no open GM spots, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a fit in other roles. Another name I’m starting to hear: Daniel Briere. He is the Vice-President of Operations for ECHL Maine, but there are multiple reports the affiliation there will switch to Boston. There’s interest in adding him to a front office.

12. For all the talk about Edmonton’s current cap room, they will maintain flexibility for Darnell Nurse. He’s one year from unrestricted free agency, and played his heart out. It’s very clear that Nurse cares deeply about the franchise and identifies as an Oiler. In addition to trying to replace Nurse as a player, Edmonton would have to try and replace that true link to the organization. That’s not easy, and really matters.

That brings us to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. This one’s a challenge. They were close in October, and it fell apart. They’ve tried during the season, but couldn’t build momentum. Don’t know how to handicap this one. I do think the Oilers make sure to open up room for Evan Bouchard and Ryan McLeod to be regulars. The difference between Edmonton and Winnipeg was depth. They need to develop their own draftees.

13. Prior to Game 1 of the Jets/Oilers series, Cassie Campbell-Pascall showed where Edmonton scored on Connor Hellebuyck throughout the season. Out of 26 goals, 22 were high (13 blocker-side and nine glove-side). As great as Hellebuyck is, if you’re going to let NHL shooters tee up like that, you’re not going to win. After the win, the goalie praised his teammates for commitment to detail.

That series, to me, was another reminder of how different players can be from the regular season to the playoffs. All of the Jets looked so dialled in — the “single-brain” theory coach Paul Maurice mentioned. Good result or bad, their defencemen really battled for every inch. And Logan Stanley justified Maurice’s faith in him.

14. The NHL and NHLPA are forming another competition committee, and if I were Connor McDavid, I’d demand to be on it. The Edmonton captain keeps his opinions private, but don’t assume that means he doesn’t have any. There’s a bite. It’s not good at all for the NHL that he goes through an entire series without drawing a penalty. Even the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were called for fouling Michael Jordan once in a while. But the surest way he can influence things is by making his voice heard in a forum where a difference can be made.

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15. Anaheim is one of several teams looking at changes to their mix of assistant coaches. (GM Bob Murray and head coach Dallas Eakins are back in 2021–22.) Murray had an interesting quote when talking about the hiring of Vice-President of Hockey Operations and assistant GM Jeff Solomon from Los Angeles, telling local reporters, “Jeff brings the analytic component to our organization that really needs to be upgraded and moved forward.”

Murray said Sunday it’s not that he doesn’t believe in analytics, but that the organization had challenges “finding a way to process the data. Jeff will help us take the next step in that. What he explained caught my attention. We’re going to spend on infrastructure to do what we need to do.”

Asked to expand on that, Murray came up with some interesting examples. The Seattle expansion draft looms, and Murray talked about what happened with Vegas — where the Ducks lost Shea Theodore. He was careful with details, but admitted there are things they learned in the aftermath of that process that had to be changed. He also mentioned scouting, and the world of strength, training and athletic therapy.

“When we heard (Solomon) was available, we moved fast,” Murray said.

Solomon was a pretty good basketball player, too. Maybe someone on one of the Ducks’ intramural teams needs a power forward.

16. Murray wouldn’t go into potential moves, but did confirm Anaheim made a serious pitch for Pierre-Luc Dubois. (I’ve reported in the past it did not include Jamie Drsydale nor Trevor Zegras.) I do think the Ducks will try to take a big swing. They’ve got flexibility, and another team pointed out that they could have an open space on its protected list depending on what they want to do. Going to be an interesting summer there.

17. There’s more to come on this topic, but Los Angeles hiring Ryan Kruse from the Chicago Cubs as Vice-President of Research & Development is not going to be the only such move. With the growth of player and (hopefully) puck tracking, there’s going to be data overload across the NHL. Toronto is (unsurprisingly) building out its department, and I’ve seen/heard of job postings for software development/analytic research with the Blue Jackets, Devils, Islanders and Lightning. Unquestionably, there are more.

18. The Kings signed Vladimir Tkachyov from KHL St. Petersburg. Tampa Bay looked at him, too.

19. Mikhail Grigorenko has a multi-year offer in the KHL, so it’s likely he’s heading back.

20. Zdeno Chara’s Instagram post made it sound like he’s not returning to Washington. GM Brian MacLellan sidestepped the question, but with the Capitals eying a better opportunity for Trevor van Riemsdyk, plus a path for Martin Fehervary and/or Alexander Alexeyev, it’s hard to see how it could work. Seattle’s expansion choice could change things, so you never say never. There’s time for Chara to ponder things, too. As one agent said to me on Monday, “The calendar says beginning of June, but in NHL reality, we’re really at the beginning of May.”

21. MacLellan didn’t shy away from refusing to commit to Evgeni Kuznetsov’s future. It’s becoming apparent the Capitals sent some feelers out during the past season to gauge interest in the centre.

22. A few sources are indicating that revenue numbers this year are expected to be around the $1.8- to $2-billion dollar range. When you factor in money owed by the players to the league under the CBA, teams are estimating the cap will stay static for several years. Most sources suggested through 2024–25.

23. What else could that mean? For one, offer-sheet thresholds might be lower than ever. Of course, you need someone to be willing to do it and a poison pill strong enough to work.

24. There’s definite momentum towards getting an Olympic participation agreement done for next winter. Maybe by the end of the week.

25. Weirdest stat ever: an NHL exec sent a note he’d heard Mitchell Marner had five career playoff puck-over-glass penalties. I thought, “That can’t be true.” It is. Saturday’s was his first while shorthanded. I don’t get it.

26. Ben Chiarot had a 2:19 shift, was rested for less than 50 seconds, then came back out to deliver a big hit on Ilya Mikheyev that stopped a Toronto rush. Seconds later, Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored the Game 6 winner.

27. How many teams out there had Cale Makar ranked first on its 2017 draft board? I know of at least one. It’s ridiculous how often Colorado scores within seconds of the puck being deep in their own zone.

28. If Boston re-signs Taylor Hall, do we even find out before the expansion draft?

29. There’s no question my hardest vote this year was the Norris. Victor Hedman is the NHL’s best defenceman. This year, his injury and the Lightning’s (wise) decision to shield him a bit opened the door for others. But, when the games really matter, there was Hedman diving to make a fantastic block in the final seconds of the Game 1 win over Carolina.

30. Last week, the USHL champion Chicago Steel drafted Shane Wright. I did have a couple of people reach out to say they’re unsure if Wright would even be eligible to play in that league — although if he really wanted to go, would anyone block it from happening? There’s no doubt his desire is to resume his OHL career with the Kingston Frontenacs, as long as things get started on time.

31. During the playoffs, I generally shut down my focus to anything outside of hockey. We’re on every night and expected to deliver. Last weekend, I spent some time reading about the confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. This should be a mandatory part of the grade-school curriculum across Canada. It won’t be pleasant to face, but we should all be educated about this part of our history.

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