• Will 2021 NHL draft be delayed?
• Matthews, McDavid on historic paces
• Looking at future of outdoor games
Monday, Detroit GM Steve Yzerman delivered a State of the Union address on his Red Wings. Included was a question about the 2021 NHL Draft, currently scheduled for July 23-24.
“Personally,” he answered, “I would hope they push it back. Give us a chance to watch these kids and give (them) a chance to play and put their best foot forward.”
It wasn’t a surprise to hear Yzerman say that. Behind the scenes, he’s been one of the most passionate advocates for a delay. He’s got a powerful voice; when he speaks, people listen. And he’s hardly alone in this fight. Most (if not all) teams support some kind of move. It is very logical.
Some teams suggested December. I loved an idea of two drafts several days apart in Montreal during June 2022, although a few execs said they hate it because they’d rather concentrate on one set of prospects for a few months before moving to the next age group.
There are, however, significant hurdles to overcome.
“Keeping the current draft date is unfair to players who haven’t played, and to clubs who haven’t seen them,” player agent Ian Pulver said. “But if we’re going to move the draft, the (NHL/NHLPA) should come up with a formula that’s fair across the board. The rights retention of a player should be adjusted accordingly.”
According to multiple sources, the chances of the draft being delayed took a turn for the worse late last week. Those two words — “rights retention” — are right at the heart of it.
There’s a laundry list of issues that the NHL and NHLPA would need to settle. Here are two of the most challenging:
• Would players drafted in December 2021 who make the NHL receive credit for a full service year towards arbitration and/or unrestricted free agency?
• A player taken from the CHL — and not signed within two years — goes back in the draft (as long as he is not older than 20). Will 2021–22 count as one season, even if the player is not selected until December 2021 or June 2022? This is even more challenging with 19-year-olds, since they cannot be re-drafted under this scenario.
Negotiating these issues isn’t the grind of a full CBA, but it’s challenging. The league can’t unilaterally say, “We’re moving this.” Nothing comes without some kind of concession. And, again, word seeping out last week was there isn’t the will for what it might take to get there.
The QMJHL was off Nov. 29-Jan. 22, but found a way to play around that. The WHL is scheduled to open Friday, although the province of B.C. remains a holdout. The OHL is talking about 24 games in April and May. I’m hoping all these kids get a chance to play — they deserve it.
But it also says to me there’s urgency to get on the ice, because no one wants year-old video deciding anyone’s draft stock.
1. The Artemi Panarin situation is incredibly challenging for the player, the Rangers and the league. It’s a serious accusation from former NHLer Andrei Nazarov, but his word alone is not going to convince anyone. The Rangers unconditionally backed Panarin. There is, as this is written, no police report, and if one does show up it will be heavily scrutinized.
There’s no feel for how long Panarin might be away, and no desire to pressure him for an answer. His Instagram support for Vladimir Putin rival Alexei Navalny makes him a political target. And undoubtedly, he must be worried about family back in Russia, too. This is bigger than hockey, and the Rangers will be sensitive to that.
2. Buffalo has Brandon Montour available. He will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
3. Extremely difficult time for the Sabres. Popular defenceman Jake McCabe is out for the year after a severe knee injury. Head coach Ralph Krueger said following Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Islanders that Jack Eichel is not injured, but the captain clearly isn’t himself. Jeff Skinner, under contract for six more seasons, was a healthy scratch. He’s got a no-move clause, and you wonder if this is the start of a tug-of-war over options to waive. (Finding a trade partner is another matter.)
Buffalo is 1-4 since its return. In terms of symptoms, they were hit hard by their strain of COVID. We don’t know the full story yet in Philadelphia, but, to this point, no one has had it rougher the Sabres, and it shook them. Combine that with falling to the bottom of the East, and it’s an enormous mental challenge.
By now you’re aware of Rasmus Ristolainen, who described his ordeal to Ilta-Sanomat’s Sami Hoffren. (Not trusting Google Translate, I asked Hoffren for help going from Finnish to English.)
“(From) what I’ve been talking with others around the league, no one has had the same conditions,” the defenceman said. “When there was chest pains, it felt like my heart was cracking as I walked up the stairs. (There were) a couple of evenings … when I went to bed that I didn’t know if I’d wake up in the morning.”
Head coach Ralph Krueger is hopeful Ristolainen is a few weeks away; all the best in your recovery, Rasmus.
4. How good is Boston? The Bruins’ goal differential is plus-15. Next-best in the East is the Islanders, at plus-one. Philadelphia is even, and the rest are (Seinfeld reference) “Prognosis Negative.”
Hopefully, the Flyers recover in full health from their outbreak, and we’ll see what they do. I sometimes forget that you need an eye on the expansion draft. Let’s say you’re thinking of adding to the blue line — you know you’re protecting Philippe Myers, Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim. So, you’re not crazy about giving up assets for someone that might be exposed unless you’re easing decisions elsewhere. Philly’s window is far from closing.
5. Seeing Paul Byron (two more years, $6.8 million in cash) and Adam Henrique (three more years, $17.5 million) clear waivers sends two very clear messages. First, there aren’t many teams interested in taking on money. Second, this summer will not be a bonanza — don’t bet on a free-agent windfall.
6. Pekka Rinne with excellent advice on the trade rumours surrounding Nashville: “It’s my strong recommendation all of us players not look into that too deeply.”
The Predators’ deep respect for Rinne, in his 17th year with the organization, means they want him to retire in their uniform. Nashville also has no desire to move Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi (who has a no-move clause) and fellow blueliner Ryan Ellis. Other than that, they’re going to listen, although certain players (Dante Fabbro, Filip Forsberg) will be difficult to pry loose. Nashville likes its defensive prospects, including Boston University’s David Farrance — who has 14 points in six games for the Terriers.
7. Matt Murray in January: 57th among goalies in goals saved above expected, 58th in goals against average and save percentage. Murray in the first 16 days of February: fifth in GSAE, 11th in GAA, 13th in save percentage. (GSAE is an advanced analytic that takes the specific shots you face, and ranks you among your peers based on their degree of difficulty. Factors include location and how those shots are created.) He had an ugly performance in relief during a 7-3 defeat to Toronto last Thursday, but sandwiched that one with strong efforts in a 2–1 loss to the Maple Leafs and a 3–2 victory over the Canadiens. You can see the Senators surge when they get a few saves. There’s serious young talent.
8. There aren’t many owners in North American sports who committed more dollars during the pandemic than Montreal’s Geoff Molson. That brings its own set of pressures. I like the roster, but a lot is expected.
9. Mocking of the North’s defensive play is the fun we need back in the NHL. There’s something enjoyable (to me, anyways) about the everyone-hates-Canada narrative. One of the issues being raised is the high offensive numbers tilting awards voting in favour of Canadian-based players, so, for the first time, I decided to do research for this column.
In 2019–20, there were 175 Professional Hockey Writers Association voters for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Byng: 88 from the United States; 82 from Canada; four from Sweden; and one from Finland. The issue this season is everyone’s primarily watching their own division. The voter list will change here and there, but using last season’s numbers: 82 Canada (I threw all of the Canadian-based national reporters and broadcasters in here), 36 East, 20 Central, 18 West, five Europe. There are also 15 U.S.-based broadcasters/reporters who don’t fit neatly into a divisional box.
In short, there’s a Canadian numerical advantage. We’ll see how much anyone gets worked up about it. (There’s no question we’re the fairest voters.) If Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid continue on their current paces, and their teams finish well — it won’t matter who plays or votes where.
10. Matthews has 18 goals in 20 games, a 0.9 average. That figure would be tied for 13th-best in NHL history (Wayne Gretzky sits atop the leaderboard with 1.18 goals per game in 1983-84). Matthews missed one game, so the pace is 49.5 goals.
McDavid’s at 1.85 points per game, which would be tied for 23rd all-time (Gretzky put up 2.77, also in 1983–84). His current production has him in line for 104 points.
11. Twice this year, McDavid has hit five points midway through a game. In both cases, he didn’t see much ice time down the stretch. On Jan. 31, he played 2:59 of the third period in an 8–5 win over Ottawa. Last Saturday, it was 3:43 in a 7–1 win over Calgary. McDavid doesn’t chase Darryl Sittler’s 10-point record if the game is lopsided.
12. Darnell Nurse played the heaviest back-to-back of the season during the Battle of Alberta — 30:01 on Friday, 32:52 on Saturday. He’s the first player to reach 30 minutes on consecutive nights this season; the latter number is the most played by anyone in one game.
13. I believe this about Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: He wants to be an Oiler. Edmonton wants to keep him. When you have that foundation, you’re in a good place. The biggest challenge: The economic landscape is recovering slower than everyone hoped.
14. David Rittich’s shutout Monday in Toronto was his first win in 363 days. In the words of one goalie coach, Rittich looked “quieter” in net than usual. That’s a good thing, especially with Jacob Markstrom banged-up. The Flames temporarily lost confidence in Rittich, but need him more than ever right now.
15. Dallas lost 3–1 in Florida on Monday night, a sixth straight defeat. Losing games, however, pales in comparison to all the other challenges the Stars have faced. They were the last team to begin the 2020º–21 season due to a COVID outbreak, and Monday’s game was their first in nine days because of the Texas power outages. They were ready to host Nashville on Feb. 15 when Mayor Eric Johnson asked the team to cancel.
“When you are preparing for a game, you don’t always realize what is going on around you,” GM Jim Nill said. “The mayor explained to us that our power grid was attached to other essential services like hospitals. He was right to tell us we couldn’t play. It was an unprecedented storm. Once we left the arena and became aware of the magnitude, we changed gears: ‘Let’s get a hold of the families. Who has power? Who needs power? Who needs to stay where?’ We have great leadership among our players, coaches and staff. You just deal with what’s given to you.”
16. Jamie Benn, Anton Khudobin, Esa Lindell and Tyler Seguin (at home in Canada rehabbing his injury) opened their homes to whoever needed them. (Andrew Cogliano and Taylor Fedun, who have young children, were among those who accepted.) Nill hosted a team vice president with two youngsters of their own. A member of the Stars sales force had a house fire (a GoFundMe organized by the team to help with the family’s expenses raised $20,000 more than its goal).
“It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself, but there are a lot of other people going through worse than us,” Nill said. “To see people with no heat, no water, no food for a week — in today’s world you don’t think this could happen, but it did. There was a hotel parking lot — it was full. The hotel didn’t have power, people were in their cars. It was hard to fathom.”
In our conversation, Nill said a couple of times that it was difficult to explain the situation to someone who didn’t see it firsthand. There was some talk about moving games to Tampa Bay, but scheduling conflicts made that difficult “and the NHL did the right thing, telling our players to worry about getting through this,” he said. “Our players are outstanding. Some of them have burst pipes in their houses. But we will get through it. We’re fortunate — we get to play. Hopefully, we can bring people some enjoyment.”
17. Dallas has played 13 games, tied with New Jersey for fewest in the NHL. Nill said the league is hopeful the remaining 43 will occur. Ben Bishop is two or three weeks from skating; Seguin looks like a late-March, early-April situation.
18. It will be interesting to see if the fallout from negative publicity in Arizona means the team considers adding a player or two to compete in the West. They play hard, are in the race, and came back from down 3–0 to shock Anaheim 4–3 Monday night. (The heat is on in Anaheim — that was a rough defeat.) The Coyotes are looking for a centre and could check out an additional rental like Montour or Tanner Pearson, should he become available.
Earlier this month, Arizona’s House of Representatives introduced a proposal that has long-term ramifications for the Coyotes. It would allow the state’s professional sports teams a licence to run sports betting operations at their arenas, at retail locations within a quarter mile of their venues and online. Owner Alex Meruelo has a casino background, and several sources around the NHL believe he sees that licence as a cornerstone to the franchise’s future — whether he owns it or someone else does.
19. According to multiple sources, a lot of the dispute between the Coyotes and former associate GM Steve Sullivan was about specific duties outlined in his contract. They were asking him to do things he felt were not in his responsibilities. They fired him for cause and he’s going to fight it.
20. All of a sudden, it’s five wins in a row for Los Angeles. Vegas (.719 winning percentage) and Colorado (.633) are in an entertaining battle for No. 1 in the West, then there’s a developing race between St. Louis (.579) and three surprises: Minnesota (.600); the Kings (.559); and Arizona (.528). If Los Angeles stays in this, will they add?
“No, we’re going to stick with the plan,” GM Rob Blake said Sunday.
“They’ve seen the light,” Blake said. “There was going to be no more trading away good players.”
The GM said Doughty saw the talent in their young defenceman, and, yes, is indeed motivated by being picked for the 2022 Olympic Team. Do you talk about that with him?
“All the time,” Blake answered.
Brown is tied for fifth in the NHL with 10 goals, five with the man advantage.
“I played for (coach) Todd (McLellan) in San Jose. I saw how good he is with the power play.”
The Kings have as big a prospect base as anyone in the NHL, and the GM thinks the key is at least one year in the AHL. Mikey Anderson, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Tobias Bjornfot and Gabriel Vilardi all got that year; Carl Grundstrom had two. They won’t rush all those talented players.
22. Really enjoyed “meeting” (so to speak) Kings scout Blake Bolden on the podcast last week. She had a lot of good stories, and I enjoyed talking about the ins and outs of the job. She had a terrific and adventurous playing career, with one disappointment: not making the 2014 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team.
As she grows in her off-ice career, I wonder if the Olympic desire could be sated by an executive role? Bolden was cautious in her answer.
“I’m just so focused on moving on and being in the moment, creating opportunities for myself and growing the game the best way I can, which is sharing my story…. So I haven’t thought about being an executive for Team USA or anything like that,” she said. “I think right now, I’m in a really good space, I have a really great platform and I'm just not up to that yet.”
Hopefully, there is a future opportunity. No reason there can’t be.
23. There were reports out of Russia last week about Chicago and Detroit chasing soon-to-be 27-year-old right winger Damir Zhafyarov from KHL Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. They might be the most aggressive, but aren’t the only ones. He’s third in league scoring, with 59 points in 56 games.
24. At the Montreal/Edmonton outdoor game in 2003, the weather was so cold and the ice so fragile there was concern the game couldn’t go on. The players got together, decided they had to try, and agreed to play a “no-hitter” for the big picture. I was reminded of that last weekend as Boston, Colorado, Philadelphia and Vegas descended on Lake Tahoe. On Tuesday, Flyers coach Alain Vigneault referred to the trip as “challenging,” which is probably one-tenth of what he wanted to say. Some players are more enthusiastic about these games than others, particularly when conditions are challenging, but, in the end, they always do what it takes to put on the show.
When everyone woke up Saturday morning, there was a misty haze over the premises, leading to optimism about cloud cover. As that waned and the sun softened the ice, the NHL, the Avalanche, the Golden Knights and the players considered the loss of NBC’s national window and decided to go for it, so the spectacular showcase could receive some wide exposure. (Bruins/Flyers was moved to Sunday night well before publicly announced.)
I believe that Commissioner Gary Bettman realizes circumstances demand it is time for the NHL to step out of its comfort zone and try new things. I hope what happened doesn’t discourage that thinking. When the game was delayed and the league took a social-media beating, Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog stepped in for an interview on NBC. He could have added to the pile-on, but cheerily pointed out his teammates were ready to return for the second period. (Some of the Vegas players were incredulous the Avalanche were even willing to consider it.) It didn’t unfold the way anyone expected, but, as usual, the players made the best of it. (The broadcasters, too. That was a long weekend.)
25. Bettman isn’t crazy about another such event without spectators, saying, “These events are enhanced with the energy and excitement that our games get from having so many of our fans.”
I’d love to see what this would look like with an intimate gathering, say 5,000 to 10,000 people. Sell tickets, but also open a contest to one fan from each NHL market to win a pair by sending some sort of social media post explaining why they deserve to represent their team at the game. I’d hate to see this just tried once. Longtime Hockey Night in Canada teammate Dimitri Gammer offered up his property seven kilometres west of Smithers, B.C. It is in the foreground of Hudson Bay Mountain, with a view of three other ranges.
26. Mike Babcock takes over at the University of Saskatchewan on May 1. Now that there’s a date on his return to coaching, does any NHL team consider him beforehand?
27. Really good interview on Andy Strickland and Cam Janssen’s podcast with Vegas owner Bill Foley, who revealed what had been suspected: He does not want Marc-Andre Fleury traded.
“He never came close to being part of a deal,” Foley said. “I would’ve had a big problem with it if that had been presented to me.”
I do think Pittsburgh tried hard through another team and thought they were close, but if the owner says no — it’s not close.
28. I was going through some five-on-five numbers, and noticed Jordan Kyrou is sixth in the NHL in points per 60 minutes in that situation — right between Mitch Marner and Matthews. (Edmonton’s Jujhar Khaira is fourth.) That’s a very good sign for Kyrou and St. Louis. He badly wanted an opportunity to prove his worth, and is walking the walk.
29. Very difficult few months for the owners of the ECHL’s Brampton Beast, who ceased operations last week.
“A lot of emotions once you actually make the announcement,” said president, GM and minority owner Cary Kaplan. “A lot of people are affected.”
He pointed out that the pandemic affected three seasons — last year’s playoffs, this year and 2021–22 — a timeline the Beast couldn’t overcome.
“What we realized recently is that next season is compromised. Normally at this time of year, you sell a lot of season tickets, you renew your season tickets, you make group sales, you do a lot of sponsorship. There’s so much nervousness out there, we realized for the upcoming season … that revenues would be greatly depleted. You’re losing revenues in three distinct hockey seasons. As a business, it’s not sustainable. We came to that realization probably since Christmas, (and) for us that was just too much…. You try to find a way, the owners’ vote was Tuesday morning. We had until Wednesday to declare (our intentions) to the league. We looked at every possible avenue.”
Kaplan was proud of the organization’s efforts locally, saying 680,000 people “came to our games in seven years.”
30. Kaplan believes Brampton (also home to the Cassie Campbell Community Centre) will have some level of hockey return in the future.
“There’s no city (in Canada) the size of Brampton that doesn’t have a hockey team. There should be a team in that market.”
Will your ownership group try again?
“It’s not out of the question, (but) you need the dust to settle. Someone may jump in in the interim.”
What does Kaplan think about the future of minor-league hockey?
“Everybody that doesn’t have television revenue is in really, really dire straits,” he answered. “There’s a lot of prayers that (in Canada) everybody’s waiting for somebody to get the OK to have 20 per cent fans in your building or 30 per cent fans in your building. I think (the AHL and ECHL) are in pretty good shape, but you have to get to the other side of this.”
31. Wanted to end on this quote from Kaplan, because it stuck with me: “You remember the first-ever hockey game you went to. I bet you (that) people will remember the first game they went to after COVID. You’ll remember that in 30 years.”