32 Thoughts: Maple Leafs, Jets both angry over kneeing incidents

A sequence of plays that starts with Neal Pionk kneeing Rasmus Sandin, Jason Spezza then retaliates and a scrum ensues on the following faceoff.

• Difficult 2020-21 seasons led to change in Vancouver, Philadelphia
• Could Stan Smyl make a trade as interim GM?
• Will other NHLers follow Robin Lehner out of the Olympics?

It’s the opposite of a Snickers -- everyone is unsatisfied.

Jason Spezza is upset he’s suspended six games, the first blemish on an otherwise clean career. He’s planning an appeal, first to the commissioner, then to an arbitrator if unhappy with Gary Bettman’s ruling. (One executive on another team, half-joking: “It will take them six games to get to that appeal.”)

The Toronto Maple Leafs are furious at the length of Spezza’s suspension, the entire process, that Rasmus Sandin was injured on an unpenalized hit by Neal Pionk. They feel Spezza’s suspension is non-existent if Pionk is properly penalized in the moment. They have specific beef with the referees that night and have made it clear. The players also don’t like the defenceman, an underrated hard-hitter who took a run at Mitch Marner last January. (Toronto undoubtedly feels very fortunate about Sandin’s two-to-three week timeline. Initially, they were worried it was a lot worse.)

The Winnipeg Jets are angry that Pionk is injured, in concussion protocol. While they agree things should have been better kept in control, the Jets feel Toronto is complaining too much, blaming the Maple Leafs for escalating things to a fever pitch.

The Department of Player Safety’s suspension video refuted Spezza’s three key arguments: that the hit was not kneeing; that while, yes, there is no rule against hitting a player who is low to the ice, the onus is still on him to do it cleanly; and that Pionk’s head “remained on a consistent plane and tract,” not materially moving in a way Spezza couldn’t avoid.

It is believed Toronto also argued that both of its goaltenders last weekend -- Jack Campbell (in Minnesota) and Joseph Woll (in Winnipeg) -- were hit with unpenalized knees to the head.

Those protestations did not sway the jury.

The closest incident I could find to Spezza’s was James Neal on Brad Marchand from 2013, a five-gamer for the then-Penguin. That will be the biggest challenge to his appeal.

Wherever that goes, one thing is very clear: Toronto and Winnipeg are unhappy with the officials, process, the medical outcomes and especially with each other.


1. Ian Cole was ejected during Tuesday’s Carolina/Winnipeg game for kneeing Mark Scheifele. That call was made by Reid Anderson, who also worked the controversial Maple Leafs/Jets game.

2. It happened just as I was putting the finishing touches on this blog, but wishing the best for Jujhar Khaira. He’s battled concussions before, and you want to see him healthy.

3. Good thing about the Spezza/Brendan Lemieux suspension videos: more clarity on the arguments made and the reasons for accepting or not accepting them.

4. In the aftermath of major changes in both Philadelphia and Vancouver, there was one similarity: that frustrations from last season never healed, with wounds magnified by awful starts this year. Numerous players and coaches said the tough -- but necessary -- 2020-21 COVID protocols were challenging enough while winning, and absolutely ripped apart teams who were losing. Both the Canucks and Flyers worked hard to repair on- and off-ice fissures, but you need wins to create happiness. Philly GM Chuck Fletcher in particular worked to smooth relations between the coaching staff and players, but, as the losses mounted, it was obvious no Krazy Glue could hold it together.

5. Sunday morning, a degenerate gambler friend talked up the Flyers. Tampa Bay was on a back-to-back, their fifth game in eight days -- four of them on the road. Meanwhile, Philly had three days off. Losses happen, but a 7-1 defeat was unacceptable in those circumstances, which is why Fletcher was forced into making a change. Last year, the Flyers were dead last in five-on-five save percentage. This year, they are 18th, and I wouldn’t have thought they’d be in this much trouble with that kind of improvement.

There’ve been differing internal opinions and supporters of Bruce Boudreau (now moot), Jim Montgomery, Rick Tocchet and John Tortorella. It’s possible Mike Yeo gets the rest of the season, as Philadelphia figures out its best path. (I always worry a line like this gets published and 15 minutes later, is totally wrong.) Some players felt the preference for dump-and-chase hockey limited them, and, if Yeo’s first game is any indication, they’ll get the opportunity to prove it. But, if it doesn’t work? They’ve already made major moves and a coaching change. What’s next that could make a real difference?

6. Something else that stood out from Yeo’s first game: Oskar Lindblom moved up and out of a fourth-line role. Everyone’s rooting for Lindblom, and they’ve shown great patience with him. Eventually, though, you need results.

7. The Flyers are expected to quickly hire someone to coach the defence. We’ve spent a lot of time talking Elias Pettersson’s struggles, but Ivan Provorov is another really talented youngster who does not look anything like himself. One rumoured possibility: Adam Foote, who certainly maximized his own ability.

8. If Vancouver’s future includes Jim Rutherford -- and they’ve done their due diligence on him -- I think we’re going to know sooner rather than later.

9. Asked if he would consider past employees as potential returnees, owner Francesco Aquilini responded, “Anything is possible.” The Canucks are going through a vetting process. If you think of a name, they’ve looked into them, whether or not they’ve actually made contact. It’s also possible Ryan Johnson, newly an interim assistant GM, is considered for more of a role. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a contender for one of the top jobs, but recognition that he’s got a bright future, and the Canucks don’t want to lose him.

10. The toughest thing about being a coach is that it’s almost impossible to end your career on your own terms. What Bruce Boudreau will appreciate the most is getting another opportunity to try. That’s incredibly meaningful inside the profession. Boudreau’s acceptance of a two-year term was critical. Vancouver did not want to go past that. According to multiple sources, Claude Julien preferred three years -- and the Canucks weren’t going that far at this time.

11. Stan Smyl stood in front of the players on Monday morning, preparing to introduce Boudreau as the team’s new head coach. “What I told them, I will keep between me and the players,” Smyl said by phone, hours later. “I couldn’t write down what I wanted to say, but the moment I was in the room in front of them, I knew exactly what had to be said."

Every NHL market has its Stan Smyl. Here’s a late-1970s Mark’s Work Wearhouse ad with Smyl, then in the infancy of his 896-game Canucks career, playing road hockey with Matthew and Tony Wosk (an old friend of mine).

A 1978 third-round draft pick who became the first player in franchise history to get his number retired, Smyl epitomized everything a Canuck is supposed to be: aggressive, tenacious, unwilling to give an inch. He played on the 1982 Stanley Cup finalist, was an assistant coach on the 1994 finalist and in management for 2011. At the 2012 draft, he was invited on-stage and recognized, as top selection Brendan Gaunce became the first to wear a Vancouver number 12 sweater in 21 years. It is not a coincidence that Aquilini asked Smyl to lead during the search for new leadership. If you want maximum local credibility, you go to Smyl or the Sedins (who are also part of the interim group).

12. Smyl raised eyebrows during his availability by saying that, as the Canucks’ 4-1 Saturday night loss to Pittsburgh came to its conclusion, he thought, “I have to get involved here a little more…maybe express my views a little stronger.” Smyl said he did not call Aquilini after that game. But his phone buzzed at approximately 8 am Sunday, with a request to step in on an interim basis. “Francesco and I have a lot of conversations,” he said. “We don’t always agree on things, but we are always honest with each other.” He paused, choosing his words carefully. “It was time for change here. We are all responsible for the situation, not just the people who were fired. Now we have to fix it.”

You’re going to hear the “I” word a lot. Identity. Darryl Sutter uses it all the time. In our conversation, Smyl did it, too. So, what is the identity he wants? “Be hard to play against,” he answered. “When an opponent lines against you, he is saying to himself, ‘Crap, I have to play against him again!’ And to initiate (the play).” That’s similar to Boudreau’s message. He told the Canucks to be “aggressive.”

13. While ownership figures out its long-term plans, the interim collective manages day-to-day operations. But what if someone calls with an offer? Do the Canucks hold until new leadership is finalized? “We have an understanding that if someone comes to us with something that makes sense for the Vancouver Canucks, we can move forward with it if we agree,” Smyl said. “I made it clear I wasn’t interested in taking the role if that wasn’t the case.”

14. Trevor Zegras: must-see TV. A major reason why Anaheim wouldn’t part with him to Buffalo.

15. Rooting for Ben Bishop in his AHL conditioning stint. His first appearance is expected to be Thursday. At the start of this season, it was believed Bishop would never play again, but he’s put in the time and effort to make an attempt. Not sure how many people thought this was even possible.

16. Jeff Marek reported last weekend that the Stars put Anton Khudobin on the market.

17. Mentioned it last Saturday, but player agent Kent Hughes is definitely on Montreal’s radar for its general manager opening. The question is how interested will he be? The timing is not always right, especially for agents making the switch.

18. Boston is definitely willing to do a Jake DeBrusk deal, but on its terms. They are looking for the best defenceman/forward they can find, and are unafraid to take a chance on a younger player. But they are telling potential partners that they value DeBrusk, and won’t make what they feel is a bad deal because the trade request is now public.

19. Ottawa became the first team to put a gambling company (Bet99) on their helmet ads, in a seven-figure deal. Now that the NHL opened this door, the Senators won’t be the last. It’s not surprising Ottawa would be unafraid to take this leap. Several years ago, at a league business meeting, owner Eugene Melnyk passionately argued he be allowed to sell marijuana/CBD oil advertising after it was legalized. The NHL wasn’t ready for that.

20. Speaking of gambling, last summer I bet on a CFL game. It was BC/Saskatchewan, and imagine my surprise when Mike Reilly, announced as the starting quarterback, didn’t actually start for the Lions. That was the last bet I placed on Canadian football. I’m not someone who is bothered by shielding injuries or refusing to name starting goalies. However, the more the NHL embraces gambling money, the more the league wants these dollars, the less fans are going to accept nights like last Saturday, when multiple players are suddenly announced as out in the 30 minutes before a game.

I'm very careful about how I bet on the NHL because I don’t want anyone thinking I’m asking questions that are about wagering, not covering the league. But there were a lot of complaints in my DMs about that night and it reminded me of the CFL bet. If you really want to maximize gambling dollars, you’re going to have to find a fair path: something like the IIHF or NFL route of inactives an hour before a game.

21. Pittsburgh’s sale is going to create rumours. Other teams are going to be testing their market value.

22. The Coyotes -- and the NHL -- were quick to deny Forbes’ report about a move to Houston. Until we get some clarity on what next year is going to look like for Arizona, there are going to be more of these rumours.

23. Wild one shot down last week: that the NHL/NHLPA would create some kind of World Cup/Olympic tournament in North America with all the players if the NHLers don’t go to China.

24. There is an attempt to find out how many NHLers feel similarly to Robin Lehner, that the possibility of a three-week quarantine due to a positive COVID test in China is too much to consider. There are definitely some who feel the same. Until the official guidelines are revealed sometime this month, others hope there will be flexibility.

25. Even-strength goals since the start of the 2018-19 season: Auston Matthews (100), Alexander Ovechkin (98), Connor McDavid (89), Leon Draisaitl (82), Kyle Connor (79), Patrick Kane & John Tavares (77), Jake Guentzel (75). That’s a nice run for Guentzel. Also interesting is Alex DeBrincat 10th with 69, after Brad Marchand’s 72.

26. The timing of Ethan Bear’s positive COVID test -- 15 days ago -- allowed him to join Carolina’s Canadian trip through Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. The Hurricanes appealed to have Tony DeAngelo join them since he’s had two negative tests and is out of protocol, but the NHL held firm on 14 days before being eligible to enter Canada. He’s missed three games, so far. Brett Pesce -- in the same boat -- resumes skating on Wednesday, but both will have to wait until the Hurricanes get to Minnesota next week before they can play.

27. Know it’s only been 25 games, but Seattle is the first team to beat Carolina, Florida and Washington this season -- and they did it in six days.

28. Best wishes to referee Marc Joannette, who suffered a broken fibula last week during a Boston/Detroit game. He is retiring after this season, with his final game scheduled in March. Undoubtedly, there will be hope he could somehow make it back, but that will be a major challenge. Would be brutal to go out that way.

29. Would love for the AHL to try some kind of limit to passing or carrying the puck back over the red line in three-on-three overtime, once you’ve gained the opposing blue line. The coaches and players are too smart.

30. Great to see Tucker Tynan go to an OHL contender with his trade to Sault Ste. Marie. It was two years ago -- almost to the day -- Tynan suffered a life-threatening gash to his thigh during a game. Quick efforts by team trainers and physicians were crucial to a happier ending.

31. We were expecting to see Jacob Perreault on the Team USA roster for the World Juniors. However, he could not get his American passport in time, and is therefore ineligible to play for them. This is a IIHF-sanctioned event, and once you declare a country, you stick with it. He could also play for Canada, but his choice is this one.

32. Good luck to Andrea Barone, making his AHL debut as a linesman on Wednesday night. Long journey.

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