• Will the Oilers consider rental players?
• Malkin, Letang contract situations get interesting
• Why Andrei Kuzmenko is a player to watch at the Olympics
Four days into 2022, already breaking my New Year’s Resolution -- leading the blog with something COVID-related. That’s gotta be a record.
As we woke up Tuesday, the NHL’s postponed 92 dates for corona-related reasons. League leaders Anaheim and Vegas are at 35 games played, while Boston, Colorado, Dallas, the Islanders and Ottawa are below 30.
Thanks to attendance restrictions, Canadian teams are grinding to a halt -- taking a chance they’ll be able to make up in front of larger crowds. Edmonton’s only missed four games, but have just one scheduled over the 12 days after Wednesday. Meanwhile, recovering Calgary is preparing for its third game in 24 days; Ottawa’s on a stretch of one in 20; Toronto two in 22; Vancouver three in 22. Winnipeg went 13 days without a game and Montreal isn’t playing at home.
The Canadiens were so infested by COVID, the organization was shut down upon returning to Canada from its post-Christmas road trip.
The league does not want to push the regular season past its current end date of April 29. So, do the math. What are we dealing with?
We know the Olympic Break (Feb. 7-22) is non-existent. Some teams will have to play through it, with varying degrees of schedule intensity. The hope was to give everyone approximately a week off, but that won’t be possible in several situations -- particularly in Canada. Assuming All-Star Weekend goes as scheduled (that’s still the plan), don’t be surprised if the schedule resumes two or three days after the Saturday-afternoon affair.
It’s going to ruin vacations -- a definite annoyance -- but teams and players generally seem to recognize they’ve already had enough time off. (Although I’m not expecting 100 per cent agreement on this issue.)
There's a possibility of flipping some January home games in Canada with road games later on, as the league did with Islanders-Leafs matchups on Jan. 22 and April 17. What it also means is that come the third week of January, Canadian teams are going to have to play regardless of what attendance restrictions are in place. There simply isn’t enough runway to keep postponing beyond then. It’s going to damage revenue and affect long-term salary-cap determinations, but you reach a point where you can no longer wait.
Who knows what we’re going to get in terms of COVID-related absences. Hopefully as few as possible as Omicron blasts through North America, but taxi squads are in-place to alleviate some of that. Sometimes it’s more kindergarten finger-painting than Picasso, but if you’re an NBA fan (Cavaliers 144, Raptors 99 on Boxing Day) or NFL watcher (last Monday’s ugly Dolphins/Saints game), you recognize leagues’ number one priority is getting these games played.
Montreal had thin rosters in Tampa Bay, Carolina and Florida -- but those players deserve credit. They played as hard as they could, giving the Lightning and Panthers as much as they could handle.
Another thing we’re learning about the NHL; the magic number looks like 16. If you can get that many skaters, you’re probably going to play.
And come Jan. 17, that goes for the Canadian teams as a group. Fans or no fans, there’s no more time to wait.
1. Willie O’Ree’s number 22 is to be retired two weeks today in Boston, the 64th anniversary of his NHL debut. Days after Derek Joslin played his first NHL game on Jan. 3, 2009 for San Jose, he received a special surprise -- a handwritten letter from O’Ree himself, welcoming him to the big time. Joslin, from a biracial family (father Jeff is Black, mother Darlene is White), still has the note, keeping it at his Ontario home. “Out of the blue it came,” Jeff said. O’Ree wrote Derek’s arrival was proof Joslin could do whatever he wanted, and could handle any obstacle that came his way.
Now 34, and a defenceman for VSV, in Villach, Austria, Joslin thought a lot about that message, the reason he wished to discuss what happened last Tuesday in a game against Olimpija Ljubljana. After a small scrum around the Villach net, a Ljubljana player imitates a primate in Joslin’s face. It’s brutal. What the highlights don’t capture is that Joslin caught up to the offender (Tadej Cimzar), only to see his own teammates on the bench erupt at something that happened behind him -- more gestures and, he was told, monkey noises from another player. “I’m still trying to digest it,” Joslin said Monday from Austria. “I saw the gesture, and thought, ‘WTF was that?’ I was surprised and saw red. Never before have I been directly affected by this kind of racism until now. I’m in a bit of shock and there are a lot of ‘Why’s?’”
2. Joslin has mixed reactions about the aftermath. His team is coached by Canadian Rob Daum, who has history with Austrian hockey in the World Championships and Olympics, and features several North American teammates. He was thankful for strong organizational support and, “I was satisfied with how quickly the league acted. Sometimes, in these situations it’s ‘He said, she said,’ but that didn’t happen.” The next day, Cimzar and teammate Miha Zajc were suspended 10 games and fined 3,000 Euros. Joslin doesn’t think that’s enough. “I figured at minimum, they’d get the rest of the regular season and maybe return for the playoffs. I care about people learning. If you ban them for life, do they learn? If you’re a hockey player, playing means everything. But they need to be held accountable. If I hit a guy from behind tomorrow, I could get 10 games. This doesn’t seem like it should be the same penalty.”
Alberta native Lyle Seitz was an NHL linesman from 1992-2010. For the past 11 years, he’s worked as the ICE Hockey League’s director of hockey operations and says he’s “fallen in love” with the European game. “This is not how we want to represent ourselves as a league,” he said. “We have worked so hard to bring up our product’s level. We want Derek to come over and not have to deal with what he’s had to deal with. The in-season penalties are just the start of it, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This is not how we want to represent ourselves as a league, we know we have to make sure it never happens again.” Seitz could not confirm what the additional penalties might be because they are still being discussed, but something with the Slovenian Federation is possible as both Cimzar and Zajc are from that country.
It also bothered Joslin that there were no in-game penalties for those actions, and Seitz agrees that was a mistake. “We wish the game officials would have done something, but no one was certain in the moment what the gesture meant. A supervisor was in the stands, and texted right away to ask, ‘Does this mean anything?’ We said, ‘Oh yes,’ but it didn’t relate there in the same way.” Ljubljana team president Miha Butara wrote an apology to the VSV team, stating the “behaviour of our players was totally unprofessional and below any civilized standards…Please accept my personal apology. And I apologize to Derek as well.”
Joslin received meaningful notes of support, including one from Matt Stajan, a teammate in Germany during the 2018-19 season. He did not realize until Tuesday afternoon that one of the players had sent an apology through Instagram, stating, “It was a big misunderstanding…We meant the sign for ‘big head,’ I swear on my mother” and that one of Joslin’s teammates could vouch for their character. That didn’t ease Joslin’s pain. “It wasn’t an apology or acknowledgement of what happened,” he said. “I pulled my three teammates aside the next day one-on-one and asked them are they 100 per cent sure they heard them say monkey and make monkey noises, and they said, ‘Yes, 100 per cent.’”
Jeff Joslin, who was watching via livestream when this happened, briefly played for the OHL’s Peterborough Petes 40 years ago. He would advise Derek and sister Jamie (who played at Robert Morris University) how to handle themselves if faced with this garbage. “No one should think you can do this kind of stuff anymore. Derek played minor hockey in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, the OHL in Ottawa, the NHL, he’s almost 35, so getting closer to retirement. Then this happens. It’s gut-wrenching. Hurts your soul.” “Things are changing,” Derek Joslin said, “but they can still happen. This is still an issue.”
3. Wanted to include something more positive from Joslin’s 15-year professional career, which includes 116 NHL games with San Jose, Carolina and Vancouver. He scored his first NHL goal Dec, 13, 2010 from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in a 3-2 shootout win over Dallas. “I put the puck in Thornton’s office, behind the net,” Joslin said. “He faked one way and passed the other, which had (Stars goalie Andrew) Raycroft looking the wrong way.” Joslin took advantage to blast home a goal that tied it 1-1. “Thornton said to me, ‘Why are you celebrating so much? It’s only 1-1!’” Joslin laughed. “I told him it was my first goal, and he got it.” He told another Thornton story so hilariously ridiculous that it needs further investigation. In the time being, hopefully talking about what happened last week brings peace to the Joslin family.
4. Interesting question posed by one executive: would any Canadian teams consider temporarily playing home games at the 15,000-seat SaskTel Centre, home of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades? Saskatchewan is still allowing full capacity at this time. Obviously, the NHL, the NHLPA and the province would have to approve.
5. When it rains, it pours: Edmonton’s Connor McDavid (and Derek Ryan) entered COVID protocol on Tuesday, hours after a 4-1 loss to the Rangers. We’ll see what Wednesday brings, but the slumping Oilers have scored just 20 goals in their past 10 meetings against the Maple Leafs. If anything showed Edmonton’s institutional frustration and realization of what’s at stake, it was head coach Dave Tippett’s open criticism of Mikko Koskinen. The goalie had a very rough night, but in less stressful moments, things don’t go that far. If the Oilers are going to make any changes, it stands to reason that they’d come during the break post-Toronto, but it’s hard to get a feel for Ken Holland’s taste to do it. He already pooh-poohed reports linking him to Mike Babcock, and his default mechanism is to be patient. He’s never fired a coach mid-season.
6. The other thing with Edmonton is: does paying the price for a rental like a Ben Chiarot or Marc-Andre Fleury make sense? I don’t think missing the playoffs is an option, not at all. But also crazy is giving up your best assets for a short-term fix.
7. After watching St. Louis dismantle Minnesota at the Winter Classic, I wonder if the Blues consider someone like Chiarot. It looks like a go-for-it year for them.
8. Jordan Kyrou, who had four points in that game and was the NHL’s first star of the week, is 23rd in scoring with 32 points in the 29 games. He plays 16:27 per night. The only other players in the top 50 in scoring with under 17 minutes per game are New Jersey’s Jesper Bratt (29 points, 16:48) and Nashville’s Ryan Johansen (27 points, 16:30). The highest-scoring player under Kyrou’s ice time is Florida’s Anthony Duclair, who has 22 points in 15:06 per game. Even more impressive: Kyrou ranks 270th in power play time per game. What a player he’s turning out to be.
9. I don’t think it would be for the open GM job, but several sources say they wouldn’t be surprised if Pittsburgh’s director of pro scouting, Ryan Bowness, ends up with Jim Rutherford in Vancouver.
10. Another possible interview candidate for Montreal (but probably another role, not GM) might be Daniel Dore, who scouted for Jeff Gorton with the Rangers. The Canadiens will try to whittle this down to their top few GM candidates reasonably quickly.
11. When Sportsology’s Mike Forde was hired by Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis to advise on hiring with his NBA Wizards, Forde eventually recommended promoting interim GM Tommy Sheppard to the full-time role -- with support. Word is the Blackhawks really like their current interim, Kyle Davidson, so it’s not a surprise if he stays in a prominent role. What I wonder about is if Ed Olczyk ends up in a John Davidson-type role there, too.
12. The Ducks have long wanted Paul Kariya and Scott Niedermayer to be more involved with the franchise, so it’s a victory for the organization to get both on their GM search committee. There is a ton of interest in this job, from both external and internal candidates. Anaheim’s had what I’d call “soft conversations” with people, just to gauge interest and see where things might stand. But now they really get going.
13. Other situations to keep an eye on in 2022: Carey Price, Montreal. Obviously, the most critical thing is Price gets his mental health in order. Without the Olympics, there’s no rush to get into the lineup. But what we all wait to see is if he wants to test his physical health. As player and organization determine their futures, Price may want to take a test-drive preview for 2022-23.
14. Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh. It was really interesting watching both discuss their contract negotiations. Malkin doesn’t talk a ton, but always delivers at least one spectacular line when doing so. This time, it was, “I'm not thinking about money. I'm a pretty rich guy," with a laugh last week. Letang wouldn’t even admit there’d been talks, saying he hopes to play five more years.
What coach Mike Sullivan is really good at is making sure the players separate the business from the on-ice expectation. It’s human nature for Letang, Malkin (and Bryan Rust) to wonder about their futures, but Sullivan makes sure it doesn’t affect what they need to do for the team to be successful. That’s not always easy. Not that anyone’s saying anything, but I do think there have been talks with all three players. The Penguins have deep respect for what they’ve accomplished. Age and injury history, not questions about their ability, make it a challenging target. I think everyone knows where everyone else stands, and there’s still time.
15. Arizona’s got Jakob Chychrun and Phil Kessel out there, with Chychrun potentially being the first big trade of 2022. But another player of interest is Lawson Crouse, coming to the end of his current contract, with unrestricted free agency looming on the horizon. He can help teams.
16. Veterans at the end of current contracts include Seattle’s Mark Giordano and Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux. It’s unlikely Giordano stays with the Kraken, as he’ll have serious rental value. Don’t sense any immediate urgency with Giroux, as the Flyers continue to battle for the playoffs.
17. It got a bit lost in everything else, but Philly’s Mike Yeo did one of the more unique coaching moves in recent memory during Saturday night’s 6-3 loss in Los Angeles. Down 4-1 in the third, Yeo pulled goalie Martin Jones after the Flyers won an offensive-zone faceoff during a five-on-three power play. Kevin Hayes was the extra skater, and he scored. Very creative, and, since it worked, hope other teams try it.
18. After the Channel One Cup in Russia last month, Canadians Jason Demers and Eric Fehr signed KHL contracts. So assume they will be part of the Olympic team if they wish. Include those on AHL-only contracts like Devan Dubnyk, Cody Franson and Josh Ho-Sang. There is some question about whether or not players on two-way deals will be allowed to go. Others to watch: I’m betting a request goes out for Mason McTavish to gauge his interest. Same for Eric Staal and Cole Perfetti. I wondered about Patrick Marleau, but have heard he is not on the long list as a possibility. Owen Power is going.
19. One non-North American to watch in Beijing will be Russia’s Andrei Kuzmenko. I’ve written about him before, and interest continues to be hot across the NHL. According to several sources, he’s in no hurry to sign and likely won’t commit until after his KHL season ends. He’s also told teams the right fit is most important to him. Under CBA rules, he’s eligible for a one-year contract, and can be unrestricted in the summer of 2023.
20. A couple of players relayed some funny stories about teammates figuring out if they could terminate their contracts or “fake” a short-term retirement to go to the Olympics, then re-sign to come back. The NHL was prepared for these attempts, making it clear they could not happen. But it shows how badly some wanted to go.
21. Vancouver’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the only player to be on-ice for more than 500 minutes at 5v5 and fewer than 10 goals against (9).
22. Thanks to Joey Kenward for the help on this one. Logan Thompson is expected to start for Vegas Tuesday, which would make him the 97th net minder to play this season. That’s one behind last year. (I couldn’t find a year with more who played, but feel free to let me know if you are able to.) In the last 82-game season (2018-19), it was 93 goalies.
23. Tough to win MVP when your name is not Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Alexander Ovechkin, Auston Matthews or Nathan MacKinnon, but not sure anyone is more valuable to their team than Andrei Vasilevskiy. When he’s unavailable, we get even more of a window into that.
24. A few of my Calgary-based buddies say loser Central Canadians like myself have no idea how much of a problem it is locally that Edmonton has a beautiful new downtown arena and their city doesn’t. Anecdotal rather than statistical, but it’s there.
25. It didn’t get a lot of attention at the Board of Governors’ meeting, but the most influential move made there was the NHL agreeing to allow private equity funds to buy into NHL teams. Commissioner Gary Bettman was tight-lipped regarding details, as it's more about the realities of COVID’s effect on the business than something he had incredible enthusiasm for. Front Office Sports reported this week that teams can sell up to 30 per cent of their ownership to such firms; and these firms can own parts of up to five teams -- maximum 20 per cent in any team, with a minimum $20M (US) investment in each one. The first such investor, Arctos Sports Partners, bought into both Minnesota and Tampa Bay. This development is going to strengthen current ownership groups that wish to use them.
26. Before Tyler Boucher committed to OHL Ottawa, he had to believe the league was going to play and not get shut down. Obviously, he felt comfortable with that decision. There are CHL-based players who want that kind of assurance before the USHL eligibility cutoff of Jan. 10. They don’t want to be stuck without a place to play.
27. Jeff Marek reported last weekend that the Top Prospects Game, scheduled for Feb. 2 in Kitchener, ON, may be moved closer to the draft. That’s a good idea.
28. Think I do this every year, but if there’s a hardest shot competition at All-Star, hope Zdeno Chara is offered one last shot to compete at it. Would be great if they defrosted Shea Weber to go head-to-head with him. If there’s any time to try crazy stuff, it’s now.
29. Finished Mark Messier’s book before we interviewed him on the 32 Thoughts podcast. What stood out to me in No One Wins Alone was what he wrote about Jimmy Carson, famously traded to Edmonton in the Wayne Gretzky deal. Carson simply wasn’t ready to handle coming back for Gretzky and made it very clear to the Oilers he wanted out. “In retrospect, I have to give him credit,” Messier wrote. “It took guts to stand up and tell us things weren’t working out for him.” After Carson was sent to Detroit, Messier remembers saying, “Who cares? All we’re losing is a guy who didn’t want to be here.” He follows with: “I feel horrible now when I see those words. It was so narrow-minded, but that’s the intensity of being neck-deep in something you’re passionate about. Now, anytime I’m in a negotiation, I always put myself on the other side and try to understand the reality the other person is living.” Good advice.
30. My standard of looking at things is: would I like the Stanley Cup to be decided this way? So, while watching that crazy non-review during last Friday’s Edmonton/New Jersey game, I couldn’t help but wonder -- should whether a penalized team possessed the puck before a goal is scored be a reviewable play? Dougie Hamilton shot it and Jack Hughes touched it before the Oilers scored. It wasn’t blown dead, and New Jersey challenged before being informed they couldn’t.
31. Generally love the Winter Classic during the day, but if previous sun problems such as Lake Tahoe (last season) and Winnipeg (2019) make it impossible to play during the afternoon, I get it.
32. This video was making its rounds through player circles over the past week. Number 11 in white is Vladimir Putin. No one -- especially the Russians -- could believe how many saves the goalie was willing to make.