32 Thoughts: Unafraid Auston Matthews takes big off-ice step

On this edition of 32 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek discuss the latest around the NHL, including Canucks trade rumours, Mrazek's future in Toronto, a goalie moving from the OHL to the NHL, and interest surrounding Josh Manson.

• Canucks keeping options open with JT Miller
• How the Predators got back on track
• Why the Kings believe they're growing stronger

Moments after Toronto defeated New Jersey 7-1 on Tuesday night, Auston Matthews indicated he’ll be participating in the Bellagio Fountain Faceoff during Friday night’s skills competition at All-Star.

“I think it's cool to go outside the box and try new things,” he said.

In case you doubted that, flash back two Saturdays. He showed up on the screen, and I couldn’t help thinking about Tony Romo.

Back in June 2015, the NFL shut down the Dallas quarterback’s Fantasy Football event at a Las Vegas casino. Players were not allowed to appear in casinos. It’s not even seven years, how antiquated that feels now.

On Oct. 22, the NHLPA informed players and agents that it had reached a deal with the NHL for “participation” in the world of legal sports betting. It cleared players to participate in advertising “related to” betting and “can endorse or have a promotional involvement with Sports Books,” provided that: single-sport betting is legal where the betting entity operates; the endorsement is legal in that jurisdiction; the “endorsement activity” does not promote betting on NHL games; the player is not shown betting; and it “is not intended to establish or advance a relationship between the betting entity and a club unless the club already has a relationship with the entity.”

Days later, news of the memo reached Doug Honegger. Honegger, who played for QMJHL Hull in 1985-86 and represented Switzerland in the 1992 Winter Olympics, helped facilitate Matthews’ pre-draft 2015-16 season in Zurich. A co-founder of Bet99, he reached out to Matthews’ representative, Wasserman Hockey’s Judd Moldaver.

“We started talking, and it took several months to get over the finish line,” Honegger said Tuesday. (Full disclosure: The ad debuted on Sportsnet.) The key message he wanted to send was they were going to be very conservative.

For example, another Bet99 ambassador is Georges St-Pierre. In his ads, he holds up a phone with the company logo. Matthews will not be featured that way. Also, the link in St-Pierre’s marketing is to the company’s pay site. Matthews will link only to the free-to-play site, Bet99.net.

“We only wanted to ask him to be in a ‘free-to-play’ space,” Honegger said. “This is still evolving, we’ve got to see where the dust settles. We had to introduce it slowly.”

It’s still a major endorsement move. An active athlete representing a sports book is groundbreaking in North America, but it’s where we’re going. In 10 years, we’re all going to be looking back at this like, “What’s the big deal?” Prudential Center, where the Devils play, has a sports book. So does CapitalOne Arena, home of, well, the Capitals. The Blackhawks announced this week that one will be going into the United Center. But, being the first individual, especially when it comes to gambling, it takes a thick skin. There’s going to be criticism.

“I don’t know if he — or we — think about going first, but, 'Does Auston have authentic interest in this?’” Moldaver said. “Our question to him was: This is new, it’s fresh, if we can make this work, what do you think? Our mission for Auston is to not only be interesting for a hockey player, but to be interesting, period. It is Auston and his family’s openness and creativity that allows for all of this. (His father) Brian has always encouraged outside-the-box thinking.”

Once he said yes, it was up to Moldaver and Rachel Feucht, Wasserman’s director of hockey operations and client services, to negotiate. Honegger and his group — CEO Milena Tsekova, head of marketing Davin Bahuguna and head of partnerships Samantha Rogers — never spoke to the player. Matthews made it clear he was focused on the season. His photoshoot was in December, and lasted 45 minutes.

It’s a three-year deal, estimated to be in seven figures. There’s also a philanthropic aspect with Matthews’ preferred charities and causes. Feucht and Moldaver would not discuss specifics there, but his support for Movember and Sick Kids’ Hospital is public.

Bet99 isn’t the only company on the prowl. This will explode beyond hockey. Athletes from other sports — and other leagues — are taking notice.

“Other agents have reached out,” Honegger said. “They’re asking, ‘Tell me from your side what this represents.’ They’re also asking if any of their players are of interest to us.”

“Think about how fast everything has changed in the past 6-12 months,” Feucht said. “(Sportsbooks) will want to sign more. There are Tier 1 players actively looking or being pursued for these endorsements.”

Matthews is first, but he won’t be the last. And, as Moldaver says, Matthews is “looking forward to what’s next.”


1. My sense is that part of Vancouver’s thought process includes the possibility of re-signing JT Miller, not trading him. I’m not saying that’s the likely outcome, but, at the very least, they’ve investigated the idea and what it would take. That’s one reason other names — like Conor Garland’s — are out there. President of hockey operations Jim Rutherford wants to create room, and will explore almost all options to do it. I do think at least one team’s made a run at Miller (my guess is the Rangers), but obviously not to the point where the Canucks said yes.

2. Pat Verbeek is definitely a finalist in Anaheim. If the Ducks do go external, which appears to be the case, I don’t think it automatically means massive internal turnover. Word is at least some candidates were asked about keeping current executives who the organization feels do a good job.

3. Whoever gets the job with the Ducks, the biggest pre-deadline decision is Hampus Lindholm’s future. At some point, Anaheim considered paying a little more for less term, but I’m not sure how far that went before the GM change. I don’t believe the Ducks, even if in a playoff position, can afford to keep Lindholm post-deadline unless they know he’s staying.

4. After mentioning Toronto’s interest on Josh Manson, one exec joked “the Leafs have been interested in him since Punch Imlach was GM.” Anaheim will have many options here, including keeping him.

5. It’s believed Kyle Davidson had his “official” interview for Chicago’s permanent GM position. The Blackhawks will interview external candidates, and, when CEO Danny Wirtz does his town hall on Wednesday, I’m curious to see if he indicates that not hiring anyone above the new GM is a temporary or permanent decision. Word is some NHL teams were not willing to give permission for their staff to interview before the trade deadline. Could the team re-visit those options later? Another question: Since the interview process involves non-hockey people, will a non-hockey person be added to the Marian Hossa, Ed Olczyk, Patrick Sharp advisory committee? The first name that comes to mind would be Theo Epstein.

6. A few teams indicated they see Jeff Petry more likely as an off-season deal as opposed to this deadline, although those predictions certainly could backfire. One thing to remember: as ugly as this season’s been for him — and the Canadiens — his underlying numbers last year were very good. And that hasn’t gone unnoticed.

7. Jeff Marek mentioned last weekend that Florida had Owen Tippett as a possibility in potential trades. Frank Vatrano could be another. Not enough room for everyone in that deep forward lineup.

8. The more you watch Winnipeg, the more you realize how Dustin Byfuglien’s abrupt retirement changed the course of the franchise. Byfuglien was like Shea Weber. When he put his leg over the boards, the game changed. Good shift or bad, everyone knew he was out there. Everyone knew if they weren’t alert, they could be pancaked. He played a lot of minutes, took a lot of responsibility, covered up for a lot of minutes. We all knew he’d be a loss, but I don’t think we realized how big a loss and how hard it would be to replace him. We’re seeing it now.

9. New Jersey and Mackenzie Blackwood are going through second and potentially third opinions over treatment for his injured heel. Timeline uncertain.

10. Chris Kreider hit the All-Star break with 33 goals in 47 games, on pace for 58. He’ll be 31 on April 30, which puts him into rarefied air if he does get to 50. Hall of Famer Johnny Bucyk is the oldest player to reach that milestone for the first time — 51 for Boston in 1970-71, when he was 35. Another Hall of Famer, Joe Mullen, is second. He turned 32 in February 1989, en route to 51 goals. By my math, Kreider would be next.

11. One of the reasons you’re seeing agents like Emilie Castonguay and Kent Hughes end up in NHL front offices? Teams want to know more about what makes players tick and what’s important to them in a relationship with an organization.

12. So, which team leads the NHL in fighting majors? It’s Nashville, with 29. That’s seven more than Anaheim. “We didn’t mean to lead the league in that, but here we are,” GM David Poile said Monday. “You want to have an all-for-one, one-for-all attitude. It’s an easy thing to say, but it’s happening here.”

Due to COVID’s unfortunate realities, there are a lot of teams I don’t get to see that often and therefore don’t get blog/podcast time. It doesn’t serve the readers or listeners, so I’m trying to make up for that over the next few weeks. Nashville is one, and when watching the Predators – with the fourth-best points-percentage in the West – you see a team rejuvenated by fresh blood.

“We had to make some tough decisions,” the GM added. “I’d like to tell you everything that happened this off-season was unanimous, but it wasn’t. Those were tough decisions we had to make, and moving on from fan favourites is very painful. But that is the job.” Unfortunately, the Predators’ strong run – which fell two wins shy of the Stanley Cup in 2017 – was over. Not sure what everyone out there expected from Nashville, but they’re better than I thought. “We’re not going anywhere if the drivers and leaders of our team, our best players, are not our best players,” Poile said. They certainly have been, bolstered by newfound enthusiasm.

13. Poile was riding down the elevator after last Thursday’s 3-2 shootout loss in Edmonton, when a scout reminded him Tanner Jeannot had one goal in the WHL at age 17. “Talk about determination. He was madder than a hornet when we sent him to the ECHL, but we just wanted him to play more. Think about it: Everyone’s being drafted except for him, and he stuck with it. Strong as a bull, learning day-by-day.” His line with Colton Sissons and Yakov Trenin drives opponents crazy, and drags the Predators into the fight if they start slowly. “Add Matt Benning and Mark Borowiecki, character guys who play hard every night. We lost our way, lost our identity. Now we have something.”

14. But, as Poile mentioned, Nashville’s rise is led by its best: Vezina candidate Juuse Saros, Hart/Norris candidate Roman Josi, forwards Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, Mikael Granlund and Ryan Johansen. Duchene is on pace for 73 points, which would be the highest of his career. He’s playing 18:50 per night, by far his biggest total since he signed there. Johansen is on pace for 61, way ahead of where he was the last two seasons. He’s a different case – playing 16:35, down 22 seconds from last season and lowest since he was 20. Only Andre Burakovsky, Anthony Duclair and Jordan Kyrou have more points in fewer average minutes than he does.

Poile credited head coach John Hynes for distribution; there’s room for further work on whether or not this is eye test or data-related, but the GM pointed out Hynes – hired two months before the first COVID shutdown – is finding sweet spots for players without having anything close to a normal season. “We were proud of what the last core accomplished here. They set a high goal of being better than just making the playoffs. This year, our first and only goal was to make the playoffs. If we are fortunate enough to do that, we will change our goal. But our goals were higher than that a few years ago, and we’d like to get back there.”

15. Poile admitted he loves the buzz of the trade deadline, “but I like our team and don’t want to change too many things. We’re content where we are.” Forsberg and Duchene could both beat Viktor Arvidsson’s club-record 34 goals (2018-19). Asked if he would keep an unsigned Forsberg past the deadline, the GM replied, “I don’t want to box myself in with an answer. It’s not my preference, but I’d never say never.”

16. Finally, Poile on Granlund: “Our coaches were saying the other day, ‘Nobody talks about him but he might be the most valuable player on our team.’”

17. GM Bill Guerin on the Wild: “I like them on the ice, I like them off the ice. They say the hard things to each other. No BS.” He had that reputation as a player, someone who wasn’t afraid to say what needed to be said. “I was pretty honest, and others were honest with me. Doug Weight. Keith Tkachuk. A lot of guys in New Jersey. If you were on your own page there, you weren’t going to last.”

He credited head coach Dean Evason with creating an environment where players have first crack at addressing things. “There are times I’ll see something on the bench from up top and ask what happened. Dean says, ‘They handled it.’ Or what did you say between the second and third period, and he’ll say, ‘I told (captain Jared) Spurgeon to handle it with the guys and he took care of it.’ They don’t baby each other. That is a true sense of being close, that they say the difficult things to each other.”

18. Minnesota continued its run of signings by locking down Jordan Greenway to a three-year, $9-million extension on Monday (there is an eight-team no-trade in the final season). There are cap penalties starting next season due to the Zach Parise/Ryan Suter buyouts: $12.7 million in 2022-23 and $14.7 million the following two years. “I don’t want things to wait until summer,” Guerin said. “We want to get guys slotted. I like our group and I’m very hesitant to break it up.” He did add there are no current negotiations with Kevin Fiala, who is arbitration eligible.

19. The Central Division is full of talented and nasty teams. Those playoffs are going to be something. Minnesota fits right in. “If you want to play a skill game, we’ll play a skill game. If you want to go to the back alley, we’ll go to the back alley.” Guerin likes that his skill players (the Kirill Kaprizovs and Mats Zuccarellos) don’t shrink or shy away when the games get tough.

“People say we need a No. 1 centre, I don’t know,” he said. “Not everybody has one. We have players who can drive offence from the wing.” He told local media on Monday that Matt Boldy is staying for the rest of the year and Marco Rossi is not far away. So there’s more offence on the way, and Guerin’s on the Joel Eriksson Ek Selke-hype train. As GM, he’s proven you can expect the unexpected, so not chasing a centre when we all thought he’d do it fits his profile.

20. Guerin did answer one mystery: how does Evason have a tan wintering in Minnesota? “He plays 250 rounds of golf a year. It’s permanent.”

21. The Kings flew from Pittsburgh to Detroit Sunday night after ending the Penguins’ eight-game points streak. As everyone watched their city brethren Rams defeat San Francisco in the NFC Championship game with dinner, GM Rob Blake and head coach Todd McLellan talked about “the feeling of winning games,” as Blake described it.

“There is such a better feeling around the team when you win. We’re 3-0-2 on this road trip and (Tuesday night in Detroit) is a game that means something.” By points percentage, Los Angeles is third in the Pacific, seventh in the west -- which is about to start a crazy month of makeups. Calgary and Edmonton play 11 and 12 times in February, with the Kings at eight, including 12 days off after Tuesday. They’re in the race.

“After last season, our veterans made it clear they were restless, and so were we,” Blake said. One thing he brought up was expected goals versus actual goals. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Kings are second in the NHL in the former, but are 21st in goals per game. “We have an identity. We check.” (Hall of Famer Bob Gainey once said he knew a team was ready to win when it could check.) “It’s good when you can check, cause a turnover and create offence.” Once the scoring comes, Blake believes his team will really have something.

22. The Kings knew some of their prospects had to make a difference if any jump was possible. “Our young defencemen stand out,” he said, mentioning Mikey Anderson, Tobias Bjornfot and Sean Durzi. It sure helps that Drew Doughty was motivated to have a great season. Even though he was injured for a while, his impact’s been enormous.

“Sunday night at dinner, he makes sure to sit down with Durzi and (Arthur) Kaliyev,” Blake said. “He’s now like Matt Greene or Sean O’Donnell when Drew started out. Against the top teams and the top players, you can see it – he still has a ton of pride in defending. He wanted to be on the Olympic team and knows he might not get to be on the power play, (thinking) ‘That Cale Makar is a heck of a player, but I can shut down guys.’”

23. Up front, Quinton Byfield is now on the roster after a broken ankle and COVID. They like where he’s slotted in behind Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault. “The great thing is he’s now going to learn the details of the game at the NHL level,” the GM said. “Against the Penguins, he gets time versus Sidney Crosby in the third period. That’s when you understand things like centre-on-centre responsibilities when you lose a draw. You only get that playing in the NHL.” Blake also likes how Kaliyev’s blended in with Brendan Lemieux and Blake Lizotte. “It’s probably not where we thought he’d start, but this is working very well and he’s getting better every day. He’s on the second power-play unit. But for us to be successful, we’re going to need him in our top six next year. We need his scoring to keep moving forward.”

24. Blake went out of his way to praise Alex Iafallo (“so reliable”). Adrian Kempe, now with Iafallo as Kopitar’s linemates, has 18 goals. Blake said Kempe, a late first-rounder in 2014, is a reminder how much patience you need with your young players. He likes Dustin Brown with Byfield “for security,” adding the two will meet during the Kings’ break to discuss the future. (That sentence can sound ominous, but Blake didn’t make it sound that way for the 37-year-old career King.)

They have no desire to move Jonathan Quick. “We talked about this last season. If we trade him, we probably retain half, then go get someone to replace him. That would be really difficult. He’s still so competitive, and Cal Petersen hasn’t taken the reins yet. I know how it looks next year, with Cal’s extension we’re at $11 million in goal, but with our entry-level contracts, we can handle that for one year. We’re comfortable doing it.”

25. So, what are the Kings looking for? Left-shot D, preferentially with size. They are strong now – and for the future – on the right with Doughty, Sean Walker (injured, unfortunately), Matt Roy, Durzi, 2021 first-rounder Brandt Clarke, 2020 second-rounders Brock Faber and Helge Grans. When I mentioned that Arizona has a big lefty available, Blake pretended his phone wasn’t working (don’t want that tampering fine). He also mentioned “natural goal scoring.” He pointed to their Viktor Arvidsson deal, before adding “not as high a cost" (that was a second- and a third-rounder). But the Kings are in the race.

26. Regarding Arizona: there are two big meetings upcoming. The first is Wednesday, to address how the Coyotes’ potential new arena could affect operations at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. For example, one of the issues is flight-path impacts. The second is Tempe City Council, scheduled for Feb. 10. Do they approve the arena plan? If so — and I’m getting mixed messages — then the Coyotes will try to close their deal to play at Arizona State until the new arena would be ready.

While the arena is supposed to seat 5,000, that will drop if the Coyotes play there — with some estimates as low as 3,200. That’s due to things like media and infrastructure changes. Also, the student section seats are supposed to be benches. I don’t think you can sell that at the NHL level. The league and NHLPA are discussing the matter. I’m not sure the players’ association can “block” such a move, but there’s wide recognition players aren’t happy. One said, “This isn’t the OHL,” and another wondered if a top draft pick would ever balk at starting their career in such a situation.

The last information I could get (from December), the Coyotes were 31st in average net revenue per game — approximately $525,000 — down eight per cent from last season. (Buffalo is last.) In theory, the Coyotes could raise prices, but is there enough demand for that to work? One thing about commissioner Gary Bettman: he generally keeps his owners in line. But make no mistake, the owners who pay revenue sharing into the pool won’t like this and won’t want to support it.

27. Disappointed about not going to All-Star. Love the event, and, of course, love Las Vegas. The NHL announced this week two skills competitions outside of T-Mobile Arena, one in the Bellagio fountain, the other on the Strip itself. The latter is tricky, because you’ve got to get in and get out. You can’t jam up the strip for days. How hard is it to get approval?

“It’s not easy,” said Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer. “They need every inch: How are you going to do it? How tall things are, how small things are, where are the barricades? What are the lanes? How are you going to divert traffic? What is your plan? Are you working with the police? Are you working with the hotels that are in the surrounding area? I could go on and on, there is a checklist of hundreds of things you have to do.”

It’s important, as Mayer said, that when you’re in Vegas, you have to do things that are unique to Vegas. He said he brainstormed having players shoot pucks off the Stratosphere (while wearing a harness), but the NHL’s hockey people told him, “'That’s way too dangerous.' And it is.” Hey, you don’t know if you don’t ask. One other initiative from All-Star I wanted to mention: the league is doing a “soft launch” for a ball-hockey program led by Andrew Ference, the NHL’s director of social impact, growth and legislative affairs. Get people to play hockey, even if not on ice.

28. Mayer is hopeful the March 13 Heritage Classic in Hamilton (Toronto-Buffalo) will go as scheduled. It’s the day before full capacity is supposed to return in Ontario. “Nothing these days is 100 per cent,” he said. “Things can change. We haven’t received official word ... but we are confident based on the current environment we will have that game played with 100 per cent (capacity).”

29. There will be no Heritage Classic next season, but there will be a Winter Classic and one Stadium Series game. It won’t happen for next year, but Mayer said the league, in conjunction with its U.S. television partners, is considering different dates for these games. Florida hockey fans have wondered about an outdoor game in that state, but Mayer confirmed that humidity is too much of a risk. In fact, he said the league considered setting up the ice in a bubble, “but even when you take off the bubble, you have to pray for the perfect day.” Another Lake Tahoe-style game appears unlikely, and I’ve heard that Bettman feels there must be fans at these unique events — especially post-COVID.

30. Post-Olympic name to watch for NHL front-office work: Hockey Canada director of operations Gina Kingsbury.

31. I never worked for Ralph Mellanby, who died last weekend at age 87. He was the executive producer of Hockey Night in Canada well before I arrived in 2003 and a hugely influential television executive. But I’m surrounded by people who owe their careers to him. If they smiled about one thing on the date he passed, it’s that it was a Saturday. Seemed fitting, because he revolutionized that night in Canadians’ lives.

32. While walking around Gillette Stadium in the days before the 2016 Winter Classic, I wandered over to the Patriots’ practice field. Coming right toward me was Tom Brady, and that’s when I realized television did not do justice to the size of him. I didn’t think there was any way anyone would ever move Joe Montana from the top of my lifetime quarterback rankings, but Brady did it.

Everything about him: his preparation, what he demands from himself, the hunger that no success is enough, the immediate franchise change he brought to Tampa Bay. In his excellent book “The Dynasty,” author Jeff Benedict talks about Super Bowl LI, the famous comeback against Atlanta. When the Patriots were down 28-3, owner Robert Kraft turned to his son, Jonathan, and said, “Do you think we can still win?” Jonathan replied, “Possible, not probable.” When it was 28-20, Jonathan said, “Probable.” As Brady led the tying drive in regulation, running back LeGarrette Blount turned to teammate Dion Lewis and said, “We got Tom Brady. We get into OT, it’s over with.” It sure was. Absolutely loved watching him.

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