Quick Shifts: Brian Burke on ‘frustrated’ Crosby, 'barking' Phaneuf, Bob Murray

Pittsburgh Penguins president Brian Burke discusses how proud he is of his club through all this adversity to start the 2021-22 season, and how they are still somehow .500 despite all their injuries and COVID-19 cases.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. I was posterized by Connor McDavid while writing this week's blog.

1. With the Pittsburgh Penguins in town, I had a chance to catch up with their president, Brian Burke, for a rapid-fire Q&A on a number of topics. Let’s go.

SPORTSNET.CA How did the Kyle Beach case change how you view hockey culture, if at all?

BRIAN BURKE: We were all surprised by it, obviously. And I think the league acted very swiftly and harshly, and hopefully we can move on from this while maintaining the lessons that we learned here. We've got to provide resources for people when that situation occurs. We'd like to get to zero occurrences, but in the meantime we have to find ways to capture these incidents and deal with them. So, I think the league dealt with it properly, and I wish everyone involved the best. But it's just unfortunate. I can't think of another word for it. Sad, unfortunate.

How surprised were you about the Bob Murray investigation in Anaheim, considering you know him so well?

Well, I love Bob Murray. He's been a brother to me. I was the first guy he hired when he got fired in Chicago, and I took him to Anaheim with me. Won a Cup with him. I love the guy. Obviously a lot of pressure in that job. It looks like it might’ve been too much, and we're wishing nothing but the best for Bob.

Have you spoken to him since the resignation?

Yep. He sounded really good. I think he's figured out what he wants to do next, and he sounded really good to me.

You’re such a big Olympic proponent. When you watch the Senators postpone games due to COVID, how in jeopardy is the NHL’s participation in Beijing?

I'm amazed we haven't had cancellations before. I really am. I think if you go back to when the pandemic started, the NHL’s response has been extraordinary — pushing the season back, completing the season, awarding the Cup. But I'm amazed we haven't lost more games to this point. I thought we'd lose something the other night when they got to what 10 COVID cases plus the [assistant] coach, Jack Capuano. I'm amazed that we haven't had more, but I don't think it puts the season in jeopardy at all. It's still one team with that many cases. I think the highest other than that was [San Jose with] seven. And teams can deal with that. If we have to, move to a taxi squad. There's a lot of things that would have to happen before we'd look at postponing the Olympics or postponing the season.

Let’s talk about your team. How have your Penguins handled not having Evgeni Malkin at all and only recently getting Sidney Crosby back?

Well, it's much more than that. Like, we were missing five of our top six players for a lot of the season at the start the year — first injury, then to COVID. So, when you have three of your top six defenceman out for 10 days…. And with all due respect to our other 20 players, Sidney Crosby is kind of a big name to take out of the lineup. Brian Dumoulin, Evgeni Malklin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust — we've lost guys that are really important players on our team. I think it's a testament to our players that we’re at .500 given the schedule we've faced. And I think our players have worked hard and stuck to the game plan, so I'm proud of the way they've played. We've got to get back to our winning ways.

What's your sense of how frustrated Sid is? I mean, I'm sure you saw the clip of him throwing Martin Fehervary to the ice.

I think he's handled it a lot. Did I see some frustration there? Yeah. Do I hear it in his voice when I to talk to him? Yeah. I think he is a little frustrated. We all are. But that's not a bad thing, either. We gotta get back on track here.

Who’s surprised you? Which Penguin did you not know much about going in but has left an impression?

The two new guys have been important for us, Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen. They're two guys who came in under the radar. Really good players in our view but have contributed. They've been even better than we thought. Everyone's just pulling on the rope. We're getting contributions from a lot of different players, and like I say, it's a miracle we’re at .500.

What’s your strategy was so many pending UFAs on the roster? Letang, Malkin, Rust, Jeff Carter — that’s a lot.

We'll talk about those players when it's appropriate. We began discussions with a couple of them, and we generally do that internally. So, I don't expect to answer that question directly in an interview, but certainly at some point we'll have talks with all the players involved and see where we go.

2. Dion Phaneuf was feted for his retirement shortly after I spoke with Burke, so I went back to the man who brought him to the Maple Leafs and put a “C” on his chest for his thoughts.

“I don’t think a player with a career like that should be overlooked when he retires. It’s worth a healthy discussion of Dion—what he was as a player, what he was as a captain here in Toronto. I loved having him,” Burke says.

“Very vocal. Great leadership skills. Solid player that could contribute offensively but throw the big hit. I loved having him. It’s a sad day for me.”

Your favourite Phaneuf story?

“My first year there, I was giving these two people from a charity a tour of the dressing room after the game. So, I take them down by the change room, and Dion comes out of the weight room all sweaty. He’d just finished his workout. I’m with these two civilians, these two charity guys in their 50s, my age. Mild-mannered guys.

“As Dion walks by, I say: ‘Dion, I’d like you to meet these two guys.’ And Dion says, ‘We gotta get f-----’ bigger!’ He yells at me with these guys two feet away and keeps going.

“And the charity guy says, ‘Does he always talk to you like that?’

“I said, ‘Yeah, Dion does.’

“That’s Dion. He’s so intense. Just finished working out and barked at the GM. I love him.”

3. No Maple Leaf has more points (16), game-winning goals (four), shots (65) or steals than William Nylander.

He’s also killing penalties for the first time in his career, is averaging more than a steal per game, and has become a more vocal leader with his teammates.

Yet Sheldon Keefe doesn’t want Nylander (or the Nylanderthals) to get carried away.

The coach insists we still haven’t seen Peak Willy.

“I think Will has another level to get to. His production is great — really good, right where we want it to be, and he is producing a lot of chances — but there are still other areas of his game we would like to see him be better in,” Keefe says.

“Is this the best I have seen him? No, it is not."

Where can he grow?

"Being more consistent," Keefe says. "He can control the game when he gets the puck and is moving his feet. When he is in control, he is as good as anybody in the league. He is capable of doing that all of the time is what I believe.

“I think he can get even better. I am not satisfied. I hope, and I know, Will is not. I know he has great expectations of himself. As long as I have been here as the coach, whenever I talk to Will, he has regarded himself as one of the top players in the league. I am going to continue to push him to get there."

4. What Nylander went through in 2018-19, Elias Pettersson is enduring now.

Skip a training camp, and you may always feel a step behind.

Don’t believe it? Well, even the model of hard work, Sidney Crosby, is attesting to the value of attendance on Day One.

The star believes his conditioning is slow to catch up because wrist surgery kept him out of camp.

“It’s still going to take time. This is a new scenario for me. I’ve come back from injuries but never have missed a camp,” Crosby told reporters this week. “And going through stuff with the virus, it’s hard to be patient.”

Letang empathizes with his teammate: “He didn’t have a pre-season. No training camp. Then he gets hit with COVID. Just COVID itself … when it’s 10 days at home doing nothing, even if you ride the bike, it’s nothing like being on the ice. It’s a different kind of conditioning.”

5. A broken finger for the durable Darnell Nurse has Oilers Nation hyped for a look-see at defence prospect Philip Broberg.

The six-foot-three, 199-pound left shot has flashed some playmaking flair in Bakersfield, putting up 10 assists in his first 13 North American pro games.

GM Ken Holland loves his prospects overripe, and the 20-year-old is not that.

The minutes-munching Nurse is no small loss, but at least the organization (and its fans) will get a gauge of how far (or close) Broberg is to becoming an NHLer.

6. Slap an eyeballs emoji on this one.

Unrestricted free agent Tuukka Rask is already working out at the Boston Bruins practice facility as he rehabs from hip surgery.

Boston ranks 24th leaguewide in save percentage (.899).

Rask is a career .921.

Just sayin’.

7. There’s a sense of inevitability we’ll see logos on Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Blue Jays jerseys.

“The rap comes from the images we see from Europe—18 different logos plastered on the jersey. The NBA and NHL are being very intentional in how they go about it, and I believe MLB is on a similar track. There’s a way to do it tastefully,” says Jordan Vader, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment’s SVP of global partnerships.

Vadar was speaking on a panel at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference alongside Mark Ditmars, the Blue Jays’ VP of corporate partnerships.

Both execs believe that adding a corporate badge to a jersey is about selecting the right sponsor, one that aligns with the club’s values and gives back to the community. Vadar used the BMO–Toronto FC partnership as a good example.

“It’s coming, for sure,” Ditmars says. “This is valuable real estate.”

Logos on MLB jersey is a discussion point in baseball’s upcoming CBA, and Ditmars says there will be plenty of competition to get on the Jays’ kit.

He’s looking at “blue-chip, Tier 1 brands” only and wants a long-term commitment from a single sponsor. It won’t be a case of seeing one brand on Vladimir Guerrero chest in 2022, and a different one in 2023.

A conference attendee asked Ditmars how his sales are tied to the Blue Jays’ ability to re-sign Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray.

“We have revenue objectives from my department,” Ditmars replied. “And we want to be a top-five corporate-revenue-generating team in the league. We’re just about there. If that happens, we’ll be able to put a competitive product on the field.”

8. If you were wondering if John Tavares got chirped for his Lululemon Olympic fashion shoot, wonder no more.

"I got some good ribbing in the room. I just got asked, being a former Olympian. And then obviously, hopefully having a chance this time around, I thought it was a cool opportunity, and I said, why not?" Tavares explains. "It's not my forte, I would say. Keep my day job, that's for sure."

"We gave him the gears a little bit for it," Wayne Simmonds smiled. "We got pictures all over the team chat so it's pretty hilarious, but he looked good. A little bit of a different style for Johnny, but he rocked it well."

Chimed Alexander Kerfoot: "I don't know if it's my style choice, but it's working for him,"

The GIF that keeps on giving:

9. Surely they don’t want to rush the responsibility again, but there is a growing sense in Buffalo that Dylan Cozens, 20, has the character befitting a future captain.

“The young talent within our organization is extremely exciting. You can see the potential, and it excites me every day,” says coach Don Granato. “It’s going to be a process.”

There’s much to knock in Buffalo these days, but Granato’s approach and temperament ain’t one.

The early reviews are positive. Patient yet demanding.

It feels — much like Jeff Blashill in Detroit – he’s the right man for the turnaround.

As the seventh bench boss in eight years, a stable hand holding the whistle would serve the organization well.

10. Due to pandemic protocol, Leafs reporters aren’t allowed in their dressing room. At home, players are brought to a podium in the Scotiabank Arena media room. On the road? We end up in all sorts of odd, makeshift locales.

Visiting KeyBank Center last Saturday, the Leafs conducted pre- and post-game interviews inside the Buffalo Bandits lacrosse dressing room.

So there was John Tavares sitting under a wall painted with uncle John Tavares’s name painted on the wall (top left).

“First off, I like this media room. Good vibes for me in here,” the younger Tavares smiled after a win.

“I remember being in the old locker room, being in there countless times as a ball boy.”

11. The worst team in NHL history is the 1974-75 expansion Washington Capitals, who finished with a grand total of 21 points and a minus-265 goal differential. (This was before the “loser” point and when the schedule only had 80 games.)

The supertanker 2021-22 Arizona Coyotes (2-13-2) are on pace for 24 points and a minus-178 goal differential.

Thing is, the Coyotes could actually dress a worse product once they start selling.

Arizona has 18(!) players on expiring contracts, headlined by Phil Kessel.

Prepare to see a ton of GM Bill Armstrong’s face at the 2022 draft. He already holds eight(!) picks in the first two rounds.

12. So refreshing to be mingling at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony again. My inner nine-year-old will always get a thrill out of seeing Jari Kurri and Mark Messier.

Seldom have I seen an inductee soak up the moment the way Jarome Iginla did Monday night.

Following the televised ceremony, he hung around the reception until the lights came on, taking selfies and chatting with anyone who approached.

This was no show. A genuine sense of joy and appreciation was palpable.

The Iggy smile was omnipresent. You love to see it.

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