What the NHL and NHLPA should learn from a year filled with tragic death

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There’s no way to be able to wrap your head around what’s happened off the ice in the hockey world this year.

Since the start of 2011 we’ve seen four tragic deaths. Sharks minor leaguer Tom Cavanaugh, Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, former Canucks tough guy Rick Rypien, and now recently retired scrapper Wade Belak. Of those four, three of them are believed to be suicides (Rypien’s cause of death is still yet unknown while Belak’s is suspected to be a suicide) and Boogaard’s came thanks to a toxic mix of painkillers and alcohol all stemming from being upset with missing time thanks to post-concussion syndrome.

We’re not here to hypothesize on what caused these young men to reach that dark place where killing their body with toxins or taking their own life seemed like the right answer to the situation they were in. Doing that is a folly. Trying to figure out if the life of an NHL tough guy or a concussion victim leads to being consumed by the saddest of sad thoughts is too much for people not in the know to speculate on. While you could draw conclusions with a guy like Rypien, using the same methodology for a guy like Belak doesn’t make sense. We just don’t know what made these guys tick and that’s part of the frustration in dealing with their untimely deaths.

What needs to be looked at is how the NHL and the NHLPA are trying to take care of their troubled souls. Former NHL tough guys Tyson Nash and Matthew Barnaby took to Twitter to point the finger at the NHLPA for not helping players prepare for their post-career lives. In Belak’s case, this makes some sense although Belak wasn’t lacking in opportunity post-hockey. Belak was set to be a rinkside reporter for Predators broadcasts and was also set to compete on CBC’s Battle of the Blades celebrity figure skating competition.

The fact here remains that pro hockey players are guys that have been playing since childhood and have known a professional schedule lifestyle that consisted of virtually nothing but hockey. When it comes time to retire or if you’re forced out of the game by injury, it’s a colossal culture change for players which sometimes leaves guys feeling lost.

It’s the sort of situation that makes you think of the character Brooks from the film “The Shawshank Redemption.” After so many years on the inside of prison, when he was set free he became a lost soul unable to adapt to a new way of life on the outside. That’s not to say that the hockey lifestyle is like a prison, just that when everything you’ve ever known is thrown into disarray, if you’re not ready for it you can be left feeling swamped over.

Whether it comes from preparing players for their post-career lives, helping them with substance abuse, or getting them help when it feels like there’s no way out of the darkness that’s enveloping their lives being proactive to let the players know there’s help when they need it is the absolute least they can do and it has to start early.

The NFL and NBA hold rookie symposiums for incoming players to help them better prepare for the perils of being a professional athlete. Having the NHLPA and NHL work together to let players know that there is a program in place to help (the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program) can get the word out early and let it be known that help is there if needed. Whether the problems stem from abusing alcohol or pain killers, the assistance is there.

With depression is one of the most personal and most private mental illnesses, teaching players early on what the signs of it are and that reaching out for help when it’s needed. That’s not nearly enough to help those who are depressed, but doing something is better than doing nothing. Depression is such a difficult thing because even with proper counseling and a great circle of friends, it still might not be enough to save someone from their thoughts. Ignoring it, however, is not an option.

With  so much sadness and so many questions left unanswered for those players and their families, the time is now for the NHL and NHLPA to work together and make sure that sadness and avoidable tragedy will not happen in the future. One death is one too many, four is a sign of a much larger problem that must be addressed.

Blackhawks on ‘huge loss’ of Hossa, lingering salary cap questions

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If any team could seamlessly move on from Marian Hossa, it would be the Chicago Blackhawks.

That’s not to say that GM Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville lack appreciation for perhaps the best two-way winger of this era. Quenneville likely said it best to NHL.com: “I don’t think you replace [Hossa], because he’s a special player.”

MORE: Skin condition will sideline Hossa for 2017-18

Instead, it’s a testament to how the Blackhawks continue to contend, year after year: a willingness to make the tough choices that allow your team to compete. So, Chicago can merely “rebuild and reload” by taking that $5.275 million cap hit from Hossa’s seemingly inevitable trip to the LTIR, right?

Not exactly. At least not yet, as CSN Chicago’s Tracey Myers discusses:

Here are two basics about the cap: a team can be 10 percent over it during the summer, and a team must be at or below it the day the regular season begins. If the Blackhawks place Hossa on LTIR, it wouldn’t take effect until the second day of the regular season. So on Day 1 of the season, the Blackhawks would still be carrying Hossa’s $5.275 cap hit.

Once the LTIR would take effect, though, the Blackhawks would have wiggle room. If they spent to the $75 million cap, they could utilize Hossa’s entire $5.275 million cap hit on other players.

Myers notes that Bowman said he wishes it was as simple as merely replacing Hossa’s cap hit – if not his impact – during the summer. Instead, things could be a bit more complicated.

Things could get even messier if the NHL decides to impede Chicago’s progress.

If the Blackhawks get to send Hossa to the LTIR, it won’t be the easiest situation. Before you get too gloomy about it, there still could be some creative options.

Brainstorming a few ideas

For one thing, what if the Vegas Golden Knights decide to keep James Neal around for a little while?

Now, Neal and Hossa are very different players, yet both are wingers that can help your team win. Neal’s $5 million cap hit matches up remarkably well with that Hossa $5.275 million hit once it would go to LTIR, and the former Predators winger is in the last year of his contract.

As Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee is wont to do, Neal would cost more than just money. Still, that’s just one example, and it’s plausible that other teams might want to sell off a piece but find summer offerings undesirable.

In other words, a rental could be a good way to make lemonade from all of this.

There’s also the possibility that the Blackhawks could look into players who didn’t get signed during the summer, including guys who just missed on PTOs.

This isn’t to say that these are ideal scenarios, but the point is that the Blackhawks could still navigate this difficult situation, particularly if they show the flexibility and creativity they’ve displayed in avoiding salary cap challenges before.

Even if it doesn’t mean another Hossa’s walking through that door.

As a reminder, the Blackhawks may still have some moves in mind even before getting that delayed cap relief. We still need to find out if they are ridding themselves of Marcus Kruger‘s cap hit, something that Bowman wouldn’t address.

None of this is necessarily easy, yet this franchise frequently aces tests like these.

For Oilers, trading Eberle was about ‘long-term thinking’

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CHICAGO —  Peter Chiarelli was there to talk about one thing, and one thing only.

That was today’s big trade that sent Jordan Eberle to the Islanders in return for Ryan Strome.

Not surprisingly, the Oilers’ general manager liked a lot of things about the deal — starting with Strome.

“He’s got some things to his game that we feel can help us in our division,” Chiarelli said Thursday. “He’s got good size, a terrific wrist shot. Very, very cerebral player. He can play center or the wing. Very good on the half wall.”

Not that Eberle doesn’t offer a few good things himself. Like scoring goals. That’s pretty important, right? Eberle’s scored 165 goals in his NHL career.

But with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl requiring extensions soon, the Oilers needed to be wary of their cap situation. In Chiarelli’s estimation, Eberle’s $6 million hit had to go.

“This is about cap management, and this is about replacing good players with good players, and this is about long-term thinking,” said Chiarelli.

When he’d finished selling the trade, reporters naturally took the opportunity to inquire about the rest of his team.

Does he want to get Kris Russell re-signed?

Yes, he does. Still hoping to get that one done.

How would he characterize negotiations with McDavid and Draisaitl?

“Not going to characterize.”

What about Patrick Maroon? Could he get an extension this summer?

“This isn’t the state of affairs for who I’m signing, who I’m not signing.”

Fair enough. Onto the draft then.

Friday at United Center, the Oilers will have the 22nd overall pick. It’ll be the first time since 2008 that they don’t make a top-10 selection.

“Certainly not as high a pick,” said Chiarelli. “We’ve got a cluster of four players and we think we’re going to get one of them.”

That pick in 2008, by the way?

Jordan Eberle, 22nd overall.

Related: Strome pumped for opportunity to play with McDavid and Draisaitl

Ryan Strome pumped at prospect of playing with McDavid, Draisaitl

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Ryan Strome seemed to feel he took a positive step with the Islanders when Doug Weight took over behind the bench in January.

He had a five-game point streak (seven points in that time) and a pair of three-point performances for the Islanders before a broken wrist ended his regular season. On Thursday, he was dealt to a new team, as the Oilers and Islanders made a trade. Going the other way to New York is Jordan Eberle.

“He was great for me,” said Strome of Weight following today’s trade. “Little disappointed I got hurt but I was starting to feel really good and that’s the best I’ve felt in a couple of years.”

Selected fifth overall in 2011, Strome is two years removed from a 17-goal, 50-point sophomore season in the NHL. But he’s never reached more than 30 points in each of the past two years, and the frustrating times continued when he was made a healthy scratch earlier this season with Jack Capuano behind the bench.

Eberle called this trade a fresh start for himself. The same can be applied to Strome.

From an Oilers perspective, the motive for today’s deal, based on the comments of Edmonton’s general manager Pete Chiarelli, was to free up cap space. Strome has one more year left on a two-year, $5 million deal that has an annual cap hit of $2.5 million. The priority is to get pending restricted free agent Leon Draisaitl, as well as the organization’s phenom and Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid, a pending RFA at the end of next season, under contract.

A fresh start for Strome could mean an opportunity to play alongside McDavid or Draisaitl.

A number of times during his media availability, Strome mentioned how excited he was to go to Edmonton. Playing on a line with one of — or both — McDavid or Draisaitl is a valid reason why.

“I remember sitting in my basement a couple of months ago watching the playoffs. I was like, ‘Holy, these guys are good players,'” said Strome.

“I played with (John Tavares) a little bit, so I kind of know how those great players are. John’s a very one-on-one type player, but Connor and Leon, just the way they distribute the puck and how they can skate, their skill is just exceptional.”

Habs ‘have holes in many positions,’ and Bergevin’s busy trying to fill them

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Consider, for a moment, what’s currently on the plate of Montreal GM Marc Bergevin.

Last year’s second-leading scorer, Alex Radulov, is an unrestricted free agent that might go to market. Trade calls are coming in on Alex Galchenyuk, who also needs a new contract. The Habs would like to keep Andrei Markov, but he’s a UFA as well. There’s still no clear answer as to who the team’s No. 1 center will be next year, or what the defense will look like.

Needless to say, Bergevin has lots of balls in the air.

“We have holes at many positions,” he said Thursday. “I don’t think many teams could walk in and say, ‘We’re all set, we’re not taking calls.’

“We’ll try to address those needs. But it’s not easy. People who have good assets, they usually keep them. It has to be a match, put it this way.”

The center position, one that’s long been an issue in Montreal, remains in flux. Bergevin said he was unsure if Jonathan Drouin could play the middle, which has been an ongoing debate with Galchenyuk over the last few years. Tomas Plekanec and Philip Danault remain on the roster, but neither are No. 1 caliber.

Given that pressing need down the middle, Bergevin might need to allocate some cap space for a solution. And if that’s the case, it could hamper his ability to re-sign Radulov, who’s rumored to be angling for a big payday.

“We have limits, we have price,” Bergevin said of Radulov. “He’s got the right to test the market, if that’s what he decides.”

In addressing Radulov, Bergevin added he’d like to retain the services of Markov, who’s 38 and coming off a deal that paid $5.75 million annually. The Habs GM said there hasn’t been much in the way of negotiations with the veteran Russian rearguard, though.

On top of all this — oh yes, there’s more — is the looming contract extension for Carey Price. The star goalie is heading into the last year of his deal and eligible to sign an extension on July 1, which promises to be a monster contract. Price is currently the NHL’s fifth highest-paid netminder at $7 million per, but could join Sergei Bobrovsky and Henrik Lundqvist as the only goalies to earn more than $8M annually.

But before that happens, Bergevin needs to upgrade the players in front of Price.

“I need help everywhere,,” he said. “It’s not that easy.”