Don’t blame owners for trying to win

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If the owners are so worried that the players are making too much money, why do they keep handing out long-term, front-loaded contracts that maximize what they’re allowed to spend under the CBA?

A popular answer to that question is, “because they’re hypocrites.

Personally, I think the answer is, “because it’s the only way to sign good free agents and good players are an integral part of winning hockey games.”

Unfortunately for the NHL’s financially challenged franchises, the price for free agents is set by the teams that can afford them.

Some of those teams can afford them because they’re profitable businesses that get even more profitable when they win.

Others can afford them because they have owners that are so rich they don’t care if the business makes money – they just want to win a Stanley Cup.

The common theme is – because they want to win.

Meanwhile, the NHL’s money-losing clubs that don’t have Terry Pegula signing checks and shooting guns into the air are dragged into a game they can’t afford to play, but one they can’t simply walk away from either.

You want Shea Weber, Nashville? The Flyers have set the price. Take it, bite the financial bullet and see if you can claw something back in the new CBA, or leave it and go explain the decision to your fans. Sorry, but the Flyers aren’t going to worry if they hurt the Predators; they’ve got their own rather demanding fans to answer to. Unless you’ve got a problem with that, Flyers fans. Is your heart aching for Preds ownership? Or are you more concerned that Chris Pronger might never play again and Kimmo Timonen is 37?

And that’s the way it should be — each team looking out for its owns fans.

Come to think of it, the only team that seems to care about the rest of the league is the richest of them all – the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“These deals that are front-loaded and have small amounts at the back end, in my opinion, are designed to circumvent the salary cap,” said Leafs GM Brian Burke after failing to land prized free agent Brad Richards last summer.

“I won’t do them, I never have, I’m not going to. That’s not a contract structure we’re interested in.”

So Richards went to the Rangers, who were prepared to give him the front-loaded deal he wanted.

Fortunately, the Leafs are stacked down the middle so it wasn’t a big deal. Oh wait, no they’re not. They haven’t had a legitimate first-line center since Mats Sundin.

What do Leafs fans thinks of Burke’s refused to hand out front-loaded contracts? Let’s ask Leafs fan Sean McIndoe, aka @DownGoesBrown.

“Whether it’s some sense of duty to the league, or some sort of personal moral code, or just plain old self-promotion, Burke has a tendency to give the impression that he has quite a few priorities beyond doing whatever it takes to win,” McIndoe told PHT in an email.

Not that McIndoe is devastated the Leafs lost out on Richards, or any other free agent that signed the type of contract Burke eschews.

“Big-dollar UFA deals usually end up being a mistake, and Leaf fans know that as well as anyone,” said McIndoe.

But Burke isn’t telling Leafs fans – the same fans that pay the highest ticket prices in the NHL and haven’t experienced a playoff game since before the lockout – he won’t sign those deals because they’re not good for the team. And that’s what hard for Leafs fans to take.

“If Burke just sold it that way I think a lot of fans would be on board,” said McIndoe. “But instead he gets up on his soapbox and turns it into some sort of ethical issue, and that’s when fans start tuning him out.”

Look, I’m not saying the players should bend over for the owners in the CBA negotiations. The owners need to institute a more progressive revenue-sharing program. And the players shouldn’t be held responsible for things like the money pit in Glendale.

But let’s not spend too much time ripping owners for trying to win. Isn’t that what you want your team to do? Win?

Related: Reaching a new CBA is a negotiation, not an exercise in fairness

Red Wings GM Holland isn’t ‘looking over his shoulder’ regarding Yzerman

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One way or another, Steve Yzerman’s future as an NHL GM is on delay for a season, as he’s technically still working for the Tampa Bay Lightning. If another team publicly acknowledged pursuing the Hall of Fame player and top-notch executive, they’d likely be guilty of tampering.

So, take Stevie Y-related comments with a grain of salt, whether they’re coming from people involved with the Seattle expansion franchise, Detroit Red Wings, or anyone else who might be linked to Yzerman.

It’s still worth noting those comments, though, so soak in what Red Wings GM Ken Holland said when The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell asked him about possibly “looking over his shoulder” at Yzerman.

“I’ve been a manager in the league for 23 years,” Holland said. “I’ve won three Stanley Cups, five Presidents’ Trophies.* I don’t look over my shoulder.”

Should Holland look over his shoulder, or – considering the temporary limbo involved – in his rear-view mirror at Yzerman?

Logically speaking, you’d think maybe he should. Yzerman didn’t leave his post with Tampa Bay merely to placate another promising executive in Julien BriseBois, who replaced Yzerman right before the season began.

We’ve seen some succession plans in other NHL franchises that would make a lot of sense for the Red Wings, at least hypothetically speaking.

Glen Sather, another long-time executive with many skins on his wall (and cigars in his vault), made way for a younger GM in Jeff Gorton as the Rangers entered a new phase. It would make a lot of sense for Holland to essentially “move up the food chain” with a new title in Detroit, while Yzerman takes the reins as the actual GM.

(There are also less-friendly transitions to note, like with the Capitals, Coyotes, and other franchises that transitioned to a younger GM.)

Of course, the Red Wings march to the beat of their own drum, likely arguing that their way has often been a successful way. The consensus around the hockey world is that, while Holland has nodded to a rebuild at times, Detroit’s also been pretty stubborn to fully commit. That same stubbornness could conceivably keep Holland in power, even if it might be wiser to move on, particularly with a GM who’s proven to be as shrewd as Yzerman was with Tampa Bay.

During the darker moments in Detroit, there’ve been times when it felt like Yzerman was the one that got away.

There’s also the possibility that Yzerman would like to see if he can meet or exceed what Vegas GM George McPhee accomplished with an expansion franchise by building the Seattle team.

As appealing as it would be for Yzerman to swoop back into Detroit and save the day, just about any GM – not to mention plenty of sports fans who’ve daydreamed while playing “franchise” or “GM” modes – would delight in building a team from scratch. There’s something to be said, after all, for not having to deal with lingering mistakes from the previous GM; the Red Wings certainly have some shaky contracts remaining on their salary structure.

Maybe Ken Holland doesn’t feel threatened. Perhaps he’s just deflecting since the Red Wings can’t really show their hand now, anyway.

If the Red Wings are smart, they absolutely pursue Yzerman once they’re allowed to, even if it means ruffling Holland’s feathers.

* – Sportsnet indicates that Holland actually won four Presidents’ Trophies. Either way, the man is seasoned executive.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins – Maple Leafs is about as fun as it gets

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It’s too early to make sweeping observations about the quality of a team in 2018-19 (sorry Canadiens; you’re welcome, Coyotes), but it’s never too early to get excited about a game. You know, if your soul is still attached to your person, and you’re not too cool to get excited about things in general.

Now, sure, circumstances could change matters. Players could be tired or just have an off night. Maybe a coach will bench an exhilarating talent because they hit the snooze button one too many times.

But, at least on paper, it’s really difficult to imagine a more exciting matchup than Penguins – Maple Leafs, a matchup taking place in Toronto tonight.

(Yeah, it doesn’t hurt that the hockey-mad city gets to channel its sometimes over-the-top excitement into this one, either.)

Just consider all of the factors, narratives, and certain statistics that make this game stand out like a sign for “Kenny Rogers’ Roasters.”

[Maybe this is the perfect opportunity for Crosby to shake off a relatively slow start?]

The Ridiculous Wattage of Star Power

No matter how Mike Babcock and Mike Sullivan deploy their lines, you’ll see high-end talent during almost every shift on Thursday.

Most obviously, we’ll get to see a clash between two premium one-two punches at center, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin trade scoring chances with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. That’s the sort of matchup that marketers and hockey fans alike would normally only dream about.

You could manufacture an exciting game if you sent out a bunch of fire hydrants with those guys, but the Penguins and Maple Leafs deploy other dangerous scorers, even with William Nylander‘s contract situation stuck in limbo.

Phil Kessel could easily have the best night of anyone in trying to spite his former team. Jake Guentzel tends to play his best when the spotlight shines brightest. Mitch Marner is a sensational talent who can take over a game in his own right.

Even the defensemen can bring some offense to the table, as Kris Letang and Morgan Rielly have begun 2018-19 on torrid scoring paces, while Jake Gardiner and others can contribute, too.

All the silliness that stems from all that star power

The goofy debates that stem from Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby vs. McDavid, and on and on, ultimately translates to entertainment. That goes for if you take barroom debates seriously, or are simply bemused by people believing that Matthews has reached McDavid after a couple scorching-hot weeks.

It’s not just columnists pumping out hot takes.

As you may remember, Lars Eller dismissed Matthews – Tavares because of the “been there, done that” feeling of facing Crosby – Malkin for all those years. You then have Babcock saying that McDavid vs. Crosby “isn’t even close,” while Mark Scheifele seems to feel the same way about McDavid vs. Matthews.

(You think we could get Edmonton to loan Connor to this game to really hammer home all of these points? Might be good for the fella’s morale.)

Oh yeah, there’s also Bryan Burke comparing Rielly to … Nicklas Lidstrom?

Some of this stuff is dopey. Some of it is instructive. Maybe there’s a combination of both at times. But it all adds to the fun, if you ask me.

All offense, no defense?

By winning two consecutive Stanley Cups while playing an attack-first, play-defense later style, the Penguins played a big role in the NHL placing an increased emphasis on skill, scoring, and more exciting hockey.

So far this season, the Maple Leafs feel like the gnarly evolution of that style.

By just about any measure, Toronto’s been playing high-event hockey this season. They’ve been scoring so much that it’s generally allowed them to shrug their shoulders at what’s frequently been a leaky defense.

The Penguins haven’t been as crisp so far this season, failing to walk the high-risk tightrope because their defense has really cratered.

That’s bad news for Pittsburgh’s hopes of, say, winning its division … but it sure opens the door for tonight to be fun.

Big goalies back in net

Barring late-breaking setbacks, the teams’ two starters (Matt Murray and Frederik Andersen) should suit up for their respective teams on Thursday.

If they play well, this showdown could feature at least some slowdown. Perhaps we’ll see a spectacular save or two from both goalies to keep the score reasonable? If they’re rusty, then the floodgates may open even wider.

Either way, the returns of Murray and Andersen add another wrinkle to a game that’s jam-packed with intrigue.

***

Again, it’s possible that this game might not deliver the thrills you’d expect. Sometimes hockey is just that way in 2018, even with some progress made – thanks in part to these two talented teams.

Still, if you had to wager on a game being a ton of fun, Penguins – Maple Leafs is as safe a bet as you can get. You know, unless you’re the coach breaking down defensive lapses or the goalie trying to put out all of those fires.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Looking at Johnny Gaudreau’s career, 100 goals in

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Johnny Gaudreau and the Calgary Flames likely experienced mixed feelings following their 5-2 win against the Boston Bruins last night.

Looking at the good side, the Flames won in part because a line other than Gaudreau’s top trio stepped up, as Michael Frolik trumpeted the reunion of the often-puck-dominant “3M Line.” Wednesday also represented a milestone moment for Gaudreau, who scored the 100th goal of his NHL career in his 318th game, putting him at that mark at age 25.

That milestone tally happened during a stretch where the Flames really overwhelmed the Bruins:

The bad news came right after Gaudreau narrowly fell short of NHL goal 101, as Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy injured the spritely forward with this questionable, late hit:

As much of a bummer as the injury is – especially if further updates indicate that “Johnny Hockey” would miss some time – it might be fitting that such an event happened. After all, defenders realize that they’re not often going to catch or out-think Gaudreau, so they often try to outright bully him. Let’s not forget that the many slashes he took during certain stretches helped inspire the NHL to cut down on the infractions heading into last season.

Generally speaking, such a vicious approach hasn’t stopped Gaudreau from lighting up scoreboards.

To review, the 25-year-old now has 100 goals and 197 assists for 297 points over 318 NHL games, so Gaudreau could hit two other noteworthy milestones in the near future — health permitting.

It’s fitting that Gaudreau scored a goal in his lone 2013-14 appearance, as he’s been a delight to watch basically since he entered the NHL. Perhaps it might be helpful to consider his place among the elite scorers after hitting the 100-goal plateau?

  • Since Gaudreau entered the NHL, he ranks 12th among all players with those 297 points. Gaudreau stands in front of Vladimir Tarasenko (293), Jakub Voracek (291), and Phil Kessel (290) despite appearing in fewer games.
  • That 100th goal stands out as a rare instance where Gaudreau was the player scoring the easy tap-in. Typically, he really sets the table for his linemates with brilliant playmaking, which is part of the reason why many pundits have been so reluctant to praise Sean Monahan.

Gaudreau’s 197 assists places him in a tie with Brent Burns for ninth-best in the NHL, and the burly Sharks defenseman played in 16 additional games (not to mention logging Norris-level minutes).

  • One remarkable thing about those impressive numbers is that Gaudreau hit the ground running right away as a rookie, while other players were, in many cases, far more experienced.

Gaudreau’s really impressed lately, generating 93 points in his last 86 games between this early season and 2017-18. Despite Sidney Crosby playing in two additional games last season (82 to Gaudreau’s 80), he tied the Penguins playmaker for seventh in the NHL with 60 assists.

While Gaudreau is – understandably – leveraged for heavy offensive usage, it doesn’t hurt that the puck tends to go in the right direction when he’s on the ice, either.

The Flames would be missing one heck of a scorer if Gaudreau needs to heal up before shooting for goal 101 (not to mention assist 200, and point 300 …). Beyond that, hockey fans will miss out on one of the NHL’s most splendid playmakers, so here’s hoping that this is just a minor hiccup.

Update: It looks like things are going well in that regard.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blackhawks finally get Crawford back

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The Chicago Blackhawks are off to a strong 3-0-2 start this season, but that doesn’t mean that Corey Crawford‘s absence hasn’t been glaring.

In those five games, the Blackhawks have scored 22 goals and allowed 21. They can attribute taking at least one standings point in all five games to some clutch performances from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Alex DeBrincat.

Cam Ward? He’s been … well, like most critics expected. In starting all of Chicago’s games, Ward’s numbers are hideous: a 4.06(!) GAA and .879 save percentage is lousy stuff, even if the Blackhawks’ defense leaves a lot to be desired.

So … yeah, getting Crawford back is a huge deal.

The would-be workhorse goalie hasn’t played since Dec. 23, so you can’t really blame the Blackhawks for this adorably excited tweet:

Of course, as Bob McKenzie detailed last night (see the video above this post’s headline), the return of Crawford doesn’t exactly guarantee that he’ll return to the putting-the-team-on-his-back form that he developed in recent seasons for Chicago.

There were very reasonable concerns about Crawford even playing this season, as he’s battling brutal concussion symptoms.

Even with Crawford coming back, there’s no guarantee that he won’t suffer another setback, possibly as soon as Thursday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. As former Blackhawk Dave Bolland told the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus (sub required), the fear can linger, and previous concussions increase the chances of history repeating itself.

“It’s easy to come back from a groin or a broken arm or something like that,” Bolland said. “Coming back from a concussion is a little tougher. You don’t know if you’re really ready. If you take another hit, you’re probably prone to taking another one. It’s hard not to think about that. Knowing when you’re ready to come back from a concussion, it takes a bit of time. You have to know that your brain is healthy and that it’s good. When I came back, it was always pretty tough convincing myself I was ready. I never wanted to come back and not be ready and end up hurting myself.”

On one hand, Crawford isn’t going to be engaged in the frequent puck battles that a skater would deal with. On the other, goalies must be mentally alert the entire time they’re on the ice, tracking the puck even when it’s not in the attacking zone. (Otherwise, you risk allowing a humiliating, long-distance goal, or simply not being ready if an opponent springs a quick breakaway.)

TSN’s Frank Seravalli reports that the NHL is increasingly concerned with goalie concussions, noting that 13 goalies were diagnosed with 15 concussions in 2017-18 alone. It’s such a serious consideration that the league is looking into ways to improve protection as soon as possible.

Servalli’s story focuses on shots off of goalie masks, yet this Marc-Andre Fleury quote from the article really cements the notion that Crawford might not be up to full speed, possibly for quite some time.

“I do think about it,” Fleury said of the dangers of being a goalie, and concussion risks in general. “This last one lasted a little longer than the previous ones, so I’m still thinking about it. Every day you wake up, you don’t feel great, you’re dizzy. It’s disturbing.”

Overall, there are a lot of obstacles in Crawford’s way.

Goalies can see their play slip for a ton of reasons. Sometimes they merely suffer an off year. Perhaps a change in system or new faces on defense can lead to confusion and miscommunication. Aging can mean a slight slip in reflexes, which can sometimes mean the difference between making that quick-twitch save or glove stop or allowing a goal (Crawford’s 33, so he’s vulnerable to Father Time’s attacks).

But beyond those universal factors, there’s also the threat of concussion symptoms resurfacing, or another one being suffered.

No doubt, Crawford’s return is huge for a Blackhawks team hoping to claw its way back into the playoffs. And, in all honesty, Crawford at 80 percent might be better than Cam Ward in the twilight of his up-and-down career.

The Blackhawks would be foolish to assume that this will be a seamless transition for Crawford, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.