On-the-go sports stars embrace family time during shutdown

Blake Wheeler and the Winnipeg Jets would have been on the road last week, trying to make a final push for the playoffs had the National Hockey League season not been called off because of the pandemic.

Now the seven-time All-Star forward is home for dinner each night with his family.

And for the activities, all afternoon. And the teaching, policing and entertaining every morning with his wife, Sam; 7-year-old son, Louie; 4-year-old daughter, Leni; and 2-year-old son, Mase.

”Mase, since he’s been born, he doesn’t want anything to do with me, really, until like a month ago,” Wheeler said. ”Now that I’m here all the time, he’s starting to realize that I am his dad.”

The 82-game NHL schedule, with half of those on the road, means Wheeler is absent from trick-or-treating and Thanksgiving turkey more often than not. He is normally away from home more than one-third of every night in any given year.

Thousands of athletes know that sting. For all the wealth, privilege and rewards elite sports can provide its participants, few vocations require more time away from loved ones. This is what they signed up for, but some parts of life can’t be priced out.

”I appreciate the gift of time and being able to spend it with my family,” said Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese, whose fourth-ranked Terrapins might well have been in New Orleans last week for the Final Four.

When the NCAA Tournament was canceled, Frese hunkered down with her husband, Mark, and their 12-year-old twin boys. She is a middle school tutor now, too.

For all parents, there is no denying homebound days have been draining.

”My 2-year-old gets up at about 5 in the morning,” Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise said. ”He naps from like 1 to 3, and that’s our time to take a deep breath.”

Parise and his wife, Alisha, also have 6-year-old twins to look after. He recalled falling asleep watching television at 8:30 one night – a similar tale to that of his Central Division rival.

”We get ’em all down by about 8 on a good night, and then there’s a half hour of just numbness,” Wheeler said.

St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and his wife, Jayne, have 20-month-old triplets. Like many of his peers, Pietrangelo has been reminded anew how much there is to handle while dad is at the rink.

”There’s not enough time in the day. I’m not even working right now, and I can’t even find enough time to do something for myself,” Pietrangelo said on a conference call as his kids were clamoring for more time outside.

Opportunity beckons, of course, in the gift that is presence.

”You don’t get these days back,” said University of Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt, gratefully describing extra time with his infant daughter. He and his wife also have boys ages 4 and 2 at home.

With no Major League Baseball, Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson was home for his daughter’s first birthday last week. Washington first baseman Ryan Zimmerman has tag-teamed nightly readings of ”Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with his 6-year-old daughter, to be followed by a viewing of the movie.

”It’s cool to see kids learn to do something and be proud of it and then really go after it,” Zimmerman said in a weekly diary he’s keeping for The Associated Press. ”Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that with her if it wasn’t for this.”

Minnesota men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino took his 3-year-old daughter on a drive to count neighborhood dogs. He and his wife, Jill, also have an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son.

”I can’t believe how many times I’ve jumped on a trampoline at 37 years old,” Pitino said.

The suspended NBA season prompted Minnesota Timberwolves executive Gersson Rosas to try yoga for the first time with his wife and 4-year-old twins. Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, energized by the return from college of his 19-year-old daughter, has upped his knowledge of movies and shows from the major streaming services.

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh has relished the laughter from conversation with his 3-year-old daughter he otherwise would have missed on the NHL circuit. Scooter rides around the block have replaced the morning skate.

”She gets so excited every day to do that with me, now that we’ve done it for a couple of weeks in a row,” McDonagh said. ”It’s fun to see the joy in their face. It really makes you love them even more.”

Los Angeles Kings at 2020 NHL Draft: Byfield or Stutzle with second pick?

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Thanks to the very zany (and very NHL) draft lottery, we don’t know which team will get to draft Alexis Lafreniere first overall. What about picks 2-8, though? PHT will break down those picks one by one, aside from the Senators and their two selections. Let’s start with the second pick, then: what should the Kings do with the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft?

For many, the debate boils down to Quinton Byfield or Tim Stutzle. Let’s break down, and also ponder more elaborate ideas (that are probably pretty unlikely).

Kings head into 2020 NHL Draft with a top system already — and some quality centers

Before we dive into Byfield vs. Stutzle, it’s worth noting that they’ll be adding to the foundation of the Kings’ rebuild, rather than starting it.

The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler calls this an embarrassment of riches for the Kings (sub required). Wheeler noted that some ranked Los Angeles’ farm system first overall before they traded for Tyler Madden, let alone before they can add Byfield or Stutzle.

There are some concerned that the Kings might compile too much of a good thing, as they’re center-heavy among their top prospects. Kings GM Rob Blake didn’t seem concerned about adding a center to a group that includes Alex Turcotte, Rasmus Kupari, and Gabriel Vilardi, though.

“No,” Blake told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. “You mention those three, we’ll take four centers like that.”

Frankly, much of the “too many centers” talk seems silly to me.

For one thing, the game is trending more toward players rotating positioning. Even to the point where defensemen and forwards might swap spots depending upon certain circumstances.

Beyond that, we see prospects involved in so many trades that it often seems silly to overthink going for anyone but the “best player available.” That said, we’ll touch on some alternative ideas if the Kings want to avoid too many cooks/centers.

Case for Kings taking Byfield over Stutzle with No. 2 pick of 2020 NHL Draft

After observing how NHL teams fawn over size for years, the reflex might be to roll your eyes about Byfield. Until you realize that Byfield isn’t just a Huge Hockey Human; he’s also put up fantastic numbers during his hockey career.

Byfield produced 82 points (including 32 goals) in 45 games in the OHL last season. That 1.82 PPG pace matches not just fellow top prospect Cole Perfetti, it’s also not far behind the likes of Matthew Tkachuk (1.88 PPG in 2015-16).

Byfield isn’t just big, he’s also fast and skilled. Combining those types of factors inspire lofty comparisons to the likes of Evgeni Malkin or his possible Kings teammate Anze Kopitar.

But most of all, it’s a projection based on potential. Not only his Byfield huge (listed at times at 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5), he might get a little bigger. The 17-year-old won’t turn 18 until Aug. 19. Several months might not seem like much, but this is the age range where players can make big leaps.

If for some reason Byfield couldn’t adapt to playing wing if needed … is that really that big of a concern? My guess is others will be trying to earn spots as his wingers, not the other way around.

The closest thing to a consensus I’ve found calls for the Kings to select Byfield at No. 2, rather than Stutzle.

Colin Cudmore compiled an expected range of mock drafts that generally favored Byfield at No. 2, as did PHT’s collection of mock drafts from before the lottery.

The case for Stutzle over Byfield for the Kings at No. 2

But it sounds like things are pretty close. You could joke that Stutzle is closing in on Byfield as if he was in a race, but scouting reports indicate that Byfield can put on the burners, too.

In a great Byfield vs. Stutzle comparison, Prospect Report’s Ben Misfeldt stated that while he believes Byfield reaches a faster “top speed,” Stutzle sets him apart from others with his agility and ability to accelerate.

Stutzle might be more NHL-ready than Byfield. The 18-year-old showed that he could keep up in DEL (Germany’s top hockey league), generating 34 points in 41 games for the Mannheim Eagles.

“They are both skilled,” An anonymous executive said of Byfield and Stutzle, according to Lisa Dillman of The Athletic (sub required). “Stutzle is just more polished at this point but it’s also hard to find 6-foot-5, 230-pound centermen that can produce.”

In a league shifting more toward skating and speed, could Stutzle be the better pick for the Kings than Byfield? Some lean that way.

Unlikely, but should Kings trade the No. 2 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft?

As stated, it doesn’t seem like the Kings would trade the second overall pick. You can certainly rule out the rebuilding Kings from trading the No. 2 pick for an immediate roster player.

While Alexis Lafreniere seems like a more seamless addition as a winger, it’s also tough to imagine the Kings trading up to get the top selection.

But what about trading down?

As Wheeler and others have noted, the Kings’ biggest prospect needs revolve around defense. Theoretically, the Kings could move that No. 2 pick to slide a little lower, get another pick, and get the player they actually want. What if they view someone like Jamie Drysdale or Jake Sanderson as the player they need? Mock drafts and prospect rankings come in all over the place for those two, so the Kings could view it as feasible to get one or both of them later.

Granted, it’s unlikely for the Kings to land, say, the sixth pick from the Ducks. But what if the Red Wings (fourth overall) or someone else would pay fairly big for the No. 2 pick? It’s at least worth considering.

Not that I’d do it, mind you.

So, what should the Kings do with No. 2?

The Kings have a long time to make this decision. Maybe too much time.

That gives them opportunities to study tape and stats on Byfield and Stutzle. Perhaps they’d even soul search about that unlikely trading down idea, too.

But, if I were running the show? I’d probably try to keep it simple and just take Byfield. Luckily for the fans of all 31 NHL teams, I’m not making those calls, though. What do you think the Kings should do with the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft?

More 2020 NHL Draft coverage from PHT

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.

Rested Phil Kessel thinks he can get back on track as Coyotes await NHL return

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By just about any measure, 2019-20 marked a disappointing debut season for Phil Kessel with the Arizona Coyotes. Kessel acknowledged his “tough year,” but believes that he can bounce back as an NHL return looms.

“Obviously I had a tough year,” Kessel told Alex Kinkopf of the Coyotes website. “I think it’s probably the most injuries I’ve had in a year, but that’s no excuse, right? It’s one of those years, and obviously I’m going to look to never have that again. I’ve never had a year like that.”

Kessel pointed to the pandemic pause, saying that his body “feels good” and that he’s rested.

Of course, just about any returning player probably expects to rebound from a bad season. Especially a driven one like Kessel, a player who’s reached considerable heights — both individually, and by helping the Penguins win two Stanley Cups.

But the question is: does Kessel have the ability to rebound after a 14-goal, 38-point letdown?

Kessel thinks he can bounce back, but he needs a rebound from beyond his Coyotes debut

The more interesting question is: can Kessel regain a form from longer ago?

Yes, Kessel still produced even as things soured with the Penguins (Evgeni Malkin, or otherwise). You can look at point-per-game production in 2018-19 (82 points in as many games) and even better 2017-18 numbers and think that Kessel was at his peak.

But the criticisms that once unfairly dogged Kessel caught up to him quite a while before Kessel joined the Desert Dogs. Plenty of metrics indicated that Kessel’s defensive game nullified his offense. Depending upon what you weigh and who you ask, some viewed him as a net negative toward the end of his Penguins days:

Really, the defensive criticisms of Kessel have frequently been warranted — it’s just that the tenor’s been overly harsh. Attribute it to advancing age at 32 or whatever else, but Kessel at some point declined from “worth the trouble” to “not nearly productive enough to look away” during the past few seasons.

Pandemic pause could negate (some of the) possible downside of that “ironman” streak

But one interesting consideration is: maybe Kessel has been playing at less than 100 percent for quite often?

Consider the lengths Keith Yandle has gone to maintain his league-leading active games played streak of 866 games. Kessel is right behind Yandle with an 844-game “ironman” streak of his own. Perhaps Kessel — a perceived stubborn player — has sometimes played when he shouldn’t have?

This pandemic pause gave Kessel no choice but to be more rested. Or at least not to play professional hockey.

There’s absolutely a chance that such a break would be bad for a professional athlete. Some rely on playing games and practicing to stay in shape, rather than supplementing with training.

Yet, if you want to be optimistic about Kessel returning to form, then the break is a legitimate reason to focus on. Just realize that even the “best” Kessel will probably take something from the table — you just have to hope he brings more than he takes away.

If nothing else, it would be fun to watch Kessel if he got a new lease on life with the Coyotes, both against the Predators during the Qualifying Round and possibly beyond.

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.

Reports: Edmonton, Toronto emerge as hub city favorites

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As the NHL and NHLPA continue hammering away at a return-to-play plan, we’re closer to learning which two cities will act as hubs.

According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie and ESPN’s Emily Kaplan, Edmonton and Toronto have emerged as the likely destinations. Once details on Phase 3 (training camp) and Phase 4 (games being played) are finalized, the agreement would then need to be ratified by the entire Players’ Association and voted on by the NHL’s Board of Governors. Those votes could take place later this week.

Since Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s return-to-play plan in May, Las Vegas was seen as a lock. But the number of COVID-19 cases has surged recently, prompting both sides to look to Canada should play resume later this summer.

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

The NHL entered Phase 2 last month, allowing players to hold voluntary workouts in small groups. The tentative plan is to open full training camps in mid-July with games taking place beginning in early August.

This is all subject to an NHL/NHLPA agreement, which could also include an extension to a Collective Bargaining Agreement that is set to expire in Sept. 2022. That deal would see a cap on escrow at 20% for 2020-21, and one season where players would defer 10% of their salary. That money would be returned to them in the future. The salary cap ceiling would also be set at around $81.5 million for the next three seasons. Compliance buyouts are not expected be part of any agreement.

And according to Pierre LeBrun, Olympic participation in 2022 and 2026 would also be in the deal between the league and union. That would then require further discussions with the International Olympic Committee before players would get the green light to go.

MORE:
NHL: 26 players have tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 began
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL player signing bonuses to reportedly be paid on schedule

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It’s July 1, which means we’re used to waking up and expecting a ton of players changing teams with the opening of free agency. Instead, we’re wondering if training camps will open up next week and if we’ll see a completion to the 2019-20 NHL season later this summer.

While the league and the NHLPA have agreed to an extension on all expiring player contracts, those players currently signed who are due July 1 signing bonuses will get their money. According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, over $300 million is expected be paid out to players on Wednesday following an agreement between the league and union. Though, with holidays in Canada and the U.S. this week it may take a few days to actually hit their bank accounts.

[Reports: Edmonton, Toronto emerge as hub city favorites]

That’s good news for the likes of Auston Matthews ($15.2M), Mitch Marner ($14.3M), Connor McDavid ($13M), Artemi Panarin ($12M), Roman Josi ($11M), and Erik Karlsson ($10M) (per CapFriendly), among many others. Not so fun news for the Maple Leafs, who will be shelling out nearly $60M in bonus money.

When teams would pay out signing bonuses was one of many details the NHL and NHLPA have been working on since the return-to-play plan was announced. With the goal to open full training camps by mid-July, both sides are hoping to announce an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Once an agreement is in place, the next step will be a full vote by the union and among the league’s Board of Governors before moving forward.

 MORE:
NHL: 26 players have tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 began
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.