Hockey’s Kevin Bacon: Playoffs are 6 degrees of Rick Bowness

EDMONTON, Alberta — Rick Bowness looked at the Calgary Flames lineup written on the whiteboard in the Dallas locker room, and a strange thought crossed his mind.

”It was one of the few teams in the league that I had never coached any of their players,” Bowness said.

Bowness did coach Calgary forward Matthew Tkachuk‘s father, Keith. He has also coached the dads of six other players, two fellow head coaches and three general managers who made this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. As for players? The 65-year-old doesn’t have to look far in the NHL bubble to find someone he has coached: 65 players who made the postseason – at least one on 18 of the 24 teams that made the cut.

Bowness is hockey’s version of Kevin Bacon, the screen star who seems to have worked with just about everyone in Hollywood. But there is no six degrees of separation game for Bowness — his connections are direct.

”That’s what happens when you’re an old guy coaching in the league,” Bowness said.

Bowness got his start with the original Winnipeg Jets in the 1980s and has had an NHL job, primarily assistant or associate gigs, all but one season since 1991, when he was in charge of the Boston Bruins as a fresh-faced 36-year-old. He had a young Zdeno Chara with the New York Islanders, coached alongside Wayne Gretzky when they were still the Phoenix Coyotes and spent six years helping Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman become one of the best defenseman in the game as Jon Cooper’s top assistant.

”He’s just one of those guys that he’s in the fabric of everything,” said Louis DeBrusk, a Sportsnet NHL analyst who played for Bowness in Phoenix and whose son Jake was in the playoffs with the Bruins. ”He interacts with everybody, and that’s, in my opinion, the reason why he’s been around for five decades as a great coach is that he really buys into the team concept and he wants to make sure that everybody’s doing OK.”

When Bowness took over as Stars interim coach in December, Hedman credited the hockey lifer for believing in him and called him ”a great human being.” Cooper on Thursday said Bowness was an invaluable part of his development behind the bench, and of course the two could face each other for the Stanley Cup if Dallas and Tampa Bay advance.

Bowness helped Cooper and Tampa Bay reach the 2015 final and was on Alain Vigneault’s staff when Vancouver was there in 2011, so he has been a part of long playoff runs before. But this is the first time Bowness is leading a team this close to a title. There is a special appreciation for that, even among those trying to knock him off.

”Probably one of the best coaches I had,” said Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault, who played a year-plus under Bowness with Tampa Bay and is now facing him in the Western Conference final. ”The way he handles himself, how professional he is, how awesome he is off the ice as well, I really enjoyed my time around him.”

Dallas general manager Jim Nill, who played with Bowness and also had him as an assistant coach in Winnipeg, hears that sentiment a lot. When a former player approaches Bowness to say hello, Nill often follows up and gets one rave review after another.

”I’ll talk to him and (he’ll) say: ”Boy that’s one of the best coaches I ever had. I owe a lot in my career to what he’s done for my career,”’ Nill recalled. ”That’s a great telling tale about a person: who is he is as a person probably off the ice and then who he is as a person on the ice as a coach.”

Bowness has a sharp hockey mind hidden behind the demeanor of a kid living his dream. He jumped up and down and hugged assistants after the Stars’ Game 7 overtime victory against Colorado and isn’t afraid to show how he feels.

”He’s really emotional,” Dallas defenseman John Klingberg said Friday. ”When he talks to the team, he always bring that emotion in there to get us going and to wake us up or whatever we need. He demands that everyone brings 100% to every game, and outside of the rink he’s always there if you need something to talk about.”

Between head-coaching stints with the Jets, Bruins, Ottawa Senators, Islanders, Coyotes and Stars, Bowness has been considered the ideal assistant because of how well he can communicate with players. DeBrusk, an enforcer on the ice in his playing days, recalled how Bowness would give him a pat on the back to thank him for his work.

”That goes so far with players,” he said.

How far can Bowness go with the Stars? Like Craig Berube with last season’s Cup-winning Blues, Bowness remains an interim coach for now. He and Nill won’t talk about his status until they’re done playing, but Tyler Seguin and his fellow players have bought into what Bowness is selling and it has Dallas in the final four for the first time in 18 years.

”It’s all about staying in that moment, and Bones has done a great job at keeping us grounded, keeping us in those days, not getting too high, too low,” Seguin said. ”The typical conversations at these times of year, he’s the best at it. He’s been around the longest, so he’s one of those guys that you want to win for.”

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    Stars sign 41-goal scorer Jason Robertson to 4-year, $31M deal

    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
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    FRISCO, Texas — Jason Robertson signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp.

    The Stars announced the deal after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    Robertson turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when the left wing had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. His 13 power-play goals led the team. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    “Jason is an integral part of the present and future of our team and we’re thrilled to have him for the next four years,” general manager Jim Nill said.

    A second-round draft pick (39th overall) by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. The 6-foot-3 California native had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    “Since he was drafted by our organization, he has worked tirelessly to become a better player every day. His knack for scoring goals and seeing plays develop on the ice are just some of the tremendous assets that he brings to our team,” Nill said. “He is one of the best young players in the NHL, and we look forward to seeing him continue to progress.”

    Robertson had the second-highest point total for a Stars rookie in 2020-21, when he had 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in his 51 games.

    Before the start of this season’s camp, new coach Pete DeBoer said he looked forward to coaching Robertson.

    “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here,” DeBoer said then. “So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Robertson will finally be there now.

    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

    The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

    “This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

    LAMBERT ISLAND

    Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

    The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

    Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

    The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

    Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

    “He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.