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NHL’s best referee: Wes McCauley goes by his own book

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Wes McCauley keeps his good calls close and his bad calls closer.

Any time the veteran NHL referee is feeling too good or gets down on himself, he breaks out a binder full of his missed calls and looks through it.

”It’s a humbling book,” McCauley said. ”Trust me, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. There’s times you wish you could saw your arm off.”

McCauley’s arms have signaled countless penalties, goals and no-goals since his NHL career began in 2003. Over the past 15 years, he has developed a reputation as not only the most animated referee in the game but the best in hockey based on his consistency, rapport with players and coaches and a demeanor that’s equal parts entertaining and professional.

In an NHLPA poll last spring, almost half of players chose McCauley as the league’s best referee, honoring a man in stripes who’s far more used to getting barked at than complimented.

”I don’t think I’m that good,” McCauley told The Associated Press. ”My job’s just to officiate hockey games and to do the best I can and to move on to the next game and really to stay out of the highlights.”

McCauley has his own highlight reels because he enjoys hamming it up when he makes announcements. When he reaches to his right hip to turn on the microphone, it’s must-see entertainment.

His flair for the dramatic once sent former Rangers coach Alain Vigneault into a laughing fit on the bench, and it has been the subject of mocking from veteran officials for just how demonstrative he can be when whistling a penalty or waving off a goal. McCauley knows he’s more exuberant than he has to be, but that’s part of the fun for him and players.

”He’s real,” Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon said. ”He’s obviously an animated guy and definitely calls a good game.”

McCauley earned the votes of 47.8 percent of players as the NHL’s best referee, well ahead of Kelly Sutherland (17.7 percent), Tim Peel (4.4 percent), Dan O’Halloran (2.7 percent) and Trevor Hanson (2.7 percent). The 46-year-old from Georgetown, Ontario, is the most popular and respected ref because he gets it right more often than not, apologizes when he doesn’t and knows how to explain his calls to players and coaches.

”Consistency. You kind of know what you’re getting with him,” Rangers forward Chris Kreider said. ”In any sport when you talk about refereeing, if a ref isn’t very visible and prevalent and the game is decided by the players ultimately, then that’s a good ref and that’s Wes.”

McCauley gets that. He played four seasons at Michigan State from 1989-93, had a cup of coffee in the minors and figures his relationships with players from that era bought him the benefit of the doubt, and some of that still exists.

”He’s in charge out there, and there’s really not a lot of gray area,” said Capitals coach Todd Reirden, who went to Bowling Green and played against McCauley in college. ”He stands his line and he lets the players play, but he also has a great pulse of what’s going on and I think that’s from his experiences of playing the game at a collegiate level and also some at a pro level. He relates really well with the players and with the coaches.”

McCauley vividly remembers botching a call in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final when he didn’t see that Washington’s Chandler Stephenson, not Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland, tripped teammate Nicklas Backstrom and called a penalty. As with many other calls, he hoped it wouldn’t directly affect the result and apologized to Engelland later.

That’s a common theme during McCauley’s career.

”I still remember one time he made a bad call and he found me the next time we were playing and said: ‘Hey, I just want to let you know I know that call was really bad. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I wanted to apologize,”’ Winnipeg center Mark Scheifele said. ”When he has the respect level for the game and for us as players, we have respect for him. And I think that’s why he’s known to be the best referee out there.”

Best referee out there? ”Now you jinxed me – now I’m going to be up and down like a toilet seat next season,” McCauley quipped. Maybe earlier in his career that was a danger, though McCauley now has 957 regular-season and 131 playoff games under his and has worked six Stanley Cup Final series.

Over that time, McCauley has developed a balance between knowing players see him as an obstacle to winning while still communicating with them to the point they know him personally. Even if players aren’t happy with his calls, they appreciate McCauley’s honesty and ability to have just as big a mouth as they do.

”You automatically sometimes snap at the refs,” Stars center Tyler Seguin said. ”Sometimes you blame the refs for things that were even out of their control. And he finds a way to take it, give it back a little and then move on pretty quickly and he’s always been very respectful to the players and I think that’s what makes him a great ref.”

McCauley’s life experiences helped make him a great ref. His dad, John McCauley, worked 15 years as an NHL referee before an eye injury took him off the ice and led to a director of officiating job before his unexpected death at age 44. His brother, Blaine, suffered an eye injury that cost him his hockey-playing career and changed Wes’ view forever.

”My biggest thing is when I step on the ice, I want the players to feel like, ‘Oh, OK we’re going to get a fair shake tonight,”’ McCauley said. ”I’ve never really taken it for granted, so I try to go out there and referee every game the best I can.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Reinhart, Sabres end stalemate with two-year bridge deal

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The Sam Reinhart Stalemate is finally over.

The 22-year-old signed on the dotted line on Wednesday, inking a new two-year bridge deal with an annual average value of $3.65 million.

The deal is good value for the Buffalo Sabres, who are right up against the 2018-19 salary cap of $79.5 million. CapFriendly shows the Sabres with just over $2.8 million in cap space left but with the potential to have to pay out nearly $4 million in bonuses this season.

Like Josh Morrissey and Darnell Nurse before him, the deal means Reinhart will be a restricted free agent come the summer of 2020 and the Sabres will then have the option to hand him an eight-year deal.

And like Morrissey and Nurse, the deal is team-friendly in terms of the cap now and leaves the player betting on themselves for a significant pay raise in two year’s time.

Reinhart had a slow start to the season last year but ended up setting a career-high in goals with 25 to tie Jack Eichel for the team lead.

What’s most impressive about Reinhart’s year was how good he was down the stretch. In the final 44 games, he had 39 of his career-high 50 points and 20 of his 25 goals came in 2018, which tied him for 12th in the NHL during that span.

Important to re-hash this from The Athletic’s John Vogl, who wrote about this subject in June:

Reinhart’s passing skills and hockey IQ make him an intriguing center candidate. Though not the fleetest of foot, he can drive the offense. According to the numbers at NaturalStatTrick.com, Reinhart trailed only Evander Kane and Jason Pominville in shots generated relative to his teammates and ranked fifth in fewest shots allowed. O’Reilly was noticeably better with Reinhart than without him.

As we wrote during Buffalo Sabres Day at PHT, Reinhart could find himself in a pretty juicy scenario playing on a line with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. Given Reinhart’s ability to make those around him better, his career-highs could climb to new heights this coming season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Darnell Nurse, Oilers hammer out two-year bridge deal

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Days after returning to Toronto to continue his workouts as he waited for a new contract, Darnell Nurse now has a good reason to head back to Edmonton.

The Oilers announced on Monday they’ve handed Nurse a two-year, $6.4M extension. He’ll remain a restricted free agent when this contract expires after the 2019-20 NHL season.

“I was losing my mind sitting at home and not being able to be on the ice,” he told the Oilers website. “I’m happy it was only a few days and I can get on the ice again tomorrow.”

Getting Nurse in the fold is important for the Oilers’ blue line as Andrej Sekera is out indefinitely after another Achilles injury.

For Nurse, there was no doubt a deal would get done. He was confident this summer that it would all work out. Of course, he probably didn’t think he’d miss the first few days of camp, but he wasn’t making it sound like there was any negativity coming from either side in the quest to complete an extension — even if there was some disagreement on value between his agent and Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli.

The 23-year-old Nurse is coming off his best season in the NHL. He posted career highs in goals (6), points (26) and time on ice (22:15). His possession game (50.9 percent Corsi) was improved, and he credits the jump to working with Paul Coffey, who was hired by the Oilers in January as a skills development coach.

“Paul’s been a great help,” Nurse told Michael Traikos of the National Post in August. “He sees the game different than most people you get to work with… I think the offensive side of my game will continue to come out. I think last year I made a little bit of a stride. I was happy, but I wasn’t content with my offensive game. I know there’s a whole other level I can get to.”

Nurse, like Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrisseywho signed a similar two-year extension on Sunday, is betting on himself over the next two years to continue his development and cash in. If the salary cap ceiling continues to increase and the Oilers’ cap situation improves, he’ll put himself in line for a long-term, big money deal. But that’s something to worry about in two years time. The blue liner has plenty of work ahead of him before he can start eyeing that kind of extension.

MORE: Unsigned restricted free agents as NHL camps open

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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.

Morrissey finally signs; is Nurse next?

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(UPDATE: Nurse has signed a two-year deal with the Oilers.)

One of the notable restricted free agents left to sign is now off that list.

The Winnipeg Jets got great value on Sunday, signing one of the league’s more underrated defenseman in Josh Morrissey to a two-year bridge deal with a $3.15 million annual value.

The signing ended a stalemate between both the club and Morrissey’s camp that surprisingly crept into training camp. Morrissey missed the first three days as preseason proceedings got underway in Winnipeg on Friday.

It’s likely the Jets were trying to get Morrissey to sign a long-term deal with the club at a cap-friendly price given the Jets are dangerously close to the $79.5 million ceiling.

Instead, Morrissey will bet on himself and the chance to get a big payday in 2020 when he will become an RFA once again, and the Jets will enjoy two more seasons of the 23-year-old at a bargain price. With the future of Jacob Trouba up in the air and with Dustin Byfuglien set to become an unrestricted free agent a after the 2020-21 season, Morrissey could be in line for a long-term deal worth more than double what he is making now.

[MORE: Despite their ascendance, Jets know nothing will come easy this season]

In the interim, the deal solidifies Winnipeg’s top pairing with Morrissey and Trouba in a big year for the Jets, who got to the Western Conference Final last season on the back of a 52-win, 114-point regular season.

With Morrissey’s deal done, it will be interesting to see if the ball gets rolling in Edmonton with another high-profile RFA in defenseman in Darnell Nurse.

With the news of Andrej Sekera being out indefinitely with a torn Achilles‘, it’s somewhat shocking that the Oilers haven’t got Nurse under contract given their thin depth on defense.

Talks there seem to be at an impasse with Nurse reportedly wanting $4 million. Perhaps Morrissey’s signing can kickstart negotiations again now that there’s a benchmark in place.

Toronto’s William Nylander also is in need of a new contract although, like Nurse, talks between general manager Kyle Dubas and the young Swede seem to be at a standstill.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Despite their ascendance, Jets know nothing will come easy this season

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WINNIPEG — They set a franchise record in wins, won their first playoff game in the team’s existence and stamped a ticket to the Western Conference Final for good measure.

But if you ask the Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, a man coming off a career-year with 91 points and a shiny, new five-year, big-money contract extension to show for it, it all means very little.

“We didn’t accomplish anything last year,” Wheeler said as he stood in front of his locker room stall at Winnipeg’s practice facility earlier this month. “Making the playoffs was certainly a hurdle for this group. It was something that we desperately needed to accomplish for some of that verification of what I was talking about before. When the puck drops this season, it’s not going to be Game 1 of the Western finals again. There’s a long road to get back to where we got last year and it doesn’t happen just because we want it to happen or we think we’re better than everyone else or because we had a good year last year.”

There’s a lot to unpack, particularly in that first sentence alone.

In one sense, Wheeler is right.

Ultimately, in the National Hockey League, if you’re not first, you’re last.

Banners aren’t raised for second place.

In that vein, the Jets accomplished nigh last season. They made waves but ultimately fell short of the goal, like every team that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs minus one, the Washington Capitals.

For the Vegas Golden Knights, their second-place showing will only be remembered because of its rarity (you know, the best expansion team ever stuff). Otherwise, second place gets forgotten in the annals of hockey history. No one remembers, nor cares, about who finished second.

But you can’t just brush aside what the Jets did last season — 52 wins is a lot of wins (only Nashville and Tampa had more); 114 points is a lot of points (only Nashville had more).

There’s more, too: A young goalie who re-invented himself over the summer before going on to win 44 games and finish second in Vezina voting. A captain who turned in an elite career year. A second-year sniper that had 44 goals and would have likely had more if he his stick didn’t catch a cold as the regular season drew to a close.

Winnipeg didn’t take the ultimate step but they certainly began their ascent on Lord Stanley’s mountain. They are, simply, a bona fide Cup contender in what’s often regarded as the toughest division in hockey and arguably the strongest conference in the NHL.

Wheeler is both right and wrong at the same time.

One thing is certain though: repeating success is hard.

* * *

As big as last season was in Winnipeg, and by the same token, as important as it was for the organization, the coming 2018-19 season has even more riding on it.

Expectations are undeniably higher.

The Jets showed a lot of good things last season.

When Mark Scheifele missed 16 games with an upper-body injury, instead of crumbling, Winnipeg responded with an 11-2-3 record with their No. 1 center out of the lineup. Wheeler stepped in to play Scheifele’s role and the rest of the team fell in behind him as the team thrived amid the adversity.

[Can Patrik Laine score 50?]

A young Jets team took much of what came their way last season in stride. Blemishes were few, and they have to be to win 52 games. The Jets didn’t lose three straight in regulation until the Conference Final.

But resting on their laurels would be a massive mistake.

“In our minds, we can’t rest on what we did last year,” Scheifele said. “Obviously, we had a good year, there’s going to be expectations, but at the end of the day it takes a whole lot of hard work, it takes a lot of things to go right, and we have to start here. It’s Day 1… we have to be ready for a lot of hard work, to play fast, to play our game and get ramped up for the season.”

Now, Winnipeg doesn’t have the excuse this season of being that inexperienced playoff team. They went pretty deep last season, playing (and winning) a Game 7, and also feeling the heartbreak of defeat. They know what it is to lose now and, more importantly, they caught a glimpse of what it takes to win.

* * *

The Jets set the bar last season.

And for that bar to get to where it did last season (and beyond), a lot of things needed to go in Winnipeg’s favor.

Wheeler’s monster season. Laine’s ascendance to the NHL’s goal-scoring pantheon, Kyle Connor’s emergence after leading all rookies in goal scoring. Hellebuyck’s evolution. Winnipeg’s resilience.

All important to last year, surely. But the coming season?

“All the things that went into last year are built yearly,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Friday. “We have some talented players, we lost some talented players, so we start to build a season again. Even if you win the Stanley Cup, and we’ve seen it in the past, if you don’t start a training camp and build again from ground zero, you’re going to miss the playoffs in this league when you’re in our division and in our conference. All the things that went into the final two months of the season, all the good was built over the course of the year and it’s going to have to happen again.”

[Jets Day: Under PressureBreakthrough | Three Questions]

Maurice knows this all too well.

In 2002, he guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final, eventually losing to the Detroit Red Wings in five games. The next year, the Hurricanes went from first in their division to fifth, missing the postseason.

In 2008, and back behind the bench in Raleigh, Maurice led the Hurricanes deep again, this time to the Eastern Conference Final where they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The next season, the Hurricanes missed the playoffs again with another sub .500 season.

“It changes,” Maurice said. “Every year your circumstances are different than the year prior, so for this year, specifically, [we] did not change training camp. All the things that we needed to improve on have to be [improved on] and it goes with that message. It’s not so much that we’re starting at ground zero. I know said that, I’m not sure that’s 100 percent accurate. We believe in our team, we’ve got some good players here.

“But the grind that you have to go, the price that you have to pay has to be paid every year regardless of your talent. And that’s the message.”

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck