All 32 NHL teams open their varsity training camps by the middle of this coming week, with the Tampa Bay Lightning penciled in to run the table one more time and be the first club to post three consecutive Stanley Cup titles since the great Islander squads rattled off their four straight (1980-83).
Aside to the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee: Why Butch Goring hasn’t been inducted remains one of the game’s great mysteries. No offense to the likes of Clark Gillies (HHOF ‘02), but Goring was the undisputed glue guy for the Fishsticks. Without his acquisition from the Kings, maybe the Canadiens stretch their dynasty, or the Oilers dominate an even bigger chunk of the ‘80s.
But we digress.
The Bolts, who clinched their latest Cup by mincing up the upstart Habs in five games disguised as a sweep, return again with both the best goalie (Andrei Vasilevskiy) and best defenseman (Victor Hedman) in the game.
If you’re going by ‘21 trophies, you’re right, Marc-Andre Fleury (Vezina) and Adam Fox (Norris) owned those two “best of” categories. But given the first pick at each position, I’d ride with Vasilevskiy-Hedman. Hands down, no gloves, hack at me all you want.
Now the dilemma. Including Vasilevskiy and Hedman, general manager Julien BriseBois has a total of five mainstays who cannot be traded, via their contract protection. The others are star forwards Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos and ex-Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
Why would he want to trade any of them?
Answer: See that Islanders dynasty that currently frames where the Lightning stand at this moment in time.
GM Bill Torrey, who masterminded those great Islanders teams, including the hiring of coach Al Arbour, chose not to deal any of the key roster components. Bit by bit, Hall of Famers Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Billy Smith, and Gillies all departed by the summer of 1990, and not one of them yielded so much as a draft pick in return.
Gillies departed to Buffalo as an unrestricted free agent in ‘86; ditto for Trottier to the Penguins in 1990. The other three franchise cornerstones retired, Bossy with a bad back in ‘87, Potvin (’88) and Smith (’89) because of age. Stalwart backliner Ken Morrow, who joined the club right after winning gold at Lake Place in 1980, also retired in ‘89 after playing a vital role. Goring was waived to the Bruins in the 1984-85 season.
Torrey was loyal, regrettably to a fault. The Islanders reached the Cup Final again in ‘84, got bounced by the Oilers, and only in the last couple of seasons finally have recovered from their decades-long drought induced by the talent drain.
Because of the no-trade clauses up and down his roster, some of which he granted, BriseBois today stands where Torrey stood decades ago. Torrey had a way out; he could have judiciously dealt essential personnel for healthy, sustainable returns, but chose to stand pat.
Players age quickly, every one of them depreciating assets. It’s all the harder for a GM to acknowledge that and act on it amid the Cup parades.
The Bolts easily could win this season and next. They’re loaded. It’s extremely difficult to build a champion, and as BriseBois is about to find out, even harder to recognize when or how best to move current assets in hopes of extending the success.
THREE TO GET READY
Keep an eye on these stories
A hat trick of top story lines around the league as doors swing open on a new season:
▪ Kirill Kaprizov: Headed into the weekend, the Wild and their sensational Rookie of the Year winger had yet to button down a contract. Kirill the Thrill has to be thinking upward of $10 million a year (a.k.a. the Jack Eichel Package). Eichel was just turning 21 when he signed for that dough. Kaprizov is 24, albeit with only 55 NHL games on the career odometer.
The Wild have the money to spend. GM Bill Guerin has slightly more $12 million in cap space, and no doubt would prefer not to assign the bulk of it to one guy. But he may have little choice. It would be money far better spent than the combined $196 million the Wild once dished out for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
▪ Oiler recovery: Are they back? GM Ken Holland dished out $38.5 million for Maple Leafs free agent winger Zach Hyman in hopes that he can tie together an offense already gifted with back-to-back MVPs in Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.
The exercise would have been easier had the Oil not lost UFA blue liner Adam Larsson to the Kraken. Much like the Islanders, the once-mighty Oilers didn’t make the most of cashing out their best assets across the ‘80s and ‘90s, despite having the courage to move a 27-year-old Wayne Gretzky to LA in 1988. At least they tried.
▪ Get Kraken: The latest expansion franchise, Original No. 32, will be looking to follow on the Vegas fairy tale with a similar first-year trip to the Cup Final. Probably not going to happen, simply based on odds, but such was the smart-money talk when Marc-Andre Fleury carried the Golden Knights to the Final in 2018 vs. Washington.
Seattle has a proven prime-age (31) goaltender in Philipp Grubaeur and a solid back end led by Mark Giordano and Larsson. The Kraken could be challenged to score.
Still don’t quite understand the choice of Dave Hakstol as coach, not after his inglorious run of three-plus seasons behind the Flyers bench.
MINDING YOUR HEALTH
Bergeron gives himself a break
The challenges around mental health for pro athletes became a prominent discussion over the summer, largely because of the struggles of — and the amount of public commentary around — star gymnast Simone Biles and tennis champion Naomi Osaka.
Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron, now 36 and about to enter his 18th NHL season, harkened back to how the subject of an athlete’s mental health was rarely talked about early in his career.
“Even though it was very important, [it] was almost taboo at times — and frowned upon, if you will,” said Bergeron, who was a rookie with the Bruins in 2003-04. “I think it’s great that it’s a little bit more out there and people realize that it’s OK at times to be vulnerable, and it’s OK to ask for and seek help and it’s important to do so.”
Bergeron said MGH’s Steve Durant, a clinical psychologist who has consulted with the Bruins since September 2017, “has been amazing for us with that aspect of the game.”
In the thick of the playoffs last spring, when talking about the physical grind of the game, Bergeron noted that he found sleep to be the essential element of recovery. One key in helping to maintain mental health, he said, is finding ways to back away from the game, find a respite from what at times can be an exhausting, suffocating existence.
“For myself, it’s getting away from hockey at times,” he said. “I have three kids that I have to chase around on a daily basis. That helps me kind of get away from the game and I think it’s been great that way, to be a dad, to get up out of the rink and help me put things in perspective and help me appreciate, and be thankful for, everything that life has given me.”
Like many, if not all, professional sports, hockey comes with a daunting grind factor. The NHL typically squeezes an 82-game regular season into a span of 180-190 days, and two teams every season will play four playoff rounds, possibly adding as many as 28 more games to their workload.
Factor in the preseason and off-day practices, and there can be an overwhelming fatigue factor on both body and mind. Imagine the strength and mental stamina required of an athlete like Bergeron, who has played in 1,143 regular-season games and 160 more in the playoffs.
“For us as athletes, I think we have a platform to show that we also go through some of that stuff,” said Bergeron, asked to reflect on the topic of mental health in the sports news over the summer. “It’s important to reach out. I’ve said many times, don’t suffer alone.
“I think for me, it’s been a learning process over my career. There’s a lot of ups and downs and there’s a lot of pressure, I guess, and expectations from yourself and from the outside, from your team, and personal matters that come into play that you have to deal with as a regular and normal human being.”
McNab reflects on his good old days
Ex-Bruin Peter McNab, recently named to the US Hockey Hall of Fame, entered the NHL in 1973, a time when American-born players were somewhat of an oddity and Russia still didn’t allow its players to seek fame and fortune in North America.
Example: McNab’s final NHL games came with the Devils in the spring of ‘87, two years prior to Slava Fetisov, 31, making his NHL debut at Exit 16W.
“Back then, college players were thought of in a different light,” said McNab, a Canadian-born (Vancouver) center who made his way to the NHL via the University of Denver. “We kind of had to fight our way to be recognized as legitimate players.”
McNab was in his young teens when the family moved from Vancouver to San Diego, his father (Max McNab) named GM of the WHL’s San Diego Gulls. He quickly developed a love of baseball and the beach and considered giving up hockey.
“I loved the sport of baseball,” he recalled. “But what drew me to hockey — imagination, the imagination that you could show on the ice when you were carrying the puck, when you were moving when you were making plays, when you were involved in the games.”
Which is why, said McNab, as a fan and spectator, he always has been drawn to the game’s most creative, imaginative performers.
“The first time I saw Bobby Orr play, what he would do, his imagination on the ice, I couldn’t believe what he was thinking and doing,” said McNab, a member of the Avalanche broadcast team the last 25 years. “Then [Wayne] Gretzky, then [Mario] Lemieux, all these special players.”
US-born Patrick Kane, the flashy Chicago winger, is the player who catches McNab’s eye today.
“He’s my favorite player of this generation,” McNab said. “When he gets the puck, you never know, and that is just spectacular. When you are so good … I mean, no matter how much hockey you watch, no matter what you do, you’ve got no idea what that young man is going to do.”
McNab, chosen No. 85 in the ‘72 draft by the Blues, ended up the third-best goal scorer (363) in the class, behind Montreal’s pick at No. 4, Steve Shutt (424), and Philadelphia’s pick at No. 7, Bill Barber (420).
With some reluctance, McNab related a discussion that his father had nearly 50 years ago with Sam Pollock, the senior McNab hoping the legendary Habs GM would give him a read on Peter’s chances to play one day in the NHL. Max and Pollock were both in Denver to watch the Pioneers play prior to the ‘72 draft.
“Sam was a genius who’d put together great hockey clubs,” recalled Peter. “And my dad said to Sam, ‘How would this Pioneer hockey club do against, say, the Toronto Marlies?’ My dad expected the answer to be, ‘Oh well, the Marlies would wipe them out.’ And Sam said, ‘The Marlies wouldn’t have a chance; these guys are just too good, too big, and too strong.’ ”
His dad was stunned, said McNab, because the widely held perception was that US college programs weren’t nearly of the caliber of Canadian junior teams.
“I hope that this doesn’t sound like I’m pumping myself,” said McNab, “but my dad said to Sammy, ‘Is my son good enough to be drafted?’ Sam turned to my dad and said, ‘If he was in Canada, he would be a top-10 pick. As a matter of fact, he may be the best goal scorer in this class.”
Proof, said McNab, “that no matter what you saw, we had to clear obstacles to get to the next level.”
Ex-Bruins captain Zdeno Chara agreed to a one-year deal with the Islanders over the weekend and will enter the 2021-22 season with a chance to surpass Chris Chelios for No. 1 in games by an NHL defenseman. Chara, 44, has logged 1,608 games, ranking No. 5 behind Ray Bourque (1,612), Larry Murphy (1,615), Scott Stevens (1,635), and Chelios (1,651). If Chara is a regular in Barry Trotz’s lineup, he’ll own the top spot by the time the Olympics start in February. The four ahead of him on the list are all in the Hockey Hall of Fame and all were playing when Chara entered the NHL as an Islanders defenseman in 1997. By the way, Big Z and family recently moved out of their downtown condo, but a short walk from TD Garden, and moved west to the burbs, less than a four-hour drive to his new workplace in Elmont, N.Y. … The Bruins wrap up their rookie tourney Sunday in Buffalo, the city where a teenage Linus Ullmark participated in his first development camp after being drafted by the Sabres in 2012. The recruits that year, recalled Ullmark, were under the thumb of Navy SEALS, who had the lads out of bed at 5 a.m. to make their beds and clean their rooms. “If there was a water droplet next to the sink, everyone had to do 10 pushups,” he recalled. Then came a dry-land workout, then breakfast, then time in the rink. “You think, ‘How bad can it be,’ right? Well, it was worse.” The SEALS weren’t in charge after his first year, Ullmark recalled. “I think they made the decision that dev camp is not for setting standards; it’s for checking in. Don’t create horrible memories and nightmares.” … Fabian Lysell, the speedy right winger chosen No. 21 by the Bruins in this year’s draft, on where he needs to improve most: “To be honest, I need everything. I definitely have to put on some weight and just try to be better at everything — especially the things you are good at, because I feel that’s what separates you. I want to be an offensive guy, so work on my strength, be a faster skater, better stickhandling, hockey IQ, better shot, all those things.” … First-year AHL Providence coach Ryan Mougenel, on whether he can detect a player’s hockey IQ immediately: “No. I am sure Butch [Bruce Cassidy] probably could, because he’s been doing this a whole lot longer than I have. There’s obviously things as coaches that we value and assimilate, and you get attracted to players that have similar traits as yourself. So I try to be pretty objective and take it all in and understand that every player is kind of different, recognize their strengths early on and make sure we’re accentuating those strengths. But by no means can I make that assessment early on with a player.” … Gerry Cheevers, the Hall of Fame backstop to the Bruins’ 1970 and ‘72 Cup wins, figures Fred Stanfield was a better player than many fans might have appreciated. Stanfield, 77, died Monday in Buffalo. “Great point man on the power player, penalty killer,” mused Cheevers. “He was the guy who complemented Phil [Esposito] offensively and complemented Derek [Sanderson] defensively. We had a great producer in Phil and a great defensive guy in Derek — a great player in Derek. When I think of the great Pittsburgh teams that won with Lemieux and Ronnie Francis, that was sort of Phil and Freddie.” … Harry Sinden, coach of the Bruins ‘70 Cup winners and longtime GM, on Tuesday celebrated his 89th birthday.