Training camp is so close you can almost feel it, so it is time to shake more of the rust off and do a little rambling.
Pretty darned good summer for Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who stole Dougie Hamilton away from the Boston Bruins at the draft and then locked him in long-term while adding useful forward Michael Frolik, a former Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks. Then, earlier this week Treliving took care of priority No. 1: Locking up heart-and-soul captain Mark Giordano to a very salary cap-friendly six-year deal worth an average of $6.75 million per season. It's a deal that gives Treliving lots of cap-room flexibility moving forward, even if there's always a risk in such a long-term deal when Giordano will have just turned 33 when the deal kicks in next October. Many believe the Flames are due a step back this season after a surprising run to the second round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. But that run was accomplished without Hamilton and Giordano, who was out with a torn biceps tendon. Nothing is guaranteed in the wild Western Conference, but Treliving has his Flames well-positioned to return to the playoffs, not just this season but for the foreseeable future.
One byproduct of the Giordano signing is that the attention on top-end players entering their contract years is amped up. Tops on that list of course is Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, followed closely by Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar. The slower-than-expected rise in the salary cap coupled with benchmark contracts like those extended to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane by the Blackhawks last summer that kick in this season has made life more difficult for all GMs, but specifically for Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and Kings GM Dean Lombardi. Locking up Stamkos and Kopitar are obvious priorities for the Bolts and the Kings respectively and we assume the deals will get done, but the longer it takes, the more speculation will percolate that things are amiss. That kind of talk doesn't do anyone any good once the season starts, so stay tuned. Our guess is the Giordano deal is a kind of domino of big names who will soon sign lucrative long-term deals.
So, the Russian ice hockey federation gets an $85,000 kick in the shin guards because its players acted like spoiled brats and left the ice before "O Canada" was played following Canada's 6-1 thrashing of the Russians in the gold-medal game at last spring's world championships. The International Ice Hockey Federation levied the fine three months after the incident. Way to get on top of it, IIHF. And could the IIHF have done less after most of the Russian players disgraced themselves by leaving the ice after a signal from captain Ilya Kovalchuk? One of the tenets of any of these international tournaments -- even one as meaningless as the world championships, which is really not a championship of any note given that the tournament takes place every year in the heart of the NHL playoffs -- is the celebration of the competition, not the outcome. Ha. Apparently Kovalchuk didn't get that memo. Kudos to Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, new Chicago Blackhawks forward Viktor Tikhonov, Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin and Florida Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov for staying on the ice as the Canadian anthem was played. If the IIHF wanted to make some sort of statement, it should have suspended Kovalchuk from the opening games of next spring's world championships. Or better yet, every player who left the ice should forfeit the chance to play in at least the tournament opener. But the tournament is being held in Moscow and St. Petersburg, so the IIHF opted instead to give the Russians a light tap on the head and hope no one remembers the embarrassing incident and the even more embarrassing response.
I'm trying to think of an issue confronting the game as trivial as who produces the NHL's jerseys and whether at some point ads are on said jerseys. As if having sports companies' names on the front of jerseys lo these many years hasn't been a form of advertising. At any rate, Rick Westhead of TSN says Adidas will take over supplying NHL jerseys in 2017 and the "news" set off a firestorm of hand-wringing on the topic. Think we can all agree that having jerseys festooned with "Mom's Yard Work" decals isn't ideal, and there are lots of examples from Europe on which too many ads are a little distracting but, with all due respect to Blake Wheeler whom I think the world of but who called NHL jerseys "sacred" in response to the idea of ads showing up someday down the road, we think there are other issues that are more pressing such as concussions, how to take better care of retired NHLers and better prepare current ones for post-playing days, and why players and/or staff are breaking the law in alarming numbers. Just saying.
Building Team Europe
Craig Custance and I whipped up a debate on the structure of the North American YoungStars team for next year's World Cup of Hockey. The management team for the young guns and for the European All-Stars who will round out the eight-team field in the first World Cup of Hockey since 2004 will be announced after Labor Day in Toronto. Not sure who will oversee Team Europe as it is known (or Team Leftovers, as some might suggest) but one of the interesting decisions that management team will have is in picking a coaching staff. What about Anze Kopitar's father, Matjaz Kopitar, who coached his son at the Sochi Olympics and recently stepped down as the national team coach for Slovenia? What about former Edmonton Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger, the longtime national team coach in Switzerland who knows the NHL game as well? What about longtime NHLer Uwe Krupp, who is the current head coach of Eisbaren Berlin in the German elite league? Yes, much attention will be paid to the YoungStars squad and how it is going to be built, but the Team Europe entry that will include players from Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Slovenia among others is going to be every bit as compelling on and off the ice, and in the end might even have a better chance at a World Cup win.
Habs' new hires
If we judge a team by how many smart hockey people it assembles, then the future does indeed look bright for the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs added Eric Crawford, brother of former NHL head coach Marc Crawford, who is now in charge of Auston Matthews' development in Zurich, and longtime NHL coach Craig Ramsay to their front office staff earlier this week. It never really worked for Ramsay as a head coach in each of his three very brief tenures as head man. But rarely have we encountered a man who loved the game so wholly and was able to communicate that love so eloquently. His addition as a consultant to Michel Therrien's coaching staff should only make an already good team better, especially given the Habs' reliance on young talent to get them over the top. You can bet that Ramsay's longtime colleague, boss, teammate and once-upon-a-time roommate Rick Dudley, assistant GM with the Habs, had a hand in this hire.
So Phil Kessel is going to start the season playing on a line with Sidney Crosby. Shocker. We get that Kessel could have played with Evgeni Malkin and might at some point end up playing with the other superstar center on the Penguins' roster, but it did seem like a bit of a no-brainer that head coach Mike Johnston would give Kessel a look on the wing with Crosby. We actually think Johnston's other lineup decisions are going to be more interesting. Given the significant drop-off of Crosby's longtime left winger Chris Kunitz, do we see David Perron on Crosby's left? Perron, who had a strong start after coming over from Edmonton, was perhaps the worst player on the Penguins' team for the latter part of the regular season and the playoffs, so that's kind of iffy. Where does he slot Pascal Dupuis, Crosby's normal right winger when he's healthy (which he wasn't all of last season)? What about the kid, 6-foot-2 Sergei Plotnikov? Will the talented winger see time with Malkin on the left side and Patric Hornqvist on the right? What about Plotnikov and Kessel with Crosby? So many options. So many goals in the offing.
If there is an early offseason bad-luck award, it has to go to the St. Louis Blues, who will begin the season without two top-nine forwards in Patrik Berglund and Jori Lehtera, both of whom underwent offseason surgery for shoulder and ankle woes, respectively. Lehtera found chemistry with rising star Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz last season, so his absence is problematic. Berglund, whose name had come up in trade talks last season, has seen his productivity drop off in recent years but has been with the team in varying roles since the Blues took him 25th overall in 2006. It's fair to say the Blues need to get out of the gate in solid fashion after yet another bitterly early end to their season (they were dumped in six games in the first round by the Minnesota Wild). That task won't be made any easier by the absence of these two players in the early going.
And finally this. It was not without some horror that we reported on last week's drunk-driving and child-endangerment charges levied against longtime NHLer and current Wild assistant coach Darryl Sydor. The two-time Stanley Cup winner registered a .30 blood alcohol content, almost four times the legal limit of .08 in Minnesota. Sydor's 12-year-old son was in the car as they were headed to a hockey game at about 5 p.m. local time. Sydor voluntarily sought help and the league and team are both monitoring the situation. I have crossed paths with Sydor many times over the years and always enjoyed our discussions. This could have turned out so much worse, and we can be thankful for the fact we are left to consider what might have been instead of what was. And we wish Sydor and his family good luck in their journey ahead.