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31 Thoughts: No easy answers for addressing Sabres’ messy situation

• On the Sabres’ uncertain future
• Leafs’ top prospects on the table
• Ekholm the belle of the trading ball

The best quote I’ve ever heard about life in the NHL came several years ago from Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.

“There are only two moods,” he said. “Winning and hell.”

It’s the truth, and it struck me for about the thousandth time Saturday night after Buffalo lost 3–0 to Pittsburgh.

No matter what, Sabres coach Ralph Krueger contorts to project positivity, but I’ve never seen him look as ashen as he did following that game. Then came Monday’s 6-0 defeat to Washington, the team’s 11th in a row. Told the Sabres looked like they quit on him, Krueger replied, “I don’t feel the quit of anybody.”

Next up was Sam Reinhart. Asked by Buffalo News columnist Mike Harrington to provide evidence the players haven’t quit on each other, Krueger or the fans, Reinhart replied, “I don’t know what you want me to say, Mike. It’s not a good result…. Love the group of guys, love the coach — the result isn’t good enough.”

There are 29 more games of this.

With COVID protocols so restrictive, this season is hard enough to play when you’re winning. Losing? Off-the-charts miserable. Everything about this is hard to watch.

Teams aren’t eager to spend a dollar more than they have to, and I get that at a time when they’re haemorrhaging cash. It might actually be a relief for Krueger if the Sabres change coaches, but he’s under contract for another season at approximately $3.75 million. No doubt ownership is looking at that and saying, “Really?”

But that philosophy will bleed into 2021–22, when teams are hoping to begin their pandemic recoveries. Buffalo is one of the NHL’s great markets — a passionate fan base, and a true driver of league business and interest. Starting Saturday, a limited number of fans will be allowed in KeyBank Center for games, but multiple reports indicate interest is soft — a decade of futility ballooning into a nuclear mushroom cloud.

Fans and media are clamouring for trades, but those won’t be easy. There’s budget/cap constipation all around the NHL. And there’s always a danger about dealing when you’re desperate. The sharks in the water are throwing you anvils, not life preservers.

From what I can tell, GM Kevyn Adams has a sensible plan. He’s testing the market on his players and gauging the possibility of a post–Jack Eichel future. I think that’s the right approach, but my concern is how you get there from here.

Should this be Buffalo’s future — another rebuild with an Eichel-sized hole in the middle — you must give yourself the best opportunity to thrive. The Sabres staff is thin — likely the thinnest in the NHL. As more and more scouts from other teams return to the road, they don’t see much Sabres representation. Video scouting is absolutely necessary, and they’ve definitely made that investment. However, you cannot use it as an excuse to eliminate boots on the ground, especially now that the Canadian junior leagues are revving up. You might get 25 to 30 views of draft eligibles between now and the 2021 selections.

There’s at least one NHL team that hired several “bird dogs” to provide coverage in areas they felt they couldn’t get to. You must go the extra mile. That’s my biggest question about the organization. If you’re going to change your core to try a new direction — again — are you giving yourselves the best opportunity?

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Toronto’s Kyle Dubas confirms he’s all in. The last two weeks haven’t been great, but the vast majority of the season’s been strong. He’s going for the best forward he can get and their top prospects are on the table. No Boston or Tampa Bay until at least the third round. Crazy not to take the leap.

2. Cheveldayoff tends to me more careful with his wording — but it’s clear the Jets like their team. They’ve got the goalie, they’ve got great forwards, they can play any style you want. No Colorado or St. Louis or Vegas until at least the third round.

They need one more defender. Could be Mattias Ekholm or David Savard — the former with term, the latter without. Savard is the easier fit because he’s a right shot, a lower trade price and a heckuva player. Ekholm is a stud and can go on your power play, but is a higher price, and the lefty shot means you move people around. Whatever.

If it were me, I’m getting one.

3. As things stood Tuesday morning, it sounds like Ekholm is the belle of the trading ball. We’re a month away from the deadline, but the poker game is underway with the Predators demanding a high price. Boston and Winnipeg are there. I always assume there are others. I’m not convinced Philadelphia is going to do it — not certain they feel this is the year to pay the cost. (Of course, whenever I say that to people, they reply, “Come on, these are the Flyers you’re talking about.” Maybe the Chuck Fletcher/Dean Lombardi Flyers are different.)

Toronto considered it, but that’s a left side of Ekholm, Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly. Is there enough ice time that makes sense? I’ve also wondered about Edmonton; Ekholm would look good there. But after listening to GM Ken Holland last week, it sounds like he wants to build up draft/prospect capital, not erase it.

4. Nashville’s made it clear the Los Angeles/Toronto Muzzin deal is the template for Ekholm. That was a first rounder, a second rounder the previous season (Sean Durzi) and Carl Grundstrom, who was in the AHL at the time and has played 25 of 27 career games this year.

One wrinkle is the comfort level with 2021 selections. The draft is staying in July, and there are varying degrees of willingness to accept those picks, especially if a trade involves more than one. The team giving up futures is generally more willing to trade choices from 2021; the teams receiving them are asking about 2022.

5. Things can always change, but the price is also high for Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell. Calgary wouldn’t pay it, and I’m not sure there’s a match with Toronto. The Ducks, I think, want young players with a little more of an NHL track record for him.

In this job, you try to understand the personalities you’re dealing with. One thing I’ve learned about GM Bob Murray is he can think, “Not ready to do this, not ready to do this,” and then decide, “Okay, I’m ready,” almost catching people by surprise. Let’s see where it goes with Rakell.

6. I heard the Ducks were asked about Max Jones, but that’s a no go. He’s been very good. We will see where things go with talented Troy Terry.

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7. Sounds like New Jersey and Kyle Palmieri have begun conversations about his future. Nothing imminent, and I’m not making any predictions, but it’s underway. Could see Boston, the Islanders (assuming Anders Lee doesn’t return during the regular season) and Toronto for him.

8. You saw how tough the quarantine was on 22-year-old Pierre-Luc Dubois, in prime physical condition. There’s a concern about its effect on Eric Staal, who is 36 (although in better shape than your average television commentator). That will be a factor in any Canadian possibilities for him.

9. Detroit’s going to be interesting, too. To date, we’ve focused on the pending free agents: Sam Gagner, Luke Glendening, Bobby Ryan, Marc Staal. Not that GM Steve Yzerman reveals much, but he’s going to consider almost anything. I don’t think Dylan Larkin, Lucas Raymond or Moritz Seider are going anywhere, but other than them? I think there’s interest in Jonathan Bernier. He’s battled hard there.

10. No disputing Vancouver should be interested in keeping Tanner Pearson, but how can it work? Thatcher Demko’s number is rising, and he’s two years from unrestricted free agency. They could always punt it to arbitration, but that doesn’t solve the long-term issues. Add term to Demko, combine it with Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson, and that’s what — $20 million between them? That’s assuming short-term for the latter two, which seems the likelier option.

11. Marc Bergevin confirmed that Ben Chiarot is likely a regular-season return, so an add won’t fit under the cap. There was a time I thought they’d try to move Tomas Tatar to create room, but I don’t believe that’s happening. I also don’t sense any rush to decide Jordan Harris’s future. Taken 71st in 2018, his NCAA Northeastern season ended last weekend, and there’s time to figure out how he and the Canadiens wish to proceed. Harris has one more season of college eligibility, then can be an unrestricted free agent.

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12. Brian Boyle wakes up every morning, drives his son to the bus at 7:45, then heads for training and a skate with either the local junior team or some Ivy League players who, unfortunately, didn’t get to play this season.

“I get to be a dad, and the kids get a little continuity,” he said Monday night.

However, the big forward keeps himself in shape for a reason: he wants to continue his 805-game NHL career.

“I miss it,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to go this way. When I watch games, I think I can still play with how I feel and how my body feels.”

Boyle heard from several teams in the off-season.

“No one was saying no to the possibility. It would be one thing if everyone was saying no. It was more like … waiting. I understand, it’s the way of the world — everything is screwed up because of the cap and COVID. But I know I’m not done, and I’m ready for anything.”

At 36, he’s watched some of the players in his age range, and how they’ve adjusted to the schedule. One is Joe Pavelski, who is five months older.

“With less travel, less video, less scouting … you can see how Pavelski and Sidney Crosby will themselves to turn it on. You can thrive with veteran savvy.”

As I was writing this, I was thinking that it couldn’t hurt for Buffalo to bring him in.

13. Boyle wanted to shout out his trainer, Brian McDonough, who also trains Ottawa’s Colin White.

“When I saw Colin go into the boards in Edmonton (last Wednesday), I thought he was gone for awhile. Then he played 17 minutes on Sunday. That’s because of Brian’s work with him.”

14. Colorado is just one of the teams looking for a Blake Coleman type. Nice legacy for him (and the Lightning) that his name is being used this way.

15. One team that will consider taking money? Surprising Chicago. The Blackhawks are in a position to absorb a contract or two if the assets are good enough.

16. I wondered if Vegas would look for another top-nine forward, but it sounds like the Golden Knights are pretty content with their group — especially after everything they added last season.

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17. When Dean Lombardi hired Darryl Sutter to coach the Kings in 2012, the latter said he was “in the barn” when the GM called.

“I wasn’t shovelling s–t, I remember that, but I had (earlier) that day.”

For the record, this time Sutter was at a bull sale.

18. The Flames are 3-0 since Sutter’s arrival, and one thing is obvious — they are slowing down games. It wasn’t as easy to do in Monday night’s game against Edmonton. The Oilers force you to play at a faster pace. But, in the first two with Montreal, scoring chances were way down. According to tracking guru Corey Sznajder’s data (@ShutdownLine), there were some noticeable changes in Calgary’s play. Shots created off the forecheck were way up, they dumped the puck in more (which fits) and were stingier allowing the Canadiens into their zone with possession. None of this will surprise anyone when it comes to Sutter, but the numbers sure backed the eye test.

19. Quietly, the Canadian teams are hoping the 14-day cross-border quarantine can be lessened. One of the GMs wondered last week if trading for a vaccinated player would be an exception. I reached out to the Federal Government to find out, and got a no.

“Scientific evidence is clear that the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in Canada are highly effective at preventing illness,” wrote Martin Begin from Health Canada. “However, there is still limited evidence on whether someone who received a COVID-19 vaccine is still able to transmit the virus…. Vaccinated travellers who are arriving in Canada must follow mandatory quarantine and testing requirements, including a 14-day quarantine, to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. Vaccination does not replace this requirement and it is not an element for consideration at this time in relation to quarantine exemptions.”

Still, I don’t think the NHL is giving up hope. If it happens, there are going to be a lot of angry snowbirds.

20. The NHL informed the NHLPA that the 2021 Draft will not be moved back from its current July 23-24 date. In negotiations, the NHL offered free agency to anyone who would normally have been eligible to re-enter this year’s event (as in, previously selected but not signed), and to those in the final year of draft eligibility. Important to the NHLPA were: credit towards salary arbitration and free agency for those who “lost” a chance at an NHL season; one year’s reduction in a team’s signing rights to a drafted player; and compensation for signing bonuses lost to a delayed/suspended draft. There wasn’t common ground on these issues.

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21. Before the Vegas expansion draft, then-New York Islanders GM Garth Snow protected Adam Pelech. At the time, he took a ton of heat, as Pelech had played just 53 NHL games. But Snow knew Golden Knights architect George McPhee — previously an Islanders consultant — liked Pelech. As we’ve learned, there’s a lot to like. Quietly, he’s become one the NHL’s top defenders, a critical piece on the East-leading Islanders.

Pelech laughed when I told him I heard the key to success is his older brothers. One source: “Adam is tough because his brothers beat the crap out of him and made him do crazy stuff growing up.” Matt, 33, was drafted 26th overall by Calgary in 2005, played 13 NHL games and retired only when COVID ended last season (he was in Belfast). Mike, 31, was taken 156th by Los Angeles in 2009, and is in his 12th year as a pro with the ECHL’s Indy Fuel.

“My dad used to build a rink in our backyard, and the story my mother (Patricia) likes to tell is that when I was three, she looked out the window and saw my brothers had put me in the goalie pads,” Adam, 26, said. “She ran outside and freaked out.”

When did they first admit you were the best Pelech?

“If you ask them, I’m sure they’d say they realized it before I did. They are always the first to pump my tires.”

22. Watching Pelech and Ryan Pulock in the bubble was a real revelation; they’re a truly under-appreciated pair. Pelech’s first coach at OHL Erie was Robbie Ftorek — “Such a good teacher,” said Pelech — who got him on the road to the NHL.

“He loved guys using the backhand at practice,” Pelech said. “He would always say, ‘Stay between your man and the puck, between your man and the net, see both the man and the puck.’”

Do you still follow those rules?

“It’s tough, but I try,” he said, laughing.

What does Barry Trotz come at you with?

“Being more firm — making firm plays. Especially in front of the net, winning those battles all of the time.”

23. One part of the conversation I particularly enjoyed was about expectations. Pelech didn’t want to hear about expectations not being high for the Islanders at times.

“For us they are,” he interrupted. “Since day one.”

He’s a big part of that identity, and is one year away from unrestricted free agency.

“I love it here. I see myself as an Islander.”

24. One final note on Pelech: In his third OHL season, Connor McDavid showed up. Eight years later, Pelech says his old junior teammate is the most challenging opponent. Then he added, “Crosby this year has played extremely well. Just Sid being Sid. All the stuff he does protecting the puck.”

25. Players on one-year contracts could sign extensions as of last Friday. How many handshakes will we see? “Hey, we’ve got a deal, but nothing formal until after the expansion draft”?

26. Months-old rumour I heard this week: Philadelphia poked around Oliver Ekman-Larsson last summer, but a move obviously didn’t happen, as his choices were Boston and Vancouver.

27. It’s a small transaction, but I was happy to see goalie Beck Warm signed to an entry-level contract by Carolina. Beck and twin brother Will were born one minute apart on April 22, 1999. (Will is older.)

It was a long road to Raleigh for Beck — never drafted in the WHL, never drafted in the NHL. Picked up by Tri-City, he lost his first junior game 8–1 as a 15-year-old. He grinded his way to No. 1 in the Americans’ net, before being traded last season to Edmonton. The Oil Kings were a great team, with the possibility of a championship run ended by COVID. He started 5–1 this year for AHL Chicago and got an NHL deal out of that.

The twins have a great reputation as people, and it’s fantastic to see this kind of reward.

28. It is expected there will be an OHL Board of Governors call on Wednesday. Doesn’t necessarily mean an announcement that day, but we’re getting closer. The best news is that top players won’t have to choose between that league and the Under-18s, which take place April 26 through May 6 in Texas, because the later start means you can play both. Among those expected to be affected are Brandt Clarke (Barrie), Mason McTavish (Peterborough) and Brennan Othmann (Flint).

29. Four years after Devin Setoguchi’s last NHL game, his cousin, North Dakota captain Jordan Kawaguchi, begins the final stretch of his NCAA career. Roommate Matthew Kiersted (a defenceman) is probably the highest-rated college free agent available, but Kawaguchi, the team’s leading scorer for the third straight season, is getting his looks, too.

30. Small thing, but would be a nice thing: In Ontario, the highest level of minor hockey for boys is AAA. Highest level for girls is AA. There’s an ask to get both as AAA. Can’t imagine that’s too difficult a process.

31. It went under the radar on Monday, but six prep schools joined together to form what they are calling the Prep Hockey Conference: Culver (Culver, Ind.), Mount St. Charles (Woonsocket, R.I.), Northwood (Lake Placid, N.Y.), Shattuck-St. Mary’s (Faribault, Minn.), South Kent School (South Kent, Conn.), and St. Andrew’s College (just north of Toronto in Aurora, Ont.).

You’ve undoubtedly heard of some (if not all) of these schools. They already play each other and attend each others’ tournaments, but “wanted to make a little more of it,” said David Manning, head coach of the St. Andrew’s varsity team. “We need each other to build schedules and attract the best players. We’re optimistic and ambitious as a group. We’re going to do this.”

Culver, St. Andrew’s and Shattuck will play in the West Division, the others in the East. All will get together for a “full league weekend” next November in Rhode Island, then have a playoff in February 2022 with Minnesota as the host.

Manning’s school has had good players leave before graduation — Carolina’s Warren Foegele and 2019 Colorado first-rounder Alex Newhook among them — and he’s hoping an improved schedule “will show that you don’t have to leave early for the USHL or Junior A.” St. Andrew’s is also exploring becoming an associate member of the Northern Ontario Junior League for that reason.

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