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31 Thoughts: What Hextall, Burke hirings say about the Penguins

• The Pens are going for it
• More trouble in Columbus
• A deep dive on faceoffs

There’s a lot this week — Tuesday was an insane day. So let’s start with what the hirings of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke say about Pittsburgh.

As the Penguins interviewed the various candidates for their GM and President of Hockey Operations positions, a vision emerged — go for it this year, see where we finish and map our future in the aftermath.

That’s true.

“We want to be as good as we can be right now with three of the best players in the world,” Hextall said at the introductory media conference. “And we’ll address things as we go along.”

“We’ve got some tough decisions if this team can’t get there,” Burke added in an interview for 31 Thoughts: The Podcast. “(But) let’s see if we can get them there. What additions can we make?”

Burke knows that won’t be simple. Pittsburgh is low on picks and prospects. It’s clear the Penguins were immediately dialled in on Hextall, only needing to look five hours east for his drafting and development resumé. It was interesting to hear him say he isn’t “a one-trick pony” when asked about his reputation for patience. They know what’s expected of them.

It’s also why the Penguins’ job wasn’t as coveted as it should be. Some candidates weren’t crazy about being the one to dismantle the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Kris Letang champions. (Malkin and Letang can be extended this summer. Crosby has four more years under contract.) It is generally believed Pittsburgh wants all three to finish their careers in the organization. But, as my grandmother said, “You plan, God laughs.”

You’d get punched in the face if you hinted Hextall is scared of anything. Burke was incredulous at the idea the challenge is too great.

“I’ve never looked at a hill and said it’s too tall or too high,” he replied. “I had GMs call me today and say, ‘You’re out of your mind. You’re going into a minefield with nothing but poor options in front of you. This will end badly — what are you thinking?’ I don’t see it that way. I’ve got special players, a GM I trust, a coach I trust, let’s see what we can do.

“The notion you wouldn’t take job because of the hurdles or sand traps in front of you, that thinking has never entered into my mind. My mind is you give me enough time, give me the resources, I can fix this. I’ve taken over teams where the list of challenges was as long as your arm…. That’s not the Pittsburgh Penguins. If you’re a guy who looks at a hill and says it’s too high, then do something else, man. Sell life insurance or do something else.”

The Hextall/Burke hiring comes at a time where I’m thinking the GM job has become too big for one person. When the Rangers held their media conference last week following Tony DeAngelo’s removal, both John Davidson and Jeff Gorton were there. Davidson, the president, handled the bigger-picture queries while Gorton answered the hockey-related questions. The proper structure (although I recognize finances are an issue during the pandemic) is probably your “hockey person” and your “manager.”

The hockey person sets your identity. What you want, who you draft, who you acquire, overall philosophy. Too many GMs never see players. Go see them and find them. Set the plan, create the team. Your manager, on the other hand, is around every day. Goes to practice. Attends all games. Communicates with everyone around the team. Puts out fires, manages up, does a lot of media. It’s no longer a one-person job. Burke and Hextall can work that way.

Hextall was expected to reach out to Crosby after the media availability Wednesday, get his opinion. They’ll continue to seek help for a banged-up blueline. It will be interesting to learn how they feel about the Tristan Jarry/Casey DeSmith goaltending tandem. It would be a surprise if Chris Pryor, let go as assistant GM after 20 years in Philadelphia following Hextall’s firing, did not join him in western Pennsylvania.

At the end of Tuesday’s briefing, Hextall was asked about the Flyers/Penguins rivalry.

“I love rivalries,” he said, a big smile widening across his face. “I love hating the other team — it’s what makes sports special.”

There were a lot of hard feelings on both sides of his exit from Philadelphia. If nothing else, this throws another Carolina pepper on the menu.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Hextall had the opportunity for an assistant GM role in Seattle. He declined because he wanted to be a GM. Score one for betting on yourself.

2. Whenever we finished an intermission on a Sportsnet hockey broadcast, Burkie would tell everyone they did a great job, except me. He could do it 300 times, and it never failed to make me laugh. I will miss it.

The nine interviews I’m aware of for Pittsburgh were (in alphabetical order) interim GM Patrik Allvin (who returns to his assistant GM role), Burke, Boston’s John Ferguson, Michael Futa, Hextall, OHL London’s Mark Hunter, Jason Karmanos, Colorado’s Chris MacFarland and NHL Network’s Kevin Weekes. Weekes, I believe, got a long look for the role Burke received. It opens more possibilities for him.

3. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen prefers to do things quietly. He can’t be thrilled with what’s been a “noisy” season, from Pierre-Luc DuBois to John Tortorella to Patrik Laine to Mikko Koivu’s sudden retirement. The Blue Jackets need the Laine deal to work; it’s critical. Everyone saw some kind of coach/player skirmish occurring — it was pretty much inevitable. But Kekalainen hoped it wouldn’t be so quickly.

Tortorella said Laine’s benching “wasn’t because of the missed assignment” on Brock McGinn’s 2–2 goal Monday night, and multiple sources indicate it happened when Laine blew off one of the coaches who tried to talk to him about it. Tortorella has his code, and that would violate it.

There’s a theory Tortorella wants out, that he’s forcing the Blue Jackets to fire him. Everything I hear is that’s absolutely not the case — he feels a loyalty to the organization and the players there who’ve supported him to find a way to overcome all the challenges they’ve faced. I can see Kekalainen wanting to turn down the temperature, end the drama and just play. Columbus is very much in the race, although COVID-related shutdowns have them and surprising Chicago way ahead in games played.

4. Koivu’s sudden retirement keeps Columbus chasing all options at centre.

5. This story will continue to unfold on Wednesday, but post-game media availabilities following Vegas’s 5-4 win over Anaheim on Tuesday night were prematurely terminated. As I write this, there’s no clarity on why Tomas Nosek did not return for the third period, but it’s clear there’s concern about how this unfolded.

The Golden Knights will not practice and have no availability on Wednesday, suggesting another shutdown is possible. There is a lot of worry about the new B1117 COVID strain, how aggressive it is, and what it can mean. It’s why the players are being asked to consider specific testing to find out which strain they are infected with, if they do test positive.

In last week’s blog, there was a section about how the NFL and the Centre for Disease Control went public with the league’s data, with results indicating that teams were not infecting each other thanks to well-ventilated, large-sized football stadia. Even if specific scientific proof is not available, it is clear hockey is a far different animal; we have to treat it as such.

As the number of cases grew last week in Buffalo, Minnesota and New Jersey, so did the call for increased rapid testing. The NHL and NHLPA worked to secure more “docking stations,” the machines that determine the results of rapid screenings. Expect more of this testing before games and in situations, like Buffalo, where infected teams return to practice after being shut down.

6. A couple of contacts were saying on Tuesday they thought we could get to the point where morning skates and/or practices could be limited.

7. When the NHL and NHLPA put together their 2020–21 season protocols, there was room to review things after four weeks. Depending on where you play, there’s different freedom of movement. In Canada, restrictions are tougher than those in Arizona or Florida. One of the conversations over the last few days was that players are going to have to recognize that movement will need to be limited — just home/hotel to rink, and nothing else, no matter where you reside. It’s not easy on anyone, but there’s no alternative. If tough protocols don’t work, there may be no escaping a pause to the season.

8. Patrick Marleau passed Jaromir Jagr for third place on the all-time games list when he played number 1,734 on Tuesday night. It’s secondary to the health and safety concerns, but Marleau is now 22 games behind Mark Messier for second spot on the list and 33 behind Gordie Howe for first overall. San Jose has 45 scheduled games remaining. Hopefully, this doesn’t become an awkward challenge through rescheduled games.

9. Sounds like Nashville is one of the teams interested in Vancouver’s Adam Gaudette. Boston was checking out Jake Virtanen, but I’m not sure where that stands. The Sharks poked around during the off-season.

10. When it comes to the Canucks, there’s the numbers and there’s the eye test. First, the numbers. According to Sportlogiq, entering last Saturday’s game in Toronto, the Canucks were 31st in even-strength shot attempts against, including from the slot and off the rush. There were low totals in creating scoring chances, limiting scoring chances against, creating offensive-zone possession time and limiting it against them.

For Braden Holtby to openly stare down teammates — that’s really surprising, and an indication of how sideways everything’s gone. Something’s missing, particularly the cohesion/camaraderie that was part of their victories over Minnesota and St. Louis last summer.

After Monday’s 3-1 loss to Toronto, Quinn Hughes said, “We have a lot of new pieces — we lost a lot of players from last year.” That was the Canucks’ 16th game of the season. Even with the loss of practice time and no exhibition games, that’s a long time for a team to still be finding its way. I can’t help but wonder if Travis Green being in the last year of his contract contributes to the overall malaise. The players saw some critical pieces leave in a similar scenario — do they think the same about their coach?

11. This is not a shot at Vancouver as much as it is about the confidence of both Montreal and Toronto. Claude Julien and Sheldon Keefe were unafraid to play depth lines against Bo Horvat’s line. It was two coaches saying, “We’re deep and we’re going to win.” The Canadiens and Maple Leafs play Wednesday and Saturday.

12. The Canadiens are averaging four goals per game. Last team to do it? The 1995-96 Penguins (4.41).

13. Nashville scratched Nick Cousins in Tuesday’s 6–1 loss to Tampa Bay. It’s been a rough start there, and we’ll see where this goes. There would be interest depending on what the Predators decide to do.

14. Paul Maurice’s emphatic defence of Blake Wheeler mentioned analytics, but it wasn’t really about analytics. It was about a coach feeling his captain deserves more local respect for choosing to stay in Winnipeg when others have left.

15. The Jets did an excellent job of staying above water while shorthanded because of quarantine rules. The strict Canadian regulations have absolutely had an effect on Sam Bennett’s future, although if he keeps scoring alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, the Flames won’t be too eager to do anything. Anaheim, Colorado and Columbus are among those who checked in. Curious to see if Pittsburgh does now that Burke is there.

16. Ottawa was looking to ease a crowded blueline once Erik Brannstrom got up to speed (likely Mike Reilly to move). We’ll see where it goes now that, unfortunately, Brannstrom is out. They are trying to get Derek Stepan closer to his family.

17. The NHL is working — immediately — to make certain that the Carolina/Columbus offside challenge snafu cannot happen again. Vincent Trocheck’s go-ahead 4–3 goal from Sunday’s 6–5 Hurricanes win was allowed to stand because a microphone was open that shouldn’t have been while the Situation Room in Toronto was talking to the linesmen. So, when the first replay was shown that didn’t clearly indicate an offside, something like, “That’s a good goal” was blurted out and the linesmen took it as gospel. (To his credit, NHL Executive Vice President Colin Campbell refused to name the individual involved. It was an accident, not deserving of being thrown under the bus. Besides, the higher you are up on the food chain, the more you are responsible for diving on grenades.)

Due to COVID cleaning protocols for headsets, the league was unable to re-establish contact with the in-arena officials, and the goal was announced as good before anyone could stop it. During the intermission, Campbell cancelled the Blue Jackets’ delay of game penalty for a failed challenge, even though he’s technically not supposed to do that. It was the right thing to do — another Carolina goal would have been a total disaster.

But Campbell wasn’t willing to violate Rule 37.2: “Any potential goal requiring video review must be reviewed prior to and/or during the next stoppage in play. No goal may be awarded (or disallowed) as the result of a video review once the puck has been dropped and play has resumed.”

I look at it this way: It’s in the best interests of everyone — even the Hurricanes — to make sure this type of administrative error can be eliminated. Look for the league to investigate ways of cutting out the middle man, giving the Situation Room direct ability to stop this from happening again.

18. Home-ice records are better than ever, and here’s an example: Carolina has three losses. All of them are in the second of two-game road series: 4-2 at Detroit; 6-4 at Chicago; and 3-2 at Columbus. In that Central Division, road teams have just three wins in more than 20 such situations. They were stuck on one until two Tuesday-night victories: Tampa at Nashville; and Chicago 2-1 over Dallas. (The other was Florida in Detroit.)

19. The Panthers are 7-1-2. They’ve overcome postponements due to breakouts on other teams, and the fact their starting goaltender had his pre-season preparation derailed by COVID. They didn’t allow the Keith Yandle situation to cause a meltdown. They’ve beaten teams they are supposed to beat. You can’t ask for a better performance.

Now we find out what we’ve got here. The next 11 feature three games each with Carolina, Dallas and Tampa.

20. Kind of disappointing Boston and Toronto don’t play this year. Those would be must-watch

21. Last week’s edition of Scotiabank Wednesday Night Hockey featured Boston and Philadelphia. The Bruins feature The Perfection Line, exceptionally dangerous on offensive-zone draws. Down 3–0 to Washington two nights earlier, they got back-to-back scores immediately after faceoffs that keyed the comeback that won the game:

So, in preparation for our broadcast, we went to a faceoff guru, NCAA Vermont (@UVMhockey/@UVMwhockey) head coach Todd Woodcroft, for guidance. Woodcroft, who left the Winnipeg Jets after last season to lead the Catamounts, takes great pride in teaching the subtleties.

“Offence does not always come from a faceoff win,” Woodcroft said. “You’d be surprised how much comes from a faceoff loss. You have to know who the threats are.”

When it comes to Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak — they’re all threats.

“The beauty is that everyone knows how they do it, but they still have success,” Woodcroft says. “Bergeron is dangerous on both his strong and weak sides. Even if he loses, everyone still finishes their routes because they know Marchand is sprinting in. He can be first to the puck or win the battle for it. They are so rehearsed, so lethal. Great chemistry.”

For example, you cannot let Pastrnak get to the high or low slot. That’s where he’s headed, and the Bruins are going to find him. On the 3–2 goal, look how he runs John Carlson into the post to create space.

22. Since Woodcroft joined Winnipeg in 2016–17, Bergeron tortured the Jets like he tortured everyone else — winning 56 per cent of his draws. The positive is that the centre’s overall number during that time was 58 per cent, so the Jets actually did better than most. How do you counter Perfection?

“Our centres made it important,” he answered. “They cared about it. We made it a ‘specialty team,’ like the power play or the penalty kill. Every good team practises faceoff plays, and you’d go through video: ‘This is Boston play one, this is Boston play two.’ We’d talk about the ‘sort out.’ What’s the ‘sort out’ when this happens, so when it does happen no one is surprised? It’s rare that you see a play you haven’t already seen, but you have to make sure everyone has clear routes and knows what they have to do.

“If your centre doesn’t have enough strength on his stick, Bergeron will destroy you. He’s like a tornado. His torque is pure violence. Everyone else has to be wired, on their toes, ready to fight through a check. You want your defence to push people into the linesman, creating a mess.”

Other than your centres, who was good at disruption?

“(Brandon) Tanev is great at it, a winger blasting out at the point. (Blake) Wheeler is great at winning lost pucks.”

Woodcroft sent two clips of Wheeler’s work. In the first, he ties up Vince Dunn after the Jets lose the first draw:

In the second, Wheeler ends up with a glorious opportunity after reading the Bruins’ breakout on the second:

23. In that Bruins/Flyers game, Bergeron had an unusually poor night in the circle — 12-26, just 46 per cent. He went four-of-15 head-to-head with Claude Giroux, another Woodcroft favourite. How good is he? Check out this clip of the Philly captain winning a draw off the outside edge of his strong-side foot:

Not easy.

Other centremen Woodcroft likes: Ryan O’Reilly, “the single greatest faceoff guy in the NHL. Dangerous on any dot;” Sidney Crosby “recognized a deficiency and worked to become one of the best. On the weak side, wins faceoffs a unique way — stands back and slaps the puck to the wall. Might be best on the weak side in NHL;” Luke Glendening; Radek Faksa; Brad Richardson “will drive right through you;” newly retired Mikko Koivu would “do different things versus a lefty than he will do versus a righty;” and Bo Horvat, “a bulldog.” Woodcroft also credited Tampa Bay’s creativity, using their weakside defenders — especially Victor Hedman — to create problems.

24. Finally on this topic: Woodcroft once asked O’Reilly for a stick. He genuinely wanted the souvenir, but also wished to study a master’s tool. It has a stiff flex (115) and the centreman’s unique curve.

“He knew exactly what I was doing,” Woodcroft laughed, “and signed it, ‘To Todd, from your faceoff hero, Ryan O’Reilly.’”

25. I didn’t ask Woodcroft about one of his newest commits, 20-year-old Andrei Buyalsky, but it’s an interesting story. He left his native Kazakhstan for USHL Dubuque in December. Buyalski had 11 points in his first 12 games as the Fighting Saints went on a hot streak. What wasn’t clear was his NHL Draft status. A couple of teams who saw him poked around, and it looks like, because he hasn’t played a full season, he’s eligible to be selected in the 2021 event.

26. As the NHL (and NHLPA) figure out what to do with the draft, some OHL players are hopeful that league will consider a 25-game-ish schedule starting in April. Something is better than nothing.

27. While the OHLers as a whole wait to see what happens, some will get the opportunity to play in the AHL. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre signed goalie Brett Brochu from the London Knights to a tryout contract. Brochu turned 18 before the season began and went undrafted in the NHL last fall, making him eligible for the opportunity. Toronto signed Pavel Gogolev, who had 96 points in 63 games for Guelph in 2019-20. He will be 21 next week. Shorthanded teams may continue this idea.

28. There are rumours of the desire to hold a World Under-18 event this spring in Frisco, Texas. That’s where the Stars practice.

29. The Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced a Dream Gap Tour game on Feb. 28 at Madison Square Garden. The only negative is that Canadian-based players won’t be able to participate due to cross-border laws. PWHPA chair Jayna Hefford said last week they will look at games in Canada once quarantine rules ease up in the country.

30. The AHL announced Canadian Division schedules for February, but notice neither Ontario team — Belleville nor Toronto — has a home game. Road only to start for both, until the province eases its lockdown.

31. Last week on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, Jeff Marek and I talked to Tim Micallef and Sid Seixeiro, who started as interns at The Score. Another who followed that route was Kristian Jack, who worked his way to becoming one of this country’s most authoritative soccer voices. A couple of years ago, I remember tuning into the FIFA Women’s World Cup, seeing Kristian, and saying, “Wow, what a jump. Climbed his way to the top.” I was really happy for him.

Every time I think of Brent Wallace, I remember someone who once told me, “Before I met you, I thought you were a huge jerk.” And now that you have met me? “I still think you’re a jerk.”

I was almost run over by a car talking to Dan O’Toole at a crosswalk during the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. (We also shared an affinity for The Underground.)

Kelly Hrudey, P.J. Stock and I had a great chat with Natasha Staniszewski one night when we walked into a bar after a Saturday night show and she was there.

All of the radio cuts the other day? Brutal. There’s no other way to say it.

I can’t speak for everyone at Sportsnet and TSN, but I know that those of us who work in hockey are both friends and fierce competitors. We badly want to beat each other to stories, but we want each other to succeed, to thrive. You remember the good times shared. Whether in front of the camera or behind it, what happened in the last week is not about ability.

Howard Stern, when he was fired from WNBC, was devastated. He thought his career was over. But his agent, Don Buchwald, walked in with a bottle of champagne, and told Stern this was going to be the best thing that ever happened to him. It was true, and Stern still reigns even though he lost his fastball a long, long time ago.

There are a lot of people re-writing their priorities out of COVID, embracing paths they didn’t think possible. I hope, for all of them, that Stern’s history repeats itself.

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