Sports

Duhatschek mailbag: Thoughts on the playoff system, trading cap space, who’s to blame in Vegas

Welcome to Part 2 of the April reader mailbag. With less than a week to go in the regular season and the playoff matchups starting to take form, the postseason was on a lot of people’s minds.

(Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.)


Your thoughts on the current playoff system, versus a straight 1-versus-8 system. Feels almost criminal that the Wild will play St. Louis in Round 1 and if it plays out currently aligned, Edmonton would play LA. — Jacob G.

I don’t like the current playoff system at all — never really have — and sure haven’t warmed up to it this season. It can be patently unfair, and the No. 2-3 matchups in the West are the perfect illustration. St. Louis and Minnesota are tied with the second-most points in the conference — one ahead of Calgary, the Pacific champs. Meanwhile, Edmonton has the fifth-best record by percentage points, and L.A. is sixth. Notwithstanding what Los Angeles has done this year to stay competitive — given its talent and its injury issues — one team that, in a fair system, wouldn’t even qualify for home-ice advantage in the first round, is going to advance while a team that projects to finish with over 110 points is going home. On paper, they will be the team to qualify for the playoffs. It’s not right. If teams were seeded No. 1-to-8, that wouldn’t happen. It would reward the Avalanche, the Blues and the Wild for their October-to-April excellence.

So yes, a 1-to-8 seeding system would be better, and ranking teams 1-to-16 would still be better. (Don’t laugh — that’s what it was when I first started covering the NHL in the 1980-81 season). Also: While I waver sometimes on the idea of a play-in round, the system the NBA has adopted — where 7 plays 8 and 9 plays 10, and the loser of the 7-8 game gets a second chance to qualify for the postseason against the winner of the 9-10 matchup — has pushed me back on board. But just as there’s little appetite in the NHL to change the way they calculate the standings — and eliminate the ridiculous “loser” point — I don’t detect any genuine push to amend the current playoff format either.

What would be your favorite, most entertaining dark horse finals matchup this year? Eliminating the Avalanche and Panthers as the two most likely teams to reach the finals, so basically all the other teams are eligible for this exercise. — JD D.

This actually took far longer to answer than I thought because I considered and discarded about five different scenarios before settling on a Calgary Flames-Tampa Bay Lightning final.

Why? Well, starting in the West, if you eliminate Colorado, then the next best team is Calgary, which won the Pacific unexpectedly and is fun to watch because they compete so hard and play such a fast-paced game. When Darryl Sutter returned to coach the Flames a little over a year ago, he said he did so because of “unfinished business.” That was a reference to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, which Calgary led 3-2 over Tampa Bay with a chance to win the Cup at home. They had a goal by Martin Gelinas controversially disallowed in regulation, which ultimately allowed Tampa Bay to win Game 6 in OT and then the deciding seventh game at home. So here it is, 18 years later. Sutter is back behind the bench in Calgary, and the Lightning are the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, bidding to become the first team since the early 1980s New York Islanders to win three championships in a row.

I considered including Minnesota-Pittsburgh, provided Marc-Andre Fleury was starting in goal for the Wild (not guaranteed, given how well Cam Talbot is currently playing). A St. Louis-Boston rematch would give the Bruins a chance to complete their own unfinished business. And Edmonton-Toronto or Calgary-Toronto would guarantee Canada’s lengthy Stanley Cup drought — no championships since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens — would finally come to an end. All would be delightful, delicious matchups, in the event that one or both of Colorado or Florida stumble. And if they don’t, then Avalanche versus Panthers — a rematch of the 1996 Stanley Cup Final — would be pretty great too.

With the continued move toward betting, when will the NHL stop with the upper/lower-body injury thing? The old argument of targeting a known injury is no longer valid with the number of cameras on an NHL telecast. All the other leagues now give full details which creates more interest in their product. Why can’t our game move into the 21st century? — John G.

The last time I posed this question to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, he suggested the answer was a firm no: that internally, the NHL believed the vague designations — of upper- and lower-body injuries — were enough to satisfy their new partners in the gaming industry. Daly’s exact quote to me was: “We’re probably two-plus years into that business, and as far as I know, we’ve never even received a request from any of those companies with respect to injury disclosure. That question has come up repeatedly, but to this point, there has been zero pressure and zero inquiries from any of the sports betting companies that we do business with, with respect to changing our injury disclosure policy.” As with all good lawyers, Daly inserted the all-important caveat — to this point — in that conversation, which means if all the gaming sponsors gang up on the league, then they may have to revisit the policy. But they’ll get real pushback from NHL GMs. Serious pushback.

There was a hint, at the last NHL GMs meetings in Florida, that the policy may eventually have to change and that not every gaming partner is OK with how things currently stand. When gaming partners first came aboard, Gary Bettman’s official position was cleverly framed: “We’re transparent about our lack of transparency.” His point was simply: The NHL just needed to be consistent, and zero disclosure accomplishes that. The NHL’s argument for the current policy mostly has to do with the idea that, if an injury were known, opposing teams might target a player, to worsen an injury that he’s trying to play through. That’ll be a tussle internally if the pressure on teams ramps up — many current GMs like things the way they are and will resist any attempts to change or amend the policy.

Do you think teams will ever be able to just trade salary to another team to help create salary-cap space? — Cameron N.

In a word, no. It was a battle, orchestrated most publicly by Brian Burke, to even get the NHL to allow up to 50 percent of salaries to be retained in possible deals. The league did acquiesce — reluctantly. When that happened, I’m told there was a bit of lecture from Bettman about the risk of untoward consequences when the policy changed. I think the league’s dug in at 50 percent, believing that was a fair compromise. I don’t see them extending the policy any further.


Igor Shesterkin. (Gaelen Morse / USA Today)

Will Igor Shesterkin win the Hart or are the voters going to be cowards and refuse to vote for a goalie? — William M.

Awards ballots are scheduled to drop into our inboxes this week, which would give the 200 voters about a week to ponder their Hart Trophy options before submitting their ballots. Some years, the Hart vote isn’t complicated — but this isn’t one of those years. I see at least six strong viable candidates: Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Jonathan Huberdeau, Johnny Gaudreau, Roman Josi and Shesterkin. Unlike the old days, when voters selected only the top three in each category, our ballot now goes five players deep. If there are six bona fide contenders, at least one of those names is going to be left off everybody’s ballot. Furthermore, you can be sure that a handful of other players having excellent seasons will get courtesy mentions on some ballots. Think Leon Draisaitl, Cale Makar, Kirill Kaprizov — probably others, too.

So, the long answer to your question is yes, some voters will probably not put Shesterkin on their ballots. Admittedly, goalies can sometimes face an uphill battle because the Vezina is considered their trophy and an important consolation prize. Still, goalies (Carey Price, Jose Theodore, Dominik Hasek) do win the Hart far more frequently than defensemen (since Bobby Orr in the early 1970s, only Chris Pronger in 2000 has won the Hart). If you’re asking for an educated guess on Shesterkin’s candidacy, the answer is no. As good as he’s been, I don’t think Shesterkin wins the Hart this year.

Who gets the blame and the ax in Vegas? (GM) Kelly McCrimmon is responsible for the top-heavy, expensive, injury-prone roster, right? Local (and vocal) fans are demanding (coach) Peter DeBoer and (goalie) Robin Lehner be cut loose. — Ed P.

The Golden Knights’ playoff hopes are hanging by a thread. But even if they miss, which seems likely, I predict no one gets the ax, at least not right away. But I do understand the question. When a team such as Vegas massively underachieves, often, the immediate reaction is: Who do we sacrifice to explain away this debacle of this season? In Vegas, William Foley is known to be a demanding owner and unquestionably disappointed at the way his Golden Knights took a backward step this year. But what’ll happen in Vegas is what’ll transpire in the front office of every non-playoff team soon after the season ends. The hockey operations staff will conduct a thorough post-mortem and present the report to ownership. Ownership will ask tough questions. GMs will likely be squirming in their seats. In Vegas’ case, hockey ops will argue mitigating circumstances: That it was one of those years where everything that could go wrong, did – and that if it hadn’t been for the injuries, they might still have forged a winding path to the playoffs, where a lot of potential opponents were wary of the challenges a healthy Golden Knights team might have presented in the opening round. And that, by the way, is true. It’s happened lots of times in the past, where teams have salvaged so-so regular seasons with a good playoff result.

Ultimately, the decision will rest in Foley’s hands. Patience hasn’t always been Vegas’ strong suit. This might be the time to show some. Rather than tamper any further with the already eroding organizational chemistry, the smart path might be to sort out their cap issues in the offseason and see if this year was simply an aberration — an off year, which happens all the time in sport — or if the window to compete has already passed them by. If 2022-23 is as disappointing as 2021-22, then yes, you’ll probably see some of the Vegas higher-ups sacrificed. But I don’t see that it makes a lot of sense to make drastic changes today. A hockey team is like a puzzle: you need to fit the pieces together to create a cohesive whole. Vegas learned that lesson in their first season, the Golden Misfits year. They had the blueprint and lost it somewhere along the way. In my view, making additional sweeping changes would just compound the error and set them further back — not move them forward in any way.

Would a top-10 team be willing to convert Zdeno Chara into a fourth-line forward, with limited ice time, which would allow him to still be an impactful player in limited ice time and also provide a team with the chance to platoon him on defense if necessary? It would allow Chara to provide leadership, potentially be healthier, and give him one last run at the Stanley Cup. — Lawrence E.

Lawrence wins first prize in a new unofficial contest: most creative idea presented in a mailbag. Sadly, the answer to his question — can you convert a future Hall of Fame defenceman into a part-time forward at the 11th hour and 59th minute of his career? — is probably no. For one thing, Chara probably wouldn’t do it, even if it was the only way to extend his career. For another, NHL teams rarely think outside the box enough to consider a concept so radical. But intellectually, the idea has merit, because even at his advanced age, Chara is an imposing, daunting, physical presence on the ice, even if he doesn’t have the mobility anymore to keep up in the current hyper-speed era. But playing protected fourth-line minutes at wing, Chara could easily accomplish whatever limited ice time the 21st century equivalent of enforcer/tough guy generally gets. As noted, if Chara were a forward on your depth chart, he could provide the versatility to occasionally swing back to defence, even if only to kill the odd penalty. I like the concept. I just don’t see any team actually executing it in the real world.


Johnny Gaudreau. (Brett Holmes / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Provide your opinion on what Johnny Gaudreau’s next contract will look like and who Calgary moves out in order to make the cap work. — David W.

Gaudreau’s pending unrestricted free agency was a complication going into the season, and it just got more and more difficult because of how well both Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk have played. For context, Gaudreau is on an expiring contract with an AAV of $6.75 million. Most of the estimates in October saw a bump into the $8 to $8.5 million range. Now, you’d have to think it’s a minimum of $9 million to sign Gaudreau, and that would probably count as a hometown discount, since he’d likely get more to go to market. Term, obviously, is another factor. Calgary can go the full eight years, which would be a significant concession considering Gaudreau’s age (29 in August), but it would also help bring down the AAV, which will be critical.

They can get Sean Monahan’s money off the books via a buyout or finding a home with a willing partner (Seattle? Arizona? Maybe even Ottawa?). Milan Lucic can’t be bought out, but like Monahan, he has just one more year to go on his $5.25 million contract.

So, relief is in sight by the end of the 2022-23 season. The primary goal for Brad Treliving will be to get a cap-compliant roster in place for next year, because it does get a little easier for 2023-24, after which he’ll need to address Elias Lindholm.

But it’s doable. The cap bumps up $1 million this year. That helps a little. Also, Gaudreau counts $6.75 million toward the cap already; it’s not as if they’re going from zero to $9.5 million. So, they’ll need to shave off about $3 million elsewhere to accommodate Gaudreau’s raise, and if worst comes to worst on Tkachuk, they can get him signed to the required qualifying offer — of $9 million — and buy time to negotiate his extension before next summer, when he becomes a UFA. Tkachuk’s current cap hit is $7 million — so another $2 million in space will be needed there. Troy Brouwer’s $1.5 million in dead cap space comes off the books after this season, so it looks like there is a path forward there to keep both Gaudreau and Tkachuk and balance the books. It’s the raises for the likes of Andrew Mangiapane and Oliver Kylington that will pose additional challenges. As useful a player as Mikael Backlund has been — earning a $5.35 million AAV at age 33 — if the final two years of his contract were moved elsewhere, that would solve some issues too. Maybe you could sign Calle Jarnkrok to fill in for Backlund, if Backlund were traded.

Your thoughts on Kent Nilsson given your years of covering the Flames. How much more could he have accomplished? — Kevin O.

Kevin’s question sent me down the Kent Nilsson rabbit hole for the first time in probably decades. In Calgary, Nilsson’s name has been in the news recently after Gaudreau became the second-highest single-season scorer in franchise history, behind the 133 points Nilsson produced in 1980-81. Curiously, I stumbled across Nilsson’s name weeks ago when researching Mike Bossy’s career points-per-game average. For players with a minimum of 500 career games, Bossy had the third-highest points-per-game average behind Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and just ahead of McDavid. Bobby Orr was No. 5, followed by Marcel Dionne, Crosby, Peter Stastny and Peter Forsberg.

No surprises there. But then at 10? Kent Nilsson. And even though I covered Nilsson from the start of his career in Calgary — and saw his extraordinary skill level, briefly, from ice level during my own tryout with the team that year — the fact that he was ahead of Phil Esposito (11), Guy Lafleur (12) and Joe Sakic (13) in career points-per-game caught me by surprise. When Nilsson joined the Oilers for their 1987 playoff run, Gretzky described Nilsson as the purest talent in the NHL.

But his nickname — the Magic Man — had a double-edged meaning, because he could be incredibly inconsistent from one game to the next. How much more could he have accomplished? Lots. Put it this way: If he’d had Crosby’s singular focus, unquestionably, Nilsson would have been one of the all-time greats. On the nights when he was on and present in the moment, he was so much fun to watch.

Apropos of nothing, but a while back, I was speaking to Gretzky about Battles of Alberta, past and maybe in the future, and Nilsson’s name came up in the conversation. Nilsson was an opponent and then eventually a teammate, and Gretzky had his usual great take. He described Nilsson as “a special player, who had capabilities that other players didn’t have. Speed-wise, size-wise, hockey sense, shot, passing — all that. The guy I compared him to is Mark Howe, who was far more talented than people ever gave him credit for. How many guys can win a scoring race in the WHA one year and then the next year, he won best defenceman?

“But Kenta, he was special. The year we traded for him, that line, Anderson, Messier and Kenta, got us out of the semi-finals. We were holding our own with our line, me and Jari and either Tik and Semenk, but Mess, Andy and Kenta, they absolutely dominated – especially in the semifinals; and in Game 7 against Philly, they got the first and third goals. I think he saw the work ethic that Mark and Andy had and he went to another level as a player. I think the fact that there was a little less pressure on him – he wasn’t the A guy, but the A-minus guy; he was important, but he followed Mess. He fit in like a glove.

“Kent and I became close and became very good friends and spent a lot of time together in that (1987) playoff. On off days, we pretty much ended up having dinner together every night. So … I loved how intelligent he was about the game of hockey. He was much more sophisticated about the game than people would know or think, so I used to pick his brain all the time about the game. No question, he helped my career and he knew how much I respected him; as a person and as a player. I really enjoyed my time playing with him.”

(Top photo: Kim Klement / USA Today)

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