Quick Shifts: Why Mike Babcock shouldn’t be the only one under scrutiny

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. The photos on my phone will show you I’m the type of man who needs to snap shots of the menu and zoom in.

1. Of the 32 active NHL general managers, only two — St. Louis’s Doug Armstrong and Winnipeg’s Kevin Cheveldayoff — have held their post longer than Jarmo Kekäläinen has occupied his in Columbus.

Since taking over in February 2013, Kekäläinen’s small-market club has qualified for five of 11 postseasons but none of the past three. He oversaw the Jackets’ greatest team achievement — 2019’s stunning sweep of the stacked Tampa Bay Lightning — and its second greatest, 2020’s five-game play-in upset of Toronto in the bubble.

Kekäläinen smartly and surprisingly drafted Pierre-Luc Dubois third overall over Jesse Puljujarvi in 2016, and he landed what many believe to be steal in Adam Fantilli at third overall this year.

The GM has also burned through three head coaches and took a wild swing this summer by hiring a self-professed matured Mike Babcock as his fourth and most expensive (two seasons at $4 million per).

Thunderous goal cannon notwithstanding, Kekäläinen and his organization operate relatively quietly. But is all publicity truly good publicity?

The way Babcock’s bizarre and possibly line-crossing photo-share requests have dominated talk heading into camp cannot be positive. Nor can an NHLPA investigation ongoing with the Jackets set to hit the ice in a matter of days.

What’s unknown is how strongly Kekäläinen himself pushed for Babcock to run his bench of young players? But surely president John Davidson and owner John McConnell were onboard with the controversial hire.

“We’ve had discussions,” Davidson told the Columbus Dispatch Friday of Babcock’s photogate. “We’re trying to digest things and go from there. There’s nothing further to say.”

Hardly an endorsement.

What all the suits should have known is that bringing in Babcock, even into a sleepy market, is to invite attention and to risk discomfort at the very least.

Even if the NHL and PA determine Babcock did nothing evil or crossed no lines with his camera-roll icebreaker methods, the player-coach dynamic here has already sped off to an untrusting start.

This franchise has a painful history of talent wanting out. To get off on the wrong foot with its next wave of skilled players is hardly a recipe for success.

If Babcock takes the fall here, no one would be stunned.

But someone decided the coach was worth $8 million, that the résumé trumped the reputation.

That level of mistake can cost jobs, too.

2. The NHL recently held a brainstorming session, tossing around format ideas for the 2025 World Cup of Hockey.

Much like the 2016 edition, which featured Team Europe and Team North America, expect a hook. (In other words, a workaround for the absence of Team Russia.)

Careful not to give much away, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said not to expect an eight-team tournament and that some “unique” proposals for the event are being discussed.

Hmmm …

3. Matvei Michkov — the 18-year-old Russian phenom who slipped to seventh in the draft and got scooped by the Philadelphia Flyers — is under contract to the KHL’s SKA Saint Petersburg for three more seasons.

Problem is, despite his ridiculous talent, SKA isn’t exactly thrilled by the kid’s plans to ultimately bolt stateside for the NHL.

So, Michkov began the season as a healthy scratch.

When he finally did dress for a game, he saw all of 6:12 in ice time. Six minutes in four games. A recipe for spite, not for development. The Flyers need Michkov to play a ton. Gain confidence. Round out his game.

SKA loaned the budding star to opponent HC Sochi this week, framing the move as “a mutual decision.”

Michkov promptly posted two assists in his first game for Sochi.

4. If you have a top centre, you lock him up.

Hence the Toronto Maple Leafs prioritizing Auston Matthews, the Carolina Hurricanes extending Sebastian Aho, and the Los Angeles Kings wasting no time re-upping Anze Kopitar.

Where that leaves 2024’s UFA class of centremen isn’t pretty. The list of established, 60-point pivots who could hit the market next summer is short: Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele, Calgary’s Elias Lindholm, and Vegas’s Chandler Stephenson. End of list. (Steven Stamkos is more of a winger now.)

This explains why the Flames will take another run at extending Lindholm, who has expressed a desire to stay but has little reason to take a discount. The Jets are going to revisit Scheifele, too, but we’d be stunned to see a re-signing anytime soon. (Vegas is different — the Knights are all-in on a repeat.)

Both situations in Canada will be hot tamales this season, and the fates of Lindholm and Scheifele could well be affected not only by how the Flames and Jets perform leading up to the March 8 trade deadline but by how centre-needy teams fare as well. (We’re looking at you, Boston.)

Because of the league’s dearth of impact centres, rookie GM Craig Conroy and the famously patient Kevin Cheveldayoff have themselves valuable and delicate assets to manage here. And Lindholm and Scheifele have a shot at raking big bucks next summer when the cap rises.

5. Buffalo Sabres GM Kevyn Adams knocked the Tage Thompson extension out of the park, and now he’s trying to lock in Rasmus Dahlin (RFA 2024) for all his prime years, too. Pierre Dorion style.

According to Andrew Peters, Dahlin is poised to crack the $10 million mark on his next AAV, but the sides are in a tug-o-war over term. Dahlin is said to want five years; the Sabres want eight, the max.

If you believe in the player, get him signed for as long as possible.

Interesting that Dahlin is taking a page out of the Matthews/Matthew Tkachuk playbook here, trying to steer himself to unrestricted free agency quicker. Dahlin isn’t happy his extension remains unsettled with camp opening in a few days, according to Peters.

Let’s see who blinks.

6. I spent the week as a fly on a wall inside the 32 Thoughts pop-up podcast studio at the Henderson Silver Knights’ practice facility outside of Las Vegas. Mostly this assignment meant jumping all over the Mike Babcock slideshow controversy.

But I’ll share a couple of nuggets that caught my ear from the 20-some-odd player interviews recorded with Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek.

The night the Hurricanes got swept out of the Eastern Conference final by the Florida Panthers, Rod Brind’Amour entered the despondent dressing room, all hung heads and hushed voices.

The head coach didn’t walk in to deliver one of his rousing speeches. In fact, according to Seth Jarvis, Brind’Amour didn’t say anything. He didn’t attempt to cheer them up or soothe that sickening gutted feeling of defeat.

Brind’Amour simply sat there in sad silence with his players, feeling the loss with them, as if he too had been on the ice. He was one of them; he knew words couldn’t help. And that quiet gesture resonated more with Jarvis than anything Brind’Amour might have been tempted to say.

(Jarvis also offered his candid reaction to watching his good buddy, Brett Howden, hoist the Stanley Cup in Vegas: “This sucks.”)

32 Thoughts: The Podcast

Hockey fans already know the name, but this is not the blog. 32 Thoughts: The Podcast with Jeff Marek and NHL Insider Elliotte Friedman is a weekly deep dive into the biggest news and interviews from the hockey world. Find new episodes weekly wherever you get your podcasts.

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7. On July 6, a mere five days after being eligible to sign an extension, Kopitar signed his fourth (and final?) contract with the Kings.

Kopitar will be 38 and have banked $144.55 million in career salary when his two-year, $14 million extension runs out in 2026. At that point, will the two-time Stanley Cup champ hang up the skates?

“In three years, a lot can happen. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Kopitar told the podcast.

Kopitar’s plan has always been to be a “King for life and retire there,” so much so that he says he has never thought about pulling on a different sweater, never flirted with exploring the idea of free agency.

If GM Rob Blake had decided not to extend Kopitar, the centreman says retirement would have been on the table after the 2023-24 season. L.A. is where his son and daughter were born, where they go to school and have started their lives. His family has made so many sacrifices for him, Kopitar says it wouldn’t be fair to uproot them and put them through a move.

“Things worked out,” Kopitar said.

8. Speaking of potential 2024 UFAs who won’t hit the market, Tom Wilson said he texted a Washington Capitals public relations employee, “What’s going on here?” this summer when he caught wind of trade rumours to Ottawa and L.A.

Concerned there was fire behind that smoke, Wilson was swiftly relieved when GM Brian MacLellan shot all rumours down and locked him up for an additional four seasons.

Outside of the Caps, the only squad Wilson has eyes for is Team Canada.

Had NHLers participated in the 2022 Winter Olympic Games (spoiler alert: they did not), Wilson was a legitimate candidate for Canada’s bottom six. Simply participating in Team Canada’s pre-Beijing meetings was a cool experience for the rugged role player.

“I know I was in the hunt,” Wilson said.

Yes, had the pandemic not hit, we may have seen the Capitals villain join forces with Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby. They crossed paths in the dressing room Tuesday.

Photographic evidence:

9. Jack Hughes told the podcast he can remember pretty much every one of the 43 goals he scored last season and “a good chunk” of his 99 points.

Hughes’ favourite play was this slice of power-play magic from December, the New Jersey Devils‘ opening strike against the Flyers:

He can recount the entire sequence off by heart — who was on the ice, what he was thinking entering the zone, and the strategy he used to fool poor Carter Hart.

“My favourite part about the goal is my footwork when I score. I don’t just stickhandle with my hands; it was like with my feet too. And that’s been something I’ve been working on for years. So, that’s my favourite play,” Hughes said.

“He thinks I’m going backhand, but I bring it back to my forehand, and I have pretty much the whole blocker side just from the way my feet are moving. It’s almost like stickhandling with your feet instead of your hands.”

10. Maple Leafs rookie Matthew Knies‘s postseason ended abruptly when Sam Bennett gave the kid a concussion in Game 2 of the second round.

Well, before heading out to the rookie tournament, Knies revealed to reporters this week that he got clearance to play in Game 6 and would have been able to return to the series had it not ended in five.

11. Apropos of nothing, I ran into comedian Nate Bargatze (who’s hilarious) at the NHL Awards. We talked hockey.

The Nashville native has never played the sport, but he took interest when the Predators were born. His interest skyrocketed, naturally, when the Preds went to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final against the Penguins.

“I’ve started to gravitate towards hockey because you’re straight up, like, 20 minutes — here we go. They’re gonna play. I’ve enjoyed that pace of play. I don’t know everything, but I’m diving into it,” Bargatze said.

“I was getting frustrated during that Stanley Cup because ESPN was like, ‘Well, Nashville’s not a hockey town.’ But it was cheaper to go to Pittsburgh and buy a ticket than it was to stay at home and buy a ticket — including the flight. So, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I love it.”

Bargatze was in the barn for Game 6, the night the Penguins lifted the Cup at Bridgestone Arena. Despite the undesired result, the Preds fan hung around to watch Crosby celebrate.

“I like greatness,” he said.

12. For the price tag (one year at $1.5 million), Tomas Tatar is a heckuva September pickup for the Colorado Avalanche.

While the ’22 champs can’t replace injured captain Gabriel Landeskog and will miss centre JT Compher, their forward corps have undergone a fascinating overhaul now that Jonathan Drouin, Ryan Johansen, Miles Wood, Ross Colton, and Tatar have all been added to the top nine.

Tatar should arrive motivated off his sixth 20-goal campaign, and he seldom misses time due to injury.

The concern here is that the winger’s production routinely dries up come playoffs. Tatar has just seven goals and 13 points in 52 postseason outings.

Still, the 30-year-old should give the Avs some cheap secondary scoring this winter.

Nicely done.

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