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Under Further Review – February 1 Edition

Reality Check – February has not been kind to the Canucks in recent years. It’s where their seasons go to die. Last year, the Canucks went 4-8-and-2 in February and dropped off the map. The year before, they were a sterling 3-8-and-1 in February.

This is the backdrop as the the Canucks embark on a four-game road trip following the NHL All-star break. They start in Colorado on Saturday, then travel to Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago. They also have a three-game trip this month to San Jose, Anaheim and L.A. before the trade deadline. After 51 games, they have 52 points and are exactly zero points out of a playoff spot. Last year at this time, they had 48 points but were 12 points out and dead in the water. The average points total for securing a playoff spot is considered to be 93 which means the Canucks would need to earn another 41 points in their final 31 games.  That’s a .660 pace.  It says here that’s not going to happen!

Still, there is no reason to think that the Canucks won’t still be very much in the playoff hunt once the trade deadline rolls around.  But before anyone gets carried away with playoff fever, Canuck fans and local media need to do a reality check.  The highest scoring Canuck is rookie Elias Pettersson and he is 47th on the NHL scoring list.  The Canucks top scoring defenseman is Alex Edler and he is 49th in scoring among NHL D-men. Sorry to break it to you but the team is still a long way from serious contention.  Lou Lamoriello says you should never be a buyer at the deadline until you are absolutely a bonafide contender. If I am the Canucks, I am looking to sell and the playoffs be damned.

Let the Dealing Begin – If you are a Canucks fans you must be wondering if the team will ever make a deal like the one Florida made today with Pittsburgh. The Panthers gave up one-time Canuck Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad for pending UFA’s Derek Brassard and Riley Sheahan.  The appetizing part of the deal for the Panthers is they also receive a second round and two fourth rounds picks from the Penguins as part of the deal. I make that deal every day of the week.  Why?  The Panthers not only get the draft picks but they also secure a ton of cap relief this summer. They can essentially delete the contracts of all four players involved in the deal, and if you add in goalie James Reimer, Florida will have an additional 14 million in cap space to play around with. It sure looks like they are going to take a run at Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky when they hit the open market.

Changing Market – Quietly but rapidly the business of hockey is changing. Teams are taking pause when it comes to dishing out big contracts. Last summer, only one long-term contract was handed out during the free agent period – the seven-year deal given to John Tavaras by the Maple Leafs.

What’s become very apparent is the big money is now being directed to young stars coming out of entry level deals and hitting a bonanza with their second contracts. No less than nine elite restricted free agents are about to hit the market this summer including Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Patrick Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brock Boeser, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, Jacob Trouba and Matthew Tkachuk. If teams are smart, they will shy away from handing out eight-year maximum term deals.

The Oilers got themselves into salary cap hell before the team was even close to a championship-caliber team by locking up two players, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, to massive second contracts. The Leafs appear to be headed in the same direction once Matthews and Marner are extended. The Leafs had better hope that Matthews can live up to what may ultimately be an 8-year, 12 million dollar per season contract.

Where we are seeing the most significant change is with third contracts given to players in the 27-29 age group.  Do you think the Canadiens will be second-guessing the deal they handed Carey Price? Will the Leafs live to regret the Tavaras contract? Better yet, will general managers around the league take notice and begin walking away from players seeking big money in their third contracts and avoid the potential risk altogether?  You see that happen all the time in the NBA.

Case in point – Ottawa’s Matt Duchene. He is about to become an unrestricted free agent and will be negotiating his third contract since entering the league.  The Senators could offer him a maximum 8-year contract. He’s reportedly asking for about 9 million per season.  Do you want to commit that kind of money and term to a 28 year-old who’s been in the league for ten years? I say NO! If I am the Senators, I am shopping him before the deadline and avoiding the potential risk.

Apparently, NHL teams were not paying attention when Minnesota gave Ryan Suter and Zach Parise identical 12-year contracts at 7.5 million a season. Both players are now 34 and the contracts still have six more years to run. Try extricating yourself from those deals? Not happening!

One thing is for sure, the market value for veteran players is diminishing. Who is going to give up young assets at the deadline to a player headed for free agency whose demands you have no intention of meeting?  Why acquire a player whose best-before date has expired and risk the impact it could have on your salary cap? The market is going to put a big squeeze on those players and I suspect you won’t be seeing the kind of deals we have seen in the past to players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Drew Doughty.  Yes, there will always be teams that panic and relent in negotiations but there will be others who decide it’s just not good business and far too risky. Teams are going to be far more careful about who they commit to, for how long and how much. That’s the new reality in the NHL marketplace.

Many Happy Regrets – The number of NHL contracts that come with regrets is growing rapidly. Anaheim gave defenseman Cam Fowler an eight-year contract at 6.5 million per season and will be stuck with Ryan Kesler for three more years at seven million a season. San Jose may regret giving Evander Kane a seven-year deal last summer at seven million per season, not to mention the eight-year deal they gave Logan Couture at eight million a year. The Jets wish they hadn’t extended Bryan Little who has five more years to go at 5.3 million. Do you think Price will still be tending goal for the Canadiens in seven years when his 10.5 million dollar a season deal finally runs out?

If only teams could turn back the clock and do it all over again.

Window for Winning – It appears to me as though the window for winning in the NHL is becoming tighter and tighter.  It used to be that if you went through a long rebuild you could set yourself up for a 5-7 year window for competing for the Stanley Cup.  I am not so sure that is still the case. When a team decides to go ‘all-in’, realistically the window may only be open for a short time.  That’s what the salary cap has done to level the playing field.

There are several teams in rebuilding mode, including the Canucks, who could be entering a period of Cup contention. But there are so many factors that could reduce the cycle. It will be interesting to see how long Winnipeg can extend their run of recent success when, by next year, they could have ten players on their roster making over five million dollars a season.

The Black Hawks and the Kings are the poster boys for bad contracts that put a quick end to their string of success. L.A. is saddled with a long list of contracts that will be very difficult to get out from under. 31 year old Anze Kopitar is signed for six more years at ten million per season. 34 year old Dustin Brown has three more years at 5.9 million. 34 year old Jeff Carter has three more at 5.3 million. And Drew Doughty’s eight-year, 11 million dollar extension doesn’t kick in until next year. The Kings also have Dion Phaneuf for two more years at 5.25 million and Jonathan Quick for four more years at 5.8 million.  It’s a trap with no escape.

The Lightning will be the next team to feel the squeeze. They will need to dump several contracts this summer in order to extend Point, the NHL’s biggest bargain this year at 686 thousand. Tampa must find a way to unload Tyler Johnson who has five more years to go at five million per season plus Ryan Callahan who has a year remaining at 5.8 million. Otherwise, signing Point will be impossible without eating a ton of money.

Dead Money – A peak at the spending habits of NHL teams at reveals a host of names still on NHL payrolls. Stephen Weiss must be delighted to know the Red Wings will be paying him 1.7 million for another two years. The Rangers owe Dan Girardi another ten million. Calgary has Troy Brouwer on the books for another 4.5 million. The Islanders must cough up 5.5 million to Andrew Ladd for another four seasons. The Sabres still owe Cody Hodgson 3.2 million. The Leafs are paying Nathan Horton 5.3 million for this year and next. Ottawa will be forking over 4.9 million to Marian Gaborik for another two years plus another nine million to Clark McArthur.  The Sens also have five million in retained salary for Dion Phaneuf. Mike Cammalleri is still collecting paycheques from New Jersey and how about Carolina?  They still owe Alexander Semin over seven million.  OUCH!

The poster child for dead money has to be Arizona. The Coyotes seem to have made it a club policy to collect contracts of players now out of the league. It has served two purposes, as a means of collecting draft assets and to help stay above the salary cap floor. The Coyotes are still paying Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richardson, Dave Bolland and Jason Demers among others and will be keeping Marian Hossa happy with future payments totaling over 15 million.

Super Bowl Sunday – The Patriots go looking for a record sixth Super Bowl this week when they clash with the Rams on Sunday. New England has a 5-and-3 record in the Super Bowl and you could argue that they could easily be 3-and-5. Seattle fans are well aware of what happened in 2015 when the Seahawks blew a chance to push the winning touchdown over the goal line in the final seconds only to lose 28-24. Atlanta blew a huge 28-3 lead in 2017 before succumbing to the Patriots 34-28, another game New England should have lost. Personnel-wise, this may be the least talented Patriots team since 2002 when they upset the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ Rams 20-17 for their first Super Bowl win.

It’s always hard to bet against the Patriots. 40 year old Tom Brady says he wants to play another five years and can you doubt him? He holds seven different Super Bowl passing records and will probably add to his records and his legend on Sunday. One thing to keep in mind, Sean McVay has four playoff games under his belt.  Patriots coach Bill Belichick has close to 40 and with two weeks to prepare, it’s hard to bet against New England.

Raps City – The NBA trade deadline is coming up next week and could it be more obvious that the Raptors need to bolster their roster if they have any hope of making the NBA final. They are shooting big volume 3’s but not making enough of them.  They get out-rebounded on a nightly basis and in my opinion, any team with Kyle Lowry as your point guard is not going anywhere. Boy, you sure don’t get much for 31 million in the NBA these days! Yes, that’s what Lowry is earning this season.

Toke and Stroke – Thanks to TSN’s golf guru Bob Weeks for his story on Lombard Golf and Country Club in Smith’s Falls, Ontario which has announced it is the first marijuana-friendly course in Canada. It has been renamed Rolling Greens. I guess it will give new meaning to the term ‘pot’ bunker.

Here’s the deal.  Smith’s Falls is home to Canopy Growth Corporation, one of the largest licensed cannabis producers in the country. If you know the community, the facility is now operating in the old Hershey chocolate factory. Under the Tweed brand, they were delighted to sponsor my Uptown Live Street Festival last summer in New Westminster as marijuana companies aggressively tried to position themselves in the emerging new marketplace. It’s revived the economy in Smith’s Falls and now positions the community as a major cannabis tourist destination. Apparently, the new owners of the course are going to market Rolling Greens as a themed marijuana-friendly resort.

The sad thing about it is Smith’s Falls is also the hometown of Canada’s golfing sweetheart Brooke Henderson, who spent time as a youngster building her game at Lombard Golf & CC.  The course will now be categorized as 19 and over only so young girls in the Falls will not be allowed to grow their game at Rolling Greens. Is that what you call ‘ Pot Luck?’

Leftovers – One of the NFL’s truly great players, Julius Peppers, has just announced his retirement. You talk about an ironman!  Peppers missed six games in 17 seasons.  Put that into perspective?  He played in 266 of 272 games in his career. He is a sure-fire Hall of Famer in five years.  And one thing many people forget – Peppers could have easily played in the NBA.  He was a two-sport guy to start his college career at North Carolina.