The Fischler Report: 6/28/21

Bolts favored to win their second Cup in-a-row. Can Shea Weber earn his enty into an exclusive club? Kraken find their coach. One on one with Syracuse Crunch (Tampa - AHL) owner, Howard Dolgon.

THE CHAMPS REIGN SHOULD CONTINUE -- EXCEPT

There should be no question that the Tampa Bay Lightning will be re-crowned Stanley Cup Champions.

With, however, a slight asterisk (*) after the word "Champions."

But I'll get to that * in a Boltish moment.

In the seven-game series with the Islanders, it was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Floridians could be beaten; three times as a matter of fact.

Thing is, they weren't beaten in Game Seven.

Furthermore, in that decisive game, coach Jon Cooper's sextet delivered a textbook lesson in "How To Win Hockey Games In The Most Perverse Ways."

For example, their passes were so accurate and fast so often that one could be forgiven for suggesting that the puck was moving on an invisible string.

The Lightning's puck possession reminded me of an old expression about Gordie Howe when Mister Hockey was in his prime. One player says to the other, "Y'know, Howe plays the 'Funny Kind of Game.'

To which the other player says, "What do you mean by 'Funny Kind of Game." And then the punch line: "He doesn't let anyone else touch the puck."

So, it was with the Bolts. Not only that but they occupied the Isles zone for such long periods of time that you got the idea that they had a mortgage on the ice.

Yet the score remained 0-0 after one period simply because Semyon Varlamov was playing the game of his life in the Visitors’ goal.

If the Bolts were frustrated, they didn't show it and, in fact, played the Islanders brand of patient hockey.

That is, until one of the most perverse and ironic plays unfolded that ultimately clinched the series for Tampa Bay.

The Islanders went on the game's one and only power play and were repulsed at first. So, they went back to regroup which made sense as long as they remained vigilant.

Which they didn't. One well-time forecheck flummoxed the power players and the next thing you knew the Bolts had a short-handed goal that ultimately would be the game-winner.

Except for an occasional Islanders thrust or two, Cooper choreographed a defense game that concluded with the 1-0 decision.

Which demands the question: What in the world happened to the Islanders in that clutch game of all clutch games?

The answers are simple:

1. A hard-working team got tired at the wrong time. Ergo: they ran out of gas.

2. They had been playing over their head for the entire season and without their captain -- and inspirational force -- Anders Lee for half the schedule and the entire playoffs.

3. The inspirational Game Six -- the curtain-closer for Nassau Veterans' Memorial Coliseum -- consumed all their emotion and it could not be retained nor replenished for Game Seven.

4. Coach Barry Trotz -- the man most responsible for the club's success over the past three years -- simply had run out of miracles. And Varlamov, who allowed only one goal, could not steal the game.

It's vital to remember that at season's start, it was forecast that the Isles would be lucky to merely make the playoffs.

Reaching game seven of the semis and two goals short of the Final Round was a superior accomplishment and deserved to be hailed for that.

All of which suggests that Tampa Bay should easily claim its second Stanley Cup. Except for that darn asterisk.

* Storm Warning: Beware of a warlike wind called Canadiens!


Headlines:


COURAGE BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY

It's generally accepted that hockey players are the toughest of all athletes. Here's the latest story that underlines the point: Vegas defenseman Alec Martinez revealed that he was playing on a broken foot during the playoffs.


LOSS OF A GOOD HOCKEY FRIEND

Phil Czochanski was not known widely in the hockey world but was beloved by a wide swath of friends in the Madison Square Garden community. Although I rarely saw Phil, I thought of his spirited smile and good fellowship. I mourn the loss of Phil at age 58 after a four-year battle with cancer.


DUCHARME EXPECTS TO RETURN FROM COVID-19 PROTOCOL

Canadiens interim head coach Dominique Ducharme said he should be back behind the bench for Game Three of the Stanley Cup Final. That will be the first ever Cup Final game played at Centre Bell in Montreal.


Weekend Wrap with Rob Taub

And then there were two. The Stanley Cup Final is set, and it’s a matchup probably no one had on the marquee before this unprecedented season began. But the thing is, the Canadiens and Lightning are very familiar with each other. They two teams met in back-to-back postseasons in 2014 and 2015 and split each series. This next one has a bit more on the line.

If you’re a fan of goaltending, the matchup in the Final is a must watch. Carey Price is finally on the verge of his first Cup, Andrei Vasilevskiy is looking for his second. Said Vasilevskiy: "In the Final, there's always two great teams playing against each other. It will be a big challenge for both teams. Carey is obviously a great goalie, one of the best in the NHL. I'll give it my best effort for sure. Stick with the plan and just keep doing what I've done so far."

Yanni Gourde’s goal that won the Lightning Game Seven on Friday night was a shorthanded goal. Oddly enough the opponent — the Islanders — hadn’t surrendered one of those all season. The 1-0 final was also the only Game Seven in league history to end in that result.

Marc-Andre Fleury made his intentions very clear that he wants to stay in Vegas as a duo with Robin Lehner. The two won the William Jennings Trophy this season and helped get the Golden Knights to within a few wins of a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Fleury: “Our relationship grew over the season. We got along very good. As goalies, that's something you strive for is winning games, but also not giving up too much. I think both of us, we accomplished that this year.”

Two players that could be storylines on their own going into the final round: Corey Perry and Pat Maroon. Perry, who played for the Stars last year, is looking for revenge this year after Tampa defeated Dallas in the bubble for the Stanley Cup last summer. Maroon, on the other hand, is looking to win his third Cup in three years. He won with Tampa in 2020 and the Blues in 2019.

Dave Hakstol is back in the NHL after the Seattle Kraken named him the first head coach in the franchise’s history. Hakstol, 52, is the latest coach to have played at a Division I university and gone on to become a head coach. The others are: Don Granato, John Hynes, Mike Sullivan, Rod Brind’Amour, Jeff Blashill, Dominique Ducharme, and Peter Laviolette.

Hakstol joins Edmonton’s Dave Tippett as the only coach who played at University of North Dakota to now be behind the bench.


SEATTLE KRAKEN NAME DAVE HAKSTOL HEAD COACH

Our man in the Pacific Northwest, Glenn Dreyfuss, has more on the Kraken’s first Head Coach.

The rumor mill somehow overlooked Dave Hakstol, named Thursday as coach of the expansion Seattle Kraken. What AP termed "A surprise move" is testament to the tight lips of Hakstol and the man who hired him, Kraken general manager Ron Francis.

Once announced, it received generally high marks. NBC Sports' Keith Jones, who saw Hakstol up close in Philadelphia, said, "The Kraken are in good hands." Larry Stone of the Seattle Times weighed in, "Low profile but high potential." Bruce Garrioch of the Toronto Sun noted, "Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas put in a strong recommendation." Fans on social media were less enthused, describing the hire variously as "bewildering," "lackluster," and "lukewarm oatmeal." A rival shared, "As a Canucks fan, I am OK with this," and a Kraken fan wrote, "It's hard not to be pessimistic... given how negative Flyers fans view him."

At Thursday's press conference. g.m. Francis wasn't deterred by Hakstol's 134-101-42 record in three-and-a-half years with the Flyers, his only prior NHL head coaching gig. "I think there's a lot of examples of guys who've gotten a second chance and really taken advantage of it," said Francis. "Walking through what happened in Philly and what he learned... you just get a sense that he's ready for that second opportunity." Francis sorted among more than 50 initial candidates, with eight finalists reaching the interview stage. "We wanted someone who had been a coach in the NHL, that understood how to play in all three zones. I like the way he communicates his message and cares about his players." ESPN's Emily Kaplan reported that the g.m. also liked Hakstol's attention to detail.

Hakstol, hired away from an assistant coaching job with the Maple Leafs, intends to balance analytics with the eye test. "I had a chance to work with great people in Toronto on the analytics side, and also in Philadelphia. The second piece of that is, it's still a very human game... played on emotion. When I look at good teams, you always start with character. Work ethic is a part of ability."

Now, some nuggets not widely reported this week. For one, Hakstol is more likely to juggle lines than deliver one-liners. A Philadelphia Inquirer profile described him as "mirthless" and "closed off... as if he were a stone hawk on a parapet," adding, "he divulges little about his team and even less about himself." Of course, if conviviality won Stanley Cups, Tom Hanks would have been hired years ago.

Hakstol showed an ability to win both with veterans and rookies, reaching the NCAA Frozen Four seven times in 11 seasons as coach at the University of North Dakota. In 2005, he did it with nine seniors on the team, and in 2006, with just two seniors and 13 freshmen. The coach’s architectural changes weren’t limited to his lineup. He ordered UND’s rectangular dressing room reshaped into an oval, so players would be forced to acknowledge each other. In the remodel, he also had the size of the room reduced to foster greater camaraderie.

Prior to joining UND, Hakstol’s first coaching stop was Sioux City of the USHL. When his charges underperformed, Hakstol in practice would have players exchange their sticks for what he called the "Blades of Steel." These were four-foot-high, 25-pound steel plates welded to bars! As Hakstol explained in the Inquirer story, “I have a huge value in toughness, in team guys. Snot-and-balls guys – that’s got to be part of the foundation of who you are.”


SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR SYRACUSE CRUNCH OWNER HOWARD DOLGON

Our pal George Grimm sat down with the owner of Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, to talk about what it has been like for his franchise over the past year.

Howard Dolgon is one of the American Hockey League’s more proactive owners. Since bringing the Crunch to Syracuse in 1994, the Brooklyn native has received the James C. Hendy Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding executive (2010) and was the driving force behind the Mirabito Outdoor Classic, the first outdoor game in AHL history, which was hosted by the Crunch at the New York State Fairgrounds in February 2010 and set an AHL single-game attendance record of 21,508. The Crunch also hosted the first hockey game in Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome as part of the Toyota Frozen Dome Classic, in November 2014, which set a North American hockey indoor attendance record with 30,715 fans.

What has been the biggest challenge you faced during the COVID pandemic?

Howard Dolgon: “Our biggest challenge has been keeping the spirit of our team and staff up. Our entire organization was as strong as it could be during these tough times, from a business and personal standpoint. And that continues to be a real challenge. But I think that we’ve finally come through some very difficult times. And now we can finally continue with a great degree of optimism.”

Three AHL teams decided not to play this year. Did you have any thoughts of opting out for this season? 

Howard Dolgon: “No, we have a very strong relationship with our partners in Tampa Bay and we thought it was important to provide their players with a home arena to develop in. It’s critical for young talent not to miss a year of development.

“I have an obligation to develop the Lightning’s young players. When I was watching the Stanley Cup Finals last year, I was beaming like a proud father when my former goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy was lifting the Cup along with so many of our other former players. We look at it as being one organization. We know what our function is. We need to do the best we can to put the players in the best environment to develop quickly and efficiently. We play an important role and we take it very seriously.

“We saw a lot of good things in our players this season. Our coaches were able to put players in situations that they may not have been in under normal circumstances, where winning and making the playoffs was more important and veteran players would have been used in those situations. So, there were some good things that came out of it.”

How are the Crunch doing financially?

Howard Dolgon: “We were able to put together a local TV deal which certainly helped from the sponsorship standpoint.  We’ve always prepared for rainy days knowing that one of these days it was going to come, not knowing it would come the way it did,

“We don’t have a lot of fat in the organization. I’ve been blessed with an unbelievable staff and a number of people who have been with me for a long time and working with us through this ordeal.

“We play in one of the smaller markets, but the Crunch is very important in our market because we don’t have to compete with major league sports. Our only competition is Syracuse University, and they’ve been our competition since 1994 when we came here and we’ve both managed to do well.

“I don’t think anything prepares you for a pandemic like this. I’m sure the NHL teams feel the same way. We all took big financial hits, but you have to brush it off and move on. It may take three years to get back to where we were but eventually, we’ll get there and hopefully the sport will be healthier because I think that a lot of people who were used to not going to live sporting events may start going again now because they had been shut in their homes for so long.”

How often are the players tested for COVID?

Howard Dolgon: “We test our players every day, following the example of our partners in Tampa. We do it just like in the NHL; we weren’t going to do it halfway. This is too important. We make sure the results are accurate. We have the Upstate University Medical Hospital, which is our naming rights partner for our arena, come to our arena every morning to conduct the testing and we get the results later that day. We’ve been very fortunate that our players have heeded the advice to wear their masks and not convene with a lot of people and it’s worked out well.”

The players are only getting a prorated salary based on a 32-game season. That’s not a lot of money to live on, even in Syracuse.

Howard Dolgon: “One of the reasons why we opted out of any kind of playoffs was that we didn’t want to get into a situation where they were playing into June and having to pay another month’s rent and other expenses. So, when we end our season some of them will move up to Tampa to be extra players for their playoff run and the rest will go home where they can be with their families, rest from what has been a hectic season and be ready for next year and hopefully back to normalcy.

“What would be the point of trying to squeeze in extra games that are going to cost players money? The players aren’t paid for the playoffs and there’s no revenue in the playoffs this year. And what happens if those games get delayed by a positive COVID test. Now you’ve got players sitting around in their apartments when they could be home with their families. Some divisions are holding a playoff, but most are not. We decided that there was no upside to that.”

Do you keep in touch with your fan base?

Howard Dolgon: “We’ve kept in constant communication with our fans, corporate partners, and the media in the market just to let them know what’s going on. I hold virtual town halls every month with the fans because you want to be available. That’s important. You just can’t be around when things are going good. The fans want answers, they want to know what’s going on. And you have an obligation to be forthright and tell them.

“We have hundreds of people on those virtual town halls. I sent an email recently to some of the other owners, our fans and corporate partners expressing a great deal of optimism that we’re planning a full season for next year. And the reaction to that has been unbelievable. But people want to know, they don’t want to be kept in the dark. You can’t always just tell them about promotions and player transactions. You have to tell them what’s going on.”

Final thoughts

Howard Dolgon: “All of us, not just in sports, have experienced twelve months like we’ve never experienced before in our lifetime. All businesses have been hit hard, and in the sports and entertainment world we’ve been hit differently because so many people look to us as an outlet for their emotions for their enjoyment and they were cheated out of that because of the pandemic. And you’re talking about millions of people who attend sporting events.

“But we got through it and I think you’re going to see a lot of teams and leagues that are stronger in the long run because adversity makes you tougher. And I believe that’s true.

“It will be nice to get back to a time when we can sit together at a game and high-five each other. And that’s going to be more emotional than most people think. It’s like seeing someone you haven’t seen in a long time and realizing how much you missed them. We have season ticket holders who have sat next to each other for 20 years but don’t see each other outside of the arena. But in the arena, they’re best friends.

“We’ll get there in October and it will be like 1994 when we started here all over again.  As a matter of fact, we plan on treating our home opener in the fall of 2021 much like we did at our first home game in September 1994, welcoming the fans back to hockey in Syracuse after a very long hiatus. We have a very creative promotional staff, and a lot of that creativity has been pent up this past year, so we plan on releasing it in 2021-22.”


WEBER BIDS TO JOIN EXCLUSIVE INTERNATIONAL CLUB

TFR’s Rob Del Mundo provides yet another interesting storyline for the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.

On November 8, 2001, Syzmon Szemberg, then media relations manager of the International Ice Hockey Federation, founded the Triple Gold Club to honor players who have won a career trifecta of championships: an Olympic gold medal, a World Championship medal, and a Stanley Cup.

Montreal Canadiens captain Shea Weber is the only player remaining in the 2021 playoffs who has a chance of achieving the feat this season.

Should the Habs – the unlikeliest of finalists, entering the playoffs as the 16th seed – complete a miraculous run to their season by winning the Cup, Weber would become the 30th player to gain membership in the exclusive club. 

Weber, who won Olympic gold in both 2010 and 2014, and a World Championship in 2007, would join twelve other Canadians as triple gold members: eleven players, plus coach Mike Babcock. The list includes nine Swedes, seven Russians and two Czechs.

Coincidentally, two of Weber’s current Montreal teammates have already attained this distinction: Eric Staal and Corey Perry. Staal, a 2006 Stanley Cup winner with Carolina, was a teammate of Weber at the 2007 Worlds, and on the 2010 Olympic dream team that enthralled Canadians with their gold medal victory on home soil in Vancouver. 

Perry meanwhile had his name etched on the holy grail of hockey following Anaheim’s 2007 Stanley Cup title. He teamed up with Weber for a pair of Olympic golds in Vancouver and Sochi before punctuating his international resume with a World Championship in 2016 at the tournament in Helsinki, Finland.

Weber would indeed join elite company as a Triple Gold Club member, as only eleven of the 29 players recognized thus far are defensemen: Tomas Jonsson, Alexei Gusarov, Vyacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Malakhov, Rob Blake, Scott Niedermayer, Jiri Slegr, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger, Niklas Kronwall and Jay Bouwmeester.

Interestingly, no current Triple Gold Club member is a goaltender. Although Carey Price won gold at the 2014 Olympics with Canada, he does not have a World Championship to his credit, and would have to wait at least another year to complete the trifecta.   

“(The Triple Gold Club) is an idea to promote general interest for our game by officially highlighting the prestige of winning the three biggest team championships in the hockey world today,” Szemberg wrote, as cited in Andrew Podnieks’s book “Where Countries Come to Play.”

“This would be our equivalent of Golf’s Major Winners or Tennis’s Major Winners. In general, I believe it would be a great publicity boost for our sport and the IIHF. It would increase interest in North America for the IIHF World Championship as a legitimate part of the Grand Slam,” Szemberg said.

As the 2021 season nears conclusion, Weber remains the sole candidate to reach international stardom.


A MORGAN RIELLY EXTENSION WOULD BE WISE TO REMAIN AS CONTENDERS

TFR’s Michael Augello tells us why star defenseman Morgan Rielly is key to the future success of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Toronto Maple Leafs may look significantly different when the 2021-22 regular season begins next October, with a number of players from last year’s roster becoming unrestricted free agents, including winger Zach Hyman and goaltender Frederik Andersen. GM Kyle Dubas continues to be defiant that the Leafs future success lies with the retention of core forwards John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. But just as important may be keeping defenseman Morgan Rielly in the fold. 

After posting a career-high 72 points in 2019, the Vancouver, BC native struggled with injury in the COVID shortened 2020 campaign with 27 points in 47 games, but Rielly was healthy and bounced back with 35 points in 55 games (over 50 points in an 82-game regular season) and finally found an adequate top pairing partner in T.J. Brodie. 

The 27-year-old is a great skater and a fine disturber of the puck, but the Toronto power play suffered from his lack of a big shot from the point. Rielly may not be in the top echelon of NHL blueliners, but he has become a solid top pairing defenseman who logs major minutes and is a team leader in the locker room. 

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reports that Toronto management and Rielly’s agent J.P. Barry spoke after the season about the possibility of a contract extension, but that serious negotiations may have to wait until after the Leafs make moves in free agency and in the trade market late next month. 

One possible mechanism to opening up cap space may be to expose Alex Kerfoot in the Seattle expansion draft next month, which would open up $3.5 million in salary over the next two seasons, but to keep Rielly in the fold, Dubas may have to come off his intransigence of tampering with the core group. 

LeBrun believes that the Leafs absolutely want to try and extend the defenseman this offseason with one year left on his deal, but a lot may depend on him taking less money to remain in Toronto. Rielly is currently making $5 million a year and it is possible that a long-term deal could exceed the $6.5 million AAV that UFA defenseman Torey Krug signed with St. Louis last October. 

The question is, if Dubas cannot get Rielly extended before next season, will the Leafs deal him while they can still get something in return for him? 

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