Kaplan: Revisiting Jack Eichel trade, Devils’ hot start and other rumblings around NHL

    Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.

We’re three weeks away from Thanksgiving — usually an all-important marker in the NHL.

In the salary cap era, if you’re in a playoff spot on the holiday, history says you have more than a 75% chance of making the postseason. It’s an indicator many front offices swear by, and will dictate how teams conduct business for the rest of the season — be it player additions, subtractions, or even coaching and management changes. Since the season began a week later than usual, those decisions may be pushed back. It’s still early, but here are some of the biggest stories percolating around the NHL early in the 2022-23 season.

World Cup of Hockey on ice?

There was a lot of optimism for the World Cup of Hockey returning in February 2024. According to multiple sources, that date is now in jeopardy — and the tournament could be pushed back. We should know an answer by the end of the month. This weekend is key, as the NHL, NHLPA and IIHF representatives will all be present in Toronto for Hall of Fame festivities and are expected to continue discussions and hopefully firm up answers.

However if solutions aren’t found soon, it would make February 2024 unrealistic. The logistics for the tournament are complicated. It will occur midseason for the NHL. There are expected to be early-round games in Europe; the final rounds would be in North America. If the NHL helps stage a tournament, it wants to do it right.

One of the biggest issues is the participation of Russian players as the war in Ukraine continues on. The IIHF has banned Russia from international events, but the NHL and NHLPA were hopeful that they could find a solution — such as having Russian athletes compete under a neutral name or flag. However, some participating countries have said that’s not satisfactory, and have advocated that no Russian players participate at all. Other remaining issues: The IIHF’s top business partners have also expressed trepidation over holding the tournament in the middle of the NHL season. And the NHL is still in negotiations over broadcast rights in North America.

Devils competing now and building for later

As Devils coach Lindy Ruff was introduced to the crowd at the home opener last month, he was booed by some. Then the Devils lost for the second straight game, 5-2.

“It sucked, it was terrible to hear that. The first Sunday of the season was not fun for me at all,” GM Tom Fitzgerald said. “But by no means is that going to persuade me on any decisions. It’s a tough market. Yankees fans booed Aaron Judge in the playoffs after he hit 62 home runs. Coaches have been booed in New Jersey before Lindy, too. The one thing that helps is winning.”

And that’s exactly what the Devils have done. New Jersey is one of the NHL’s biggest surprises, atop the Metropolitan Division at 9-3. Fitzgerald credits a commitment to team defense as the biggest reason. But the offseason moves have paid off.

“John Marino is better than I anticipated,” Fitzgerald said. And Vitek Vanecek has been an important 1B goalie, especially as Mackenzie Blackwood is shelved with yet another injury. Blackwood is being further evaluated by doctors Tuesday, but early word is that he sustained a mid- to low-grade sprained MCL, which should sideline him for three to six weeks

• The Devils were dealt a blow when their biggest offseason signing — two-time Stanley Cup champion Ondrej Palat — underwent groin surgery after just six games. While Fitzgerald says Palat’s impact is still felt off the ice — setting an example for young players — it doesn’t sound like the Devils will use the LTIR space to add short-term help. And even if their success continues, it doesn’t sound like the Devils will be in the market for any late-season rentals.

Fitzgerald said he has been working the phones for “hockey trades” (like the John Marino for Ty Smith deal) but it’s against his philosophy to bring in a player for a few months to help out, especially where his team is in their evolution.

“I believe you build a team over the summer versus over the trade deadline,” Fitzgerald said. “I was a trade deadline acquisition twice. One time I left two young boys behind [at home], the other time I left three young boys behind. It’s really hard on the player. I was also [in management] in Pittsburgh when we acquired James Neal midseason. He tried, but it was just too quick of an ask and he couldn’t do what he needed to do. When he was able to stay the summer and get work in with guys like Evgeni Malkin, you saw a much better version of him the following year.”

While the Devils have some needs — including wanting to get bigger — Fitzgerald said he is not “picking up something just to add.”

“We have been talking about player development for a while, now we owe it to these kids to see what we have,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re assets, whether they help us here or help us get players here.”

The Devils haven’t given a timeline, but I heard it’s looking like anywhere from two to three months for Palat. “When we get Ondrej back, that’s just a luxury,” Fitzgerald said.

Status of Blackhawks’ rebuild

When the Blackhawks went on a four-game winning streak early in October, people kept asking Chicago GM Kyle Davidson one thing: “Are you happy?” Because this isn’t according to plan. The Blackhawks aren’t supposed to be good this season. They’ve been transparent about it. They’re in a rebuild.

“It’s funny because it goes against what some people thought we were going to be,” Davidson says. “Everyone is focused on the draft, right? But we’re trying to do the best thing for the team and organization every night, and that’s putting a hardworking effort on the ice. Every night we show up, we want to win. We’re not putting a team on the ice that we expect to lose. Wherever we end up in the standings, it’s our job and our scouting staff’s job to find talent from that point.”

The one thing I have heard consistently about Chicago from players and player agents is that the vibes around the locker room are more positive than last year. Winning helps. There’s been a buy-in to the blue-collar style Luke Richardson and his staff have implemented. But the organization, despite their goals of a long-term build, have made sure everyone feels appreciated through the process. For example, the team stayed an extra night on their California trip. The players golfed at Pebble Beach while the staff got a day in Napa. That’s not an insignificant expense. But it can have a significant impact.

• Davidson is not putting a timeline on Patrick Kane to make a decision on where — if at all — he’d like to be traded. Asked whether he has had any conversations with other teams on Kane, Davidson was emphatic: “Zero. Zero conversations.” Since it’s expected to be a complicated trade — including a waived no-move clause, and probable retention of salary — Davidson said he “didn’t foresee anything soon.” On where things stand with Jonathan Toews, Davidson said: “We’re just glad he’s back and feeling good and producing.” I’ve heard that some teams are looking at Toews, especially given the start he’s having (seven goals in 12 games). Like Kane, Toews has a NMC, so it’s up to him if he wants to leave (and where).

I have heard some people around the league wonder about Seth Jones’ availability. Jones’ contract ($9.5 million cap hit through 2029-30) is more intriguing with the salary cap potentially rising by $4 million this summer. Davidson poured some cold water on that. He said every conversation his front office has had about future plans has included Jones. “Seth is a big part of what we’re doing here moving forward,” he said. “We feel really lucky to have Seth on our team and on our team long-term.” Now if a team calls with an offer on Jones that blows them away, the Blackhawks will listen, but they’re not going out shopping him. And that’s exactly where Davidson expects to be by the March 3 trade deadline for his entire roster. “Given the situation we’re in, we’re going to be a team that certainly listens,” Davidson said. “They have to be things that are advantageous for us, but we’ll see how it shakes out. The one thing we’re always going to have our eyes on is building the right way.”

Price will be high for Senators

The Ottawa Senators are for sale, and it’s expected to be a months-long process. Once the Senators identify their preferred buyer, the sale would need to be approved by commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL’s board of governors. The sale is contingent on a background check.

The next BOG meeting is scheduled for December in Florida. However, because of the additional layers involved, it’s unlikely a sale would be approved then.

But here’s the good news for the league: While Sportico listed the Senators as worth $650 million in its latest valuations, one NHL owner told ESPN he’s “realistically optimistic” the Senators will be sold for more than that. There are expected to be multiple bidders — yes, including actor Ryan Reynolds, who has expressed interest — which will drive up the price. But perhaps more importantly, the sale will be tied to a real estate opportunity, as the new owner can help seal a deal for a long-coveted downtown arena.

“When Fenway [Sports Group] came in and took control of the Penguins, obviously they were interested in the team and getting involved with the NHL,” the owner said. “But I think that land around the arena was just as attractive to them.”

A winning trade

Could the Jack Eichel trade be the rare NHL deal that works out perfectly for both sides? Eichel (14 points in 13 games) and the Vegas Golden Knights (best record in the West at 11-2-0) are flying. But so too are the Buffalo Sabres, who began to feel a culture change in their locker room in the middle of last season. Buffalo (7-5) is keeping up in the competitive Atlantic Division and has a good shot of breaking its league-worst 11-year playoff drought. Eichel will be returning to Buffalo for the second time on Thursday night (ESPN+/Hulu, 7 ET).

Two facts about the Sabres: They are the youngest team in the league and have the most cap space in the league. GM Kevyn Adams would like to reward the fan base and have his young team experience playoff hockey, but he’s not going to lose sight of the larger plan, which includes sustained success.

Asked how he plans on using his cap space, Adams laughed. “That’s a good question,” the Buffalo GM said. “We’re always going to talk about every opportunity to get better, but you also have to know long term there are bigger goals, and in the evolution of where we want to be as a franchise, we’re still building. One thing we know we want to do is reward the players who are here, and the next step is signing them to big contracts.”

Dylan Cozens is an RFA this summer while No. 1 overall picks Owen Power and Rasmus Dahlin are eligible for long-term extensions beginning this summer. All three players are viewed by the Sabres as critical in the larger plan.

One of the big things Adams and coach Don Granato have done is empower their young players. Part of that is letting them know they don’t have to be perfect. “We’re encouraging our players to play fearlessly, to make mistakes,” Adams said.

That has helped unlock a new level for Dahlin, who is playing with more confidence than we’ve seen since he entered the NHL.

Latest in Boston

The Bruins’ signing of Mitchell Miller summed up in a text by a rival executive: “One of the biggest unforced errors I’ve seen in my two decades working in this sport.” Boston cut ties with the 20-year-old defenseman on Sunday, but it’s a stain on the judgment and processes for Bruins president Cam Neely (who apologized Monday) and GM Don Sweeney. It’s embarrassing enough to note that “new information” came forward after considering the signing for a year. Mitchell was convicted in juvenile court in 2016 of racially abusing and bullying a classmate, Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, who is Black. Bruins management never reached out to the parents of the victim, who have maintained that Miller never properly apologized to their son.

Kudos to Bruins players — specifically captain Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Nick Foligno — who all publicly voiced their discomfort with the signing. There’s a lot of strong leadership in that locker room.

• Jim Montgomery and Bruins management addressed the team ahead of training camp, a typical practice in the NHL. When Montgomery was done with his speech, Bergeron stood up and gave his own speech. And then Charlie McAvoy, who wears an A, stood up and said something. And then the rest of the leadership group followed. Montgomery didn’t know it was coming. He just watched in awe. “I’ve never seen that in all of my years in the game,” Montgomery said. “I think it’s something they’ve always done, going back to [Zdeno] Chara. The leadership in this room is different than anything I’ve ever experienced.”

Montgomery has a theory for why his team has been so quick to adapt to his systems. The team already played good defense, and had centers who take pride in a responsible game. “They already knew how to play away from the puck,” he said. “I didn’t need to change anything there; that eliminated a lot of teaching.”

So a majority of drills have featured how the Bruins wanted to play with the puck. “And that was fun for guys, right? It’s exciting,” Montgomery said. “More practice was slanted toward offense, playing with the puck, and the guys really took to that.”

• One bright spot on the Bruins is the resurgence of Foligno. Many fans were counting out the 35-year-old former Blue Jackets captain, who makes $5.5 million but scored just two goals last year. He was put on waivers to start the season.

Foligno has been a revelation for Boston’s bottom six, with three goals and four assists in his first 12 games, looking more like the version we knew in Columbus.

“He was recuperating from a massive surgery. He didn’t get time to train. When you’ve lived comfortably somewhere for a decade, and you have three young kids, and you move and now your wife doesn’t know anyone, and you don’t know where to go, you come home and your house is kind of a mess,” Montgomery said. “He told me before the season, ‘I hate to make excuses, but all of those things are not a problem anymore.’ And he’s been so much better for us.”

Early draft rumblings

Before the season, a director of amateur scouting suggested to me a story idea: “Will Connor Bedard really go No. 1?” He then watched one of Bedard’s games with the Regina Pats, and reported back. “Never mind,” he said. “Clear-cut No. 1.”

Bedard has had a terrific start to his WHL season, which should cement his status come June. The only reason for trepidation is that behind him are elite players who might have had the chance to go No. 1 in other years. The University of Michigan’s Adam Fantilli and Sweden’s Leo Carlsson have both received very high praise. Then there’s Russia’s Matvei Michkov, who is expected to still go top five — despite the inherent risk of when he’ll be able to come play in North America, since the winger is under contract in Russia through the 2025-26 season.

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