By Lori Bennett
National Sports Columnist
After a lengthy break between series, the Stanley Cup Final finally got underway.
The series began in Las Vegas with the Golden Knights hosting the Florida Panthers. The first two games were heavily tilted in the favour of the Golden Knights.
Game 1 took place on Saturday, June 3, and it was Florida that scored first. The teams exchanged goals until Vegas scored three unanswered goals in the third period for a 5-2 win.
The teams were back at it on Monday, and the Golden Knights completely dominated.
Jonathan Marchessault scored his 11th and 12th goals of the playoffs to lead Vegas to a 7-2 win. Fans will recall that Marchessault was once a member of the Panthers but was left exposed by Florida for the Vegas expansion draft. I’m sure he has his own point to prove in this series.
The series shifted to Florida for Games 3 and 4 on Thursday and Saturday night, and that’s where press deadline left us.
With only two teams remaining in hockey action, the other 30 are keeping busy with off-season work.
On Monday, the Montreal Canadiens got an important bit of business addressed when they signed restricted free agent Cole Caufield to an eight-year contract extension. The 22-year-old fetched a contract worth $62.8 million and having an annual average value of $7.85 million.
Last season, Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games before his season ended in shoulder surgery. At just 22, Caufield has 53 goals and 21 assists in 123 games. GM Kent Hughes knows that pure goal scorers are not easy to come by and was willing to cough up the coin to ink the diminutive sniper.
The deal came just days after Hughes had signed RFA Michael Pezzetta to a two-year extension. The Habs have several additional RFAs in need of contracts, and fans will have an eye on a few.
Denis Gurianov showed flashes of brilliance mixed with disinterest after being acquired at the trade deadline. Jesse Ylonen has shown he can play at the NHL level in a depth role. Rafael Harvey-Pinard was fantastic to end the season, scoring 14 goals in 34 games, and is almost certainly a priority. Decisions await in the weeks ahead.
On Tuesday, off-season trades kicked off with three teams involved and multiple parts exchanged. At the end of it all, the Columbus Blue Jackets landed defenseman Ivan Provorov. The Los Angeles Kings left with Kevin Connauton and Hayden Hodgson, and some much needed cap relief. The Philadelphia Flyers cleaned up, nabbing the 22nd overall pick at this coming draft from the Kings, two second-round picks, goaltender Cal Peterson, defenseman Sean Walker, and defense prospect Helge Grans.
In his first deal as GM of the Flyers, Daniel Briere pulled off a blockbuster, and kicked off their rebuild in the process. Other players are reportedly the subject of trade discussions, with goalie Carter Hart in the eye of the hurricane.
On Wednesday, the Kings used some of their newfound cap space to re-sign defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov, who was acquired at the trade deadline.
The Winnipeg Jets and Ottawa Senators are both considering trade options for players they would rather not deal.
This week news broke that Sens GM Pierre Dorion was exploring the market for Alex DeBrincat, who has not committed to a contract extension in Ottawa. Dorion is in a tough position with negotiations while waiting for the sale of the team and the preferences of the new owners.
In the meantime, Pierre-Luc Dubois’ agent Pat Brisson has reportedly informed the Jets that his client will not be re-signing in Winnipeg for the long-term and would prefer to not even sign a one-year deal to take him to unrestricted free agency next summer. The inference is clear – Dubois wants a trade. It has previously been reported that Montreal is his preferred destination. This is a file to watch as the amateur draft approaches.
The coaching vacancy in Columbus was addressed this week with the Blue Jackets hiring Mike Babcock to be their new bench boss. Babcock had not coached in the NHL since since the 2019-20 season when he was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Babcock is still under contract with the Leafs until the end of June, eking out every dime the Buds owe him.
Babcock left Toronto under difficult circumstances when rumours surfaced about his treatment of players he coached. In one instance, he had asked then rookie Mitch Marner to rank the work ethic of his teammates, and the rankings later got back to the team. Following that report, a story broke about Babcock’s verbal abuse of Johan Franzen during their time together in Detroit. Since being fired, Babcock coached for one season at the University of Saskatchewan before announcing his retirement in 2022.
Nonetheless, the veteran coach has a solid win record of 700 wins over 17 seasons in the NHL and has a Stanley Cup to his credit. Babcock has also coached Canada to two Olympic Gold Medals and was nominated for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year on three occasions.
Desperate for a winning season, the Blue Jackets are hoping to reap the benefits of Babcock’s better qualities.
Blue Jays Babble
Last weekend the Toronto Blue Jays were in New York to face the Mets for a three game series and some welcome wins were added. The Jays won three close games on strong pitching performances from Chris Bassitt on Friday, Jose Berrios on Saturday, and a combo of Yusei Kikuchi and the bullpen on Sunday.
On Monday the Blue Birds were back in Toronto to greet the Houston Astros for four games. Alek Manoah took the mound for the first game of the series, and allowed six runs in the first inning, nabbing just one out before being pulled. The Jays went on to lose the game 11-4.
The Jays had seen enough and knew they needed to take drastic action to get last season’s ace back on track.
Last Tuesday, June 8, Manoah was sent to the minor leagues, away from the pressure, to work with the developmental staff. This is a big fall for the young right-hander, who was an American League Cy Young Award finalist last season. But things were getting worse rather than better, and management had to take control.
A couple of questions arise in Toronto following the decision.
Firstly, how long will Manoah be away from the team while he tries to regain his form? Secondly, how will the Jays manage the starting rotation in his absence? If the team was otherwise performing well, this might be an opportunity to strengthen the rotation early. But that’s not really the case so it’s unlikely management is willing to pay the price just yet.
The Jays will have to go on a winning run very soon if they hope to come close to their intentions for this season.