By Lori Bennett
National Sports Columnist
On Tuesday night, June 13, the Vegas Golden Knights became Stanley Cup Champions. After just six years in existence, and consistently performing above expectations, the expansion team hoisted the Cup on home ice.
The Golden Knights eliminated the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars on their path to the Stanley Cup Final, before eliminating the Florida Panthers in five games. The Cup win comes after missing the playoffs last season, the only season they have missed since the team was formed.
The series ended where it began – in Vegas. The Golden Knights won the first two games at home in convincing fashion, with scores of 5-2 and 7-2, before the series moved to Florida for two. The Panthers won their only game of the series in Game 3, a 3-2 overtime win, but that was as much as they could muster. Vegas won the fourth game of the series with a score of 3-2 before heading back to Nevada. In Game 5, they made no mistake, pummeling the Panthers to a 9-3 finish.
Jonathan Marchessault, one of the six remaining players from the original expansion draft team, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.
In off-ice news in the NHL, the Ottawa Senators finally have a new owner. A group led by Michael Andlauer, a Toronto businessman who is a minority owner of the Montreal Canadiens, has an agreement in principle to purchase 90 per cent of the franchise. The current owners, Anna and Olivia Melnyk, will retain 10 per cent ownership of the team. Could there be a more perfect ending to this saga than a Habs fan from Toronto owning the Sens?
The rest of the summer should prove eventful for Ottawa fans. Are the management and coaching staff safe, or will the new ownership want to bring in their own people? Some names have circulated as being connected to Andlauer, but it is difficult to imagine significant changes will happen immediately with the Amateur Draft and free agency just a few days away.
Two coaching vacancies were also filled this past week, with the teams going in completely opposite directions. The New York Rangers grabbed a veteran from the coaching carousel with their hire of Peter Laviolette. Laviolette is a former player who has coached on five previous NHL teams, won a Stanley Cup while coaching the Carolina Hurricanes, and coached the US National Team.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Calgary Flames hired a coach who will be an NHL rookie next season. Ryan Huska, while drafted into the NHL in 1993, played just one NHL game. After his brief playing career, he coached in junior hockey for several years before becoming the head coach of Calgary’s farm team, and eventually joining the Flames as an assistant coach in 2018. The hire is a marked departure from the grizzled veteran Darryl Sutter, who was recently released by the Flames.
In a move that was as shocking as the sunrise every morning, Jason Spezza was hired as an Assistant General Manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Spezza enjoyed a long playing career in Ottawa and Dallas before spending three seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Upon retirement, he immediately joined Toronto’s front office as special assistant to the general manager, Kyle Dubas.
On the same morning that the Leafs announced Dubas had been relieved of his duties, Spezza tendered his resignation. It has been widely speculated that the two would reunite in Pittsburgh and it came to pass on Wednesday.
Dubas is the President of Hockey Operations for the Penguins and is also filling the role of general manager to get the team through the rush of the next couple of weeks. In this move, Dubas has hired an assistant GM before hiring a GM. It makes one wonder if he does intend to fill the GM position at all, or if he will assume both roles himself.
With the games all done, and general manager and coaching vacancies filled, teams can turn their undivided attention to business. The rest of June will be a whirlwind. The days leading up to the entry draft in Nashville on June 28-29 are expected to produce a flurry of activity.
The NHL buyout window is open, and players who are not performing up to scratch and where there isn’t a trade available, may find themselves bought out by their teams. Players who are bought out become free agents, and rival GMs lurk around looking for a bargain.
We should also anticipate a number of trades. Several players are looking for a new home, and this window is a ripe opportunity as the trading team looks to recover valued draft picks in exchange for players they can’t hold on to. The Winnipeg Jets have a number of players who may be on the move, including names like Connor Hellebuyck and Pierre-Luc Dubois.
We know the Montreal Canadiens are among the teams interested in Dubois, but they won’t be the only team interested in a big two-way centre who is just entering his prime years. Dubois has said he would like to play for his home team, but as they say, money talks.
Should the Toronto Maple Leafs be interested in Hellebuyck? It would be hard to pin their recent playoff exit on goaltending, but the plan in net can hardly be described as solid. On last year’s draft floor Kyle Dubas was negotiating a deal for Matt Murray. Will Brad Treliving be negotiating for another goalie this year?
This is the kind of drama we can expect leading up to the draft, while we wait for our favourite teams to select a new crop of talent at the draft. On the heels of the draft, we’ll be in free agency.
Buckle up. Silly season is officially open.
After a lengthy search, the Toronto Raptors finally named their new head coach. On Tuesday, Darko Rajakovic was introduced as the 10th coach in franchise history.
The announcement comes nearly eight weeks after Nick Nurse was fired on April 21st. At the time, Raptors President Masai Ujiri said the team needed a culture reset. Since then, with a young and developing team, the search has focused on landing a coach who can develop a young team to their full potential. Rajakovic responded to that need when he said, “We want to win every single game every single night but seeing the team grow, seeing the players grow, seeing people in the whole organization grow is something that is always my biggest reward.”
The new coach has significant coaching experience in Europe, and several NBA assistant coaching gigs to his credit, most recently with the Memphis Grizzlies.
The hire comes just in time for the NBA Draft, scheduled for June 22nd. The Raptors are due to select at 13th overall and they will need to have a strong off-season. Fred VanVleet is set to become a free agent after declining his player option for next season. Similarly, Gary Trent Jr. can decline and opt for free agency.
This does not mean that one or both players will not return to Toronto next year, but it’s possible the Raptors will have two big holes to fill.