Ask Me Anything: Which coach gets fired next? Is Mitch Marner OK?

Introducing a new kind of mailbag, with deep-dive answers to your most pressing hockey questions.

It’s an emotional time of the hockey season. Teams we pegged to struggle have rocketed up the NHL standings. Teams expected to contend are freefalling, sending their fan bases into frenzies. It’s natural that many of you hockey nuts have questions right now. You want to know what to believe, right?

Since Twitter hasn’t selected me as one of their 280-character guinea pigs – damn! – I don’t have the proper real estate to answer all your thoughtful questions there. We get some done on our podcast, but there’s only time to answer so many. So I introduce to you a new (hopefully) weekly feature: Friday Hockey AMA. Ask me anything, and I’ll try to help with deeper, more detailed answers than social media allow. The maiden voyage begins…now!

1. Parry Malm (@ParryMalm) asks…

How over/underrated is Chris Tanev, in terms of both salary and name/media recognition?

Hey Parry. Congrats on being the first question asker in Friday Hockey AMA’s short history. As for Tanev, if we view him through the lens of the casual hockey fan, he’s certainly underrated. His career high in goals and points are six and 20, respectively. He’s not a bone-crushing hitter or known loudmouth in media scrums. Nothing about Tanev really stands out, so he goes relatively unnoticed among layman hockey people.

But we media folk know exactly who Tanev is and understand what a great player he is. He’s not flashy – but that’s exactly the point. It means he’s doing his job. He fits the modern description of a shutdown defenseman in that he doesn’t thwart scoring chances with brute force, the way a Derian Hatcher type did 15 years ago, but instead does so with positioning and mobility. Tanev uses his skating to shadow attackers. He’s like a right-handed Marc-Edouard Vlasic or, perhaps more accurately, a younger Matt Niskanen. Tanev doesn’t drive a ton of offense but does a great job preventing high-quality scoring chances on his own net. In the past four seasons, 12 Canucks defensemen have logged at least 1,000 total minutes 5-on-5, and Tanev has the best 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60 mark among them. That means no player from that group allows fewer shot attempts at his net during 5-on-5 play, which is extra impressive considering Tanev draws tough assignments against opponents’ scoring lines.

Most mainstream hockey media know how valuable Tanev is nowadays, so in our circle I’ll call him “properly rated.” The salary is underrated, no doubt. He carries a $4.45-million cap hit but is likely worth a million bucks more than that.

2. UberCBJfans (@uberCBJfans) asks…

What does it really mean to be a captain or assistant? Requirements? Duties? Extra pay?

What a fascinating question. The requirements of a captain aren’t etched out in an official handbook, but many unwritten rules exist. The captain of a team acts as a conduit between his teammates and his coach, for one. The captain is the communicator. It’s often his or her job to really understand how to push the other players in a way the coach can’t, as players will always relate to another player better than they do a coach.

Bobby Clarke always knew how to motivate each of his teammates individually, and I talked at length with Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf about how to lead his troops recently, too. Here’s what Getzlaf told me about it a few weeks ago:

“Those are things that you learn along the way about being a leader in the room. There are some guys who, I will get in their face and have those tough talks with. I think everybody knows in the locker room how I feel about them one way or the other. The way I address it is different with each player. For a guy like ‘Pers’ (Corey Perry), I don’t have to get in his face and yell at him. Not that I can’t, and not that I never have. We’ve had plenty of frank conversations (laughs). But he knows if he’s not doing what he needs to do and if guys aren’t happy with the way things are going.

“A lot of the young players now, you can’t necessarily just get up and get in their face in the middle of the locker room. Sometimes I have to do it off to the side.”

So that’s one responsibility of a captain. Another is to be a first face in dealing with the media and the scrums after the games. I will always tip my hat to Dion Phaneuf, who had a tough job as Leafs captain here in Toronto during the tanking days a few years back. No matter how many times the Leafs got pummelled, and even if no other player showed his face after a tough loss in the dog days of winter, Phaneuf always emerged to talk to us. It was his job, just as it’s the captain’s job to communicate with officials during games, too.

There’s no official designation that I know of about captains earning more pay, but it would certainly make a strong selling point for an agent to bring up during contract negotiations. The alternate (not assistant, by the way) captains obviously fill in should the captain be incapacitated but, more than that, they are often veteran players who lead and offer additional advice based on their extended experience. The alternates, and veterans in general, are especially important on a team with a young star captain who has earned the ‘C’ more for his scoring and skill than for his pure leadership. Mike Knuble once told me that, during Alex Ovechkin’s first days as captain in Washington, the veterans of the team all shouldered bits of Ovechkin’s captain duties to ease him into the burden. Ovie was more of a figurehead captain in those early years as he ironed out his English.

3. Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) asks…

Who is the first coach to be fired this year?

Ooh, that’s a humdinger. I’ll get on my horse for a second about Paul Maurice and remind you all that the man is coaching his 20th NHL season and has been to the playoffs five times. I know he hasn’t always had the best supporting cast, and everyone likes him, especially the media…but Maurice averages roughly one playoff berth every five seasons.

Not that it means I pick Maurice as the coach on the hottest seat. His leash seems to be infinite in Winnipeg. No, the head most likely to roll is Alain Vigneault’s. Rick Tocchet obviously doesn’t have a single win in Arizona yet, but he just started his tenure with the team, so that has to buy him a bit more time. Same goes for Claude Julien in Montreal, as his second run with the Habs only started partway through last season, and they actually have great possession numbers, too. As the Detroit Red Wings free fall, I’d keep an eye on Jeff Blashill, too.

But no, the pick has to be Vigneault, as his run with the Rangers is more likely than the others’ be viewed as “stale” with the team sputtering to a 3-6-2 start. He’s never won fewer than 45 games behind the Broadway bench, taking the Rangers to a Cup final and conference final, but that also means he’s set a high standard. Given how much money the Rangers pay Henrik Lundqvist and, now, Kevin Shattenkirk, we know they’re a win-now operation. They don’t view their contention window as closed yet, meaning it might make sense to jumpstart them with a new coaching hire. We’ve researched the effect of new hires in the past for an issue of the THN magazine, and we found that it’s not a myth – new hires do traditionally cause a spike in the standings from an emotional lift, albeit the boost is a temporary one.

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4. Mikey Reats (@MikeyReats) asks…

Explanation on Nigel Dawes situation? He played for Kazakhstan internationally as well as Canada. Citizenship for both? Is he eligible for Canada in the Olympics?

Dawes is committed now to his Kazakhstani citizenship. He’s in his seventh season with Barys Astana of the KHL and spends nine months a year in Astana. He also only qualifies now to play for Kazakhstan and not Canada, which is a shame for him since Kazakhstan didn’t qualify for the 2018 Olympics. He made a gamble because he never believed he would play in North America again, and he has also stated he never expected that the NHL wouldn’t be going to the Olympics and that he would’ve had a chance to make Team Canada. He became a citizen of Kazakhstan two years ago, when NHLers still had a strong chance to play at the 2018 Pyeongchang games. Bad luck for Dawes – and for the new Team Canada, as Dawes has been downright legendary in the KHL this season, with 24 goals in 22 games.

If you want to learn more about Dawes’ decision, here’s a good interview CBC’s Tim Wharnsby just did with Dawes:

5. Mandalore (@JeffreySelmongGQ) asks…

If the Canucks stay playing well under Travis Green, do they become buyers rather than sellers at the deadline?

Hey Mandalore. No, I don’t think they do. For one, I don’t think the Canucks will have this dilemma anyway, as, respectfully, I don’t believe they have the horses to hang in the playoff hunt all year if you ask me. Secondly, I believe the organization finally understands it’s time to commit to youth.

Look at the clues. Hiring Green in the first place meant installing a coach highly familiar with the team’s prospect crop, having coached a lot of them in AHL Utica. Lo and behold, Jake Virtanen makes the team. And look at the huge decline in Daniel and Henrik Sedin’s ice time. If Vancouver was serious about contending, it might give the twins more to do, but it’s trying to develop the kids more. The Sedins and fellow vet Thomas Vanek rank eighth, ninth and 10th among Canucks forwards in ice time this season.

I spoke with team president Trevor Linden a couple months ago about the team’s long-term vision, actually, and here’s what he told me:

“We (meaning him and GM Jim Benning) certainly came into a situation that was…a group of veteran players that had a rich history and a long tenure here with the Vancouver Canucks, and dealing with certain contract situations we had to work through. There was no easy way. Everyone wants to do it immediately, do it fast, do this, do that. We had a plan for how we wanted to transition through this. Call it what you will. We’ve talked about rebuilding. The group of young players we’re starting to assemble now may not see the ice at Rogers Arena this year, but we’re starting to get a critical mass of young players and prospects that hopefully will form the next core group of this Vancouver Canucks organization. That’s exciting, and I think fans are excited. We understand that we’re in this process and have to be patient. I think our fans understand that.

“At the same time, there’s a level of expectation that they want to come to Rogers Arena and be entertained and see a good product on the ice. We’re trying to bridge to a situation where some of these young players can come in and have a real impact on our team. At the same time, we don’t want to rush them. We want to make sure that they’re ready and earn those opportunities and spots. We feel we’re well on our way and excited about it.”

So the Canucks are a bit of a hybrid right now, giving big responsibility to Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser but holding back their other high-end prospects, such as Elias Pettersson and Olli Juolevi. As the vets’ contracts expire, more spots will open up. Given how deadly Pettersson looks in the Swedish League right now, he could end up a Canuck next season in place of Henrik Sedin, whose contract expires after this year along with his brother’s.

6. Bellevegas Pete (@petestory771) asks…

When will Mitch Marner start Marnering again?

Sometimes Leaf Nation looks at last season’s fabulous rookie trio of Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander and forgets that they don’t all have identical ceilings despite each cracking the 60-point plateau last season. Matthews joined Connor McDavid as the two generational talents of this era. Matthews was the first teenager in 14 years to score 40 goals. He’s on another planet right now. So it’s important not to judge Marner’s performance relative to Matthews’.

Marner, of course, is no slouch. He was picked fourth overall in 2015, he made a mockery of the OHL in his final couple seasons with the London Knights, and he still has the ceiling to become a Patrick Kane type. So it’s still fair to expect a lot of Marner. At the same time, he’s just 20, and he still has a long way to go in terms of adding upper-body strength to his slight frame, so he simply may come along slower than a man-child like Matthews.

Marner has looked a bit lost since the 2016 playoffs, pushed off the puck by bigger players and, most noticeably, more indecisive with the puck than he used to be. That’s a confidence thing. But he’s too good, too fast, too competitive, too creative to stay down for long.  The fourth-line “demotion” also isn’t as bad as it seems. Fun fact: Marner averages 2:43 of power play time per game, tops among all Leaf forwards so far this season. He’s still getting his looks, but his shooting percentage of 5.3 is less than half what it was in his rookie campaign. His next goal should go to straight to his legs. The Leafs have also dropped two of their past three games, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see coach Mike Babcock juggle his lines, perhaps trying Marner back with his old buddies Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. It’s far too early to worry about Marner, who is still on pace for 49 points right now as a 20-year-old.