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Ask Me Anything: Will Penguins make aggressive upgrades at the trade deadline?

Does GM Jim Rutherford have another splashy move up his sleeve? Will we see NHLers at the 2022 Olympics? Which arena has the best press food? And more.

Quite a potpourri of questions for this week’s Ask Me Anything Mailbag. Some of you have your brains focused on next month’s trade deadline already. Others are thinking bigger-picture after this week’s news that the 2020 World Cup is off the table.

If you’re ever wondering what the secret formula is to get one of your questions answered: don’t. It’s not you, it’s me. I choose the questions based on one key criterion: how well equipped I am to answer them thoroughly. So there’s no way you can predict that!

Time for some (hopefully thorough) answers. Let’s begin.

Chris Barron (@ChrisRBarron) asks…

What are the odds Jim Rutherford makes a significant deadline deal? What do you think he is in the market to upgrade on the Penguins?

Hi Chris. I’d say the odds of ‘GMJR’ making a big splash at the deadline are sky-high. That’s because we know his history. He’s one of the more aggressive GMs in the business. Here’s a list of noteworthy players he’s acquired at or within a few weeks of recent deadlines:

2018: Derick Brassard
2017: Ron Hainsey
2016: Justin Schultz, Carl Hagelin
2015: Ian Cole, Daniel Winnik, Ben Lovejoy

And these are just the mid-season deadline deals. They don’t include the major off-season trades Rutherford made to land the likes of Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist. The point is: Rutherford likes to address team needs via trade. He also understands what he’s sitting on: a perennial contender running out of years to challenge for championships. He likely recognizes what’s happened in Chicago and Los Angeles. Every empire crumbles. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still so great that it appears the Pens can make the magic last a couple years longer, but their primes will eventually end.

The Pens have emptied out their reserves of picks and prospects in pursuit of all these playoff victories, of course. They’ve kept one of their past six first-round picks and ended up trading that pick (Kasperi Kapanen) anyway. Their prospect pool is arguably the league’s most barren. So that puts Rutherford in a Catch-22. On one hand, from a development standpoint, this team is like Kramer in the Seinfeld episode where he pushes a car’s gas tank way past its limit. The Penguins are so far down Win-Now Boulevard that they may as well not look back until the engine dies. On the other hand, because they’ve gone for broke so many times, they have very few appealing assets left to trade aside from this year’s first-round selection. Making a big move thus won’t necessarily be easy.

But I wouldn’t bet against Rutherford doing something. He’s made a few recent decisions that position him sneaky-well to get aggressive, as The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Jason Mackey recently pointed out. Signing No. 2 goalie Casey DeSmith to a three-year extension essentially locks him in as Matt Murray’s backup, meaning the Pens could theoretically dangle prospect Tristan Jarry as part of a trade package. With Schultz returning from injury soon, the Penguins have a surplus of depth defensemen to move as well. And then, of course, there’s the Brassard situation and Rutherford’s recent public comments that they need more from him. He’s a pending UFA, so he’d have to be shipped to another playoff team seeking a rental. Doing so would free up space for the Pens to pursue some bigger upgrades. How about Kevin Hayes or Matt Duchene as luxurious No. 3 pivots? Improved winger depth would suit the Pens well, too. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Rutherford pursue someone in the Micheal Ferland/Gustav Nyquist/Jakob Silfverberg rental tier.

Cory Hiebes (@CHiebes) asks…

With the 2020 World Cup cancelled, do you think the chances of NHL players playing in the Olympics is greater or lesser than before?

Such a tough question, but I’d say the odds have increased, if even by one percent. I’ll have to elaborate on this one.

*Deep breath*

In 2016, the NHL offered 2018 Olympic participation as a carrot to convince the NHL Players’ Association to agree on extending the collective bargaining agreement. The players may love playing in these events but rejected the idea after a “very, very short” conversation, almost treating it like an insult to their intelligence. As PA executive director Donald Fehr has said repeatedly, the players feel they made too many concessions during the last lockout negotiation, from allowing their piece of the hockey-related revenue pie to slip from 57 to 50 percent to agreeing to the limit on contract lengths at eight for re-signings and seven for open-market signings. Toss in their feelings on escrow, and you have a player side, at least on paper, ready to fight a lot harder this time than last. So a tournament won’t be enough to move the needle.

The players were furious over the NHL’s refusal to pay the insurance and technical costs to send the players to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Even when the IIHF stepped in to pay the insurance, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman balked in response to IOC president Thomas Bach also refusing to pay. From the NHL’s perspective, the Olympics are a chore, bringing the league no direct revenue, chopping up the middle of the season and putting players at risk, the best example being the season-ending knee injury John Tavares sustained at the 2014 Sochi Games. From a goodwill perspective, however, I believe the league underestimated how much it would anger the players by barring them from the tourney. The likes of Connor McDavid missed out on an opportunity to live a dream and represent their nations during their primes – but it wasn’t just the participants who were upset. What about all the other NHLers who stay home during the Olympics and get a couple weeks off to heal their bodies, spend time with family, maybe even travel south? The Games are great for them, too.

So while the NHL and NHLPA announced this week that they mutually agreed they couldn’t put the 2020 World Cup on with a risk of a work stoppage in fall 2020, I also wonder if there was an underlying revenge element for the players. They know the World Cup means more to the league than the Olympics – as the World Cup actually brings the NHL direct revenue – so this felt like a message to me. The question now is whether it hits home and makes the league more likely to listen about the Olympics during the next CBA talks. Could we see a situation in which the two sides trade one tourney for the other? “We’ll play in the World Cup if you send us to Beijing in 2022”?

Maybe. The NHL still holds significantly more power than the players every time they sit at the table, however, and the issue of insurance costs isn’t going away. I spoke with IIHF president Rene Fasel in November, and he said the IIHF can’t afford to pay the insurance next time. It will be up to the league – and a matter of whether Bettman and the NHL decide to view the Olympics as an investment in (a) making long-term profit by growing the game on a big international stage and (b) strengthening the league’s relationship with the players.

“It’s not only about money, you know?” Fasel said. “This is actually the biggest mistake some people do in professional sport. If you have a turnover of $5 billion like the NHL has today, the job of Gary is to take care of the business going on. People are investing a lot of money in arenas and other ventures. But if the NHL is here, and we have the IIHF on the other side, doing its job, bringing young girls and boys to the game of hockey and the fans…USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, and the European federations like Sweden, Czech or Russia or the Finns, they take these young players and they bring them to the league where they make the business.”

In other words, the international tourneys are what create the most hockey fans – and future hockey players who create the NHL’s product, according to Fasel. That’s why he wants the NHL to give back in 2022.

Hunny Bunches (@lexi_rocko) asks:

Do you think the Rangers will trade Mats Zuccarello?

I received a Chris Kreider question, too, so I’ll combine that with this question from Hunny. I absolutely expect Zuccarello to get moved. He’s a pending UFA and he’s 31, so, to me, it doesn’t make sense for the rebuilding Rangers to re-sign him. Even if they want to, they would still be wise to move him for some futures at the deadline and then take a crack at bringing him back in the summer.

As I wrote in my trade-deadline player rankings earlier this week, it feels like the Rangers waited a year too long to deal Zuccarello at his peak value. He’s had a down year. Then again, he’s an easier sell as a rental, and he’s really upped his production of late with four goals and eight points in his past six games. He’s never really played with an elite center, so it would be interesting to see what he could do if a playoff-hopeful team acquired him and dropped him onto a scoring line. We’re all thinking the same thing, right? “Mats Zuccarello, Connor McDavid’s new right winger.” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman even reported this week that the Oilers are checking in on Zuccarello and that he might net the Rangers a second-rounder. General manager Jeff Gorton has to cash in this expiring chip.

Kreider, however? A much more complicated situation because (a) he’s playing the best hockey of his career and (b) has a season left on his contract at a reasonable cap hit of $4.625 million. The deal includes an 11-team no-trade list, by the way. He’s big, fast, physical and 27 years old. He could be such a difference-maker on a Cup contender. With the extra season left on his contract, he would also command a gorgeous return. Think first-rounder and/or a good prospect or young roster player.

Whether to move him depends on how optimistic Gorton feels. Does he believe the Rangers can turn the ship around within the next couple seasons? If not, by the time the Blueshirts get good again, Kreider would be past his prime, reaching his 30s and just commencing what would likely be a lucrative long-term extension. If, as Gorton and Rangers president Glen Sather pledged in their letter to fans last year, this team is truly committed to doing things differently with a youth-oriented rebuild, dealing Kreider would make sense. The template for many teams’ success in today’s NHL is to bottom out enough that you can draft elite prospects. Dealing Kreider would send New York down that path.

Regular Season Marty (@martin_14) asks…

Now that the NHL has started player tracking on a larger scale, how big an impact do you think that’ll have on how we analyze a player’s impact on the game, especially from a defensive side of things, as that is often harder to quantify under existing metrics?

A couple days after the Leafs made a then-shocking hire of Kyle Dubas as their assistant GM in 2014, I interviewed Dubas, and he hit me with one quote that really stuck in my brain.

“Hockey is where baseball was more than two decades ago, where you had a few guys doing really good work and everyone trying to play catch up,” Dubas said. “In terms of which stats are most valuable – we’re still getting there. The team possession metrics have proven over the last number of years to pretty closely predict who the best teams are going to be in the long run. In the short run, you’re going to have aberrations. You’re going to have games where guys who you think are bad players are strong possession players. But we’re just getting rolling on this thing here. We’re a long way from the finish line.”

Not surprisingly, Dubas was ahead of the curve. So, Marty, I agree that player tracking will change things significantly. Think about the way we use the term “possession” when discussing hockey analytics today. We call Patrice Bergeron an elite possession player – but what we’re actually referring to is shot attempts. That’s his Corsi, right? If the puck is repeatedly flying toward the other team’s goal when you’re on the ice, it’s pretty good circumstantial evidence of “possession,” but that’s not really what it is, right? With player tracking, possession becomes possession, or literally how long a player keeps the puck on his stick and away from other players.

The player-tracking movement will allow us to discover far more about each skater, from his “flight paths” on every shift to how often he wins or loses battles for pucks. The NHL is in testing phases with microchips in equipment and pucks, and we’re seeing unprecedented changes in tracking already with a company like Stathletes, founded by Meghan Chayka, Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka and Neil Lane. Stathletes collects every stream of video available for every player’s shift and creates literally thousands of data points to track every player during a game. The company already counts multiple NHL, AHL, NCAA, CHL and Euro-league franchises as clients.

“We’re focusing on leveraging technology to collect the most accurate and efficient data set and then turn it into analytics and visualizations for use in hockey, whether you’re building a team, looking at trades, looking at drafts,” Meghan Chayka said when we spoke in December. “It can be your eyes and ears on the ground for scouts, too, and not only does it not have the biases that come with the human brain, it can also can give you a better reflection of the entire picture.

“Sometimes teams’ operations are very focused on the next game, but there’s always more you can do to have that competitive advantage, so we try to take away some of that workload by having the data already collected and in visualizations that scouts can use as well, or GMs when they’re seeking to fill gaps on their team.”

It’s exciting, as more information is always a good thing. To answer the second part of your question, I would say we’ll make the biggest strides in understanding what players do without the puck – so that would apply to offense and defense.

Kyle (@boringname11) asks…

Best pre-game meal? And do you ever ask the players what they eat? Would be cool to know some non-hockey-related things about the guys. Seems too “business” nowadays.

Hey Kyle. I haven’t been to every NHL rink yet. By my count, I’ve been to about half. My favorite eating spot as a media member (excluding special events like the Stanley Cup) would be Chicago’s United Center. In the press box, you get these deep-fried “toasted ravioli” pockets to dip in marinara sauce, with M&M’s on the side. Love it. I will say – I’ve always found Scotiabank Arena’s selection to be lacking here in Toronto, but things recently changed in a big way when we started getting Popeyes Chicken for Saturday games. I almost cried from sheer glee when I found out.

As for the players’ meal preferences: here’s the thing. You so often get the identical answer then when ask them. It’s “chicken and pasta.” Players want their bodies to be predictable. The chicken and pasta provide protein and the carbs they need for energy on a game day, right? And players are such creatures of habit. On every game day, the home team skates at 10:30, the road team at 11:30. Then they do some interviews with us, eat lunch, have a mid-day nap, go back to the rink for a pre-game meal probably around 5:00, and play. They’re very consistent.

That said, some players out there are still foodies, especially the ones who like to cook for their teammates. Seth Jones comes to mind. He’s gotten big into being the provider for other Blue Jackets players. Zach Werenski told me Seth is “a great chef.”

“I like trying new things and, you know, the old chicken breast in the oven gets annoying and kind of old sometimes,” Jones said when we spoke at the beginning of the season. “Even during the season this year, some of the guys will cook every now and then and started cooking a lot more this year on off days or whatnot. So, in the summer, me, and my brother (Caleb) cook almost every night. It’s just relaxing to me, I don’t know why. We are just going to hang out and cook. So it is definitely one of my hobbies.”

He makes a mean chicken parm, supposedly, and said in another recent ESPN interview with Greg Wyshynski that he has a pasta roller and makes his own. So there you go! Something at least a little bit specific.

It’s a far cry from the old days when the world knew a lot less about health. A fun example? Here’s Darryl Sittler when, on the 40-year anniversary of his 10-point game, I asked if he remembered what his pre-game meal was that day.

“My wife, Wendy, she was out doing something and wasn’t going to be home,” Sittler said. “I got behind schedule downtown for whatever reason. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just run in and grab some takeout.’ So I grabbed some Swiss Chalet chicken and some fries. Because I wanted to get home and sleep, I was eating it while it was still hot, off the front seat of my car. And then you go out and get 10 points, and you ask, ‘What are the things you did different?’ That was one of the things.”

I’ll take a wild guess McDavid avoids Swiss Chalet in the hours before a game in 2019. Haha.

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