As Lorne Henning scouts these Stanley Cup playoffs pandemic-style for the Seattle Kraken, he’s well aware nothing he’ll see on television is likely to equal his most thrilling career moment.
Forty years ago, New York Islanders centerman Henning fed a perfect neutral-zone pass to John Tonelli, who caught the Philadelphia Flyers flat-footed before sending the puck across to Bob Nystrom for a tip-in, Cup-winning overtime goal. Henning was the first to embrace Nystrom as the Nassau Coliseum crowd erupted over the iconic Game 6 clincher that launched the Islanders’ dynasty of four straight titles.
“You hear it all the time, but as a kid, it’s something you always dream of,’’ Henning, 68, said last week by phone from Irvine, California, pausing between games watched from his living room. “A lot of things go through your mind that instant. Flashbacks to Saskatchewan where I grew up and all the things and people that helped you along the way. It’s a lot of emotion that goes through your mind.’’
Mostly, he remembers the exhausted relief; of being freed from a Game 7 and having to relive past Islanders postseason failures. He’ll never forget that May 24, 1980, moment, even as he hogs the family TV remote — “I am kind of dominating the TV, so I’m not sure the rest of the family likes that too much’’ — to watch Dallas and Vancouver in the upcoming round of the playoffs as one of the newest Kraken professional scouts.
“Obviously, it’s a little different,’’ he said of scouting in the COVID-19 age. “You like to have eyes on things at the rink, talking to other scouts and getting different opinions. So, obviously you don’t have that.’’
He’d prefer a wider angle “to see what somebody’s doing away from the play’’ or to view the benches and observe contemplated line matchups. But the flip side is, he can record games and quickly review stuff he missed.
As with regular scouting, he’ll jot down thoughts in a notepad, organize them later and input a formal report into a database the team has set up. Any information helps a Kraken team that put real-time scouting on hold during the NHL’s pandemic stoppage and is now playing catch-up.
It seems fitting Henning began his career with one expansion team — the 12-win Islanders of 1972-73 — and is now winding down his considerable NHL resume with the Kraken. Henning had head-coaching gigs with the Minnesota North Stars and Islanders and was a longstanding assistant general manager in Vancouver through 2014-15 before consulting overseas with Swedish teams.
But the parity-laden NHL has changed from his heyday. Gone are dynasties like the Islanders, replaced by one-off Cup champions carried by hot goaltenders and peaking in a right-place, right-time kind of way that can nullify regular-season dynamos.
Last year, goalie Jordan Binnington and the St. Louis Blues won it all after being in last place midseason. This year: perhaps former Everett Silvertips netminder Carter Hart takes his underrated Flyers all the way after earning the No. 1 Eastern Conference seed with undefeated round-robin play.
Hart next faces his boyhood idol, former Tri-City Americans netminder Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens in Wednesday’s opener of a best-of-seven series.
But regardless of what happens, it’s safe to say the NHL power structure can change on a dime. Five-year rebuilding plans? Try five months. And for an expansion team like the Kraken, it makes separating stats-oriented players from true champions more challenging.
Some hockey fans believe championships boil down to compiling the most “talent.” To that, this year’s Toronto Maple Leafs say hello with their latest first-round exit despite a salary-cap-busting roster that includes Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
Henning’s specific opening-round scouting assignments — the No. 12 seed Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks — also took down talented favorites in their conferences. Chicago outlasted the Edmonton Oilers of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl while Montreal rather handily beat Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
On the Canadiens: “It was certainly Price,” Henning said. “I think early, Montreal thought they were going to get steamrolled in three … and then, Price stood on his head and they took off. They loosened up and certainly kept Pittsburgh off-balance.”
As for the Blackhawks: “Chicago came out the first game and I’m not sure, but they may have caught Edmonton off-balance. Maybe Edmonton expected an easier series and they weren’t quite as ready as they should have been. The urgency wasn’t there.”
That’s not to say the Kraken wouldn’t take McDavid, Crosby, Malkin or Draisaitl. But you scout players primarily to build rosters beyond obvious superstars.
Even Henning’s talented, Cup-contender Islanders in the 1970s regularly fell short, losing their first four semifinal trips.
Sure, drafting and trading for future Hall of Famers Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy quickly transformed the expansion team. But additional mainstays like Nystrom, Tonelli, Butch Goring, Bob Bourne, Bob Lorimer, Stefan Persson and Henning helped secure that elusive first title.
A rookie goaltender like Binnington, or Patrick Roy with Montreal in 1986, occasionally expedites a championship ahead of schedule. Henning is eager to see how the surprising Flyers and Hart, in his first post-season, perform after upending Boston, Washington and Tampa Bay in round robin action.
“You need a goalie, honestly to win,’’ Henning said. “He’s had a couple of ups and downs throughout the year but down the stretch he’s been good. I really like the kid. He’s got moxie. Nothing seems to faze him.”
Whether Henning and the Kraken uncover playoff nuggets useful for next year’s expansion draft remains to be seen.
But as witnessed so far, NHL players can shine and fade in the blink of a postseason eye. So, having real-time information on them — as opposed to months-old observations — seems crucial as the Kraken plots its franchise course.