Inside the NHL

We’ve arrived at the best part of the NHL campaign, the so-called “second season” comprising the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

So throw out everything up until now, as the NHL on Saturday embarks on a two-month endurance test to crown the final Cup champion before the Kraken takes the ice for its debut in October. Actually, don’t discard everything yet, as some coaching moves this final week of the regular season could have bearing on whoever is behind the Kraken’s bench.

The Columbus Blue Jackets mutually parted ways with coach John Tortorella, and the Arizona Coyotes did the same with Rick Tocchet to free up two more potential Kraken candidates. As has been well-documented, Tortorella can be a polarizing figure with players and media, which should give the Kraken pause as it seeks fans in a new NHL marketplace.

That said, Tortorella does win — more than any other U.S.-born coach — without playing favorites. Still, with today’s younger players responding less to old-school coaching tactics, you wonder whether Tortorella’s heart-on-his-sleeve approach risks devolving into a proverbial “three-year act” going forward.  

Tocchet hasn’t won nearly as much, at least as a coach. His Coyotes made the playoffs once in four seasons, bounced by Colorado in last year’s opening round.

Arizona hasn’t been the most stable organization, mind you, and Tocchet’s departure was likely hastened by new general manager Bill Armstrong wanting his own coach. For those unaware, Tocchet, who also coached Tampa Bay in two non-playoff seasons, had quite the playing career as a pugnacious yet productive All-Star forward with mostly the Philadelphia Flyers but also the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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That Penguins part is important, because his teammate on those early 1990s clubs was current Kraken GM Ron Francis.

So, don’t rule Tocchet out quite yet.

We’ll also see whether Travis Green parts ways with the Vancouver Canucks, whose COVID-19-extended season won’t end until next week while playoff games are ongoing elsewhere. The former Spokane Chiefs junior star and NHL centerman would almost certainly get a Kraken look given his work with analytics and his Canucks making last year’s second playoff round before this season’s disastrous early showing and three-week COVID-19 layoff.

There’s an interesting, somewhat dubious connection between Green and Tocchet. In many ways it’s a testament to their coaching promise that both emerged intact from a sports gambling scandal 15 years ago that shook the NHL to its core.

“Operation Slap Shot” was a New Jersey state police probe into an illegal, multimillion-dollar nationwide sports gambling ring run partly by Tocchet, then a Coyotes assistant under legendary former player and team owner/coach Wayne Gretzky. Tocchet pleaded guilty in 2007 to conspiracy and promoting gambling and was placed on two years’ probation.

His partner running the ring, a former New Jersey state trooper named Jim Harney, was sentenced to five years in prison. Tocchet was suspended by the NHL and, upon reinstatement, maintained the bets he placed — for himself and others — were primarily on football, never on hockey.

Green, then winding down his journeyman NHL playing career, was named in news reports as one of the ring’s frequent gamblers along with then-player Jeremy Roenick and Gretzky’s wife, Janet. But none faced charges, as placing bets in New Jersey was not a crime.

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The story was a big deal at a time sports gambling carried far more stigma, but the NHL allowed players to legally bet on sports other than its own, and no evidence of hockey wagering surfaced. Nowadays, sports betting is legal in some form in two dozen states, including Washington, and the NHL has a team in Las Vegas and a hockey data partnership with casino entity MGM Resorts.

Green actually enjoys a coolness factor among some fans for winning more than $385,000 as a competitive poker player before becoming an NHL coach in 2017. Anyhow, the story would be revived at some point if Green or Tocchet gets hired here, so now you know if you didn’t already. 

Another former Francis teammate to watch is Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, whose team won the Central Division but faces a tough opening round against the surging Nashville Predators. A surprise Hurricanes elimination would force a quicker conclusion to contract talks between Brind’Amour and his team, and it would provide the Kraken an earlier opportunity to chart the direction of its coaching course. 

For the rest of the playoffs the West Division standings could change, but as of Wednesday the No. 1-seeded Vegas Golden Knights would face the No. 4 St. Louis Blues, and the No. 2 Colorado Avalanche would play the No. 3 Minnesota Wild. The already-set East Division opening round features the No. 1 Penguins playing the No. 4 New York Islanders, and in Saturday’s debut playoff matchup the No. 2 Washington Capitals face the No. 3 Boston Bruins.

In the North Division, which won’t end its regular season until next Wednesday, the set matchups have the No. 2 Edmonton Oilers playing the No. 3 Winnipeg Jets. But that division also features one of two first-round dream playoff rivalry series decades in the making, as the No. 1 Toronto Maple Leafs play the No. 4 Montreal Canadiens.

It’s the first playoff meeting in 42 years between the top-two Cup winners of all-time, with Toronto last beating Montreal in the 1967 Final for its 13th and last title since, while the Canadiens swept the Leafs in their prior postseason bout in the 1979 quarterfinals. Montreal won its 24th and most recent title in 1993 over Los Angeles, but only after the Kings outlasted Toronto in a seven-game conference final to prevent a 1967 championship rematch.

The dream Central matchup pits the No. 2 seed Florida Panthers against the defending Cup champion, No. 3 Tampa Bay Lightning. That it’s their first cross-state playoff series is pretty amazing considering the Lightning has two Cup titles and the Panthers made the final in 1996.

The underrated Panthers spent the season in the division shadow of the Hurricanes and Lightning, with Florida coach Joel Quenneville’s staff featuring assistant Ulf Samuelsson, who was briefly a Kraken scout and won a Cup in 1992 as a Penguins player alongside GM Francis and coaching candidate Tocchet.