- Craig Custance
Some players are returning to the NHL this week with momentum. They’re coming back with more confidence. With the trade deadline looming, some even helped the cause for their general managers who might now be shopping them a little harder before March 5.
“All the GMs are watching the Olympics. We’re watching because it’s fun,” said one Eastern Conference executive. “Now, that GM [watching] has a different flavor from a player beyond just reading the scouting report and watching the film. ... Now the GM will say, I’m comfortable making the deal. I’m comfortable acquiring him.”
For players who aren’t on the trade block, the quick return back into the NHL is a chance to build off a strong performance. The Wild will get an amped up Mikael Granlund for the stretch run. Montreal’s Carey Price has to feel really good about his game right now.
Before he left to win gold, Mike Babcock put it this way: “When you go to the Olympics, you come back energized. I don’t buy into the theory you come back worn out at all. I think it’s an energizing event. You get to play with the best players in the world in the most spectacular event that there is in sports.”
And it’s not just players; coaches improved their stock in Sochi, too. Here are seven people who benefited in different ways from the Olympics:
1. Ted Nolan, Buffalo Sabres interim coach
Babcock won gold, and his strategy in building Team Canada into a powerhouse incrementally as the tournament progressed was brilliant. He was the best coach in this tournament.
Nolan might have been a close second. His Latvian team gave Team Canada its biggest scare of the tournament in the quarterfinals, and upset a Switzerland team that was a popular underdog pick. His players love playing for him, and it’s not just in Latvia.
One of the reasons Steve Ott wants to stay in Buffalo is because he loves playing for Nolan. New Sabres GM Tim Murray will make the call, but Pat LaFontaine made it clear to candidates during the GM interview process how much he likes Nolan as a head coach. And if he doesn’t stick around with the Sabres, there were plenty of well-respected GMs in Sochi who saw his outstanding coaching job up close.
2. Leo Komarov, Moscow Dynamo
With Komarov playing in the KHL, NHL players haven’t had to deal with one of the most irritating players around. But he quickly made his presence felt in every game for Team Finland during its run to the bronze medal. He’s not going to light up the scoreboard -- he finished the tournament without a point -- but he was a physical presence on the ice during the 12:14 per game he averaged for Finland.
He’ll return to the KHL for the rest of this season, but his agent confirmed there’s an interest in continuing his career in the NHL after his contract with the Dynamo is up. “Yes, Leo wants to get back to the NHL,” Mark Gandler wrote in an email. “He’ll be able to do it starting with the next season. However, we will not talk to NHL teams until the end of his season with Dynamo. I think there will be a lot of interest from the NHL clubs.”
3. Kristers Gudlevskis, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Gudlevskis caught the eye of the Lightning with a strong performance during the World Championships. He caught the eye of the rest of the world by making 55 saves against Canada, nearly leading Latvia to a win.
“It was really good for him, really good for us,” said Lightning assistant GM Julien BriseBois when we chatted this past week. “We had a number of players there, a lot of young guys getting their first taste of Olympic hockey. They’re going to come back better players, being around such high level of play, high-skilled players. Just a tremendous learning experience for all of them.”
Gudlevskis was a fifth-round pick as a 20-year-old in the 2013 draft. He started this season in the ECHL, has played 22 games in the AHL and nearly eliminated the best hockey team in the world. The Lightning have depth in goal and he needs additional seasoning in the AHL, but if Steve Yzerman included him in a trade offer at the deadline, there has to be more interest than before the Olympics.
“In the end, it’s probably a good result for Steve. Canada won and our prospect looked great,” BriseBois said.
4. Kevin Dineen, Team Canada women’s coach
It’s been a good couple of weeks for the Dineen family. Bill Dineen was elected to the American Hockey League Hall of Fame earlier this month. Then Kevin Dineen guided the Canadian women to an Olympic gold medal in Sochi. It sure beats how this season started for Dineen, who was fired in early November following the Florida Panthers' slow start.
He won gold with the women, and he didn’t just show up and cruise to the title. Following his arrival, he changed captains, from Hayley Wickenheiser to Caroline Ouellette. He pushed the Canadian women hard, with a huge payoff. And he did it on a stage that everybody in hockey was watching.
There are plenty of outstanding performances by Team Canada stars to highlight. Price will return to the Canadiens a confident goalie and, after an ugly January, can build off his strong start in February (.960 save percentage in five starts) during the stretch run. Perhaps Drew Doughty's and Jeff Carter's huge performances will help spark the Kings’ stagnant offense.
But it’s Weber who might benefit the most personally. He was already playing well before the Olympics started, with his 15 goals tied with Erik Karlsson as the best among NHL defensemen, but he was doing it on a mediocre Predators team. Duncan Keith was running away with the Norris Trophy, but these games, especially the performances of some of the defensemen, were a reminder that the Norris isn’t a one-horse race.
Everybody loves Ryan Callahan, but before the Olympic games, his pricey contract demands were widely questioned. It’s fair to wonder whether or not it’s smart to give big money and term to a player like Callahan, whose selfless style of play comes with high injury risk. But his performance in this tournament highlighted everything that makes him a great leader.
At times, his line with David Backes was Team USA’s most effective. And when some of his teammates mailed it in against Finland, he was on the ice blocking shots even as the game was clearly lost.
The contract talks with the Rangers took a hiatus during the tournament. “Yeah, they’ve been completely on hold. We haven’t had any conversations,” said his agent, Brian Bartlett, when I checked in this past week.
But the moment the tournament ended, it didn’t take long for trade rumors to resurface with the New York Post’s Larry Brooks reporting on Sunday that the Rangers tried to pry Martin St. Louis away from the Lightning with Callahan as the centerpiece of a deal, without any luck. It’s going to be an interesting week in New York as the deadline closes in.
Before the Olympic tournament started, Hurricanes coaches started to see Ruutu’s game rounding into form. He’s still recovering from hip surgery and trying to reach the level of play that earned him a four-year contract worth $4.75 million. He looked pretty darn good in Sochi, building on a stacked international resume with five points in six games while helping lead Finland to the bronze.
“He played well,” said Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford when we chatted this weekend. “That’s more the Ruutu that we expect and we’re used to ... it’s taken him a little while to get going. It certainly appears the way he played in Sochi that he’s closer to where we expect him to be.”
While Rutherford didn’t say it, his colleagues in the NHL believe that Ruutu is a player available at the deadline, although a no-move clause complicates any trade. It’s also not an easy contract to move, but if the Hurricanes are willing to retain some salary, Ruutu proved in this tournament that he still has plenty of value.
Every NHL owner fears an injury to his star players sent to compete in the Winter Olympics. But there’s a flip side to the John Tavares scenario (a scenario that we discussed this past week).