Monday, October 2
CHRIS McCLOSKEY: Thank you everyone for joining us today for NBC Sports’ NHL conference call. We will be joined in a few moments by Executive Producer Sam Flood, Mike Milbury, and Pierre McGuire. Doc Emrick running a little behind due to a flight delay, but we’re hopeful he’s going to call in in a few minutes.
As we look ahead to the season, NBC Sports is coming off a very successful 2016 – ’17. Last season’s playoff averaged a total audience delivery of nearly 1.4 million viewers, up 11 percent compared to the year before, and the Stanley Cup-deciding Game 6 between Pittsburgh and Nashville peeked at nearly 10 million viewers. So a good foundation to build on.
This season begins on Wednesday on NBCSN with a doubleheader featuring St. Louis at Pittsburgh, which will include the banner raising, followed by Philadelphia at San Jose. NBC Sports will also be there to chronicle the opening of the Red Wings’ brand new Little Caesars Arena on Thursday and the first home game of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights next Tuesday.
Let’s begin now with opening remarks. First up is our executive producer of NBC Sports and the former captain of the Williams College hockey team, Sam Flood.
SAM FLOOD: Wow. Hi, everybody. Before we get into the call, when Chris mentioned Vegas, obviously makes you think of the awful situation taking place right now, and I know a lot of people, thoughts and prayers for the folks out in Vegas and this crazy, crazy world we live in.
That coming a day after we heard the sad news of Dave Strader, a real friend and a long-time partner here at NBC. It was tough to hear of his passing, and we always knew he was special as a teammate. He cared about making everyone that worked with him better. I always liked to listen to him in a game because he had that passion for the sport of hockey, but he also had the passion to make sure his analysts were the stars at the end of every game.
He made sure he put everyone in a position to win and he’s going to be missed. He was a really valuable member of the family, and we wish the best for his family.
This season starts a little differently. We’ve got Mike Milbury venturing out from the studio, which we think is going to be an exciting time had by all. Mike in the building will add a new twist to the telecast. He will be on the road as Eddie (Olczyk) continues his treatment for colon cancer. I visited Eddie a couple weeks ago. He was in good spirits and going through all the doctors’ plans and orders for getting him back ready to go for hopefully the back end of season. And then Mike can return to the comfortable confines of the studio.
But until then we thought it would be fun to have Mike out there in the games with Eddie and Pierre. We think that will give us a fun trio, but that seat in the booth will always be Eddie Olczyk’s, because no one is better than Eddie at seeing a game and seeing everything that happens at every inch of that ice. He has an uncanny knack for covering the game of hockey, so Mike is going to fill those shoes and happily get out of that seat the day that Edzo is ready to come back to work.
So excited for the season and look forward to get going. With that, I will let Mike chime in a little bit now that he is a man in the arena again.
MIKE MILBURY: Well, it’s a new gig for me but when somebody goes down as Edzo has done, everybody has gotta sorta step in it to fill the void. I think working with Doc and Pierre, two guys that have encyclopedic knowledge of the game, I don’t think I’m going to need to feed you any more than what I can take from my observations as an analyst and somebody who has been around the game for over forty years now.
These guys can give you the background, I’m going to try to stick to the interpretation of the action on the ice and get out of the way as much as possible for one of the best broadcasters in the history of broadcasting in Doc Emrick, who has been so decorated, rightly so, over the years.
It will be a change; it will be different. I’m excited to get started. I’m curious to see how it all plays out, and the one thing I know is we’ll have another good season. Following the Penguins as they try to get it done again, having been whacked pretty severely, a lot of losses for the Penguins, especially when it comes to experienced players, so kicking things off with the Penguins, it’s going to be interesting to see how they have remaneuvered themselves into a position where they can try to knock off another championship. Should be an interesting start to the year and an interesting season to follow this team as it tries to reach once again for greatness.
PIERRE McGUIRE: I’m going to echo what Sam said, thinking of our friends in Las Vegas, thinking of our good friend, Eddie Olczyk and his battle with colon cancer and thinking of the Strader family right now as we start this new NHL season.
There are so many great story lines. I’ll start with Tampa. I think they are one of the great stories with the off-season additions of Danny Girardi and Chris Kunitz in particular I think really changes the dynamic of their team, brings in proven winners in guys that are glue players for any organization.
I love what Chicago is doing with their young players, especially Nick Schmaltz and the potential of him playing with Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane. I think that will be phenomenal to watch, bringing Brandon Saad back is huge.
Anaheim is going to be a lethal weapon on the back end with all the speed and skill that they have, and everybody knows Corey Perry wants to have a bounce-back season.
Nashville should be good again. The Central Division is just going to be a beast.
I feel terrible for Colorado who is going through a rebuild, but when you look at it with Nashville, St. Louis, Dallas, one of the most improved teams in the league, potentially, Chicago, Winnipeg, it’s just going to be a “Murderers’ Row” of difficulty for everybody in the Central Division.
But I think the biggest thing about this year is there is so much happening on the ice with talent. There are so many great young players.
The New Jersey Devils took Nico Hischier with the first pick last summer in the NHL draft. He’s got a chance to be rookie of the year. He’s a spectacular talent. I think we’re going to be talking about a lot of teams. There is really no clear-cut favorite, but I’m really excited to watch the entire league evolve this year.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Pierre. We’re hopeful Doc will be able to call in shortly. We can begin with questions.
Q. Pierre, the Islanders, John Tavares’ contract, arena swirl of confusion. What do you see from them from your perspective heading into the year, with Jordan Eberle joining the fold and Tavares being Tavares. What do you see from him leading the team and playing with these distractions?
PIERRE McGUIRE: Yeah, I think it’s going to be more difficult the longer it goes. This is like the Steven Stamkos situation in Tampa where obviously you had a building that was in great shape, you had a stable owner in Jeffrey Vinik, and you had an infrastructure of young players that Steven was really comfortable with.
I think it becomes more difficult as the season goes along. Clearly the new ownership with the Islanders is outstanding with Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with them and talking with them at different functions around the league, and they’re an enlightened ownership group. Hopefully they will make some pretty significant headway in terms of finding a place to play and building the proper organization.
Tavares is a tough one, only because of what happened in Edmonton this past off-season with the signing of Connor McDavid and obviously the signing of Leon Draisaitl. That is a seismic shift in terms of what elite players in the league were looking for in terms of financial remuneration and term.
I don’t think it will be very easy for the Islanders to get this done. I think it will be difficult.
Q. Question for Mike and Pierre. Jaromir Jágr going to the Calvary Flames. I’m curious what your thoughts are on what he brings to Calgary.
MIKE MILBURY: He was one of the greats in terms of production, and Calgary is now in a pretty good spot. This is an emerging team out west. I’m not sure, I can’t speak for Calgary, but obviously they felt they could use his experience and probably his power play expertise as they try to take it to the next level. I think this is — Pierre mentioned a bunch of teams but Calgary is one of those to watch, and this just adds depth and experience to the lineup that thinks they can move forward, and it will be interesting to see if Jágr at his advanced age can keep up with the pace of play.
It can’t be easy, but he’s been remarkable in hanging in there and being a productive player over the past half dozen years after he passed the 40 mark.
PIERRE McGUIRE: I’m really pumped to see who they decide to play him with, because if you go back a few years ago when he played down in Florida in particular and the influence he had on Sasha Barkov, that was huge, and Jonathan Huberdeau and then even go back a little bit further than that and look at the influence he had on Jakub Vorácek and Cole Bardreau in Philadelphia. That was phenomenal.
Now you look at the situation in Calgary. Could you imagine him playing with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, just phenomenal. So Glen Gulutzan, the coach in Calgary, is going to have a luxury. He was drafted in 1990, so he’s not a young guy but he still his has hands and still has his strengths. Mike is right about the pace of play between the blue lines but I think in a congestion game or down low offense, trying to manufacture it, he can still do that. So this is a really significant addition to the Calgary Flames, I believe.
Q. Mike, when is the last time you have done game analysis? Pierre, obviously you guys were rooting for Edzo to get back as soon as possible, but are you intrigued by what Mike will bring to the crew for the games?
MIKE MILBURY: I’m sort of intrigued at what I’ll bring. I did one game last year in Boston with Kenny Albert and over the past for our five years I’ve done a number of games, including some college games.
It’s not like I’m bringing a ton of experience to the particular position, but I’m hoping that my experience in the business will off-set that. I know there will be bumps along the way, but as I pointed out I think my job is to jump in when I see something that strikes me as to the actual action on the ice. I think I can leave it to Doc to make the call as he always does so interesting.
I would suspect that you’ll — whether good or bad you’ll probably hear less of me than more. I don’t want to get in the way of his broadcast, and I think that’s be an important position to start from.
PIERRE McGUIRE: Most people that have a lot of success in the booth, in hockey anyways, they were either goalies or really good coaches. What Mike Milbury doesn’t get enough credit for, and I’m saying it right in front of his face, is he was not a good coach, he was an outstanding coach. He had a unique ability to break the game down to his players, and you can ask Raymond Bourque that, as one example of somebody who would speak to that, Cam Neely, the President of the Bruins, another one, Don Sweeney, the general manager of the Bruins, they would probably all echo what I’ve just told you.
Mike was a really good coach. I had the privilege of coaching against him, more times than not our teams won, but that’s okay. That’s why he took it out on me —
MIKE MILBURY: You happened to have Mario Lemieux —
PIERRE McGUIRE: (Laughter.) I think Mike is going to do great in his new role. We miss Eddie a lot, but I think Mike is going to do great. But one of the things I have to stress is Mike was an awesome coach; not a good coach, he was an awesome coach.
Q. For Mike and Pierre. With the emergence of these young stars in the league has the Stanley Cup window for veterans who haven’t won a Cup yet shrunk maybe?
PIERRE McGUIRE: Well, I don’t think the window is closed yet in Washington, Jesse, I think it’s very much alive, and the reason why is you’ve still got Nicholas Bäckström and Evgeny Kuznetsov, that one-two dynamic punch down the middle is huge. Braden Holtby is outstanding. I know that they’re going to miss Alzner in terms of defending against the rush. I think they will miss Nate Schmidt a little bit obviously on the back end with the mobility that he had, but there’s a lot of good things there.
That’s still an enlightened coaching staff. I expect Ovechkin is going to take this personally the way people are writing him off and obviously the bitter playoff disappointment, so he’s a super motivated player.
I would not write Washington off. Just when you think they’re done, they probably aren’t.
MIKE MILBURY: It is a significant season for the Capitals. The expectations have not been met. That goes back a few years now, and the only way to shed the baggage they carry right now is to go deeper and longer in the springtime.
The team has obviously got some talent. It’s obvious they’ve got an experienced coach. They shuffle the deck a little bit. Their manager has stated unequivocally that this is unacceptable. Part of the question may be talent, but a bigger part of the question may be character and how they handle pressure in the postseason.
If by chance they fall short of their expectations this year, I would expect something to blow up in Washington. I think this is a sort of a last-ditch season, for the most part, with the Washington Capitals and the core players that they have. If they don’t find a way to beat this ugly horse that they’ve been riding, it will be called for.
Q. Question for Mike and Pierre. Calling from Nashville. We saw how much the Predators on their run to the Stanley Cup Finals sort of whipped this city into a frenzy and were at the top of the public consciousness. Looking at this team and how they entrenched themselves more so in the city over the spring, what do the Predators have to do this season to maintain that level of interest in the city? Do you think the team has what it takes after the changes that were made this summer to contend for a Stanley Cup again?
PIERRE McGUIRE: I definitely think they can. They have to find a way to replace the leadership of Mike Fisher, not an easy thing to do, but I love the appointment of Roman Josi as the captain. Pekka is still one of the best goalies in the National Hockey League, and he moves the puck so darn well, so I think that makes a difference for them.
I talked with P.K. Subban a fair bit this off-season via text and even on the phone, and I know he’s so excited about the opportunities that are being presented there.
Another thing obviously is replacing Phil Housley, not an easy thing to do. Phil has obviously moved on to be the head coach in Buffalo, and he did a tremendous job with that defense. You can ask Miikka Salomäki or Roman Josi or Ryan Ellis or P.K. Subban or any of the depth defensemen, Phil was outstanding with that group.
I still think they have a legitimate chance to contend, and one of the players that I think has to elevate this year, and I know he’s coming off a dreadful injury, but I think Kevin Fiala has been to be one of those players that elevates offensively, and if he does I think that will put them in good stead going forward. I think the number one issue is replacing Mike Fisher.
MIKE MILBURY: I think you would agree with me, Pierre, the addition of Bonino into the lineup is a lot of that. He’s one of the most underrated two-way players in the league. I think it was a great signing for the Predators. Listen, we saw Pekka Rinne perform at a world-class level last year with a defense in front of him that I don’t think was ever recognized until they made this run this spring. Once they made this run — it certainly turned my head, at their depth and ability on the blue line.
So check those two boxes off, and remember they did this last year at the end without their top center, who has emerged as a legitimate All-Star, and offense will be the question, whether they can get balanced production up front is probably my biggest question mark, but I’m with Pierre, I think they have every reason to be optimistic about making another run.
I think — it was a real eye opener, Nashville. When I look back at it, we shouldn’t have been so surprised, but we were, and Nashville proved that they can play in the springtime, and David Poile once again has put together a group of defensemen that are second to none in the National Hockey League in their top four.
PIERRE McGUIRE: Just to add one more thing to what Mike just said, as far as the Nashville story goes: I traveled a lot this summer to different parts of the United States and Canada, and everybody that I talked to that had a passion for hockey talked about the Nashville experience and how they would want to see that again.
I think that speaks volumes as to the viability of that franchise long term and the amazing fan base they have there.
Q. Do either of you think that we’ll see the level of political discourse that we have seen in other professional leagues particularly the NFL in the NHL this season, and if so or if not so, why?
MIKE MILBURY: I don’t think you’ll see it as much, first of all we have multinational sport, a lot of Canadians, predominantly Canadians, people from other countries who go home their off-season. I think hockey might be a more conservative lot than others. I don’t know what to expect. I know everybody has a right to express their opinions. I wish there were some common way to do it, not around the national anthem, but it’s what people have chosen to do and you have to give them their right to do it. I would be surprised if there was as predominant as we have seen in football.
PIERRE McGUIRE: I would echo those statements.
Q. Question for Mike and Pierre. The Carolina Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs in the past eight years, now the longest streak in the league. What if anything can you pinpoint has been the cause for that? What can or will change this year, do you think, to put them in the playoffs or help them get there?
PIERRE McGUIRE: Just like Dallas in the west, I think they’re going to be one of the most improved teams in the east, and the reason why is the depth they have accumulated on defense. Jaccob Slavin is probably the best kept secret in the National Hockey League. People will find out about him this year just like they found out about Roman Josi last year in Nashville. Noah Hanifin is just starting to scratch the surface, a young man out of Saint Sebastian’s and Boston College, and I know that they’re very, very excited about him. Justin Faulk should have a great offensive year.
The biggest thing is — don’t forget Scott Darling coming over from Chicago, which was huge, Cam Ward. I think there’s a lot of positive things there. One of the most positive I think is Ronnie Francis didn’t panic under fire, the general manager there, and he decided to keep the coaching staff intact, so the message never really changed, and I think they’re well on their way in getting this thing fixed in Carolina.
It’s pretty exciting to see what they have, especially on the back end. That defense is outstanding. Then you add (James) van Riemsdyk from Chicago, winning program, and don’t forget young Pesce, Brett Pesce, really a tremendous find. I like where they’re going. They remind me a lot of Nashville, just an eastern version of it.
MIKE MILBURY: They have checked off the two boxes we talked about with Nashville in terms of goal tending and defense. The defense is more emerging than polished just yet, and the question for me will be can they score often enough to get the job done, but they’re clearly headed in the right direction.
Q. Since Doc is on the line, I wanted to get your thoughts on first on starting the season without Edzo, but on how Mike might do in his fill-in role?
DOC EMRICK: I think that this probably is one of those days of conflicting emotion for me because we’re so close to the start of the season, and against the loss yesterday of Dave Strader, and the absence of Eddie, we have that overriding memory I had from last spring of Dave’s gallant energy they showed us with his playoff calls and the hope that Eddie continues to give us when we talk to him that, “I’ll be back sooner rather than later,” and the fact that Mike is one of those guys that has darkened a lot of hockey rinks in his time.
Back before I started darkening hockey rinks as a fan, he was darkening them as a player, and he brings an awful lot of experience as well as a well-formed opinion about everything, which we always look forward to. It’s not going to be his first on the rodeo, and it’s probably going to be closer to his 4000th. So I will be looking forward to hearing what he has to say, and I think our listeners will, too. He is going to be as well informed a temp as we could ever hire to sit in for Eddie until that sooner rather than later occurs.
I will look forward to that, and I will cherish the memory of having met Dave in Glens Falls, New York in 1979, and the fact that we slugged it out on bus rides in the American League and enjoyed our time in the NHL working for NBC.
Q. Hi, Doc, my question is for you. How do you see the season shaping up? There are a lot of story lines to watch for. What do you think is ultimately the biggest story line and do you think Pittsburgh is the team to beat?
DOC EMRICK: Well, they certainly have to come in as that. I always do a terrible job of picking division champions in the regular season.
Because I do such a terrible job at it, it’s something that folks like yourself can laugh at when we get to April 10th or that stretch between regular season and playoff, so here it is: Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Anaheim, and then come April 10th you can probably laugh at me for that, but those are the regular season division champions that I see anyway.
I think Pittsburgh is, in fact, the team to beat just because they have that strength and that depth that they had last year.
Despite the fact that Marc-André Fleury is not their goaltender; their real key in goal is Matt Murray. I think you have to take it away from them, and I think the fact that guys like Williams and Alzner are not a part of the Washington Capitals, and they did have to break up that team despite the fact that they didn’t have the reward of a championship takes Washington down a peg in my mind, in terms of forecasting it as we’re doing today on the 2nd of October.
Those are my preliminary thoughts about the east. I think Tampa Bay is one of those teams that is on the rise. I like what has just been said about Carolina. I’ve been a Carolina fan for the past couple of years and the way they have been preparing their team. They just haven’t gotten the reward, perhaps part of that is the division that they were in and how powerful that division was last year.
I have been — I guess if there was one team that I always wish would have a great year and reward the fan population, it’s the one that you’re endearest out there. When Don Malone was out with the Coyotes, and even in those earlier years when Dave and Derek Stepan were there. I just always wished the Coyotes would have one of those years that would become memorable.
I know they made the playoffs a couple of times there, but I’m just looking forward to one of those years when we can talk a lot about the Coyotes.
MODERATOR: Thank you, everybody. We appreciate you calling in today. Again, the season begins with a double header on NBCSN. A transcript from this call will be available in a few hours on NBC Sports Group’s pressbox.com. Thank you.