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Connor Brown Wants to Stick Around, Josh Norris, and the NHL is Coming Back...Maybe?

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Five Thoughts for Friday, friends!

Detroit Red Wings v Ottawa Senators Photo by Matt Zambonin/NHLI via Getty Images

Five Thoughts. Just five, and they’re for Friday.

NHL Plans to Resume the Season

Personally, one of the side-effects of on-going COVID-19 crisis is a loss of my feel for the passage of time. Without many of the regular markers in my life, like the NHL play-offs, the beginning of the MLB season, the beginning of the cottage season, it seems as if both a lot and very little time has elapsed all at once. Normally we’d be gearing up for the Stanley Cup finals this week or next. Instead, on Tuesday we got an announcement from Gary Bettman and the league about their potential plans to resume play.

I won’t re-hash the particulars here, but I will say that I’m finding it a bit hard to get excited about any professional sports leagues planning their returns. I’m caught between two fears: 1) as it stands there’s almost certainly no safe way to play NHL hockey; the logistics of the task appear incompatible with what we know about the disease. So this all just kind of seems like a hopeless task. The league is making plans for the sake of making them, and they need to be seen to be doing something. But then also 2) when (if?) the league does resume will they just plow ahead in unsafe conditions? This is probably my biggest fear. I love NHL hockey. I love the Ottawa Senators. I want this to work.

But pro sports are already a bit of a Faustian bargain, and if the league willingly endangers the lives of their players/personnel just for the sake of chasing a few bucks? Feels bad, man. Feels bad.

Players Ready to Come Back?

Speaking of feeling bad, Donald Fehr did a 1-on-1 with ESPN on Wednesday in which he talked about the player’s side of things when it came to resuming play. I recommend reading the whole piece but this (long) excerpt stood out to me:

ESPN: We’ve been saying for weeks that the NHL and NHLPA’s relationship has been collaborative. Is that still true and how would you describe your relationship right now?

Fehr: Where did that word come from? Is that something Gary is spitting out?

ESPN: Would you describe your relationship as collaborative?

Fehr: I’m not putting adjectives on it. I’ve learned that everybody interprets the adjective in different ways. So it’s not helpful to do that. But I would say if this was a normal collective bargaining, we know what the economics are. We can make reasonable predictions about what they’re going to be. Management says, “I would like to do A, B, C.” Players say, “We don’t like that. We want to do X, Y, Z.” You get into a situation, and you bargain it out. Sometimes with the threat or the actuality of economic coercion, a strike or a lockout; sometimes, and hopefully not. And you come to some resolution everybody can live with.

This is different. This was not caused by any desire of the players or the NHL or anything like that. The circumstances we have to live with are not within our control. I can’t say, “Yes, Gary, I agree.” Or Gary can’t say, “Yes, Don, we’ll do it your way and we go back to work tomorrow.” It doesn’t work that way. And a lot of the things we have to contend with, we can’t.

Look, professional athletes are paid handsomely for what they do. In many ways, they are some of the most privileged members of our society. But they are also labourers, and the NHL is management. Some of the details of how this all gets sorted out, and how it might affect revenue split among other things, is going to be determined via a negotiation between labour and management. The players have a union, and the relationship between the NHL and the union has at times been, ahem, acrimonious. What happens if a player refuses to play because they feel they’ve been exposed to unsafe working conditions? As Fehr points out, in a “normal” situation you can negotiate these types of things. I can’t say I know for sure where this is all headed, but be prepared that it might be really bumpy along the way.

Connor Brown

He’s not quite Mark Stone or Erik Karlsson, but it was not for nothing that Connor Brown’s agent said to TSN1200 that the forward is open to returning to the nation’s capital for the long-term.

It almost goes without saying that this is a standard response any agent will give to the hometown media, but there might actually be a good fit here for both Brown and the Sens. Brown is only 26, and his skill-set should allow him to slide down into a bottom six role when the team (hopefully) improves its forward group. If the Sens are planning to be a contender in 3 years, you could do a lot worse than having a 29 year-old Brown anchoring the third line and the Penalty Kill.

The only obvious hurdle that I can see is that Brown is coming off a career year scoring-wise, but those counting numbers are clearly inflated by DJ Smith’s deployment. On a good team, Connor Brown is playing 15 minutes a night — not the 20:07 he did this past season. If Brown wants to get paid like a first line winger, which, fair enough, then that doesn’t seem like a fit to me. That said, if the Sens are willing to be flexible on term I think there’s a good chance there’ll be a fit.

Time to Get Excited About Josh Norris

With all due respect to Chris Tierney and Dylan DeMelo, the success (or failure) of the Erik Karlsson trade was always going to hinge on where the 1st round pick the Sens acquired from the San Jose Sharks landed, as well as Norris’ development. At the time of the trade, Norris was coming off a somewhat unremarkable freshman year at the University of Michigan. The 19th overall pick from the 2017 draft was considered a good prospect, but not a bankable star. There was reason to be interested, but maybe not yet excited. His 2019-20 season in Belleville changed all that, and Norris was rewarded with the AHL’s Outstanding Rookie Award on Thursday.

I’ve maybe been slower to warm to Norris than most, maybe it was the residual bitter taste of the Karlsson trade, but I’m also very cautious when it comes to prospect development: until they’re in the NHL we can never really know for sure. This abbreviated NHL season was pretty awful for Ottawa, but things could have not have gone much better for Belleville and there’s no denying that Norris was a big part of that. Players like him make me feel hopeful for the team’s future for the first time in a longgggg time.

Alex Ovechkin’s Place in History

With the NHL’s regular season officially concluded, the league announced the winners of the various statistically-determined trophies. With a stunning 48 goals in 68 games, Ovechkin shared the Rocket Richard trophy with David Pastrnak (who reached the same total in 70 games). The victory gives Ovechkin 9 (!!) seasons as the league’s leading goal scorer. That’s the most all-time, two more than Bobby Hull. It’s not like it doesn’t ever get talked about, but I feel like his goal-scoring abilities are somehow still underappreciated. Ovechkin has played 15 seasons in the NHL, so he’s had more seasons (nine) where he led the leagues in goals than seasons (six) where he didn’t. That is totally, and completely bonkers. Before all of this *waves at the whole general situation in the world* I think he had a decent chance to break the all-time goal-scoring mark. That seems a bit less likely now given all the uncertainty in the world but even if he never quite gets there I’m comfortable saying this: Alex Ovechkin is the greatest goal-scorer in NHL history.