Kaplan's playoff buzz: What's up with Wyatt Johnston, Matt Rempe and Sergei Bobrovsky (2024)

  • Kaplan's playoff buzz: What's up with Wyatt Johnston, Matt Rempe and Sergei Bobrovsky (1)

    Emily Kaplan, ESPNMay 23, 2024, 12:55 PM


      Emily Kaplan is ESPN's national NHL reporter.

The Stanley Cup playoffs have been phenomenal, and we're only halfway through. Breakout stars have emerged, controversies have broiled and the hockey itself has been as entertaining as ever.

After a month of traveling, here are some of the biggest stories I've seen developing behind the scenes.

FIRST OFF, BUSINESS is good. Four of the teams in the final eight -- the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers, in that order -- ranked in the top 10 in league revenue for the 2022-23 season. Television ratings have hit record highs, up 9% from last year, including a 12% jump in the second round.

This season's "hockey related revenue" figures haven't been released by the NHL and NHL Players Association yet, but expect a big jump for Florida. The Panthers were a bottom-10 team but have experienced serious growth since their trip to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final. Winning, especially in the entertainment-rich South Florida market, helps immensely. The Panthers averaged 18,640 per game during the regular season, up 11.7% from 2022-23 -- the best year-over-year percentage increase in the league. Florida also sold out every home game in the playoffs so far. It has had standing-room-only options, which it is exploring expanding.

This is great news for everyone, including the players, who have had 6% of their salaries withheld for escrow and should see a decent chunk returned. There will be a further uptick in revenues next year thanks to the move of the Arizona franchise to Utah.

DURING THE PANDEMIC, we often wondered about the lasting effects of that strange and uncertain time. For two young stars on the Stars -- Wyatt Johnston and Thomas Harley -- the disruption came during peak development years. Both players are strong examples of making the most of situations and coming out of them stronger.

For Johnston, the pandemic hit during his draft year. His Ontario Hockey League season was canceled. His only competitive hockey for the year was seven games at the U18 world championships. Living at home with his parents in the Toronto area, regulations were strict.

"Toronto had some city rinks that you could sometimes go to, but a lot of them were no sticks. So me and my buddy would show up at 6 a.m. and just skate for a while because that was the only ice we could get. No shinny was allowed," Johnston said. "There was a park near my house, and my dad and a lot of the dads helped build a rink there. We made a little rink in my back driveway that I'd rollerblade on, and just work on stick skills."

Now 21, he found a positive spin.

"I think it almost helped me," he said. "Even though I wasn't playing in games, I was working on my skills, which helped with stickhandling and I could work on specific things. Also, the first year in the O, I was small and skinny. So I had a lot of time to work on getting bigger and stronger -- I'm not there yet, but I made strides. I went from 160 [pounds] to 175ish that year. We bought a barbell and a rack setup for the garage. It was dark and not a big area. It was pretty cold, I'd wear gloves and have a space heater. Sometimes my gym would be open, sometimes it would be closed. But I just found ways to work."

Harley, meanwhile, spent an exorbitant amount of time living out of hotels before becoming an NHL regular. That included five different quarantines in one year, between the world junior bubble, Stanley Cup playoff bubble and training camps. Harley spent the 2021-22 season shuttling between the AHL and NHL, where he lived out of hotels, checking out when the team was on the road -- only to check in to another hotel.

Harley has emerged as one of the Stars' most trusted defensem*n, trailing only Miro Heiskanen in ice time. His success on the ice is reflected in his personality: calm and composed. The Stars have been praised for their patience in letting Harley develop, working on his defensive game in the minors, but Harley deserves credit for his patience, too.

EVERYONE I'VE TALKED to -- from players and coaches to league office employees -- agreed that the officiating hasn't been perfect. But it never is. The gripes run the gambit, especially if calls (or non-calls) affected their team. I've canvassed players across several teams, and their complaints are far more muted than the echo chamber of social media. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the league office have repeatedly reminded teams not to air grievances publicly. The NHL doesn't believe it's a productive approach. But everyone has a boiling point -- see Bruins GM Don Sweeney holding a news conference in the middle of Round 2.

The common theme of most complaints: the need for transparency and consistency. One coach commented to our broadcast crew that his players were getting kicked out of faceoff circles by linesmen and never got explanations for why.

Goaltending interference challenges have been the most unpredictable, though most are blaming the Toronto-based situation room.

Sweeney's big pitch? "We should not be asking the coach after the game what they feel about the officiating and what happens," the Bruins GM said. "Those questions should either be directed at the supervisor of officials, supervisor of the series and/or the officials. You want full access and transparency? Then put the officials in front of the microphone to answer the question."

I don't get the sense there's much appetite from the league's perspective to make that change. ESPN rules analyst Dave Jackson doesn't think there will ever be a time when the league puts referees in a news conference setting, but he thinks a good compromise would be a pool reporter. I just haven't heard much momentum from the league to institute that.

SOMETHING NEW THIS season seems to be an embellishment problem. There have been eight embellishment calls through the first two rounds -- the most in a single postseason in a decade. And remember, we're only halfway through. There's always an uptick in flopping in the playoffs, with players desperately looking for an edge, but this year feels particularly bad.

Several suggestions have floated around on how to curb it. Several people I talked to -- players and coaches -- echoed what Elliotte Friedman said on Sportsnet this weekend: Refs should penalize only the flop, not the initial offense. Another player on one of the current playoff teams suggested, "Or just double-minor the dive. Because it's embarrassing what's going on right now. We're starting to look like soccer."

I'VE COVERED MULTIPLE series the first two rounds, and nobody is practicing as hard as the Rangers. Typically teams opt for rest in the postseason, and maintenance days are extremely common. Not for New York, which also has had the benefit of finishing its first two rounds early, giving the team five full days off.

But when the Rangers are on the ice, they work. Practices have a midseason intensity, including battle drills. Even guys I know are banged up are going all out. Several players in exit meetings last year expressed a desire to be coached harder, and that's the culture coach Peter Laviolette instilled when taking the job this year.

"We've preached on being competitive, and it's not something you can turn off then turn on when you want to, you have to practice it," defenseman Braden Schneider told me. "It works for us. It's something that was hard to get used to at the start of the year, but now it's second nature. I enjoy it because it keeps you in that mode of playing hard."

MATT REMPE MIGHT have the biggest ratio of impact versus ice time in the league. We might not see the Rangers rookie in many road games, as last change allows opponents to maximize matchups against him. In the regular season, Rempe averaged 6:20 of ice time at home and just 4:20 on the road, and he has played in only two road games all playoffs. But at Madison Square Garden, the crowd erupts every time Rempe jumps over the boards, an undeniable energy swing for the Rangers.

When I talked to Rempe last week, he praised the communication he has received from Laviolette and his staff. The rookie knows his game is built on physicality and emotion, but he needs to stay in control to stay on the ice.

"It's really tough," Rempe said. "I get my instructions every game of what I'm supposed to do. Sometimes you're mad, sometimes you want to let emotions take over, but you always have to put the team first. So it's just learning the game inside the game. I'm still trying to figure it out to be honest with you, but I have a lot of people helping me."

The hardest moment for Rempe so far in the playoffs was turning down a fight with Capitals bruiser Tom Wilson in Game 3 of the first round.

"I really wanted to do it. That was a guy I looked up to, and that goes against me -- I don't ever want to turn down a fight," Rempe said. "But we were up in the series, we couldn't give them anything to hold on to or potentially give them momentum. It was really hard to say no. I still think about it. But it's all about the team."

THE PANTHERS HAVE developed a reputation as a team that plays on the edge through physicality. Throughout the regular season, perhaps no team had more scuffles after whistles than the Panthers.

People around the organization say the narrative is overblown. They've honed in on discipline through the playoffs. Taped to the bottom of the Panthers bench are photos and names of the officials; that's not uncommon, I've seen it for several teams. But under their names are the letters "STFU," a reminder not to complain to the officials and focus on the Panthers' own game.

"The stuff after the whistles, we can't do that," Aaron Ekblad told me ahead of Game 1 against the Rangers. "Discipline is so, so important to us. Obviously our penalty kill isn't as good as it was this year, so when we find yourself in those situations where you want to punch a guy in the face, you have to hold back. Hopefully that swings the jump ball back in our favor when it comes to penalties."

THE RENAISSANCE OF Sergei Bobrovsky has been incredible to watch. Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, signed a massive seven-year, $70 million deal in 2019, and the early returns were just OK. Now, in his age 35 season, he has been as important to the Panthers' success as any player on the roster. People around the team credit the resurgence to a perfect combination of special athlete and special coaching. Bobrovsky's work ethic is second to none.

The Panthers also have more resources for goaltending coaches than any other team. Their goaltending excellence department includes Roberto Luongo; his brother Leo Luongo; Francois Allaire, who worked with Patrick Roy back in the day; and Rob Tallas, who has survived four general managers and nine coaches over his tenure in Florida. That's how good he is.

There are plenty of examples of goalies having career years under that system, with Bobrovsky's backup Anthony Stolarz being the latest. I asked one of Tallas' former goaltenders what makes him so great. He said: When he's trying to teach you something, he doesn't tell you, he creates drills where you discover the answer yourself.

THE STARS HAVE reached the Western Conference finals playing essentially five defensem*n. Nils Lundkvist is averaging 4:28 a game. Coach Peter DeBoer explained the strategy: "I don't think there is a rule that you have to play six D even minutes or anything like that. Just depends on the situation."

When I asked further, DeBoer said that three of his defensem*n -- Heiskanen, Harley and Chris Tanev -- are such good skaters, they don't feel like the minutes they are playing are as hard as they are for some others. Jani Hakanpaa would draw into the lineup if healthy, but he hasn't played since mid-March (lower body injury). Hakanpaa has begun skating on his own this week and just began traveling with the team.

SO MUCH IS made about which teams make splashes at the trade deadline. But which of those teams want or are able to keep those players -- especially on expiring contracts -- as part of their future plans?

Pat Maroon made it clear at Boston's exit interviews that he wants to return. Coach Jim Montgomery repeatedly told us that Maroon's intangibles as a leader could not be overstated. But the Bruins have a lot of offseason business to attend to, chiefly re-signing Jeremy Swayman to a big new contract and likely finding a trade home for fellow goaltender Linus Ullmark.

Boston will have a lot of cap space, and many people around the league have hinted the Bruins are targeting Elias Lindholm, for whom they weren't willing to give up enough assets at the deadline, leading him to Vancouver. The Canucks will check in, but he will be costly and they have plenty of tough decisions.

In a year when players are blocking more shots than ever, nobody is doing it like Tanev, who leads the league with 56 in the postseason through 13 games. He has been a perfect fit in Dallas but will get a ton of love on the open market. He probably priced himself out from some suitors during this playoff run.

Speaking of seamless fits, Jake Guentzel was everything Carolina wanted in a reliable scorer and total playoff gamer. Both sides seem amenable to getting something done. The winger is super tough. He broke some ribs and tore his oblique in February while playing for the Penguins, and I'm told he wanted to play through it. Guentzel's rationale: He had played through similar injuries before.

He pushed back when GM Kyle Dubas wanted to put him on long-term injured reserve. That's what ultimately happened, though. In that time, the Penguins fell out of the playoff race, which led to Guentzel being traded. That time off, though, allowed Guentzel to rest up and be his best self for the Canes this spring.

Kaplan's playoff buzz: What's up with Wyatt Johnston, Matt Rempe and Sergei Bobrovsky (2024)


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