Monday, September 16, 2019

The Bizarro-meter looks back on the Eastern Conference offseason

We made it. With training camps now in full swing around the league, the NHL offseason is officially over. Teams had their chance to remake their rosters, hire new people and set a course for the upcoming season. Now, that season is here. Pencils down, everyone. (Not you, teams with unsigned RFAs. You still have work to do.)

Looking back on the last few months, some teams did well. Some teams came up empty. And some teams, well, they just got weird. Those are the teams I’m interested in. As a diehard fan of Team Chaos, I’m always happy to see a team do things that confuse the rest of us. And that’s where the Bizarro-meter comes in.

I wrote my first Bizarro-meter column way back in 2013 when I was trying to make sense of the infamous Maple Leafs offseason that saw them make a series of truly confusing moves. Did it work? It did not. To this day, nobody has been able to figure out what the Leafs thought they were doing that summer. But the concept was fun and morphed into an annual league-wide ranking. And now it’s time to blow the dust off of the Bizarro-meter, plug it in and spit out some 2019 ratings.

As always, remember that a bizarre offseason is not necessarily bad. Sometimes, the decisions that leave everyone scratching their heads are the ones that work out the best. And often, a safe, by-the-numbers approach is exactly the wrong choice for a team that needs a more creative approach. This isn’t about picking winners and losers. It’s about recognizing those teams who failed at the NHL’s prime directive of being dull and predictable.

We’ll do this by division, starting with the Atlantic and Metro today and wrapping with the Pacific and Central tomorrow. As always, we’ll work our way up the scale as we go.

Atlantic Division

Boston Bruins

The offseason so far: They didn’t do much, which was no surprise. They’re already good, the cap situation is manageable and Don Sweeney never makes trades during the summer and we’ve all just apparently decided to act like that’s not weird. Their biggest story was probably yesterday’s Charlie McAvoy signing to a thoroughly team-friendly deal, which might have been surprising from another team but was par for the course for the Bruins.

But their strangest story was: Jeremy Jacobs not being the owner anymore. He’s keeping the team in the family, handing it over to his six children, and will presumably still have an important voice in guiding the franchise. But one of the most influential names in modern NHL history will be stepping back, which will take some getting used to.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.2/10. I guess Jacobs felt it was important to make his exit at the right time. Maybe now he can explain the concept to Brad Marchand.

Buffalo Sabres

The offseason so far: They didn’t make any blockbusters like last year’s Ryan O’Reilly or Jeff Skinner moves, but they did add Marcus Johansson in free agency and swung deals for Colin Miller, Jimmy Vesey and Henri Jokiharju. The bigger move was bringing in Ralph Krueger to replace Phil Housley behind the bench.

But their strangest story was: Not really addressing the goaltending. It’s back to the tandem of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark, which was a bust last year (especially in the second half). There’s something to be said for consistency and not just chasing last year’s hot hand, but the status quo is a gamble.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.1/10. They were busy. But given the pressure on Jason Botterill and company to finally breakthrough, you wonder if they were busy enough.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The offseason so far: The first real offseason of the Julien BriseBois era didn’t produce many big headlines. Unloading Ryan Callahan’s deal helped, and they did well on the J.T. Miller trade. Their main goal was to clear out some cap deadwood, and they did it well.

But their strangest story was: The fact that their offseason started in April, not June. But mainly the lack of a Brayden Point deal, largely because we all assumed he was going to sign some ridiculously team-friendly contract that would make fans of every other team tear their hair out. And he still might, at least if the Lightning get their way. It’s just taking longer than we thought.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.5/10 for now, pending whatever happens with Point.

Florida Panthers

The offseason so far: They upgraded on and off the ice, landing two of the biggest free agents in the sport in Joel Quenneville and Sergei Bobrovsky. They also added Anton Stralman and Brett Connolly.

But their strangest story was: Roberto Luongo announcing his retirement. Wait, players can do that? They don’t just have to come up with a suspicious “injury” and finish their career on the LTIR?

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.8/10. The Panthers were certainly among the biggest newsmakers of the offseason. But it feels like we had Quenneville and Bobrovsky penciled in here since January, so nothing they did felt all that surprising.

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Thursday, September 5, 2019

Five coaches and five GMs who absolutely won’t get fired this year, maybe

The NHL season is almost here, which means it won’t be long before we start hearing about all the hot seats around the league. Is Mike Babcock in trouble in Toronto? Does John Chayka need to make the playoffs in Arizona? Would Minnesota’s Bill Guerin prefer his own guy to Bruce Boudreau? Can Jason Botterill afford another miserable season in Buffalo?

But while the hot seat conversation is standard issue in pro sports, it always feels a bit awkward. We’re talking about people’s livelihoods here. We have to cover this stuff, but it’s not a pleasant topic.

So let’s turn it around and stay positive: Who’s on the cold seat? In other words, which NHL coaches and GMs are all but assured of still being on the job one full year from now?

It’s a tougher question than you might think. Everyone in the NHL is hired to be fired eventually, and just about everyone’s job security is one bad losing streak from coming into question. I wanted to come up with 10 names, and honestly, that might be too many. But we’ll do it anyway, because half the fun of doing this sort of list is so that when one (or more) of these guys inevitably gets fired in a few months, you can all come back here to point and laugh at me. It’s OK, I’m used to it by now.

Before we start, there’s one important ground rule: No picking any recent hires who’ve been on the job for less than one full year. That’s too easy. With apologies to Paul Fenton, even the worst coaches and GM usually get at least a year or two on the job in the NHL, so picking a brand-new hire is cheating. You won’t be seeing slam dunk names like Joel Quenneville or Steve Yzerman on the list, which increase the degree of difficulty.

We’ll try to come up with five coaches and five GMs. And we’ll start in the front office, where the job tends to be a little bit more secure.

General managers

Doug Armstrong

We might as well lead off with the one name on the list that feels like a genuine sure thing. Armstrong is the reigning Cup winner, and getting fired after a championship is just about impossible. (Sorry, Al MacNeil.) And even if the Blues got off to an absolutely terrible start, well, they did that last year too and things worked out OK.

Armstrong is a well-respected GM with plenty of experience and doesn’t seem like he’d want to leave on his own anytime soon, so barring some sort of scandal or falling out with ownership, he’s just about as safe as anyone could possibly be. Which isn’t completely safe, because this is still the NHL. But it’s pretty safe.

Doug Wilson

We’re two names in, and this one already feels at least a little risky. But only a little. I think Wilson is the very best GM in the league today, and the Sharks should be a very good team. It’s hard to imagine them having a bad year unless they run into major injury problems, which GMs usually escape the blame for. With 16 years on the job and counting, this is Wilson’ team, and it’s a very good one.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t all blow up in his face. We thought it already had a few years ago, when the Sharks were missing the playoffs and the franchise player was telling Wilson to shut his mouth. The GM survived that, so he should be able to weather any unexpected hurdles this year throws at him. If the aging Sharks hit a wall and miss the playoffs, could ownership decide that it’s time for a new direction and a fresh set of eyes? Nothing’s impossible, but it would take a total disaster.

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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Ten intriguing CBA ideas the NHL could borrow from other sports (but probably won’t)

The NHL’s CBA is making headlines again and for a change, the news might actually be good. The league announced last week that they’ll decline their option to reopen the agreement next year, and there’s a chance that the NHLPA will decide to do the same. If so, what had seemed like an inevitable 2020 lockout would be avoided, or at least pushed back until 2022.

But whether the next CBA comes in a year or down the road, it probably won’t represent a radical change in the way the league does business. The 2005 deal that ushered in a hard cap was quite literally a game-changer, one that reshaped just about everything about how the league operated. But the 2013 deal didn’t change all that much. And even as both sides eye each other warily and stake out their PR ground, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to make major changes to a system that seems to be working reasonably well.

That’s almost certainly a good thing, at least from the perspective of fans who just want to see a new deal get done without yet another lockout. But it’s always possible that one side (or both) might decide to ask for bigger changes. And they wouldn’t have to look far for inspiration, because the three largest North American pro leagues could all offer up some ideas from their current agreements.

Today, let’s imagine a world where the current CBA needed more than minor tinkering. Here are ten CBA ideas that the NHL could borrow from the NBA, NFL and MLB, and how they’d impact the sport.

We’ll start with the big one …

No guaranteed contracts

Borrowed from: NFL

How it works: The NFL is the only major league where contracts aren’t guaranteed, so teams can essentially walk away from a deal whenever they want. If a big star signs a five-year extension for mega-dollars and then doesn’t live up to the deal through the first year, his team can just cut him and move on. (It’s a little more complicated than that, but we’ll stay out of the weeds here.)

What it would mean for the NHL: Armageddon, probably. Whenever you talk about worst-case scenarios for NHL labor talks, this is the one demand the league could make that could lead to another 2004-05 type of shutdown. The players would have no choice but to push back as hard as possible. Most CBA demands that either side could make would be the equivalent of face washes in a scrum; this one would empty both benches.

But let’s pretend it happened. What would a new NHL without guaranteed contracts look like? Not necessarily like you think it would, because many fans don’t really understand how the NFL system works.

While it’s true that NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed, that doesn’t mean that terminating them is painless. NFL players (and their agents) know that they don’t have long-term security, so they make sure to get as much of their total as possible through signing bonuses and other guaranteed money. It’s not unusual for most of the money in a big NFL contract to be guaranteed on day one. NHL players would demand the same security.

Most of the money isn’t all of the money, and the NFL’s system still tilts heavily in favor of the teams over the players – especially the ones who aren’t big stars and can’t insist on huge bonuses. But cutting a player on a long-term deal can have serious cap implications, often creating big chunks of immediate dead money. Hockey fans dreaming of a world where their favorite team could just painlessly wash their hands of all of its worst signings won’t find the answer in the NFL’s system.

And remember, nonguaranteed contracts can cut both ways. The NHL’s ironclad deals mean that, for example, Connor McDavid is locked into his current eight-year contract, even as inferior players eventually blow by him with better deals. If contracts weren’t guaranteed, he could eventually demand that the Oilers tear up his deal and give him something better, the way that many NFL stars do. Back before the 2005 CBA, the NHL used to see big-name holdouts with some frequency, but they were essentially eliminated once contracts couldn’t be renegotiated by either side.

Will we ever see it?: Let’s hope not. Even though the NFL offers more security than you might think and empowers their biggest stars, its system is still stacked against the majority of players. Given everything we know about risks to players’ long-term health, nobody should be rooting for a massive work stoppage just to take away more of their security.

That covers the elephant in the room. But there are other ideas that the NHL could borrow from the competition …

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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Which two NHL franchises would hold the league’s Tag Team Championship?

We’ve almost made it through August. We’re just a few days away from September, which means we’re just a few weeks away from training camp, which means soon we’ll have some actual hockey to talk about.

Which also means, tragically, that we’re running out of chances to spend our days building fake rosters based on arbitrary rules. We’ve already done first names and the $200 challenge. Today, let’s celebrate the spirit of teamwork with a question: Which two franchises could combine to hold the NHL’s tag team championship belts?

In other words, which two teams could produce the best starting lineup entirely out of players who played for both of them?

This idea comes to me from a reader who pointed out a weird fact: You could build an entire 20-man roster just using players who played for the Islanders and the Oilers within a few years of each other. That seems like an extreme example, but we can certainly find a few combos that will give us a strong starting six. So let’s do that. Come on, it’s not like you wanted to work today.

As always, let’s lay out some ground rules:

– For each combo, we’re looking to build a six-man starting roster of players who played for both franchises. That means a minimum of one game – players who were technically acquired but never suited up do not count.

– We want each lineup to have three forwards, two defensemen and one goalie, but other than that position doesn’t matter.

– Here’s the important part that will mess up the people who don’t read it: For these rosters, you get credit for everything a player did on those two teams only. That doesn’t mean that a player had to have been a superstar for both teams – Gordie Howe only scored 15 NHL goals in Hartford, but he’d did still be a monster for a Whalers/Red Wings tag team. But Eric Lindros on a Leafs/Stars team? Not great.

Got the idea? We’re going to come up with 10 entries to get you started. Then you can head to the comments and unveil you challenger to the tag team title.

Older teams have a big advantage here, so let’s get started with a few Original Six combos to help us get our heads around the concept…


Forwards: Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, Pit Martin

Defensemen: Bobby Orr, Allan Stanley

Goaltender: Frank Brimsek

The 1967 Esposito trade is the key here, giving us all three of our forwards. Sure, we could have used the other Esposito trade to form a Bruins/Rangers tag team that would also feature Brad Park, Jean Ratelle and Rick Middleton. But we can’t resist the chance to build around Orr’s entire career, so the Hawks are the pick. And that means we can also take Brimsek, giving us the full decade-long resume of a Hall-of-Famer and eight-time all-star, even though he only played the final one of those seasons in Chicago.

But apart from Esposito, Orr and Brimsek, the rest of the lineup is hit-and-miss. The “only get credit for what they did on your team” rule means we can’t sneak in Paul Coffey here, and Stanley isn’t as impressive as he seems because we’re only getting the seasons he squeezed in between his stronger runs with New York and Toronto.

So it’s not a bad roster. But honestly, it’s not as good as you might expect once you get past the Orr/Esposito combo. Let’s have another Original Six team challenge them for the title…

Maple Leafs/Red Wings

Forwards: Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, Norm Ullman

Defensemen: Red Kelly, Borje Salming

Goaltender: Terry Sawchuk

There’s no Orr-level deity here, but it’s a more well-rounded lineup than the Hawks and Bruins could offer. We’ve got Hall-of-Famers at every position, with basically every one of their best seasons is represented. The only controversy might be over how you slot Kelly into the lineup, since he went from defense to center once he was traded to Toronto. Still, that just shows that he could play both, so we’ll use him on the blue line, if only so that we don’t have to mention the Larry Murphy trade.

So there you have it: The Leafs and Wings have captured our tag team championship. Can anyone beat them? We could probably keep going with various combos using just the Original Six teams, but while we’re not done with the glory days quite yet, let’s let some of the more modern franchises have a shot at the title.

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Friday, August 23, 2019

Grab Bag: About those unsigned RFAs, in defense of a bad stat and laughing at the 1993 Leafs

In he Friday Grab Bag:
- What's up with all those unsigned RFAs? My spies got the scoop.
- Another unpopular opinion I can share because it's summer and nobody's paying attention
- An obscure player who didn't have to be a goalie
- The month's three comedy stars, featuring dad jokes
- And a YouTube look back at my origin story in hockey comedy, featuring Jim Ralph and 1993-94 Leafs

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