Friday, January 22, 2021

Grab Bag: We're back it's weird

In the return of the Friday Grab Bag:
- Wait how does this work again?
- The one COVID-related change we should "forget" to undo
- An obscure player who still holds a surprising record
- Comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at a Leafs trade that contains a major twist ending...

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Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Wake me when it's over

In this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- That Oilers/Leafs game was awful and it could only happen in hockey
- The Capitals run into COVID problems
- Thoughts on Mike Babcock
- Ian has a crazy idea for new divisions
- This week in history, gambling trends with Jesse Granger, and lots more

The Athletic Hockey Show runs most days of the week during the season, with Ian and I hosting every Thursday. There are two versions of each episode available:
- An ad-free version for subscribers that you can find here
- An ad-supported version you can get for free wherever you normally find your podcasts (like Apple or Spotify)

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Puck Soup: It's been one week

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to week one
- The COVID situation gets worse
- Mike Babcock breaks his silence
- Also the pucks are broken?
- Jakub Voracek goes after a reporter
- Plus Dungeons and Dragons, NBA talk and our favorite TV theme songs

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.

The Leafs’ best win and worst loss against each Canadian team

We’re a week into the season. How are you feeling about the all-Canadian schedule so far, Leafs fans?

I’m guessing you’re enjoying it, because right now it still feels new. Sure, there may come a point where seeing the same teams over and over starts to lose some lustre, and Leafs fans find themselves missing the occasional meeting with rivals like the Red Wings, Sabres or even the Bruins. But for now, it’s been pretty great.

So today, let’s remember some of the best and worst of the Leafs’ history in all-Canadian matchups. We’ll go through each of the six opponents in this year’s North Division, and come up with both the Leafs’ best win and worst loss against those teams.

These picks are subjective, obviously, and I’m sure a few of you will have your own picks for some of them. That’s half the fun, since we can use the comment section to Remember Some Games. But here are my picks for the best and worst of the Leafs against Canadian opponents.

Leafs vs. Senators

We’ll start with what’s probably the easiest team to find games for. The Leafs and Senators have both the least history (because it only dates back to 1992) and the most (because of all those Quinn-era playoff matchups), and plenty of it has been memorable.

Best win: Leafs 4, Senators 1 – April 20, 2004

There’s no shortage of candidates for the best game when you’re talking about an opponent you’re 4-0 against in the postseason, but I think this one is the clear winner. It wasn’t the closest game or even the most entertaining, but it’s the one that’s come to symbolize the pre-cap Battle of Ontario. Joe Nieuwendyk’s pair of softies turned what figured to be a tense Game 7 showdown into a relatively easy Leafs win, spelling the end of the Jacques Martin era in Ottawa. It remains the Leafs’ last playoff series win, against Ottawa or anyone else.

Worst loss: Senators 8, Leafs 0 – October 29, 2005

One of the weird postscripts to the four-part playoff arc was that while the two teams have never met in the postseason after the lockout, there was a period when the Senators would consistently embarrass the Leafs in regular season meetings. I went with this 8-0 rout in Toronto, but we could also go with a 7-0 loss in Ottawa a few months later, or a pair of 8-2 options. Did it erase the pain of losing four straight in the playoffs for Sens fans? Not really, but every little bit helps.

Other candidates: Any number of memorable playoff moments, including wins like the triple-OT Gary Roberts game, the 2002 Game 7, the comeback in Game 6 of that same series, or sudden death winners from Mats Sundin, Cory Cross, Stumpy Thomas. On the loss side of the ledger, there was a 5-0 blowout in the 2002 opener, and the NHL’s first-ever shootout defeat. There was that awful Bryan Berard game. And the rivalry has also given us memorable moments like the flu game, the fake stick throw, Chara vs. McCabe, and Tucker vs. the bench, plus a more recent memory in Auston Matthews’ record-breaking four-goal debut, which I’m going to just go ahead and say the Leafs must have won.

Leafs vs. Oilers

They’ve never met in the playoffs, but did almost pull off the biggest trade in sports history. They also may be the two most neurotic fan bases in the league, so hockey gods help us if they actually do get a postseason matchup this year.

Best win: Leafs 11, Oilers 9 – January 8, 1986

For pretty much all of the 1980s, the Oilers were good and the Leafs were awful and the games between them went pretty much exactly the way you’d expect them to. The decade saw the Oilers beat the Leafs by scores of 9-1, 8-3 (twice), 8-2, 9-2, 8-5, 9-5, 7-1 (twice) and 9-4. And in most of those games, you felt like Edmonton was going easy on them.

So it was a remarkable night in 1986 when the Leafs not only got a rare win against the Gretzky-era Oilers, but did it by beating them at their own game. In what still stands as the highest-scoring Leafs game ever (and just one goal away from the record for highest-scoring game in NHL history), the Leafs jumped out to a 3-0 lead and then went up and down the ice with a dynasty. Gretzky finished with six points, but the Leafs got three from Russ Courtnall, Steve Thomas and rookie Wendel Clark, and a four-goal night from Miro Frycer.

A personal note on this game: The kids in my school were losing their minds the next day. It was right up there with the discovery of the Super Mario warp trick, and met with just as much skepticism. Even at that young age, we knew not to believe in good things happening to the Leafs.

Worst loss: Oilers 7, Leafs 5 – December 18, 1991

We could pick any of those 1980s blowouts, but I’m going with an only slightly more recent option. In 1991, Cliff Fletcher had just arrived, and his first major blockbuster was a seven-player blockbuster with the Oilers that brought Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson to Toronto. This was the first game between the two teams after that deal, and a chance for the rebuilt Leafs to serve notice that they were for real. But then Fuhr got shelled, Vince Damphousse had two points in his return to Toronto, and Peter Ing didn’t just beat his former team, he earned one more point than Anderson while doing it.

Other candidates: The recent game where Kris Russell scored the winner into his own net and Nazem Kadri laughed at him. Wendel Clark’s four straight goals in 1996. It doesn’t count because it wasn’t a game, but we have to mention the Leafs “losing” the McDavid lottery to the Oilers on the final ball. And while the infamous waffle game didn’t come against the Oilers, they get partial credit because the guy who threw them was apparently wearing an old school Gretzky jersey.

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Monday, January 18, 2021

Weekend rankings: It’s way too early for these. Or is it?

We’re back. After over 300 days, the regular season has returned, and so have the weekend rankings. And if you’ve followed this column over the years, you know what that means: It’s time for what’s become an annual tradition, in which we go overboard throwing out all sorts of caveats about how the very first weekend of the season is obviously way too early to take this sort of thing seriously.

Only, this year … is it?

The 2021 season, it’s fair to say, is going to be unique. The shortened season of just 56 games upends everything – get ready to hear the word “sprint” a lot. And in a sprint, you can’t win if you stumble out of the blocks.

Think of it this way: Every year, we get into November and start hearing scary stats about how a bad start can doom a team. There’s Elliotte Friedman’s old find about how teams that are four points out on Nov. 1 rarely make the playoffs. Others are a little more kind to the stragglers, giving them until American Thanksgiving before declaring them dead in the water. But the point remains: Once there’s about four months left, you’d better not be on the outside looking in, because in the age of hyper-parity and loser points, there just isn’t enough time left to make up much ground.

But this year, there were four months left before we even started. So what happens if your team gets off to a slow start, and ends up three wins back of the playoff bubble before the season is two weeks old? It will have only been a few games, but relative to a regular 82-game season, it will already be mid-December. That’s well past panic time.

For this year’s especially slow starters, the outlook may actually be even worse. Remember, there’s no wild card this time, so if the top of your division is pulling away, there’s potentially one less spot available to chase. And while a normal year would allow struggling teams to consider making big midseason changes to turn things around, we’re still not sure how trading will work in a quarantine world, especially for the Canadian teams. Factor in the flat cap, and there isn’t much room to overhaul what you’ve already got. If that mix isn’t working and time is ticking, well, you might just be screwed.

Or maybe not. We’ve never had a season like this, so maybe the old expectations don’t apply. We might see more instability in the standings than we’re used to, especially if COVID-19 hits hard and we see teams missing key players or rescheduling big chunks of games. It’s possible that we’ll look back in the first month and realize it didn’t tell us much of anything.

If that happens, then yeah, this will all have been way too early. But we’re doing it anyway, because hockey’s back and we’ve waited long enough. Let’s make some rankings.

If you’re new here or could use a refresher, an important reminder: The idea of these weekly rankings is to figure out which teams are headed for a Stanley Cup, or toward the bottom of the standings, by the end of things. These are not meant to be a snapshot of what’s happening right now, or just over the last few games. That means we’ll try not to overreact to short streaks or temporary circumstances. (Narrator voice: We will still overreact to that.) It also means that just because your favorite team beats the Lightning or Avalanche or whoever in a given game, they won’t necessarily push past them in the rankings. Last year, the Lightning held down top spot for the season’s first three weeks even as they started slowly, while red-hot starts didn’t get teams like Buffalo or Anaheim into the top five. In hindsight, those were the right calls. (Others, not so much.)

There are lots of rankings out there that try to capture which teams are playing the best and worst today, and that’s a perfectly valid way to do it. But we’re focused on where we’re going to wind up at the end of the road. Even if this year, it’s a shorter road than we’re used to.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that with the best chances of becoming the first team in history to win a Stanley Cup in July.

One more question to wrestle with: With no exhibition schedule, how much is rust going to be a factor early on? Especially for the teams that hadn’t played since last March, it’s possible that it’s going to take a few weeks for teams to settle into being whatever they really are. I’m not completely convinced that will be a major factor, since in theory it should affect most teams equally. But it’s at least possible that we’ll look back on the start of this season and, with benefit of hindsight, realize it told us even less the first few weeks normally do.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (2-0-0, +6 true goals differential*) – The East is a bit of a mess. I’m sure there are some of you who’d put the Flyers ahead of the Bruins, and I can see that. Others would want the first-place Capitals here instead, and sure, maybe. For now, I’ll go with the Flyers, who I wasn’t completely sold on heading into the season but who looked strong putting 11 goals past the Penguins in two games.

4. Boston Bruins (1-0-1, even) – Winning one of two against the Devils isn’t exactly impressive, but the Bruins put some points in the bank and may have even deserved a better fate on Saturday. The East is the toughest division to predict right now, and it won’t take much of a wobble to knock a preseason favorite like the Bruins out of the top five. But yeah, it will take more than only getting three points in a series instead of four.

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