Thursday, April 24, 2014

Are the Habs for real?

First blood has been drawn in the playoffs, with one team eliminated and another safely through to the second round. And that means it’s time to write the traditional piece lauding the performance of the victor, and to analyze whether, with one easy series win already under its belt, it now deserves to be considered a Cup favorite. So if I check my bracket, that means today we’ll be singing the praises of …

Oh no.

Really, hockey gods? You haven’t piled enough misery on this poor Leafs fan? Now you’re going to make me say nice things about the Montreal Canadiens? You guys are jerks.

Montreal’s 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday completed a four-game sweep of its first-round matchup, sending the Habs through to the Eastern Conference semifinal to await the winner of Boston-Detroit. While it would be a stretch to call the result an upset — the Lightning were the higher seed, but finished only a point ahead of Montreal — it was a surprise to see the series end so quickly. Tampa Bay had been one of the season’s better stories, making the leap from 28th overall in 2012-13 to eighth this year. And it’s not like the Canadiens went into the postseason looking like a powerhouse, with only four teams having longer odds to take home the Cup.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The NHL's new playoff format (almost) gets it right

We’re about a week into the NHL playoffs, and so far we’ve seen just about everything we’ve learned to expect from the first round: a ton of overtime, legitimate bad blood, a few blatant cheap shots, some terrible goaltending, and every so-called expert shaking their head sadly while dropping their carefully considered predictions into a bonfire.

We’re also finishing off Week 1 of the NHL’s new playoff format, which was unveiled earlier this season after realignment left the league with uneven conferences. The system is structured like the old format we had until the mid-’90s, with the first two rounds of playoff matchups based on divisions instead of conferences, but with the added wrinkle of wild cards and the potential for crossovers.

And after having a week or so to see the new format in action, I have to say that I think that …

[Hands begin to shake.]

No … no, you can do this. Take a deep breath. They’re just words. You can string them together into this sentence.

[Sweat pours from brow.]

I think … I think the NHL may have done something right.

[Dives under table, waits for lightning to strike.]

Yes, while we at Grantland have been known to occasionally offer up a few words of constructive criticism to the league’s head office, it’s only fair that we also acknowledge when the league gets one right. And despite some early complaints, I’m going to make the case that the new playoff format is a good idea that fans should get behind.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, April 18, 2014

Grab bag! (The weekly column, not the Joel Quenneville move)

In the weekly grab bag: Brian Burke thinks parody twitter accounts are funny now; how to fix the draft lottery; Canadian world championship panic; the legend of Frank McCool;a message to all the hockey pool winners of the world; and a YouTube breakdown of a different St. Louis Blues losing streak.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Playoff preview and predictions

"We’ve got to roll four lines."

Expect to hear a lot of that in the next few weeks during the Stanley Cup playoffs, which open tonight. This time of year, every coach is overcome by an almost fanatical desire to roll four lines. And they’ll be quite happy to tell you all about it, even if that’s not the question you asked.

We figured that if it was good enough for the playoff teams, it should be good enough for a playoff preview. So for each series, we’re going to roll four lines, too — by using one sentence to break down the old-school narrative, the fancy stats indicators, the key question, and a player to watch. (And we even got some graphics help from Dan Gustafson of 16 Wins.)

Will we really be able to analyze complex playoff matchups using single sentences? Of course! Will we use cheap punctuation tricks to make that happen? Almost undoubtedly. Footnotes, too? Maybe.1

Let’s get started quickly, before the first night of games comes along and leaves all our predictions in ruins.

Central Division

The Central was probably the NHL’s best division, producing three of the league’s top seven teams. It was also the only division to send five teams to the playoffs; the Dallas Stars will temporarily shift over to the Pacific as a wild-card team.

No. 2 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 3 Chicago Blackhawks

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Thursday night in St. Louis

Season series: The Blues took the first three meetings (two of them in shootouts), but the Blackhawks beat them twice in the season’s final weeks.

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative

The Blues are in free fall,2 collapsing under the weight of their season-long status as Stanley Cup favorites, and now face a humiliating first-round exit at the hands of the defending champs.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …

The Blues’ losing streak has been driven largely by PDO, so it’s no great cause for concern — but a matchup with the Blackhawks and their excellent 55.2 percent Fenwick sure is.3

Line no. 3: The key question

How could a Blues team that was fourth in the league in goals scored on April 1 manage to score just seven times in its final eight games?

Line no. 4: One player to watch

It’s not a hard pick here: The Blues paid a ransom to acquire goalie Ryan Miller with the expectation that he’d be the final piece in their Stanley Cup puzzle, and now it looks like they’ll need him to win this series.

Prediction: Miller gets it done, the Blues win in six, and everyone goes back to considering them Cup favorites.

No. 1 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 4 Minnesota Wild

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Dan Gustafson/16 Wins

Series starts: Thursday night in Colorado

Season series: Colorado took four of five, including all three that ended before the shootout.

Line no. 1: The old-school narrative

The Avalanche were a young team drifting without direction until Patrick Roy showed up and sprayed a winning attitude all over the dressing room like a shaggy dog shaking off bathwater.

Line no. 2: Professor Fancystats says …

It’s hard to overstate how much the analytics crowd hates the Avalanche, a terrible possession team that’s spent the whole year riding unsustainable percentages and would have been eaten alive by the Blackhawks if the Blues hadn’t collapsed.4

Line no. 3: The key question

The Avalanche are an inexperienced team that’s spent most of the season having the breaks go their way, so how will they respond the first time they get punched in the mouth in the playoffs?

Line no. 4: One player to watch

Ryan Suter spent almost 200 more minutes on the ice than any other player in the league, and against the high-flying Avalanche he may play well more than 30 minutes every night.

Prediction: The Avs win in five, earning the right to have literally everyone on the planet pick them to lose their second-round matchup with the winner of the Blues-Hawks series.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Get In The Ring: Probie, the Wings, and the unforgettable madness of the Norris Division

It seems like an odd thing to say about a franchise that came of age with Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, and Alex Delvecchio, and later went on to 23 straight playoff appearances and four Stanley Cups, but my favorite Red Wings team of all time was the 1988-89 edition.

That was the year a 23-year-old Steve Yzerman made the leap from very good player to unquestioned superstar, posting a remarkable 65 goals and 155 points, both Red Wing records. This was in the middle of the Gretzky/Lemieux era, so Yzerman didn’t even make a postseason all-star team, but his fellow players named him best player in the league.

Gerard Gallant scored 93 points, his best total from a nine-year run in Detroit that ended when he was 29 (even though I could swear he’s in his late thirties in every single memory I have of him in a Wings uniform). Two future NHL coaches, Adam Oates and Paul MacLean, both topped 70 points. The goalies were Greg Stefan and Glen Hanlon, whom I could never tell apart.

It was a good team, good enough to end the regular season in first place in its division with … well, with 80 points. Yes, they won a division title by finishing .500. That’s because the ’88-’89 Red Wings were part of the greatest collection of misfits and madmen the NHL has ever known: the Norris Division.


It’s hard to explain the Norris to hockey fans who weren’t around to appreciate it. You can try to piece it together with old newspaper clips and YouTube videos, but it doesn’t quite work. You can talk about the brawls and the crazy stories and riffle through the old names, but that takes you only so far.

Or you could just put it this way: For a time, the Norris Division was hockey’s answer to Guns N’ Roses. Stay with me here.

The Norris wasn’t the best division we’d ever seen, just like GNR was never quite the greatest band. Neither won many awards. And with both, there was never any shortage of very earnest people who wanted you to understand that the whole deal was completely ridiculous and maybe even a little bit embarrassing, and those people were almost certainly right.

But the Norris and GNR were fun, dammit. And they offered an element of danger, or at least could give off the illusion of it. And, in both cases, we haven’t seen anything remotely like them since.

So here goes: The St. Louis Blues were Duff, so steady and dependable that you could sometimes forget they were there. The Minnesota North Stars were Steve Adler, hanging around as long as they could until there was no choice but to replace them. The Tampa Bay Lightning were Dizzy Reed, because they joined in the early ’90s and nobody counts them. And the Toronto Maple Leafs were Izzy, the dysfunctional mess and cautionary example that somehow served as the heart and soul of the whole thing.

The Blackhawks were Axl — the loudest and craziest of the bunch, still kicking around to this day. OK, the Blackhawks are still kicking around successfully to this day. I never said the metaphor was perfect. But any team that was built around Eddie Belfour and Mike Keenan and J.R. and the Grim Reaper and a young Dominik Hasek and The Stadium — that team gets to be Axl.

And the Detroit Red Wings? The Red Wings were Slash. They were the cool one.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, April 14, 2014

A weekend of NHL good-byes

Well, that final NHL weekend was a bit of a dud.

When the Stars shut out the Blues on Friday night to clinch a wild card, it meant that all 16 playoff spots had been wrapped up, with two days remaining. That left Sunday night’s Dallas-Phoenix matchup, which for weeks had seemed destined to serve as a play-in for the West’s final wild-card slot, as just another meaningless game on the weekend schedule.

We did get a handful of games that mattered in terms of the final matchups, most notably the Red Wings’ 3-0 win over St. Louis on Sunday. The loss capped off a disastrous finish to the regular season by the Blues, who dropped six straight in regulation to cough up the Central Division title to the surging Avalanche.

Colorado now gets to face the Minnesota Wild in Round 1, while the Blues get a much tougher matchup with the defending-champion Blackhawks. It’s been a stunning collapse for St. Louis, a team that had been considered a presumptive Stanley Cup favorite ever since it acquired Ryan Miller in a pre-deadline blockbuster. Now the Blues can’t score, half the roster is hurt, and Miller is getting Bronx cheers from St. Louis fans. If it’s possible for a 111-point team to go into the playoffs in disarray, the Blues are that team.

Other than the Central title, there wasn’t much left to play for, and most of the playoff teams took the opportunity to rest up. We did get to see the Ducks finally clinching top seed in the Pacific with a win over the Kings, as well as the Lightning earning home ice in their series against Montreal by beating the Capitals in a Sunday afternoon shootout. And that was about it.

But the lack of meaningful games had an upside, in that it freed us up to focus on a weekend packed with veterans stars making their exits.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, April 11, 2014

Grab bag: Kerry Fraser works the mic

In the grab bag:
- The three comedy stars of the week
- Should star players sit out to avoid injuries?
- Y2K Sr.
- needs a loser letter
- And a YouTube breakdown of a young Kerry Fraser yelling at everyone

>> Read the full post on Grantland

My thoughts on the Brendan Shanahan hire

This morning, the Toronto Maple Leafs officially confirmed the rumor that’s been the talk of hockey for the past 48 hours: Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan is leaving his post as the head of the NHL’s department of player safety to take a senior role in the Leafs’ front office.

As an objective hockey journalist who doubles as a raving Maple Leafs homer, I was asked what I thought about the story on a Toronto radio station Thursday morning when it was still an unconfirmed rumor. My answer then was that I was cautiously optimistic. Now that the deal is official and I’ve had a few hours to mull it over, I’m sticking with that.

Here’s where the caution comes in: We don’t yet know exactly what the role will involve. Shanahan has been named president of the entire team, not just of the hockey ops department, but that still leaves some room for interpretation.

If the idea is for Shanahan to be some sort of PR figurehead, there to smile for the cameras and act as a shield against mounting fan anger, then it’s no good. It would be just one more attempt at deflection from an organization that seems to excel at it. But that sort of career move wouldn’t make any sense for Shanahan, so that option seems unlikely.

If he’s expected to roll up his sleeves and start making decisions as a de facto GM, that’s also an issue, because he has no experience in the front office of an NHL team. But that wouldn’t make sense for the Maple Leafs, so it’s … well, this is the Maple Leafs we’re talking about, so “unlikely” doesn’t really fit. But it would be a surprise.

That leaves us with something in the middle ground, where Shanahan becomes the face of the franchise and drives the hockey side from a high level while leaving the day-to-day work in the hands of a GM (whether that ends up being Dave Nonis or someone else). And that’s where the optimism comes in, because that’s a scenario that could work.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Handing out some regular season hardware

The NHL regular season wraps up this weekend. In theory, that would be the time to post a “season in review” piece. But let’s face it, we’ll all be 100 percent focused on watching our teams head toward the playoffs and the two-month battle for the Stanley Cup. Or, failing that, hoping they fire everyone they’ve ever employed. Definitely one of those two.

In either case, let’s get a head start on things by wrapping up some of 2013-14’s loose ends now, with these awards honoring regular-season excellence, or lack thereof.

Most Entertaining Train Wreck: Toronto Maple Leafs

Phil Kessel

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

With all due (dis)respect to the Canucks, Oilers, and Capitals, this one isn’t an especially tough call. We pegged the Leafs’ season as a de facto referendum on hockey analytics way back in October, but it ended up being so much more.

From a CEO who arrived and immediately started planning a Stanley Cup parade to a front office that handed out the worst contract of the salary-cap era to a coaching staff that has resorted to just making stuff up and hoping nobody notices, the Leafs have spent the season aggressively assuring everyone that they know what they’re doing. Now, thanks to yet another late-season collapse, they’re going to miss the playoffs again, and fans are screaming for the whole thing to be blown up. Except it probably won’t be. After all, re-signing Dave Bolland will solve everything.

If you’re a fan, it’s been painful. But if you’re not, then you never want this show to end. This entire Leafs season has been like spending eight months getting lectured by the self-professed smartest guy in the room while waiting to see when he’ll notice his fly is wide open. He still hasn’t.

Least Entertaining Train Wreck: New York Islanders

Travis Hamonic #3 of the New York Islanders

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

“If you don’t want something good to happen to New York Islander fans, you are a legitimately horrible person and your parents did a bad job raising you.” I wrote that heading into last year’s playoffs, and I stand by it. The franchise hasn’t won a playoff round in more than 20 years, and has spent most of that time as the league’s go-to punch line. Mike Milbury, Alexei Yashin’s buyout, Rick DiPietro, terrible ownership … if something terrible could happen to the Islanders, it would.

So when they went into this season clinging to some small strand of optimism, it was hard not to root for them. They’d made the playoffs last year, and their roster featured some real live talent like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. None of it played goal, which turned out to be sort of a problem, but it was better than nothing. And a month into the season, they even pulled off an old-fashioned blockbuster, acquiring Thomas Vanek from the Sabres in a pricey deal meant to solidify their status as playoff contenders.

We all know how that turned out. The season was a disaster, Tavares got hurt at the Olympics, the Islanders will finish dead last in the Metro, and they ended up having to flip Vanek to Montreal for a fraction of what they paid for him. Islanders fans are sick of hearing about that one. Let’s never speak of it again.

It’s been awful. And if your parents did a good job, you’ve hated every second of it.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A detailed review of all elevent New Jersey Devils shootout losses

The New Jersey Devils’ line in the NHL standings may be the saddest thing in the hockey world.

They sit at 34-29-16, good for 84 points in 79 games, which leaves them three points behind Columbus for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. Despite a late surge, time is running out, and the Devils will almost certainly fall just short of the playoffs.

But that’s not the sad part. Keep scanning the row of numbers and you hit one that has literally never been seen before: 0-11. It shows up in the shootout column, and it represents 11 consecutive losses in the NHL’s tiebreaking sideshow. If the Devils end up going winless in shootouts this season, it will be the worst performance in league history. Only one other team, the 2006-07 Hurricanes, went an entire season without winning a shootout, and they only lost five.

In the nine seasons the NHL has featured shootouts, we’ve come to learn they’re basically all luck, in the sense that teams that are especially good or bad at them one year are no more likely to repeat the status than anyone else. There’s individual skill involved, sure, but at the team level, we’re essentially flipping coins. Do you know how hard it is to have a coin come up tails 11 times in a row? Go ahead and try it; I’ll wait here until you give up.

If the Devils had managed to just be bad in the shootout — let’s say four wins and seven losses — they’d be in great shape right now. But the Devils are 0-for-11, and they’re probably going to miss the playoffs because of it.

And, as broken down in detail here, they’re doing it despite a roster full of players who’ve historically had decent shootout success. Yet in a league in which shooters typically convert on about one-third of their shootout chances, the Devils have somehow managed to go just 3-for-39. Their team shooting percentage in the shootout is significantly worse than their shooting percentage during the actual games, which, when you really think about it, should probably be impossible.

And it’s not like they’re some expansion-level roster full of cast-offs — they have the league’s active leading scorer and all-time winningest goaltender. But none of it matters.

It almost defies belief. So just to make sure this hasn’t all been a bad dream, I went back and rewatched every shot of every Devils shootout from this season. And since I don’t like to suffer alone, now I’m going to make you relive it all with me.

October 4: Islanders 4, Devils 3

What Devils fans were thinking: Oh yay, a shootout, these are fun!

The goalie: Martin Brodeur

The shooters: Damien Brunner, Ryane Clowe, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Michael Ryder, Jaromir Jagr

Did anyone score? No.

Highlights: The very first round gives you a hint as to how the rest of the year is going to go, as Brunner dekes past Evgeni Nabokov’s pokecheck attempt and then shoots it directly into his pad, followed by Brodeur stopping Frans Nielsen but appearing to hurt himself in the process. Clowe’s appearance briefly makes everyone wonder if they blacked out for 10 rounds. Pierre-Marc Bouchard tries Jason Allison’s patented “skate in slowly enough that the goalie might die of old age” move, but Brodeur stops him. Brodeur also stops John Tavares, then has to make a second save when the puck defies the laws of physics by trying to bounce directly into the net on the rebound because the hockey gods are sending a message.

New York’s Matt Moulson eventually wins it in Round 6, then vows to be traded at least twice before the Devils mange to win one of these.

How cruel was it in hindsight? Watching six guys fail to score couldn’t have been fun, though Brodeur looked sharp. Ah well. Get ’em next time, right?

October 7: Oilers 5, Devils 4

What Devils fans were thinking: Oh yay, a shootout, these are fun (except for that last one).

The goalie: Brodeur

The shooters: Brunner, Clowe

Did anyone score? No.

Highlights: Brunner tries the Forsberg move, but puts it wide. Jordan Eberle and David Perron both beat Brodeur with essentially the same move, and this one is done after just two rounds.

How cruel was it in hindsight? Pretty cruel, since the Devils had blown a 3-0 lead in regulation. And also, it was a loss to the Edmonton Oilers. Probably more that second part, actually.

>> Read the full post on Grantland