Friday, January 24, 2020

Grab Bag: Skills competition ideas, player survey fine print and reliving the weirdness of the 1982 All-Star intros

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- My suggestions for new skills events the NHL might want to try
- The very best part of that player poll that you probably missed
- An obscure player who had a career year and made the all-star game and then just left
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at the oddly wonderful 1982 all-star introductions

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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Tank Index: Which playoff also-rans are in the best position to get a lot worse down the stretch?

Every now and then, it’s fun to write about a topic that borders on fiction. Fantasy scenarios. Stuff like building rosters out of star players from across NHL history who never actually played together or imagining strange new rules that could never actually exist.

So today, let’s pretend that NHL teams would ever tank.

I know, I know, tanking isn’t a thing in the NHL. Gary Bettman told us so, and he’s an unfailingly honest man who never lies to his customers. Every franchise is trying as hard as it can to win every single game and nobody is keeping an eye on the draft lottery odds and thinking ahead to building a contender around Alexis Lafreniere. Nope. Every team out there desperately wants to win as many games as they can until the season ends. Nothing to see here.

But just for fun … what if they weren’t? What if – just stay with me, I know this is going sound crazy – what if some front office out there realized that they weren’t making the playoffs and decided that it might make more sense for their long-term success to crash and burn down the stretch? In that weird and impossible world, which teams would be in the best position to actually do that?

That’s what we’re going to figure out today. We’re going to take a look at the teams that are fading out of the playoff race and try to figure out which ones would be best positioned to pull the chute if they wanted to. We’ll be focused on three key categories:

Seller potential: If you want to get bad, you start by getting rid of useful players. With the deadline approaching, do they have assets that other teams would be interested in? Bonus points if those players are on expiring contracts, since those are still the most likely names to be moved.

Goaltending problems: Harry Neale once said that goaltending is 75 percent of hockey, unless you don’t have it, then it’s 100 percent. If you wanted to lose games down the stretch, the single most effective way to make sure that happens is to not have goaltending. Some teams are already in that situation. Others would have to figure out how to get there.

Motivation: Even in an alternate reality where tanking was an obvious and common strategy, not every team can get away with it. Does the GM have the job security to get worse, or is he worried about his own future? Are the fans willing to accept a few more losses, or has their patience run out? And are they close enough to a playoff run that they can pretend they’re still in it?

Add up those three categories, and we’ve got ourselves a Tank Index score. We’ll take all the teams that are at least six points out of a playoff spot, which gives us 11 teams to work with. Who’s in the best position to tank? Who shouldn’t bother? Let’s find out …

11. Montreal Canadiens

Seller potential: 4/10. They didn’t place a single player on Craig Custance’s trade board, although TSN thinks it’s at least possible that Ilya Kovalchuk could be in play. Beyond him and Marco Scandella, there aren’t any rentals here, although half the team is a UFA in 2021 so they could get some interest from teams that weren’t afraid of a little term. We’re told that Shea Weber and Carey Price won’t even be considered, though.

Goaltending problems: 4/10. Price has been all over the map this year, but he’s had some strong games lately. That’s great if you think the Habs still have a shot at the playoffs. If you’re hoping for lottery odds, it’s about the worst news possible. Then again, any sort of full-on tank job could always involve shutting down the veteran with some sort of mysterious late-season injury.

Motivation: 6/10. Marc Bergevin hasn’t given much indication that he’s ready to pack it in, and the Canadiens were showing just a little bit of life before the break. It wouldn’t take more than a bad week or two for their odds to go from slim to none. But in the meantime, a tank job doesn’t seem to be a big part of the GM’s to-do list.

Tank potential total: 14/30. We could argue over what the Habs should do, but unless they fall out of the race quickly it doesn’t seem like major changes are in play. They don’t seem to want to sell, and they don’t really have much to sell, at least if we believe Bergevin.

10. Anaheim Ducks

Seller potential: 4/10. They have six pending UFAs, but none are big names aside from Ryan Miller. Ondrej Kase or Jakob Silfverberg would feel like more of a hockey move, and there doesn’t seem to be any buzz about shaking things up by putting Ryan Getzlaf on the market, so Bob Murray will either have to get creative or stay relatively quiet. Or they could just trade everyone to the Flames.

Goaltending problems: 2/10. John Gibson hasn’t been great this year, but he’s exactly the sort of goalie who can randomly get red hot in March and ruin his team’s draft odds.

Motivation: 9/10. It’s been a disappointing season, their farm system is only middle-of-the-pack, and their franchise forward is 34 with one year left on his deal and no obvious heir apparent. If anyone could use a lottery win, it’s these guys.

Tank potential total: 15/30. Here’s hoping Dallas Eakins learned a thing or two about winning lotteries during his brief stint in Edmonton.

9. San Jose Sharks

Seller potential: 5/10. This one’s a little tricky, since their rental options include Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, two veterans who probably don’t want to go anywhere but would have the potential to make for all-time OGWAC stories if they did. (For what it’s worth, Marleau apparently doesn’t have no-trade protection.) More realistically, Brenden Dillon could be an option. But most of their big names have long-term deals that feel unmovable.

Goaltending problems: 10/10. I’ll save Sharks fans the misery of repeating the numbers. By the way, that’s the first time San Jose fans have seen the word “save” all season.

Motivation: 1/10. Here’s the rub. As everyone knows by now, the Sharks don’t have their own first-round pick, having traded it to the Senators in the Erik Karlsson deal. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t embrace the opportunity to build for the future, but “winning” the lottery would just be more salt in the season-long wound.

Tank potential total: 16/30. How secure do you think Doug Wilson feels these days? That could be important, and determine just how much of a sledgehammer he’s willing to take to this mess.

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Monday, January 20, 2020

Weekend rankings: The top five, the bottom five and why they’re all wrong

We’re going to try something different this week.

That will be a nice change because we haven’t had a lot of “different” in this year’s rankings. It’s been pretty much the same teams cycling in and out of the top and bottom five for most of the season; since mid-November, only six teams have appeared at the top of the list, with just seven holding down the bottom spots. That’s unusual for this feature, where in past years we’ve seen a lot more churn.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re a fan of one of the good teams (or one of the bad ones, and you’re already looking ahead to the lottery). But it can make writing this column every week a challenge. How many different ways can you say “The Capitals are good” or “The Red Wings are bad?” Teams like the Bruins, Kings and Senators have shown up on the list every single week. At some point, you get it. And with the all-star break and bye weeks coming up, we’re unlikely to see much in the way of big changes over the next few weeks either.

So today, we’re going to flip the script. I’ll still list the five teams I think have the best shot at the Cup, and the five that are on track to finish dead last. But I’ll use their space to make the argument that I’m wrong and that they don’t actually deserve to be there.

It will be easier for some teams than others, of course, but that’s fine. Let’s mix things up a bit. Heck, maybe I’ll even be to be right about something for a change.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed toward a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Oh look, it’s the same five teams as last week, and the week before that. I’m getting sick of saying nice things about these guys. Let’s knock them down a few pegs.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (31-13-5, +32 true goals differential*) – They were good when Sidney Crosby got hurt, then somehow even better when he went out. Now he’s back, so you do the math.

OK, here’s some math: The Penguins still probably won’t catch the Capitals for first place in the Metro. And even if they do, they’ll have a tough path out of a brutal division, one that could see them have to face an Islander team that swept them last year. Or maybe Columbus or Carolina or Philadelphia, none of whom will be a great matchup because whoever makes it out of that group in April will be coming in hot.

There’s also the goaltending question. Matt Murray doesn’t look great anymore, and while Tristan Jarry does, this is a career backup/AHLer that the team was trying to unload in the offseason because he was supposed to be their third wheel. Do you trust him? They probably have to, but it’s not ideal.

Other than that, the Penguins remain a top-heavy team up front, the blue line is just OK, and Jim Rutherford doesn’t have a ton of cap room to work with to plug the holes. And with Crosby and Malkin both well into their 30s we can’t just assume they’ll stay healthy the rest of the way. They’ve been a great story so far, but it’s not hard to imagine that story ending in the first round or two.

(How much I believe it: A little, but the Penguins still scare me. Maybe the next team will be easier.)

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (28-15-4, +30) – Yes, they’re rolling again. But have we all forgotten what happened last year? When they finished with 128 points and then choked in the playoffs, everybody seemed to agree that there was some sort of fundamental flaw in the way this team was constructed. Heck, they even seemed to be saying it themselves. They tried to change their style early in the season, and it didn’t work. They couldn’t do it.

Now they’re winning, sure, but they’re doing it with scores like 7-1 and 9-2. That’s great for racking up personal stats in the season, but it’s not how you’re going to win a Stanley Cup. The Lightning are basically a team that decided it needed a change in identity, found out that was too hard to pull off, and then went right back to what they were last year. And we all know how that ends.

(How much I believe it: Not at all. These guys are good, and while the playoffs are chaotic, they don’t transform into some sort of entirely different sport. The Lightning could lose again in the first round because in today’s NHL, absolutely anyone can. But they’re stacked with talent and hitting their stride, and they’re better defensively than you probably think. If anything I should have them higher.)

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Friday, January 17, 2020

Grab Bag: Brad Marchand excuses, my terrible predictions and old school Battle of Alberta

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- What was up with that Brad Machand shootout attempt? My spies found out.
- A look back at my predictions about which coaches and GMs were 100% safe
- An obscure player who was the last NHL player to ever do something
- The week's three comedy stars
- And an old school Battle of Alberta brawl

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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Puck Soup: Goofus and Gallant

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to surprising firings in New Jersey and Vegas
- The Battle of Alberta reignites
- A spirited debate on the role of rats in the game
- Brad Marchand's epic shootout fail
- How should NHL teams approach goaltending?
- All-star weekend gets a shakeup
- Nicklas Backstrom gets a new deal
- Oscar talk, somehow including a movie I've seen but Greg hasn't

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