Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Are things finally going right for two NHL laughingstocks?

There aren’t many constants that an NHL fan can rely on these days. We know that the season starts in October (unless there’s a lockout), and it ends when the Stanley Cup is handed out in June (unless there’s an even longer lockout). The puck is black (unless it starts glowing), the ice is white (unless they sold too many ads), and there will be banners hanging from the roof (unless we’ve decided to play this one outside).

And then there was the closest thing a modern-day hockey fan has had to a sure thing: No matter what else happened, no matter how much everything else might change, the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs would find a way to embarrass themselves.

Both franchises have become punch lines over the years, although the setups are slightly different. The Islanders were the rudderless ship, wandering around a decrepit and half-empty arena in embarrassing fishstick uniforms, clutching laughable long-term contracts signed off on by questionable owners. Meanwhile, the Leafs were the league’s arrogant rich kid, strutting down their preplanned parade route while telling anyone who would listen how wonderful they were, seemingly unaware that the rest of the hockey world was laughing at them.

And both teams, needless to say, were terrible. In the decade since the 2004 lockout, the two teams combined have yet to win a playoff series. The highest point total either produced in that span was a measly 92 (by the Islanders, seven years ago). And the only time they’re seriously talked about as contenders is when the league holds its annual draft lottery.

All of which is why it was so stunning to watch the headlines roll by on Tuesday afternoon. The news was all about the Islanders and the Leafs, and for once the news was actually good.

Let’s start with the Islanders, whose story was the bigger one even if it may not receive the deluge of attention that every Maple Leafs move inevitably gets. News broke on Tuesday that majority owner Charles Wang had agreed to sell a stake in the team to former Capitals co-owner Jonathan Ledecky and an investor. Wang will remain as majority owner until 2016, at which point Ledecky will assume the role. (The deal still requires approval from the league’s board of governors.)

That essentially spells the end of a Wang era that dates back to 2000, when the tech tycoon bought a minority share in the team (he became the majority owner in 2004). You could hardly call his time in Uniondale a success, at least in terms of results on the ice, and he was often ridiculed for some of his more outlandish ideas. He was the owner who gave Rick DiPietro a 15-year deal that ranks among the worst in NHL history, and he was roundly mocked for promoting backup goalie Garth Snow to the position of GM in 2006. (It’s worth pointing out that Snow has done just fine in the job, and still holds it today.) Perhaps the most memorable Wang story, which may or may not actually be true, had him instructing then-GM Mike Milbury to look into signing sumo wrestlers as goalies.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, August 18, 2014

The race to the bottom: Who'll be the NHL's worst team?

With most of the offseason’s major moves already made and rosters around the league largely set, it’s time to start talking about which team heads into the 2014-15 season with the best chance at earning the big prize.

No, not the Stanley Cup — that’s so 2013-14. This year, there’s something far more important to play for: a top draft pick, and the chance to select Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, two of the most hyped draft prospects the NHL has seen since Sidney Crosby.

To be clear, we’d certainly never suggest than an NHL team would intentionally tank for the opportunity to draft a generational franchise player. But while the league is making changes to its draft lottery format for next year, it’s reportedly keeping the existing rule that prevents the last-place team from dropping any further than second, meaning that whichever team finishes 30th this year is guaranteed to get one of McDavid or Eichel.

And that makes this year’s NHL basement a very valuable piece of real estate. By my count, a little more than half the teams in the league could be contenders for last place overall if everything went wrong. Of course, some of those teams are better positioned than others, so let’s start with the worst of the worst.

The Top Bottom Contenders

Buffalo Sabres

This year’s 30th slot sure feels like it’s the Sabres’ to lose. After all, they’re the defending champs in this category, having finished at the bottom of the league last year. It wasn’t even close — the Sabres were 14 points back of the 29th-place Panthers. (And remember, that was with former All-Star Ryan Miller in net for most of the season.)

This year’s team doesn’t figure to be much better. They made a few token improvements, trading for Josh Gorges, adding Brian Gionta, and bringing back Matt Moulson via free agency. But those improvements are partly countered by the loss of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who led last year’s team in ice time by over two minutes a night but was bought out in June.

The Sabres still figure to be better than last year, since it would be hard to imagine them being much worse, but they should still be awful. Maybe even more important, they’re absolutely fine with that. This is a team that is clearly in scorched-earth rebuild mode, and if that means a lot of losing for a few years, GM Tim Murray seems like he can live with it. This year, the race to finish dead last should be the one and only instance where the Sabres will be tough to beat.

Calgary Flames

The Flames are another team that’s in rebuild mode, although they actually did try to get better this summer, and may have succeeded thanks to the signing of goaltender Jonas Hiller. On the other hand, they lost Mike Cammalleri, and they’re apparently going to insist on stocking their roster with Brian Burke–style tough guys, so any improvement is likely to be minimal.

Burke may be the wild card here. In previous jobs, the Flames’ president has been adamant about not having much patience for traditional, long-term rebuilds, and he’s indicated that he feels the same way about Calgary. Last year’s Flames were a hardworking team that outperformed just about everyone’s expectations, and if Hiller can get back to the level he’s played at in the past, then maybe a fast-track approach can work. A more likely scenario is that the team struggles, and the organization’s patience for losing gets tested.

Florida Panthers

The Panthers finished 29th last year, then won the draft lottery to capture the top pick. They gave up more goals than any team but Edmonton, and had a worse goal differential than anyone other than Buffalo. They were bad.

But after a busy offseason that saw GM Dale Tallon spend big in free agency, they figure to be … well, “less bad” is about as far as I’m willing to go right now. Willie Mitchell and Jussi Jokinen will both help. The much-maligned Dave Bolland will, too, ridiculous contract aside. Aaron Ekblad probably won’t, at least initially, because it’s so difficult for 18-year-old defensemen to have an impact, but he should be great someday. Perhaps the biggest difference maker will be Roberto Luongo, who’ll have a full season in Florida after last year’s deadline trade that you’d already completely forgotten about.

The Panthers are bad but seem anxious to get better, which means they probably will be. That’s unlikely to be enough to get them to the playoffs, but it could keep them just out of range of the Flames and Sabres.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The 1980s were completely insane

One thing we occasionally like to do in this space, especially during the late summer dog days when nothing else is happening, is leaf through the pages of the NHL record book. While many of you who read these posts are hockey diehards with decades of fandom under your belts, I realize that others may be slightly newer to the sport. So every now and then, it can be fun to take an educational and nuanced look back through NHL history.

And so, in that spirit, today we’re debuting a feature called Holy Crap, the 1980s Were Freaking Insane. Because, good lord, that entire decade was incredibly offensive.

That’s “offensive” in the good way — as in lots and lots of offense. At its peak, the era saw an average of just less than eight goals per game. By comparison, the dead puck era of the late ’90s and early 00s dipped down to a borderline unwatchable average of 5.1. (Luckily for us, Gary Bettman and friends didn’t stand idly by, and a series of new rules has since managed to drive that number all the way up to … uh, 5.3.)

Not surprisingly, most of the major scoring records were established during the 80s, many of which are unlikely to ever even come close to being matched. Even casual fans probably know some of them by heart, like Wayne Gretzky’s 92 goals in 1981-82 and 215 points in 1985-86, or Mike Bossy’s nine consecutive 50-plus-goal seasons to start his career.

But it wasn’t just the household names who racked up obscene numbers during the decade. Just about everyone, from Hall of Famers to guys you barely remember, was putting up ridiculous numbers. That’s what made the 80s so much fun. And it’s why it’s worth taking an occasional look back at some of the madness that went on.

The Legend of Kent Nilsson

Nilsson played just eight full NHL seasons with no major awards, and depending on how old you are or how well you remember the 1980s, there’s a good chance he’s the most productive player you’ve never heard of.

After two years in the WHA, Nilsson made his NHL debut with the Flames at the beginning of the 1979-80 season. He was traded to the North Stars in 1985, and split two more seasons between Minnesota and Edmonton before heading back home to Europe. Except for a six-game comeback attempt with the Oilers in 1995, his NHL career was essentially over by 1987. He played in only two All-Star games, the last in 1981, and was never really considered one of the league’s top players. In fact, he may be best remembered as the Oiler who got hacked by Ron Hextall in the 1987 final.

He also struggled to stay healthy in his later years, only hitting the 70-game mark once after 1983. That last bit was good news for opposing goaltenders, because whenever Nilsson did play, he racked up points at a rate that was almost unmatched in league history.

That’s not an exaggeration — Nilsson’s career point-per-game average ranks him ninth on the all-time list. Here’s a look at a few of the guys who are trailing him. They’re pretty good.


Part of that’s due to Nilsson’s elite (if underappreciated) skill level; he was nicknamed the Magic Man and was considered the true inventor of the breakaway move we now know as the Forsberg. But it’s also a factor of him playing in the madness of the 1980s. Of the top 25 players on the point-per-game list, 15 played a big chunk of their careers during the decade.

In fact, a look through the record book shows that most of the league’s offensive rate stats are dominated by ’80s guys. Here’s one more …

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, August 11, 2014

Finally, hockey's great advanced stats war is over

News broke last week that the Edmonton Oilers had hired Tyler Dellow, a well-known blogger and advanced stats pioneer. The move follows on the heels of the Devils hiring Sunny Mehta, the Maple Leafs hiring Kyle Dubas as assistant general manager, and a mystery NHL team bringing aboard SB Nation’s Eric Tulsky. These days, it’s rare to go a week without hearing about yet another team staking out its territory in the world of advanced stats, or revealing that it has been there all along.

And just like that, hockey’s great Fancy Stats vs. Old School battle is over. It’s done. Soon it will seem quaint to remember that we ever argued about this stuff in the first place. There won’t be a victory parade or a formal surrender, but the numbers are here to stay, and we’re already seeing the inevitable transition from “These stats don’t tell me anything worthwhile” to “These stats don’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.” Before long the only reasons to still fight the battle will be ignorance, butt-covering, or tired shtick, and the rest of us will just move on. We won’t even hear about “advanced stats” anymore. They’ll just be stats.

It wasn’t hard to see this coming, of course, since the whole process has already played out in virtually every other major team sport. While the feud made good fodder for plenty of hot takes along the way, the end result was inevitable all along.

In recognition of the coming end of hostilities, and in an attempt to help any remaining stragglers climb onboard, let’s take one last look at some of the most common objections that have been raised to hockey’s analytics movement over the years, along with the fairly simple responses.

Advanced stats are nice, but they don’t tell the whole story

This is inarguably true. As has been well-documented, modern hockey stats are nowhere near the level of complexity and usefulness that we’ve seen in sports like baseball. There have been some significant discoveries, but there’s still a lot of work left to be done, and anyone who thinks you can replace an NHL scouting department with a spreadsheet is an idiot.

Luckily for us, those people do not exist.

That still seems to surprise some people. I’ve had conversations with more analytics folks than I can count over the last year, including most of the biggest names. I’ve followed the stats blogs. I’ve read as many of the reports as I could get my hands on, then read them again until I could start to understand them. I’ve asked questions, many of them hopelessly dumb, in an attempt to get my head around this stuff.

And in all that time, I’ve literally never once encountered anyone who thinks that stats tell the whole story. If anything, these guys tend to bend over backward to make sure you’re aware of how much they still don’t know, and how much work is left to do.

As for the common second half of this objection — “You still have to watch the games!” well, the top stats guys do. They watch more hockey than you watch. They watch more hockey than I watch, and watching hockey is my job. They watch constantly, obsessively, poring over video of long-forgotten moments, because right now that’s the only way to get the good stuff.

Stats do not replace observation. They supplement, and support, and provide a reality check for those moments when your eyes try to lie to you. There’s a balance to be struck, and as time goes on and the stats get better, that balance might shift. But it will never come close to replacing a trained set of eyes, and nobody is trying to argue otherwise.

The stat guy with all the answers and no time for old-fashioned observation is a straw man. He exists only in the realm of anti-stat fantasy. Let him go.

If advanced stats are so great, why does [advanced stat] say [star player] isn’t as good as [obviously inferior player]?

This one’s basically Mad Libs for stats haters. Let’s try a few, using last year’s numbers:

• If advanced stats are so great, why does Corsi say Jonathan Toews isn’t as good as Tyler Toffoli?

• If advanced stats are so great, why does Fenwick say Sidney Crosby isn’t as good as Andrei Loktionov?

• If advanced stats are so great, why does Corsi Relative say Drew Doughty isn’t as good as T.J. Brodie?

Those conclusions would obviously be silly, and seeing them spelled out like that could make you want to doubt whether the stats guys have any clue what they’re talking about. But none of those stats make any claim to measuring how “good” a player is. They just measure how he does in one statistic. Under the right circumstances, that information can be useful. But it doesn’t say anything definitive about who the best overall player is, and it isn’t meant to.

Russell Wilson is a better quarterback than Andy Dalton, but last year Dalton threw for more touchdowns. Does that mean touchdown passes are a broken stat? No. It just means you can’t look at them in isolation. The same is true for hockey stats, advanced or not. Goals scored is a crucial stat we’ve relied on for years, but it doesn’t tell us everything unless you want to argue that Chris Kunitz is a better player than Patrice Bergeron. Corsi, Fenwick, and friends are no different.

To some extent, this objection comes from some understandable confusion over what advanced stats claim to do. After all, there are stats like WAR in baseball that really do try to provide an overall ranking of player value. Hockey has had some attempts at a similar approach with mixed success (GVT is one example), but so far there’s no equivalent to WAR. Given how complex and free-flowing the sport is, there may never be.

No one stat is meant to definitively tell you that one player is better than another, so cherry-picking individual oddities doesn’t prove anything.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, August 8, 2014

Signs you've hired a bad advanced stats guy

Needs sharpening.

The NHL’s summer of analytics continued this week, with the Edmonton Oilers becoming the latest in a long line of teams to add an advanced stats expert to their staff.

High-profile stats guys like Eric Tulsky, Tyler Dellow and Sunny Mehta have all been hired in recent months, with even the notoriously old-school Maple Leafs finally jumping on the bandwagon. And that’s just the hirings that have been made public – that there have reportedly been plenty more that have gone on behind-the-scenes. We’re suddenly in the middle of an all-out stats hiring frenzy, and if you’re an NHL team and that hasn’t hired an analytics guy lately, you’re feeling the pressure to catch up.

Of course, that has the potential to create some problems, since there are only so many elite hockey minds to go around. With a shrinking supply of truly qualified experts left, some teams that are scrambling to fill out their analytics department could end up hiring the wrong candidate.

That would be a shame, so I’m here to help. If you’re an NHL executive who’s recently brought on a brand new stats guru, here are some signs that you may have made a hiring mistake.

  • No matter which player’s data you plug into his top secret proprietary formula, the result always just spells out BOOBIES on his calculator.

  • He keeps making rudimentary and obvious errors, like relying on +/- or failing to consider quality of competition or giving $30 million to Andrew MacDonald.

  • He designed a fancy database to crunch the numbers on every major trade made by any NHL team over the past few years, but it keeps crashing whenever it gets to Winnipeg because it can’t divide by zero.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

On Subban, Kane and Toews, and what some fans are missing about massive RFA extensions

The P.K. Subban saga is over, and it ends with a windfall. The Habs star agreed Saturday to an eight-year, $72 million deal that ends an extended stalemate between the two sides that dated back almost two years.

In doing so, he became the most expensive defenseman in league history in terms of annual cap hit ($9 million). And his deal comes just weeks after Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane became the first two players to crack the $10 million cap hit barrier, signing identical eight-year, $84 million deals on July 9.

As you might expect, that’s led to some debate among fans in Chicago, Montreal, and elsewhere. After all, while these are some very good players we’re talking about, does it make sense for them to be making more than Sidney Crosby or Shea Weber or [insert your favorite superstar here]? Are these teams sending their cap situations up in smoke? And aren’t these exactly the sort of spiraling deals that keep forcing the league into lockouts?

If that all sounds familiar, it should, because we seem to go through this every time a star player signs an extension. But while it makes sense to approach any big contract with caution in a hard-cap league like the NHL, these deals really aren’t as scary as they seem. So here are a few important points to keep in mind before panicking over the latest massive extension.

Be careful with those comparisons: The first thing we try to do when a player signs a new contract is generate a list of comparable players and see how the new deal measures up to what those guys got. But that’s easier said than done with elite players. They don’t have many comparables; that’s why they’re considered elite.

Complicating things further, we need to stay away from comparing deals signed under significantly different circumstances. For example, some have tried to compare Subban’s deal to those signed by guys like Weber or Ryan Suter. But neither works, because while Subban was a basic restricted free agency signing, Suter was unrestricted and Weber signed an offer sheet. Another restricted free agent extension like Drew Doughty is a better match, but even that only goes so far because the Kings were buying two fewer years of unrestricted free agency.

Toews and Kane present a similar problem, with UFAs like Zach Parise or Marian Hossa not really working. The best comparison for those two would seem to be Crosby. But that raises a new problem.

The new CBA changed everything: Two years ago, Crosby signed an extension worth $104.4 million. Like Toews and Kane, the signing came after Crosby’s seventh season and with one year left on an existing five-year deal. That seems like as good a match as we could expect to get, and it’s led some to point out that both Toews and Kane will carry a cap hit $1.8 million higher than Crosby. Given that the Penguins’ star is the consensus pick for best player in hockey, the thinking goes that the two Blackhawks must be overpaid.

Except it’s not that simple, because Crosby’s deal was signed under the old CBA. It’s a 12-year deal, while Kane and Toews were limited to a maximum of eight. And Crosby’s deal plunges in the final few years, dropping all the way down to $3 million over each of the final three seasons. He’ll be in his late-thirties by then and may not even still be playing. While it’s not quite as extreme a case of cap circumvention as something like Hossa’s deal, it’s not far off.

Under the new CBA, the lowest annual salary on a deal can’t be less than 50 percent of the highest year. Both Kane and Toews take advantage of that, dropping from $13.8 million in Year 1 to $6.9 million by the end, so the deals are still front-loaded. They’re just not front-loaded as much as Crosby’s deal, because they can’t be.

This matters, because front-loading a very long-term deal was a tool for teams to artificially lower the annual cap hit while still making sure the player got paid. Crosby’s deal is actually worth more money over the first eight years than Toews or Kane are getting, but the plunging value in the later years (which, again, Crosby may never play) keeps the annual cap hit much lower.

Once the NHL closed those loopholes, it was inevitable that cap hits would rise. That doesn’t mean Toews and Kane are better than Crosby, or greedier, or overpaid. It just means they signed under a different set of rules.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

P.K. Subban questions: Who won, who lost, is he worth it, and more...

The NHL’s summer vacation was interrupted over the weekend with a pair of bombshells from the ongoing P.K. Subban contract watch. First, Subban and the Canadiens actually went through a rare salary arbitration hearing Friday. Then, just hours before that decision was scheduled to be announced, they agreed to a long-term deal that makes Subban the league’s highest-paid defenseman in terms of cap hit.

The news was stunning, and not just because it represented honest-to-god NHL news in August. The contract caps off an almost two-year dance between Subban and the Habs’ front office, one that at times seemed inevitably headed toward disaster.

The announcement was a dramatic finale to a long process. But while the deal provides a definitive answer as to Subban’s immediate future, it still leaves us with more than a few lingering questions. Let’s try to sort this all out.

What just happened?

The basic summary: Until Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens had failed to come to terms with Subban, their 25-year-old Norris-winning defenseman and a restricted free agent. He filed for arbitration, and the hearing took place Friday morning. The arbitrator’s ruling, which would have been for a one-year deal, had been scheduled to come down Sunday. Instead, the two sides announced Saturday that they’d agreed to an eight-year, $72 million deal that will carry an average annual value of $9 million, more than any other blueliner makes.

Is Subban actually worth that much?

That’s the $72 million question, and the answer depends on where you’d rank him among the NHL’s top defensemen. Subban is what we’d politely call a “divisive” player, which is to say he generates an unusually wide range of opinions around the hockey world.

On the one hand, he already owns one Norris Trophy and probably hasn’t even reached his peak yet, which should put him in the discussion for best defenseman in the league. On the other hand, he was used only as a seventh defenseman on Team Canada’s Olympic squad this year, which implies that his all-around game just isn’t at an elite level yet. Beyond his skill set, he’s quite possibly the most charismatic player in the entire league, and lots of fans love him for his enthusiasm. Others have criticized his antics, piling on as soon as there’s the slightest hint of controversy.

A few sites took a shot at the “what is Subban worth?” question in recent weeks, with the answers ranging from roughly $60 million to $75 million on an eight-year contract; the real deal came in at the high end of that range. The average cap hit is also significantly more than comparable players like Erik Karlsson, Alex Pietrangelo, or even Drew Doughty make. In fact, it will be the third-highest cap hit in the league next season, coming in behind only Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

All of that points to this being an overpay, and maybe even a big one. But here’s the thing: Occasional lockout corrections aside, the NHL’s salary cap keeps going up, and it almost certainly will continue to do so for a long time to come. Comparisons to deals signed as far back as 2011 (in Doughty’s case) don’t really hold up. And with the CBA outlawing the sort of ultra-long back-diving deals that other comparables had received, Subban’s total doesn’t seem all that unreasonable. It’s the same logic that led to Jonathan Toews’s and Patrick Kane’s recent extensions that kick in for 2015-16 and carry $10.5 million cap hits. Subban may not be on the Toews tier in terms of overall value, but you could argue he’s at least in the same ballpark as Kane.

And so we’re left with a number that feels like it’s too high, and probably is — right up until the next Subban-type player signs his deal. By the time we’re a few years into this one, it probably starts to seem like a bargain … as long as Subban keeps playing at a Norris contender’s level.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The year in trades: How many of last season's deals actually worked out?

I miss trades. The NHL used to be a league filled with them, from small deals to major blockbusters. At any given time, there always seemed to be at least one major star on the verge of moving, sometimes several, and occasionally they’d all get swapped for each other. For a fan, it was all great fun.

But over the years, things began to change. The salary cap, among other factors, made player-for-player deals less common, and in recent years the midseason trade market had almost dried up completely. There were still plenty of minor deals, and even occasional blockbusters during the offseason, but once the season started we were lucky to get a handful of moves involving anyone the typical fan had ever heard of.

And then came the 2013-14 season, and the trade market was suddenly … well, not busy. But it was at least marginally active, with several big names being moved and even a few old-fashioned midseason blockbusters. Was there hope? Had the art of the deal finally returned?

It’s too early to tell. But the NHL has a well-established reputation as a copycat league, where owners and GMs of the also-rans continually look at what the winners are up to and yell “Let’s start doing that!” So if we want to know whether this year’s trade market was a blip or a trend, we have to start with this question: “Did any of those deals actually work out?”

So let’s find out. Here are 10 of the biggest trades that went down during the 2013-14 season, and whether they turned out to be worth it in hindsight.

Thomas Vanek, Version 1

The deal: On October 27, the Sabres sent Vanek to the Islanders for Matt Moulson, a first-round pick in either 2014 or 2015 (the Islanders chose to give up the 2015 pick), and a 2015 second-rounder. Buffalo retained some of Vanek’s salary.

At the time: Vanek was a pending free agent and seemed unlikely to want to re-sign with a Sabres team that was well into a scorched-earth rebuild. But while seeing him traded wasn’t a surprise, the destination was — the Islanders were a borderline playoff team at best, and they gave up a good player and two high picks to acquire a guy they didn’t even know if they could sign long term.

In hindsight: A disaster. Vanek played well enough, but the Islanders’ season tanked and they couldn’t work out an extension despite offering him far more money than he’d eventually wind up getting. The Islanders ended up having to cut their losses by trading him at the deadline, getting back far less than they paid for him (see below). Meanwhile, the Sabres traded (then later re-signed) Moulson and now own the Islanders’ top pick in a 2015 draft that could be one of the best in years.

Teachable moment: Don’t jump the gun on a rebuild. The Islanders haven’t won a playoff round since 1993, so you can understand some impatience, but they weren’t ready to make this sort of deal. In a way, you have to admire New York GM Garth Snow’s willingness to get aggressive when going after star players, but this move was too much too soon.

Ben Scrivens

The deal: On January 15, the Oilers acquired Scrivens from the Kings for a third-round pick.

At the time: The Kings had one goalie too many, because of the emergence of rookie Martin Jones. The Oilers had too few, because of them being the Oilers. So they added some relatively cheap depth.

In hindsight: It didn’t take long for Scrivens to have an impact — just two weeks after the trade, he put on one of the best goaltending performances in recent history. He also played well enough to allow the Oilers to completely change course in net. By the time the trade deadline rolled around, they’d traded away Ilya Bryzgalov and Devan Dubnyk and added Viktor Fasth. Heading into next season, Oilers fans may actually feel good about their goaltending for the first time in years.

Teachable moment: There are always goaltending bargains available. The depth of players at the position has never been better, so if you need an upgrade in net you can usually find one without paying a fortune. Why yes, that was ironic foreshadowing for our next entry thanks for noticing.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Forrest Gumps of the NHL

Let’s go back in time to 20 years ago this month. It’s July 1994. The Rangers have just snapped a 54-year Stanley Cup drought, the Panthers and Mighty Ducks have finished their inaugural seasons, Wayne Gretzky has won his final Art Ross, and the rookie of the year is a fresh-faced goalie named Martin Brodeur. The NHL is booming and on the verge of finally surpassing the NBA, as long as it doesn’t go and do anything stupid like letting its new commissioner lead the league into a pointless lockout.

And while all of this is going on, a lovable dunce named Forrest Gump is ruling the box office. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his work in the title role, bringing to life a character with a talent for spewing syrupy catchphrases and accidentally wandering into some of history’s greatest moments.

NHL players have never been much for catchphrases, unless you want to count “play a full 60 minutes.” But a few players have had an odd knack for the other half of Gump’s trademark. Here are five NHL players whose careers ranged from mildly successful to downright disappointing, but who somehow managed to make multiple appearances in the history books all the same.

Ty Conklin raises the roof

Conklin is just about the archetype of the journeyman backup goalie. In an NHL career that spanned more than a decade, he played for six franchises and never had a year when he started the majority of his team’s games. He wasn’t drafted, and he never won an award, played in an All-Star Game, or even started a playoff game. He just bounced around, signing free-agent deals and doing a reasonably dependable job for whichever team he managed to latch on with.

In fact, you could argue that Conklin had one of the most forgettable careers of any goalie who ever stepped foot inside an NHL arena. But that was the key — he was only forgettable inside. Because once they started playing games outdoors, Ty Conklin somehow became the most prolific goaltender in NHL history.

Despite never being a full-time starter, Conklin found himself as a starting goaltender in the league’s first three regular-season outdoor games. He started that streak in 2003, when the Oilers hosted the Canadiens in the inaugural Heritage Classic. Thanks to an injury to Edmonton starter Tommy Salo, rookie backup Conklin got the start in what at the time was assumed to be a one-off event.

But four years later, the league headed outdoors again for the first Winter Classic, with the Sabres hosting the Penguins. Conklin was in Pittsburgh that year backing up Marc-Andre Fleury, and when Fleury sprained his ankle, Conklin got the start again. He was the winning goalie, even making a spectacular save to set the stage for Sidney Crosby’s shootout winner.

The following year, Conklin was backing up Chris Osgood in Detroit when the Red Wings headed to Wrigley Field to play the Blackhawks. Needless to say, Osgood got hurt and Conklin was pressed into action yet again, earning the decision in a 6-4 Red Wings win.

Sadly, that would spell the end of his outdoor streak, thanks to the NHL’s stubborn refusal to implement my proposed “Just give the Winter Classic to whichever team employs Ty Conklin” rule. But he did come close to a fourth appearance; he was a member of the Red Wings when it was announced that Detroit and Toronto would face each other in the 2013 Winter Classic. That year’s lockout postponed the game and spelled the end of Conklin’s pro career — not to mention sparing starter Jimmy Howard from an inevitable mysterious injury.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

The most awkward passage from every team's Wikipedia page

I love Wikipedia. It’s a great source for information and anecdotes about just about everything you could imagine. Granted, not all of that information is true, or vaguely accurate, or even spelled correctly. But it’s interesting, and you can learn a lot. NHL teams are no exception, and all 30 have extensive Wikipedia pages that go into exhaustive details about the franchise’s historic highs and lows.

It’s that latter category that can be especially fun. So I spent some time reading through the site’s version of each team’s history and picking out the most ridiculous passages. Here are my selections for the strangest, funniest, or just plain saddest direct quotes from each NHL franchise’s current Wikipedia page.

Anaheim Ducks

Another well known blunder occurred in October 1995 when Wild Wing, attempting to jump through a “wall of fire”, accidentally tripped causing the mascot to land on the fire and set his costume ablaze.

Yes, this is an actual thing that really happened. If you’ve ever wanted to watch footage of a mascot face-planting (beak-planting?) and catching fire, repeatedly, set to the soundtrack of a Beastie Boys song, then you’re in luck.

Arizona Coyotes

The franchise would not win another playoff series for 25 years.

Is that good? I feel like that’s not good.

Boston Bruins

[Frank] Brimsek had an award-winning season, capturing the Vezina and Calder Trophies, becoming the first rookie named to the NHL First All-Star Team, and earning the nickname “Mr. Zero”. The team skating in front of Brimsek included Bill Cowley, [Eddie] Shore, [Dit] Clapper and “Sudden Death” Mel Hill (who scored three overtime goals in one playoff series), together with the “Kraut Line” of center Milt Schmidt, right winger Bobby Bauer and left winger Woody Dumart.

Man, they just don’t make clever hockey nicknames like Mr. Zero and Sudden Death any more. Then again, they don’t make blatantly racist hockey nicknames like the Kraut Line anymore either. Maybe ease up a little there, 1930s Boston.

Buffalo Sabres

During a face-off and through the fog, Sabres center Jim Lorentz spotted a bat flying across the rink, swung at it with his stick, killing it. It was the only time that any player killed an animal during an NHL game.

I’m glad someone took the time to clarify that NHL players killing animals during games is relatively rare. I’m pretty sure that’s in The Code somewhere.

Calgary Flames

Harvey the Hound is the Flames’ mascot. [...] Harvey is famous for an incident in January 2003 where he had his tongue ripped out by Edmonton Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish as he was harassing their bench.

This also actually happened. Apparently, being an NHL mascot is a much more dangerous job than you’d think. I wonder if a player has ever killed one during a game.

Carolina Hurricanes

In 2006–07, the Hurricanes finished third in the Southeast and eleventh overall in the Eastern Conference. This finish made them the first champions since the 1938–39 Chicago Black Hawks to have failed to qualify for the playoffs both the seasons before and after their championship season.

Nice try, nefarious Wikipedia vandal, but your made-up “facts” aren’t going to fool any real hockey fans. I mean, really: The 2006 Hurricanes winning the Stanley Cup? As if that ever happened.

Chicago Blackhawks

According to Jim Coleman, sportswriter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, [owner Frederic] McLaughlin felt the ‘Hawks were good enough to finish first. [Coach Pete] Muldoon disagreed, and in a fit of pique, McLaughlin fired him. According to Coleman, Muldoon responded by yelling, “Fire me, Major, and you’ll never finish first. I’ll put a curse on this team that will hoodoo it until the end of time.” The Curse of Muldoon was born — although Coleman admitted years after the fact that he had fabricated the whole incident and became one of the first widely known sports “curses.”

A quick power ranking of the many things I love about this passage:

5. The use of the phrase “in a fit of pique.”

4. The completely unnecessary scare quotes on “curses.”

3. That the curse applied to regular-season standings and didn’t actually prevent the team from winning multiple Stanley Cups over the next decade. Oops. Always take a minute to think your curses through, spurned NHL coaches!

2. The almost casual mention of the entire thing being completely and totally made up.

1. “Hoodoo it until the end of time.” I have no idea what that even means but I thoroughly enjoyed it and plan to start working it into every conversation I have.

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