Wednesday, January 23, 2019

A detailed breakdown of the subtle differences between the NHL and the WWE

This​ weekend is one​ of​ the​ stranger​ ones​ on​ the sports​ calendar. We’re in​ the middle of​ the​ two-week break between​​ the NFL conference championships and the Super Bowl, and with the 800-pound gorilla of the sports world going quiet apart from the Pro Bowl, there’s a chance for everyone else to strut their stuff.

That includes the NHL, who’ll be gathering in San Jose for their annual All-Star weekend. But if they want to steal the sports spotlight, they’ll have some tough competition, because the WWE will be putting on their annual Royal Rumble pay-per-view.

Granted, we’re getting a little loose with the definition of sports here. But the NHL and WWE have a lot in common, and it’s possible that some fans might get them mixed up with both running major events over the same weekend. So just in case, let’s walk through some of the key differences to help everyone tell the two organizations apart.


WWE: An anguished voice screaming “Burn it down!” signals the arrival of former world champion Seth Rollins.

NHL: An anguished voice screaming “Burn it down!” signals that another Los Angeles Kings fan has just looked at the roster.


WWE: Fans are expected to suspend their disbelief and play along with the show despite the occasional presence of wrestling demons, cult leaders who can teleport, and 7-foot-tall zombie morticians with superpowers.

NHL: Fans are expected to suspend their disbelief and play along when Gary Bettman swears he doesn’t want a lockout this time.


WWE: Phrases like “shattered dreams,” “rock bottom” and “tombstone” refer to popular finishing maneuvers from the sport’s glory days in the late 1990s.

NHL: Phrases like “shattered dreams,” “rock bottom” and “tombstone” refer to experiences a Blackhawks fan can look forward to before the team is ready to win another Stanley Cup.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Puck Soup bonus episode: Changing history

In this month's bonus episode for Patreon supporters, Greg and I take turns undoing one event from the NHL's past and following the threads to see how history would change. Hear our versions of an NHL where:
- An arbitrator awards Eric Lindros to the Rangers instead of the Flyers
- The Maple Leafs never make the disastrous Tom Kurvers trade
- The lottery ping pong balls send Sidney Crosby to Anaheim instead of Pittsburgh
- The puck doesn't bounce over Patrik Stefan's stick

Also, you can hear Greg's reaction when I say something that saps his entire will to live. That part's fun too.

>> Patreon supporters can hear the episode here

(Not a Patreon supporter? Get special bonus episodes like this one plus weekly mailbags by supporting Puck Soup for $5. This week's regular free episode will drop later in the next day or two.)

A brief history of teams trading away recent top-five picks and the five ways it can work out

It’s​ been a weird year​ in​ Edmonton.​ The​ Oilers​ came​ in with​ high hopes, struggled​ early, fired their​ coach,​ seemed to rebound​​ and lately have struggled again. There are calls for Peter Chiarelli to be fired, and it’s widely assumed that he will be if the team misses the playoffs, if not sooner. And as you might expect, there’s been all sorts of speculation about what moves he might be willing to make to turn things around.

Among all the rumors, one name keeps coming up: 20-year-old winger Jesse Puljujarvi. On one hand, that’s surprising, since Puljujarvi is less than three years removed from being the fourth-overall pick in the 2016 draft. Then again, he’s had a disappointing year, and his lackluster career offensive totals mean he’s getting dangerously close to having the “bust” label slapped on him.

Still, would it really make sense for the Oilers to trade a young player so quickly after spending a top-five pick on him? Does that kind of move ever work out?

Let’s crack open the history books and find out.

We’re going to go looking for examples of teams making trades like the rumored Puljujarvi deal, and see what we can learn from the results. We’ll start our search at the onset of the entry draft era (when the league lowered the eligibility age to 18), meaning we’re going back to 1979 and have exactly 40 drafts to work with. We want to find players who fit these criteria:

  • They were taken with one of the draft’s first five picks.
  • They made it to the NHL with the team that drafted them. Players who were traded before appearing in the NHL don’t count, because we want cases where the player’s NHL coach and GM got to watch them up close before deciding to move on from them. Sorry, Eric Lindros.
  • They were traded before finishing their third NHL season. Note that that doesn’t necessarily mean it was within three years of their draft year, since some players start in the minors or in Europe. But we’re looking for players who were given fewer than three full NHL seasons to establish themselves before their team gave up and dealt them.

Note that the last point is important – we’re looking for players who were traded before finishing their third NHL season. If you expand the criteria to include players who are traded immediately after completing their third season, you start to see some bigger names show up, including Ed Olczyk, Dany Heatley, James van Riemsdyk, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Seguin and Phil Kessel. That’s our first interesting takeaway. Three years seems to be a tipping point of sorts for NHL GMs; once you’ve put in three full seasons, they get more likely to pull the chute and move you. And yes, those last two players were both traded away by Chiarelli. That could offer a hint about how the Puljujarvi situation plays out.

But let’s assume that the rumor mill is right, and that the Oilers really are thinking about moving Puljujarvi right now, before he’s spent three seasons in the NHL, despite recently spending a top-five draft pick on him. How rare would that be?

Rare, as it turns out. But maybe not as rare as you might think.

By my count, there are 26 players in the entry draft era that meet our criteria. We’re dealing with 40 years of drafts, so we’ve got a pool of 200 players here. Of those, 13 percent were moved within three years, or a little more than one every two years. I don’t know about you, but that’s a higher percentage than I would have expected. Maybe the Oilers aren’t crazy to be considering this.

But there are a couple of important qualifiers to put on that 26 number. The first is that these sorts of moves have become significantly rarer in the salary cap era, with only three of our trades involving players drafted after 2004. That’s 14 drafts involving 70 top-five picks, so our cap era percentage plunges down to four percent.

The second thing to keep in mind is that the trades on our list came out of a variety of different circumstances, not all of which have much to do with what Puljujarvi and the Oilers are facing right now. In order to find any meaning in the history of these sorts of moves, it’s probably helpful to divide them up into a few categories. So let’s do that.

Category 1: The mega-blockbusters

Our first category is one we don’t see much of anymore: The old school blockbuster trade, in which a surefire Hall of Fame superstar is traded in their prime. These deals used to happen every few years, but almost never do in the cap era. (That’s partly because players used to be able to force them by holding out, which doesn’t happen anymore.)

But when these deals did happen, the asking price would often involve one or more players who’d recently been high picks. Those players weren’t busts. In fact, it was the opposite – they were highly regarded prospects that a team insisted on receiving in return for a star. You’ve got to give something to get something, after all.

I’ve got four trades in this category, including the most famous one of all: The 1988 deal that sent Wayne Gretzky from the Oilers to the Kings in exchange for a package built around cash, draft picks, more cash, and 1986 second-overall pick Jimmy Carson. At the time, Carson was considered one of the best young players in the game, having just scored 55 goals as a 19-year-old. He only lasted one full year in Edmonton, scoring 100 points, and never really lived up to his early hype; he bounced around three more teams and was out of the league by 1996. But at the time, he was an established stud.

A year before the Gretzky deal, the Oilers traded another certified superstar when they sent an unhappy Paul Coffey to Pittsburgh in 1987 for a package that included a pair of players who meet our criteria: 1985 second-overall pick Craig Simpson and 1987 fifth-overall pick Chris Joseph. Joseph had just been drafted and had only played 17 NHL games, while Simpson was off to a great start in his third season. Simpson would become the first player to score 50 goals while being traded midway through the season, although that turned out to be a career high and injuries slowed his production. Joseph turned into a journeyman defenseman who played for seven teams in 14 years.

The other two deals involve two of the most productive stars of the 1990s. The Flyers included 1990 fourth-overall pick Mike Ricci in the massive package they put together to pry Eric Lindros out of Quebec in 1992. And the Ducks included 1994 second-overall pick Oleg Tverdovsky and 1995 fourth-overall pick Chad Kilger in their 1996 deal for Winnipeg’s Teemu Selanne. All three of those players had productive NHL careers, and Ricci and Tverdovsky were borderline stars. But it’s fair to say that neither the Ducks or Flyers really regret giving them up in those deals. (Peter Forsberg would be another question, but he was a sixth-overall pick and hadn’t yet played in the NHL when the Flyers included him in the Lindros trade.)

These were all blockbuster trades, and it’s fun to look back at them. But unless Peter Chiarelli is about to pull off a miracle that nobody sees coming, it’s probably safe to assume that any Puljujarvi trade isn’t going to look like this. So on to the next section…

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Monday, January 21, 2019

Weekend rankings: There's been an explosion of trades across the NHL. So what does it mean?

Something​ unusual is happening​ in​ the​ NHL​ these​ days.​ Teams are​ making trades.

That shouldn’t​ be unusual. After​ all,​ trading has been​​ part of the NHL since the league’s earliest days. The art of the deal has evolved over time, but the basic concept has always been the same. If there’s a hole in your roster, you find a way to make a deal to address it. An NHL GM only has so many tools in his toolbox, and two of the key ones – drafting and free agency – aren’t available during the season, while player development is a longterm play that can’t really be rushed. But you can make a trade right now. If your team isn’t good enough, get out there and make it better.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. But in recent years, the in-season trade has been a dying art. GMs pull off their biggest deals around the draft and maybe work in a few more as the offseason drags on. But during the season, things stay quiet until a week or two before the trade deadline.

Why? We’re told it’s because the salary cap makes it too hard to swing a deal during the season, but I’ve never fully bought that idea. Instead, we seem to be living through an era of conservative GMs who know they probably won’t get a second chance at the job and are driven more by a cover-your-butt mentality mixed with a healthy dose of loss aversion than an all-consuming desire to make their teams better.

Or maybe, we were living through that era. Because lately, NHL GMs have been busy.

Last week, NHL teams made seven trades. In the two weeks before that, there were ten more. That adds up to seventeen deals since the holiday trade freeze was lifted.

In that same period last year – the holiday freeze through Jan. 21 – there were only three trades. Two more happened on Jan. 22, so bump it up to five if you’d like, but things went quiet again after that. In 2016-17, over the same period, there were five deals. The 2015-16 season was the outlier, with 11 trades, but 2014-15 only had four and 2013-14 had six.

That’s an average of about six trades per season during the post-freeze period. And yet this year, we’ve had 17. What does it mean?

One possible answer is that it doesn’t mean much of anything. After all, it’s not like any of these recent trades have been blockbusters. In fact, they’ve almost all been oddly similar: One-for-one swaps, perhaps with a middling draft pick or two tossed in, mostly involving depth pieces or minor leaguers that probably play the same position. Only two of the 17 trades have involved more than one player on either side of the equation (the two-for-two deal that sent Brandon Manning to Edmonton and the Anders Nilsson deal between the Canucks and Senators).

Other than that, GMs are keeping it simple. If you were a cynic, you might suggest that there’s an awful lot of deck-chair shuffling going on. There certainly hasn’t been anything approaching a blockbuster to be seen. If we’re being honest, some of these deals have been built around guys most of us have never heard of.

But still … 17 trades? Even if they’re underwhelming paint-by-numbers moves, that’s a ton of activity for the middle of a season.

One theory is that what we’re seeing is a function of the tight playoff races. Granted, the races are tight every year, but this season feels different, especially out West where the wildcard race has become a slow-moving traffic jam. Nine of the 17 deals involve some combination of the Ducks, Wild and Oilers, three teams that came into the season in win-now mode and are fighting over those final spots. Maybe we’re not actually seeing some sort of league-wide phenomenon so much as three desperate teams pulling everyone else’s average up. But even if you take those three teams out of the mix, we’ve still had more trades than normal, so that can’t be the whole story.

There could be at least a bit of a domino effect in play, where each new trade shakes something loose somewhere else for another move. And it’s also possible that we’re seeing a little bit of peer pressure at play here. It’s one thing to tell your fans (and your owner) that making trades at this time of year is too hard. It’s another to do it when Bob Murray is out here finding a way to swing a new deal every second day. Nobody wants to be the GM who sits on his hands during the frenzy and then ends up missing the playoffs by a point in April.

Or maybe it’s just a one-off fluke. There’s always that.

Whatever it is, the next question is what it means for the five weeks between now and the trade deadline. It’s tempting to say that we’re in for a dud of a deadline since teams are getting all of their moves out of their system now. But that doesn’t seem right, because as I said, we’re talking about a bunch of relatively minor deals here. If anything, this feels like more of a warmup than anything. Maybe these smaller deals are the consolation prizes from bigger conversations that could still be revisited down the line. And if you’re the GM of a bubble team that hasn’t been wheeling and dealing lately, how much longer can you wait while everyone around you is already making moves?

However all of this plays out, here’s hoping that it’s the start of a new trend. NHL trades are fun and arguing over the ones that happened and the ones that still could happen used to be a big part of the league’s in-season entertainment value. That’s faded over time. It would be cool to get it back.

Road to the Cup

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

With the All-Star Game a week away, a reminder that we’re now into bye week season. Ten teams are off as of today, with everyone else off next week. That’s going to lead to some light nights on the schedule and maybe not much movement within our rankings over the next two weeks.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (29-17-4, +20 true goals differential*) – The good news is that they’ve won nine of eleven, including an impressive 7-3 trouncing of the Penguins on Saturday. The bad news is that they’re not really gaining any ground in the Pacific and if anything a first-round matchup with the Sharks seems more likely now than it did a week ago. We won’t go overboard on “if the playoffs started today” here and there’s still a chance the Knights can claim the top spot in the Pacific. But we’re reaching that time of year when having three teams from the same division in the top five just can’t hold and right now the Knights would be the easiest team to bump.

4. San Jose Sharks (28-15-7, +26) – You could cut-and-paste a lot of the Knights’ entry here, although some of the models out there still seem to love them. If they win the Pacific, I love their odds. But right now they’re not winning the Pacific.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Friday, January 18, 2019

Grab Bag: Your guide to spotting fake trade tweets

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Finding a reason to be negative about the NHL's ten best teams
- Should you RT that fake-sounding trade?
- An obscure player who shouldn't be but is
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the last time Gary Bettman promised he wasn't looking for a CBA fight, and how that ended

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)