Thursday, August 8, 2019

The six teams that have me stumped heading into the 2019-20 season

Do you know which NHL team I just can’t figure out?

Well, all of them. I’m not very good at the whole “predicting” thing. Whenever I start thinking I know where a team is headed, you can probably make some money by betting the other way. Never listen to me about anything, is what I’m trying to say.

But when it comes to the 2019-20 season, there are a few teams I feel at least reasonably confident about. The Lightning will be good! So will the Sharks, and Bruins and probably the Knights and Leafs and Capitals. On the other side, the Senators should be bad, along with the Kings and Red Wings. The Blue Jackets will be worse than last year, maybe a lot worse. The Blues will be good again as long as Jordan Binnington plays well. The Coyotes, Hurricanes and Panthers are on the way up. The Penguins are not, but will still be the Penguins right up until they’re not.

I’ll end up being dead wrong about roughly half of that last paragraph, but for now, I feel like I’m on reasonably solid ground. But then I get to the teams where I have no earthly idea what’s going to happen. It’s just total confusion, either because I can’t figure out what they’re doing or where they’re headed or (in some cases) still can’t get my head around what happened last season or over the summer.

I still have a few weeks to figure it all out, but for these six teams, time is running out for me to get a handle on their situation and it’s not looking good. Let’s just put the cards on the table right now. Here are the half-dozen teams that I just can’t figure out heading into the season. Please help me.

New Jersey Devils

They’ll be good because: Every good player who was available in the offseason plays for New Jersey now.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But by adding Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev and even Wayne Simmonds on a manageable one-year deal, the Devils had one of the best offseasons of anyone. And they didn’t really give up anything of note to do it. They’re pretty much guaranteed to be way better.

They’ll be bad because: “Way better” than 72 points still might not get them anywhere near the playoffs.

The Devils were a mess last year, ranking 26th in both goals for and against. The offseason additions should help boost the offensive side, but the goaltending hopes seem to rest on either MacKenzie Blackwood breaking out despite being just 22 years old with only 21 NHL starts to his name, or Cory Schneider regaining the form he hasn’t had since 2016. Either of those things could happen, because goaltending is voodoo. But when you need to improve by about 25 points just to make the playoffs, I’m not sure that having to cross your fingers for a goaltending miracle is a great sign.

But they’ll probably be fine because: Every year, we see at least a few teams go from near the basement to the playoffs in one shot, often despite nobody seeing it coming. Last year, it was the Islanders. The year before that, it was the Avalanche, Knights and oh yeah, these same Devils. Most of those teams didn’t add anywhere near as much talent as New Jersey just did.

And speaking of talent, they’ve got a former MVP in Taylor Hall who’s healthy and ready to go, and who should be motivated to tear up the league in a contract year.

Unless they’re not because: Yeah, about that contract. Hall hasn’t re-signed yet, which means his status could become the dreaded off-ice distraction if it doesn’t get done by opening night. And if they can’t lock him down, don’t they have to consider trading him? That could torpedo a promising season, but you don’t have to look much further than Columbus to see how this can play out if a team tries to stand pat.

The verdict: The Devils are going rank very high on my watchability ratings for the year, but I really have no idea where they’re going to end up in the standings.

Colorado Avalanche

They’ll be really good because: They’re already good, and they’re young enough that they should get even better just by virtue of their stars developing. Every arrow on the dashboard is pointing in the same direction, and that direction is up.

And that’s why just about everyone seems to agree that they’re contenders. There are probably more than a few people reading this who aren’t even sure what there is to be confused about. They’re one of the best young teams in the league, they won a round last year and might have won another if the league’s replay review rules weren’t so dumb. They’re all set. What are we even talking about here?

They’ll be disappointing because: They won 38 games last year. That’s not great. They still made the playoffs, because they were in a conference where you could make the playoffs with 90 points. And they needed a league-leading 14 loser points just to get to that total.

Loser points are still points, so we can’t call the 2018-19 Avalanche a fluke; they earned their playoff spot based on the same system everyone else plays with. But if winning is the name of the game, this is a team that won fewer games than the Coyotes, just one more than the Flyers and Wild and just three more than the lowly Oilers.

Are we absolutely sure they should be anointed as some sort of guaranteed Cup contender?

But they’ll probably be great because: Well, yeah, they sure do seem like a Cup contender.

First of all, if winning is what matters then we need to factor in that the Avs did a fair amount of it during the playoffs, including knocking off the Flames in five and nearly beating the Sharks. The playoffs are a smaller sample size, but not too many bad teams make it within a misplaced toenail of the conference final.

Beyond that, you just have to look at the roster. They’ve got one of the very best players in the league on perhaps the very best contract in Nathan MacKinnon, who’ll only be 24 on opening night. Mikko Rantanen will be 23, and presumably, will have been signed by then. Basically all of the other key contributors are in their mid-20s, including new addition Nazem Kadri and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. And maybe most impressive of all, the blue line is stacked with young talent, with Samuel Girard and Cale Makar looking like future stars and Bowen Byram on the way.

It’s awfully hard to imagine this team not being even better next year.

Unless they’re not because: The blue line is indeed stacked with stud prospects, but young defenseman tend to have their ups and downs in the NHL, so the defense won’t necessarily be a sure thing in 2019-20. Grubauer’s never been a full-time starter and there’s no safety net with Semyon Varlamov gone. And while MacKinnon and Rantanen were both fantastic last year, there’s a flip side to that: Their two best forwards both had years where they looked unstoppable and the team still only won 38 games.

I know we keep coming back to that but look at this way. If we think that the Avalanche are going to be eight wins better than they were last year – which is a lot to improve in one offseason – they’re still behind the pace of teams like last year’s Jets, Predators, Islanders and Blue Jackets. They’d be a playoff team for sure. But are they more than that?

The verdict: If Grubauer disappoints and the younger players are inconsistent, they could conceivably take a step back. That feels unlikely and penciling the Avs in for improvement seems reasonable. But I think some of us are underestimating how far they may have to go to reach the league’s top tier, and this seems like a case where we’re all getting ahead of ourselves, if only by a season or two.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Let’s play the $200 Lineup Game

It’s August. Nothing much is happening in the NHL. Nothing much will be happening in the NHL. If anything did happen, we might not find out about it because Pierre is on vacation. Outside of whatever the Wild are doing, there’s nothing to talk about.

It’s a perfect time to play The $200 Lineup Game.

This game is based on some Twitter fun we had a few years ago. The rules are simple. You’re going to build the best starting lineup out of players who’ve played for your favorite NHL team. Here’s how it works.

  • You need three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie. Other than that, we don’t care about position, so you can mix wingers and centers and don’t need to worry about which side your defensemen play on.
  • You have a salary cap of $200 to work with to build your full lineup.
  • Each player you pick will cost you a salary of $1 per regular-season game that they ever played for your favorite team. If you want a guy who played one full 82-game season, that’s $82 of your cap gone.
  • Here’s the key, and the part that’s going to screw up the people who skip the intro on these things: Once you fit a player onto your roster, you get credit for their entire NHL career. Not just the games they played for your team – everything they did in the NHL.

In other words, you’re looking for star players who had the briefest possible stint with your team. Guy Lafleur isn’t worth anything to the Canadiens, because he’d cost way too much. But his one season in New York means that a Rangers team could squeeze him in for $67, and they’d get credit for the full Flower experience. Want Brett Hull and his 700+ career goals? You’re out of luck if you’re the Blues or even the Stars. But a Flames team could fit him in for just $57. And the Coyotes could get him for just $5.

A few more rules, just for your loophole-seekers out there.

  • A player must have played at least one regular-season game to qualify for a team’s roster. There are no freebies. That means, for example, that the Stars can’t claim Jarome Iginla even though they drafted him and the Oilers and Predators can’t claim Mike Richter even though both teams technically acquired him during his career. Coyotes fans don’t get Pronger, Datsyuk and Hossa. Same goes for any cases where a team only ever dressed a player in the postseason. Basically, if you think you’ve found a way to get a guy for free, you’re cheating.
  • We’re going by franchise here, so we’ll combine the Nordiques with the Avs, the Whalers with the Hurricanes, the Thrashers and the new Jets, etc. That cuts both ways; it gives those teams more players to work with, but also prevents any shady picks like trying to claim Owen Nolan as a $9 Avalanche despite his five full seasons as a Nordique.
  • You can use active players, but you only get credit for what they’ve done in the NHL as of today, not what they might do in the future. So if Canucks fans want to spend $71 on Elias Pettersson, they only get one season of him.
  • If a player had multiple stints with a team, they all combine together to produce his price tag. The Leafs can’t try to claim Doug Gilmour for $1 based on his brief return to the team in 2003.

Speaking of the Leafs, let’s use them as our first example …

Toronto Maple Leafs

Forwards: Ron Francis ($12), Eric Lindros ($33), Dickie Moore ($38)

Defense: Brian Leetch ($15), Phil Housley ($1)

Goaltender: Terry Sawchuk ($91)

Total: $190

That’s not a bad lineup, featuring six Hall-of-Famers. The Pat Quinn years are fruitful here, as late-season acquisitions of Francis, Leetch and Housley give us a cheap backbone and help us have enough left over to spend a relatively hefty $91 on Sawchuk (or, if you prefer, $95 on Grant Fuhr). If you’d rather go with a post-expansion look, you could swap out old-timers Moore and Sawchuk and bring in Joe Nieuwendyk ($64) and Bernie Parent ($65) instead for the same combined price. Or you could use Gerry Cheevers in goal for just $2 and spend more elsewhere. But whichever way you go, the Leafs are solid.

Makes sense? Do you see what we’re going for? Cool. Then let’s try some other teams around the league because as you’re going to see, there are a few teams that can give the Leafs a run for their $200 worth of money. We’re going to serve up a dozen teams in all, which doesn’t cover everyone but is more than enough to get your brain working and then turn it over to you to come up with your own.

Boston Bruins

Forwards: Jaromir Jagr ($11), Cy Denneny ($23), Dave Andreychuk ($63)

Defense: Paul Coffey ($18), Brian Leetch ($61)

Goaltender: Jacques Plante ($8)

Total: $184

You could say that this concept already has a playoff atmosphere because the Bruins immediately knock off the Maple Leafs. And to add insult to injury, they even do it with one of the same players off of the Leafs’ roster, as Leetch makes like a free agent and jumps to a rival for more money. They pair him with Coffey, who (spoiler alert) will also show up on more than one of these lists.

Other possibilities on the backend include Sergei Gonchar for $15 or Babe Pratt for $31. But the real options are up front. To be honest, I went with Andreychuk mainly to eat up a big chunk of the cap space that was going to be leftover, but you could go with somebody like Joey Mullen at $37 or even Rick Nash for $11 and just pocket the rest. Not that Boston ownership would ever do that.

So yeah, the Bruins are now our team to beat. Let’s see if anyone can do it.

Detroit Red Wings

Forwards: Darryl Sittler ($61), Mike Modano ($40), Charlie Conacher ($40)

Defense: Doug Harvey ($2), Borje Salming ($49)

Goaltender: Bill Ranford ($4)

Total: $196

In theory, the Red Wings seem like a team that would be made for this sort of game, since modern history is filled with Hall of Famers finishing their careers with brief stopovers in Detroit. But many of them aren’t brief enough, as guys like Daniel Alfredsson and Bernie Federko played enough games in their one season with the Wings to price them out of our budget. Marian Hossa did too.

We can squeeze in Modano and Sittler, though, largely because Harvey gives us a monster value on the blue line. We get more solid value in goal with a Conn Smythe winner in Ranford at just $4, but he makes Detroit our first entry that isn’t made up entirely of current or future Hall of Famers. The Wings’ entry is a solid one, but I don’t think they top the Bruins.

Let’s take a break from the Original Six teams and try a few who have a little less history to work with.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Forwards: Jarome Iginla ($13), Luc Robitaille ($46), Marian Hossa ($12)

Defense: Tim Horton ($44), Sergei Zubov ($64)

Goaltender: Tomas Vokoun ($20)

Total: $199

The Penguins benefit from our rule about just using three forwards without worrying about position, as they’ll roll with over 1,800 goals worth of wingers and apparently just hope that nobody ever has to take a faceoff.

Those three bargains up front allow us to spend some extra money on the blue line, which we kind of need to do – there aren’t any obvious sub-$40 bargains to be found here. We get a pair of Hall of Famers, though, so we’ll take it. We don’t have as much luck in goal, where the good-but-not-great Vokoun is really the only option. That takes this team down a notch after a promising start.

We’ve been heavy on the Eastern Conference so far, so let’s head to the West for the next few.




Friday, August 2, 2019

Grab Bag: Why Paul Fenton was fired, the uniform number controversy and a 1979 helping of Puck Soup

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Paul Fenton was fired after just one year and my spies found out why
- Thoughts on players taking famous numbers
- The comedy stars return
- An obscure player who was once traded straight-up for Fenton
- And a YouTube look back at a very weird piece of 1979 hockey comedy

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Monday, July 29, 2019

Putting together Team Ontario, a roster that will crush all the other states and provinces

It’s been a week of regional rosters around these parts, as The Athletic’s hockey writers have been busy assembling the best teams they can from various states and provinces. We’ve seen Team Minnesota, billed as “a squad that will kick your ass.” That roster was immediately called out by Team Michigan. New York and New Jersey formed a joint effort, New England weighed in and Chicago went in a slightly different direction by enlisting help from Wisconsin to find a full roster. Canada got involved too, with Team British Columbia and Team Quebec. The whole thing has basically been a fun exercise in celebrating a little old-fashioned civic pride.

How adorable. Today, let’s unveil a Team Ontario that will absolutely steamroll all of them.

Call that bragging if you want, but it’s the reality. Ontario has always been the NHL’s primary source for star players. According to hockey-reference.com’s database of player birthplaces, Ontario has produced over 2,300 NHL players. That’s almost three times more than the next highest province, Quebec. It’s almost six times more than B.C., eight times more than Minnesota and over ten times more than Massachusetts or a New York/New Jersey combo.

Granted, some of that discrepancy is from the old days, when almost all of the NHL’s players were Canadians. We won’t dip into history here, since that would be downright unfair, giving a team of Ontario-born players a core of Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Ken Dryden, backed up by Phil Esposito, Newsy Lalonde, Howie Morenz, Ted Lindsay, Larry Robinson and Denis Potvin, not to mention Bobby Hull and his turncoat kid. (Yes, even Team USA mainstay Brett Hull was born in Belleville.) The only team that could match up to a historical Team Ontario would be Team Literally Everywhere Else in the World Combined, and even then I don’t think they could beat us.

So no, we’ll stick to active players as we try to build the best Team Ontario we can right now. Spoiler alert: They’re still going to be pretty good almost everywhere, with one notable exception. We’ll get to that. But first, let’s start up front, with the first of our four first lines.

First line

C Connor McDavid, Oilers (Richmond Hill, ON)
The most talented player in the world seems like a decent place to start our roster. With three straight 100-point seasons, two scoring titles, a Hart and three first-team All-Star selections, he’s had a pretty decent start to his career. Will he be scared and confused when he shows up and is told that he’s actually going to have two decent wingers to play with? Probably, but he’ll figure it out eventually.

RW Steven Stamkos, Lightning (Markham, ON)
Much like the case with Team Canada at the Olympics or World Cup, we’re going to be a little bit too deep down the middle. That means a few guys will have to shift over to the wing, although we’ll try to at least keep players on their correct side. Stamkos will slot in at right wing, just like he did during the most recent World Cup.

LW Logan Couture, Sharks (Guelph, ON)
With McDavid and Stamkos lighting up the scoreboard, we’ll give them a left winger who provides a bit of a defensive conscience. Couture only had 70 points last year, the bum, although you can add 20 more from a dominant postseason. Will our McDavid/Stamkos/Couture first line be able to break even against Team Chicago’s top unit that features (checks notes) Ryan Dzingel? It will be tough, but we think they’re up for the challenge.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Who was the worst player to ever be traded one-for-one for a future Hall of Famer?

While there hasn’t been a ton of big news over the last few weeks, we have seen a handful of trades. The Hawks made two of them, sending Artem Anisimov to Ottawa for Zack Smith and Henri Jokiharju to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander. And then there was the big one, last week’s Milan Lucic for James Neal swap.

That one led to Bob McKenzie getting a little bit cheeky on Twitter.

That’s a callback to this all-timer about the Taylor Hall deal, but it highlights something neat about the last few weeks of deals: They were all classic one-for-ones.

I’ve always loved the humble one-for-one trade. I can appreciate the occasional nine-player blockbuster as much as the next guy, but there’s just something about the simplicity of one player going each way in a deal. It’s the sports equivalent of buying something with exact change. No draft picks, no prospects, no list of depth guys or fringe minor leaguers to balance out the ledger. Just two players switching teams, and two GMs betting that their new guy will be better than their old one.

The Lucic-for-Neal trade might not stay a one-for-one, thanks to the inclusion of a truly spectacular conditional third-round pick. But for now, it can be included in a category with a rich if uneven history. Crack open the NHL record books, and you’ll find one-for-one trades that include multiple Hall of Famers (Pronger-for-Shanahan, Sawchuk-for-Bucyk), very good players (Middleton-for-Hodge) and current-day stars (Weber-for-Subban). Some of them worked out great for both teams (Jones-for-Johansen). Some of them very much did not (Hall-for-Larsson, Rask-for-Raycroft, Naslund-for-Stojanov).

But today, I want to go in a slightly different direction, with what might seem like a weird question: Who’s the least successful player to ever be traded straight up in a one-for-one deal for a future Hall of Famer?

At first glance, you’d think the list would be a pretty short one. After all, future Hall of Famers tend to be pretty good. You’d figure that if you were going to be traded for one, you’d have to be pretty good too. And usually, yeah, that turns out to be the case. But not always, because this is the NHL. Sometimes circumstances get weird and stuff happens.

So, let’s look at five players who it might surprise you to learn can claim to have been traded one-for-one for a future Hall of Famer. (All trade details are from hockey-reference.com.)


Jim Montgomery

Technically, Guy Carbonneau isn’t a Hall of Famer yet; that will have to wait for the induction ceremony in November. But he’s now officially a future Hall of Famer, so we can use him to build our list. And as it turns out, he offers us two possibilities. Carbonneau was traded twice in his career, and both were underwhelming one-for-one deals. In 1995, he went from St. Louis to Dallas for Paul Broten, who wasn’t a superstar but at least put together a solid career. So instead, let’s use Carbonneau’s other trade, which came in 1994 and saw him dealt from Montreal to St. Louis for 25-year-old sophomore (and Montreal native) Jim Montgomery.

The trade was a big deal in Montreal, where Carbonneau had played 13 seasons, winning three Selkes and two Cups, including one in 1993 as captain. One year after that championship, and just days after the team was eliminated from the playoffs, a Montreal newspaper ran a front-page cover of Carbonneau giving the finger to a photographer at a golf course. The team claimed that the trade had nothing to do with the controversy, although it’s fair to say that not everyone believed them. Either way, Carbonneau was himself stunned by the trade, as were many fans.

In exchange, the Canadiens received a young center who’d been a college star and was coming off a 20-point rookie season. He made the Habs to start the lockout-shortened season, appearing in five games without recording a point. That would spell the end of his career as a Canadien; just two weeks into the season, the Flyers claimed him on waivers, leaving Montreal with nothing to show for trading away their captain.

Montgomery would spend parts of two seasons in Philadelphia and several more in the minors before resurfacing in the NHL with the Sharks and later Stars. In all, from the day he was traded straight up for Carbonneau he’d play just 55 NHL games, scoring three goals and 14 points.

So no, Jim Montgomery didn’t end up being much of an NHL player, despite once being traded for a Hall of Famer. But if the name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s back in the league now, having slightly more success as the head coach of the Dallas Stars.


Yan Golubovsky

Golubovsky was a Russian defenseman who’d been a first-round pick by the Red Wings in 1994. He didn’t debut until 1997, playing a dozen games for the Wings over a one-month stretch before being sent back down. He bounced up and down for three seasons, playing a total of 50 games and scoring one goal while mostly holding down AHL duties.

When he didn’t make the NHL roster out of camp in 2000, the team finally cut bait. And they did it by reacquiring a recent Wing. Igor Larionov had spent five years in Detroit before heading to Florida as a free agent in the 2000 offseason, presumably to center countryman Pavel Bure. That move had been a bust for everyone involved, with Larionov playing poorly, feuding with the coaching and staff and generally making a nuisance of himself. When the Wings came calling and Larionov agreed to waive his no-trade clause, the Panthers jumped at the chance to fold a bad hand, and a Larionov-for-Golubovsky trade was born.

Larionov played three more solid seasons for the Wings, including a 2002 Cup run in which he scored a massive goal. As for Florida, the deal was overshadowed by bigger news, as the Panthers fired GM Bryan Murray and coach Terry Murray on the same day. But they promised their fans that Golubovsky would play for the Panthers one day. He did – six games, to be exact. They’d be the last of his NHL career, as he’d head back to Russia after the season.

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