Thursday, September 18, 2014

Suggested new season's resolutions

Finally, NHL hockey is kind of, sort of back.

After weeks of signings and trades, offseason training updates, and fuzzily tweeted photos of rookie scrimmages, today’s the day that full training camps officially open across the league. The 2014-15 season has finally arrived.

As we count down to opening night in less than three weeks, this is a good time to make some new year’s season’s resolutions. After all, everyone who enjoys this sport, from the brand-new fans to the longtime diehards, could probably stand a little improvement. So let’s take a moment to think about the ways in which we could all become better fans.

You could probably come up with a few self-improvement ideas of your own. But if you could use a nudge, I’ve taken the liberty of making a half-dozen suggestions.

Let’s stop making everything about character

To be clear: Character matters. It matters in all walks of life, and that’s especially true in professional hockey. Some guys work hard, and others are lazy. Some guys are good in the room, and others are poison. Ninety percent of NHL players are so close in talent these days that a little extra effort here or a little bit better team chemistry there could be the difference in deciding a game or two, and those one or two games could decide who makes the playoffs.

But while character matters, it’s not the only thing that matters. And that may come as a surprise if you spend much time consuming what passes for hockey analysis these days. At some point over the last few years, it feels like character went from being one factor out of many to being the most important factor, sometimes even the only one. Every coach explaining away a loss, every columnist breaking down the action, every fan who calls in to the postgame show … these days, everyone drones on and on about character.

And that’s kind of ridiculous, because character isn’t everything. It’s not more important than talent. It’s not more important than systems. It’s not more important than using a player in the right role for his skill set. It’s not even more important than luck (more on that one in a bit).

And yet character — along with related concepts like chemistry, culture, body language, and compete level has taken over hockey analysis. Teams don’t lose anymore because they have bad players or a flawed game plan. Now, they only lose when they don’t compete hard enough. If everyone had just worked harder, we’re told, everything would have been fine.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is kindergarten thinking: “Everybody can be a winner if they just try their very best.” Well, no, they can’t. Not in the NHL. It’s all well and good to be a hard worker and a good teammate, and players should certainly strive to be both. But some players are just better than others, and sometimes the coach’s X’s and O’s turn out to be a mess, and sometimes you play great and the puck just bounces the wrong way. And at some point we all just stopped talking about that stuff and decided to make it all about personality.

There’s a concept in psychology called the fundamental attribution error, which basically goes like this: When something happens to us, we consider a wide range of reasons, but when it happens to somebody else, we assume that it can only be the result of internal factors. If I cut you off in traffic, it’s because I’ve had a hard day at work and my kids are screaming in the backseat and all of this rain has reduced visibility. If you cut me off, it’s because you’re a jerk.

Once you learn to recognize it, the fundamental attribution error starts showing up everywhere in today’s hockey coverage. A star player who hits a cold streak over the course of a playoff series couldn’t have been shut down by a superior player, or put in the wrong role by his coach, or limited by an injury, or just had a run of plain bad luck over a short span of games. No, he has to have suffered a moral failure. He didn’t compete. He didn’t want it bad enough. He was mentally fragile, he’s not a winner, and he didn’t “just find a way,” whatever that means.

We’ve taken a small but important part of success or failure and made it everything. We’ve turned hockey into a modern morality play, complete with heroes and villains, where the good guy always wins in the end. Because, after all, whoever wins is by definition the good guy, since otherwise they couldn’t have won.

It makes us sound silly, and it’s time to rein it in. “Just do your best and everything will work out fine” is a cute thing to tell a nervous kid on the first day of school. But it’s not a strategy for a professional sports team, and we shouldn’t try to pass it off as intelligent analysis.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What comes next for the hockey analytics movement?

This time last year, mentioning the word “analytics” in hockey circles was a good way to bring any conversation to a screeching halt. At best, you might get blank stares. At worse, you could expect a scowl, followed by a clichéd lecture about spreadsheets, protractors, and just watching the damn games.

Those days now seem like a very long time ago. In what became known as hockey’s summer of analytics, several of the community’s top minds were snapped up by NHL teams. Fan forums and Twitter lit up with those wanting to learn about these newfangled numbers. Talk radio was debating the merits of Corsi and Fenwick, and even old-school media began incorporating the newer stats into their work. Suddenly, analytics is everywhere.

All of this has left the field with new credibility, as even longtime critics have been forced to concede that there’s value in analytics. But it’s also left behind a void, with thought leaders like Tyler Dellow and Eric Tulsky now largely silenced by the terms of their new employment.

On Saturday, several of the field’s top remaining names gathered in Calgary for the second Alberta Analytics Conference. The event was organized by Rob Vollman1 and attended by roughly 70 fans, as well as media and at least one team executive.2

As you’d expect, the day featured the occasional mention of how much the tide had turned, and maybe even a little bit of gloating. But for the most part, the focus was on the future. Hockey analytics has arrived and is here to stay. But compared to sports like baseball, the field is still in its infancy. Despite the progress of the last year, there’s a long road ahead, and lots of ground still left to be covered.

So where do we go from here? Here are five areas you can expect to hear more about over the coming months and years.

All the small things

The best known of the new wave of hockey stats is Corsi, which measures the number of shots that each team attempts. Corsi3 turns out to be hugely important — it’s one of the best indicators we have of future success, especially at the team level. Put simply, teams that can gain an edge in possession and create more shot attempts usually go on to beat the teams that can’t. As far as analytics go, this is settled science and has been for a long time.

Great. So now what?

After all, any coach who looked at the numbers is going to want to know: If Corsi is so important, how do I improve my team’s number? “Be a better possession team” isn’t a useful answer. “Create more Corsi events” is even worse. All of this stuff may be useful for predicting future success and failure at a macro level, but as a practical matter it isn’t useful to coaching staffs unless it can translate into specific changes to a team’s strategic approach.

We covered one example last season: zone entries. At last year’s Sloan Conference, Tulsky and others presented a paper that looked at the value of entering the offensive zone with possession, as opposed to dumping the puck in deep and then trying to retrieve it. They found that entry with possession was roughly twice as valuable in terms of generating shots and scoring chances. That went against conventional North American hockey wisdom, which has long leaned toward the safer dump-and-chase approach, but the numbers were convincing. It was also exactly the sort of insight that a coach can actually use, and in fact, some NHL coaches did.4

Now, analysts like Justin Azevedo are looking for similar breakthroughs. On Saturday, Azevedo presented his efforts to study what he refers to as microstats, the sort of common plays that take place on virtually every shift, but that aren’t tracked separately in the box score. Azevedo wants to know whether the way teams approach those common plays could impact their Corsi.

For instance, think about the stretch pass. Hockey fans have come to appreciate the ability of a defenseman to make a long pass across multiple zones to a streaking forward; it’s one of the most coveted skills that an offensive blueliner can have. But how often do stretch passes succeed? And do the failed attempts, which can often result in an icing call or, worse, the play quickly coming back the other way, hurt a team more than the successful ones help?5

Those are the sort of questions that will become more common as fans like Azevedo figure out what’s worth tracking. It’s daunting work; unlike shot attempts, the data can’t be scraped from the NHL’s logs, so it has to be tracked manually by somebody watching the game and recording each play they see. It’s hard for one person to track more than one team at a time,6 and much of the work is subjective and prone to error.

It’s a tough job, but it’s the sort of thing that will have to be done if analysts want to answer that coach’s question: Great, now what?

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, September 12, 2014

The pros and cons of the inevitable NHL expansion

The NHL’s sleepy summer got a brief jolt when reports surfaced that the league was on the verge of adding four new teams. The league would be welcoming expansion franchises in Seattle, Toronto, Quebec City, and Las Vegas, we were told, and all four new teams would be up and running by 2017.

The league quickly denied the reports … kind of. It was one of those “there’s no truth to this specific story right now” sort of denials, leaving open the possibility that expansion could still be coming in the near future. And realistically, it has to be. With revenues at record levels, it seems inevitable that it won’t be long before the league expands for the first time since the 2000-01 season.

But should it? As with any major business decision, there are pros and cons to NHL expansion. Let’s run through some of the arguments that could be made on either side.

Pro: Money. We might as well get this one out of the way first, since it’s easily the biggest reason that we’re even talking about any of this. So: money. A very, very big pile of money.

The NHL and its owners will make a ton of money off of another round of expansion. Initial reports estimated that the league would be looking for a $350 million expansion fee for each new team,1 for a total of $1.4 billion. That seems like a big number, but Gary Bettman practically scoffed at it, suggesting the league would be aiming much higher. One report suggesting that bidding for a new Toronto team alone could start at $800 million and perhaps top $1 billion, which would be a North American sports record for an expansion fee.

Even better, at least from the owners’ perspective, is that the expansion fees won’t count as hockey-related revenue, which means it wouldn’t be shared with the players in the form of an increased salary cap. All that money would essentially go directly into the owners’ pockets. That seems like a pretty easy vote to take.

Con: While the league would surely love to cash four new expansion fee checks, there’s a legitimate question as to whether there are really four markets out there that could support a new NHL team.

While the league has never been more successful in terms of overall revenue, it’s not like demand for the product is soaring, and there are legitimate questions about the proposed destinations. Las Vegas has never had a major pro sports team, and Seattle doesn’t have an arena or any current plans to build one. Combine that with the fact that neither city is exactly known as a hotbed for hockey fans,2 and you get a decent argument that the destinations don’t make much sense.

Quebec City, of course, has already had an NHL team, which it lost back in 1996 due to financial pressures. The league’s business landscape has changed significantly since then, especially as it relates to Canadian teams, so there’s a good chance that Quebec City could work as a reclamation project in the same way that Winnipeg has. But it wouldn’t be a sure thing.

Meanwhile, it’s worth mentioning that not all 30 of the current franchises are exactly thriving. While nothing is imminent, struggling teams like the Panthers, Predators, and Coyotes could need to move someday, or at least want to be able to legitimately threaten it to squeeze more out of their current homes. They can’t do that unless there are viable markets available.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Unanswered NHL questions

With another two weeks left before NHL training camps open and not much coming across the news wire, it can be tempting to assume that all the offseason’s major story lines have been neatly wrapped up.

For the most part that’s true, but there’s still occasional news trickling in. For example, this weekend we learned that the league had finally gotten around to finding a venue for the Winter Classic in Washington, D.C.,1 just nine short months after they announced the teams involved.

Meanwhile, we’re still looking for a resolution on several other important stories. Here are five offseason subplots on which fans are still waiting for a resolution.

Where will Martin Brodeur play?

This is the time of year when the free-agent pickings start to look pretty sparse. Dustin Penner could help somebody, maybe Todd Bertuzzi if you were desperate, and even good old Paul “BizNasty” Bissonnette is still out there for a team looking to boost its Klout rating.

Other than that, the list is pretty thin. Well, except for that surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer who owns most of the all-time NHL records at his position.

That would be Brodeur, of course, who spent 20 years as the undisputed starter in New Jersey before splitting time with Cory Schneider last season and is now an unrestricted free agent. Given his résumé, you might expect that there’d be a long lineup of teams waiting to talk to him, but there’s been surprisingly little buzz around the nine-time All-Star.

That’s partly because the market for goaltending is already saturated, and partly because Brodeur hasn’t actually been all that good over the past few years. There just aren’t any teams that feel like they’re one .900 save percentage starter away from contending, and Brodeur has never seemed all that enthusiastic about accepting a backup role. That’s led to some recent talk that he may just retire, and the Devils say they have a front office spot waiting for him if he wants it.

Still, there are some scenarios remaining in which it could make sense for Brodeur to come back. He could wait for the season to start and see which team runs into inevitable injury problems. He could accept a backup role on a team where the starter is either on shaky ground or injury-prone, with an eye toward winning at least a share of the job. Or he could talk himself into settling for one last Cup chase by accepting a full-time backup job on a legitimate contender.2 So while the odds aren’t looking great, he does have options.

Then again, maybe the best fit would be to return to New Jersey for one more year, back up Schneider, and go out as a hero — or a trade deadline rental if the perfect destination happens to open up during the season. That could be a tough pill for a competitive guy like Brodeur to swallow, but it might be preferable to ending his career with what could be shaping up as an extended Jerry Rice–in-Seattle moment.

Is Daniel Alfredsson coming back?


Unlike Brodeur, the question with the 41-year-old Alfredsson isn’t “where,” since he’s only interested in playing in Detroit. The questions are whether his body will let him play one more year, and whether the Red Wings want him back.

After 17 years in Ottawa, Alfredsson chose to go to Detroit last year in hopes of winning his first Stanley Cup. He performed well enough — his 49 points were actually good enough for a share of the team lead on the injury-ravaged Wings but didn’t get close to that championship, as the team barely made the playoffs and bowed out quickly in the first round. He has battled back problems in recent years, and while he’s indicated his interest in returning, that could change if he doesn’t feel right once he’s back on the ice.

While the Wings would miss Alfredsson’s leadership, they do have a decent dose of youth on the way that could use his ice time. Earlier in the offseason, GM Ken Holland stopped short of guaranteeing him a roster spot. But more recent reports have been more positive, and there seems to be a fit here. The team doesn’t have much cap space, but could do a bonus-laden deal that would ease that pressure for this year. Chances are, this one doesn’t get decided until shortly before training camp, but the betting is that Alfredsson will be back.

By the way, Alfredsson and Brodeur aren’t the only veterans we may not have seen the last of. Guys like Tim Thomas, Saku Koivu, Ed Jovanovski, and Ray Whitney are all still unsigned, and none have officially retired. Heck, even Teemu Selanne hasn’t quite gotten around to hanging up the skates for good yet, although if he plays it will be in the KHL.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, September 8, 2014

Things overheard at the Maple Leafs statue unveiling

MLSE also spent a ton of money on a tribute to
Toronto FC’s greatest players, but halfway through
the ceremony the best statues just walked out.

After weeks of speculation, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally unveiled their new Legends Row on Saturday as part of their Fan Fest weekend. The new monument features bronze statues of Ted Kennedy, Johnny Bower and Darryl Sittler, with other legends from franchise history being added each year leading up to the team’s centennial celebration in 2017.

The event was a big deal for Maple Leaf fans, so it goes without saying that DGB spies were in attendance. Here’s a selection of some of the things they managed to overhear.

  • Yes, it certainly is a thrill to get a glimpse of a superstar from a long-bygone era who you can only remember through stories passed down to you from your grandparents, but maybe don’t say that out loud to Darryl Sittler, ok Mr. Dubas?

  • Oh cool, they left plenty of space for another eight to ten good players, just like they did for the current roster.

  • Quick, get these wonderful tributes to the franchise’s beloved past unveiled before Tim Leiweke shows up with a blow torch and starts melting everything down.

  • This one statue of a guy taking a penalty shot is so lifelike that if you stare at it long enough it almost seems like it’s actually moving ever so slowly towards… oh, sorry Mr. Allison, didn’t realize you were here today.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sailing the seven C's

Being an NHL captain used to be a pretty stable job. Once you were handed a “C,” you could expect to hold on to it for a while, maybe even a couple of decades if you were lucky and/or Steve Yzerman. Even the league’s most dysfunctional teams made a change only every few years, so when the time came to pass the torch, it was a big deal.1

These days, some teams change captains roughly as often as Apple updates iTunes. At this time last year, there were an unprecedented eight teams without a captain. Heading into this season, we’re looking at seven openings, including three repeat appearances from last year’s list.

Here’s a look at those seven openings, and our best guesses as to who’ll end up filling them.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres went into last season without a captain after trading Jason Pominville. They decided to split the honor between Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott, and then ended up trading both of those guys, too.

Those deals came as part of a full-scale rebuild that’s left the team without any longtime Sabres who’d make for an obvious choice. Tyler Myers had a rebound season and could be a possibility. Cody Hodgson might work, too. I suggested Drew Stafford for the job last year, and Sabres fans nearly burned my house down. So let’s stay away from him.

The other option would be a recent acquisition like Matt Moulson or former Habs Josh Gorges or Brian Gionta, the last of whom was captain in Montreal before signing in Buffalo. It’s relatively rare to hand the “C” to a player who just arrived, but it’s not unprecedented. And there might be some appeal in having a division rival’s former captain slide in and take over.

Best bet: It wouldn’t be a shock to see them go without a full-time captain until the rebuilding process stabilizes a bit. But that’s a boring prediction, so let’s go with Gionta, who gets to handle the job for a few years until they’re ready to give it to Connor McDavid.

Montreal Canadiens


With Gionta gone, the Habs are looking for someone to take over one of the tougher captaincy jobs in hockey. This sort of thing is a big deal in Montreal, where the list of former captains includes legends like Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, and Maurice Richard.

While you could make a case for Brandon Prust and Tomas Plekanec, this one seems like it’s going to end up being a two-man race between defensemen Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban. Markov is the veteran option, having played his entire 13-year career in Montreal, and would make plenty of sense. Subban represents the future, having just signed the biggest contract in franchise history, and would also make plenty of sense.

Best bet: It seems like a sure thing that Subban will be the Habs’ captain soon; the only question is whether they just go ahead and do it now, or give the veteran Markov a short transition run first. Either scenario would work, but let’s go ahead and make Markov the pick.

Ottawa Senators

Subtract the storied history and the Senators find themselves in essentially the same situation as Montreal: a choice between a veteran defenseman who’s been with the team forever, and a younger, better one who may not be ready to lead yet. In this case, those roles would be filled by Chris Phillips and Erik Karlsson, respectively. Chris Neil and Marc Methot may also get some consideration, but the odds are it comes down to a choice between the two blueliners.

Phillips deserves the honor, having spent his entire 16-year career in Ottawa, and he wanted the job a year ago. But his play has dropped off noticeably in recent years, and he was rumored to be a trade target at last season’s deadline. After following up the shocking end of Daniel Alfredsson’s captaincy with Jason Spezza’s one-and-done reign, the team might not want to hand the “C” to another player who’s unlikely to be around much longer.

Best bet: There’s a chance the team might choose to go without a captain altogether (an option their fans seem to support), but my guess is that they just take the plunge with Karlsson now.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A look back at the NHL's forgotten lockout

Twenty years ago this month, NHL fans had plenty to talk about. Training camps were set to open. The New York Rangers were getting ready to raise the banner on their first Stanley Cup title in 54 years. And hockey fans were about to get their first taste of what would become the league’s trademark over the next two decades: an extended, season-disrupting work stoppage that would alienate fans and change the way the game was played, both on and off the ice.

Granted, compared to what we now know was to come, the 1994 lockout could be viewed as just a warning shot, and in the years since it’s been largely forgotten. But back then, as the September days ticked past and the unthinkable slowly turned into the inevitable, it was unlike anything hockey fans had ever seen before. And the dispute set the stage for Rounds 2 and 3 and beyond, as one side would eventually suffer an embarrassing loss that it swore it would never repeat.

As the calendar flipped over to September 1994, the players and owners were clearly headed toward some sort of labor showdown. The league’s collective bargaining agreement had expired, and the owners refused to play out the season without a new one, arguing that doing so would leave them vulnerable to a midseason strike that could wipe out the remainder of the year. That concern wasn’t unreasonable, considering that Major League Baseball was just days away from canceling the World Series because of just such a stoppage.

The NHL had gone through labor disputes before, including a 10-day player strike in 1992 that briefly threatened that year’s playoffs.1 But the 1994 dispute was something altogether different. This time it was the owners who were threatening to shut the game down, while loudly threatening they were willing to miss extended time to get the right deal. More importantly, they were doing it all under the leadership of a fresh-faced, new commissioner who’d assured them victory: Gary Bettman.

Bettman had been hired in December 1992, partly as a response to that year’s strike.2 He came over from the NBA with a reputation as one of the sports world’s smartest and most ambitious young executives. His NHL mandate: aggressive expansion, a new American TV deal, a focus on growth (especially in the southern U.S.), and lasting labor peace … under the owners’ terms, of course.

Those terms, it was widely assumed, would include some sort of salary cap.3 In a move that would become familiar to hockey fans a decade later, Bettman himself refused to call it that, insisting that the owners’ proposal was merely a tax plan, but the result would have been essentially the same. The players, under the leadership of Bob Goodenow, were open to a small tax, but preferred that the league achieve the bulk of its financial goals through revenue sharing instead. With the owners insisting that rising salaries and growing financial disparity between teams necessitated a hard line, there was talk the entire season could be at stake. This work stoppage, we were warned, could be The Big One.

The owners’ stance didn’t come without risk. The potential opportunity cost was enormous; not only had the baseball strike given the NHL a chance to start the season without any competition from the Fall Classic, but the league was still riding high off an exciting season that culminated with the Rangers’ dramatic Cup win. The positive buzz was so strong that there was talk of the NHL actually threatening the NBA as America’s third-most popular sport.4 With the sort of momentum the league had been chasing for a generation finally behind it, it seemed like the worst possible timing for an extended work stoppage.

Despite that, it quickly became clear the situation was dire. Bettman had actually fired the first shot in August, unilaterally withdrawing several player benefits in a move the owners claimed was meant to spur negotiations. While talks had indeed resumed in August, the move served to unify the players against the owners and their new commissioner. Those bad feelings eventually culminated in a memorable Chris Chelios rant in which he appeared to threaten Bettman’s safety.5

In an odd twist from the league’s future lockouts, the 1994 dispute didn’t prevent the start of training camps. Players reported in mid-September as scheduled, and the exhibition schedule was played. But as the countdown toward opening night continued, any chatter around line combinations or rookie debuts was quickly replaced by lockout talk. As camp wore on, the usual battles for lineup spots began to feel futile.

After weeks of stalled negotiations and sniping in the media, the inevitable became official on October 1, 1994, as Bettman announced that the season would not begin as scheduled. The usual script was followed, with the owners expressing their ever-so-sincere regret and the players swearing they were united. The first batch of games was officially canceled three weeks later, with more to follow as the lockout wore on. At one point, the players considered retaliating by reducing that year’s playoffs. Of course, that would require that the playoffs were actually played; that possibility seemed less and less certain as the weeks passed.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The 1980s were completely insane -- but why? And what changed?

Two weeks ago we introduced a new feature called Holy Crap, the 1980s Were Freaking Insane, a look back at a decade that saw goals scored at a level never seen before or since. We had some fun with a few of the decade’s stranger success stories, and plenty of longtime fans took the opportunity to reminisce.

But a few newer fans reached out to me with a question: What the hell happened? How did the NHL go from shattering offensive records throughout the ’80s down to the dregs of the dead puck era by the mid-’90s? What changed? That’s actually an interesting question, and the answer ends up being a lot more complicated than you might think.

First, it’s worth remembering that the ideal amount of offense in an NHL game is subjective, and that scoring rates have been going up and down for years. Many would argue that goal scoring was too high in the ’80s, turning the league into a one-sided arcade game lacking anything resembling defense. Lots of fans would prefer something closer to the middle ground we saw in the ’70s or early ’90s. In fact, some would even argue that the current scoring rates are just fine the way they are. (That last group is wrong, but we’ll save that debate for another day.)

So instead of arguing about whether plunging scoring rates were a good thing or a bad thing, let’s focus on why things changed so much in the first place. As it turns out, the list of suspects gets kind of long.

The Goalies

Goaltender equipment got bigger

We’ll lead off with this one, not because it’s the most important but because it’s the explanation that always comes up. It’s certainly true that goaltending equipment evolved considerably during the 1990s. Shoulder pads went from being almost unnoticeable to looking like they’d been borrowed from a linebacker. Leg pads went from lumpy brown sofa cushions to massive pieces that extended well beyond the top of the knee. Trappers started looking like hubcaps, oversize jerseys became the norm, and some goalies even started wearing their hockey pants several sizes too big.

By the end of it, goaltenders had looked like this. The NHL eventually introduced rules to limit some of the more ridiculous offenders, but it was too little too late.

Fans tend to focus on the equipment issue because it’s so easy to see — watch any old footage from the ’70s and ’80s and the difference is striking. But the impact of equipment is probably overstated. It was a factor, but far from the only one.

The goalies themselves got bigger

It wasn’t just the equipment that increased in size throughout the ’90s and beyond; it was the goaltenders themselves. With a handful of exceptions, they’re massive now.

There had been big goalies before six-time Cup winner Ken Dryden was considered huge at 6-foot-4 but the league was still home to guys like 5-foot-7 Allan Bester or 5-foot-5 Darren Pang in the ’80s. These days, it’s rare to see a goaltender who stands less than six feet tall, and even Dryden would find himself looking up at guys like Ben Bishop and Pekka Rinne. (To really drive the point home, here’s a recent shot of Pang and Bishop trying on each other’s equipment.)

While it’s true that forwards and defensemen are getting bigger, too, the trend has been much more pronounced for goalies. And that’s because the way the position is played has changed...

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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.

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