Friday, May 29, 2020

Grab Bag: Return to play thoughts, comedy stars and a Chicago Stadium tour — Scheduled

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- My favorite thing about the NHL's return to play plan is the part they forgot
- The one complaint about the plan that doesn't make sense
- An obscure player who'll lead you to your favorite YouTube video of the week
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube tour of the old Chicago Stadium and it's death trap stairway

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Thursday, May 28, 2020

What if the 24 playoff teams could each draft a player from the eliminated clubs?

It started with a question from a reader: What if the NHL held a draft where each of the 24 teams who’ll be resuming the season could pick one player from the seven outsiders?

Not permanently. Just a loaner, one that would join a contender for the rest of whatever the 2019-20 season looks like, then return to his original team for next year and beyond. Consider it a temporary boost to a postseason that’s already breaking most of the rules anyway.

Would the NHL ever do this? Of course not, for a million reasons, starting with the fact that it barely makes sense. But it wouldn’t be completely unprecedented in hockey history. And far more importantly, it would be fun.

All of this led me to a second question: How can I turn this idea into an article where all the other writers do most of the work for me?

After a brainstorming session, some fine-tuning of the concept, a few Slack invites that turned into even more invites and, if we’re being honest, more than a couple of mid-afternoon beers, the concept was born. And we had 24 writers on board to make it happen.

Then it got weird.

OK, yes, the whole concept is weird. But then the draft started, and it got even weirder. Some picks made sense. There were a few that maybe didn’t. There was a trade. There was instant evaluation. There was trash talk.

Welcome to the 2020 NHL supplemental playoff draft. The rules: each of the 24 postseason teams can draft one player from any of the seven other teams, just for this playoff run. Cap hits don’t count, all no-movement clauses are waived, we’re drafting in reverse order of points percentage and you have to set aside any cognitive dissonance over how none of this could ever actually happen. Oh, and a different writer will draft for each team.

This makes no sense. Let’s do it.

1. Montreal Canadiens – Jack Eichel, Sabres

GM Marc Antoine Godin: Is it really this easy to land a franchise center? Had they known it, the Canadiens probably wouldn’t have wasted 25 years trying to find one. We considered other options on the blue line – Thomas Chabot or Rasmus Dahlin would have been a handy addition to the left side of the top pair – but there’s no point in overthinking things when you have the first pick. It’s like shortly before the 2009 draft when the rumors that filtered out that Matt Duchene had a shot at going first overall. Please. It wasn’t going to be anyone other than John Tavares.

The same holds here – it was always going to be Eichel. A dominant center who changes the complexion of a team like no other player available. The Canadiens are going to wreak devastation on the NHL! (cue the sound of a clock chiming)

Sean says: Maybe not a slam dunk pick, but pretty close. Congratulations to the Canadiens on finally landing a legit first-line center for the first time in a generation. Enjoy it for a few weeks.

2. Chicago Blackhawks – Erik Karlsson, Sharks

GM Mark Lazerus: I think five months is enough time to heal a broken thumb, so I’m going with the most dynamic defenseman of the past decade. I was tempted to take Anze Kopitar because the idea of having Jonathan Toews and Kopitar as the Blackhawks’ top-two centers is tantalizing, even if it’s not 2014. But the Blackhawks’ most glaring flaws are on the blue line and the power play, and Karlsson — even the current Karlsson — is a massive upgrade on both. I wouldn’t sign him to an eight-year deal as he hits 30 next week but certainly he can recapture the magic for a couple of months. Plus, he nicely fits the whole team vibe of highly accomplished veterans in their 30s trying to prove they’re not washed.

Sean says: And this is where the heckling started.

Reviewing the Slack timestamps, Mark’s pick had been on the board for less than one minute when a fellow GM asked “Are we allowed to chirp the picks as they’re made?” Another immediately called it an “awful pick.” There were jokes about Doug Wilson changing his phone number and refusing to take Karlsson back at the end of the playoffs. (That may have been me.)

But to his credit, Mark stood his ground and defended the pick, and his case isn’t a bad one. We’ve seen an injured Karlsson carry a bad team deep into the playoffs before, so I kind of like seeing the Hawks swing for the fences.

Besides, Mark has nothing to worry about here – nobody remembers No. 2.

GM Craig Morgan: The Coyotes have been looking for a No. 1 center since Jeremy Roenick left town in 2001. The void at that critical position is noticeable in matchups against every other Western Conference team, and it is the greatest impediment to legitimate progress.

Arizona thought long and hard about consistent postseason performer Logan Couture. If this draft were about more than this 24-team, don’t-call-it-a-playoff format, the Coyotes also would have looked at Dylan Larkin, but for one postseason run, they’ll take Kopitar, a big, two-way center who is still productive (21 goals, 62 points) and has oodles of postseason experience (66 points in 79 games) from the Kings’ deep runs in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Were it not for Kopitar’s $10 million cap hit, the Coyotes would have inquired about him earlier. He will fit like a glove into Rick Tocchet’s system, while allowing Christian Dvorak, Nick Schmaltz and Derek Stepan to slot into roles better suited to their current abilities.

Sean says: No heckling on this one. We’re back on track with a solid pick.

4. Minnesota Wild – John Gibson, Ducks

GM Michael Russo: For 19 seasons, the Wild desperately could have used a No. 1 center. Now, they’ve got a golden opportunity to snag one … so naturally we’re going to follow Wild tradition and pass up on Dylan Larkin and Logan Couture, one of the best playoff performers in NHL history.

The reality is if the Wild want to be a true Stanley Cup contender this summer, they may have to upgrade their goaltending (although Alex Stalock, a career backup, overtook Devan Dubnyk as the Wild’s No. 1 and was great the final month heading into the pause).

Therefore, GM Michael Russo (has a great ring to it, doesn’t it?) selects goalie John Gibson.

Sure, he had a miserable season, but he’ll have had four months off to refresh and reinvigorate. Discount this past season, from 2015-16 through 2018-19, Gibson ranked second in the NHL with a .922 save percentage (minimum 115 games). He’s our guy.

Sean says: I was wondering where Gibson would go, but this wasn’t the spot I expected. The Wild have Dubnyk signed for another season, so this obvious vote of non-confidence might create some awkwardness. Still, the peanut gallery loved the choice, with one observer calling it a “great pick” and another giving it the ultimate compliment by calling it “the anti-Laz.”

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Puck Soup: Return to play

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to the NHL's Return to Play plan
- Did they screw up the draft lottery? One of us actually likes it
- We're still not sure if the first round counts as the playoffs or not
- The Red Wings and Sabres stand pat
- Greg tries to say nice things about Rise of Skywalker
- A journeyman quiz
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Weekend power rankings: A rerun from 1980

Editor’s note: Due to the ongoing pause to the NHL season, we are once again dipping into the archives to air a Weekend Rankings rerun from a previous season. Please enjoy this week’s power rankings, which originally ran on Monday, Jan. 7, 1980.

The Philadelphia Flyers played last night, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, they didn’t lose.

Oh wait, you have heard that one. In fact, you’ve heard it for nearly three straight months, because the Flyers haven’t lost since their second game of the season. That’s 35 in a row, if you’re keeping track.

You figured that if the streak was ever going to end, last night would be the night. The Flyers were five games into their road trip as they prepared to face the Sabres, the league’s second-best team. With six wins in their last eight games, Buffalo has started to pull away in the Adams. Add in the extra motivation of having lost to many of these same Flyers in the Stanley Cup final just a few years ago, you would think that if anyone could end the streak, it would be Buffalo.

Nope. Bill Barber broke a third-period tie, Rick MacLeish added the insurance marker with five minutes left, and the Flyers cruised to a 4-2 final. Ho-hum. Throw another win on the pile.

With 35 straight games without a loss, the Flyers have already shattered the NHL record, set just a few years ago by the Canadiens; that milestone came and went weeks ago. Friday night’s 4-1 win over the Rangers nudged them ahead of 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers for the longest undefeated streak in pro sports history. Granted, that Lakers team had to win all those games because the NBA doesn’t have ties, which are a fundamental and immutable part of hockey, but it’s still an impressive feat.

And there’s no end in sight. I mean … what are we even holding the rest of the season for? Just give the Stanley Cup to the Flyers, and let’s be done with it. They’re literally unbeatable.

OK, I’m being a little facetious here – obviously you can’t just shut down an NHL season before it’s finished. But it sure does feel like everyone else is playing for second place at this point. And to make matters worse, there’s no reason to think that the Flyers’ dominance is a one-year phenomenon. Mark my words, there’s a new dynasty on the horizon, and it’s coming straight out of the Patrick Division.

In the meantime, the Flyers cap off their six-game road trip tonight in Minnesota. The North Stars are a good team, but we know how this is going to turn out. It’s going to be a long time before the Flyers lose another game this year. Or maybe that should be if they lose another game.

On to this week’s rankings. Hey, I bet you’ll never guess who’s No. 1.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of Rubik’s Cubes, Pac-Man and taking the Stanley Cup to see Empire Strikes Back.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still adjusting to the new playoff format. After years of having an even dozen teams make the playoffs, the NHL is expanding the format to 16 teams this year. And let’s just come right out and say it: That’s way too many.

Yes, the league went from 17 teams to 21 this season due to the WHA merger. There’s some logic to adding extra playoff spots when you add more teams. But having 12 out of 17 teams make the playoffs meant that 70 percent of the league got in. Now, with 16 out of 21, it’s all the way up to 76 percent. That’s crazy. Yes, you want to get as many teams involved in the playoff race as possible, because that’s how you keep all your markets interested. But there has to be a limit.

I mean, imagine if the league keeps this up. We’re told that further expansion will arrive someday. What are we going to do when there are 24 teams? Or 28? Or, to pick an odd number at random, 31? If you kept the same ratio of playoff teams in a 31-team league, you’d end up inviting 24 teams.

A 24-team postseason. Good lord. Let’s start handing out points for losing too, while we’re at it.

Anyway, the one piece of good news is that at least we got rid of that weird preliminary round where only some of the teams had to face off in shorter series. That was a total crapshoot, and nobody even knew whether it was supposed to count as a real playoff series or not. I won’t miss those.

But yeah, 16 teams are making the playoffs this year. I know it seems like a lot, but we’ll have to get used to it.

5. Chicago Black Hawks (15-13-12, +1 true goals differential*) – They’re barely .500 and they can’t score, but they’re still running away with the Smythe because it’s the worst division in hockey. Hey, at least it won’t be won by a 73-point team like it was last year. Man, the Smythe is terrible. I guess we might as well get used to saying that because some things never change.

4. Montreal Canadiens (18-16-6, +12) – I know, I know, I should show the defending champs more respect. They’ve won four straight Cups, after all. Shouldn’t a dynasty team be the favorites?

Yes, they should, but this isn’t that dynasty team. There’s no Ken Dryden, or Yvan Cournoyer, or Jacques Lemaire. There’s no Scotty Bowman. Another year without Sam Pollock. They’re already on their second coach, after literally giving their first coach ulcers. This isn’t the same team that rolled over everyone for the last half-decade.

They’re still good. Guy Lafleur should get 50 goals, and Steve Shutt might get there too. So could Pierre Larouche. They’ve still got Larry Robinson and new captain, Serge Savard. Rod Langway looks like a future Norris winner that they’ll definitely hold on to. And on the right night, the combo of Mario Tremblay and Rejean Houle can drive a goaltender crazy.

So they deserve some respect, which is why they’re in the top five. Can they win a fifth straight Cup? I guess we can’t count them out. But at the risk of overdoing my Philadelphia love-in, I’d advise Montreal fans to watch tonight’s Flyers/North Stars game, because good luck getting past that team in the playoffs.

3. Boston Bruins (21-11-5, +32) – First-year head coach Fred Creighton continues to do a great job, and seems like the long-term answer behind the bench. But the big story is rookie defenseman Ray Bourque, who’s stepped in as a 19-year-old and already looks like one of the best blueliners in the league. He’s not especially big or physical, so you have to wonder how long he can last in the league. But he can do just about everything else, and it’s not hard to envision him being the guy who brings the Stanley Cup back to Boston.

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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Puck Soup: Pyramid Power

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- It sure sounds like the NHL has settled on a 24-team format for resuming the season
- But don't call it a 24-team playoff, apparently
- Why is everyone so scared of Carey Price all of a sudden?
- We go through the matchups we'll reportedly be getting
- Thoughts on Akim Aliu's piece on his experiences with racism in the hockey world
- Pierre McGuire might be the next Devils' GM
- Something about some comic book movie, I don't know I wasn't listening
- And we debut a new game, as Ryan and Greg team up to play The $25,000 Pierre-amid

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.