Friday, March 22, 2019

Grab Bag: Fixing the lottery, let’s experiment on bad teams and happier times for Minnesota fans

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Should there be a limit on teams winning the lottery?
- A brilliant idea for meaningless late-season games we can steal from the 1930s
- An obscure player who may have invented the unsustainable shooting percentage
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the Minnesota Fighting Saints, one of the weirdest teams of the early WHA days

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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Puck Soup: Poll postions

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg, Ryan and I react to the NHLPA players poll
- Are the Lightning still the best team if they don't win the Cup?
- Is there anything to this Mike Babcock vs. Kyle Dubas feud?
- The Western wildcard gets fun
- The Hurricanes' "Duck Hunt" celebration spurs some old school NES talk
- Plus Bill and Ted 3, saddest retirements and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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

Breaking down the best and the worst of the 17 nights left on the schedule

OK,​ hockey fans, huddle​ up.

We’re​ down​ to​ 17​ nights​ left on​ the regular season​ schedule. That’s not​ much​ and there’s still​​ plenty left to be decided. Most teams still have eight or nine games left, so just about everyone is going to be busy and the stakes are high. It’s tempting to just get comfortable and lock in for the rest of the homestretch.

But that’s not healthy. We have to pace ourselves. Three weeks from now we’re going to be into the first round of the playoffs, which is the absolute craziest time of the year to be a hockey fan. You’re not going to last if you burned yourself out over the last few weeks of the regular season.

Today, let’s walk through every night left on the schedule and figure out which ones are must-see TV and which ones we can maybe take a pass on. The NHL has never really been great at balanced scheduling; they’ll serve up a busy night packed with great games immediately followed by one with nothing worth watching. That can be frustrating when it’s November, but in March and April, it’s actually good news. We need to pick our spots.

Grab your calendars and let’s figure this out.

Thursday, March 21

Total games: 12

The can’t-miss matchup: We get a rematch of the 2017 Stanley Cup final tonight, as the Penguins visit the Predators in a game with major ramifications for both teams. The Predators are fighting it out with the Jets for top spot in the Central and need every point they can get, while the Penguins still have a shot at home ice or even the division title. Mix in plenty of star power and this should be a good one.

Other good options: Jets at Golden Knights is a rematch of last year’s conference final and maybe a preview of this year’s too. Avalanche at Stars has wildcard implications and the Islanders can drive a serious nail into the Canadiens’ coffin. And Tampa visits the Hurricanes in what could be a preview of a sneakily intriguing first-round series.

No thanks: Despite a dozen games on the schedule, Flyers at Blackhawks is somehow the only one that won’t feature at least one team holding down a playoff spot. Instead, it’s two teams that will probably finish the season just a few points out and regretting the missed opportunities along the way.

Entertainment quotient: 8/10 – Tonight should be a great start to the homestretch, with so many good-to-great games that it’s almost inevitable that there will be at least a few memorable ones.

Friday, March 22

Total games: Two

The can’t-miss matchup: Uh … Wild at Capitals, I guess? At least both teams still have something to play for.

Other good options: Netflix. A good book. Interacting with your family.

No thanks: Sharks at Ducks. The various versions of the Battle of California usually serve up something fun, but nobody should be carving out time to watch the Ducks these days unless you have an immediate family member on the team.

Entertainment quotient: 2/10 – You know what, maybe DVR a few of tonight’s games to watch tomorrow.

Saturday, March 23

Total games: 14

The can’t-miss matchup: Predators at Jets, in the final meeting of the season between the two teams. It’s too early to say whether this one will decide the Central, but there’s a decent chance that it will. And if it plants a few seeds of bad blood for a Round 2 matchup along the way, that would work too.

Other good options: The theme for most of the rest of this busy night is games in which a good team is playing a bad one. But Lightning at Blues and Penguins at Stars should be fun and Sabres at Canadiens is a classic case of a division rival with the chance to play spoiler.

No thanks: Senators at Oilers isn’t the worst game on the schedule; that would be Ducks at Kings. But that one at least has serious lottery implications, while this one features a team that doesn’t want to finish last against a team that realistically can’t.

Entertainment quotient: 6/10 – This ends up being a weirdly disappointing night, as the NHL serves up a slate that’s just one game shy of the maximum, yet doesn’t feature all that many really intriguing matchups. Still, there’s so much going on that a few games have to be worth watching. Just be ready with the remote if the one you’re on isn’t delivering; you want a Mike Keenan-like hook tonight.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The optimist’s case for the eight teams still chasing down a playoff spot

We’re​ down to crunch​ time​ in​ the​ NHL​ playoff​ race, with​ 16 spots up​ for grabs and​ less​ than three weeks​​ to sort it all out.

At this point, we can basically break the league down into four groups. There are the teams that are already in, either because they’ve clinched (Tampa, Calgary) or are so close that they’re basically locks (Boston, San Jose, Winnipeg and several others). You’ve got the teams that are already out, like Ottawa and Los Angeles. And you’ve got teams like Arizona, Carolina and Columbus that are holding down spots right now and who would really like to run out the clock before somebody can catch them.

It’s the fourth group that we’re interested in today: Teams that are still alive but don’t have a spot today. According to Dom Luszczyszyn’s projections model, there are eight teams that wouldn’t be in the playoffs if they started today, but who still have a playoff probability north of zero percent.

Note that we’re not counting teams like the Sabres, Rangers and Ducks who are sitting at zero percent probability even though they haven’t been mathematically eliminated yet; we can call them the dead teams walking. We’re interested in the teams that still have a chance. A slim chance, in some cases, sure. But a chance.

It’s nervous times for fans of those teams. Some of them are probably pretty miserable right now. Today, let’s put on our optimist goggles and look on the bright side, as we make the case for why each of those eight teams is going to close the gap and make the playoffs. We won’t be right for all of them. There’s a good chance that we won’t be right for any of them, given how hard it is to make up ground in an NHL playoff race. But we’re going to try, if only because fans of these teams could probably use some news.

Finding optimism is going to be a challenge for some of these teams, so we’ll start off easy with the team that the model likes best and work our way down. (All odds are from the Tuesday morning update to Dom’s model.)

Let’s get positive, starting with the team that’s most likely to make the leap.

The team: Minnesota Wild

The race: The Wild sit just one point back of the Coyotes for the final Western wildcard spot. They could also theoretically catch the Stars, who are three points up, or even the Blues, who are five up. But the Blues and Stars each have a game in hand.

All in all, it’s not a bad spot to be in. And it’s why the Wild have the highest odds of any team currently on the outside looking in.

Their odds: 29 percent. Huh. That’s not actually all that high. This may be tougher than I thought.

Why they’ll make it: They’re chasing three teams and only have to pass one, which is a pretty good position to be in. If they can get hot, they’re probably in, and even if they can’t, there’s always the chance that one of the other teams will stumble down the stretch. Fans tend to focus too much on how many points a team has to make up and not enough on how many teams they have to pass and the Wild are in decent shape by both measures.

More importantly, the schedule serves up one more game with the Coyotes, on March 31 in Arizona. That means that the Wild control their own fate. Win that game, and hold serve the rest of the way, and they’re in.

Why they won’t: Yeah, about that schedule. It also brings games against teams like the Predators, Knights, Capitals, Jets and Bruins. That’s not good news for a team that’s already lost six of eight and has recently been saying things like “We have no heart right now.”

Parting words of optimism: Two weeks ago, the Wild went into Tampa and shut out the Lightning. Compared to doing that, catching the Coyotes should be easy.

The team: Montreal Canadiens

The race: With ten games to go, the Habs are three points back of the Blue Jackets and four back of the Hurricanes, who have a game in hand.

Their odds: 18 percent, down from over 40 percent just a week ago. That’s the biggest drop in the league in recent days.

Why they’ll make it: Last week was brutal, but there’s a chance to turn it around starting tonight as they get the Flyers, Sabres and Panthers over the next week. They also have one game each with the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets, meaning they control at least some of their own destiny. And while the last week looks brutal – it goes Jets, Lightning, Capitals and Leafs – those teams will have all wrapped up playoff spots and could be resting starters.

Beyond that, the Canadiens looked great on Saturday and just got robbed by a goalie who stood on his head. That happens. And when you’ve got Carey Price, it’s more likely to happen in your favor than the other way around.

Why they won’t: We can talk all we want about deserving a better fate, but last week really was devasting to Montreal’s hopes. Three or four points doesn’t seem like much, but history tells us that it’s a lot to make up in the first half, let alone in late March. And remember, they won’t hold the ROW tie-breaker on either Columbus or Carolina, so the gap is more like four and five.

On top of that, the offense has dried up and there isn’t a lot of time left to figure out how to get it back.

Parting words of optimism: You’re chasing a team that’s never won a playoff round and one that’s missed the postseason for nine straight years and you have Carey Price. You’ve got this.

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Monday, March 18, 2019

Weekend power rankings: The Lightning are the NHL’s best team and they probably won’t win the Cup

We’re​ just three weeks​ away​ from​ the​ start​ of​ the playoffs.​ It’s the very​ best time of​ year,​ with a ton of​​ action, intensity through the roof and the crushing suspense of finding out who’ll be left standing as the season’s best team.

Except that this year, there’s no suspense, because we already know the answer. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the best team of the 2018-19 season. There’s really no question about it. Even if they lose every game they play for the rest of the year, they’re still the season’s best and it’s not even close.

Now we just need to wait and see if they actually win the Stanley Cup. However, they probably won’t.

That feels like a weird thing to say. As hockey fans, we’re trained to believe that the Cup winner is the best team. Of course they are. They were the last team standing and they won a big trophy for it. Regular season success is nice, but as the league itself has told us, it’s all about the Cup. We can’t know who’s the best until we’ve seen who survives four rounds and emerges as champion.

Nonsense. This year, we already know. It’s the Lightning.

To be clear, I’m not trying to make a case that the Presidents’ Trophy is somehow the real prize of an NHL season. Most years, there’s so little difference between the top few teams that the difference between finishing first overall and third or fourth doesn’t really tell us anything about which team was actually best.

But not this season. The Lightning aren’t just clearly the best team in the league, they might be the best team of the last quarter-century. They’ve been dominant at pretty much every facet of the game. They’re loaded with stars, with many of them having career years. They’re well-coached, have the league’s best powerplay and penalty kill, are strong in goal and don’t feature any obvious holes anywhere on the roster. If you could wish the perfect cap-era team into existence, it would look a lot like this year’s Lightning.

But they still probably won’t win. And we might as well start getting our heads around that now.

Dom Luszczyszyn currently has the Lightning at about a 25 percent chance to win the Cup, even though he also thinks they may be the single best team of the cap era. That seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. In the NHL’s era of hyper-parity, 25 percent is pretty close to the best you can do.

To understand why, let’s do some math. Imagine a team that was a 70 percent favorite in a playoff series. That’s pretty good. It’s rare for any team to be a 70 percent favorite in a single game, even against the last place team or a tired one that’s starting its backup goalie. There’s more variance in a single game than a seven-game series, but still, 70 percent would be a heavy favorite. Now imagine our team is so strong that they’re a 70 percent favorite against each and every team they could possibly play in the playoffs.

That’s sounds good. And it is. But there’s a problem: If you’re a 70 percent favorite in every series, it’s more likely than not that you won’t even make it to the third round. Our 70 percent team has only a 49 percent chance of winning two straight rounds. And their odds of winning four in a row are only 24 percent.

The Lightning are probably a better than 70 percent favorite over whichever wildcard team they play. But they’re less than that against, say, the Bruins or whoever comes out of the West. Mix in a few injuries or a poorly timed slump and you can see how this might end.

Here’s what will probably happen: The Lightning will go into the playoffs being referred to as overwhelming favorites even though, compared to the rest of the league collectively, they’ll be big underdogs. And at some point, they’ll likely lose. Maybe some key players will get hurt. Maybe they’ll draw an especially tough matchup. Chances are, they’ll just run into a red-hot goalie who’ll steal the series even though Tampa plays better.

And when that happens, the narratives will kick in. Fans and media and maybe even the Lightning themselves will honor the age-old hockey tradition of refusing to accept that sometimes the best team doesn’t win and instead will start looking for reasons why Tampa wasn’t as good as we thought. Odds are we’ll settle on something around their character and leadership and heart. They didn’t want it bad enough. They were good, sure, at least during the season. But the problem is, we’ll tell ourselves, they weren’t the best after all.

And we’ll be wrong. The Lightning are the best team in the league, even if they get swept in the first round. They may not be Stanley Cup champions and we all agreed long ago that that’s what matters most. If and when they get eliminated, they’ll be devastated and their season will feel like a failure. That’s natural and it’s how it should be. The Cup is what counts.

Just don’t fall for the narratives. Instead, accept the reality of today’s NHL: The Lightning are the best, but the best team usually doesn’t win.

On to this week’s power rankings. Hey, I bet you can’t guess who’s going to be ranked No. 1 …

Road to the Cup

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

One downside of focusing on the top five and bottom five every week is that it doesn’t leave us with much room to talk about the wildcard races in the middle. That might be good news for Canadiens fans, who watched their team stumble through a rough week punctuated by Saturday’s loss to Corey Crawford. Montreal sits three points back of the Blue Jackets and four back of the Hurricanes with just ten games left and the Habs don’t look like they’ll hold the ROW tie-breaker on either. They’re still in it, but their odds look a lot worse than they did when we were breaking them down just one week ago.

In the West, it’s the Wild and the Avalanche chasing the Coyotes and Stars and maybe the Blues. The Avs got a big win yesterday, but didn’t gain all that much ground because the loser point fairy decided to show up and work its magic on pretty much everyone else. Sorry, Colorado, just because you win and all the teams you’re chasing lose doesn’t mean you should gain two points on anyone and that makes sense because (mumble, mumble) closer playoff races (mumble, mumble) and hey look over there it’s the power rankings.

5. Washington Capitals (42-23-7, +20 true goals differential*) – Two goals to 50 for Alexander Ovechkin, who has yet another Rocket Richard Trophy all but wrapped up. And as Sportsnet reminds us, Wayne Gretzky’s unbreakable record remains within his sights.

4. Boston Bruins (43-20-9, +32) – Three straight regulation losses during the week put an end to their points streak and allowed the struggling Leafs to stay in range. More importantly for our purposes, it took some of the pressure off of trying to figure out how to get them higher in the rankings.

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