Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Five players I can't figure out

I'm still confused.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the NHL's five most confusing teams, at least from my perspective. These were the teams that I just couldn't figure out. Were they good? Bad? Somewhere in the middle? I'd spent the season trying to work it out, and come up empty.

As it turned out, I wasn't alone. More than a few readers confessed to being confused by those teams too, not to mention several others. It was like having a support group. A support group of confused hockey fans, all watching the games unfold with their heads tilted like a puppy seeing a toilet flush for the first time.

Well, today I'm going to call another meeting of the confused hockey fan network. But this time, we're not looking at teams. No, today we're going to dive into some specific players that have me perplexed. In most of these cases, I thought I had a handle on things. But now I'm not so sure.

Maybe you can help me out. Or maybe you're just as confused as I am. Either way, I think it will be good for my soul to admit that I just can't figure these guys out.

Brian Elliott

What I thought I knew: After an up-and-down start to this NHL career, Elliott had settled in to a predictable pattern with the Blues. He'd play well. He'd post strong numbers, sometimes even league-leading ones. And then, just when push came to shove, the Blues would lose faith in him and hand the starter's job to someone else. Maybe it was the backup. Maybe it was a pricey trade acquisition. Maybe it was even a semi-retired legend, in a move we'd all agree to just pretend never happened. But time and time again, the Blues had no faith in Elliott.

And I was convinced that they were wrong. This was the classic case of a team over-thinking things, or maybe letting dressing room politics or a faith in intangibles override basic logic. The numbers didn't lie: Elliott was one of the best goalies in the league. And when the Flames nabbed him at a discount in the offseason, I was sure that they'd found their starter.

Where I'm at now: Sitting around wondering what happened. Which is also where Elliott finds himself most games these days.

Chad Johnson has been a great story, and you can't blame the Flames for riding the hot hand. Elliott got off to a bad start, and when you're a young team that hasn't earned a ton of self-confidence quite yet, you can't let yourself fall too far out of the race. The Flames are being smart here.

But… Elliott is still good, right? Every goalie has the occasional slump, so we can't panic over 13 games. Then again, Elliott's never really done much outside of Ken Hitchcock's goalie factory, and the Blues still didn't believe in him. Did they know something that the rest of us, including the Flames, somehow missed? 

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News




Tuesday, December 6, 2016

NHL stock watch: December

We’re nearing the two-month mark of the NHL regular season, which means it’s a good time to once again check in on trends around the league.

Some stocks are rising, some are plummeting, and some are holding steady — and we’re going to take a crack at figuring out which are which.

When we did this last month, the big stories through the first month were the rise of the next generation of young stars, struggling goaltenders, and the lack of firings.

The Florida Panthers were kind enough to take care of that last one for us, leaving room for some other stories to bubble up to take its place.

But we'll start this month's roundup with a story that seems like it may have some staying power.

Stock holding steady: Youth

October was all about the kids.

After stealing the headlines at the World Cup of Hockey, the league's kiddie corps hit the ground running once the NHL season started. Auston Matthews had his record-breaking debut, Patrik Laine was scoring in bunches, and Connor McDavid was unstoppable.

It was all sorts of fun — even if it couldn't last.

Eventually, you had to figure, conservative head coaches and the grind of a long season would bring these young punks back to earth.

Another month later, and we're still waiting. McDavid is running away with the scoring title, although a healthy Sidney Crosby should eventually give him a run for his money.

Maybe more impressively, Laine is sitting in second place on the goal-scoring list.

Even Matthews, who suffered through a 13-game goal-scoring slump, is still on pace for nearly 40 markers.

Mix in the performances of players like Zach Werenski, Mitch Marner, and even the technically-still-a-rookie Matt Murray, and we're still seeing a league dominated by players without so much as a full season of NHL action under their belts.

History tells us that the kids will slow down eventually. Then again, we said that last month, and here we are.

Stock rising: Paying for goaltending

For years, conventional wisdom had been pushing towards what seemed like a counter-intuitive recommendation: Don't spend big money on goaltending.

While it may be the sport's most important position, it was simply too unpredictable to make a long-term commitment to.

If you locked in a goalie based on one or two strong seasons, there was a good chance you were buying fool's gold. Far better to gamble on cheaper short-term deals and spend the big bucks on positions that were easier to forecast.

And all of that still makes sense. But so far this year, the big-money goalies have been dominating. Take a look at the position's highest cap hits; which one of those guys would you really say is overpaid right now?

Sure, Henrik Lundqvist isn't having his best season, but he's been fine and should improve as the season goes on.

Braden Holtby and Cory Schneider have both been good. Tuukka Rask has been excellent, and Carey Price may be one of the most underpaid stars in the league (at least until he's eligible for an extension in the off-season).

Meanwhile, three players who had previously been held up as examples of the "don't go long on goaltenders" rule are all having Vezina-quality seasons. Corey Crawford, Pekka Rinne and Sergei Bobrovsky have all been up-and-down over the years, but all three have been worth every penny so far this season.

Really, the only deals in the top ten that aren't paying off this year are probably Ryan Miller and Ben Bishop, and both of those expire after this season.

There's really not a bad deal to be found at the top of the list. (At least until you get down to No. 11, which is a name we'll run into in the next section.)

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet




Monday, December 5, 2016

Laine, all-star voting and too much parity

The following is from an email exchange between Dave Lozo and Sean McIndoe (Down Goes Brown). Each month they will talk some nonsense and debate the biggest topics in the NHL in our monthly review. You can also check out the Biscuits podcast with Sean and Dave as they discuss the events of the week.

DGB: So when we did our October roundup, the big story in the league was how the young kids were dominating. Since then, we've seen Auston Matthews go through a scoring slump and Dylan Strome sent back to junior. But for the most part, the kids are still running over everyone. Patrik Laine is tied with Sidney Crosby for the league lead in goals, Matthews and Mitch Marner are on pace for 60-plus points in Toronto, and Zach Werenski looks fantastic for the Blue Jackets. So this is officially a thing now, right? Are we witnessing one of the best rookie classes in NHL history?

---

Lozo: Hang on. Let me turn my hat backward, grab my skateboard, slide on my black-framed glasses that don't have any lenses and... there. Hello, fellow youths that are taking over this sport! A very lit af day to you all, fam! What? No, I'm not a cop. I'm young! Like you! How cool are the Pearl Jam?!

I'm in love with Laine. I want to be friends with him. I want us to be Snapchat buddies. I want to go on Tinder double dates with him. I want to go to the arcade and... I mean, I want to do tandem VR mask adventures with him, because real young people don't go to arcades anymore, daddio! He's so fun and good so what I'm most excited about is how his coaches or teammates or the league itself turns him into a robot.

We're unsure whether Laine feels the same. Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

I'm least excited about the Leafs rookies because Toronto media types like YOU will pit them against each other, turn against Matthews because he's a beautiful American, then there will be stories about trading one of them for a defensemen. Toronto doesn't deserve them. One of those three guys will get Kessel'd and you know it. I bet it's Matthews, who will then win a cup with PK Subban in Nashville.

---

DGB: Man, I wish I could say you were wrong, but that's absolutely going to happen. But for the record, the early leader is William Nylander, who's already got media in Toronto calling him lazy. He just doesn't work as hard as those Canadian-born players, am I right? (Note: William Nylander was born in Canada.)

But yeah, Laine is great. I wonder what would happen if you hooked Gary Bettman up to a lie detector and asked him how he honestly feels about having his two most marketable young stars in Laine and Connor McDavid stuck in Winnipeg and Edmonton. OK, I know what would happen: the lie detector would start glitching like a Westworld robot as soon as Bettman touched it. But still, the NHL's marketing department can't be thrilled with this, can it?

---

Lozo: Here's one thing I've learned during my nearly four decades (spoiler: I'm old) on this planet—if the NHL's marketing department is against it, it's probably against something great for the league and its fans. This is the league that saw John Scott fall in its lap last year and proceeded to do everything to force it off its lap over and over until the NHL decided to go with it because it had no choice.

For instance, let's say if you wanted to vote for Bryan Bickell this year, who is battling MS and may be in the midst of his final NHL season because of it. Can you vote for him? Yes. But it's hard because you have to write him in. So if you wanted to vote 10 times for Bickell as a way of doing something—which you should—it's this big hassle to do so. But you should do it because his wife was tweeting out links to get fans to vote for Bickell, so clearly it's OK with Bickell and his family.

Side note: I would have written back sooner but I'm at a bar watching the Giants game and they just gave up a safety and a field goal and are down 5-0, so I was distracted by my rage crying.

---

DGB: Don't worry, the Giants are in the red zone, I'm sure this will turn out fine.

OK, so the all-star voting thing. I feel like you and I aren't quite on the same page, but we're in the same ballpark. That's a mixed metaphor and doesn't make any sense, but people know what I mean. I get the Bickell idea. I see the appeal. But can we agree that the power rankings for all-star voting options looks something like this?

1. Just voting for good players, the way All-Star Games are supposed to work.

1a. Voting for somebody like Bryan Bickell who isn't really an all-star but deserves some recognition for other reasons.

2. Mindlessly stuffing the ballot-box for the players on your own team.

3. Not voting at all, meaning that the rosters get stacked with players from whichever city is hosting because they're the only fans who care.

...

58. Printing off paper copies of the ballot at home, then eating them.

...

1,482. Organizing a campaign to vote for somebody terrible like Shawn Thornton or Steve Ott because you liked the John Scott thing and somehow believe that jokes are just as funny when you re-tell the same ones over and over.

Agreed?

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports




Weekend wrap: Defending Linden, weird standings, and what's wrong with the Rangers?

Opening faceoff: A moment of parity

We’re living in the NHL’s age of parity. That’s been well-established for a while, and whether fans like it or not, most of us have come to accept that this is just how the league works now.

Anyone can beat anyone else on any given night, the loser point means almost everyone finishes over .500, and aside from a few outliers at either end, the gap between good and bad is smaller than ever.

But even given that reality, something weird is happening in the NHL these days.

We're used to parity being something that reveals itself over the course of a season, where there's enough time for the occasional hot and cold streaks to balance out. But these days, you don't even have to take a long view to find league-wide parity. It's playing out over the course of a few weeks.

Last Thursday, a reader sent me a note with an interesting observation: Heading into that night's action, 27 out of the league's 30 teams had won either four, five or six of their last ten games. That's a full 90 per cent of the league within a game of breaking even.

The other three teams weren’t even extreme outliers; nobody in the NHL had won more than seven or fewer than three of their last ten.

Take a look at the standings today, and you'll see a similar story — although not quite as extreme. Twenty-four of the 30 teams fall within that four/five/six-win range, and again, nobody is outside of that three-to-seven range.

That's not quite as extreme as we saw last week, but still less than what we'd expect if we were just randomly flipping coins.

Meanwhile, only one team in the league (the Philadelphia Flyers) has an active winning streak longer than three games, and only one (Colorado Avalanche) has lost more than that many in a row.

None of this is to say that some teams aren't playing especially well or poorly lately, as we'll see in the sections below. But even those teams aren't really seeing any dramatic swings in their win/loss records these days, and the practical impact has been that we're not really getting all that much movement in the standings.

Nobody is soaring or plummeting; instead, we're seeing a handful of teams move up or down by a spot or two, but nothing that feels like a big change.

There's still a lot of season left, as we're constantly reminded. That might be good news for NHL teams who aren't happy with their place in their standings and are hoping to make a move.

The way everyone's going these days, it may take a while to get anywhere.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.

5. San Jose Sharks (15-9-1, plus-9 true goals differential*) – Yeah, I know, I'm not completely sold on this pick either. With the Capitals and Lightning struggling, it was either the Sharks or the Blue Jackets, and the Sharks have won six of seven.

Besides, I still want to see one more solid week from Columbus. (My current plan is to say that every week for the rest of the season and hope nobody notices.)

4. New York Rangers (17-8-1, plus-31) – This seems low, right? It probably is, but see the section below.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet




Saturday, December 3, 2016

Podcast: Death to the loser point

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Gerald Gallant's firing, and the whole weird cab thing
- Brian Burke's defense of the (indefensible) loser point
- The lack of scoring, bigger nets, and hockey hipsters who won't shut up about 1-0 games
- Why the expansion draft is going to be so much worse than you think
- Probably some other stuff that I forgot.

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.