Friday, May 25, 2018

Grab bag: Revisiting the rigged expansion draft

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- We rerun a debate from June 2017 about how everyone knows the Golden Knights will be awesome
- Please let this be the end of the don't-touch-the-trophy thing
- An obscure player who lost two games sevens on the same night
- The week's three comedy stars
- And yes, we have to do it -- a special 25th anniversary YouTube breakdown of Wayne Gretzky high-sticking Doug Gilmour

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Podcast: Stanley Cup picks

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals head to the final
- Is it OK to not enjoy this Golden Knights story?
- Dave and I make our Cup picks
- Should Jon Cooper be fired?
- Evander Kane sings a monster deal
- Lou Lamoriello joins the Islanders; does this change where Jon Tavares winds up?
- Reader questions and lots more

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Six things we thought we knew until the Golden Knights came along

We used to think we had this hockey thing pretty much figured out.

Not completely, of course — it’s not like there was one standard path to winning a Stanley Cup, and anyone who followed it was guaranteed a championship. Hardest trophy to win in all of sports, we used to say. Anything can happen in the NHL, and all that.

But as the salary-cap era rolled into its second decade, the hockey world had compiled a decent batch of conventional wisdom. The road to building a champion was still a difficult one, but there were certain guideposts we could count on along the way. After watching 30 teams try to win a title every year, we felt like we had a pretty good idea about what worked and what didn’t.

And then the Vegas Golden Knights came along and made us all look like fools.

As the Knights get ready to play for the Stanley Cup, much of the attention has been on the big-picture stuff we all got wrong. The Las Vegas market wouldn’t work. The roster would be terrible. Expansion teams have to be terrible in year one. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

That stuff matters. But at the end of the day, whichever way this year’s final turns out, the big-picture stuff can’t teach us all that much. We’ll ratchet up expectations for Seattle, sure, but that’s about it. The far more interesting question is what kind of smaller lessons we can learn from the Golden Knights. And more specifically, which of our precious nuggets of accepted conventional wisdom may have just been proven wrong?

That’s the sort of stuff that, if it sticks, could change how NHL teams around the league make decisions. So today, let’s run through six lessons we can learn from this Vegas miracle, and how they could influence the way rosters are built in the future.

What we thought we knew: A few bad contracts are just the cost of doing business

Just about every team has them. Scroll through the rosters on a site like Cap Friendly, and you’ll find almost all of them cluttered with bad contracts, buyouts, retained salary and long-forgotten veterans stashed away on the LTIR. Add it all up, and virtually every team is starting the season with a big chunk of their payroll and their cap space dedicated to dead money.

Some of those contracts were just mistakes, where a team gambled and lost. That’s unavoidable in a cap league. But plenty of them were predictable cases of a team taking on a deal that they knew would almost certainly go bad. At some point, every NHL team apparently decided that short-term gain meant long-term pain, and every well-built roster could afford to kick the can down the road on at least a few mistakes.

If you think a player has three good years left, you have to give him five. If he has five good years left, you give him eight. The approach kept the cap hit down, and you could always consider buyouts or LTIR shenanigans down the line. And hey, if things went really bad, the player would end up being the next GM’s problem.

What the Golden Knights taught us: When people write the “How did we get here?” stories about the Golden Knights, most of the focus lands on the expansion-draft picks and the trades that surrounded them. And rightly so — that’s where most of the big mistakes happened. But we’re overlooking one of the greatest assets the Knights started with: A crystal-clear cap situation.

No long-term commitments. No mistakes. No dead money. And no guys on the wrong side of 30 who still had five years left on a contract that was paying them based on what they did at 25.

If you don’t think that’s important, look at how many of the expansion-draft trades the Knights pulled off were based around another team desperately trying to get out of a bad deal. Without David Clarkson, the Blue Jackets may not lose William Karlsson. Without Reilly Smith, the Panthers don’t have to part with Jonathan Audy-Marchessault. The Islanders coughed up a first and more to get rid of Mikhail Grabovski.

On the day they were born, the Knights were the only team in the league without any cap mistakes. They have some now, but it’s by choice, and they were paid a premium to take them on. And once they’re done winning the Stanley Cup, they’ll still head into the off-season with a ton of cap space to work with.

What the other 30 teams can learn: A contract that seems good for the first few years but is likely to go bad down the road is not a good contract. Sure, keeping the term reasonable might jack up the cap hit, or even cost you a chance at certain players. But maybe it’s not enough to sign a deal you know will turn into an albatross, then shrug and say “Everyone does it.” We’ve just seen what a smart team can do when a cap sheet that isn’t cluttered up with foreseeable mistakes.

What we thought we knew: You win with elite talent

Depth matters. Character matters. Coaching matters. Having the right guys in the right roles who understand what they need to do matters. But as parity and the salary cap work relentlessly to flatten the talent gap between teams, the NHL is becoming a league where elite talent makes the difference. Compare any two random teams, and chances are that 80 percent of the rosters will be largely interchangeable. But the elite talents — the Crosbys and McDavids and Doughtys and Kucherovs — are the ones that make the difference between contending and pretending.

And we all know it. That’s why we see so many teams tank in hopes of landing a top draft pick. Giving up an entire season just to increase your lottery odds seems like a bad tradeoff. But when those top picks are your best shot at acquiring the sort of elite talent that wins championships, you bite the bullet and do what you have to do.

What the Golden Knights taught us: You can win without anything approaching elite talent, as long as you have the right mix.

Marchessault is a very good player, but he’s nowhere near the Crosby tier. Neither is William Karlsson, even coming off a career year. Marc-Andre Fleury has been fantastic in the playoffs, and goaltending is a bit of a different case, but he hasn’t received a Vezina vote since 2012. And nobody else on the roster is really even in the elite-talent discussion. And yet, here they are.

What the other 30 teams can learn: Maybe tanking isn’t the answer. Then again, a lot of us wondered if the Knights were tanking heading into this season, and look how that turned out. But at the very least, the idea that you do whatever it takes to get players who are (or will be) in the elite tier and worry about the rest of the roster later may be worth a second look.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The John Tavares Sweepstakes power rankings

The John Tavares watch is heating up, as we count down the days until the Islanders’ star reaches unrestricted free agency. That still leaves plenty of time for the Islanders to re-sign him, and the latest development suggests that Lou Lamoriello will be the one leading that charge. That seems like good news for Islanders fans, who hadn’t been given much reason to believe that Garth Snow could get a deal done.

But even with Lamoriello in the driver’s seat, there’s no guarantee that Tavares doesn’t at least test the market. Recently, his teammates have been sounding nervous over their captain’s future, and every day that goes by without an extension brings Tavares closer to what could be the biggest bidding war in recent NHL history.

We’re not quite there yet. But we’re close enough that it’s probably time to start figuring out where everyone stands. So today, let’s count down the John Tavares power rankings, as we figure out who slots in where in the various categories worth wondering about.

The “Which team needs him most?” Ranking

We may as well start here. Tavares is the sort of player that just about every team should be in on. But some need him more than others.

Not ranked: Vegas Golden Knights: Yeah, that’s about enough, George McPhee. Maybe try playing with the sliders moved past the “very easy” level.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs: The roster may not need Tavares as much as some others (or as much as they need help on the blue line). But after getting their shot at Steven Stamkos in 2016 and failing to reel him in, whiffing on another local boy in Tavares would at the very least be a dent to Toronto egos.

4. San Jose Sharks: They’re a good team that’s not far from contending. But the Joe Thornton era is ending, if it’s not over already, and the core is getting older. Landing Tavares would chart a new course for the team, while missing out would lead to questions about what exactly comes next.

3. Carolina Hurricanes: Let’s be honest, a lot of us are watching the Tom Dundon era unfold in Carolina and scratching our heads. Convincing Tavares to buy in and choose the Hurricanes would end a lot of those questions very quickly.

2. Montreal Canadiens: After a miserable season, they could use three things: some reason for optimism, some confidence in a struggling front office, and a first-line centre. Tavares takes care of all three in one shot.

1. New York Islanders: The obvious choice. Losing a franchise player is devastating. Seeing him choose to walk away after you’ve had all year to sell him on the long-term vision would be far worse, and raise all sorts of red flags about where the organization is headed.

The “What’s worst for the Islanders?” Ranking

If you’re an Islanders fan, it goes without saying that seeing Tavares leave would feel like a disaster. But some destinations would be extra painful, so let’s work our way down to the worst-case scenario.

Not ranked: Anyone from the Western Conference: Out of sight, out of mind? Not quite, but if Tavares has to go then Islanders fans would probably prefer him to land as far away as possible.

5. Montreal Canadiens: Only because Islanders fans have had to listen to Montreal fans and media drone on and on for the last two years about landing Tavares. Having them actually be proven right would be unbearable. After all, what’s worse than a smug Canadiens fan?

4. Toronto Maple Leafs: Oh, right.

3. New Jersey Devils: They haven’t come up often in Tavares rumours, which is strange given their cap space and an improving young roster. Seeing their franchise player stay in the division, not to mention the tri-state area, would be brutal.

2. Carolina Hurricanes: Another division rival. And to make matters worse, the Hurricanes landing Tavares would be an example of new ownership coming in and immediately shaking things up with big changes and aggressive moves. Meanwhile, new Islanders ownership patiently stuck with Garth Snow through Tavares’s final season, maybe until it was too late.

1. New York Rangers: With the Rangers rebuilding, they seem like a long shot to be in hard on Tavares. But this is a team that’s rarely been able to pass up the lure of a big-name free agent, and seeing Tavares move across town would be devastating for Islander fans.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Explaining the Vegas Golden Knights

So what just happened? 
On Sunday, the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets to advance to the Stanley Cup Final

The win is the latest in what’s been a stunning campaign – they were 500-1 to win the championship at the start of the season – one that’s seen the Golden Knights stake their claim as the best expansion team in the history of North American sports. There’s a very good chance that they’ll win the next round too, becoming Stanley Cup champions in their very first season.  Nobody saw this coming – as a new team, the Knights weren’t expected to contend for anything aside from last place. But they’ve defied all the odds, and are now just four wins away from the most unlikely championship the sport has ever seen.

That sounds like an amazing underdog story. 
It sure is!

So how did the Golden Knights do it? 
No idea!

Ha ha. But seriously, how did they do it? 
Seriously … no idea. I don’t know. Nobody does. The entire hockey world is completely perplexed by this. There’s no logical explanation.

Um, aren’t you supposed to be some sort of expert? 
Look, I could try to make something up, and pretend that anyone could have seen any of this coming. But I’d be lying. None of this makes any sense.

>> Read the full post at The Guardian