Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Six active players who could make for tricky HHOF debates someday

The Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee will meet today, and within a few hours we’ll know the identity of the Class of 2019. It’s an interesting mix this year, with only one sure thing (Hayley Wickenheiser) and only one new candidate on the men’s side who seems like a possible first-ballot pick (Patrik Elias, and that’s probably a stretch).

That could mean we get a small class this year, maybe even one that only includes Wickenheiser on the player side. Or it could leave the door open for some of the many candidates who built up a decent case but have yet to hear their name called. That would include guys like Curtis Joseph, Jeremy Roenick, Theo Fleury, Sergei Zubov, Alexander Mogilny … the list is a long one.

As you know if you’ve followed my work over the years, I love this stuff. I made the case for four candidates back in November, including longtime snubs Doug Wilson and Mike Keenan. I’ve looked at players who seemed to be falling off the radar. I’ve dug in on some individual candidacies, like Daniel Alfredsson and Marian Hossa. Back in 2016, I looked at 10 candidates who’d been passed over, five of whom have since been inducted. Honestly, I’d probably just do Hall of Fame debates every day if my editors would let me.

But one of my favorite angles to take is to look at active players who are shaping up as tough calls. I did that a few years ago, in a list that included Elias. Only two of those players are still active, and one (Roberto Luongo) seems like a safe pick now. So it’s time for an update.

Today, we’re going to look at a half-dozen players whose careers are on track to make for tricky Hall of Fame calls. We can’t predict the future, but each of these players is on pace to build a plausibly Hall-worthy resume without getting into no-doubt territory, although one or two are pretty close.

We’re looking for players who’ve been around – let’s say at least a dozen years of NHL experience – but haven’t already stamped their ticket. We know that stars like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Zdeno Chara and Joe Thornton are already in, even if they never play another game. Those won’t be long discussions when they get to the induction committee. I want the guys who are going to cause a few arguments.

To be clear, these aren’t the only players worth talking about, and if you don’t see your favorite player listed it’s not because I don’t think he has any chance. These are just six of the guys that seem like they’d be fun to debate. And by “debate” I mean yell at each other about in the comments, and by “fun” I mean the opposite of fun. Let’s get started.

Nicklas Backstrom

Why it’s a tough one: Can you be a Hall of Famer if you were never considered the best player on your own team? Yes, because lots of guys have been, including no-doubters like Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey and more recent picks like Dave Andreychuk and Dino Ciccarelli. But fair or not, Backstrom has spent his entire career playing second-fiddle to Alexander Ovechkin, and that perception could muddy the waters.

The case for: Backstrom’s still just 31 and barely hits our 12-year cutoff, so we’re going to have to do some projecting here. But he’s one of the best playmakers of his generation – he already ranks fourth in assists among active players, ahead of names like Evgeni Malkin, Jason Spezza and Anze Kopitar who’ve been around longer. Ovechkin could go down in history as the greatest goal scorer of his generation, and Backstrom will have had a lot to do with that.

On top of that, Backstrom is a solid two-way player who’s finished as high as seventh in Selke voting, and he’s been remarkably consistent through his 12-year career, including posting 70-plus points every year since the 2013 lockout. And now that he’s got his Cup ring, any lame narratives about the Caps not knowing how to win can’t haunt him.

The case against: Assists are important but goals get the glory, and Backstrom has never been a great scorer; he might struggle to even get to 350 for his career. He’s never won an award or been a finalist, and his highest finish in post-season all-star voting was third.

Worth remembering: Other noted playmakers like Adam Oates and Doug Gilmour eventually made it in, but each had to wait and it looked iffy for a while – and they both had over 1,400 career points.

Should he get in? It’s all going to depend on where his numbers end up. He won’t hit Oates or Gilmour territory, but he won’t have to because of the era he played in. Would 1,200 be enough? I think it might, especially if he continues to get credit for solid defensive play.

Will he get in? Right now, he ranks sixth among active players in points per game, and all five ahead of him look like likely (or sure-thing) Hall of Famers. Check back in five years, but his case is tracking stronger than you non-Caps fans might think.

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Monday, June 24, 2019

Rating the biggest stories and moments from draft weekend on the Surprise Scale

The best kind of NHL Draft is one that surprises us. We spend weeks and months figuring out exactly what should happen, and who’s going to wind up where and it’s always more fun to be wrong. Whether it’s a big trade, an off-the-board pick, or some unexpected breaking news, the best draft weekend moments are the ones that leave you wondering what just happened.

How did the 2019 edition do? The short answer: Not bad. For the longer answer, let’s break out the surprise scale and see just how good a job this year’s draft did of delivering the unexpected.

Gary Bettman gets booed

Fans booing is part of the fun of the first round. There are even parts of the evening that seem specifically designed to encourage it, like the traditional roll call that seems to be there just so the local fans can boo the teams they hate the most. (This year’s winners: Toronto and Boston, with honorable mention to Chicago, Edmonton and Calgary.)

But the main event is always Gary Bettman, who continues to insist on appearing in front of fans who clearly don’t want to see him. This year’s reception was especially bad, as we all knew it would be. The fans gave it to him with both barrels when he first appeared; while you could hear him on TV, he was completely drowned out in the arena. The boos continued all Friday night as he did that weird thing where he shows up between every pick to tell us who’s next even though we can all see the giant logo on the scoreboard.

Surprise scale: 0/100. Only because the scale doesn’t go any lower.

Bettman brings backup

In an admittedly funny bit, Bettman responded to the initial wave of boos by acting flustered, trying to talk over them and eventually wandering away from the podium. The crowd loved that, thinking that they’d actually driven him off the stage, only to see him return with reinforcements: Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

I mean, there’s really no way to sugarcoat this. This was a full-fledged heel turn by the Sedins, right? They just aligned themselves with the sworn enemy of their fan base. This is the NHL equivalent of Stone Cold shaking hands with Vince McMahon. Sorry, Canucks fans, the Sedins hate you now. That’s just how this works.

In related news, how great would it have been if Bettman had come back out with Mark Messier instead?

Surprise scale: 22.33/100

The top two picks

There wasn’t much intrigue around the top two picks, beyond some mild (and mostly forced) speculation over whether the Devils might throw a curveball and go with Kaapo Kakko over Jack Hughes. They didn’t, making the expected pick with Hughes and the Rangers grabbed Kakko. So far, so good.

Surprise scale: 10/100

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Saturday, June 22, 2019

Puck Soup: Rough draft

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg and I are in Vancouver for the draft
- Reviewing the NHL awards, both the show and the ballots
- My take on the new replay and challenge rules, and why they're not great but could have been worse
- Erik Karlsson gets a big new deal
- Thoughts on Mitch Marner, Corey Perry, Jacob Trouba, Kevin Hayes and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

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Friday, June 21, 2019

Grab Bag: Draft day strategy, a Gary Bettman proposal and Brian Burke tells a story about blackmail

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- My spies found out what some teams are up to heading into tonight's draft
- An idea for how Gary Bettman could handle a hostile crowd
- An obscure Canucks first-round pick
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of Brian Burke running a draft and telling a story about being blackmailed by Bobby Clarke

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Five lessons from the 2018 offseason that could help teams in 2019

Hey, remember when the Blues and Bruins were playing hockey? Me neither. The summer is here, we’ve already had a big trade and a major re-signing and it’s all systems go on the offseason. Let’s get wild.

But what kind of wild? The good kind? The bad kind? The hopeless kind? That’s what remains to be seen. Every offseason has its own flavor and we’re not sure what this one will look like quite yet. Maybe we’ll see a ton of trades. Maybe GMs will focus on free agency instead. Maybe we’ll see offer sheets and holdouts and blockbusters or maybe we’ll get none of those things.

Time will tell. But while every offseason is different, that doesn’t mean we should just ignore what’s happened in the past. Recent history can offer some important lessons on what to expect and how best to handle the scenarios we may see develop. Today, let’s look back at five key lessons from the 2018 offseason and how they might apply to what’s going to happen over the next few weeks and months.

The lesson: The draft isn’t the only time for big trades

It’s become conventional wisdom in the hockey world that the days around the NHL draft make for the best time for blockbuster trades. The rest of the year, we constantly hear about how trading is too hard for these poor GMs, who have to deal with a salary cap and analytics and no-trade clauses that they handed out. The deadline isn’t what it used to be, you can’t do anything at all earlier in the season and nobody wants to make a move at training camp. But the draft? That’s the one place you can get things done because all the league’s GMs are together in one building and they almost all have cap room to work with.

And for years, that was all pretty much true. Pick a big offseason trade – Hall for Larsson, Subban for Weber, Kessel to the Penguins, Drouin for Sergachev – and chances are it happened either at the draft or in the days immediately after. By the time we got into July, the window for big deals had closed.

But last year, that didn’t happen. Draft week was actually remarkably quiet on the trading front, with only the Max Domi/Alex Galchenyuk deal on June 15 making any real waves in the days leading up to the draft and the five-player Flames/Hurricanes deal going down on the draft floor. There were a handful of smaller deals, including Philipp Grubauer and Mike Hoffman (twice), but that was about it.

That left several big names still on the block, including Ryan O’Reilly, Jeff Skinner, Max Pacioretty and Erik Karlsson. All four would be dealt, but those trades were spread out over the course of the summer. O’Reilly went first, on July 1, largely because that was the last day the Sabres could move him before having to pay a $7.5 million bonus. Skinner waited until August. And Pacioretty and Karlsson made it all the way to September before their teams finally pulled the trigger.

The results were mixed. The returns on Karlsson and Skinner were viewed as underwhelming at the time. The O’Reilly deal seemed OK for both teams, although it hasn’t aged well for Buffalo. And many of us thought the Habs did surprisingly well on a player they all but had to move. The lesson here isn’t that waiting is the best play, at least in all cases. But it’s an option and maybe a better one than we usually think.

Who could learn it: Any GM with a big-name player who could be moved. That list could include David Poile (Subban again, or Kyle Turris), Kyle Dubas (Nazem Kadri) and Jim Rutherford (pretty much everyone). Ideally, they might prefer to make those sorts of moves before the draft, like Kevin Cheveldayoff just did with Jacob Trouba, since that allows you to nail down your cap situation ahead of free agency and you don’t have to wait a year to use any picks you acquire. But if the offers aren’t there, or the situation still feels unsettled, then waiting is a valid option. It might even work out for the better.

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