Monday, October 22, 2018

Weekend rankings: How low should the Kings go?

This​ is the time​ of​ year​ when​ coming​ up​ with power​ rankings starts getting​ fun. Over the​ first​ few weeks, everyone’s​​ screaming at you about not overreacting, so you’re basically just going by the preseason consensus. After a few months go by, the best and worst are pretty much locked in and one game here or there doesn’t change much of anything, making it a challenge to come up with new things to talk about every week.

But right now, we’re headed into the sweet spot. It’s still early, of course, but not so early that we can’t start second-guessing some of those initial assumptions. Maybe the Canucks aren’t going to be terrible after all. Maybe the Blackhawks are back, or close to it. Maybe the Kings are in trouble.

Or maybe not. Experience tells us that we’re still going to be wrong about a lot of this stuff. This time last year, we still thought the Blackhawks were good and the Avalanche were bad. But we’re getting close to the point where we’ve seen enough action to start venturing out of our comfort zone, if only a little bit.

It’s also the time of year where we’re less concerned about the dangers of reading too much into a small sample of games. We can, for example, watch the Penguins and Blues shut down the Maple Leafs in back-to-back outings and start to wonder whether Toronto isn’t quite where some thought they were. Or we can see the Bruins lose three straight up in Canada and realize they haven’t really beaten anybody good. Or maybe we start to wonder if we’ve all misjudged the Canadiens, or even the Senators.

And that’s just one division. See, week three is fun. Nobody knows anything, but we’re feeling more confident about it.

All that said, this week’s rankings don’t look radically different from the first few weeks. We’ve actually only got one brand new team making a debut appearance. That team moves into the bottom five and apparently they were so excited by the news that they held a closed-door meeting about it.

But first, on to the good teams. Or at least the teams that are still tricking us into thinking they’re good.

Road to the Cup

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

The Blackhawks aren’t especially close to making either list; they’ve won four and lost four with a goal differential of -1, so they’re just about as average as a team can be right now. But one of the better stories of the weekend was seeing Corey Crawford back in the win column for the first time since last season’s concussion. It’s only been two games, but so far he’s looked like his old self. If that remains the case, the Blackhawks have a shot at being something more than just average.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (6-3-0, +4) – We’ll leave the suddenly toothless Maple Leafs in the top five, no so much on merit, but because nobody else is really knocking down the door to get in. Even after forgetting how to score in back-to-back losses, they’re still sitting tied for second in the league. But we’ll learn something about them this week as they face the Jets in a home-and-home.

In the meantime, it’s starting to seem like the William Nylander situation is coming to a head, or at least to the point where we can start taking scenarios off the table. We’re still a month away from any actual deadline, but it feels like this will be resolved one way or another well before that.

4. San Jose Sharks (4-3-1, +5) – The record isn’t all that impressive, but the underlying numbers are, and it feels like the Sharks are righting the ship after some early season stumbles. And the fun part is that they’re largely doing it without anything spectacular from shiny new toy Erik Karlsson, who doesn’t have a primary point at even strength, yet. That might worry Sharks fans who were expecting Norris type numbers and it may worry Karlsson’s agent as he looks ahead to a record-breaking contract. But it should also worry the rest of a very mediocre-looking Pacific Division, because the Sharks are already dominating possession, and when Karlsson starts doing Karlsson things, they’re going to be awfully tough to stop.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, October 19, 2018

Grab Bag: McDavid vs. Matthews

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- McDavid vs. Matthews is a stupid debate and that's OK so stop complaining about it
- A word about booing returning players
- An obscure player with some of the worst stats of any goalie ever
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at Wayne Gretzky's 50-in-39 record, before Auston Matthews breaks it in two weeks

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Eight is enough: When star goalies get shelled

The​ Columbus Blue Jackets​ will​ be​ back​ in​ action​ Wednesday for​ the first time​ since Saturday. Given​ how​ that game went​​ – an 8-2 loss at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning – they’re probably anxious to put it behind them.

Surrendering eight goals in a game isn’t a good thing, but it’s not especially unusual. It wasn’t even the only 8-2 decision that day. But the goalie who gave up all those goals was a surprise, as two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky was left in for all eight.

That’s relatively rare – you don’t often see a star goaltender give up that many goals in a single game. That’s partly because star goaltenders are, you know, good. But it’s also because coaches will often respond to an off-night from their meal ticket by getting them out of there quickly rather than risk embarrassing them. For his part, Bobrovsky sounded like he preferred to fight through and finish what he started, and there hasn’t been much suggestion of any kind of fallout beyond some wounded pride.

The good news for Bobrovsky is that he’s not alone. The names of goalies who’ve been shelled for eight goals in a single game over the last few decades is a fairly long one, and it’s mostly filled with the sort of career backups you might expect – names like Andy Chiodo, Geoff Sarjeant and yes, Andre “Red Light” Racicot all make an appearance. But somewhat surprisingly, so do a handful of Vezina-caliber stars.

So, as Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets get set for their return to action, let’s look back on some of the other times in the last 30 years that a star goaltender has been lit up for eight goals or more, and how it worked out for everyone involved.

Ed Belfour

The well-travelled Hall-of-Famer actually gave up eight or more goals on three separate occasions in his career, and did it for three different teams.

The games: Take your pick. Early in the 1993-94 season, then-Blackhawks starter Belfour stuck around to allow all nine goals in a 9-6 loss to the Flyers despite facing just 25 shots. In 2001, he was a Dallas Star and was in net for all eight goals in an 8-0 road loss to the Kings. And in 2005, he gave up eight more as a member of the Maple Leafs in an 8-2 loss in Ottawa.

“I wasn’t even thinking about pulling him out,” Leafs coach Pat Quinn said at the time. “I didn’t want to pull him out, I wanted our team to get better in front of him, and we didn’t get better in front of him.” Fact check: true.

The random fact: Belfour gave up six or more goals 30 times in his career, and was somehow only pulled in three of those games. Needless to say, all three were by Mike Keenan.

The fallout: Belfour may be history’s greatest example of a goalie rebounding well from a massive blowout. In 1993, he followed his loss with six straight wins. In 2001, he went 5-0-1. And in 2005, he again won six straight. His lifetime record in the six games after allowing eight goals or more was 17-0-1. This means something. I have no idea what.

The lesson: The Blue Jackets should hope that Bobrovsky draws some inspiration from Belfour. (Just, uh, not the part about him constantly switching teams in free agency.)

Grant Fuhr

It’s not especially surprising to see Fuhr appear on this list, since he played most of his career in the high-scoring ’80s and early ’90s, and his team’s strategy was often “score a million goals and leave Grant on his own”.

Our list dates back to 1987, so Fuhr only shows up twice as an Oiler. But it’s his last appearance, one that came as a Maple Leaf, that ends up being the most interesting.

The game: On Dec. 26, 1992, the Leafs travelled to Pittsburgh for what would end up being the worst loss in franchise history. Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Paul Coffey and friends pumped the Maple Leafs for a dozen goals in a 12-1 win, and Fuhr was left out there for every single one of them.

As a side note, I have no idea why Fuhr was left in. (Coach Tom Watt’s postgame quote: “I’m too old to cry and it hurts too much to laugh.”) The Leafs were well-rested coming off the Christmas break, didn’t play the next night, and had a competent backup available in Jeff Reese. But Reese didn’t step on the ice. In fact, he’d never play for the Leafs again, as we’ll get to in a minute.

The random fact: This is one of only two games in the last 30 years in which a goalie gave up 12 goals. The only other one to do it: future Islanders’ coach Scott Gordon in 1990.

The fallout: For Fuhr, there wasn’t much of a rebound – he lost his next four starts, including one to the lowly Nordiques, giving up four goals or more in each of them.

But for the Maple Leafs, the disaster in Pittsburgh was franchise-altering. New GM Cliff Fletcher had been working the phones to try to improve his team, but seeing them humiliated by the defending champions was reportedly the last straw. A week later, he’d wrapped up the biggest trade in NHL history to bring Doug Gilmour to Toronto, and the Maple Leafs’ return to relevance was set in motion.

The lesson: Every once in a while, the absolute worst games end up being the best thing that could happen to a team.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Matthews vs. McDavid: Who is the best player in the world? An in-depth comparison.

Auston​ Matthews is off​ to​ one​ of​ the​ best​ starts in​ NHL history, racking​ up goals and​ points​ at a rate rarely​​ seen over the first two weeks of a season. It’s all been part of a fun early-season story in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs are winning games and lighting up scoreboards on their way to first place in the league.

But somewhat predictably, there are those who seem to be taking the hot streak a little too seriously. Lately, some fans and media are starting to wonder if Matthews has passed Connor McDavid as the best player in the league. That kind of thing can make for a fun debate, but treating it like a toss-up based on seven games seems a little overboard.

Or is it? After all, the “best player” debate is about who’s on top right now. And right now, Matthews is unstoppable. So maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to just dismiss the question out of hand. Instead, let’s look a little deeper, with an in-depth comparison of the two players vying for the crown.

McDavid: Is well ahead of Matthews in several key “best player in the world” categories, such as lifetime point totals, playoff rounds won, and individual awards.

Matthews: Is well ahead of McDavid in the most important “best player in the world” categories, such as proximity to Toronto.

Matthews: Has already set several Toronto franchise records, such as most points by a rookie and most goals in a debut game.

McDavid: Has already set several Edmonton franchise records, such as most career points scored as an Oiler without being offered a coaching or front office job.

McDavid: Has always been a peak physical specimen.

Matthews: Has overcome adversity to become an elite player despite suffering from intermittent deafness that occasionally prevents him from being able to hear opposing fans when he scores on the road.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, October 15, 2018

Weekend rankings: Signal vs. noise

Last​ week’s theme was​ “it’s​ way​ too​ early.”​ This​ week’s could​ be something along​ the lines of​ “it’s​ still early, but​​ maybe not as early as you think.”

We’re still less than two weeks into a six-month season, and everyone’s still got 75+ games left to play. There’s lots of time left, and yes, some of the entries in this week’s rankings will look silly at some point down the line.

But as a wise man once said, it gets late awfully early around here. And history tells us that by this point in the schedule, some truths about how the season will play out are starting to reveal themselves. It’s just a question of finding a signal in all of the noise.

Take last year as an example. When we all woke up on October 15, 2017, a look at the standings would have revealed two winless teams: the Sabres and the Coyotes. Both were young teams that had been hoping to make a push into the playoff conversation. Six months later, the Sabres had finished dead last while the Coyotes were 29th. Only five games into a very young season, it turns out that both teams had already shown us what they’d be when they grew up.

They weren’t the only ones. The Canadiens, fresh off a first-place finish in the Atlantic, had stumbled out to a slow start. So had the Rangers, coming off a 102-point season, as well as the 103-point Oilers. All three teams missed the playoffs by a mile. Meanwhile, teams like Colorado, New Jersey and Vegas were all off to strong starts that turned out to be a preview of what was to come.

By this time last year, we’d already learned some important things. Of course, we were also being misled by more than a few teams. The Blackhawks were leading the Central, while the Flames were the top team in the Pacific. And the only two teams without a regulation loss were the Kings, who turned out to be just OK, and the Senators, who were about a month away from driving off a cliff.

So what can we read into today’s standings?

Well, maybe not a tonne. There really aren’t any teams that are off to completely dominant or disastrous starts, and we’ve got a real traffic jam in the middle – 19 out of 31 teams are sitting at either two or three wins on the season. That’s going to make it tough to draw any firm conclusions, let alone put together a power rankings. But we’re all about staring down adversity around here, so let’s give it a shot.

Road to the Cup

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

It was a good weekend for Canadian teams, who went a combined 7-0, including six wins on Saturday. Somewhat amazingly, that appears to be only the second time that’s ever happened. I think we can all agree that weekends like that are way better than winning a Stanley Cup every quarter-century or so.

5. Boston Bruins (4-1-0, +9) – It’s hard to know what to make of the Bruins this year. It’s not easy to be sporting a +9 goals differential a week after losing your opener 7-0, but here we are. They’ve done it by following that opening night disaster with four blowout wins, but it’s hard not to notice that all four of those wins came against teams that weren’t very good last year, while that one big loss came against the defending Cup champs.

So are the Bruins a good team, or just one that kicks sand on the weaklings but gets exposed when they try to pick on someone their own size? We may not find out anytime soon, as they head out on a four-game Canadian road swing that sees them play four more teams that missed the playoffs last year.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs (5-1-0, +7) – Saturday’s showdown with the Capitals didn’t turn into the shootout we were all hoping for but Mike Babcock will probably be just fine with a 4-2 win. Auston Matthews scored and had multiple points yet again, but the bigger story might be Frederik Andersen’s best game of the young season and a rare example of the Leafs’ holding down a third-period lead without wetting themselves.

The win capped off a sweep of a four-game road trip and was the Leafs’ first of the season against a team that made the playoffs last year. They’ll get two more of those matchups this week when they host the Kings and Penguins, before the Blues arrive to close out the homestand on Saturday. And after that, it’s on to a home-and-home with the Jets that should be all sorts of fun.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic