Friday, January 17, 2020

Grab Bag: Brad Marchand excuses, my terrible predictions and old school Battle of Alberta

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- What was up with that Brad Machand shootout attempt? My spies found out.
- A look back at my predictions about which coaches and GMs were 100% safe
- An obscure player who was the last NHL player to ever do something
- The week's three comedy stars
- And an old school Battle of Alberta brawl

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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Puck Soup: Goofus and Gallant

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to surprising firings in New Jersey and Vegas
- The Battle of Alberta reignites
- A spirited debate on the role of rats in the game
- Brad Marchand's epic shootout fail
- How should NHL teams approach goaltending?
- All-star weekend gets a shakeup
- Nicklas Backstrom gets a new deal
- Oscar talk, somehow including a movie I've seen but Greg hasn't

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

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

Which cap era draft class could produce today’s best 6-man lineup?

One of the nice things about carving out a reputation as the hockey writer who spends way too much time on hypotheticals and random thought experiments is that people come to you first with their weird ideas.

That happened to me last week when a Puck Soup listener wrote in with a mailbag question: Which draft class from the cap era could assemble the best lineup right now? In other words, which class gives you three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie that would win a tournament held today?

Note that that’s a very different question from wondering which draft class was actually the best. A great draft class produces lots of good players, at every position. For this exercise, we just need six stars at the right spots. A draft class can be top-heavy but otherwise awful and score well; it’s also possible for a deep class to end up with just an OK starting six. If you want insight and expertise into which draft classes were the strongest overall, follow Corey Pronman’s work. If you want to keep it simple and get a bit silly, you’re in the right place.

A couple of quick ground rules:

  • As usual, we’ll go with three forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender, but won’t worry too much about having forwards in the right position or which hand a guy shoots with. If you’re good enough to make the team, you’re probably good enough to move around the lineup if you need to.
  • Imagine this tournament is being played today. We’re not interested in how good a guy was at his peak years ago, or how good he might be someday. This is about right now. And we’re going by how a player has performed in the NHL, meaning they need to have some significant big-league experience. Lighting it up in the minors or junior doesn’t impress us here.
  • That said, everyone is magically healthy, rested and motivated. Also, contracts and cap hit don’t matter. And while we’re focused on each team’s starting six, we’ll break ties by considering depth.

Before we start, we have one tough question to figure out: How far back do we go? We obviously can’t use the 2019 Draft, since they couldn’t even ice a team; there are only three players from that class seeing anything close to regular NHL duty this season. But where do we draw the lines?

As it turns out, that ends up being an easier call than you might think: We start with 2016, because neither 2017 or 2018 have produced a goaltender with more than a couple of games of NHL experience. So they’re out, which happily leaves us with an even dozen draft years to consider.

We’ll count this down from the worst starting lineup to the best.

No. 12: Team 2007

This one hurts because the forward group is loaded. And the defense is decent, if a little painful for Habs fans. But the danger with this sort of game is that one position can blow your whole team up, and that’s what happens here.

Forwards: Patrick Kane, Logan Couture, Max Pacioretty

We’re led by Kane, a Hart Trophy winner and likely Hall-of-Famer. He’s got to decent linemates, with Pacioretty edging out Jakub Voracek and former Art Ross winner Jamie Benn for the last spot based on their play this year. It’s not the best front three we’ll see, but it’s a solid start.

Defense: Ryan McDonagh, P.K. Subban

This pairing would have looked better a few years ago, but it’s not bad. They’ll probably be fine as long as the goaltending isn’t a total black hole, he said, engaging in a little ironic foreshadowing.

Goaltending: Scott Darling

Yeah, I know. But here’s the thing: Darling is by far the best goalie from this class. Only three other goalies even made it to the NHL, combining for four wins, and you probably haven’t heard of any of them. (They’re Allen York, Jeremy Smith and Timo Pielmeier, if you’re wondering.) That leaves Darling, who did have some decent years in the NHL and is still active in Europe, or we disqualify Team 2007.

Depth: The forwards are decent; in addition to Benn and Voracek, we could use David Perron, James van Riemsdyk or Wayne Simmonds. The blue line has Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez or Kevin Shattenkirk. Goaltending … nope.

Overall: They’d be in the running for a middle-of-the-pack finish with a goalie, but it was not to be. What a weird draft year.

No. 11: Team 2006

Another team with a strong forward group that’s going to have trouble keeping the puck out of their net. Although this time, it won’t all be the goalie’s fault.

Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom, Brad Marchand, Jonathan Toews

Remember, we’re looking at who’s at the top of their game right now, which is why somebody like Marchand makes the cut even though in career production he’s well behind guys like Claude Giroux and Phil Kessel. Let’s just hope there are no shootouts.

Defense: Erik Johnson, Jeff Petry

Yeah, the blue line is an issue. Johnson is widely remembered as a bad pick at No. 1, and maybe even a bust, but on this team he’s a no-brainer. Petry kind of is too. Do you know who ranks third in NHL games played among defencemen from the 2006 class? Andrew MacDonald. Yikes.

Goaltending: Semyon Varlamov.

(Double-checks blue line.) Good luck, Semyon!

Depth: Poor. The forwards really only offer Giroux and Kessel, then maybe Jordan Staal. The blue line’s got nothing, and the goalies offer James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier and not much else unless Steve Mason makes a comeback.

Overall: Maybe it’s not surprising that the 2006 and 2007 teams struggle. It’s a young man’s league, and as much as I hate to say it, these guys are getting up there. (The 2005 team might finish a little higher, though – I hear they had a top pick who’s still pretty good.)

No. 10: Team 2014

Imbalance strikes again, as two weakish positions drag down one of the best units we’ll see.

Forwards: Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Brayden Point

That’s a ridiculous line, right? I’m stunned to see this squad so low on the list. But as it turns out, this class doesn’t have all that much else to offer.

Defense: Aaron Ekblad, Anthony DeAngelo

Ekblad has been a minor disappointment as a first overall pick, and we can quibble with his contract, but on this team, he makes the cut without breaking a sweat. DeAngelo is probably our next best option, beating our Brandon Montour.

Goaltending: Elvis Merzlikins

It’s either him or Thatcher Demko, and we did say this was being played right now, so we’ll go with the hot hand.

Depth: Nothing in goal besides Igor Shesterkin, and not much on the back end. There are a few options up front, including Dylan Larkin, Willian Nylander, Viktor Arvidsson and Nikolaj Ehlers, but nobody that gives our big three a serious run for their money.

Overall: They’d score a ton. They’d probably need to. If I have to buy tickets to watch a team, these guys are high on my list. If I have to bet on someone to win it all, not so much.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Do these five stars have bad contracts? Welcome to Salary Cap Court

There was a time when fans could get away with not caring about player salaries. Except in an indirect way, it wasn’t their money, so who really cared if some rich owner was paying a bit too much for a third-line center? Maybe he missed a payment on one of his yachts, but otherwise, no harm no foul.

Then the NHL became a hard cap league. Today, salaries – or more specifically, cap hits – are absolutely crucial. Squeezing as much value as possible into an artificially limited salary structure is the key to building and maintaining a contender, and even one big mistake can derail a roster. In today’s NHL, as I’ve phrased it before, a good player with a bad contract isn’t a good player.

We’ve had some fun over the years with some of the league’s worst signings, even building an entire cap-compliant roster out of them. But for the most part, those were the contracts nobody argues about. We all know that Brent Seabrook’s deal is bad. Nobody’s calling Bobby Ryan a value contract these days. We’ve beaten Milan Lucic’s deal into the ground, picked it up and dusted it off, then beaten it down again. With very few exceptions, even the most diehard fans aren’t defending those kind of deals anymore.

Other contracts aren’t as simple, and those are the ones we’re going to focus on here. Welcome to Salary Cap Court, where we’ll weigh the pros and cons of five contracts that might be bad, but maybe might not.

To be clear, every contract that makes its way to cap court will be questionable; there won’t be any good deals here. But we want to know if they’re outright bad, or merely not great. We’ll make the case for both sides of the argument, and then we’ll render a verdict, passing judgment on whatever’s left of a deal and deciding once and for all whether it really deserves to have the dreaded “bad contract” label slapped on it.

Make sense? Then be seated, because Salary Cap Court is in session. Let’s bring out our first defendant.

Erik Karlsson, Sharks

The details: Eight years and a cap hit of $11.5 million, thanks to an extension signed days before he would have become an unrestricted free agent last summer.

The case that it’s a bad contract: Karlsson has two Norris Trophies, should maybe have more, and might have been the very best defenseman of the 2010s. But everything in that sentence is in the past tense, and with his new contract only kicking in this year, the present and future are all that matters. The reality is that he didn’t play at a truly elite level in his last year in Ottawa, he didn’t live up to the hype in his first year in San Jose, and he hasn’t been especially great this year.

If you’re trying to figure out why, it’s not hard to round up the usual suspects: injury and age. He had a groin injury last year that resulted in surgery, and a heel problem before that. Mix in the fact that he turns 30 at the end of this season, and it’s not hard to wonder if his recent decline is permanent. That doesn’t mean he can’t still be a solid player, or even a very good one. But he’s being paid like he’s the very best defenseman in the league, and it sure looks like he isn’t that player anymore.

The case that it might be OK: Injuries heal, and we’ve already seen Karlsson overcome a more serious scare in 2013, when he missed most of the season with a sliced Achilles. He came back from that just fine, posting three straight first-team all-star seasons. As for age, we’ve seen plenty of superstar blueliners play into their late-30s and beyond, including Ray Bourque, Al MacInnis, Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom. Karlsson’s always been a great skater, but his most important talent is his vision and instinct, and that won’t fade even if he loses a half-step.

Sure, he’s been disappointing this season. So has everyone on the Sharks. The year has been a disaster. We can’t just throw out the whole season, but we shouldn’t lean on it too much either. Last year might be a better example of what Karlsson’s floor could be, and it’s worth remembering that even in an off-year his underlying numbers were decent and he still played well enough to show up on a handful of Norris ballots. If that’s the worst-case, it’s not bad. And his best-case looks a lot like his 2017 playoff run, when he almost managed to drag a very average Senators team all the way to the final. That wasn’t that long ago, and he was fighting through injuries then too.

The bottom line is that Karlsson is a generational talent, and when he’s fully healthy he’s basically been unstoppable. Every long-term deal is a gamble in some sense, but if you’re going to roll the dice, this is exactly the sort of player you do it on.

Key comparisons: Drew Doughty is the obvious one, with a similar eight-year deal that carries an $11 million hit. We’d also want to look at Roman Josi (8 x $9 million) and teammate Brent Burns (8 x $8 million). There’s also John Carlson, who signed his 8-year, $8 million cap hit deal at a similar age and is delivering the sort of dynamic Norris-caliber season Karlsson used to, but for a lot less money.

The verdict: The case against the Karlsson deal is a strong one, but I’m not sure it goes beyond a reasonable doubt. The Sharks are in cap hell, and we’ll watch Karlsson closely over the next season or so, but for now we’ll tentatively say: not a bad contract. Yet.

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Monday, January 13, 2020

Weekend rankings: The Battle of Alberta, a stunning GM firing and Lightning make their case

It was a busy weekend in the NHL, one that served up 20 games. That slate included crucial divisional showdowns like Jets/Predators and Leafs/Panthers, at least one potential Cup final preview in Penguins/Avalanche, a 50th-anniversary celebration (sort of) and the temporary return of a defunct team. There was a lot going on.

And chances are, you’re not going to remember any of it a few weeks from now. Instead, what we’ll all remember from this weekend is a stunning GM firing – we’ll get to that in a bit – and what happened between the Oilers and Flames on Saturday night.

The Battle of Alberta is back. Or at least it was, for one game.

If you somehow missed it, let’s recap. It won’t surprise you to learn that Mathew Tkachuk was in the middle of it, as he always seems to be. On this night, he locked in a big target in Zack Kassian, drilling the Oilers’ winger with three big hits. The hardest of those knocked Kassian’s helmet flying and sent him spinning to the ice.

As you might expect, Kassian didn’t appreciate the attention, and late in the second period, he decided he’d had enough.

That earned him four minutes, which was actually a pretty lenient sentence for a half-dozen haymakers. The Flames went on to score the go-ahead goal on the powerplay, and it held up as the winner.

And almost instantly, the NHL had one of those Rorschach test moments. What do you see when you watch those plays unfold?

A lot of fans, including most of the ones wearing Flames jersey, see a classic case of a physical player doing his job well enough that he suckers an opponent into a bad penalty. Tkachuk’s hits were clean, or at least close enough, and if the Oilers can’t handle that then they shouldn’t be on the ice in what’s still a contact sport. Kassian has made a career out of catching guys with their head down, but when it happens to him he has a meltdown, and costs his team a crucial game in the process. Tkachuk wins this round.

Hold on, says the other half of the room, including most of Edmonton. Tkachuk is nothing but a rat, running around throwing borderline hits and then refusing to answer the bell for it. Hockey is a rough sport, sure, but it’s also one with a code, and nobody gets unlimited free shots. If you’re going to play that way, you eventually have to back it up. If Tkachuk won’t do things the honorable way, guys like Kassian will just have to give him no choice.

The fallout came quickly, with both players dropping memorable postgame quotes on each other. Kassian called Tkachuk a “punk,” among other things, and made it clear he had no regrets. Tkachuk responded that Kassian should “stay off the tracks” if he doesn’t want to get hit, then twisted the knife: “We’ll take the power play, we’ll take the game-winner, and we’ll move on to first place.”

Call it advantage Tkachuk in the war of words. They weren’t the only ones talking after the game; it seemed like just about everyone had a take. Maybe Tkachuk was exposed as a wimp and a turtle, out there throwing dangerous hits. Maybe the problem is guys like Kassian who can dish out the contact but can’t take it. Maybe both guys were wrong. Maybe neither one was.

Maybe this is all exactly the sort of nonsense you hate seeing in a sport that was supposed to have evolved past all of this. Maybe it’s exactly the kind of old-school bad blood you miss about what the league used to be.

For what it’s worth, the Department of Player Safety called Kassian on the carpet for a hearing, while apparently giving Tkachuk’s hits a passing grade. The two players do have a history, which could come into play, as could the weak call on the ice and Kassian’s lack of remorse. That hearing will happen on Monday, so we’ll probably get a verdict later in the day.

Did we mention that the Flames won, and took over a share of first place in the division? That sort of gets lost in the shuffle, but it seems important, especially since it was only a few weeks ago that the Flames’ season seemed to be slipping away. They’ve rebounded nicely from the Bill Peters debacle, and Geoff Ward has them looking more like last year’s contender. Cam Talbot looking like vintage Mike Vernon helps too.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were scrambling to figure out when these two teams play next. The answer: soon. They’ll face each other twice in the week after the buy, on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1. It’s been a while since we’ve circled our calendars for a Battle of Alberta matchup, at least for reasons other than draft lottery odds. But it’s safe to say that everyone will be watching these next two meetings. (Possibly including Kassian, who’ll miss the games if his suspension stretches to five games.)

On to this week’s rankings …

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 another Whaler night for the Hurricanes, as they blanked the Kings for their third straight win and second straight shutout. This is always a bit of a tricky one since I know some fans love the retro feel of seeing the Whalers’ green again while others feel like it’s forced nostalgia, driven by the marketing department. Either way, it means we get to hear Brian Burke’s favorite song which is always fun.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (28-12-5, +29 true goals differential*) – They continue to roll along without Sidney Crosby, getting tough wins over the Knights, Avalanche and Coyotes. Crosby’s return had seemed imminent earlier in the week, but hit a snag when he wasn’t feeling well enough to practice on Friday. We should see him soon, but in the meantime, the Pens continue to rack up points without him.

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