Friday, June 22, 2018

Grab bag: You just made the list

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL Awards were exactly what you wanted them to be
- It's time to bring back uniform #0
- An obscure Sabres draft pick with a great name
- The week's three comedy stars, featuring more political reporters than usual
- And a look back at an NHL Awards moment that you'll never... EEE-ver.... forget.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

When coaches quit

The NHL off-season got a jolt Monday with a surprise out of Washington: Head coach Barry Trotz will be heading elsewhere after handing in his resignation.

That’s surprising on several fronts, not least of which is that we didn’t know Trotz could resign in the first place – we’d been led to believe that his contract was about to expire. As it turns out, his old deal included an automatic extension that kicked in when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup. That new deal wasn’t to Trotz’s liking, and attempts to negotiate a new deal were unsuccessful, so Trotz walked away.

That’s a relatively rare occurrence in a league where coaches are far more likely to be relieved of their duties, often with a footprint on their behind. But it’s been a bit of a theme this off-season, as Trotz becomes the third NHL head coach to voluntarily leave his job. In April, Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock announced his retirement. And a week later, Bill Peters resigned as coach of the Hurricanes.

Peters landed on his feet, taking the Calgary job within days. It seems safe to assume that Trotz will also find new work quickly. If so, he’ll become the first coach in 24 years to leave a team he just won the Stanley Cup and take a job somewhere else.

Making the choice to quit an NHL job is rare. But it’s not completely unheard of. So today, let’s look back on 10 other head coaches who walked away from a job, and how that worked out for them. We’ll start with that last Cup winner to do it, since it involves one of the great off-season soap operas in modern NHL history.

Mike Keenan, 1994

Imagine you’d just led an Original Six team to its first championship in 54 years. You’re the toast of the town. What’s your next move?

If you said “Find a loophole in your contract, declare yourself a free agent and announce you’ve just signed a five-year contract with a different team,” then you and Mike Keenan would probably get along great.

The whole mess started in July 1994, just days after Keenan had led the Rangers to a Game 7 victory over the Canucks to finally put an end the “1940” chants once and for all. Rather than rest on his laurels, Keenan got to work checking the fine print on his contract. When he realized the Rangers had been a day late on a bonus payment, he publicly declared that his contract was null and void. Two days later, he’d signed a five-year deal to become the coach and GM in St. Louis.

Needless to say, the Rangers weren’t thrilled. GM Neil Smith acknowledged the late payment, but called it a “clerical error” and the team went to court to try to prevent Keenan’s jump. (The court filing referred to Keenan as a “faithless employee,” and you have to admit they kind of had a point.) Gary Bettman became involved, in what was viewed as the first major crisis of his relatively young stint as commissioner.

Eventually, the Blues and Rangers agreed to a trade that sent Petr Nedved to New York in exchange for Esa Tikkanen, Doug Lidster and the rights to Keenan. Bettman approved the deal, but fined just about everyone (including the Red Wings, who’d also been negotiating with Keenan). He also suspended Keenan for 60 days.

Keenan got to work in St. Louis, assembling one of the most interesting teams in modern history. He also traded for Wayne Gretzky. Hey, speaking of which…

Wayne Gretzky, 2009

It would be hard to call Gretzky’s resignation as Coyotes coach a major surprise, since there had been subtle signs that he was unhappy in Phoenix. Like, for example, the fact the Coyotes were weeks into training camp and Gretzky hadn’t shown up yet.

The backstory here isn’t all that complicated. The Coyotes had filed for bankruptcy earlier in the year, and an ownership battle was being waged in court between the league and Jim Balsillie. With Gretzky making a reported league-high $8.5 million as the team’s coach (among other roles), the numbers didn’t add up – especially given that he’d missed the playoffs in all four years behind the bench. When it became apparent that neither Balsillie or the league intended to retain his services, Gretzky stayed home and eventually announced his decision to walk away.

The Coyotes announced the hiring of Dave Tippett and moved on. Gretzky ended up in an extended battle with the league over money he was owed that dragged on for years. He never coached again, and at this point everyone has politely agreed to forget all this ever happened.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Podcast: Follow the bouncing Hoffman

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I discuss the Mike Hoffman trade
- Dave and I discuss the other Mike Hoffman trade
- Wait, what is going on with Mike Hoffman trades?
- The whole season-long mess in Ottawa
- Is Erik Karlsson next?
- Barry Trotz walks away from the Capitals
- The John Tavares sweepstakes are almost here
- The Galchenyuk/Domi trade
- And lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Revisiting eight closing Cup windows

Their window is closed.

That’s a phrase you hear a lot around the NHL, especially at this time of year. When a team’s window is closed, it means they’re no longer a real threat to win the Stanley Cup. Maybe they won a Cup or two, but now those days are gone for good, and it’s time to figure out what comes next.

It’s the sort of thing we say a lot. Probably too much. Over the last few years, there may not have been a team we said it about more than the Washington Capitals. Even as the team was winning back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2016 and 2017, their constant playoff failures made it clear that something was wrong. After last year’s devastating loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, we wondered what they would do next and struggled to find a good option. There was talk of trading Alexander Ovechkin, and the Caps didn’t exactly deny that they were thinking about it.

Ovechkin was well into his 30s. Nicklas Backstrom was almost there, and Braden Holtby wasn’t far off. The expensive core that had been so dominant in the regular season but always come up small in the playoffs was old enough that we knew what we were getting. They’d tried, they’ve come close, but they failed. And now some fans figured it might be time to burn it all down. The window was well and truly closed.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. As the Caps’ summer-long Stanley Cup celebration wears on, it’s fair to wonder if some of us are a little too eager to declare that a team’s window has slammed shut. Maybe they stay open longer than we thought. Maybe they can even be reopened.

And if that’s true, then what other NHL teams might we be wrong about? Today, let’s look at eight teams around the league that, to at least some extent, have received the “your window is closed” treatment from the hockey world. If we were wrong about the Caps, could we be wrong about these teams too?

Chicago Blackhawks

Why their window seems closed: The Blackhawks may be the best team of the salary cap era, winning three titles in six seasons. But the last of those came in 2015, and they haven’t won a playoff round since. Even worse, the trend in the wrong direction is hard to miss: They dropped a seventh game to the Blues in 2016, were swept in 2017, and didn’t even make the playoffs this year.

What’s worse, the three-year stumble coincides with the matching $10.5-million extensions for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane kicking in.

Combined with Duncan Keith and (especially) Brent Seabrook, that suggests that the Hawks just have too much money tied up in an aging core, and even Stan Bowman won’t be able to find enough cheap depth to get this team back into the title picture. Even getting back to the playoffs seems like a long road right now.

Why it might not be: As bad as this season was, this is still the same core that won three titles. They’re older, sure, and in today’s NHL that can matter a lot. But the veteran talent is there, and younger pieces like Brandon Saad, Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz are on hand to support and maybe even eventually supplant the old-timers.

And remember, the 2017-18 season really went off the rails when two-time Cup winner Corey Crawford was out of the lineup. If he’s back and healthy, this team doesn’t look all that different from the one that finished first in the Central in 2017.

Bottom line: The Blackhawks seem like they’ve got a long way to go, especially now that the Jets and Predators have emerged as Central juggernauts. But would anybody be surprised to see them rebound into the playoffs next year? And if so, are we sure we want to count them out as legitimate contenders?

Los Angeles Kings

Why their window seems closed: A lot of what we just said about the Blackhawks could apply to the Kings too. They won multiple titles, but the last of those came years ago, and they haven’t won a playoff round since. In fact, in four years since their 2014 championship, the Kings have only won a single playoff game. Their core is getting older and more expensive, including a Toews-like extension for Anze Kopitar. Oh, and there’s at least a chance that Drew Doughty could be leaving in 2019.

Why it might not be: Let’s assume that Doughty sticks around, since all signs point in that direction. His new deal will be expensive, and will tighten the screws on the Kings’ cap even more than it already is. But it will keep the core together, and unlike in Chicago, this team is at least coming off a decent season. They made the playoffs, Kopitar played at an MVP level, Dustin Brown rediscovered his game, and Jonathan Quick still looks like a guy who can steal a series or two.

Bottom line: Another advantage the Kings hold over the Blackhawks: the Pacific Division doesn’t seem all that scary, so a return trip to the playoffs seems like a good bet. Once they’re there, some of that old Quick magic could take them a long way. All the way to another Cup? That seems unlikely, but it seemed that way in Washington too.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, June 16, 2018

How to fix the NHL's broken offer sheet system

We’re closing in on the July 1 opening of the NHL free agent market, and while much of the attention is focused on big-name UFAs like John Tavares, Ilya Kovalchuk and John Carlson, there’s also the usual batch of excellent young players hitting RFA status. And that means it’s time for our annual round of “Will this be the year that somebody signs an offer sheet?”

We already know the answer. No, it probably won’t.

It should be. There are plenty of players who could be eligible that any team would love to add, including names like William Karlsson, Mark Stone, Jacob Trouba and William Nylander. In a league in which players (especially forwards) hit their prime in their early 20s, offer sheets remain one of the only ways to acquire a young star who can instantly slot into the top of your lineup. For most teams, short of winning the draft lottery in a year with a sure-thing franchise player or two available, it’s just about the only way.

And yet we never see them. The NHL hasn’t had an offer sheet signed in over five years, going back to Ryan O’Reilly’s two-year deal with the Flames back in 2013. There have been only eight in the salary cap era, five of which had already come by 2008. And only three cap-era offer sheets have been signed by players who could be considered stars at the time – O’Reilly, Shea Weber in 2012 and Thomas Vanek in 2007.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of impact players in the RFA pool for teams to target. In 2015, a GM could have made a play for Vladimir Tarasenko. In 2016, there was a chance to sign Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Scheifele, Johnny Gaudreau or Nikita Kucherov. Last year, the target could have been David Pastrnak, Evgeny Kuznetsov or Leon Draisaitl. These are franchise-altering players, many just entering their most productive years, all of them available to any team that was willing to extend an offer. And yet, nothing.

From a distance, none of this makes any sense. Every GM in the league has a tool in their toolbox that can be used to acquire a superstar in his prime, and virtually none of them ever bother to use it.

When hockey fans complain about the lack of offer sheets, they often settle on one culprit: the GMs. If they actually put winning first, the thinking goes, we’d see offer sheets every year. But if their priority was to stay chummy with their colleagues, and to make sure their status in the hockey management old boys club remained in good standing, then they’d think twice. Wouldn’t want to get uninvited from a round of golf at the next GM meetings.

There’s probably some truth to that. But there’s a bigger issue: offer sheets are broken.

Put differently, the problem here isn’t just the 31 men who don’t seem to want to use the system. It’s the system itself. Given the way the rules are currently set up, a lot of the GMs who keep passing on superstar talent are actually acting rationally.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet