Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The eight teams left out of the outdoor fun

The Winnipeg Jets hosted the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday at the Heritage Classic.

It was the team’s first ever outdoor game, marking a long-awaited opportunity for the Jets to finally join the club of NHL teams that have taken it outside.

The club isn’t all that exclusive these days, thanks to a long list of outdoor games held over the years.

Counting the Las Vegas expansion franchise, there are now nine NHL teams that have never been involved in an outdoor game. (That list will shrink by one later this season, when the Blues make their debut by hosting the Winter Classic.)

Today, let's take a look at those other teams and see which ones have the best chance of joining the Blues and Jets at the big kids table.

When it comes to the NHL's outdoor games, here are the eight teams that could say they've been… left out in the cold.

[Editor's note: That was terrible and didn't even make sense.]

I don't feel any better about it than you do. On to the list.

Dallas Stars

Why they've been left out so far: The Stars have had two strikes against them; they're a southern-based team, and they haven't been all that good for most of the outdoor era, missing the playoffs in six out of eight years since the Winter Classic began in 2008.

Their case to be included: They may not have been good before, but they are now, finishing last season as the Western Conference's top seed. And maybe even more importantly when it comes to an event that's as much about marketing as the game itself, they're all sorts of fun to watch.

As the dead puck era drags on, the league should be doing a better job of promoting the few teams that are willing to play a more open style. As for geography, it's worth remembering that all three California teams have appeared in outdoor games, and those went off just fine.

Could they host? There's been talk about holding a game at AT&T Stadium for years. Putting a game in Jerry Jones' 80,000-seat monstrosity has to be tempting for the league, assuming they think they could fill it.

Odds we'll see them outdoors soon: You’d have to think that they're high on the NHL's list, although they may need to ease in as a visitor first. They'd have been a good choice for Minnesota, given the franchise's shared history, but as per league bylaws that spot went to the Blackhawks instead.

Still, the Stars have waited long enough; here's hoping they make an appearance next year.

Nashville Predators

Why they've been left out so far: We could copy and paste a lot of what we had for the Stars, although the Predators have had more playoff success over the years. But they're one of the league's smaller markets, so they've always been left out of the outdoor showcase games.

Their case to be included: They did a great job with last year's All-Star Game, and like the Stars they're an exciting team that usually makes for must-watch hockey.

If we look at the bigger picture, there's a chicken-or-egg thing that comes into play with some of these teams.

The league considers their outdoor games to be marquee events, so they only want to give them to marquee franchises. But how is a team supposed to attain that status without a push from the NHL? Winning a Stanley Cup can do it — at least temporarily — and maybe the Predators or Stars take care of that this year.

But at some point, you can't keep serving up the Blackhawks and Penguins and then wonder why fans aren't excited for the rest of the league.

The NFL has historically done a good job of promoting smaller-market teams, and has reaped the rewards of that. The NHL could learn a lesson from them.

Could they host? It's possible, with the nearby NFL stadium being a potential site. But the Predators feel like another team that would be a better fit as a visitor — at least for their first time out.

Odds we'll see them outdoors soon: We'll keep our fingers crossed. Their case would be helped by more national exposure, a strong rivalry with a potential opponent, and solidified status as an elite team. Luckily, they can take care of all three of those with one good playoff run this spring.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, October 24, 2016

Weekend wrap: No I'm not putting the Oilers and Canucks in the top five (yet)

Opening faceoff: Let’s take it outside

There’s no question that outdoor games have lost some of their luster over the years.

Once the league realized they had a hit on their hands, they started packing the schedule with outdoor games – in hindsight, probably too many. Yesterday was the 22nd time the league had gone outdoors, and the 18th since the first Winter Classic just eight years ago.

The novelty factor is all but gone, and more than a few fans were scratching their heads when they realized the league was headed outdoors again before the season was even two weeks old.

But as often seems to happen with these games, a big chunk of that cynicism fades away once the event arrives. The weekend in Winnipeg was undeniably fun, starting with a star-studded alumni game on Saturday that featured nearly all of the biggest names from the Smythe Division rivalry days, an appearance by Wayne Gretzky that may well have been his last, and a dramatic last-second winner by Teemu Selanne that was right out of a storybook.

That set a high bar for Sunday's real game.

Once things got going after a delay caused by bright sun, we were treated to a decent (if not especially exciting) 3-0 Oilers win — one that saw Cam Talbot make 31 saves on the way to his first shutout of the season.

It probably wasn't quite the sort of show the NHL was hoping for, especially given all the young talent involved in the game. But the overall spectacle of the game still worked, with a strong crowd of nearly 33,000 present and some nice shots of the stadium setup. We even got the return of the Ref Cam.

It may not have been a classic, but it all added up to an afternoon well spent.

The game will move back inside for the next two months or so, at which point we'll be treated to two outdoor games in two days (just in case anyone has gone into withdrawal).

In the meantime, let's see if we can figure out what to make of the season's first two weeks with our second crack at the power rankings.

Road to the Cup

Here are the five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.

5. New York Rangers (4-2-0, +6 true goals differential*) – I don't love this pick. I'm not even sure I like it. This week's top five is kind of a mess, as we'll explain below. But the Rangers have looked strong and beat the Capitals on Saturday, so sure, why not.

4. Montreal Canadiens (4-0-1, +12) – Yes, Habs fans, I know this seems too low for the only team without a regulation loss. Chalk it up as a reluctance to overreact to five games. But there's no arguing with the numbers, and the Canadiens have looked fantastic so far this year. By this time next week, there may be no choice but to move them up the list.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, October 21, 2016

Grab bag: When is it OK to cheer injuries?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Sometimes, it really is OK to cheer for injuries
- The Oilers cancelled day off creates a CBA mess
- An obscure player who got off to a hot start and went nowhere
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a classic YouTube breakdown of opening night from the last time the NHL celebrated a major anniversary...

>> Read the full post at Vice

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ranking every NHL outdoor game

We’re a little over a week into the NHL regular season, so you know what that means: It must be time for an outdoor game.

OK, that may have been harsh. We’ve waited a long time for an outdoor game in Winnipeg, and this weekend’s Heritage Classic between the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers should be all sorts of fun.

But it’s probably fair to say that while most fans still love the spectacle of an outdoor game, some of the novelty has worn off over the years, thanks to the league overdoing the concept.

This year’s schedule features four outdoor games — up from last year’s three, but still well under the record six games that the NHL served up in 2013-14.

Counting a handful of exhibitions, Sunday's game will mark the 22nd outdoor game in NHL history. Some of those have been memorable. Others, not so much.

Today, let's look back at those 21 outdoor games that are already in the books and count them down from worst to best. It's a subjective list, obviously, but we'll be looking at a few criteria, including the novelty factor, the venue, the buildup, and the quality of the game itself.

Oh, and games will get bonus points for actually being played outside. That's bad news for the first game on our list...

#21: March 2, 2014 – Senators 4, Canucks 2 (BC Place)

Let's see if we can list all the problems with the league's worst-ever outdoor game.

It featured two teams with no history or rivalry of any kind. The novelty factor was close to zero, given that it was the sixth outdoor game in nine weeks and the second one played that weekend. The game itself was only marginally entertaining, and is probably best remembered for John Tortorella's decision to nuke the team's relationship with Roberto Luongo for no particular reason.

And, oh yeah, it wasn't actually played outdoors – rain forced the stadium's retractable roof to be closed. The only argument against this game being dead last on our list is that it technically shouldn't be on here at all.

#20: April 9, 1956 – Bruins vs. Bay Roberts local teams (Conception Bay Sports Arena)

This was a weird one. As part of an exhibition series played after the Boston Bruins' regular season had ended, the team made a series of stops through Newfoundland to face local teams.

That included a stop in Conception Bay for what was supposed to be a fairly standard game against three local squads. But the local arena wasn’t finished yet, so the event ended up being played outdoors in fog and drizzle.

At one point, according to legend, Bruins' goalie Terry Sawchuk was spotted holding an umbrella.

#19: January 1, 2011 – Capitals 3, Penguins 1 (Heinz Field)

You could make a strong case that the fourth Winter Classic was the most-anticipated outdoor hockey game ever played.

The novelty hadn't worn off yet, the matchup featured the league's two biggest stars in Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and the buildup included the debut of HBO's 24/7 documentary mini-series, which helped turn the game into something that felt like an epic confrontation straight out of Hollywood.

But then the actual game arrived, and things went off the rails.

Warm weather, wind and the threat of rain put the entire event in jeopardy. They eventually got the game started seven hours late, pushing it out of its scheduled afternoon slot. And despite all the star power, the game ended up being a low-scoring affair in which Eric Fehr played the hero.

Then, of course, there was the game's only truly memorable moment: David Steckel's blindside hit on Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins' star was allowed to remain in the game, played four nights later, took another hard hit and missed the rest of the season (and beyond) with a concussion.

Based on the buildup, this one should have been an easy top-ten pick. But the enduring image from the game will always be the sport's best player doubled over and facing an uncertain future.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Five GMs on the hot seat

We're a week into the NHL season, which is nowhere near enough time for any reasonable person to start talking about anyone's job being on the line. Luckily, we're hockey fans and reasonable has nothing to do with it, so let's get to the speculation.

Usually when we talk about hot seats, we look at the league's coaches. After all, as the old saying goes, they're hired to be fired, and as Todd Richards found out last year, it doesn't take too many losses at the start of the season to cost a coach his job. But today, let's aim a level higher. NHL GMs tend to have a little more job security, and most get at least a few years to show progress before they come under fire. And when things get bad, they can often offer up their coach as a scapegoat first. But through all that, at some point, the buck stops with the boss.

Plenty of GMs around the league are probably safe no matter what happens. Guys like Jeff Gorton and Peter Chiarelli have only been on the job for a little over a year. Dean Lombardi and Stan Bowman both have a handful of Stanley Cup rings to ward off any criticism. And John Chayka can't legally be fired due to child labor laws. But others are facing more uncertainty.

I've already singled out on GM for hot seat honors – in Sportsnet's preseason predictions, I chose Chuck Fletcher as being on the shakiest ground, given that the Wild were old, expensive, hadn't made a conference final under his watch and had already fired their coach. I won't pick on him again today, so here are five more GMs who could use a strong season to take some of the heat off.

Jarmo Kekalainen, Blue Jackets

On the one hand, you could argue that Kekalainen hasn't been given enough time in Columbus. He's only been on the job since February 2013, and while that actually puts him in the upper half of the league's GMs in terms of seniority, it's still less time than you'd ideally give a GM.

On the other hand… well, how much time have you got? The Blue Jackets haven't won a playoff round under Kekalainen (or anyone else), and they missed the playoffs in each of the last two years. The roster is clogged with bad contracts. Kekalainen made a controversial decision at the draft, grabbing Pierre-Luc Dubois instead of Jesse Puljujarvi. And he's already played his coaching card, having replaced Todd Richards with John Tortorella around this time last year.

Add it all up, and the Blue Jackets are under plenty of pressure to get off to a good start this year. Instead, Tortorella is telling the media that they're not even close. That's not a good combination, and you have to wonder how long it might be before president of hockey ops John Davidson gets the urge to clean house and start all over again.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News