Monday, March 18, 2019

Weekend power rankings: The Lightning are the NHL’s best team and they probably won’t win the Cup

We’re​ just three weeks​ away​ from​ the​ start​ of​ the playoffs.​ It’s the very​ best time of​ year,​ with a ton of​​ action, intensity through the roof and the crushing suspense of finding out who’ll be left standing as the season’s best team.

Except that this year, there’s no suspense, because we already know the answer. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the best team of the 2018-19 season. There’s really no question about it. Even if they lose every game they play for the rest of the year, they’re still the season’s best and it’s not even close.

Now we just need to wait and see if they actually win the Stanley Cup. However, they probably won’t.

That feels like a weird thing to say. As hockey fans, we’re trained to believe that the Cup winner is the best team. Of course they are. They were the last team standing and they won a big trophy for it. Regular season success is nice, but as the league itself has told us, it’s all about the Cup. We can’t know who’s the best until we’ve seen who survives four rounds and emerges as champion.

Nonsense. This year, we already know. It’s the Lightning.

To be clear, I’m not trying to make a case that the Presidents’ Trophy is somehow the real prize of an NHL season. Most years, there’s so little difference between the top few teams that the difference between finishing first overall and third or fourth doesn’t really tell us anything about which team was actually best.

But not this season. The Lightning aren’t just clearly the best team in the league, they might be the best team of the last quarter-century. They’ve been dominant at pretty much every facet of the game. They’re loaded with stars, with many of them having career years. They’re well-coached, have the league’s best powerplay and penalty kill, are strong in goal and don’t feature any obvious holes anywhere on the roster. If you could wish the perfect cap-era team into existence, it would look a lot like this year’s Lightning.

But they still probably won’t win. And we might as well start getting our heads around that now.

Dom Luszczyszyn currently has the Lightning at about a 25 percent chance to win the Cup, even though he also thinks they may be the single best team of the cap era. That seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. In the NHL’s era of hyper-parity, 25 percent is pretty close to the best you can do.

To understand why, let’s do some math. Imagine a team that was a 70 percent favorite in a playoff series. That’s pretty good. It’s rare for any team to be a 70 percent favorite in a single game, even against the last place team or a tired one that’s starting its backup goalie. There’s more variance in a single game than a seven-game series, but still, 70 percent would be a heavy favorite. Now imagine our team is so strong that they’re a 70 percent favorite against each and every team they could possibly play in the playoffs.

That’s sounds good. And it is. But there’s a problem: If you’re a 70 percent favorite in every series, it’s more likely than not that you won’t even make it to the third round. Our 70 percent team has only a 49 percent chance of winning two straight rounds. And their odds of winning four in a row are only 24 percent.

The Lightning are probably a better than 70 percent favorite over whichever wildcard team they play. But they’re less than that against, say, the Bruins or whoever comes out of the West. Mix in a few injuries or a poorly timed slump and you can see how this might end.

Here’s what will probably happen: The Lightning will go into the playoffs being referred to as overwhelming favorites even though, compared to the rest of the league collectively, they’ll be big underdogs. And at some point, they’ll likely lose. Maybe some key players will get hurt. Maybe they’ll draw an especially tough matchup. Chances are, they’ll just run into a red-hot goalie who’ll steal the series even though Tampa plays better.

And when that happens, the narratives will kick in. Fans and media and maybe even the Lightning themselves will honor the age-old hockey tradition of refusing to accept that sometimes the best team doesn’t win and instead will start looking for reasons why Tampa wasn’t as good as we thought. Odds are we’ll settle on something around their character and leadership and heart. They didn’t want it bad enough. They were good, sure, at least during the season. But the problem is, we’ll tell ourselves, they weren’t the best after all.

And we’ll be wrong. The Lightning are the best team in the league, even if they get swept in the first round. They may not be Stanley Cup champions and we all agreed long ago that that’s what matters most. If and when they get eliminated, they’ll be devastated and their season will feel like a failure. That’s natural and it’s how it should be. The Cup is what counts.

Just don’t fall for the narratives. Instead, accept the reality of today’s NHL: The Lightning are the best, but the best team usually doesn’t win.

On to this week’s power rankings. Hey, I bet you can’t guess who’s going to be ranked No. 1 …

Road to the Cup

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

One downside of focusing on the top five and bottom five every week is that it doesn’t leave us with much room to talk about the wildcard races in the middle. That might be good news for Canadiens fans, who watched their team stumble through a rough week punctuated by Saturday’s loss to Corey Crawford. Montreal sits three points back of the Blue Jackets and four back of the Hurricanes with just ten games left and the Habs don’t look like they’ll hold the ROW tie-breaker on either. They’re still in it, but their odds look a lot worse than they did when we were breaking them down just one week ago.

In the West, it’s the Wild and the Avalanche chasing the Coyotes and Stars and maybe the Blues. The Avs got a big win yesterday, but didn’t gain all that much ground because the loser point fairy decided to show up and work its magic on pretty much everyone else. Sorry, Colorado, just because you win and all the teams you’re chasing lose doesn’t mean you should gain two points on anyone and that makes sense because (mumble, mumble) closer playoff races (mumble, mumble) and hey look over there it’s the power rankings.

5. Washington Capitals (42-23-7, +20 true goals differential*) – Two goals to 50 for Alexander Ovechkin, who has yet another Rocket Richard Trophy all but wrapped up. And as Sportsnet reminds us, Wayne Gretzky’s unbreakable record remains within his sights.

4. Boston Bruins (43-20-9, +32) – Three straight regulation losses during the week put an end to their points streak and allowed the struggling Leafs to stay in range. More importantly for our purposes, it took some of the pressure off of trying to figure out how to get them higher in the rankings.

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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Grab Bag: Who wants to smell like a Flyers fan?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Please stop saying the Dead Puck Era is over just because scoring is up slightly
- The concept of the "microcore" is great but I think we can do better on the name
- An obscure player with the only good "-er" nickname ever
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown in which a scientific experiment proves that Flyer fans smell like number two

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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

I haven’t watched a shootout in two years and I highly recommend it

John​ Tortorella has a proposal for​ how​ the​ league​ should​ handle​ the shootout​ and it involves​ a whole lot of​ people​ dying.

I’d like to go on the record as being against league-mandated team-wide extinction. But allowing for a little bit of hyperbole to make his point, I’m with Tortorella on the broader issue. I’m not a shootout guy. I wouldn’t mind if the league got rid of it altogether, or at least figured out a way to drastically reduce how often they occur. Tyler Dellow has been on the case and he makes a convincing argument that expanding overtime by even a few more minutes would mean far fewer shootouts. Sounds good. Let’s make that happen.

But in the meantime, I’ve come up with a slightly more straightforward way to reduce the number of shootouts I’m subjected to: I just stopped watching them. Literally. I haven’t sat through an NHL shootout in almost two years.

Yes, I know. Great job, Einstein, figuring out that you can avoid something by, uh, avoiding it. And I realize that this doesn’t exactly qualify as some sort of scandalous confession. But it’s a bit of a strange thing to say given that, you know, my entire job is to watch hockey.

But that’s the thing: I like hockey. I’ve spent huge chunks of my life watching hockey. It’s pretty much my favorite thing to do short of making my children smile and it’s possible that I only said that last part because my wife might be reading. Hockey is great.

But here’s the thing, shootouts are only kind of hockey. They’re closer to being hockey than they are to being, say, backgammon or competitive Rubik’s cubing. But only barely. And when the game you’re watching finishes up overtime without a winner, there’s a good chance that there’s still real hockey being played on some other channel. Why wouldn’t you want to watch that instead?

A couple of years ago, that’s what I started doing. The shootout starts, I reach for the remote and find another game.

You know what? It’s way better this way. I highly recommend it.

I can’t remember the last shootout that I sat through, although I’d assume it came late in the 2016-17 season. But when opening night arrived in 2017, I made an impulse decision to bail on any shootouts and go looking for a game where they were still playing actual hockey instead.

At first, switching away from a game right before it ended seemed odd, like walking out of a movie right at the big finale. But it turns out that it doesn’t feel that way. I’d already seen the big climax – two teams had played real hockey for 65 minutes without finding a winner and now they were going to flip a glorified coin to award an extra point. Skipping the shootout turned out to be more like walking out of the movie before the long, boring credits sequence that you don’t really need to see anyway.

Back then, I figured my no-shootout experiment would last a week before I’d go back to watching hockey the way everyone else did. But a week turned into a month, which turned into a year and now two. And I can tell you: I don’t miss those things at all. There’s a good chance you wouldn’t either.

It turns out that you don’t actually miss all that much when you decide to just stop watching shootouts. You still find out who got the extra point within minutes, and somebody on Twitter will almost certainly be live-tweeting every attempt, so you don’t miss any important information. In the rare cases where somebody does something creative or there’s a spectacular save or a controversy or whatever, you’ll see that somewhere too, almost immediately. You’re not actually gaining anything by watching, other than a head start of a few seconds and maybe some vague sense of closure. Those things are worth something, I guess. They’re just not as much fun as watching actual hockey.

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Monday, March 11, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Counting down my worst rankings of the season (so far)

We’re​ getting into that​ time​ of​ year​ when​ power​ rankings start​ to lock in​ from week-to-week. A team​ might​ still occasionally have​​ an especially good or bad week and move a spot or two, and every now and then a dark horse will make a surprise charge down the homestretch. But generally, once we get past the trade deadline and close in on the 70-game mark, there really isn’t much reason to make big changes to what we have. Spoiler alert: The Lightning are in first place again this week.

Before we can start looking at our Stanley Cup and draft lottery hopefuls, let’s take a look back with a different kind of top five: My five worst rankings from this season.

I’ll pause here so you can all make your “How did you narrow it down?” jokes.

It’s true that in one sense, we’ve got plenty of candidates to choose from. In all, there have been 15 teams that have made at least one appearance in the top five, and 13 that have made an appearance in the bottom (including one team that showed up in both). That’s a lot, more than in any previous season I’ve been doing this. It’s been a volatile season. Or maybe some of the picks have just been bad.

To be honest, I don’t think anything stands out as an embarrassingly awful call; it’s not like there was some week that had Tampa in the bottom five or the Kings as a Cup contender. But that’s a low bar and let’s just say that some of those picks hold up better than others. Today we’re going to take our medicine and own up to five of the worst:

5. Arizona Coyotes ranked No. 1 in the bottom five (Oct. 5) – The Coyotes might end up making the playoffs and at one point I thought they were the odds-on favorite to finish dead last. That’s not a great look, although in this case, it comes with a pretty decent excuse: The season was just a few days old. We even called that week’s rankings the “way-too-early edition.” The Coyotes had started 0-2-0 so they were probably as good a pick as anyone; within a few weeks they’d made their exit from the bottom five to great fanfare, never to return. But for one week at least, I thought they’d be worse than the Senators, Red Wings or Kings. They were not.

4. Colorado Avalanche ranked No. 4 in the top five (Dec. 3) – “I’ve never fully bought into the Avalanche. I still don’t, if I’m being honest.” Good for you, past me, but you still let a hot streak mislead you into ranking them as the fourth-best team in the league. This one only lasted a week, but it doesn’t hold up well and unlike with the Coyotes, I can’t claim the “it was early” excuse.

3. Buffalo Sabres ranked No. 5 in the top five (Nov. 26) – Of all the teams to crack the top five this year, none will finish lower than the Sabres in the final standings. In that sense, no call was more wrong than this one.

If that’s the case, why not rank it higher? For one thing, the Sabres only showed up in the top five once, at the tail end of that ten-game winning streak. That stretch had briefly elevated Buffalo to first place overall, and yet I only had them fifth that week. More importantly, my writeup was packed with caveats, like that their top-five case “is far from iron-clad” and that this is “probably the only chance to slide them into the top five” and “Will it last? Maybe not.” Reading it all these months later, I half-expected to go back and see that the first letter of every line spelled out “I don’t actually believe this ranking.” But I still made it, so I’ll own it. (But do check out the comments that week from furious Sabres fans who insist I’m short-changing them by ranking them below the Lightning.)

2. St. Louis Blues ranked in the bottom five (five weeks total, as late as Dec. 10) – I have to include this one, especially since it lasted over a month. But the funny thing was that at the time, nobody thought I was wrong. If anything, it became a running joke that Blues fans were mad that I was going easy on them (they dipped as low as No. 3 for a few weeks). As I wrote on Dec. 10, “something big has to be coming in St. Louis.” I was right, just not in the way I thought I was.

1. Minnesota Wild in the top five (for three straight weeks beginning on Nov. 12) – The Wild aren’t as bad as the Sabres and might finish ahead of the Avalanche too. But what stands out here is how long I had them listed – three weeks in all, with them drifting as high as third after a big win over the Jets. And I can’t even fall back on hedging my bets when I wrote about them, because I was saying things like “Yeah, it’s probably time to start taking them seriously” and “Honestly, (fifth spot) is probably too low for the Wild.”

They were playing well at the time, going 10-2-0 at one point, but it was a stretch powered largely by red-hot goaltending from Devan Dubnyk. He eventually cooled down and then got hurt to start an extended cold streak. I couldn’t have seen an injury coming, but I was too eager to buy into the Wild as a legitimate Central favorite instead of what they were: a decent team that can sometimes look like more than that when the goalie is hot and they’re getting some breaks.

OK, I feel better. Now onto this week’s ratings, which I assure you are all 100 percent accurate. (Unless they’re not, in which case, uh, it was still too early.)

Road to the Cup

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

One big story to watch in the final month: The Colorado Avalanche are going to have to make their playoff push without Gabriel Landeskog, who’s out four-to-six weeks with an upper-body injury. That timeline means he could be back early in the playoffs and there’s a slight chance he could return before the end of the season. But as Ryan Clark wonders, by that point will it still matter?

5. Washington Capitals (41-21-7, +22 true goals differential*) – Screw it, I’m back on board.

The Capitals showed up in our very first top five, then vanished for two months before reappearing in December. They hung around for five weeks, reaching as high as the two-spot on New Year’s Eve even as I wrote that the ranking “seems a little high.” Now, after two weeks of winning pushed them back into top spot in the Metro, they seem like as good a pick as any out of a crowded top-five field.

Or maybe not. You might prefer the Jets, who have a decent case even though they lost in Washington last night. But the Jets look to have a tougher road out of the Central than what the Caps will have in the Metro and that matters too. For the same reason, I can’t talk myself into Nashville. The post-Stone trade Golden Knights? They’ve looked great at times, but the top of the Pacific is very tough and they’re locked into third. The Islanders are still at least in the mix, but I’d rather know more about the Robin Lehner injury before I get them back near the top five. And the Leafs somehow haven’t shown up here in eight weeks even as they’re tied for second in the league in wins.

It’s a tough call. But this is about who’s going to win the Cup, and when in doubt, deferring to the defending champs doesn’t seem like a bad way to break the tie. For this week, at least.

4. Boston Bruins (42-18-9, +35) – Figuring out where to rank the Bruins is really getting interesting. On the one hand, you could make a very strong case that they’re the second-best team in the NHL. Last night’s loss aside, I’m not even sure you’d get much pushback from anyone. That means they should be ranked second, right?

But this isn’t a “best teams” list. It’s “most likely to win the Cup,” and that means that having the best team in the league in your division is bad news. Without going into the whole playoff format debate again, the Bruins’ path out of the Atlantic is brutal, and unlike the next two teams on the list, there’s no hope of improving it down the stretch.

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Friday, March 8, 2019

Grab Bag: Can anyone beat the Lightning?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Coming up with reasons that various teams could beat the Lightning
- Are his fellow mascots right about Gritty being overexposed?
- An obscure journeyman who had one monster night
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the impact of NHL crowd noise, starring a wonderful sports psychologist who doesn't watch hockey

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