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

Friday, October 12, 2018

Grab bag: Banner manners

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A word to the fun police about celebrations
- What do about that Nashville Predators banner situation
- An obscure player who we all thought was going to be so much better
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back to the Dallas Stars making their NHL debut with space cowboys, probably

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Who's the best GM of all time? Just follow the bad trade chain.

Who’s​ the best general​ manager​ in​ the​ history​ of​ the NHL?

On​ the surface, that​ seems like the​ sort​ of question that​​ we can’t really answer. You’ll have your opinion and I’ll have mine, and we can have fun debating it back and forth. But ultimately, it’s all a matter of opinion.

Or is it? When it comes to these sorts of questions, I’ve always been a big fan of stripping away emotion and hometown bias and going with a calculated, scientific approach. And there’s an opportunity to do that here, because part of a GM’s job involves occasionally going head-to-head with their colleagues. We can never read too much into a matchup between goalies or coaches or players, because the results will be determined by the rosters around them. But when GMs sit down to hammer out a trade, it’s just them. Just two men, locked in a battle of wits to see who can get the best of the other.

That should give us an opportunity to answer the question of who was the best in an objective way. All we need to do is go back through the trading records and see who got the best of who. After all, you can’t be the best GM ever if some other GM took you to the cleaners in a head-to-head matchup. We just need to work our way down the chain, looking for any trades that were clearly lopsided, and we’ll eventually get to an answer we can all agree on. It’s practically foolproof.

The only question is where to begin. That’s tricky, but I think there’s a logical answer: We start with the reigning GM of the Year. After all, if the league says a guy is the best in the business at this very moment, that seems like as good a place as any to start our search.

As it happens, the current GM of the Year is a legitimate contender for our Best Ever crown. That would be George McPhee, who won the 2018 award after working a near-miracle with the Golden Knights. He has nearly two decades of experience as an NHL GM, and he’s taken two teams to the Stanley Cup final. If you’re looking for someone to call the best, you could do a lot worse than George McPhee.

Except that for all McPhee’s success, he made one of the worst trades in recent history back in 2013, when he sent Filip Forsberg to the Predators for Martin Erat and a minor leaguer. It was a disastrous trade, as Forsberg quickly developed into one of the league’s best young wingers while Erat barely did anything in Washington. The deal has been referred to as a “dumpster fire”. And who was the GM who robbed McPhee blind in that deal? That would be David Poile.

So McPhee clearly can’t be the best GM ever. Instead, it’s Poile. See how this works? Simple and straightforward.

Except that while Poile certainly won his fair share of trades over his 36 years on the job, his record isn’t exactly spotless. Back in 1992, Poile was GM of the Capitals when he traded winger Dino Ciccarelli to the Red Wings in a straight-up deal for Kevin Miller. The 31-year-old Ciccarelli had scored over 100 goals in his three full seasons in Washington; he turned out to have over 160 more left in him, on the way to joining the 600-goal club and making the Hall of Fame. Miller lasted all of 10 games in Washington.

So sorry, David, you can’t be the best GM of all-time when you get robbed like that. Instead, we’ll hand those honors over to the man that fleeced you: Red Wings’ GM Bryan Murray.

Murray’s a solid pick; he was a GM for four different teams over the course of a quarter century. Unfortunately, he also had some shaky deals. Back in 2013, he traded Jakob Silfverberg, Stefan Noesen and a first-round pick to the Ducks in a deal for winger Bobby Ryan. That pick ended up being in the top 10, and the Ducks used it on Nick Ritchie. Meanwhile, Ryan has largely been a bust in Ottawa, and the team is currently trying to unload his massive contract. It was a clear loss for the Senators, and a win for Anaheim GM Bob “No Relation” Murray.

So Bryan can’t be our best-ever GM. But maybe Bob can be.

Unfortunately, the best GM ever wouldn’t have traded one of the top defensemen in the league without getting any impact assets back in return. That’s what Murray did back in 2009, when Paul Holmgren got him to part with Chris Pronger for the low price of Joffrey Lupul, Lucas Sbisa and two late first-round picks. Pronger immediately led the Flyers to within two wins of a championship, making the deal a big win for GM Paul Holmgren.

So Murray isn’t the best GM after all. Paul Holmgren is.

Except that he can’t be, because he once traded James van Riemsdyk to the Maple Leafs in a straight-up deal for Luke Schenn. That was a bad deal on the day it went down, and has been getting worse ever since. Schenn was barely a useful third-pairing guy, while van Riemsdyk had multiple 30-goal seasons in Toronto and just got a ton of money to come back to the Flyers. Chalk up a big win for Leafs GM Brian Burke.

So Holmgren is out. The best GM ever was actually Brian Burke.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic