Friday, October 18, 2019

Grab Bag: Coaches on the hot seat, when refs don’t suck and teenage Joe Sakic rides a bicycle with one leg

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A look at some of the coaches around the league who could be on the hot seat
- Everybody needs to ease up on the "Ref you suck" chant
- An obscure player who has nothing to do with politics
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at teenage rookie Joe Sakic, who can ride a stationary bike with one leg

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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Puck Soup: Rock Bottom

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We look at the terrible starts in New Jersey, Dallas and Minnesota and which ones might be for real
- The Oilers keep rolling
- The Donald Brashear story
- Jim Hughson's apology
- A soccer star tries his hand at hockey
- Is there a goaltending controversy in Washington?
- We run down all of this year's nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- And more...

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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The 10 types of bad starts to an NHL season (and which one your team is having)

We’re now two weeks into the season. How’s your team doing?

We asked that question one week ago, as part of a post that was all about optimism. Bad starts aren’t always fatal. Some teams recover just fine. There’s a chance that everything will turn out OK.

But that was a whole week ago. We were all so young and full of hope back then. Now that we’re two weeks in, any teams that are still underachieving might be wondering if it’s time to start panicking. And the answer is yeah, it might be.

But like any bad situation, the first step is to figure out what we’re dealing with. Not all bad starts are created equal, after all. Today, let’s get those struggling teams into triage, as we work our way through ten types of bad starts to an NHL season.

The “Maybe we should have seen this coming” bad start

What happens: A team that isn’t very good suddenly stumbles into some optimism. Maybe they add a player or two during the offseason, maybe it’s a new coach, or maybe it’s just one of those weird cases of collective amnesia that fans sometimes get. Either way, everyone decides that the team is good now. Then the season starts, and it turns out they are not.

The outlook: These starts are never fun, and they can lead to the sort of overreactions that set a franchise back. But under the right circumstances, they can be a positive – the sort of wakeup call that a team might need, or at least a reminder of the work still left to do on the long road ahead.

Historical precedent: Coming off a lackluster 81-point season, the 2011-12 Blue Jackets loaded up for a quick turnaround. Rather than go full rebuild by trading Rick Nash, they swung a blockbuster trade to get him a top center in Jeff Carter. They also added James Wisniewski to shore up the blue line and welcomed rookie Ryan Johansen as a Calder contender. With a significantly increased payroll and plenty of pressure to make the playoffs, it felt like better times were ahead. Then they lost their first eight games and thirteen of their first fifteen on their way to finishing dead last. Oops.

Potential current example: The Devils. They had a great offseason, and that led to some justified optimism. But this was still a team coming off a 72-point season with an unproven coach and unsettled goaltending situation. Lining up for playoff tickets might have been premature.

The “Everybody Hurts” bad start

What happens: On paper, the lineup should be decent. But we haven’t seen it yet, because several players are out with injury. We can’t say what the real lineup can do, because we haven’t had a chance to see it yet.

The outlook: It all depends on what sort of injuries we’re talking about. If the star goalie or leading scorer has a torn ACL, well, better luck next year. But if it’s just a case of a few key guys being banged up, there’s at least some room for optimism once everyone is healthy – as long as you haven’t already fallen out of the race by then.

Historical precedent: After years of rebuilding, the 2016-17 Sabres went into the season hoping to contend for a playoff spot. But Jack Eichel suffered a high-ankle sprain the day before the season and Evander Kane went down with a rib injury in the opener. With Kyle Okposo missing time with a knee injury and Ryan O’Reilly playing through back spasms, the Sabres limped out of the gate with one win in their first six games and were dead last in the Atlantic by the time Eichel returned in late November.

Potential current example: The Stars. While their very best players have been healthy, they’ve been missing at least a few guys just about every night. They lost three players in the season opener, including Roman Polak being stretchered off, and are still waiting on Corey Perry to make his debut. And while it’s not an injury, Julius Honka isn’t there either. Those absences haven’t been the team’s only problem – that list is a long one – but they sure haven’t helped.

The “Critical flaw exposed” bad start

What happens: A team heads into the season feeling pretty good about themselves, aside from one nagging doubt. It could be weak goaltending, or a lack of a game-breaker up front, or a blue line that keeps springing a leak at the worst possible time. You’re left to wonder whether that one flaw is going to spell doom yet again. Soon the hockey gods answer: Yep, it sure is, and you were right to worry.

The outlook: A lot of this depends on just how big of a flaw we’re talking about, and how easy it is to fix. If goaltending is the issue, is there a prospect ready to come up and save the day? If the offense is missing a piece, can it be added through a trade? If there’s an answer out there, and the GM is willing to be aggressive in finding it, there may be hope.

Historical precedent: We could use last year’s Blues for a bunch of these, but they fit especially well here. Heading into the season, everyone figured they were at least borderline contenders. But all of that optimism came with a caveat: They needed a solid year from Jake Allen. Not necessarily a great one. Just decent. They didn’t get it, to the tune of a 3.99 GAA in October. Everything fell apart, people lost their jobs, and the next thing you know they had a former ECHL guy in net. I can’t remember what happened next, it probably wasn’t important.

Potential current example: Their start hasn’t been as bad as some of the other teams we’ll get to, but the Maple Leafs’ shaky play in their own zone keeps popping up at the worst possible times. If Mike Babcock hasn’t been able to fix it by now, you wonder if he ever will.

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Monday, October 14, 2019

Weekend rankings: The standings don’t make any sense right now and it’s great

Man, the top of the standings look super-weird right now.

The Hurricanes’ monster start is a surprise, but not a jaw-dropping one. Plenty of experts liked the Canes a lot heading into the season, and while they couldn’t stay perfect forever, Saturday’s loss to Columbus shouldn’t do much to diminish a strong start. They didn’t make the top five last week, but their case is stronger this time. I’ll keep you in suspense for another few paragraphs over whether they made the cut, but at this point, I think everyone would agree that they’re a very good team. Seeing them push for first overall is unexpected, maybe, but it doesn’t feel crazy.

But beyond that … whew. The Oilers are 5-0-0. The Sabres are right behind them at 4-0-1. The Ducks are 4-1-0. Those are teams that virtually everyone had missing the playoffs, if not finishing in the bottom five. And they’re all rolling. What’s going on?

We could come up with a simplistic answer to that question for each team – the Ducks might have the best goalie in the league, the Sabres are responding to Ralph Krueger, the Oilers are shooting the light outs and crushing it on the powerplay, etc. But in the bigger picture, the answer is a more straightforward one: This is the modern NHL. Parity reigns. Anything can happen, and over a small enough sample size, it probably will.

We saw this last year in the first round of the playoffs, where just about every series featured either an upset or some crazy turn of events (or both). At the time, I wondered whether or not that level of unpredictability bordering on randomness was actually a good thing. It ended up being one of the most controversial takes I’ve ever had, with many of you agreeing that there was such a thing as too much parity and others making it clear that they thought all the chaos made for fantastic entertainment.

Are we just having the same debate here? No, actually. That’s the beauty of October. It’s pandemonium, sure, but there are still five months to sort it all out. If a great team has one bad week in April and it costs them their season, that sucks. Or it’s great, depending on your perspective. But it matters, a lot. October? Not so much. It matters a little, sure, but there’s a ton of time to get back to equilibrium, whatever that ends up being.

And no, it almost certainly won’t involve all of the Oilers, Sabres and Ducks being the best teams in the league. That’s why they’re not in the top five this week, and probably won’t be any time soon. Maybe they’ll earn their way in eventually, but it could take a while. Or a week. You never really know with October.

But in the meantime, enjoy the chaos. It’s early. This is the fun* part.

(*Fun does not apply to Minnesota Wild fans.)

Road to the Cup

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

Let’s use this spot to do the mandatory “it’s still early” warning, only because if we don’t, then a flood of commenters will take care of it for us. We’re less than two weeks into the season and we’re far from the point where we can know anything for sure.

For example, here’s what the standings looked like on the second Monday morning of last season. The only two teams that hadn’t lost in regulation were the Devils and the Blackhawks; neither made the playoffs. The year’s biggest surprise team, the Islanders, were sitting at a pedestrian 2-2-0. Anaheim was leading the Pacific, while the Blues were last in the Central.

A few teams were trying to tell us something – Carolina was second overall, just like they are today – but if you’d just taken the entire standings page and tossed it into the fireplace, you wouldn’t have missed much.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work with what we have in front of us right now. It’s just your weekly reminder that so far, we don’t have very much to work with.

The good news is we cleared up that whole “too many Atlantic teams in the top five” problem for this week, at least. Let’s get to that.

5. Carolina Hurricanes (5-1-0, +7 true goals differential*) – So yes, the Hurricanes do indeed crack the top five, although based on the feedback from their fans last week I’m guessing this won’t be high enough. A reminder that these rankings aren’t meant as a snapshot of what’s happening right now, but rather who’s most likely to be left standing at the end of the year. That’s why you won’t see teams like the Oilers, Sabres or Ducks here, despite their excellent starts. And it’s why the Hurricanes aren’t leap-frogging preseason favorites like the Lightning based on a few games. In the big picture, they’re not the Cup favorites. Not yet.

But they are very good; this isn’t a case of a team being flattered by their record. They’ve pretty much picked up where they left off in the playoffs (non-Bruins edition), with very good possession numbers, balanced scoring, strong performances from key guys like Dougie Hamilton and sophomore Andrei Svechnikov and goaltending that’s good enough to win with but not so good that you chalk the whole thing up to a temporary hot streak.

They’ve been a complete package so far. They’ve earned this spot, and the way they’re looking, they might keep climbing.

4. Colorado Avalanche (4-0-0, +7) – Our second new entry to the top five, as the rough weeks for the Maple Leafs and Golden Knights clear out a couple of spots. The Avs slide in on the strength of a perfect start that includes an impressive win over the Bruins. Things get interesting now, with a six-game road trip starting tonight in Washington that also includes the Lightning, Blues and Knights. That’s a real tough test, and I’m not moving the Avs any higher than this until they’ve passed it.

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Friday, October 11, 2019

Grab Bag: Player vs. player rivalries, goalpost trust issues and a Brett Hull slapshot to the groin

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- We need more rivalries like Doughty/Tkachuk and I have an idea on how we can get them
- Please tell me I'm not the only one developing trust issues when shots hit the post
- An obscure player who knew how to put on a show
- The week's three comedy stars
- And happier time for the San Jose Sharks (their goalie taking a slapshot to the pills)

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