Monday, December 9, 2019

Weekend rankings: Flyers make their case, Devils move on and Wild come back from the dead

This is the tenth power rankings of the season, which seems like a good time to take stock of where we’re at and how things are going. And how they’re going is: weird.

Or more specifically, weirdly stable. These rankings just aren’t changing all that much from week-to-week.

A new team hasn’t cracked the top five since the Islanders back in week six. There have been a total of ten teams to make an appearance, including week preseason favorites like the Maple Leafs and Golden Knights who quickly punched out. The Hurricanes and Predators also briefly showed up, but it’s been some combination of the Bruins, Caps, Blues, Avs, Islanders and Lightning for five weeks running. By comparison, by this time last year, we’d seen a dozen teams in the top five, including two recent newcomers.

The bottom five has been even more locked in. The Ducks made their debut last week, becoming just the seventh team to appear. The Senators, Kings and Red Wings have been on the list every week, with the Devils joining them in week two. That’s only left one spot for the Wild, Ducks and Blue Jackets to pass around. This time last year, twelve teams had already appeared in the bottom five.

What’s going on? Let’s start with the obvious: These rankings aren’t being generated by some mathematical model or other objective methods. I’m making the calls here, so maybe I’m just wrong. Maybe I’ve just been too conservative, and my hesitancy to embrace surprise teams at either end of the spectrum is gumming up the works.

It’s possible. I’m always rambling on about how these rankings are meant to be a long view, and we don’t want to overreact to every big win or loss, or even to outlier streaks. That’s fine, but you can take it too far, and maybe I have.

But I don’t think so. I mean, which teams should have cracked the bottom five that have been left out? Maybe the Rangers at some point, but who else? The Hawks? That’s pretty much it for the candidates. The reality is that this year features four really bad teams, which makes it tough to keep up the suspense when your gimmick is a list of five.

The top five is a little trickier. Edmonton fans will argue that I’ve been too slow to buy in on the Oilers, and they may have a case. There have certainly been teams with worse records that I’ve slotted in ahead of Edmonton, and maybe I’m clinging too much to reputation here. Then again, the Oilers have been pretty mediocre lately, winning five of their last eleven, including losses to the Kings and Senators. They’re knocking on the door, but they’re not kicking it down.

Who else should be in the mix? At various times, you could have made a case for the Sabres, Penguins, or maybe even the Jets or Canucks. None made the cut, and none are exactly making me look bad for it these days. The Coyotes and Flyers are at least in the ballpark. And there’s probably a good case to be made that I’ve been too slow to embrace the Stars as a top-five candidate. But go easy, Dallas fans – I didn’t drop you in the bottom five when things were awful, so sometimes the conservative approach works both ways.

All in all, it’s been a strange first few months. Trust me, these rankings are more fun to write when there are new teams cycling in and out, if only so that I’m not talking about the same ones over and over again. It’s tempting to just mix it up for the sake of it. But so far, at least, I think the bias towards the status quo has been the right approach.

Now, was all of that just a big set-up for this week’s rankings being full of unexpected teams? Let’s find out …

Road to the Cup

5. New York Islanders (19-7-2, +11 true goals differential*) – They had two regulation losses for the second straight week, which is notable for a team that went 17 straight with at least a point. That’s let the Caps pull away a bit for the division lead. Maybe more importantly, the Flyers are gaining ground for home ice. This week doesn’t get any easier, with a two-game trip to Florida to face the Lightning and Panthers, so it’s possible we won’t see the Islanders here next week.

4. St. Louis Blues (18-7-6, +12) – They’ve lost two straight in regulation for the first time all year, thanks to a pair of underwhelming performances against the Penguins and Maple Leafs.

Playing the Maple Leafs also meant we got some Toronto-centric trade speculation, as well as some adorable pregame floor hockey. The Blues head to Buffalo tomorrow, followed by a four-game homestand that will include a showdown with the Avs a week from now.

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Friday, December 6, 2019

Grab Bag: Is your terrible NHL team secretly the next Blues? Take the quiz and find out

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A handy quiz to figure out if your terrible team is secretly this year's Blues
- A debate about retired numbers and honored players
- An obscure player from a Mickey Mouse team
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the early days of the Flyers' Sign Man

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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Puck Soup: Shout at the Devils

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Devils fire John Hynes
- The Taylor Hall trade watch begins
- More reaction to the Bill Peters story
- The Marc Crawford allegations, and what comes next for hockey coaching
- Nicklas Backstrom is going to try to be his own agent
- A surprisingly tricky "pick your team" challenge
- A way-too-long discussion of pro wrestling stables

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.

A guide to some things you might expect to find in an NHL rulebook (but won’t)

I’ve always been a bit of a rulebook nerd. My readers know that, and we’ve had some fun with it over the years. Last season, we went through seven rules that don’t work the way you think, or that you might not have known were in the book at all. Did you know that it’s an automatic penalty to swear, or challenge a referee’s judgment, or (sometimes) even freeze the puck after a save? The NHL rulebook is weird.

But while there are lots of rules that you might not have known were in there, the flip side is also true. There’s stuff that hockey fans tend to assume is explained in detail in the rulebook, but isn’t. Sometimes it’s missing completely. In other cases, it’s a lot more vague than you might have been led to believe. Sometimes, that might even be a good thing.

Today, let’s dig into that side of the story, with five things you might assume you could find in an NHL rulebook that aren’t actually there.

Pretty much any definition of charging

What you know: Charging is a penalty that isn’t called often, but it comes up from time to time, and plenty of fans seem to believe that it should be called a lot more than it is. Leaving your feet to make a hit is definitely charging. So is skating halfway across the ice to drill a guy. You’ll sometimes hear that it’s based on how many strides a player takes before initiating contact.

It’s a bit of a gray area, sure, but you know it when you see it. (Specifically, you know it’s charging when you see a player from your favorite team get sent flying.)

What you might expect to find in the rulebook: Some sort of definition of what charging actually is.

What you get instead: An almost comically ambiguous description of charging that could be applied to half the hits in a typical game, or none of them at all.

Seriously, go check out Rule 42. It’s one of the shortest rules in the rulebook, just over 300 words; half of those are the standard-issue breakdown of minor versus major versus match, and half of what’s left is just a reminder that goalies aren’t fair game for hits. The actual description of charging is just two sentences long, and neither is very helpful.

The first tells us that a charging penalty “shall be imposed on a player who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner.” The first problem here is that we’re using the word “charges” to help define what “charging” is, a turn of phrase that sounds like it should be read by Smokin’ Joe Frazier. But more importantly: any manner? That seems a little vague, no? It can be read as saying that skating into an opponent is always against the rules. Is every hit a potential charge?

Well, yeah, as it turns out, it kind of is. The next line clarifies, but only a little: “Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner.” Now we know that we’re looking for violent checks, and that distance traveled is an important factor. But that’s as far as we go. Despite what you may have heard, there’s nothing in the rulebook about how many strides a player can take. And while there is that reference to jumping into an opponent, it doesn’t explicitly say that leaving your feet is an automatic charge, at least any more than skating into someone should be.

How it gets called: This is one of those rules that’s evolved as the game has changed. It’s a bit of a relic from the sport’s early days when players taking two-minute shifts would glide around the ice and only accelerate to full gear when needed. Back then, somebody going full speed into a body check would stand out – that was charging. But as Ken Dryden once told me, these days the entire game is played at charging speed. Based on how the sport works today and how the rule is written, it’s not an exaggeration to say that yes, literally every hit could be called charging.

Nobody wants that. Instead, today’s officials have pretty much settled on looking for a player who takes multiple strides into a stationary opponent and/or leaves his feet when delivering a hit. That’s reasonable. It’s just not what the rulebook says.

(Now can we also talk about how the phrase “leaves his feet” doesn’t make any sense?)

A clear-cut definition of possessing or controlling the puck

What you know: Certain scenarios covered in the rules will hinge on who has possession and/or control of the puck. Delayed penalty calls, legal line changes, penalty shots and offside calls can all depend on whether or not a player (or team) had the puck, and when.

What you might expect to find in the rulebook: A detailed definition of what it means to possess or control the puck.

What you get instead: Not much. Or, depending on how you look at it, maybe too much. References to possession show up all over the rulebook. Often, they’re accompanied by a reference to control, which is a similar concept but not the same thing. (As the rulebook charmingly puts it at one point, “A player can have possession of the puck without control, but he cannot have control of the puck without possession.” That’s almost deep enough to go on a motivational poster.)

Some of those references tip-toe up to defining the term, if very loosely. For example, Rule 56 on interference says that possession is simply “The last player to touch the puck.” But the closest we get to something firm is tucked away in the glossary, which says that control is “The act of propelling the puck with the stick, hand or feet.” That’s a start. But there’s nothing about, for example, the puck staying within a certain distance of the player, or how much contact he needs to make to maintain possession, or whether the propelling needs to be intentional, or any of the other nit-picky things you might wonder about.

You know how the NFL seems to have roughly six dozen rules and sub-rules about whether or not a receiver possessed the ball at a given moment? The NHL doesn’t have that. This might not be a bad thing.

How it gets called: This is another one that often falls into the “we know it when we see it” category. And honestly, that usually works out fine. Except when it doesn’t.

This came up recently in a game between the Bruins and Canadiens, where Charlie Coyle was ruled offside after video review on a play where he seemed to control the puck with his skates. The rulebook is clear that “a player actually controlling the puck who shall cross the line ahead of the puck shall not be considered offside.” But since it doesn’t really define what “actually controlling the puck” means, the officials were left on their own to figure out if Coyle’s skate skills were enough. They decided they weren’t. Lots of us watching disagreed, but the officials weren’t wrong, so much as they were caught in a gray area of the rulebook.

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Monday, December 2, 2019

Weekend power rankings: It’s no longer too early, especially for the teams that are struggling

When it comes to evaluating a team’s playoff chances, there are three key pressure points on the schedule. The first of those comes on Nov. 1, when Elliotte Friedman’s infamous stat about teams that are four or more points back being all but done kicks in. This year, there were a ton of those teams, including several that have since climbed back into the race.

The second key day just passed. It’s American Thanksgiving, and we’re often told that it’s the cutoff that NHL GMs care about. The Nov. 1 thing is cute, and it’s been oddly accurate over the years, but it always feels like it’s a little too early to panic. But by Thanksgiving, the season is almost a third of the way over. If you’ve dug a hole by now, it’s tough to climb back out.

How tough? Jonathan Willis took a look at the recent history and found that over the past six seasons only four teams that were more than four points out this late in the year were able to claw their way back to a postseason invite. When the calendar flipped over to December this year, seven teams are facing that kind of gap.

Some of those feel like easy calls. The Red Wings, Senators and Kings are all rebuilding teams and are already way out of the race. Can we say with 100 percent certainty that they won’t make the playoffs? Well … maybe, since Dom Luszczyszyn’s model pretty much does. Miracles happen, so we’ll never say never. But for these three teams, it’s close to never.

The Devils fall into the same group in terms of how far back they are. They were supposed to be far enough along that they weren’t a rebuilding team in the same sense as the others, although maybe they will be again by the trade deadline. A few of the experts had them as a playoff team, and newcomers like Nikita Gusev and Jack Hughes have been starting to find their groove, so there’s a chance they can get back into something that feels like a race. But they’ve got so much ground to make up that they’re all but done.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Lightning are technically five points out of a playoff spot this morning. But they’ve played the fewest games in the league, and are already holding down a spot in terms of points percentage. Also, they’re the Lightning. They’re not a lock to make the playoffs, but it’s virtually impossible to be five points out in December and be in any better shape than Tampa Bay is right now.

That leaves us with two teams that fall into more of a grey area. Columbus has six points to make up and five teams to pass, so they’re in rough shape. But they’re not so far back that it feels impossible, and they did have 98 points and a playoff round win last year. That was a very different roster, and they may have lost Zach Werenski, so maybe it’s wishful thinking, but we can’t rule them out entirely. And the Blackhawks have shown flashes this year, including a four-game win streak just a few weeks ago. They’ve given back a lot of that ground since, losing five of six. Informally, I can report that Hawks fans rank towards the top of any crankiness power rankings these days. But if somebody’s other than Tampa is going to make a push, Chicago looks to have the bests shot.

(By the way, the third key checkpoint for non-playoff teams is a new one for this year: the first week of January, when last year’s Blues hit their low point before turning their season around. From that moment on, teams that are still struggling won’t be able to play the “But what if we’re secretly the Blues?” card anymore. That will be a sad day for a lot of GMs. Let’s let them enjoy these last few weeks while they can.)

Road to the Cup

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

We haven’t mentioned the Flyers much in this section, and they’re not in this week’s top five. But they’ve been hot lately, including a win on Saturday on an overtime beauty from Ivan Provorov:

The Flyers have been somewhat quietly climbing the Metro standings, and even briefly moved into second with that Provorov goal, before the Islanders retook the spot later that night. Hey, speaking of whom …

5. New York Islanders (17-5-2, +11 true goals differential*) – For the first time in a while, a few warning lights are blinking on the dashboard. They lost three straight for the first time this season, scoring just twice in the process. And while Saturday’s 2-0 win over the Blue Jackets snapped the streak, they gave up 39 shots and may have lost Thomas Greiss, who left the game in the first period with an undisclosed injury. The Islanders are a team that goes as far as its goaltending can take it, so losing one for any length of time would be worrying. We don’t know that that’s the case yet, but we’ll keep an eye on it.

4. Colorado Avalanche (16-8-2, +22) – The Avs reached as high as second in these rankings in October, but haven’t cracked the list in a month. That ends this week, thanks to three straight wins in which they outscored their opponents 16-6. But more importantly, Mikko Rantanen is back and looks like his old self. They’re still missing Gabriel Landeskog and Andre Burakovsky, and they have the Stars and Jets nipping at their heels. But with the fifth-best points percentage in the league and a big star back in the lineup, it’s time to get them back into the top five.

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