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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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Puck Soup: What's real and what's not after one week

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Doughty/Tkachuk rivalry doesn't disappoint
- James Neal cannot be stopped
- One week in, which surprising starts are for real and which will be forgotten
- An interview with Julie Stewart-Binks
- Batman villain talk
- I give the boys a quiz on NHL team leaderboards
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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

A brief history of NHL teams getting off to terrible starts that ultimately didn’t matter at all

We’re one week into the NHL season. How’s your team doing?

If you’re a fan of someone like the Hurricanes, Blues or Bruins you’re probably in a pretty good mood. Even fans of supposedly bad teams like the Oilers, Ducks and Sabres are feeling OK so far. All those teams are off to strong starts, the kind that inspire plenty of confidence and maybe even generate a little self-fulfilling “we can do this” momentum. At the very least, those October points count just as much as the ones in March and April and it’s nice to get a few in the bank.

But what if your team is off to a rough start? They might still be winless, or already a few points out of a playoff spot. Maybe they’ve already had a loss that was so bad, so embarrassing, that it made you start asking tough questions. Maybe they’re the Sharks and it’s all of the above. What happens when the season has just started and every warning light on the dashboard is already flashing?

Are you screwed?

Well … yeah, maybe. You definitely could be. Recent history is filled with teams that came into a season with high expectations, stumbled out of the gate and never recovered. Heck, the Coyotes do it pretty much every year. In this age of parity, where three-quarters of the league finishes over .500 and the mushy middle accounts for roughly 20 teams, even a bad week or two can make the difference between the playoffs and the lottery. Mix in the sort of bad vibes and occasional panic decisions that a slow start can generate and there’s every reason to be worried.

So yeah, if your team has looked bad, they might absolutely be screwed. But maybe not, because while we’ve seen plenty of teams start poorly and never recover, that’s hardly a guarantee. Remember, last year opened with the Bruins losing 7-0 and the Blues dropping five of six and eight months later they were playing for the Stanley Cup. Sometimes a good team just starts slow, shrugs it off and gets back to playing at a high level. And in those cases, we often don’t even remember how the first few weeks went.

So today, let’s offer up some optimism for those fans who are watching their teams flatline early, by looking back through history at a half-dozen examples of terrible starts that turned out not to matter at all. Whether it was an embarrassing early performance, an immediate losing streak or even a rotten October start-to-finish, these teams gave us plenty of reason to worry. Then they figured it out, rolled through the rest of the year, and all was forgiven.

Could your struggling team enjoy the same sort of turnaround, or at least flip their seasons into something positive? Maybe. And at this point, for some teams, “maybe” will have to do. Let’s crack open those history books …

The 2015-16 Anaheim Ducks

The team: The Ducks were entering their fourth full season with Bruce Boudreau behind the bench and had already won three straight Pacific titles. They were the heavy favorites to capture another, coming off a 109-point season and a trip to the conference final. With a strong mix of youth and veterans and a top-tier goaltending tandem of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, the bigger question was whether they could go further and maybe even win the franchise’s second Stanley Cup.

The bad start: Their first four games were a nightmare, as the Ducks only scored one goal on the way to four straight losses. They snapped the streak with a home win over the Wild, but then lost five more. Ten games into the season, they had one win, just 10 goals, and had already been shutout five times. And on top of all that, an appendectomy had just taken Ryan Getzlaf out of the lineup.

The easy narrative: The window had closed, Boudreau had lost the room and it was time to fire everyone and tear down the roster.

Sample reaction: “While the Ducks are off to a horrendous 1-7-2 start as they prepare to face the Nashville Predators Sunday, many around the league are starting to wonder if (GM Bob) Murray himself will take the fall for this awful first month because, after all, he’s the architect of this mess.” – From the Ottawa Sun on Oct. 31, 2015.

But then: Despite the rumor mill, Murray didn’t end up doing much of anything at all. The Ducks eased the pressure by rolling off four straight wins, starting on the road back to respectability. It was a slow climb, and they went into the Christmas break having won just 12 of 33 games. But they caught fire the rest of the way and eventually passed the Kings to take yet another division title by a single point on the season’s final night.

How it all ended: The Ducks didn’t exactly get the happy ending their second half seemed to be building to. That first-place finish earned them an opening round matchup with the Predators, who pulled off a seven-game upset that cost Boudreau his job. Still, based on where they were at the end of October, even being in a position to be upset in the first round was pretty amazing.

They could be inspiration for: The Sharks. Just like those Ducks, this year’s Sharks went from Pacific favorites to looking old and washed up almost overnight. They’re not a perfect team, and they certainly don’t have that Ducks team’s elite goaltending. But it’s a long season, and talent tends to win out over time. That’s worth remembering if you’re a Stars fan too.

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Monday, October 7, 2019

Weekend power rankings: It’s way too early but we’re doing this anyway

Welcome back to the Weekend Power Rankings. I hope you all had a great summer and came back well-rested and ready to debate some NHL rankings. Grab a seat and get comfortable, and we’ll get started by … OK, I see a lot of hands waving out there. Is there a question you’d like to ask?

Why yes, it is way too early for this. Thanks for pointing that out.

It’s admittedly kind of silly to be doing power rankings when the season is less than a week old and some teams have only played one game. That’s part of the fun. The first few days of the season are chaos, and there are always plenty of results that, in hindsight, mean absolutely nothing. Last year, the Bruins lost their first game 7-0, then came within a win of the Stanley Cup. The year before that, the Blackhawks flexed on everyone by crushing the defending champs 10-1, then missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade while finishing dead last in their division. October likes to lie to us.

In fact, it can be tempting to say that we should just ignore all of it. But that’s not quite right, because even in the very earliest days of a season, certain truths are starting to emerge. For example, the first two weeks of last year suggested that the Knights were bad and the Ducks were good, which was wrong. But it also told us that the Panthers and Coyotes could be in trouble and that the Hurricanes might finally be for real. There’s always a little bit of signal buried in all the noise. We just have to find it.

But first, an important reminder about what exactly these rankings are trying to do. Unlike most power rankings you might read, the idea here is not to capture a snapshot of who’s playing well right now. Instead, we’re looking at the big picture and trying to predict who’s ultimately going to win the Stanley Cup, and which teams will finish in the running for dead last. If your favorite team beat the Lightning last week, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean they automatically move past them in the rankings. The question here isn’t “Who had the best week?” or even “Who would be the favorite if the playoffs started right now?” We’re thinking long term.

For our purposes this week, that long-term view means a few things. We won’t see the sort of wild swings you might see from other rankings, where a surprise hot start can vault a team straight to the top of the list. This week’s rankings will look an awful lot like the preseason projections since a few games shouldn’t change our views of the top (and bottom) teams all that much.

While you won’t see any overreactions, that doesn’t mean no reactions at all, because even with only a few games to work with, we already know a little bit more about the 2019-20 season than we did a week ago. Let’s get started on trying to figure this out.

Road to the Cup

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

Goal of the week honors goes to Blake Coleman, who turned a rough night into a spot on the highlight reels.

That also gives us a chance to talk about the Jets, who roared back to win that game. It always feels a little bit silly to try to spin October games as must-wins or crucial moments or whatever, but with the Jets losing again last night and narrowly avoiding a winless start that we’d all overreact to, Friday’s turnaround did feel a bit like the sort of thing we look back on months later as being important.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (2-0-1, +5 true goals differential*) – Regular readers will know that last year’s rankings fought a season-long battle over the Atlantic Division heavyweights and whether it made sense to include three teams from the same division as elite Cup contenders when only two could even make the second round. You may be wondering if I managed to solve that problem over the offseason. The answer: No, I did not. Sorry. I had all summer to think of it.

Anyway, through three games the Leafs have looked a lot like what we all expected: A ridiculously talented offensive force that can blow opponents out of the water with skill but will also occasionally cost themselves points by forgetting how to play defense. Saturday’s third-period collapse against the Canadiens was maybe somewhat understandable – the old tired team traveling to play a rested one trap – but it was still comical. Let’s all point and laugh at Kasperi Kapanen’s brain cramp:

4. St. Louis Blues (1-0-1, even) – Here’s a fun fact: The 2019 champs never appeared in the top five of last year’s rankings, but did show up in the bottom five on a few occasions. OK, maybe that’s less “fun” and more “embarrassing.”

Or is it? After all, as we’ve all heard a hundred times by now, the Blues were in dead last in January. And even after their excellent second half, they were hardly considered sure-thing contenders; heading into the playoffs, the oddsmakers had them tied with two other teams for the sixth-best Cup chances, so in that sense, they weren’t a top-five team at any point during the season. The system worked!

Did that sound convincing? I’m not sure it did. Anyways, the Blues are the defending champs, so I’ll work them into the top five this week despite needing a third-period comeback against Dallas to avoid a winless start.

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