Wednesday, September 23, 2020

A way-too-in-depth look at 25 years of Stanley Cup handoffs

I’ve always been kind of fascinated with the Stanley Cup handoff. The moment where Gary Bettman calls over winning team’s captain to accept the Cup is great, once you get past the boring speech and awkward photograph. But it’s what happens after that really gets me, as the captain chooses a teammate to receive the first handoff, then that guy chooses who goes next, and on down the line.

That first pass from Bettman to the captain is cool, but can feel corporate or manufactured (and occasionally downright awkward). The handoffs that follow are all about the players, and the way they decide to handle it can tell us a lot about how the team dynamic really works.

That’s a pretty awesome tradition. It’s a relatively new one, too. For most of NHL history, the captain got the Cup and his teammates just kind of mobbed around him. The first time most of us remember a handoff having some thought behind it was when the Oilers made a point of giving it to Steve Smith in 1987, a year after his notorious own goal ended their season. And it didn’t really become an annual thing until 1994, when the NHL formalized the Bettman process we’re used to today.

If we go back to 1994, that gives us a nice round 25 seasons to work with. That feels like something we should work with. I already did a first-handoff ranking a few years ago, so let’s do what we tend to do around here and dig even deeper. Like, probably too deep. Can I interest you in some Cup handoff analytics?

I went through the last 25 Cup winners and made a note of the first five players to get the Cup after the captain. (I couldn’t find all five for two teams; I’m missing the fourth and fifth players for the ’96 Avalanche and the fifth for the 2000 Devils.) Then I went through those players to figure out how they rated in various categories.

Here’s what I went looking for, and what I thought I’d find:

How many seasons had the player been in the league? I’m assuming that veteran players get the Cup first.

How many seasons had the player been on that team? I’m guessing that franchise lifers will have the edge, although I can remember a few guys who were new to a team.

Is this the player’s first Cup? I’m assuming these guys are more likely to get an early handoff.

Was the player an OGWAC (Old Guy Without a Cup)? A combination of the first few categories. We’ll use the definition from this year’s rankings: 33 or older with at least ten years in the league. I’m thinking this will be the biggest single factor, with OGWACs going right to the front of the line.

Was the player a star? I made a note of whether the player was a Hall-of-Famer, had won a major award (Hart, Vezina or Norris), or had played in an all-star game. Stars should probably have advantage.

Did the player win the Conn Smythe that year? I’d think that players who just had a monster playoff will be more likely to get an early handoff.

We’ll be looking at players only, so we’re not counting owners (Mike Illitch got the Cup first for the ’97 Red Wings) or coaches (Scotty Bowman famously took a lap with the Cup in 2002). We are counting players who were injured or otherwise unable to play, since it turns out there are a lot of them. That includes Vladimir Konstantinov, who was recovering from a career-ending car accident when he got the Cup first for the 1998 Wings.

Sound interesting? Maybe not, but I’ve already done the work so you’re stuck with me. Let’s see what we can learn, and maybe make some predictions along the way.

Observation #1: Sorry, kids, veterans get the Cup first.

No big shocker here. The average first-handoff recipient has been in the league 13.36 seasons by the time they get the honor. Even that’s actually a little misleading, because it includes Viacheslav Fetisov, who was nearly 40 when he was the first Red Wing player to get the Cup in 1997 but had only been in the league eight years.

The only other two players with less than a decade of NHL experience to get the Cup first were Konstantinov in 1998 and Curtis Leschyshyn in 1996. Konstantinov was obviously a special case. As for Leschyshyn, at 26 he’s the youngest player to ever get the first handoff, and it’s not all that close. If you’re looking for the story behind that, there really isn’t one, except that he’d been friends with Joe Sakic since they broke in together with the Nordiques and the traditional first handoff protocol hadn’t really been cemented yet.

Once the first handoff is out of the way, the older guys still tend to dominate. The average player to get a second or third handoff has been in the league 11.72 seasons, while a fourth or fifth handoff averages 10.34.

That’s not to say that the kids never get their hands on the Cup early. But in 25 seasons and 122 handoffs, I couldn’t find a single rookie. And I only found one second-year player (Tomas Holmstrom, who got it third after a breakout postseason in 1998), and just one in his third year (Milan Hejduk went fifth in 2001).

What it means for this year: If the Stars win, you might assume that Miro Heiskanen would be a leading candidate given how good he’s been this year. But if he was, the Stars would be breaking with tradition. And that’s especially true given how many older options the Stars have.

OK, sure, but what if Heiskanen stays hot through the end of the final and wins the Conn Smythe? Well…

Observation #2: Being a star in your prime doesn’t really matter. Neither does the Conn Smythe.

This one surprised me a bit. I expected veterans to be prime candidates for early handoffs, especially if they hadn’t won a Cup before. But I figured that a team’s best players would be next in line. Not really, as it turns out. Or at least, it’s far from a sure thing.

For example, Drew Doughty wasn’t a top-five handoff in either of the Kings’ championship years. Patrick Kane never got higher than fifth for the Hawks (and that was in 2015, not in 2010 when he’d just scored the OT winner). Evgeni Malkin has never had a top-three handoff for the Penguins, and while Nicklas Lidstrom was captain for Detroit’s 2008 Cup win, he never got top-five honors in any of 1997, 1998 or 2002.

That’s not to say that big stars never get the Cup early. Future Hall-of-Famers accounted for 25 top-five handoffs, including going first eight times. But most of those were guys who were near the end of their career; the only times that the first handoff went to a star in his 20s would be Mike Modano in 1999 and Scott Niedermayer in 2003, and they were both 29. When it comes to the kiddie table, even the big names have to wait their turn.

Maybe more surprisingly, the Conn Smythe just doesn’t seem to matter at all. In the 18 years that the Conn Smythe was awarded to a player on the winning team that wasn’t the captain, not one has received first handoff honors. Only Brian Leetch in 1994 went second, and only Tim Thomas in 2011 went third. Until Ryan O’Reilly last year, a Conn Smythe winner hadn’t received top-five handoff honors since that Thomas year. And O’Reilly only went fifth.

Bottom line: The voters might do a better job on the Conn Smythe than on the Hart, but the players don’t seem to care.

What it means for this year: This is probably bad news if you have guys like Miro Heiskanen, Tyler Seguin, Brayden Point or Nikita Kucherov in your pool.

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Monday, September 21, 2020

Defensemen and goalies win the Conn Smythe but not the Hart. Why?

The NHL will announce the winner of the Hart Trophy tonight. We know it will be a forward, because the finalists are Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, and Artemi Panarin. It’s the third year in a row and tenth time in the last 13 seasons that all three finalists are forwards. Hold that thought.

We’ve also got a Stanley Cup final game tonight, and each team has a defenseman at the top of the Conn Smythe watchlists, with Miro Heiskanen and Victor Hedman emerging as perhaps the two leading candidates. There are forwards from both teams in the mix, and with a dominant performance in the final, either goalie could move to the front of the line. Hold that thought too.

Last week I tried to figure out if a team made up entirely of players who’d won the Hart Trophy as league MVP could beat a team made up of players that hadn’t. It ends up being closer than it probably should be, for a simple reason: There’s a strong positional bias in Hart voting, so while they had a ton of legendary centers to choose from, things got dicey on wing and downright barren on the blueline and in goal.

It’s actually kind of astounding when you dig into it. Only three goalies have won the Hart since the days of Jacques Plante, and only one defenseman has won it since Bobby Orr. That’s crazy, right? It spurred some discussion in the comment section about why exactly we see this. In a league where we’re told that you build a winning team from the net out, where nobody can win without a hot goalie and a stud on the blueline, why do Hart voters only seem to want to recognize forwards?

A consensus quickly formed, and the consensus was that the voters are bad.

That’s… well, it’s maybe not a terrible place to start. As a member of the PHWA, I’m one of those voters, and I think we can all agree that my votes are always good. (Full disclosure, my five-player Hart ballot had four forwards this year.) But with so many of us voting in any given year, individual ballots don’t matter all that much, and a case of groupthink can sway the vote in the wrong direction. Maybe that’s it. The PHWA is just bad at voting for MVPs.

But there’s a possible flaw in that theory, and it’s one I find interesting. The PHWA doesn’t just vote for one MVP award. In addition to the Hart Trophy for regular season excellence, the writers also vote on the Conn Smythe, for playoff MVP. And somewhat weirdly, the Conn Smythe doesn’t really show the same positional bias.

The Hart was introduced in 1924; the Conn Smythe was first awarded in 1965. Here’s how the winners have broken down by position over the years:

Hart Trophy (regular season MVP)


Conn Smythe Trophy (postseason MVP)


Wingers are still having a rough time, but maybe that’s to be expected – up front, center is just a more important position, so we should probably expect to see it represented more in the awards. (And for what it’s worth, wingers have won three of the last seven Conn Smythes.)

But the big takeaway is that goalies and defensemen are getting a fair shake from Conn Smythe voters. Your mileage may vary, but to my eyes that second chart looks a lot more like what I’d expect to see if we’re measuring which players on a hockey team are actually the most valuable.

So what’s going on? Why do voters from the same organization seem to treat two MVP awards so differently?

I asked around, checking in with a few writers who’ve voted for both awards. (I’ve only ever voted for the Hart.) Based on that, and just thinking through the possibilities, I have five theories about what we could be seeing here.

Theory #1: The Conn Smythe voters are different

I said that the PHWA votes on both awards, and that’s true. But it also might be misleading, because it’s not the same group of voters. For the Hart, ballots go out to nearly 200 members from every market in the league. But for the Conn Smythe, the voting list is much smaller, maybe two dozen or so in a typical year, with a mix of national writers and locals who cover the finalists.

That could matter, in a couple of ways. First, the smaller group is made up a lot of recognizable names. You have to have been around a while to get an invite, so the voters should know their stuff. Maybe they’re just smarter, or at least better informed, than the larger Hart voting bloc that occasionally includes writers who cover multiple sports and may not be following the race as closely. Better voters, better results. It’s a possibility.

But having fewer voters might be important in another way, because these two dozen or so writers are presumably all talking to each other. With the Hart and its 200 voters, I can complain all I want about positional bias, but I’m probably not going to move the needle much, if at all. But with the Conn Smythe, one writer who makes a strong case for a goalie or defenseman over intermission popcorn or postgame beers might be able to sway over two or three votes. And with so few in play, that could be enough.

Theory #2: Seeing things in person makes a big difference

The knock against PHWA voters is that when it comes to the Hart Trophy, we just lazily go to the stats page and click “sort by points” and call it a day. As someone who spends hours agonizing over my ballot every year, I can assure that this is not true. It’s never been true. You should ignore anyone who suggests it might be true.

But also, it’s kind of true?

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Friday, September 18, 2020

Puck Soup: Stanley Cup, finally

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Thoughts and picks for Lightning vs. Stars
- We say farewell to the Islanders
- What went wrong in Vegas
- The Eric Staal trade
- Caps get a coach, Coyotes get a GM, Montgomery gets a second chance
- OUFL Tarantino films, and more...

>> 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 Stanley Cup Final rooting guide for every other fan base

We’re almost there. After seven weeks in the bubble, zero positive tests, and some surprisingly solid hockey, we’ve got our Stanley Cup Final matchup. Just two teams remain.

Which means, of course, 30 teams on the sidelines. That makes it time for the annual Stanley Cup Final rooting guide, in which we go through each of the other teams to try to figure out which of the conference champions they should be throwing their support behind.

Most years, the results split out pretty close to 50-50. That didn’t happen last year, when the final delivered a matchup between an inspiring underdog and a favorite that was too easy to hate. I’m happy to report that this year’s matchup between the Stars and Lightning gets us back to something close to balance. That’s important, because if we’re all going to spend the next week yelling at each other over bandwagons we just joined, it should at least be a fair fight.

As always, these are merely suggestions, and you are of course not obligated to follow them. If you disagree with my pick for your team, or just feel like you’d prefer rooting for someone else, simply fill out an appeals form and send it to the head office. We’ll notify you of our decision by next month.

In the meantime, here’s who to root for …

Anaheim Ducks
Put it this way: If Corey Perry wins the Cup, everyone has to talk about 2007 a lot. That’s a good thing for Anaheim fans, especially with those glory days feeling further away than ever right now. Add in longtime Duck Andrew Cogliano chasing his first ring, and this one’s easy.

Pick: Stars

Arizona Coyotes
Rick Bowness joined the Coyotes as an assistant in 1999 and was there for five years before getting a shot as head coach … for 20 whole games, before the owner demoted him so he could name himself head coach, despite never having coached before. It did not go great. The Coyotes are one of several teams that should be rooting for Rick Bowness.

Pick: Stars

Boston Bruins
It’s tempting to go with Dallas, thanks to the Anton Khudobin factor, not to mention that the Bruins got smoked by the Lightning. But that series was over so quickly it didn’t really have a chance to elicit as much bad blood as it could have, and seeing the Lightning lose in the final, while vaguely cathartic, wouldn’t really change the fact that they were a better team.

Besides, do Bruins fans really want to read a bunch of seven-year-old “trading away Tyler Seguin was a mistake” takes? Do you really want to have to see this clip a million times next month? Grit your teeth and root for the Lightning to win, so that beating them next year will feel like an even bigger deal.

Pick: Lightning

Buffalo Sabres
The easiest call on the list. The Stars are in a Stanley Cup Final? Sabres fans don’t just get to root against them, they get to wish every misery imaginable on them along the way. Oh, sorry, would that be over the line? That’s OK, it’s the Dallas Stars in the final, nobody notices when someone’s over the line.

Pick: Lightning

Calgary Flames
If the Lightning win and he’s healthy, the Conn Smythe will probably go to Calgary born-and-raised Brayden Point. That and the lingering resentment from a Round 1 loss to Dallas is more than enough.

Pick: Lightning

Carolina Hurricanes
Dallas, for three reasons:

1. Cities that stole teams from traditional markets in the ’90s should stick together.

2. Screw the Lightning, because Southeast Division rivalries never die.

3. If the Stars win, people will say the turning point was when an executive went on an expletive-laden tirade about the team’s best players, and let’s be honest, you could kind of imagine Tom Dundon doing that someday.

Pick: Stars

Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks beat the Lightning in the 2015 final, but only after Ben Bishop got injured, so karma says Chicago fans should root for … wait, I didn’t think this through. Huh.

Do the Blackhawks and Stars even have a rivalry these days? Maybe not, but they did back in the Norris days, and I know Hawks fans have long memories.

Pick: Lightning

Colorado Avalanche
A team that barely beats you in seven games even though half your team is injured and you’re down to your third-string goalie, then rolls through the rest of the playoffs to win the Cup? You do not want that sort of regret in your life.

Pick: Lightning

Columbus Blue Jackets
I’m going with Dallas, for two reasons. First, a Stars win would be a reminder that low-scoring hockey can win. Only two teams in the league saw a combined total of fewer than 370 goals (for and against) in their games this year, a mark that even low-event teams like the Coyotes and Islanders couldn’t reach. Those two teams were the Stars and Blue Jackets, and they even scored an identical 180 goals along the way.

Also, the Blue Jackets’ sweep psychologically decimated the Lighting last year, and you’d hate to see them fully recover from that in just one season.

Pick: Stars

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Which team had the most miserable season one year before a Cup win?

With three weeks left in the playoffs and three teams still standing, we still don’t know who’s going to win the Stanley Cup this year. Depending on who you talk to, we’re not even all that close to knowing who the favorite is.

But here’s one thing that’s likely to be true about this year’s winner: They’re going to have recovered from a pretty miserable ending to their 2018-19 season.

Every ending to a season that doesn’t involve a lap around the ice with the Stanley Cup is going to be miserable in its own way. But some are more miserable than others, and some of those are so awful that you might expect a team to have a hard time recovering. There’s such a thing as a loss that’s so devastating that it ripples past the current moment and wipes out a chunk of the future.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. But maybe not, because if it’s true, some of the teams from this year’s conference final shouldn’t have been here.

Take the Lightning. Their 2018-19 edition rolled through one of the best regular seasons of the modern era, then suffered one of the most shocking and humiliating first-round sweeps in NHL history. The Stars season ended when they blew a 3-2 series lead on a controversial non-call, then dropped a double-OT Game 7 classic against the eventual champs when their captain just missed a chance on a half-empty net. And the Golden Knights were in full control of a Game 7 against a hated rival until a controversial call, a penalty kill disaster and an overtime dagger that capped off one of the most unlikely comebacks ever.

If any of those teams had decided to blow it all up or wobbled off track for a year or two, would you have blamed them? Instead, they were all back and looking better than ever.

The Islanders don’t really fit the narrative, because hockey gods forbid these four teams ever agree on anything. Their 2018-19 ended badly, with a sweep against the Hurricanes, but overall it was a surprisingly successful year, the kind a team can grow on. That’s how it’s supposed to work – a team wins a round one year, then goes to a conference final the next, then finally builds to winning the Cup. One positive step after another.

Often, that’s exactly how it does go. But this year, there’s a good chance that one team is going to write one hell of a short-term recovery story.

So today, let’s set the stage with a look back on NHL history, and a question: Which Stanley Cup champion recovered from the most agonizing end to their previous season? We’re not just looking for teams that had disappointing seasons, with an early exit or even missing the playoffs altogether. We’re looking for style points, with as much pain as possible in how it all ended. Let’s really twist the knife.

I’ve picked 10 teams from modern history; let’s count them down from the merely horrific to the outright unconscionable.

10. 2017-18 St. Louis Blues

We all know the story of the 2019 Blues and their Gloria-inspired journey from dead last in January to Stanley Cup champions in June. It’s a great tale, and if you’re looking for a comeback story, those six months are really all you need.

That makes it easy to forget about the Blues’ 2017-18 season. Which is probably a good thing, because man, did that ever end badly.

Most of the entries on this list will be about miserable playoff losses, with Game 7 collapses or controversies. The 2017-18 Blues didn’t even get that. After six straight years of making the playoffs, including a trip to the conference final, the Blues were looking to build on sustained success. And despite some ups and downs, they were in decent shape heading down the stretch. After a March 27 win over the Sharks, the Blues were sixth in the West, part of a four-team logjam fighting for three playoff spots. They had six games left, including two against the struggling Hawks and one against the last-place Coyotes. All under control.

Then it all went off the rails. The Blues lost four straight, including an embarrassing 6-0 loss to the Coyotes. That set up a desperate final weekend, and after a win over Chicago snapped the streak, it was down to a winner-take-all finale against an Avalanche team that had been the worst in the league a season prior. The Blues lost that one 5-2, missed the playoffs, and some of us wrote them off as serious contenders. In hindsight, possibly incorrectly.

9. 2000-01 Detroit Red Wings

The 2002 Wings are one of my favorite teams ever. Just a roster stacked with future Hall of Famers, from longtime Wings like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan to ringers like Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull, almost all of them old and expensive. It is, quite literally, the sort of team we could never see again in the cap era.

But if you went back to the spring of 2001, you’d have found plenty of fans who thought the Wings were all but done. They’d put together a strong 2000-2001 season, one that saw them rack up 111 points, tied for second in the NHL. But it all fell apart in the playoffs against a Kings team they should have beaten easily. The Wings cruised through the first two games with wins by a combined score of 9-3, then lost four straight one-goal games, including two in overtime. To make matters worse, Yzerman and Shanahan both got hurt in Round 1, building a narrative that the Red Wings were too old and beaten up to go the distance again.

No less an authority than Sports Illustrated was writing articles about how the 2001 postseason could be “the last dance for the NHL’s oldest team.” And it really did feel that way. But rather than hit the reset button, the Wings doubled down on even older names, and it paid off. And we mostly forgot about those disastrous two weeks the year before.

8. 1978-79 New York Islanders

When we look back at the Al Arbour era of Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Mike Bossy, we naturally tend to jump ahead to the dynasty. But that leaves out some really strong seasons, including thee 1978-79 squad, a 51-win powerhouse that finished with a league-leading 116 points.

They continued to roll in the playoffs, knocking off an overmatched Hawks team in four straight. That set up a meeting with a Rangers team they’d finished 25 points ahead of during the season. But they lost the series in six, with most of the big names disappearing. Bossy had one goal, Trottier had two points and Clark Gillies had one point as John Davidson shut the door for the Rangers.

That Rangers team was good, but wasn’t especially well-respected; you may remember Don Cherry calling them a “piece of cake” opponent for whoever faced them in the final. But the Islanders couldn’t get past them, and at the time there were some who were starting to wonder if Arbour’s boys would ever break through.

And yes, this was during the “Potvin Sucks” era. But it had just started – the Ulf Nilsson hit had come just a few months earlier – which had to make it even worse.

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