Friday, August 23, 2019

Grab Bag: About those unsigned RFAs, in defense of a bad stat and laughing at the 1993 Leafs

In he Friday Grab Bag:
- What's up with all those unsigned RFAs? My spies got the scoop.
- Another unpopular opinion I can share because it's summer and nobody's paying attention
- An obscure player who didn't have to be a goalie
- The month's three comedy stars, featuring dad jokes
- And a YouTube look back at my origin story in hockey comedy, featuring Jim Ralph and 1993-94 Leafs

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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The numbers say that these are the ten worst teams. Here's why they may actually be good.

I have kind of a love-hate relationship with preseason predictions.

On the one hand, they’re all sorts of fun. Readers flock to them, even when they disagree. And I’ve always believed that everyone should put their predictions on the record before the season starts, if only as a form of accountability for when something unexpected happens and we all pretend we knew it all along.

On the other hand, well, I’m bad at this. And I’m not alone. Every year, there are a few teams that everyone agrees will be terrible who turn out to be pretty good. Two years ago it was the Golden Knights, Avalanche and Devils. Last year, it was the Islanders, not to mention the mid-season turnaround from the Blues. Sometimes we underestimate the impact of an offseason change, or we fall in love with a narrative. Sometimes, hockey is just weird and stuff happens. But I’m always very wrong about at least a few teams, and you probably are too.

Well, the first step in solving any problem is to recognize that you have one. The second step is to overcompensate by steering way too far in the other direction. That’s what we’re going to do today. My pal Dom Luszczyszyn has kindly given me a sneak peek at the ten teams his model expects to have the worst seasons in 2019-20. I’m going to try to figure out why it’s wrong, and why those bottom-feeders will actually turn out to be playoff teams, if not Cup contenders.

Can I do it? Let’s just say that some teams will be easier than others. To keep from pulling a muscle on some of these reaches, I’ll warm up by starting with the best teams on Dom’s bottom-ten list and working my way down to the dregs.


No. 10. Columbus Blue Jackets

Dom says: A point total in the high 80s and a roughly 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs. (We won’t reveal the model’s exact predictions until a little closer to the season, and the specific order for the bottom ten could shift between now and then.)

Why he’s probably right: The Blue Jackets’ offseason drama has been well-documented. They went all-in on the 2019 playoffs and pulled off a legendary first-round upset that provided the greatest moment in franchise history, but then watched all their top UFAs walk away, including Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. When a team that barely squeezed into the playoffs in the final week loses two of its three best players, it’s not hard to see where things are headed.

But hear me out … : Losing Bobrovsky should hurt. But it might not because they’ve got a couple of good young goaltenders in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. If one of them runs with the job, the Blue Jackets should be fine in goal, and maybe even improved. Will that happen? Maybe, because as we’ll probably end up saying in just about all of these, goaltending is voodoo and unexpected things happen every year.

The loss of Panarin is tougher, and with apologies to Gustav Nyquist, there’s really no replacing his production. So how can a team recover from watching their best forward walk for nothing in return? Well, let’s ask the Islanders, who did exactly that last year. And that Islanders surprise came on the heels of a year where the team wasn’t very good. The 2018-19 Blue Jackets had 47 wins and 98 points. They probably don’t even need to improve to be playoff contenders. They just need to fall a few points rather than a whole bunch.

See? This hope stuff is easy. Let’s keep the positivity going with Dom’s next team.

No. 9. Chicago Blackhawks

Dom says: A point total in the high 80s and a roughly 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs.

Why he’s probably right: The Hawks weren’t great last year, and that was with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews having unlikely career seasons at 30 years old. If those two revert a bit, look out.

But hear me out … : For the second straight entry, we can invoke last year’s Islanders to give hope to one of this year’s also-rans. The Hawks’ biggest offseason acquisition was goalie Robin Lehner, who was so good for the Islanders last year that he somehow won the Jennings for the Rangers. Between adding Lehner and the possibility of Corey Crawford getting back to full health, the Hawks looks pretty set in goal after watching Cam Ward torpedo half their season last year.

Mix in the possibility of Kane and Toews continuing to play at a high level and continued development from youngsters like Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome, and there’s some decent room for improvement here. And don’t forget that this will be the first full season for head coach Jeremy Colliton. Everyone was ready to write off Jared Bednar in Colorado after one year despite being hired on the eve of the season starting, but he’s settled in as a solid coach once he had a full offseason to work with. Colliton is young and learning, so as he gets better, the Hawks should too.

Will it be enough to compete in a Central that may not be top-heavy but should be deep? Probably, because these are the Blackhawks and the dressing room is still knee-deep in Cup rings and magical know-how-to-win dust. See? Optimism!

No. 8. Vancouver Canucks

Dom says: A point total in the mid-80s and a roughly 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs.

Why he’s probably right: They haven’t finished over .500 in terms of points percentage in four years, in a league where the standings are rigged so that everyone can finish over .500. They’re bad.

But hear me out … : They’re a young team that took a decent step forward last year, improving by eight points. If they do that again, they’re at least in the playoff mix.

Can they? Sure. Most of their best players are young enough that they should improve just based on aging curves. They added guys like Tyler Myers, Micheal Ferland and J.T. Miller, and while we can debate the long-term wisdom of those moves, they should make the team better in the short term. And Jacob Markstrom continues to develop into a legitimate No. 1 goaltender.

Add it all up, and the Canucks should improve at least a bit. But if Elias Pettersson or Brock Boeser have the sort of big breakout that players their age sometimes have, or Markstrom reaches the next level, the Canucks could move up significantly. And if all of those guys make the leap – which hardly seems impossible – the Canucks could be that team that hits fast forward on the rebuild and zooms straight to contention.

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Thursday, August 8, 2019

The six teams that have me stumped heading into the 2019-20 season

Do you know which NHL team I just can’t figure out?

Well, all of them. I’m not very good at the whole “predicting” thing. Whenever I start thinking I know where a team is headed, you can probably make some money by betting the other way. Never listen to me about anything, is what I’m trying to say.

But when it comes to the 2019-20 season, there are a few teams I feel at least reasonably confident about. The Lightning will be good! So will the Sharks, and Bruins and probably the Knights and Leafs and Capitals. On the other side, the Senators should be bad, along with the Kings and Red Wings. The Blue Jackets will be worse than last year, maybe a lot worse. The Blues will be good again as long as Jordan Binnington plays well. The Coyotes, Hurricanes and Panthers are on the way up. The Penguins are not, but will still be the Penguins right up until they’re not.

I’ll end up being dead wrong about roughly half of that last paragraph, but for now, I feel like I’m on reasonably solid ground. But then I get to the teams where I have no earthly idea what’s going to happen. It’s just total confusion, either because I can’t figure out what they’re doing or where they’re headed or (in some cases) still can’t get my head around what happened last season or over the summer.

I still have a few weeks to figure it all out, but for these six teams, time is running out for me to get a handle on their situation and it’s not looking good. Let’s just put the cards on the table right now. Here are the half-dozen teams that I just can’t figure out heading into the season. Please help me.

New Jersey Devils

They’ll be good because: Every good player who was available in the offseason plays for New Jersey now.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But by adding Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev and even Wayne Simmonds on a manageable one-year deal, the Devils had one of the best offseasons of anyone. And they didn’t really give up anything of note to do it. They’re pretty much guaranteed to be way better.

They’ll be bad because: “Way better” than 72 points still might not get them anywhere near the playoffs.

The Devils were a mess last year, ranking 26th in both goals for and against. The offseason additions should help boost the offensive side, but the goaltending hopes seem to rest on either MacKenzie Blackwood breaking out despite being just 22 years old with only 21 NHL starts to his name, or Cory Schneider regaining the form he hasn’t had since 2016. Either of those things could happen, because goaltending is voodoo. But when you need to improve by about 25 points just to make the playoffs, I’m not sure that having to cross your fingers for a goaltending miracle is a great sign.

But they’ll probably be fine because: Every year, we see at least a few teams go from near the basement to the playoffs in one shot, often despite nobody seeing it coming. Last year, it was the Islanders. The year before that, it was the Avalanche, Knights and oh yeah, these same Devils. Most of those teams didn’t add anywhere near as much talent as New Jersey just did.

And speaking of talent, they’ve got a former MVP in Taylor Hall who’s healthy and ready to go, and who should be motivated to tear up the league in a contract year.

Unless they’re not because: Yeah, about that contract. Hall hasn’t re-signed yet, which means his status could become the dreaded off-ice distraction if it doesn’t get done by opening night. And if they can’t lock him down, don’t they have to consider trading him? That could torpedo a promising season, but you don’t have to look much further than Columbus to see how this can play out if a team tries to stand pat.

The verdict: The Devils are going rank very high on my watchability ratings for the year, but I really have no idea where they’re going to end up in the standings.

Colorado Avalanche

They’ll be really good because: They’re already good, and they’re young enough that they should get even better just by virtue of their stars developing. Every arrow on the dashboard is pointing in the same direction, and that direction is up.

And that’s why just about everyone seems to agree that they’re contenders. There are probably more than a few people reading this who aren’t even sure what there is to be confused about. They’re one of the best young teams in the league, they won a round last year and might have won another if the league’s replay review rules weren’t so dumb. They’re all set. What are we even talking about here?

They’ll be disappointing because: They won 38 games last year. That’s not great. They still made the playoffs, because they were in a conference where you could make the playoffs with 90 points. And they needed a league-leading 14 loser points just to get to that total.

Loser points are still points, so we can’t call the 2018-19 Avalanche a fluke; they earned their playoff spot based on the same system everyone else plays with. But if winning is the name of the game, this is a team that won fewer games than the Coyotes, just one more than the Flyers and Wild and just three more than the lowly Oilers.

Are we absolutely sure they should be anointed as some sort of guaranteed Cup contender?

But they’ll probably be great because: Well, yeah, they sure do seem like a Cup contender.

First of all, if winning is what matters then we need to factor in that the Avs did a fair amount of it during the playoffs, including knocking off the Flames in five and nearly beating the Sharks. The playoffs are a smaller sample size, but not too many bad teams make it within a misplaced toenail of the conference final.

Beyond that, you just have to look at the roster. They’ve got one of the very best players in the league on perhaps the very best contract in Nathan MacKinnon, who’ll only be 24 on opening night. Mikko Rantanen will be 23, and presumably, will have been signed by then. Basically all of the other key contributors are in their mid-20s, including new addition Nazem Kadri and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. And maybe most impressive of all, the blue line is stacked with young talent, with Samuel Girard and Cale Makar looking like future stars and Bowen Byram on the way.

It’s awfully hard to imagine this team not being even better next year.

Unless they’re not because: The blue line is indeed stacked with stud prospects, but young defenseman tend to have their ups and downs in the NHL, so the defense won’t necessarily be a sure thing in 2019-20. Grubauer’s never been a full-time starter and there’s no safety net with Semyon Varlamov gone. And while MacKinnon and Rantanen were both fantastic last year, there’s a flip side to that: Their two best forwards both had years where they looked unstoppable and the team still only won 38 games.

I know we keep coming back to that but look at this way. If we think that the Avalanche are going to be eight wins better than they were last year – which is a lot to improve in one offseason – they’re still behind the pace of teams like last year’s Jets, Predators, Islanders and Blue Jackets. They’d be a playoff team for sure. But are they more than that?

The verdict: If Grubauer disappoints and the younger players are inconsistent, they could conceivably take a step back. That feels unlikely and penciling the Avs in for improvement seems reasonable. But I think some of us are underestimating how far they may have to go to reach the league’s top tier, and this seems like a case where we’re all getting ahead of ourselves, if only by a season or two.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Let’s play the $200 Lineup Game

It’s August. Nothing much is happening in the NHL. Nothing much will be happening in the NHL. If anything did happen, we might not find out about it because Pierre is on vacation. Outside of whatever the Wild are doing, there’s nothing to talk about.

It’s a perfect time to play The $200 Lineup Game.

This game is based on some Twitter fun we had a few years ago. The rules are simple. You’re going to build the best starting lineup out of players who’ve played for your favorite NHL team. Here’s how it works.

  • You need three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie. Other than that, we don’t care about position, so you can mix wingers and centers and don’t need to worry about which side your defensemen play on.
  • You have a salary cap of $200 to work with to build your full lineup.
  • Each player you pick will cost you a salary of $1 per regular-season game that they ever played for your favorite team. If you want a guy who played one full 82-game season, that’s $82 of your cap gone.
  • Here’s the key, and the part that’s going to screw up the people who skip the intro on these things: Once you fit a player onto your roster, you get credit for their entire NHL career. Not just the games they played for your team – everything they did in the NHL.

In other words, you’re looking for star players who had the briefest possible stint with your team. Guy Lafleur isn’t worth anything to the Canadiens, because he’d cost way too much. But his one season in New York means that a Rangers team could squeeze him in for $67, and they’d get credit for the full Flower experience. Want Brett Hull and his 700+ career goals? You’re out of luck if you’re the Blues or even the Stars. But a Flames team could fit him in for just $57. And the Coyotes could get him for just $5.

A few more rules, just for your loophole-seekers out there.

  • A player must have played at least one regular-season game to qualify for a team’s roster. There are no freebies. That means, for example, that the Stars can’t claim Jarome Iginla even though they drafted him and the Oilers and Predators can’t claim Mike Richter even though both teams technically acquired him during his career. Coyotes fans don’t get Pronger, Datsyuk and Hossa. Same goes for any cases where a team only ever dressed a player in the postseason. Basically, if you think you’ve found a way to get a guy for free, you’re cheating.
  • We’re going by franchise here, so we’ll combine the Nordiques with the Avs, the Whalers with the Hurricanes, the Thrashers and the new Jets, etc. That cuts both ways; it gives those teams more players to work with, but also prevents any shady picks like trying to claim Owen Nolan as a $9 Avalanche despite his five full seasons as a Nordique.
  • You can use active players, but you only get credit for what they’ve done in the NHL as of today, not what they might do in the future. So if Canucks fans want to spend $71 on Elias Pettersson, they only get one season of him.
  • If a player had multiple stints with a team, they all combine together to produce his price tag. The Leafs can’t try to claim Doug Gilmour for $1 based on his brief return to the team in 2003.

Speaking of the Leafs, let’s use them as our first example …

Toronto Maple Leafs

Forwards: Ron Francis ($12), Eric Lindros ($33), Dickie Moore ($38)

Defense: Brian Leetch ($15), Phil Housley ($1)

Goaltender: Terry Sawchuk ($91)

Total: $190

That’s not a bad lineup, featuring six Hall-of-Famers. The Pat Quinn years are fruitful here, as late-season acquisitions of Francis, Leetch and Housley give us a cheap backbone and help us have enough left over to spend a relatively hefty $91 on Sawchuk (or, if you prefer, $95 on Grant Fuhr). If you’d rather go with a post-expansion look, you could swap out old-timers Moore and Sawchuk and bring in Joe Nieuwendyk ($64) and Bernie Parent ($65) instead for the same combined price. Or you could use Gerry Cheevers in goal for just $2 and spend more elsewhere. But whichever way you go, the Leafs are solid.

Makes sense? Do you see what we’re going for? Cool. Then let’s try some other teams around the league because as you’re going to see, there are a few teams that can give the Leafs a run for their $200 worth of money. We’re going to serve up a dozen teams in all, which doesn’t cover everyone but is more than enough to get your brain working and then turn it over to you to come up with your own.

Boston Bruins

Forwards: Jaromir Jagr ($11), Cy Denneny ($23), Dave Andreychuk ($63)

Defense: Paul Coffey ($18), Brian Leetch ($61)

Goaltender: Jacques Plante ($8)

Total: $184

You could say that this concept already has a playoff atmosphere because the Bruins immediately knock off the Maple Leafs. And to add insult to injury, they even do it with one of the same players off of the Leafs’ roster, as Leetch makes like a free agent and jumps to a rival for more money. They pair him with Coffey, who (spoiler alert) will also show up on more than one of these lists.

Other possibilities on the backend include Sergei Gonchar for $15 or Babe Pratt for $31. But the real options are up front. To be honest, I went with Andreychuk mainly to eat up a big chunk of the cap space that was going to be leftover, but you could go with somebody like Joey Mullen at $37 or even Rick Nash for $11 and just pocket the rest. Not that Boston ownership would ever do that.

So yeah, the Bruins are now our team to beat. Let’s see if anyone can do it.

Detroit Red Wings

Forwards: Darryl Sittler ($61), Mike Modano ($40), Charlie Conacher ($40)

Defense: Doug Harvey ($2), Borje Salming ($49)

Goaltender: Bill Ranford ($4)

Total: $196

In theory, the Red Wings seem like a team that would be made for this sort of game, since modern history is filled with Hall of Famers finishing their careers with brief stopovers in Detroit. But many of them aren’t brief enough, as guys like Daniel Alfredsson and Bernie Federko played enough games in their one season with the Wings to price them out of our budget. Marian Hossa did too.

We can squeeze in Modano and Sittler, though, largely because Harvey gives us a monster value on the blue line. We get more solid value in goal with a Conn Smythe winner in Ranford at just $4, but he makes Detroit our first entry that isn’t made up entirely of current or future Hall of Famers. The Wings’ entry is a solid one, but I don’t think they top the Bruins.

Let’s take a break from the Original Six teams and try a few who have a little less history to work with.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Forwards: Jarome Iginla ($13), Luc Robitaille ($46), Marian Hossa ($12)

Defense: Tim Horton ($44), Sergei Zubov ($64)

Goaltender: Tomas Vokoun ($20)

Total: $199

The Penguins benefit from our rule about just using three forwards without worrying about position, as they’ll roll with over 1,800 goals worth of wingers and apparently just hope that nobody ever has to take a faceoff.

Those three bargains up front allow us to spend some extra money on the blue line, which we kind of need to do – there aren’t any obvious sub-$40 bargains to be found here. We get a pair of Hall of Famers, though, so we’ll take it. We don’t have as much luck in goal, where the good-but-not-great Vokoun is really the only option. That takes this team down a notch after a promising start.

We’ve been heavy on the Eastern Conference so far, so let’s head to the West for the next few.




Friday, August 2, 2019

Grab Bag: Why Paul Fenton was fired, the uniform number controversy and a 1979 helping of Puck Soup

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Paul Fenton was fired after just one year and my spies found out why
- Thoughts on players taking famous numbers
- The comedy stars return
- An obscure player who was once traded straight-up for Fenton
- And a YouTube look back at a very weird piece of 1979 hockey comedy

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