Friday, September 21, 2018

Grab Bag: Disco Lafleurno

In the return of the Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL refuses to use its own cap recapture rule. Good, because it's terrible.
- I have a solution for the NHL's Fortnite problem
- An obscure NHL bust you've seen a million times without knowing it
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at a time when Montreal stars were the coolest guys in the world

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Thursday, September 20, 2018

When teams trade away top-five picks

The​ Ottawa Senators are coming​ off​ one​ of​ the​ worst​ stretches in​ recent pro sports​ memory, including an​ offseason​ that brought one​​ negative story after another. At this point, you’d like to think that they’ve hit rock bottom. But that might not be true, because there’s a nightmare scenario looming.

It goes something like this: The Senators have the kind of season everyone seems to think they will, finishing at or near the bottom of the league. That earns them one of the top picks in the Jack Hughes draft. But they’ve already traded that pick to Colorado in last year’s Matt Duchene deal, so they get to cap off their season by watching the Avalanche draft a potential franchise player instead.

It would be an undeniably awful way to end a miserable season, and it makes a rebuild a much tougher sell to an exhausted fan base. After all, how do you squeeze any optimism out of a losing season if you don’t even have your own first-round pick to look forward to?

If it’s any comfort, the situation the Senators could be facing isn’t unheard of in recent NHL history, although it is relatively rare. In the last 35 years, eight teams have traded away a future first-round pick, only to suffer through a season that placed that choice in the top five of the draft. (To be clear, we’re not counting teams that traded away a pick they already knew would be a top-five; no trade deadline moves or draft floor wheeling and dealing here. We’re looking for teams that traded their pick in the previous calendar year or earlier, meaning that like Ottawa, they didn’t know their pick would be so high when they moved it.)

The Senators will be hoping not to expand that club to nine. But if they do, a look back at those previous cases might give us a sense of what to expect.

A word about arbitrary endpoints

But first: Wait, why are we going back 35 years?

It’s admittedly a bit of a weird place for a cutoff. But when it comes to teams trading away top five picks, there’s actually an interesting reason to draw the line right around 1983.

In the 35 years since, the scenario plays out just those eight times (one of which probably shouldn’t even count, as we’ll see). But from 1980 through 1983, it happened ten times in just four years. That’s kind of crazy, and the list includes the picks used on future Hall of Famers like Denis Savard, Larry Murphy and Pat LaFontaine, not to mention three out of four first overall picks.

What happened? That’s probably a topic for a bigger piece, but we can call it the Sam Pollock influence. Pollock, the legendary Canadiens GM who built the last great Habs dynasty in the 70s, was constantly trading veterans for future draft picks that he turned into stars like Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson. It was his signature move, and it worked so well that you wondered why other GMs weren’t catching on. They eventually did, and you can pretty much divide the history of trading for future draft picks into three distinct eras: The Pollock era, spanning the late 60s to late 70s, in which he was the undisputed king of the move; 1980 through 1983, in which a few other GMs caught on and started pulling off that kind of deal; and 1984 through to today, in which everyone smartened up and realized that trading a future first-round pick is a dangerous move and the deals became an endangered species.

Endangered, but not extinct, as Senator fans are well aware. So today, let’s draw that line at 1983 and look back at the eight times since then that a team has traded away what turned out to be a top-five pick in advance. It’s a club that Ottawa’s front office is really hoping it isn’t about to join, although as we’ll see, sometimes the results are more disastrous than others.


Pierre Larouche (L). (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)

1984 – Montreal and Hartford

The circumstances: We have to go way back to December of 1981 for the actual trade here. Back then, the Habs and Whalers had only been division rivals for a few months. Hartford had failed to win a playoff game in two seasons since arriving in the WHA merger, and on December 20, they lost 8-2 to the Sabres to fall to 7-16-9 on the year, dead last in the division. New Whalers’ GM Larry Pleau figured they could use some help.

The trade: The Whalers and Canadiens hooked up on a Pollock-style trade that saw Pierre Larouche head to Hartford. Larouche had just turned 26, was a year removed from a 91-point season, and had 21 points through 22 games that season, so he was a decent pickup. He did fine in Hartford for a few years before leaving as a free agent.

But the rest of the deal was unusual, with the teams swapping a total of five picks – all of them coming in 1984 and 1985.

The pick: The two teams exchanged first-rounders in 1984, three years down the line. By then, the Canadiens weren’t very good, finishing with just 75 points. But the Whalers were even worse, and their pick ended up being fifth overall. The Canadiens used it to take defenceman Petr Svoboda.

The aftermath: Svoboda was a decent player. But the Whalers used Montreal’s pick to take Sylvain Cote, who was basically the same guy, so we can call this one even. If you’re a Senators fan looking for assurance that these deals can work out OK, this one helps.

That said, the deal could have been a history-altering debacle for Hartford. The top prospect in that 1984 draft was a French kid who turned out to be pretty good, and it’s safe to assume Montreal had him in mind when they made the deal way back in 1981. If the Whalers had been even worse than they were, this could have been the trade that put Mario Lemieux in Montreal.

1987 – Bruins and Canucks

The circumstances: By the 1986 offseason, the Canucks hadn’t won a playoff round since their surprise trip to the 1982 final, and were getting tired of being also-rans to Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers. So they decided to trade their 1987 first to the Bruins for somebody who could make an impact right away.

The trade: In June 1986, the Canucks landed two-time 100-point center Barry Pederson from Boston in exchange for their 1987 first rounder, plus a young winger who’d been kind of a disappointment through three seasons.

The pick: Thanks in parts to Pederson, the Canucks actually improved in 1986-87. But so did a few of the league’s other bottom-feeders, and Vancouver’s pick ended up being third overall. The Bruins used it to take defenseman Glen Wesley.

The aftermath: Wesley was a good player, and played in the 1989 all-star game. He’d spend seven years in Boston, many of them alongside Ray Bourque, and was eventually traded to Hartford for a stunning haul of three first-round picks, all of which ended up in the top ten.

Still, it could have been worse. The Canucks finished the season with three straight wins; take a few of those away, and the Bruins could have been using a top-two pick on Pierre Turgeon or Brendan Shanahan.

So even though Pederson didn’t stick around very long in Vancouver, trading away the pick to get him wasn’t a total disaster. Well, not on its own. As every Canuck and Bruin fan well knows, that disappointing young winger was a kid named Cam Neely. He exploded in Boston, quickly turning the Wesley pick into an afterthought and making this one of the worst trades of all time.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Bizarro-meter 2018: Eastern Conference edition

On​ Monday, we dusted​ off​ the​ Bizarro-meter​ to​ begin​ our annual​ look at which​ NHL team had​ the​ weirdest offseason. We​​ covered the west, going through the Central (not all that weird) and the Pacific (significantly more weird). Today, it’s on to the Eastern Conference.

Before we begin, we’ll repeat the reminder: “Bizarre” is not a synonym for “bad.” Sometimes, a quiet and predictable offseason is the last thing a team needs, and sometimes getting creative or even outright strange is just what the doctor orders. At the very least, weird offseasons are entertaining, and there’s usually value in that.

One more quick note: I’ve been doing this feature for five years now, adding up to over 150 team rankings. In all that time, I’ve never handed out a perfect 10/10 rating. I’ve never come especially close – only four teams have ever so much as reached 9/10.

Why do I bring this up? Uh, no reason. Onto the east.

Metro Division

New York Rangers

The offseason so far: Did they even have one? The Rangers may have been as quiet as anyone in the league, with most of their focus spent on re-signing a handful of pieces. Hiring David Quinn as coach was obviously a big move, but roster-wise he’ll inherit pretty much the same group that finished last year.

But their strangest story was: The ongoing debate over whether or not they’re really rebuilding. Recent signs pointed pretty conclusively to yes – you don’t trade Ryan McDonagh for futures if you want to win now, nor do you write letters to your fans about how you’re “building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.” But then they go and trade picks for Adam McQuaid, and you see something like Henrik Lundqvist insisting that “next year has to be about winning and nothing else,” and you wonder. That’s just a case of a veteran saying the right thing, right? The Rangers still know they’re rebuilding, yes?

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.5/10. Yeah, I’m pretty sure they know – and Lundqvist does too.

Philadelphia Flyers

The offseason so far: They didn’t do a ton, although they made a big splash on July 1 by landing James van Riemsdyk on an expensive (yet reasonable) deal. They also parted ways with Valtteri Filppula, which may or may not be a loss.

But their strangest story was: Heading into camp without an extension in place for Wayne Simmonds. Most GMs see a star player head into the last year of his deal and rush to hand over whatever he wants for eight more years. So far, Ron Hextall is playing it cool.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.8/10. I remain completely and utterly frustrated that this guy refuses to do anything crazy.

New Jersey Devils

The offseason so far: They lost a handful of free agents, although nobody you’d consider a major difference-maker.

But their strangest story was: Not really adding anybody. When your big acquisition is Drew Stafford on a PTO, it’s been a quiet summer.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.1/10. On the one hand, you can see what the Devils are thinking. They’re rebuilding, and last year was already a big step forward, so they’re staying the course. Still, most playoff teams add… someone.

Washington Capitals

The offseason so far: Not surprisingly, their focus was on keeping as much of the roster together as possible. They paid big to keep John Carlson away from the UFA market and figured out a way to have Brooks Orpik bought out and still return. Other than backup goalie Philipp Grubauer and depth forward Jay Beagle, they’re bringing everyone back.

But their strangest story was: The departure of Barry Trotz, who exercised a contract clause none of us knew he had to hit free agency and eventually make his way to the Islanders. You have to figure that didn’t exactly break Brian MacLellan’s heart, given that he’s had Todd Reirden pencilled into the job forever. But it was still pretty weird.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 5.8/10. What do Capitals players think about Trotz leaving? Honestly, given how most of them spent their summer, I doubt any of them know about it yet.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Monday, September 17, 2018

Bizarro-meter 2018: Western Conference edition

The​ offseason is over.​ Let’s​ get​ weird.

Or​ more​ specifically,​ let’s remember​ all the various​ ways that NHL​ teams​ got weird over​​ the last few months. It’s time to fire up the Bizarro-meter, a feature I debuted back in 2013 in an attempt to understand whatever it was the Maple Leafs thought they were doing, and have been using since 2014 to round up every team in the league. It’s a high-tech system which evaluates each team’s offseason oddity index by, uh, giving it a score out of ten. Look, we never said this was complicated.

Before we get started, an important annual reminder: “bizarre” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” In last season’s list, some of the highest rankings went to the Capitals and Golden Knights, who ended up meeting in the final, as well as to the Avalanche, who shocked everyone by going from dead last to the playoffs. Sometimes, a little bit of chaos can work out well for a team. And maybe more importantly, sometimes a conservative, uninspired, paint-by-numbers offseason is the absolute last thing a team needs.

So with that caveat in mind, let’s dig in. As always, a team’s offseason begins the moment its season ends and stretches until last weekend. We’ll start today with the 15 Western Conference teams; we’ll be back to finish up with the Eastern Conference Tuesday.

Central Division

Nashville Predators

The offseason so far: They locked down Ryan Ellis on a long-term deal, and got future starter Juuse Saros signed at a very manageable number. Mike Fisher retired again, Dan Hamhuis will slot in for Alexei Emelin, and Auston Watson will miss a third of the season pending an appeal of his suspension for domestic assault. But otherwise, last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners will bring back mostly the same roster.

But their strangest story was: Signing Zac Rinaldo always raises a few eyebrows, even when it’s a two-way deal. But the strangest moment of their offseason probably came when Ryan Johansen and Ryan Kesler appeared to arrange a street fight over Twitter.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 2.2/10. At this point, not being a jerk on Twitter is basically a terms of service violation, so even the Kesler/Johansen spat doesn’t earn many points. We’re not used to seeing a whole offseason go by without a major trade or two from David Poile, but for now it probably makes sense to stay the course with a top Cup contender.

Minnesota Wild

The offseason so far: It started early, with the firing of GM Chuck Fletcher in April. But other than that, it’s been strangely quiet; the biggest headlines were the signing of Matt Dumba to a $30-million extension and a buyout for Tyler Ennis.

But their strangest story was: Not making many moves. The Wild have been spinning their wheels for years now, always good enough to make the playoffs but never quite good enough to feel like a real contender. At some point, they’re going to need to move forward or take a step back. For now, they seem content to plod ahead with the status quo.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.7/10. New GM Paul Fenton appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach. Sometimes that works out well. Sometimes it just means another lost season.

Winnipeg Jets


Blake Wheeler. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

The offseason so far: It’s been largely a case of maintaining the status quo, which makes sense given the season they’re coming off. The only major departure was deadline rental Paul Stastny, and they didn’t add anything major. Instead, the big headlines were around extension for existing players, including an intriguingly long one for Connor Hellebuyck, a disappointingly short one for Jacob Trouba, and an impressively cheap one for Josh Morrissey.

But their strangest story was: Signing captain Blake Wheeler to an extension that will carry an $8.25 million cap hit until he’s 37. That deal was mostly well-received in Winnipeg, although other reviews haven’t been as kind.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.2/10. The Wheeler deal may well turn out to be a mistake. But bizarre? Not really. Wheeler is enormously popular in Winnipeg, is coming off a career year, and is the team’s captain. NHL teams almost never play hardball with those sort of guys, even if there’s some evidence that they should.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Tuesday, September 11, 2018

That Eugene Melnyk video: The top-secret transcript

It’s​ almost 24​ hours later, and​ hockey​ fans around​ the league are still talking​​ about The Video.

You know the one. Late Monday night, the Ottawa Senators unveiled a video featuring owner Eugene Melnyk being interviewed by defenceman Mark Borowiecki. It was meant as an opportunity for Melnyk to finally lay out a long-term vision for the team’s future. But not everyone was impressed, partly due to Melnyk’s message and partly because the video struck many as, in the words of colleague James Gordon, “deeply weird”.

One element that’s come in for some criticism is the choice to have Borowiecki handle the interview duties. But while it may surprise some of the team’s more cynical fans, the Senators actually put a lot of thought into that decision. In fact, we’ve been told that the club even held auditions to make sure they nailed the best choice possible for the role. And as luck would have, DGB spies were there to record the top-secret transcript.


Director: And… CUT!

Mark Borowiecki: Whew. Was that OK?

Director: That was great, Mark. You did fantastic. But Eugene and I were talking, and we’d like to bring in a few other folks from around the hockey world to audition for the interviewer’s role.

Eugene Melnyk: Yeah, we’re just not sure that having an actual Senator do the interview is going to look good. Might seem a little softball-y, you know?

Borowiecki: Sure, I guess that makes sense.

Director: Thanks for understanding. Feel free to stick around while we run through a few more auditions. OK, first up is, let’s see … Henrik Zetterberg.

Zetterberg: Hi everyone.

Melnyk: Wow, thanks for coming out Henrik.

Zetterberg: Hey, my pleasure. I always wanted to try out this whole interviewing thing. Gives me something to do in retirement, you know.

Melnyk: You’re retired?

Zetterberg: Uh…

[Ken Holland appears in the window, making a throat-slash gesture.]

Zetterberg: Something to do while I’m injured. You know, as I work my way back from injury so that I can resume my playing duties under my contract without triggering any cap penalties. Which is totally what I’m doing.

[Holland does the eye-point move.]

Zetterberg [under his breath]: Yzerman’s totally replacing you.

Melnyk: What was that?

Zetterberg: Nothing. You know what, this may have been a bad idea.

Marc Bergevin: Did I hear somebody say “bad idea”?

>> Read the full post at The Athletic