Tuesday, October 6, 2015

NHL awards favorites and longshots

These days, the NHL loves Las Vegas. The league has spent the past year openly flirting with giving the city its first major pro sports team, with everyone expecting a team to begin play there by 2017. And that’s in addition to the league holding its annual awards show in Vegas, which it has already been doing for years.

If it’s good enough for the league, it should be good enough for us, so let’s use those same awards to get a taste of some Vegas action. With the preseason schedule mercifully wrapped up and real hockey just days away, it’s time to hit the sportsbook for our annual attempt to predict the coming season’s award winners. And since anyone can pick the obvious candidates, we’re going to take it a step further. For each award, we’ll pick one favorite, one long shot (defined as 10-1 or longer), and one off-the-board pick. We’ll be using the latest odds from Bovada as of Tuesday morning.

A look back at last season’s award winners reveals a mix of preseason favorites (Erik Karlsson was the top pick for the Norris, Alexander Ovechkin was listed second for the Rocket Richard, and Carey Price was third for the Vezina), one quasi-long shot (Aaron Ekblad was 7-1 for the Calder), and two big long shots (Price was listed at 50-1 for the Hart, and Jamie Benn was at 50-1 for the Art Ross).

If this season follows suit, there should be a chance to hit on at least a few surprises. Will I be able to find them? Looking back on past history, it’s fair to say I don’t love my odds. But if the NHL is willing to gamble on sticking another team in the desert, I can stick my neck out on a few underdogs. Hey, I’m probably due, right?

Art Ross Trophy (most points)

The favorite: Sidney Crosby sits alone at 7-4, ahead of Ovechkin at 6-1. But I’ll take the 5-1 choice: Islanders captain John Tavares, who narrowly missed out last season and seems like a guy who’ll win one or two of these over the course of his career. Might as well be this season.

The long shot: Defending champ Benn is listed at 15-1, and teammate Tyler Seguin is at 6-1. Former winner Evgeni Malkin is available at 20-1, and last season’s fourth-place finisher, Jakub Voracek, looks like a bargain all the way down at 50-1. But my favorite two picks here are a pair of guys who’ve had recent near misses. Ryan Getzlaf (25-1) was the runner-up in 2013-14, and Claude Giroux (30-1) was third in both 2011-12 and 2013-14. I’ll take Giroux, and hope he continues that every-second-year magic.

Off the board: Neither Sedin brother is listed here even though both have won the award since 2010, but given my pessimism on the Canucks, I’ll pass. Besides, another missing name jumps out here: Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom, who’s finished in the top 10 four times and led the league in assists last season. He’ll need to keep being an elite playmaker while nudging his goal scoring back up over the 20 mark to have a shot, but with an improved Caps team around him, that’s a decent bet to happen. He’s the pick.

Hart Trophy (MVP)

The favorite: It’s Crosby again, which makes sense — more often than not, the Hart goes to whoever wins the scoring title. Of course, 2014-15 was one of the “not” years, so we’ll have to keep our eye on the goalies here. There aren’t any at the top end of the list, though, with Crosby joined by Ovechkin (6-1) and Tavares (17-2). I’m already in on Tavares for the Art Ross, so I’ll stick with him here.

The long shot: We’ve got a big list to work with, with 18 players left on the board, including reigning champ Price at 10-1. The only other two goalies are Henrik Lundqvist (28-1) and Jonathan Quick (40-1), and Lundqvist is tempting.

But if we’re going to go out on a limb with our last pick, let’s go all the way out — down to the very bottom of the list, where we find Erik Karlsson at 50-1. The Ottawa defenseman has already won two Norris Trophies; maybe voters are getting tired of handing him that award and want to think a little bigger. True, defensemen almost never win the Hart — Chris Pronger in 1999-2000 was the last to pull it off — but we could have said something similar about goalies this time last season. I’m not high on the Senators this season, but if they surprise, it will be because of the player who’s far and away their best. At 50-1, I’ll roll those dice.

Off the board: Jakub Voracek is a notable omission here, and I could make a case for P.K. Subban under the same logic as Karlsson. There are also some decent goalie options, including Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask, and you know I’m fighting the urge to go with Phil Kessel, because trading a guy the year before he’s the MVP would be the most Leafs thing ever. But in the end we’ll go with Backstrom again; if he does come through and win the Art Ross, history says he’s the Hart favorite.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 2, 2015

Season preview, part four: The Contenders

Today marks the end of the last week without regular-season hockey until the playoffs arrive in April. It also marks the end of Grantland’s season preview week. On Tuesday, we shook our heads sadly at the Bottom-Feeder Division. On Wednesday, we shrugged our shoulders at the Middle-of-the-Pack Division. And yesterday, we threw our hands in the air over the confounding No-Clue Division.

That leaves only one group left to go: the Contenders Division. The seven teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Other teams will spend the year talking about progress and moral victories and finding something positive to take out of that loss. Not these guys. It’s Cup or bust, right out of the gate. And the odds are good one of them will get it.

If you’ve been checking off the teams throughout the week, you may have noticed something interesting about today’s list: It’s going to be heavily tilted to the East, with five of the seven teams coming from the Eastern Conference. What’s up with that? Has the historically weaker conference finally caught up?

Maybe, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. A more likely explanation is that this year’s East is up for grabs, with up to a half-dozen teams that could realistically take the top spot without it being considered a surprise. Meanwhile, the West is somewhat more top-heavy, with the Hawks and the Ducks and (maybe) the Kings settling in as the consensus picks. It’s tough to be a Cup favorite if there’s a team in your conference that’s a solid step or two ahead of you, so the West ends up with fewer top-tier teams even though it may well be the better conference yet again.

With that out of the way, on to the contenders …

Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 48-28-6, 102 points, third in the Central and seventh overall, won the Stanley Cup.

Offseason report: Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman got back from the parade, finished off his beer, and then blew the dust off the “How to retool after a Cup win” manual he’s spent the past few years writing. Once again, cap pressure forced the Hawks to part with some valued pieces, including Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya (both of whom ended up in Dallas), Brad Richards (Detroit), and Brandon Saad (Columbus). Most teams would have a tough time withstanding that sort of exodus. Most teams aren’t the Blackhawks.

Outlook: Losing Sharp, Saad, and others will hurt. But the core is still in place, and as long as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith are playing at their peak, the Blackhawks will be contenders. That’s not a sure thing — Kane’s sexual assault investigation is ongoing and could still result in charges that could take him out of the lineup — and every team eventually runs into bad luck with injuries or off years. But as long as those three are in the lineup and playing well, the Hawks are close to playoff locks.

Key number: 65 — Number of playoff games the Blackhawks have played over the last three years. That’s one more than the 64 the Kings played from 2012 to 2014, a number everyone latched on to as the prime culprit in their disappointing 2014-15 season. That’s not to say the Hawks will miss the playoffs, but at some point fatigue has to be a concern.

Watchability index: 9/10. If you don’t like watching Keith play hockey, there’s either something seriously wrong with you or you’re cheering for Chicago’s opponents.

Best case: There hasn’t been a repeat Cup winner in the salary-cap era, and nobody’s even made it back to the final since the 2009 Penguins–Red Wings rematch. But the Hawks could absolutely pull it off, and with so much of the Central in flux, their first division title in three years is there for the taking too.

Worst case: Kane’s situation drags on, Keith and Marian Hossa occasionally look like guys in their thirties instead of cyborgs, the top six misses Sharp more than expected, and the accumulated weight of the last three postseasons drags everyone down into an off year. They still make the playoffs but bow out early.

Suggested slogan: We almost made it through an entire preview without anyone mentioning that Corey Crawford might be overrated.

Bold prediction: The Hawks have a typical Hawks year, cruising through the regular season before slamming on the gas once the playoffs arrive. But this time, there’s not enough left in the tank for a full trip; they don’t make it out of Round 2.

New York Rangers

Last season: 53-22-7, 113 points, first in the Metro and first overall, lost in the conference finals.

Offseason report: The Rangers dealt backup goalie Cam Talbot to the Oilers and lost Martin St. Louis to retirement. They also swapped Carl Hagelin for Emerson Etem in a cap-inspired move. But the biggest change came in the front office, where longtime GM Glen Sather stepped aside. Jeff Gorton replaces him.

Outlook: The Rangers are one of only two teams (joining the Hawks) to have been to the final four in each of the last two seasons. They’ve been knocking on the door; the question is how much time they have left to step through.

The Rangers aren’t exactly an old team, but they’ve got several key players on the wrong side of 30, including Dan Boyle (39), Rick Nash (31), Dan Girardi (31), and, most importantly, Henrik Lundqvist (33). There’s also some cap pressure on the way, with Chris Kreider needing a new deal next year and Keith Yandle likely to depart as a free agent next summer.

There’s no sense of panic in New York, nor should there be. But a sense of urgency? Probably, yeah.

Key number: 2 — Consecutive years in which Rick Nash has led the league in shots taken during the postseason. The actual production hasn’t quite been there, although last year’s 14 points in 19 games was reasonable. And sure, he’s paid big bucks to score, so results matter. But when a guy is generating that many chances, it’s time to drop the “Nash disappears in the playoffs” narrative.

Watchability index: 7/10. Just don’t gaze too long into Lundqvist’s eyes. Uh, no reason.

Best case: While everyone’s waiting to anoint the Caps or Islanders as the Metro’s Next Big Thing, the Rangers just keep winning, all the way back to the final.

Worst case: The worst possible scenario is that Lundqvist starts to slow down; at 33, he’s reached the age when that typically happens to most goalies. He’s not most goalies, and some guys continue to excel for years into their mid- or even late thirties. But this guy is the franchise, and if he does start to falter, the Rangers’ short-term Cup chances will plummet.

Suggested slogan: Your 2014-15 Presidents’ Trophy champions! We think. Wait, didn’t the Ducks end up catching us? You know what, even we don’t care.

Bold prediction: The Rangers’ streak of Metro dominance ends thanks to a seven-game upset at the hands of the Islanders.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Season preview, part three: The No-Clue Division

We’re now six sleeps away from the start of the NHL season, not to mention halfway through our preview week. On Tuesday we looked at the league’s bottom-feeders; yesterday it was the middle of the pack.

That leaves us with the best of the best, the league’s true contenders. So if your favorite team wasn’t mentioned in either of the last two articles, congratulations! You guys are in for a great … oh, wait. The Contenders Division doesn’t come until tomorrow. We’ve got one more division to go before we get there, and it’s the group that’s usually the most fun: the No-Clue Division.

These are the eight teams that are the hardest to figure out and have the widest range of possible outcomes. Out of the playoffs by Christmas? Sure. Stanley Cup contenders? Why not. Traded to the KHL for future considerations? Highly unlikely and technically illegal, but nobody’s entirely ruling it out.

This is always my favorite article to write, because it’s the only one where I can’t end up being embarrassingly wrong. Lower those expectations far enough and you won’t be disappointed. Gosh, this must be how the Oilers feel every year. Speaking of whom …

Edmonton Oilers

Last season: 24-44-14, 62 points, sixth in the Pacific and 28th overall.

Offseason report: They traded for Cam Talbot, the latest in a long line of candidates who’ll try to provide passable goaltending behind the Oilers’ leaky blue line. They tried to address that blue line by signing Andrej Sekera to a big free-agent deal. They said goodbye to Martin Marincin and Viktor Fasth.

What else, what else … oh, right, they won the draft lottery and picked the best player to enter the NHL in a decade. Connor McDavid changed everything in Edmonton, so much so that the team quickly cleaned house and brought in Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan.

Outlook: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but it really does feel like a new era in Edmonton. McDavid is as close to a sure thing as any prospect could be, the sort of franchise player that usually results in a Stanley Cup or two down the road. That road may be a long one for the Oilers, who still have plenty of the same holes that plagued last year’s team, but McDavid, Sekera, and Talbot alone should be enough to move the team out of the league’s basement district. And if McDavid stars right away and Talbot is a legit starter, a playoff hunt isn’t entirely out of the question.

Key number: 5-14-6-1 — Recognize this? No? Oilers fans do.

Watchability index: 8/10. McDavid will be must-see TV as a rookie, but there’s other talent on display here. This could be the year Taylor Hall finally breaks through into the “best wingers in the league” conversation, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also seems poised for a big year. With that blue line and a question mark in goal, the Oilers should produce plenty of highlights at both ends of the ice.

Best case: McDavid has a rookie year like Sidney Crosby’s in 2005-06, Hall cracks the 30-goal mark for the first time and then pushes for 40, Talbot is the real deal, and Sekera stabilizes the defense. The Oilers grab the last playoff spot and host a postseason game for the first time in a decade.

Worst case: McDavid has a 50-point season that’s perfectly reasonable but feels like a letdown, Talbot is this year’s Dubnyk/Scrivens/Fasth-style goaltending disappointment, and the rest of the roster reminds us all why they were terrible last year. The Oilers are a bottom-five team yet again, as their fans rock back and forth in the fetal position on the floor.

Suggested slogan: Hey, what’s the worst that could happen? Don’t answer that.

Bold prediction: The Oilers are better, but the playoffs have to wait. They post their best point total since 2006, but that tops out at a whopping 89.

Nashville Predators

Last season: 47-25-10, 104 points, second in the Central and sixth overall, lost in the first round.

Offseason report: The Predators made a series of minor moves, but the roster won’t look all that much different than last year’s. Centers Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro both re-signed, and free agents Barret Jackman and Cody Hodgson were added.

Outlook: The Predators were last season’s biggest surprise, making the leap from also-ran to Presidents’ Trophy contender seemingly overnight. Maybe we should have seen that coming; good goaltending can fix just about anything, and Pekka Rinne returned to full health after missing most of 2013-14. Rinne’s return, the addition of James Neal, a breakout season from rookie Filip Forsberg, and a very good young blue line propelled the Preds to one of the league’s best season-long stories.

So can they do it again? A lot of that will ride on Rinne, and there are some concerning signs the big Finn could be wearing down. He missed three weeks with a knee injury suffered in January, and his numbers were down substantially after he returned — he posted save percentages of .927, .938, and .935 in the first three months of the season, but he went .910, .919, .914, and .863 in the four months after that. At 32, he’s not what you would call an old goalie, but he’s at that age where guys tend to start their decline.

If Rinne falters, the Predators could find it tough to produce enough offense to make up the difference. Their reputation as a low-scoring team isn’t exactly fair — they were 13th in goals last year — but there’s not much in way of star power up front. You’d have to think Neal will do better than his 37-point campaign, and Forsberg and Roman Josi are young enough to expect improvement. But when you’re counting on a 35-year-old Ribeiro as your no. 1 center, you’re not exactly working with a huge margin for error.

Key number: 28 — Home wins by the Predators, the second-highest total in the league. They’ll get an extra chance to play host this season, as the All-Star Game comes to Nashville in January.

Watchability index: 7/10. We haven’t mentioned Shea Weber yet, but the captain is often worth the price of admission on his own. Mix in a little Seth Jones, and you’re golden. Or mustard-colored, or whatever that’s supposed to be.

Best case: The offense gets a little better, Rinne is back to his usual self (and healthy), Forsberg picks up where he left off, and the Predators challenge for the division title again. And this time, they don’t cough it up in the final week.

Worst case: Rinne declines, the kids are inconsistent, and the offense just can’t produce enough to keep up. The Predators don’t plummet, but they follow in the footsteps of last year’s Avalanche as Central Division one-year wonders.

Suggested slogan: We apologize in advance for subjecting our fans to an NHL All-Star Game.

Bold prediction: The Predators produce a Norris finalist yet again, but this time it’s Josi, not Weber.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Season preview, part two: Stuck-in-the-Middle

Yesterday, we kicked off NHL season preview week with a look at the Bottom-Feeder Division, the seven teams that aren’t likely to contend for anything beyond a high draft pick. Today, we move on to the Middle-of-the-Pack Division, featuring eight teams that should be good but aren’t likely to be much more than that.

The mushy middle is the NHL’s equivalent of a sketchy neighborhood — you can pass through on your way to where you’re going, but you don’t want to linger. Some of the teams below are headed in the wrong direction, perhaps on their way to bottoming out. Others may crack the league’s elite and become true contenders in the near future. But the ones that get stuck here — never really contending, but never earning the chance to draft a game-changer — are the ones that deserve our deepest sympathies. Time will tell whether any of these teams meet that fate.

On to today’s list …

Florida Panthers

Last season: 38-29-15, 91 points, sixth in the Atlantic, 20th overall.

Offseason report: The Panthers didn’t do much over the summer, which would normally be a bad sign for a team that missed the playoffs by seven points. But with a young core in place that should improve through experience, it may not be the worst approach.

Outlook: The Panthers are a fascinating mix of young and old. The back end is anchored by defensemen Brian Campbell, who’s 36, and Aaron Ekblad, who’s 19, in front of goaltender Roberto Luongo, who’s 36. The top line could feature Jonathan Huberdeau (22), Aleksander Barkov (20), and Jaromir Jagr (84). It’s so crazy, it just might work. But it hasn’t yet — the Panthers haven’t made the playoffs since 2012, and that was their first appearance since 2000.

Key number: 41 — Points by Bobby Orr in 1966-67, the most ever by an NHL defenseman who was 18 on opening night. Ekblad had 39 last season. He’s good.

Watchability index: 6/10. You saw the part about them having Jaromir Jagr, right?

Best case: Other than Jagr regrowing the mullet — which we’re not ruling out — Panthers fans will be looking for progress from the team’s young players. If it happens, it may be enough to get them back into the playoffs in a weak Atlantic.

Worst case: While few teams could withstand a long-term injury to a starting goaltender, it would probably be more devastating to the Panthers than most. Luongo has stayed mostly healthy over the course of his career, but most goalies eventually find at least one stray puck or rut in the ice.

Suggested slogan: Come see the superstar with the awesome hair who plays like he’s been in the league for 25 years! Oh, and when you’re done watching Ekblad, we have Jagr too.

Bold prediction: The Panthers surge all the way up to fourth in the Atlantic but still miss the playoffs when the Metro grabs both wild cards.

Winnipeg Jets

Last season: 43-26-13, 99 points, fifth in the Central and 14th overall, lost in the first round.

Offseason report: It was a quiet offseason in Winnipeg, which wasn’t much of a surprise — with the exception of last season’s Evander Kane trade with the Sabres, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has preferred to stay conservative. Winnipeg lost free agent Michael Frolik to the Flames but did bring back intriguing talent Alexander Burmistrov from the KHL.

The bigger story was what the Jets haven’t done, at least not yet: sign Andrew Ladd or Dustin Byfuglien to extensions. There’s still time — neither hits free agency until after this season — but it’s tough to predict the Jets’ future without knowing whether it includes their captain and best player.

Outlook: Everyone spent last season waiting for the Jets’ feel-good story to run out of gas, and it never did — at least until they ran into the Ducks in the playoffs. But with a stacked farm system, there’s every reason to count last season as a moral victory that could serve as a stepping-stone on the way to bigger things. Now they just have to build on it, which admittedly is easier said than done in the Central.

Key number: 521:46 — Minutes spent on the penalty kill by the Jets last season, the worst mark in the league; only one team was even within 50 minutes. It’s fair to say discipline was an issue.

Watchability index: 5/10. Unless it’s a playoff game, in which case they become a must-watch (because all other senses will be rendered useless by the noise).

Best case: They build on last season thanks to the continuing development of their young players. Byfuglien and Ladd sign reasonable deals. The goaltending is good enough, which probably means it features somebody other than Ondrej Pavelec. Jets fans get to cheer another playoff appearance, and this time it even includes some wins.

Worst case: It wouldn’t take much of a step back for the Jets to miss the postseason. It might not even take a step back at all — it’s not hard to see them making modest improvement while still getting passed by a team like the Stars or someone in the Pacific.

Suggested slogan: Uh, any chance we could go back to the Southeast Division?

Bold prediction: The Jets miss the playoffs in a tough Central. Given how many times I predicted that last season, Winnipeg fans should be high-fiving right now.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Season preview, part one: The Bottom Feeders

With NHL training camps winding down and the regular season opening a week from tomorrow, it’s season preview time in the hockey world. Over the rest of the week, we’ll be breaking the league’s 30 teams into four divisions. We’ll look at the Contenders Division, featuring the teams that have the best shot at the Stanley Cup. We’ll cover the Middle-of-the-Pack Division, which in today’s NHL may be the worst possible place to be. And, of course, we’ll need a No Clue Division, one that covers that handful of teams that seem to defy easy categorization while offering the widest range of possible outcomes.

But we start off today with the Bottom-Feeder Division. These are the seven teams that figure to be much closer to contending for the first overall pick in next summer’s draft than for a playoff spot.

Of course, a lot can change over an 82-game season. Last year, this section contained the two worst teams in the league, as the Sabres and Coyotes were every bit as bad as expected, perhaps even intentionally. But it also contained three teams that made the playoffs, including one, the Nashville Predators, that very nearly won the league’s best division. Chalk it up as further proof that I’m an idiot and that the NHL is harder to predict than ever in the age of salary-cap-induced parity.

Much like the NHL, we want to keep the divisions balanced, which means seven or eight teams in each one. Last year, with Connor McDavid waiting at the entry draft, that meant narrowing down the list of plausibly bad teams. But this year, with a few of those long-term also-rans moving up, we’re left with a shortage of truly terrible outlooks.

So is there a Predators on this year’s list? Quite possibly — while a few of these teams are just about sure things to be awful, some could surprise if enough factors break just right. Let’s dive in.

Arizona Coyotes

Last season: 24-50-8, 56 points, last in the Pacific and 29th overall.

Offseason report: The Coyotes’ offseason looked a lot like a typical rebuilding team’s. They drafted a stud with a high pick, in this case Dylan Strome at no. 3 overall. They shuffled a few veterans out and added a few more, none of whom are likely to have a major impact. And, in an added twist, they re-signed two free agents they’d dealt at the deadline, Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek. That’s a nice trick if you can pull it off.

Oh, and they traded for Chris Pronger. So there’s that.

Outlook: The Coyotes have amassed a decent haul of prospects to go with some good young NHL talent like defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. They’re going to be good someday. That day is not today.

Key number: Minus-68 — Even-strength goal differential for the Coyotes last year, the worst in the league. (Yes, even worse than Buffalo.)

Watchability index: 3/10. Watching a team in clear rebuilding mode always sounds like more fun that it really is. You think, Cool, a bunch of young guys, let’s see how they’re doing. Then five minutes later, you go I want to watch a good team now and reach for the remote.

Best case: Auston Matthews. I mean, it’s almost too perfect, right? An honest-to-goodness future superstar, born and raised in Arizona, and he comes along right as the Coyotes are hitting rock bottom. Even the most die-hard anti-tanking zealot would be OK with the Coyotes punting the season to build their franchise around Matthews, right?

Worst case: The NHL changes the draft lottery rules to make it much harder for teams to tank for the top pick. Oh, wait, it already did.

Suggested slogan: Auston .316* says you just whupped our ass. (*That’s our projected win percentage.)

Bold prediction: The Coyotes finish last, win the lottery, and the Earth is jolted off its axis by the strength of every hockey fan yelling “Conspiracy!” in Gary Bettman’s direction all at once.

New Jersey Devils

Last season: 32-36-14, 78 points, seventh in the Metro and 25th overall.

Offseason report: Remember the end of Cocoon when all the old people pile onto a boat and sail off so they can be picked up by a friendly alien spaceship? That was pretty much the Devils’ offseason, as a long list of veterans either retired, went unsigned, or were bought out. All of that added up to the Devils now being merely “too old,” instead of “depressingly old.”

Outlook: The Devils are quite possibly in the worst shape of any team; last week, we gave them the longest odds of winning a championship in the next five years. They’re not expected to be good, either this year or in the near future, but they don’t have the sort of prospect pipeline that eases the pain of losing. That said, there is some youth here, specifically on a decent blue line built around Adam Larsson. The Devils may be starting over, but they’re not quite starting from scratch.

Key number: First — Ranking of Cory Schneider’s save percentage and goals-against average among goaltenders with at least 100 games played since 2010. Better than Henrik Lundqvist, better than Carey Price, better than Tuukka Rask. They say you build from the crease out; in at least this one area, consider the Devils built.

Watchability index: 2/10. A bad team with a goaltender good enough to keep it from getting embarrassed? Pass.

Best case: Schneider is good enough to keep them competitive, rookie coach John Hynes looks like he belongs, and new GM Ray Shero flips enough veterans for future assets that this time next year, Devils fans can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Worst case: Schneider is good enough to keep them from adding a desperately needed top prospect at the draft, but they still miss the playoffs by a mile.

Suggested slogan: Smile, Devils fans! (Since for the first time since 1987, it will not immediately result in being stabbed by our GM.)

Bold prediction: With the remaining veterans in decline and the youngsters still finding their game, the Devils finish last in goals scored.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, September 25, 2015

Which teams have the odds for a Cup in the next five years? Part three.

And then there were 10 …

This is Part 3 of our attempt to rank all 30 NHL teams based on their odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years. Part 1, which covered the bottom 10 (and contains a more detailed explanation of the ground rules), can be found here. Part 2, featuring the league’s mushy middle, is here.

The 10 teams on yesterday’s list didn’t provoke all that much in the way of howling outrage, although I heard from fans of teams like the Stars (no. 13), Flames (no. 15), and even Blue Jackets (no. 18) who felt they deserved a spot in the top 10. And nobody agreed with the Kings at no. 11 — they’re either an active dynasty that should be way higher or a washed-up shell of themselves who should be far lower. But the biggest pushback came for a few of the teams that didn’t make yesterday’s post at all, or the one before that, meaning they’ve found a spot somewhere on today’s. Hey, no point doing a list like this without taking a few big swings, right?

And that brings us to the top 10. A reminder: We’re trying to rank teams based on their chances of winning a Cup at any point in our five-year window, which means that this is not a list of the teams with the best chance at winning during the 2015-16 season. In fact, a few of the teams on this list will probably miss the playoffs entirely this year. The future is hazy and hard to predict, but for our purposes it counts every bit as much as what happens this season.

The 10 teams on today’s list won’t be a surprise, at least to anyone who understands the process of elimination, but the order in which they appear probably will be. Yesterday’s middle-of-the-pack rankings were noticeably tight, with only a few percentage points separating the teams. That’s life in the age of parity, and it continues through the first half of today’s list. But we’ll see a little more separation as we get near the top, as current powerhouses try to defend their turf from teams on the verge of joining the elite, not to mention a pair of rebuilding teams looking toward the future.

No. 10 — Montreal Canadiens

Led by an MVP goaltender and one of the league’s best defensemen, both still in their prime, the Habs just slip into the top 10. The current roster is very good, their cap has been reasonably well managed, and the farm system is solid if not spectacular. Even assuming Carey Price regresses a bit back to mere mortal status, they should be contenders for years to come.

Can that translate to the franchise’s first trip to the final in 23 years? They’ve been close in recent years, and may have been there in 2014 if Price hadn’t gotten hurt in the conference final. And while they’re not what you’d call a young team, they have enough youth at the NHL level or close to it that you could see them getting better with time — if Alex Galchenyuk can be the player he’s shown flashes of becoming, the Habs could have a future star just entering his prime.

As odd as it seems to suggest it, the one major hurdle to Montreal’s return to glory may be behind the bench. There may not be a coach in the league who’s combined for more on-ice success and off-ice criticism than Michel Therrien, and there are plenty of Montreal fans who don’t think the team can take the next step until he’s gone. That may be true, but it’s far from a fatal flaw — it’s a lot easier to change coaches than it is to find a franchise goaltender or build up a blue line.

There’s no sign that a change behind the bench is imminent in Montreal, but it’s worth remembering that the last team to fire Therrien was the 2008-09 Penguins, who did so midway through a disappointing regular season. They went on to win the Stanley Cup a few months later. Hmm …

Odds of a Cup in five years: 20 percent

No. 9 — New York Rangers

Here’s the good news if you’re a Rangers fan: They have plenty of talent, they can always spend to the cap, they have arguably the best goaltender in the world, they play in a division that’s very much up for grabs, and they’re bringing back largely the same core that’s been to at least the conference final three times in four seasons. They’ve spent years knocking on the door. There’s no good reason to think this won’t be the year they finally kick it down.

Here’s the bad news: If it’s not this year, then when? This is a veteran team — not old, but veteran, in the sense that most of these guys are what they are by now — with lots of cap space tied up in long-term deals, many of which are questionable. The prospect pipeline is mostly barren thanks to a recent series of trades that have sent picks and young players elsewhere. And that all-world goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, is now 33, right around the age when goalies often start to see a sharp decline in performance.

Maybe new GM Jeff Gorton will work some magic, some unexpected prospects will burst through, and Lundqvist will turn out to be another Martin Brodeur or Dominik Hasek and have five more years of All-Star magic ahead of him. But much like the next team on our list, it sure seems like the Rangers’ window may be closed after another season or two. Two years of realistic contention is still two more than most teams in this league have, though.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 21 percent

No. 8 — Pittsburgh Penguins

All the warning signs on the dashboard are flashing in Pittsburgh. The farm system is bare, quite possibly the worst in the NHL. The salary cap is jammed with big-dollar, long-term contracts, including four that last until 2022 or longer and carry a combined annual average cap hit of more than $32 million. The roster isn’t old, but it’s not young either, and again, there’s little in the way of help on the horizon.

The bottom line: This team better win now, because it’s going to get ugly real soon.

So, can they win now? It sure looks like it, thanks to a stacked top six highlighted by the arrival of Phil Kessel. The Penguins are going to be an awfully tough team to keep off the scoreboard. They’ll need to be, because the blue line isn’t good and Marc-Andre Fleury is always a question mark in goal. But for all the hockey world’s talk about grit and heart and character, this is increasingly a league where elite talent carries the day, and the Penguins have tons of it — maybe more than anyone else.

If it’s not enough to win this year or next, it will be fascinating to see what their next move looks like. You can’t really go into a full-scale, multi-season rebuild when you’re riding the last years of Sidney Crosby’s prime, but something would have to give. Would it be the long-rumored Evgeni Malkin trade? That’s a possibility, but it’s one for another day. The Penguins’ calendar is squarely focused on right now. And for now, they’re a very good team that has as good a shot as just about anyone. For now.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 21 percent

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Which teams have the odds for a Cup in the next five years? Part two.

In Part 2 of a three-part series, we continue attempting to answer the seemingly simple question: Which NHL teams have the best odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years?

In Part 1, we counted down from nos. 30 to 21, covering the 10 teams with the worst odds of getting their hands on a Cup in the foreseeable future. If you missed that article, you can find the basic ground rules of what we’re trying to do there.

The reaction to Tuesday’s article was interesting. I don’t think I heard from a single Devils fan who had any problem with them being ranked no. 30, and for the most part, fans of the Canucks (no. 28), Leafs (no. 26), and Senators (no. 24) kept the outrage to a minimum. On the other hand, some felt like the Panthers (no. 27) and Coyotes (no. 25) deserved better, and that I had too much faith in the Flyers, even down at no. 23.

The most controversial team listed was the Predators, at no. 21. I see a team that needs to take another step but will have to do it with an aging franchise goaltender, an underwhelming group of forwards, and a good but not great prospect pipeline. Others see a strong, young blue line and more than enough upside to catch the league’s elite. Either way, if there’s a team in the bottom 10 that could prove me wrong with a Cup win this season, the Preds are probably it.

Today, we’re onto the mushy middle — 10 teams that each have a realistic chance at glory but wouldn’t necessarily be considered the favorites. There’s not much to choose from among this group, as the narrow gap in their odds shows. If you want a catchy subtitle to go with today’s article, I’d suggest “parity.”

No. 20 — Boston Bruins

Does Don Sweeney have a plan? That’s the big question in Boston, and nobody’s figured out the answer yet. Sweeney took over the GM’s chair from Peter Chiarelli this summer, and he went on to guide the Bruins to one of the most confusing offseasons of any NHL team. His moves ranged from “this guy is incompetent” to “he might be a misunderstood genius,” without many stops in between.

The end result is that the Bruins are old and expensive, and the farm system is merely OK. But they still have one of the game’s best two-way players in Patrice Bergeron and one of the best goaltenders in Tuukka Rask, which makes for a pretty solid foundation. They’ve also got Zdeno Chara, who may not have much gas left in the tank but isn’t ready to move into the “washed-up” column quite yet. They had three first-round picks this year and still have Malcolm Subban as a future starter/trade bait. And they’ve still got most of the core that formed a championship team just a few years ago. And we haven’t even mentioned future Norris winner Dougie Hamilton, who can be the team’s franchise player once …

Oh, right. We’re back to that oddball summer again. Maybe all of those changes will help a team that was reportedly divided last year, but the bottom line is that the Bruins seem to be headed in the wrong direction. They’re no sure thing to make the playoffs this season. But if they do make it, at least for now, I’m not sure I’d want to play them.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 12 percent

No. 19 — Colorado Avalanche

There may not be a more polarizing team on today’s list than the Avalanche, who are absolutely stacked with young talent after spending a few years racking up top-five picks. Their farm system dried up after that haul, but they replenished some of it with this summer’s Ryan O’Reilly trade. And they’re still just one season removed from a 112-point season.

Of course, that 2013-14 year had every analytics guy screaming “fraud.” and nobody who paid attention to the numbers was remotely surprised when the Avs plummeted all the way out of the playoffs last season. And there’s a bigger issue hanging over the club’s future: the nagging feeling that team management might not know what it’s doing. Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic know a thing or two about winning Cups in Colorado, but in an era in which every team seems to be moving toward a more modern approach to thinking about the game, the Avs are still defiantly old school. If the analytics movement is wrong, the Avalanche will be in great shape. But the analytics movement isn’t wrong, so … yeah.

And yet, in a league where strength down the middle is key, it’s not hard to imagine a team led by Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon doing some damage. There’s enough talent here to make a run or two. And if and when they eventually smarten up, maybe even more than that.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 13 percent

No. 18 — Columbus Blue Jackets

OK, maybe we spoke too soon when handing the Avalanche today’s “most polarizing” crown. On the one hand, the Blue Jackets weren’t very good last year, finishing 11th in the East. On the other, they had atrocious luck, and almost everyone agrees they were probably a better team than their record indicated. On the one hand, any talk of a Stanley Cup seems awfully ambitious for a franchise that has still never won so much as a playoff round. On the other, this is a look at the next five years, not the previous 15. On the one hand, there’s a solid case being made that they’ve screwed up their long-term cap by overpaying mediocre players. On the other, there’s a solid case that their young stars and strong prospect pipeline could make them one of the very best teams in the league within three years.

All of this is to say that plenty of readers won’t think the Jackets belong on today’s list at all. They should obviously have been on yesterday’s, with the other also-rans. Or maybe they should obviously be on tomorrow’s, with the other elites.

I still think they’re closer to the former than the latter, as their ranking indicates. But after years of being cannon fodder for the rest of the league, the Blue Jackets have a chance to start making some noise of their own very soon.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 15 percent

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Which teams have the odds for a Cup in the next five years? Part one.

In the NHL, it is all about the Stanley Cup. Yes, building a champion takes time, and there can be moral victories along the way. Yes, sometimes a great team just never gets over the hump. Yes, there’s a ton of luck involved, way more than any of us want to admit. And yes, because of all that, smart teams (and fans) will learn to trust the big-picture process over one focused on short-term results.

That’s all well and good. But eventually, all anybody wants to know is: Did you win the big one?

So as we gear up for the 2015-16 season, let’s take a shot at answering a simple question: Which NHL teams have the best odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years?

On the surface, that sounds like it should be an easy enough exercise. We just take all 30 teams and look at both their current roster and their prospect pipeline. That should tell us just about all we need to know about if and when they’ll be ready to contend. Well, unless they have cap issues. Or financial problems. Or complications in the front office or behind the bench or in the owner’s box or … you know, maybe our simple question turns out not to be so simple after all.

But that’s no reason not to try, so here we go. Why five years? It seems like a reasonable window to work with — long enough that today’s rebuilding teams have a shot, but not so long that what’s already an exercise in crystal-ball gazing turns into an outright guessing game. But remember, we’re not exclusively focused on the future here; a Stanley Cup won next season counts every bit as much as one won years down the road, so you’ll see a mix of young and old teams at the top of the list. In fact, as we’ll see, it’s probably true that the absolute worst place to be in the NHL is stuck in the middle — not elite today, but not pushing aggressively enough toward tomorrow.

Finally, a little warning before we get started: As we make our way down from no. 30 to no. 1, you’re going to find yourself thinking that the odds for many of these teams seem way too low. But do the math — with five years to cover, we’ve only got a pool of 500 percentage points to work with and 30 teams to spread them out across. If you want to yell at me that Team X is 10 percent too low, make sure you also tell me which team is 10 percent too high.

This will be a three-part series. Today, we start from the bottom, with the 10 teams facing the longest odds to capture a Cup. Today’s list features some predictable entries, along with a few that I suspect will be met with objections from the fan bases involved. Let’s start the countdown with no. 30.

No. 30 — New Jersey Devils

Inevitably, the fan base of whichever team gets stuck in the 30 spot will scream loudly that they can’t possibly be the worst of the worst. So let’s pause to concede that there’s not all that much separating the bottom half-dozen or so teams that rank in the low single digits. If it would make you feel better to nudge the Devils up a percentage point or two and into a better slot, go right ahead.

But the result remains the same: This team is old and not very good, and there’s little in the way of encouraging prospects on the way beyond Pavel Zacha. The Devils have also just begun the transition from the Lou Lamoriello era to whatever it is that comes next. They’ve got a very good GM in Ray Shero driving that, which is good news, because the job ahead is massive.

Teams can be rebuilt; it happens all the time. And the Devils do appear to have an elite goaltender, which makes ranking them here a bit risky — if they somehow managed to squeeze into the playoffs, who knows how far a hot Cory Schneider could carry them. But right now, even squeezing into the playoffs seems like a dream for down the road. Today, the team is bad and the cupboard is bare, and there’s no quick fix for that. The Devils are a smart organization that will get back on track, but it will probably take most of our five years for that happen.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 1 percent

No. 29 — Carolina Hurricanes

Are the Hurricanes rebuilding? They finish toward the bottom of the league every season, and they’re amassing young talent, so that would point to a “yes.” But they haven’t moved veteran stars like Eric Staal or Cam Ward yet, so maybe not. New GM Ron Francis has sent mixed signals about where the team is headed, and how much (if any) focus on short-term success that strategy includes.

In either case, the Hurricanes have been bad for years (they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2009), and there’s little hope that that will change this season. The future is somewhat brighter, with a solid prospect pipeline that’s heavy on defensemen although short on blue-chip stars. That cupboard will get a boost if the team does move Staal or Ward, both of whom are on the final year of their deals; but remember that Ward may not have any value left and Staal has a no-trade clause.

Forget about championships; a path back to the playoffs seems murky at this point. This franchise certainly knows how to make the most of its playoff berths — they’ve missed the postseason in 10 of the past 13 seasons, but won nine rounds in the three years they did make it — so we can’t rule them out entirely. But it’s close.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 2 percent

No. 28 — Vancouver Canucks

On the surface, this rating seems low for a team coming off a 101-point season. The Canucks are led by two first-ballot Hall of Famers in the Sedin brothers, and they have a star goaltender in Ryan Miller, at least based on name value if not actual performance. You could do worse than trying to chase a Cup with that sort of foundation.

But the Canucks aren’t like most 101-point teams. The core is old — in addition to the Sedins and Miller being 35 on opening night, Alexandre Burrows and Radim Vrbata are both 34. After an offseason that could charitably be described as puzzling, the roster seems worse than last season’s, with Kevin Bieksa and Eddie Lack exiting without the team bringing in any immediate help in return. And there’s plenty of evidence that last season’s team just wasn’t as good as its point total would suggest.

Add it all up and it’s hard not to look at the current-day Canucks as a team that needs a rebuild but doesn’t know it yet — just about the worst place to be in a salary-cap league. The Canucks’ prospect pipeline isn’t strong, and the work of GM Jim Benning on moves like the Lack trade and the Brandon Sutter acquisition and subsequent signing has been widely panned. And to make matters worse, the Canucks could find it uniquely challenging to embark on a rebuild even if they wanted to, since their two best veterans happen to be twin brothers who’ve always insisted on playing together. Getting good future assets for a player who’s about to turn 35 and carries a $7 million cap hit through 2018 in today’s league is tough; trading two as a package deal might be near impossible.

It’s certainly conceivable that this season’s Canucks could come close to a repeat of last season, overachieving on their way to a spot in the playoffs, where anything can happen. But it seems far more likely that they’ll be also-rans this season, the cracks in the foundation will soon become impossible to ignore, and the team will finally decide to hit the reset button and start a multiyear rebuilding project. If so, that doesn’t leave much time in our five-year window.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 2 percent

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, September 18, 2015

New season's resolutions for 2015

Training camps open this week across the NHL, with the exhibition schedule getting started over the weekend. And you know what that means: Every player in the league has never worked harder in the offseason, is in the best shape of his life, and is primed for the greatest season of his career. Yes, literally every player. Once this guy starts doing crunches, it’s officially unanimous.

And since everyone in the league has apparently spent the summer becoming the very best versions of themselves, that means it’s our turn now. With just three weeks until opening night, now is the time for hockey fans to make some new season’s resolutions, in an annual rite of passage in which some idiot sportswriter tells you what to think a nice man shares some helpful ideas for self-improvement.

As always, your personal list of resolutions is up to you. But we do have a few suggestions to get you started.

Let’s Just Accept That Gary Bettman Doesn’t Always Tell the Truth

As NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman is the face of the league, and quite likely the most important person in the sport today. He is also somebody who bends the truth when speaking to the league’s fans with stunning regularity. And honestly, that really shouldn’t bother you.

Like him or not, Bettman has a tough job. He has to serve many masters. He has to juggle multiple competing priorities. And he has to do it all while pretending that he really, deeply, sincerely cares about making the NHL’s fans happy.

But here’s the thing: Gary Bettman doesn’t work for you. You are his customer, but you are not his employer, and telling you the truth is not in his job description. Oh, he’d certainly prefer you to be happy. It makes his life much easier, and it makes the lives of his bosses — the team owners — much easier, so all things being equal, he likes you and wants you to be a satisfied customer. But he has a job to do, and telling you the truth is not part of it. Sometimes, a little bit of spin, PR-speak, or even flat-out dishonesty is in the league’s best interest. And once you accept that, you’ll find yourself a lot less aggravated by Bettman’s existence.

So this year, don’t get angry when Bettman swears that all 30 markets are in great shape. Don’t be offended when he pretends that Las Vegas expansion hasn’t been a sure thing for the better part of a year. Don’t keep holding a grudge over all the times that he tried to act like his latest lockout had anything to do with ticket prices. And if the media reports that a team is about to move and he accuses them of “making it up” and that team does indeed move just a few days later … you know, again … just roll with it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t hold him to some sort of standard. It’s OK for him to lie, but he’s supposed to do it while maintaining some small grasp on reality, so if he drops a truly ridiculous eye-roller like last year’s bit about fans not caring about player salaries, go ahead and mock him for it. But for the rest of it, don’t expect the whole truth and nothing but the truth from Bettman and you won’t be disappointed.

Remember, he’s not lying because he’s a bad guy, or because he doesn’t care about you as a fan. He’s just doing his job. Don’t take it personally.

Let’s Stop Calling the Puck-Over-Glass Rule ‘Black-and-White’

The NHL’s puck-over-glass rule is divisive. Many think it’s a dumb rule, one that almost always ends up being called on plays that everyone knows were purely accidental. Others like it, arguing that it prevents intentional delays and boosts offense by adding an element of risk to clearing the defensive zone. You’re probably already firmly entrenched on one side or the other, and I’m not going to try to change your mind today.

But there’s one thing we should all be able to agree on: We need to stop referring to the rule as “black-and-white.” That’s a term that always comes up whenever the rule is discussed, usually offered as a defense. We already rely on the referees’ discretion for almost everything else in the rulebook, the thinking goes, and we all seem to think that they blow those calls way too often. Whatever flaws it may have, at least the puck-over-glass is the one rule that gets called consistently across the board, with no room for interpretation or judgment calls. Which would be a decent argument, if there were any truth to it.

Here’s what happens when a referee calls a hooking penalty: His arm goes up, the player complains a bit and then goes to the box, and we line up for the faceoff. Here’s what happens when a referee calls a tripping penalty: His arm goes up, the player complains a bit and then goes to the box, and we line up for the faceoff. Here’s what happens when a referee calls a cross-checking penalty: His arm goes up, the player … well, you get the idea.

Here’s what happens when a puck gets shot over the glass: Everyone on one teams start wildly pointing and waving, as if the officials somehow didn’t notice what just happened. Then everyone on the other team starts slapping their hands together in the universal sign for “It was deflected.” Then all the officials, referees and linesmen both, huddle up for an extended discussion, in which they attempt to triangulate the puck’s exact exit point to determine if it went over the end glass or the bench, since the rule treats those areas differently. Then they make a decision, skate over to each bench, and explain the verdict to the coaches. Then we watch a series of replays, none of which is remotely conclusive. Then everyone gives up, shrugs, and tries to remember what the score was back when this whole mess started.

That whole scenario is a lot of things, and if you want to argue that it all adds up to a net positive for the sport, then go ahead. But it’s sure not “black-and-white,” because black-and-white rules don’t require an all-hands-on-deck meeting of the minds every time they’re called. The puck-over-glass rule may have some things going for it, but simplicity and clarity aren’t on that list.

If anything, it’s just about the least black-and-white rule in the rulebook. Defend it if you must, but at least do it using words that make sense.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

It made sense at the time: A brief history of jerseying

Hockey history is a rich tapestry of traditions, trends, and innovations. Many stuck around to become part of the game’s enduring fabric. Others … not so much. Today we will look back at one of the odder things that used to be part of the NHL’s culture and wonder how exactly it made sense at the time and that everyone was OK with it.

Have you ever been in a fight with a Canadian? Probably not, since we’re generally a friendly and non-threatening bunch. But there are certain lines that you just cannot cross, like disparaging socialized medicine or saying you thought Shawn Michaels was better than Bret Hart, and crossing those lines can lead to the nearest Canadian setting aside the Margaret Atwood novel they’ve been pretending to read and throwing down.

And when that happens, you’ll notice that while fighting a Canadian is a lot like fighting anyone else, there are certain key differences. We apologize after every punch. We pause every few seconds to take a sip of our double-double. And, at some point in the fight, we are going to try to yank your shirt up over your head.

That last one may seem a little odd, but don’t worry; we’re just instinctively reverting to what we grew up with. That’s because every Canadian is raised on a steady diet of watching hockey, and for several decades, that shirt-yank move was standard operating procedure in any hockey fight. It even had a name: “jersey,” used as a verb. As in “I was losing the fight, but then I jerseyed him and went to town.”

Jerseying is rarely seen these days thanks to the introduction of the tie-down, a small strap that connects the back of a player’s jersey to the top of his or her hockey pants. Today, the NHL has a rule that makes tie-downs mandatory for any player who fights, so with only rare exceptions, you don’t see a player’s sweater come off during fights anymore.

And that’s probably good news, because man, the whole “jersey over the head” thing really did get progressively weirder over the years.

>> Read the full post on Grantland