Thursday, July 2, 2015

Making sense of the Phil Kessel trade

If the last few days of NHL transactions have reminded us of anything, it’s this: There’s a huge difference between the trade you choose to make and the one you need to make.

After a round of failed contract talks with Dougie Hamilton and a growing sense that he wanted out, the Boston Bruins felt like they needed to trade him. With a cap crunch and the threat, real or perceived, of an offer sheet looming, the Blackhawks felt like they needed to trade Brandon Saad. In both cases, the return was underwhelming and widely panned. That’s what happens when it’s a trade you need to make — you end up taking what you can get when you can get it, even if that means you’re selling at a discount.

On the surface, the Maple Leafs didn’t need to trade Phil Kessel. The 27-year-old sniper has seven years left on his contract, so he wasn’t hitting the open market anytime soon. At an $8 million cap hit, he certainly wasn’t cheap, but he also wasn’t especially overpaid based on his production. And he was easily the team’s best player, and among the very best in the league when it comes to what he does best; only Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and Corey Perry have scored more goals over the last five years, and Kessel managed that while dragging Tyler Bozak around the ice as his center.

Now, the Leafs did need to trade someone — president Brendan Shanahan had said as much in April, acknowledging that “for whatever reason, the mix doesn’t work” — and after yet another disastrous season, nobody on the roster deserved to be untouchable. If the right offer came along, anyone was available. But if there was one guy among the team’s core that you’d be happy to keep, you’d think Kessel would be that guy. The Maple Leafs could certainly choose to trade him, but they didn’t need to.

Or did they? Yesterday, the Maple Leafs sent Kessel to the Penguins in a trade that would make sense only if it were one they thought they needed to make. The full deal has Toronto sending Kessel to Pittsburgh along with a second-round pick, Tyler Biggs, and Tim Erixon. In exchange, they get prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington, forward Nick Spaling, a first, and a third.

That’s a mouthful, but we can trim it down for evaluation purposes. Biggs and Erixon are minor pieces that were presumably included primarily to free up contract spots, and Spaling is a mildly useful player who’s mostly a salary dump. It’s not unfair to think of this trade as boiling down to Kessel for Kapanen, Harrington, and a first.

That’s not an awful return, but it’s not the sort of package that typically makes a team move its top player. Kapanen is a good prospect, a skilled winger who was the Penguins’ top pick in 2014 and still hasn’t turned 19. He projects as a top-six guy, maybe even a future first-liner if everything breaks just right. Harrington is a 22-year-old defenseman who could still top out as a solid second-pairing guy. Both have value; neither is a sure thing. As for the first-rounder, it’s actually a conditional pick that can’t fall into the lottery, and could revert down to a second-rounder if the Penguins miss the playoffs in each of the next two years.

Then there’s the not-so-small matter of salary retention. The Leafs will eat $1.2 million of Kessel’s salary and cap hit for all seven years left on his deal. Shanahan has (correctly) refused to put a timeline on the Maple Leafs’ rebuild, but it’s safe to say that it’s not “eight years or more.” At some point when the plan calls for them to be contending for a championship, the Leafs will still be sitting with $1.2 million in dead cap space on the books from this deal. That hurts.

So if that’s the best Toronto could do for Kessel, why trade him at all? Why not focus on moving out other players and hold on to the guy you can pencil in for 30 goals and 80 points most years? And in fact, the Leafs had spent the last few weeks assuring everyone that they were perfectly prepared to do just that. If the market wasn’t there, why not wait it out?

Today, the answer seems clear: They were bluffing. They were always going to move Kessel this summer. They didn’t think they had a choice.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Free agency preview

NHL unrestricted free agency is awful. Let’s just put that out there to start. In the salary-cap era, good players rarely make it to the market, and the ones that do get ridiculous deals that almost always end up being viewed as mistakes. Meanwhile, miscellaneous depth guys somehow transform into stars for one day, get paid accordingly, and then go right back to being what they’ve always been. It’s a mess.

We’ve been doing this for a decade now, and it just keeps getting worse and worse. At some point, smart teams are going to start sitting out July 1 entirely and wait around for prices to come down and bargains to emerge. But the lure of getting a player for nothing — and the ability to ignore the fact that a cap-crippling contract is certainly not “nothing” — almost always seems to prove too powerful.

So here’s your free-agency preview: Your favorite team won’t do anything. You’ll complain. Then your favorite team will do something. You’ll feel vaguely uneasy about it. Months later, you’ll realize they made a horrible mistake, and you’ll vow never to get suckered in by July 1 ever again. You will break this vow.

This year could be even worse than usual, because there’s a distinct lack of talent available. Remember last year, when free agency featured reasonably big names like Ryan Miller, Paul Stastny, and Thomas Vanek? Good times. (Well, except for the teams that signed those guys.) This year’s list pales in comparison, with very few players who could be considered stars, or potential stars, or even former stars.

But teams have cap space and impatient GMs, so somebody is going to get paid. Here are 10 players to watch as the action unfolds today.

Mike Green

Former team: Washington Capitals

2014-15 salary: $6.25 million ($6.08 million cap hit)

He’d be great for: A team looking for a veteran blueliner and power-play quarterback. Green is the biggest name available among defensemen, and maybe the biggest at any position. He can eat minutes, and he’s a big right-handed shot in a league where that’s rare. And he has a résumé; he’s the only defenseman this century to score more than 30 goals in a season, and he’s twice been the runner-up for the Norris Trophy.

As long as you can ignore: Those big seasons were a long time ago. Green hasn’t been a star since 2010, and last year he spent most of the season playing on the Capitals’ third pairing. He’s not awful defensively, but it’s not a strength, and he’ll turn 30 in the season’s first week. If you sign him for anything close to last year’s money, you’re basically paying for the past instead of the present. Someone will.

Justin Williams

Former team: Los Angeles Kings

2014-15 salary: $3.05 million ($3.65 million cap hit)

He’d be great for: A contender with its eye on the Stanley Cup. Williams would be a good fit just about anywhere — he’s always been an excellent possession player, so stats guys get little hearts in their eyes when they talk about him — but he’d be especially attractive to a team that considered itself a Cup favorite. That’s because of his track record in crunch time; he has a history of coming up big in Game 7s, and he won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP in 2014. If you believe in “clutch,” Williams is your guy.

As long as you can ignore: For one, the Game 7 stuff is based on a grand total of seven career games, so all standard disclaimers about small sample size apply. More importantly, Williams will be 34 on opening night and has been a 40-point player in each of the last two seasons. That’s still worth paying for, but any team that goes longer than three years will probably regret it down the line.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Which holdovers could make the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2016?

The Hockey Hall of Fame announced its class of 2015 yesterday, and it’s a big one. The Hall will welcome seven new members this winter: five players and two inductees in the builder’s category.

The big name is Nicklas Lidstrom, the seven-time Norris Trophy winner who’d been considered an absolute first-ballot lock since well before he retired. He’ll be joined by former teammate Sergei Fedorov, who also gets in on the first try. Fedorov wasn’t quite a slam dunk, but he was close, and certainly deserves the honor.

Two other picks will cause at least a little bit of discussion, although for very different reasons. Phil Housley finally gets the call after waiting since 2006. He’s the fourth-highest-scoring defenseman of all time and had nearly 400 points more than the next-highest-scoring blueliner who wasn’t in, but his defensive shortcomings had hurt his candidacy — he’ll be one of a very small group of HOF defensemen with a minus rating over the course of his career.

And then there’s Chris Pronger. On merit, there’s no doubt Pronger belongs in the Hall — he was arguably the best non-Lidstrom defenseman of his era, and is the only blueliner since Bobby Orr to win the MVP. He’s also technically still an active player, despite suffering a career-ending injury in 2011, and that’s where this gets messy. He’s still under contract, and was even traded just a few days ago. But the Hall had already ruled him eligible months ago, so he was going to get in.

The Hall also welcomed three other inductees: builders Bill Hay and Peter Karmanos Jr., and longtime Team USA defenseman (and gold-medal winner) Angela Ruggiero, who becomes the fourth woman honored.

The seven honorees will be inducted in November. In the meantime, it’s time to start picking through the snubs and near misses as we try to figure out who has the inside track on the class of 2016. There aren’t any especially impressive candidates coming into the pool next year, which opens up the field for some players who missed the cut this time.

Here are 10 players who were passed over this year who may have the best case for induction in 2016.

Mark Recchi

Eligible since: 2014

The numbers: 577 goals and 1,533 points over a 22-year career. He won three Cups, played in seven All-Star Games, and was a second-team All-Star once.

The case for: The 1,533-point total ranks 12th all time, and everyone else in the top 25 is either already in or will go in on the first ballot as soon as they’re eligible (Teemu Selanne and Jaromir Jagr). Offensive production has always been the key criteria for induction, so seeing a guy with Recchi’s massive career totals left out seems bizarre.

The case against: Recchi is the classic example of a player who was good for a long time but was never really considered elite. He was very good in the early ’90s, and was a consistent producer well into his forties, but he was never in the conversation for best player in the league, or even close to it.

If I had a vote: If we were picking between guys with a high peak vs. guys who were very good for a long time, I’d take the peak over longevity. But Recchi’s top years were pretty good, and there does come a point when a guy’s career numbers get so high that he has to get in. I think Recchi is right around that zone, so while I don’t mind seeing him wait a bit, he’d get my vote to go in eventually.

Bottom line: Everyone seems to assume Recchi will get in someday. Maybe next year is the year.

Dave Andreychuk

Eligible since: 2009

The numbers: 640 goals, 1,338 points, two All-Star Games.

The case for: He scored the 14th-most goals in NHL history, and every eligible player ahead of him was a slam dunk. In fact, other than Recchi, Andreychuk has over 100 more goals than any other eligible player. That’s stunning, and feels like it should be enough to get him in on its own. He’s also one of the few players to have lifted the Stanley Cup as a captain, having done so in 2004 as the veteran leader on an otherwise young Lightning team.

The case against: Along with Recchi, Andreychuk is the poster child for the “long career, big totals, good but never great” class of player. He played in an All-Star Game only twice and never got significant votes for any major award, and it’s fair to say that nobody ever dragged their kids to the rink to see Andreychuk play. He also racked up most of those goals playing in the high-flying ’80s and early ’90s (although that’s not as big a factor as you might think; on an era-adjusted basis he still ranks 18th all time).

If I had a vote: I’ve lobbied for Andreychuk’s name to be featured more prominently in the HOF discussion; that he rarely generates any sort of buzz is baffling to me. That said, I’m not sure I’d vote for him, for the same reason I wouldn’t have voted for Dino Ciccarelli and would at least hesitate on Recchi.

Bottom line: It doesn’t seem like Andreychuk will ever get in, and if that’s the case, that record of 640 goals for a non-Hall-of-Famer will probably stand forever.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, June 29, 2015

The most (and least) surprising moments from NHL draft weekend

The NHL’s draft weekend is, in theory, a pretty straightforward affair. It’s the annual chance to divide up all the incoming young talent, with teams making their picks, posing for a few photos, and heading home.

In reality, draft weekend often ends up feeling like 90 percent of the league’s offseason crammed into a few days. The combination of having all 30 front offices in one city, incoming cap space, and free agency looming just days away builds up into a whirlwind of rumors, speculation, and (eventually) action.

Some of it works out the way we expect. Some of it doesn’t. So let’s take a look back at this year’s just-concluded draft weekend in stifling Sunrise, Florida, by breaking down all the major moves based on just how surprising they were.

Connor McDavid going first overall: 0/100 — No surprise here; we’ve known that McDavid would be the first overall pick of the 2015 draft for the last three years. He’s the most heavily hyped prospect since Sidney Crosby, and his ridiculous numbers in junior this year — he had 120 points in just 47 games — just reaffirmed his status as the game’s Next Big Thing.

The question now is this: How big? And how quickly? McDavid goes to an Oilers franchise that hasn’t been good at anything other than winning draft lotteries in almost a decade. His arrival, and the front office overhaul the franchise underwent while anticipating it, should spell the end of the Oilers’ misery. The question is how quickly he can get them into the playoffs, and then into Cup contention.

We have some history to look back on. Crosby had 102 points as a rookie in the high-scoring post-lockout 2005-06 season, but Pittsburgh didn’t return to the playoffs until the following year. The Penguins went to the Cup final the year after that, and then won it all in 2009. Alexander Ovechkin debuted the same year as Crosby, but the Caps didn’t make the playoffs until his third season, and they still haven’t been to a final. The Blackhawks debuted the double whammy of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in 2007-08, missed the playoffs, and had won their first Stanley Cup by 2010.

So if you’re an Oilers fan, there’s your realistic window: one more tough season, playoff favorite status the year after that, and Stanley Cup contention soon after. It’s no sure thing, of course, but I’m guessing long-suffering Oilers fans will take it.

McDavid’s selection was the least surprising moment of the entire weekend. Well, except for this one …

This whole thing being a disaster: 0/100 — Let’s play a game called “How the hell did this happen?”

Scene: League headquarters.

NHL executive: “So, Connor McDavid has finally arrived in the NHL. How can we make the best possible first impression with this incredibly marketable new asset?”

Intern: “Hey, has anyone checked to see if the owner of the Oilers would want to awkwardly corner him on live television, then babble on about how wonderful his terrible organization is while blatantly reading off a cue card?”

NHL executive: “Great idea. Did anyone check it with Connor?”

Intern: “Sure did. He said he’d spend the entire segment visibly trying to swallow his own tongue.”

NHL executive: “Awesome, let’s do it!”

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 26, 2015

2105 NHL draft preview

The history of the NHL draft has been, to use a polite term, inconsistent. In the 1970s, when the whole concept was still relatively new, nothing made the slightest bit of sense. Things had stabilized a bit by the 1980s, although there were still wide disparities in approaches and every now and then a team would just decide not to show up. The 1990s were filled with draft floor intrigue and costly busts, and even at the turn of the century, it was still fairly common to see the no. 1 pick traded away.

But by the time this current decade arrived, we were well into the cap era and most teams were approaching things in pretty much the same way. “Build through the draft” is every team’s mantra, top picks are almost never traded, the days of the overseas sleeper are long past, and everyone seems to be working from essentially the same information. The bad news is that all of this makes the draft a lot less fun. The good news is that, in theory at least, it should make things a little bit easier to predict.

This year’s draft is in Sunrise, Florida, with Round 1 happening tonight in prime time and everything else squished into a few hours tomorrow. In an attempt to figure out what might happen, let’s take a look at some pieces of conventional wisdom that have emerged over the years, and how they could apply to some of the top prospects who’ll be hearing their names called.

Conventional wisdom no. 1: Sure-thing franchise players are gold

In the cap era, there’s been at least some vague sense of uncertainty over the top pick in every year with the exception of 2005 (Sidney Crosby) and maybe 2008 (Steven Stamkos). Other than that, we’ve always had some degree of suspense over whose name would be called first.

That ends this year. Breaking: The Oilers are going to take Connor McDavid with the no. 1 overall pick. And after that, inside sources indicate that the Sabres are leaning toward Jack Eichel.

And that makes perfect sense, because McDavid and Eichel are two of the most highly regarded draft prospects the league has ever seen. McDavid has been hyped as the next Crosby for years, and he’s considered such a sure thing that there was plenty of speculation certain teams were tanking the 2014-15 season to increase their odds of landing him. (But don’t worry, the NHL assured us this never happens.)

Ironically, after all of that intentional losing, the draft lottery was won by the one terrible team in the league that really was trying its very best. While the Oilers’ lottery win wasn’t the ideal outcome for the league, it certainly shook up a franchise that’s been mired in misery for almost a decade. McDavid has the talent to single-handedly make the Oilers an instant playoff possibility, and he probably makes them Stanley Cup contenders sooner or later. He’s that good.

Eichel is good, too, and in any other year he would be a lock to go no. 1. This isn’t any other year, though, so when the Sabres lost the lottery and GM Tim Murray didn’t try especially hard to mask his disappointment, it was natural to view Eichel as a consolation prize. True as that may be, he’s one hell of a Plan B, and the few Sabres fans who haven’t already moved into the “We never wanted McDavid anyway” denial stage will get there pretty quickly once they get to watch him up close.

So McDavid will go first and Eichel will go second. That much we know. After that, things get interesting.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, June 25, 2015

My NHL Awards ballot

The NHL awards took place last night, broadcast from their traditional home (and, let’s be honest, soon-to-be expansion city) in Las Vegas. There wasn’t much suspense over the MVP, but a handful of other awards were tough calls. Who’d take home the Norris? What about the Calder? Would Rob Riggle be able to get a decent laugh out of this crowd?

This was my second time having a vote as a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Last year, filling out my ballot was a struggle. This year’s ended up being similar: a fairly straightforward vote for the Hart, an extremely tight race for the Norris, and everything else sort of spread out in between.

Here’s a look at who won what, as well as my own ballot for the awards that the PHWA votes on.

Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player)

Winner: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

No surprise here. Price was the heavy favorite, having produced one of the better goaltending seasons in recent memory for a Canadiens team that was otherwise good-but-not-especially-great. There will always be some resistance to the idea of a goalie winning MVP — similar to pitchers in baseball, because some voters just can’t get past the “they already have their own award” hurdle — but it does happen, and as the season wore on, a solid consensus emerged that the award was Price’s to lose. (Price also won the Ted Lindsay Award, the player of the year as voted on by fellow players.)

My ballot:

1. Carey Price, Canadiens

2. Sidney Crosby, Penguins

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals

4. John Tavares, Islanders

5. Devan Dubnyk, Wild

I had Crosby higher than most, but I’m fine with that. As you can see, I have no issue giving my vote to a goaltender, but the Dubnyk pick was the one I went back and forth on the most, since it’s basically based on a half-season. But it was one hell of a half-season, and if saving a team’s entire campaign doesn’t qualify as valuable, then I guess I’m missing something.

Vezina Trophy (Best Goaltender)

Winner: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Again, no shock here. If Price was considered the league’s most valuable player, it would be tough to make the case he wasn’t also the best goalie. The only surprise was that it wasn’t unanimous, with three voters going with someone else as their first pick.

My ballot: None. The Vezina is picked by the GMs, but I would have voted for Price.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What five of the smartest moves of the 2014 offseason can teach us about 2015

We’re now officially a few days into the 2015 offseason, which means we’re also just a year or so away from knowing how badly everyone screwed it up.

After all, that’s the way NHL offseasons usually go. There’s lots of excitement as the moves are being made, with plenty of blind optimism countered by an occasional unexplained sense of dread. And then, after enough time has passed, the benefit of hindsight kicks in and we realize that most of what happened was a mistake.

Take last year. We saw a busy summer of trades, signings, re-signings, and others deals, and as with most years, the majority of the big moves didn’t work out. Some seemed fine at the time, but turned out to be busts. Some were widely panned by everyone from the beginning, and everyone turned out to be right. And some moves worked out reasonably well, but for various reasons didn’t quite provide the contender-making boost that teams were hoping for — we can file the acquisition of big names like Jason Spezza, Paul Stastny, Ryan Miller, and Jarome Iginla into that category.

But there are always a few exceptions, and some of last year’s moves did work out — brilliantly in some cases. So today, let’s put on our 20/20 hindsight glasses and take a look at five of the best transactions of the 2014 offseason to see what we can learn from them heading into this summer.

1. The Islanders Bolster the Blue Line

The move: OK, we’re cheating a bit here, since we’re actually looking at two moves, but they were similar enough in timing and intent that we’ll lump them together.

Coming off a brutal 2013-14 season, the Islanders were reasonably well stocked with offensive talent, but needed big help in goal and on the blue line. They addressed the former by trading for the rights to Jaroslav Halak and then signing him before free agency, which is a move that we could also include on this list if you’re willing to count May as the offseason.

That still left the defense, and as the summer wore on it looked like GM Garth Snow had struck out. Then, less than a week before opening night, the rumor mill churned to life with reports that the Isles had acquired a defenseman. It was Boston’s Johnny Boychuk. No, wait, scratch that, it was Chicago’s Nick Leddy. Eventually, the source of the confusion became clear: The Islanders had actually landed both guys on the same day. The moves addressed a need, the price was reasonable, and the Isles went on to post their first 100-point season in more than 30 years.

The lesson: In addition to the timing and the position, both trades had another factor in common: They involved teams that would have liked to have kept the players, but were forced to make tough choices because of looming salary-cap crunches. It’s not hard to see how that lesson could apply to this coming offseason, as several teams will once again be tight against a cap that could come in lower than projected. That includes both the Bruins and Blackhawks yet again, but they’re far from the only ones.

With the cap not rising much this year, teams may be under more pressure than ever to cut contracts, and they probably won’t be able to wait until October to do it. As the Islanders showed, some available cap room, a few inexpensive assets to dangle, and a little bit of patience can add up to a nice little bargain or two.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 19, 2015

The 2015 offseason guide

The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup four days ago, but you could be forgiven if you’ve already forgotten about that. Based on their reports from Wednesday’s media event, even the Chicago players are a little fuzzy on the details at this point.

As for the rest of us, we’re just doing what hockey fans do: forgetting all about the just-concluded playoffs and immediately moving into offseason mode. And that’s probably a good thing, since the NHL doesn’t exactly give us much of a breather. The offseason has already arrived, with buyout and arbitration windows opening up and just more than one week until the entry draft. Here’s a look at everything you need to know to get you through the next few days and weeks.

The Draft

The entry draft happens next Friday and Saturday at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, and unlike recent years there won’t be much suspense over the top picks. The first round will open with the official coronation of Connor McDavid as the league’s Next Big Thing, not to mention the latest savior of the Edmonton Oilers. After that, the Sabres will pick Jack Eichel, and GM Tim Murray will try really, really hard to seem happy about it.

That’s when things will get unpredictable, as the next tier of top prospects could go in any order. The Coyotes hold the third pick and could opt for defensemen Noah Hanifin or Ivan Provorov, or take one of the top forwards, like Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner. Their choice will dictate what the Maple Leafs, Hurricanes, and Devils do with the next picks, and whether any other teams want to swoop in and move up. It should lead to an interesting opening round of a draft class that’s considered reasonably strong if not top-heavy. We’ll have a full preview next week.

Of course, as has become tradition, the actual picks may be overshadowed by the wheeling and dealing that goes on down on the draft floor. Which brings us to …

The Trade Market

You remember blockbuster trades. They were those things that used to happen all the time and were amazing fun for fans to argue about, right up until every GM in the league got timid and decided the salary cap gave them plausible cover to stop doing their jobs. Ringing any bells? Vaguely?

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup... again

One of those odd unwritten rules of pro hockey is that your entire life revolves around winning the Stanley Cup, but when you’re one game away from actually doing it, you have to pretend like you haven’t noticed. You have to claim it’s just another game, and maybe even feign some degree of surprise that anyone would treat it any other way.

So Monday, hours away from a chance at capturing their third Stanley Cup in six years, that’s what the Blackhawks did. After their morning skate, player after player swore that the night would be like any other game. They repeated it like a mantra, almost robotically. Just another game. No big deal. It’s only a championship on the line. For their part, the Lightning were just as coy, shrugging off any suggestions that having their very playoff lives on the line made this game any sort of big deal.

The charade lasted all morning, right up until Lightning coach Jon Cooper addressed the media. He was asked whether this was, indeed, just another game.

“No chance,” he replied, incredulous. “The Stanley Cup’s in the building. I can’t believe they would say, ‘Oh, it’s just another game.’”

“We know it’s just not another game,” he continued, gaining steam as he went. “This is much different than Game 1. You got to win or you go home. On the other side, you know what happens if they win.”

“No. I don’t like to sugarcoat anything. This is the reality of the business we’re in.”

He’s right, of course, even if he’s not supposed to say it. This wasn’t just another game. As it turns out, it would be the last game of the series and the season, and the one that saw a new dynasty crowned. And it would be the night the reality Cooper spoke of finally caught up with the Lightning.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Stanley Cup final gets weird

“To me, this series has been expect the unexpected.”

That was Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on Saturday night, after his team had dropped a 2-1 decision on home ice in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final. He was offering the observation in response to a question about whether back-to-back 2-1 final scores meant that the series had settled into a defensive struggle, but it was probably a comforting message to deliver in the bigger picture right now. That’s because today, with the Blackhawks leading the series 3-2 and holding home ice for Monday’s Game 6, the expectation is that Chicago is about to win the Stanley Cup.

Tonight marks the first time in the modern era that the Blackhawks will have a chance to skate the Cup on home ice. Given their well-documented excess of talent, experience, and, yes, resiliency, blowing it now to a Lightning team that’s young and hurting would seem to go against the script.

And that’s where the good news for Tampa Bay kicks in, because so far this matchup hasn’t much gone according to plan. Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos can’t score, but Cedric Paquette and Antoine Vermette can. The series has been the closest we’ve ever seen — it’s the first time in final history that no team has held a two-goal lead at any point through five games — yet we’ve somehow avoided any overtime. And every now and then, an injured goalie who sometimes seems like he can barely stand decides to charge out of his net to body check his own defenseman. (More on that last bit in a second, since it turns out to be important.)

Given all that, it made a certain sort of sense when the hockey world arrived back in Tampa last weekend to find that the downtown had been taken over by an anime convention, with the streets full of cosplaying fans dressed as superheroes and cartoon characters. When you’ve got a Stanley Cup that refuses to make much sense, why not mix in a few grown men dressed as Pikachu?

Somehow, it all worked together. Over here is an enthusiastic 16-year-old with a lightsaber getting dropped off at the entrance by his mom. Over there is an unheralded 21-year-old rookie going head-to-head with All-Stars and winning. This lady is pretending she can cast magic spells. That guy is pretending he didn’t bite anyone. Here’s Captain America, there’s Captain Everything, and the whole time you’re just thinking, Why not? Why the hell not? Who ever said any of this should make sense?

And so, it goes without saying, the big moment from Saturday’s game didn’t come off of a brilliant rush or a sterling defensive effort. No, it came six minutes into a scoreless game, on a seemingly harmless Blackhawks clearing attempt into the Lightning zone that defenseman Victor Hedman was heading back to handle. Patrick Sharp was on him, but not in any sort of dangerous way, and Hedman was ready to chip the puck off the boards to send Stamkos off on a breakout when … well, see for yourself.

>> Read the full post on Grantland