Monday, November 18, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Which team represents Canada’s best hope to end the Stanley Cup drought?

Did you know that a team from Canada hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993? It’s a little-known fact that almost never gets brought up. If you’re a Canadian, you probably haven’t heard anyone mention it in minutes, maybe even hours. (Squeezes bottle of maple syrup so tightly it shatters in his hand.) Yeah, we really enjoy hearing that little fun fact. Sure do.

Since we’re already just a wee bit on edge up here these days, let’s steer into the skid. A quarter of the way into the season, which Canadian team looks like they have the best chance to win the Stanley Cup?

That’s a fitting query for this column since the Cup question is the big one we’re trying to answer each week. So far this season, only one Canadian team has appeared in the top five. That was way back in week one, and it’s fair to say that team isn’t going to be invited back anytime soon. But even if Canadian teams aren’t showing up here often, some of them have to be at least quasi-contenders, right?

Well, maybe. We’ve got seven teams to work through, and it feels like we should mention all of them, just for the sake of completeness. So … the Ottawa Senators. They’re a team. So far, even a slightly better one that we may have been expecting. But they’re not winning the Cup. Next.

If we keep working our way up the standings, we get to the middle-of-the-pack before we run into a four-team Canadian traffic jam. (For American readers, a Canadian traffic jam is a lot like one of yours, only with more apologizing, moose and Zambonis.) All four teams are within three points of each other, hanging right around the wildcard race. That isn’t the worst place to be, but doesn’t exactly scream “Cup favorite.”

Of those teams, two are probably right about where we’d have expected. The Canucks were one of those early-season surprises that have been coming back to earth, hitting a November speed wobble after a very strong October. There’s a general sense of optimism coming out of Vancouver these days, and rightly so, as the future looks bright. But that future isn’t here yet, though, and a Cup run this year still seems like a longshot.

The Jets are heading in the opposite direction; a recent contender that now feels like a borderline playoff team at best. We know the blue line situation by now, and it certainly doesn’t sound like Dustin Byfuglien is walking through that door any time soon. But it’s also fair to say that the total disaster some of us saw coming hasn’t happened. The Jets are a perfectly decent team so far, albeit one with flaws. And we know from 2018 that this core is capable of a long run if they can heat up at the right time. They won’t be anybody’s playoff favorites, and they still have a tough fight just to make it that far, but if they ever did … I mean, you never know. But it feels unlikely.

We also have to mention (deep sigh) the Maple Leafs. They’re probably the most hyper-analyzed team in the league right now, partly because there are so many Leaf fans and partly because everyone else loves a good train wreck 18-wheeler cliff dive. They’re a mess right now, coughing up a winnable game with the slumping Bruins on Friday and then getting their teeth kicked in by the Penguins on Saturday. They’re a team built to play one way with a coach who wants another, with frail psychology and too many injuries and no backup goalie and a long road trip that still has five games to go. Panic time? It might be.

The Leafs are getting most of the attention these days, as per Canadian law. But they aren’t the country’s only supposed Cup contender that’s underperforming; the Flames were a 107-point team last year, and they’re on pace to fall well short of that. A few weeks ago on the podcast, I described the Flames as a team where almost everyone was performing just 10 percent worse than you’d expect, and it was all adding up to an ugly start. That’s overly simplistic, but they’re still giving off that underachiever’s vibe. It’s a mixed message in terms of optimism; on the one hand, there are no glaring problems here that can’t be solved, but on the other hand, there’s also no easy scapegoat who can be shipped out and replaced in an easy fix. One thing worth remembering: as Eric Duhatschek points out, their record at this point last year was pretty much the same as it is now. They haven’t impressed so far, but I’m not taking them off the contender’s list yet.

Next up are the Canadiens, who had one of those statement games in Friday’s win over the Capitals and then lost a weird one to the Devils in which we learned you can’t kick a puck with your hip. They haven’t been getting much Cup talk outside of Montreal, and even a few weeks ago I had them pegged as just about the prototypical stuck-in-the-middle team. But the buzz is building, and rightly so. The Habs aren’t dominating, but they’re banking points, and staking a solid claim to one of the Atlantic’s top three spots. The schedule gets tough now, and we’ve seen hot starts disintegrate in Montreal in recent years. But right now, Montreal is the first Canadian team that’s playing like a legitimate contender.

And that brings us to the country’s best team, at least according to the standings. The Oilers are still camped out on top of the Pacific, with few signs that the inevitable plunge back to earth is coming. They had a weird week, losing to the lowly Sharks, beating the Avalanche and then dropping an OT decision to the Stars. The story is still Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl; they’re unstoppable, and so are the Oilers when they’re on the ice, but when they’re not this team is pretty ordinary. Can you win a Cup with two forwards carrying the team? Probably not, although you can bank enough early-season points to get a firm grip on a playoff spot while you figure the rest of it out.

Back to our original question: Which team is the most likely to end that Canadian drought? The unfortunate answer is that nobody jumps out as an obvious choice, although we can make a few cases. For all their problems, the Leafs certainly have the talent, and probably more than any team in the country. The Flames and (maybe) Jets are in that boat too, looking like teams that aren’t especially dangerous right now but could be by the end of the season. The Canucks are feisty, and young teams sometimes make sudden leaps that we don’t see coming. And while the Oilers might have too much recent baggage for anyone to feel confident, they’re playing great and will eventually have to be taken seriously.

But out of everyone, I think the answer might be the Canadiens. They look good, they have a goaltender we know can catch fire and Shea Weber might be a ninja. They don’t feel anything like favorites right now. But at 26 years and counting up here, we may have to take what we can get.

So after all of that, did Montreal make this week’s top five? They did not. Let’s go figure out who did …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

It’s Hall of Fame induction night in Toronto tonight. Congratulations to all the honorees – yes, even Guy Carbonneau – on their big night. Be sure to check out our recent features on Vaclav Nedomansky, Jerry York, Sergei Zubov and Hayley Wickenheiser.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning (9-6-2, +4 true goals differential*) – They had a chance to come into the weekend rankings on a four-game win streak and make my life easier, so of course they dropped a 4-3 decision to the Jets on home ice. Come on guys, let’s work together here.

By the way, I thought Justin Bourne’s take on the Lightning was insightful, although it may not make Tampa fans feel especially optimistic.

4. New York Islanders (14-3-1, +14) – I guess they didn’t like their last ten-game win streak and have decided to start over with a better one.

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Friday, November 15, 2019

Puck Soup: Cherry bomb

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to the Don Cherry story
- Greg's list of his top ten candidates to replace Cherry
- Sidney Crosby is out for six weeks
- The Leafs are bad now
- The Devils are worse
- The Islanders are good, again
- The Ilya Kovalchuk era in L.A. appears to be over
- Greg and Ryan nerd out about Star Wars stuff
- The top ten TV shows of the decade
- and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.

Grab Bag: The pros and cons of Brian Burke replacing Don Cherry

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The pros and cons of Brian Burke replacing Don Cherry
- The new way we're apparently doing HHOF debates from now on
- An obscure player who played a game behind a rookie defenseman
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the days when disagreeing with a call meant every one just attacked the goal judge

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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Six more active players who’ll make for tricky Hall of Fame debates someday

It’s Hall of Fame Induction weekend, one of my favorite times on the hockey calendar. I love the HHOF, partly because of the history and reverence and celebration of the game’s history. But mostly, because it gives me an excuse to do one of my very favorite things: Argue with strangers about questions that don’t actually have a correct answer.

Hey you, do you feel like arguing? No? Wrong! Of course you do, you dummy. See, it’s fun. We’re having fun right now.

Hall of Fame debates are great fun when they involve the players who are up for induction, or even the ones who are about to be honored. (Guy Carbonneau? Really? OK, as long as we’re sure.) But I’ve never been good at waiting around for an argument to be fully formed, so I also like to occasionally take a swing at some of the active players who’ve been around long enough to establish a career trajectory that may or may not be tracking toward the sport’s ultimate honor.

We did this earlier in the year, when we looked at names like Phil Kessel, Shea Weber and Marc-Andre Fleury. As part of the discussion that followed, plenty of other names were thrown out as equally worthy of consideration. So today, let’s take a look at six more names that are trending toward a tough Hall of Fame call, and where I think they’ll end up.

Brent Burns

Why it’s a tough one: He’s got some pretty decent numbers for a defenseman, although he racked up at least some of them as a forward. He was good in his own end, but probably not great. He was among the very best in the league in his prime, but his prime didn’t kick in until he was almost 30. Also, the beard is either a major plus or a dealbreaker depending on how it looks on any given day.

The case for: Let’s start with the Norris Trophy. Burns has one, from 2017, and the list of players who’ve won the award is almost entirely HHOF guys. And it’s not like he just had one crazy outlier award year – the technical term for that is “a Theodore” – and then went back to being just OK. He’s been a finalist two other times and a postseason all-star three times in all. If your first question for a Hall of Fame candidate is “Were you ever in the conversation for being the best at your position?” Burns is a definite yes.

Beyond that, he’s the leading scorer among defensemen in the cap era, and we all know that offense sells when it comes to the Hall of Fame.

The case against: Those three Norris-caliber seasons all came within a four-year period, so while his peak is high it may not stretch for as long as you’d like. He could extend that this year, and he’s off to a decent start, so we’ll wait and see.

Moreover, he’s an offensive defenseman whose offensive numbers are in the ballpark of the Hall, but only just. If he retired today, a) that would be weird timing, and b) he’d still be 150-200 points behind modern guys like Sergei Zubov, Rob Blake and Scott Niedermayer. That’s fine – he’s got time to bank those points. But he’s not there yet.

Worth remembering: Burns will be remembered as one of the most entertaining characters of his era, which won’t hurt his cause. (It won’t hurt, right? Please tell me we’re not going to hold the occasional smile or joke or naked photoshoot against him.)

Should he get in? I think he’s on track with another Norris-caliber season or two, or with three or four good-but-not-great years to pad his numbers. So at this point, it may be a race against Father Time.

Will he get in? I’d say he needs about 750 points from the blueline to feel like a safe pick, and he’s on pace to get to that mark and maybe even blow by it. But he turns 35 this year, so injury or a major drop in production loom. If I had to bet, I’d say he gets in.

Ilya Kovalchuk

Why it’s a tough one: Because first, based on recent news we may be stretching the definition of “active” here. And more importantly in the big picture, as we’re so often reminded, it’s the Hockey Hall of Fame, not the NHL Hall of Fame. Except that in the era where European players have free access to come over to North America for their pro careers, it’s pretty much been the NHL Hall of Fame.

The case for: He was one of the best offensive wingers in the NHL for over a decade, racking up six straight 40-goal seasons in an era where those were really hard to come by. He won a Richard and had two All-Star nods that came eight years apart and three other years in the top three. So if you’re looking for a guy who was in the “best at his position” conversation, he passes the test. And through 2013, he was easily on pace to hit the major offensive milestones you need for a Hall career.

The case against: Kovalchuk’s departure for the KHL complicates things, because it means his NHL numbers won’t end up where they’d typically need to be. Based on his limited production since his comeback, it’s fair to say that he won’t get to 500 goals or 1,000 points even in the unlikely event he gets another NHL shot. You can take his KHL numbers into account, and you should, because again it’s the Hockey Hall. But how? What’s the conversion rate? It adds a layer of complexity that some voters won’t want to bother wading through for a one-dimensional goal scorer.

Worth remembering: The Hall will have to wrestle with the KHL question with Jaromir Jagr and Pavel Datsyuk before Kovalchuk comes up for a vote. Both of those guys would get in on their NHL years alone, but acknowledging the KHL on Hall of Fame resumes might crack the door ever so slightly for Kovalchuk.

Should he get in? When he left the NHL in 2013, he already had comparable numbers to guys like Pavel Bure and Cam Neely, so you could argue that if he’s blown out his knee instead of just taken a better job somewhere else, he’d be a cinch. I’d be on the fence if I had a vote, but I think I might lean toward yes because I’m more of a high-peak guy than a longevity one.

Will he get in? I don’t think he does. He made his name in a market that doesn’t exist anymore, left the league in a way that made him some enemies and hasn’t done much in a comeback that now seems to be over. Who’s going to stand up in the room on selection day and pound the table for him?

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

I grew up on Coach’s Corner. Don Cherry’s fall has been hard to watch

I can’t believe they actually did it.

News broke Monday afternoon that Don Cherry had been fired from “Hockey Night in Canada,” after Saturday’s comments that singled out immigrants for a lecture on the importance of poppies and patriotism.

Fired. Not gently nudged out to pasture at the end of a season. Not allowed to resign at a time and place of his choosing. No mutual parting of the ways, with friendly well wishes for future endeavors. They actually canned him, after 39 years.

This time, Cherry went too far in a way that he hadn’t before, at least not so brazenly. Or maybe he had, and people like me just weren’t listening closely enough, to him or to the people he was targeting. But as more than a few people said in the aftermath of Saturday’s comments, this time felt different.

Whether his fans want to admit it or not, Saturday’s poppy rant was vintage Cherry. Bigoted and bullying, maybe without even realizing it, or maybe just without caring. Love him or hate him, you can’t say that he changed for the worse. The rest of us did, for the better. Or at least enough of us did that it finally tilted the scales toward the side that plenty of Canadians had been on all along, waiting for the rest of us to catch up. We’ll say that he finally crossed the line, but the truth is the line finally moved beneath him, far enough that he couldn’t get away with it anymore. For all the reasons laid out by Sunaya Sapurji, this was finally the moment where it had to end.

I said as much on Monday. Except I didn’t really. When it came to actually write the words – Don Cherry should be fired – I ducked and dodged. I’ve watched the guy for almost his entire run, and counted myself as a fan for most of it, and being a Cherry guy has always meant knowing when to avert your eyes. So instead, I wrote that it was going to be a tough call, and I was glad I didn’t have to make it.

They made it, and Cherry is gone. At 85 years old and midway through what was probably going to be his final season, he finally went too far.

There are going to be a ton of people, fans and media alike, who are thrilled at the news, because it’s what they’ve wanted for years, maybe decades. There will be others who never really watched Cherry and don’t understand why he ever mattered, but will weigh in anyways because these days that’s what you have to do.

I don’t fall into either category. I grew up watching Cherry, both on “Coach’s Corner” and through his various other outlets. I owned all the tapes. I listened to the radio segments and watched him interview people at his bar. He was the cornerstone of how I came to view the game. Something would happen – a big game, a fight, a trade – and my first instinct would be “I wonder what Grapes is going to say about this.” And then we’d all crowd around the TV and shush each other when it was time to find out.

Sometimes, I’d nod along, or cheer him on. Other times, I’d shake my head, or worse. Occasionally, I’d know it was one of those times to avert my eyes. You get good at it after a while if you let yourself. You might not even realize you’re doing it.

As the years went by, the shake-your-head moments came more frequently. Even the biggest Cherry fan would admit that he’s been coasting on shtick for years. The costumes got sillier, the takes more rambling, the mispronunciations more embarrassing. Occasionally he’d say something especially dumb, and you’d have to figure out if you could come up with a reason why he should still have his platform. It got harder and harder as the years went by. Plenty of one-time fans stopped bothering.

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