Monday, January 21, 2019

Weekend rankings: There's been an explosion of trades across the NHL. So what does it mean?

Something​ unusual is happening​ in​ the​ NHL​ these​ days.​ Teams are​ making trades.

That shouldn’t​ be unusual. After​ all,​ trading has been​​ part of the NHL since the league’s earliest days. The art of the deal has evolved over time, but the basic concept has always been the same. If there’s a hole in your roster, you find a way to make a deal to address it. An NHL GM only has so many tools in his toolbox, and two of the key ones – drafting and free agency – aren’t available during the season, while player development is a longterm play that can’t really be rushed. But you can make a trade right now. If your team isn’t good enough, get out there and make it better.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. But in recent years, the in-season trade has been a dying art. GMs pull off their biggest deals around the draft and maybe work in a few more as the offseason drags on. But during the season, things stay quiet until a week or two before the trade deadline.

Why? We’re told it’s because the salary cap makes it too hard to swing a deal during the season, but I’ve never fully bought that idea. Instead, we seem to be living through an era of conservative GMs who know they probably won’t get a second chance at the job and are driven more by a cover-your-butt mentality mixed with a healthy dose of loss aversion than an all-consuming desire to make their teams better.

Or maybe, we were living through that era. Because lately, NHL GMs have been busy.

Last week, NHL teams made seven trades. In the two weeks before that, there were ten more. That adds up to seventeen deals since the holiday trade freeze was lifted.

In that same period last year – the holiday freeze through Jan. 21 – there were only three trades. Two more happened on Jan. 22, so bump it up to five if you’d like, but things went quiet again after that. In 2016-17, over the same period, there were five deals. The 2015-16 season was the outlier, with 11 trades, but 2014-15 only had four and 2013-14 had six.

That’s an average of about six trades per season during the post-freeze period. And yet this year, we’ve had 17. What does it mean?

One possible answer is that it doesn’t mean much of anything. After all, it’s not like any of these recent trades have been blockbusters. In fact, they’ve almost all been oddly similar: One-for-one swaps, perhaps with a middling draft pick or two tossed in, mostly involving depth pieces or minor leaguers that probably play the same position. Only two of the 17 trades have involved more than one player on either side of the equation (the two-for-two deal that sent Brandon Manning to Edmonton and the Anders Nilsson deal between the Canucks and Senators).

Other than that, GMs are keeping it simple. If you were a cynic, you might suggest that there’s an awful lot of deck-chair shuffling going on. There certainly hasn’t been anything approaching a blockbuster to be seen. If we’re being honest, some of these deals have been built around guys most of us have never heard of.

But still … 17 trades? Even if they’re underwhelming paint-by-numbers moves, that’s a ton of activity for the middle of a season.

One theory is that what we’re seeing is a function of the tight playoff races. Granted, the races are tight every year, but this season feels different, especially out West where the wildcard race has become a slow-moving traffic jam. Nine of the 17 deals involve some combination of the Ducks, Wild and Oilers, three teams that came into the season in win-now mode and are fighting over those final spots. Maybe we’re not actually seeing some sort of league-wide phenomenon so much as three desperate teams pulling everyone else’s average up. But even if you take those three teams out of the mix, we’ve still had more trades than normal, so that can’t be the whole story.

There could be at least a bit of a domino effect in play, where each new trade shakes something loose somewhere else for another move. And it’s also possible that we’re seeing a little bit of peer pressure at play here. It’s one thing to tell your fans (and your owner) that making trades at this time of year is too hard. It’s another to do it when Bob Murray is out here finding a way to swing a new deal every second day. Nobody wants to be the GM who sits on his hands during the frenzy and then ends up missing the playoffs by a point in April.

Or maybe it’s just a one-off fluke. There’s always that.

Whatever it is, the next question is what it means for the five weeks between now and the trade deadline. It’s tempting to say that we’re in for a dud of a deadline since teams are getting all of their moves out of their system now. But that doesn’t seem right, because as I said, we’re talking about a bunch of relatively minor deals here. If anything, this feels like more of a warmup than anything. Maybe these smaller deals are the consolation prizes from bigger conversations that could still be revisited down the line. And if you’re the GM of a bubble team that hasn’t been wheeling and dealing lately, how much longer can you wait while everyone around you is already making moves?

However all of this plays out, here’s hoping that it’s the start of a new trend. NHL trades are fun and arguing over the ones that happened and the ones that still could happen used to be a big part of the league’s in-season entertainment value. That’s faded over time. It would be cool to get it back.


Road to the Cup

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

With the All-Star Game a week away, a reminder that we’re now into bye week season. Ten teams are off as of today, with everyone else off next week. That’s going to lead to some light nights on the schedule and maybe not much movement within our rankings over the next two weeks.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (29-17-4, +20 true goals differential*) – The good news is that they’ve won nine of eleven, including an impressive 7-3 trouncing of the Penguins on Saturday. The bad news is that they’re not really gaining any ground in the Pacific and if anything a first-round matchup with the Sharks seems more likely now than it did a week ago. We won’t go overboard on “if the playoffs started today” here and there’s still a chance the Knights can claim the top spot in the Pacific. But we’re reaching that time of year when having three teams from the same division in the top five just can’t hold and right now the Knights would be the easiest team to bump.

4. San Jose Sharks (28-15-7, +26) – You could cut-and-paste a lot of the Knights’ entry here, although some of the models out there still seem to love them. If they win the Pacific, I love their odds. But right now they’re not winning the Pacific.




Friday, January 18, 2019

Grab Bag: Your guide to spotting fake trade tweets

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Finding a reason to be negative about the NHL's ten best teams
- Should you RT that fake-sounding trade?
- An obscure player who shouldn't be but is
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the last time Gary Bettman promised he wasn't looking for a CBA fight, and how that ended

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Thursday, January 17, 2019

Puck Soup: Not looking for a fight

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Gary Bettman wants you to know that this time, he isn't looking for a lockout. I have some thoughts on what this means, where it's going, why it sounds familiar and how fans should react
- The fake trade tweet that caused problems this week
- The Sabres hit a rough patch
- The Western wildcard race gets ugly
- Greg chats with Thomas Middleditch of "Silicon Valley"
- Ryan's top five hockey references in hip hop
- Rick Nash retires
- ... and lots more.

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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




Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What’s the worst possible salary cap situation you could create from today’s contracts?

Last​ week we tried​ to​ assemble​ a roster​ made​ up​ of some​ of the NHL’s​ best contracts. To​ add​ to the challenge​​ and avoid simply stocking up on entry-level deals, we decided to skip ahead to 2021-22 and put together the best team that would still fit under a reasonable salary cap. It turned out to be a lot of fun and at least a little bit thought-provoking, many of you weighed in with your own picks and a good time was had by all.

But more than a few readers had a suggestion: OK, now do it for the worst contracts.

My first reaction was that that sounded like fun. A cap-compliant team made up of the worst contracts in the league? That’s right up my alley.

My second reaction was that it would be easy. That was part of the appeal. Putting together the good contract roster had me looking like this guy by the end. But bad contracts? There are a ton of those! Every team has at least a few. This would be a breeze. I was in.

I got started. And then I began to actually think things through. And I realized what I had gotten myself into.

Here’s the thing: Anyone can do a simple list of the worst contracts in the NHL and lots of people have. But we’re talking about a roster of terrible NHL contracts that still fits under the salary cap, meaning we’ll have a hard time squeezing some of the worst deals in without having to fill out the roster with “bad” deals that somehow also don’t cost much.

That doesn’t just add several layers of difficulty, it barely even makes sense. It’s like putting together the best offensive team that won’t score more than 300 goals. What are we even doing here?

Luckily, “barely even makes sense” has never stopped me before. Let’s do this. Let’s build the worst possible NHL team that fits under the current cap. Or more specifically, let’s build the worst salary cap situation that would be possible in today’s NHL.

A few quick ground rules:

  • This is a roster for this season, using this season’s cap and this season’s contracts. Unlike last week’s piece, there’s no reason to jump ahead to 2021-22 here. This is all for 2018-19, using the current cap of $79.5 million. And as with last week, all we care about here is cap hit; actual dollars paid out don’t matter to us.
  • We’re not using any contracts that are dead money because of players that are on LTIR or whose careers are likely over. No David Clarksons, or Nathan Hortons or Marian Hossas on this team. Other than that, assume all active players are healthy – we’re not penalizing players for being injured here.
  • We can’t save cap space by burying deals in the AHL, a rule that will apply to any deals that actually are buried in the AHL. We also don’t benefit from any retained salary from previous trades. We’re paying full sticker price on everything.
  • We’re trying to build the worst cap situation possible, so term matters. Long deals are worse than short ones. Which means that for the purpose of our team, they’re better. Because they’re worse. You get what I’m saying.

This idea is so dumb. I love it. Let’s get to work.

(All salary info comes from CapFriendly.com. Stats for this season do not include last night’s games.)

But first, a word about “bad” contracts

It always feels a little weird to write about good and bad contracts and to realize that we always default to seeing those deals from the team’s perspective. A guy who makes too much money is considered “bad,” while a guy who makes less than he deserves goes in the “good” column.

On a certain level that makes sense. We’re fans, and ultimately the point of being a fan is to root for teams collectively, not individual players. This is a hard cap league now, meaning salaries matter. But it still feels strange to look at an underpaid player as always being a good thing, even when the difference might just be going straight into some billionaire owner’s yacht fund. And it’s especially strange to think that someone wanting to make as much money as they can has made a mistake when all of us feel the same way about our own jobs.

Let’s be clear: Every one of the guys we’re going to list in today’s piece earned his contract. They’re among the best few hundred hockey players in the world, playing in a league that generates billions in revenue based on people wanting to watch them play. Not one of them held anybody hostage, and each of them ultimately ended up signing an offer that their team put in front of them. If those turned out to be bad contracts, it’s only because their teams screwed up.

We are also going to screw up, although in our case we can at least claim to be doing it on purpose. Let’s do this. Who wants to make some capologists cry?

Goaltenders

Part of what makes this whole exercise so ridiculous is that we won’t be able to fit any of the league’s monster contracts onto the roster because they’d eat up too much space. In theory, there could be deals that are so bad that they can’t fit on our all-bad roster because they don’t leave room for anyone else.

For example, let’s look at Carey Price. His $10.5-million extension runs for another seven years after this one, even as he works through a second straight disappointing season. That one is tempting, and I tried to figure out a way to work it in. But I can’t. You just can’t build a truly terrible cap team when you’re spending that much on your starting goalie. (What that might say about building an actual Cup contender around a $10.5-million goaltender is an exercise left to the reader.)

But once you get past Price on the goaltender’s list, you find something a little surprising: There aren’t all that many goaltender deals that seem awful. There are certainly some questionable ones, but compared to the abject disasters we’re going to see at the other positions, NHL GMs seem to be showing getting smarter when it comes to choosing the men inside the crease.

A few deals do jump out as contenders for our team. Mike Smith ($5.67 million) and Semyon Varlamov ($5.9 million) are making more than you’d like, but both of those deals expire this year. Craig Anderson has another year left at $4.75 million, and that deal doesn’t look great, but you could live with it if he’s healthy and playing like he did earlier this year. Henrik Lundqvist at $8.5 million through 2021 has the potential to get ugly, but isn’t quite there yet.

Two familiar names almost make the cut. Roberto Luongo still has three more years at $5.33 million, and yes that deal still “sucks” even though he was really good last year. And then there’s Luongo’s old pal Cory Schneider, who’s got the Devils on the hook for three more years at $6 million. That one looks awful, which makes it awfully tempting for our roster.

But in the end, I’m going to save a little cap space while still grabbing a starter with one of the league’s more regrettable deals: Carolina’s Scott Darling at $4.15 million through 2021. Schneider has at least been a top goaltender in the NHL, even if it feels like a long time ago. Darling had never been a full-time starter when the Hurricanes gambled on him, and while it may have been worth rolling the dice at the time, it didn’t work. He’s been a great story, and is working to get his career back on track in the AHL right now. It’s still possible that we see him succeed in the NHL someday, but it seems unlikely to be in Carolina.

We’ll back him up with another goalie who’s currently in the AHL: Ottawa’s Mike Condon at $2.4 million. He’s signed through next year and is currently battling a hip injury in the minors. That leaves us with over $6 million in cap space spent on multi-year deals to goaltenders that aren’t actually in the NHL right now, which is way too much while also leaving plenty of room that we’re definitely going to need. Not a bad start.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Monday, January 14, 2019

Weekend rankings: Your guide to which teams should be panicking the hardest right now

We​ spent a lot of​ the​ season’s​ first​ half​ saying​ things like​ “Sure, this team​ may be struggling​ right​ now, but it’s​​ still early and there’s a ton of hockey left so nobody should panic.” Everyone does. It’s pretty much a standard disclaimer that you have to put on all first-half hockey writing.

Well, it’s not early anymore, and there’s no longer a ton of hockey left. It’s OK to panic now. In some cases, it may be mandatory. A few teams should have been here weeks ago.

But who? Since we’re all about arbitrary rankings around these parts, here’s a top ten list of teams that should be panicking right about now.

10. New York Islanders – They lost to the Rangers and Hurricanes, which wasn’t great, but then they smoked the Lightning last night to regain the top wildcard spot. Honestly, they’re only here because doing a top nine would be weird.

9. Montreal Canadiens – The good news is they’re playing reasonably well and aren’t ceding much ground in the wildcard race. The bad news is that even one week ago, we figured they only had to beat out one of the Sabres or Islanders to make it. Now, the Hurricanes are roaring back into the race, which ups the pressure on Montreal.

8. Dallas Stars – Two games against a pair of teams going nowhere resulted in zero points and the offense has dried up apart from the top line. And now we’re back to the organization saying stuff like this:

7. Florida Panthers – The only reason the Panthers don’t rank any higher is that, at this point, it’s basically over. They’re eleven points back and have four teams to catch, so barring a month-long hot streak, they’re done. They should have already moved past “panic” and onto “acceptance.” Now the question in Florida is who’s going to pay for it.

6. Columbus Blue Jackets – Unlike the other teams on this list, the Blue Jackets are playing reasonably well and in strong shape for a playoff spot. But they have other things to worry about these days, which we’ll get to down below.

5. Edmonton Oilers – The entire Western wildcard race is in a freefall, meaning it’s right there for the taking. And yet the Oilers can’t take advantage, losing at home to Arizona in a game that opened the door for the Coyotes to climb into the race. The big question here isn’t whether Oiler fans are panicking, but how much their beleaguered GM might be.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic