Friday, December 19, 2014

The Year in Holy S#!t: The greatest overtime ever

Grantland asked me for an NHL entry for their "The Year in Holy S#!t" series, so I wrote about Bob Cole, the Hawks and Kings, and the greatest overtime ever.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Grab bag: Kevin Lowe's team bio is a masterpiece

In the weekly grab bag:
- The beautiful madness that is Kevin Lowe's executive bio page
- Canadian WJC panic starts setting in
- This week's obscure player is Taylor Hall
- Let's all stop saying "relieved of his duties"
- And a YouTube breakdown of the hottest hockey-related Christmas gift of 1983 (that nobody bought)

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Thursday, December 18, 2014

In celebration of the NHL interim coach

Earlier this week, the Edmonton Oilers became the second team so far this season to fire their coach, when they announced that Dallas Eakins would be replaced on an interim basis by GM Craig MacTavish and AHL coach Todd Nelson.

That was rough news for Eakins, but it’s great news for the rest of us. That’s because the NHL has a long history of odd, entertaining, or even downright disastrous interim coaches. It’s a tough job to step into — you’re basically wearing a sign around your neck that says, “This is the best we could do on short notice” — and even if you do it well, you still might be out of a job once the season ends.

Still, it’s a foot in the door, and sometimes the interim tag has served as the launching pad for a long and successful coaching career. Other times, not so much. So today, let’s take a moment to celebrate some of the shorter-lived interim coaches from NHL history.

Not the Brightest Spark

The Senators recently fired Paul MacLean and gave the job to Dave Cameron on a full-time basis, skipping the interim phase altogether. Cameron is a smart guy, but you could forgive Ottawa fans if they took a wait-and-see approach on him. After all, the Senators have long been a coaching graveyard. Rick Bowness posted a career points percentage of .204, Craig Hartsburg and John Paddock both lasted less than one full season, and even MacLean managed to get shown the door just 18 months after being named coach of the year.

Given all of that, it would be pretty tough for anyone to stand alone as the least successful coach in Senators franchise history. And that’s why you really have to tip your cap to the undisputed holder of that crown: Dave “Sparky” Allison.

Allison got the job in November 1995, replacing Bowness and becoming the second head coach of the franchise’s modern era. “It’s a happy day for the Ottawa Senators,” said GM Randy Sexton, incorrectly. Allison went on to post a record of 2-22-1 for a career points percentage of .100, the worst ever for an NHL coach who lasted at least 10 games. His tenure ended with a nine-game losing streak capped off with a 7-3 loss to the Blackhawks, before team management finally put him out of his misery.

In hindsight, we should have seen that coming. For one, Allison’s nickname was “Sparky”, which probably made it kind of tough to demand respect from a room full of professional athletes. Here’s the full list of everyone nicknamed “Sparky” who’s ever succeeded at a job: Sparky Anderson; the dog from South Park; and the electric chair. That’s pretty much it. (Also, the fact that the 1995-96 Senators were an objectively terrible team probably had something to do with it, too.)

Allison has yet to get another shot at an NHL job, but to his credit he did go on to a reasonably successful coaching career in the AHL, as well as working as a pro scout. He was coaching the St. Louis Blues’ top minor league affiliate as recently as 2013. Today, he’s running the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL.

As for the Senators, they proved that sometimes a change of direction works out. On the same day they fired Allison, they pulled the trigger on a trade for a young defenseman named Wade Redden, and they soon hired Jacques Martin. Those two moves would help to, uh, spark the franchise.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What can we learn from the Edmonton Oilers?

The Edmonton Oilers hit rock bottom yesterday, which is something they do in the same way you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock: sleepily, out of force of habit, and at least once every day.

The latest chapter came yesterday, when the team fired coach Dallas Eakins. The move comes just days after general manager Craig MacTavish gave Eakins a public vote of confidence, and with the team in the midst of a miserable stretch of 15 losses in 16 games. MacTavish himself will take over behind the bench for now, with the plan calling for AHL coach Todd Nelson to join the team before eventually sliding into the job for the rest of the season.

That’s the plan, so this being Edmonton, we should probably expect it to derail somewhere along the way. No franchise has had less success in recent years than the Oilers, who currently sit in a tie for last overall and are headed for their ninth straight year without a playoff berth.

But if the Oilers can’t be a contender, they can at least serve as a cautionary example. Here are 10 lessons the rest of the league can take from this latest chapter in the Oilers’ never-ending misery.

1. Don’t fall in love with the past

There aren’t many teams in my lifetime that can boast as many Stanley Cups as the Oilers dynasty of the 1980s. Those were some the best teams to ever take the ice, and it’s understandable that fans look back on them fondly.

Fans have that luxury. A franchise’s ownership and front office should not. And yet the Oilers have built their power structure around popular members of those teams, with team president Kevin Lowe and MacTavish the most prominent among them. During a combative press conference last year, Lowe famously invoked the memory of those Stanley Cup rings in an attempt to deflect criticism.

That sound bite didn’t play well with the fans, and rightly so. It’s one thing to be a great player, or at least a useful player on a great team. It’s another entirely to transition into a career in coaching, scouting, or management. Many players have done it, and there’s something to be said for bringing in guys who are familiar with a market. But at some point, if the very best candidate for the job always just happens to be a former player, there may be something wrong with your hiring process.

The Oilers certainly aren’t alone in this. If anything, handing key front-office jobs to stars from the past has become a trend around the league. Ron Hextall in Philadelphia, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy in Colorado, Trevor Linden in Vancouver, Ron Francis in Carolina and Pat LaFontaine in Buffalo were all recently given key jobs by the teams they once starred for. Sometimes it works: Roy was named coach of the year last season. Sometimes it doesn’t: LaFontaine lasted just a few weeks before heading for the exit.

Some would argue that a little bit of nostalgia has a place in the sports world. A cynic might wonder if these guys are being hired at least partly to provide PR cover while teams rebuild. But when a team has been as bad for as long as the Oilers have, you have to look hard at every candidate, not just the alumni section of the team yearbook.

Will they? We’ll find out. The club recently brought Mark Messier back in a temporary consulting role, and there are constant rumors that he could be in the mix for a bigger role.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Monday, December 15, 2014

Weekend wrap: Welcome to Mumpsville

A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.

Theme of the Week: Welcome to Mumpsville, Population Everyone

A mysterious outbreak of the mumps continues to wreak havoc across the league, and the list of victims now includes the NHL’s best player. The Penguins kept Sidney Crosby out of a pair of weekend games as a precaution, citing concerns that he may have come down with the viral disease.

Those concerns were confirmed on Sunday, when the team announced that Crosby had indeed been diagnosed with the mumps. He’ll be sitting out again for tonight’s game against the Lightning, although he could return as early as next week. The situation represents an odd reversal for the Penguins, who initially insisted that their captain didn’t have the condition despite his alarming appearance at Friday’s morning skate. Needless to say, that turned out to be wrong, and now some are questioning why the team exposed Crosby to teammates and media.

The illness has been making its way around the league, starting with the diagnosis of Anaheim’s Corey Perry and Francois Beauchemin in early November. The total number of players affected now stands at more than a dozen, with the list of affected teams including the Ducks, Wild, Rangers and Devils, and now the Penguins. According to one report, a look back at the schedule reveals that the disease could have started with the Ducks and then been passed from team to team.

While the illness is more typically associated with school-age children, it can infect adults as well, and it can spread easily within an NHL rink or dressing room. That’s led to teams around the league taking precautions in an attempt to prevent further cases, with the league head office and the NHLPA also becoming involved. But it hasn’t been enough to stem the outbreak, with New York’s Derick Brassard the latest to fall victim.

And the story won’t be going away anytime soon; according to a CDC expert, it would take as long as 50 days from the last reported case before we could sound the all-clear.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s top prize: the Stanley Cup.

5. New York Islanders (20-10-0, plus-9 goals differential) They’ve cooled off lately, but a Saturday-night win over the seemingly unstoppable Blackhawks was enough to at least earn them consideration for a spot. Also, they get bonus points for being the only team left that is yet to feed at the loser-point trough.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (19-6-4, plus-25) They’ve cooled off, too, which is probably to be expected with Crosby out and other key players injured, but they’ve managed to maintain a slight lead in the Metro.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Thursday, December 11, 2014

Good cap, bad cap

One of the key news items from this week’s NHL Board of Governors meetings was some clarity around next year’s salary cap. While the official number won’t be finalized until later in the season, commissioner Gary Bettman offered up a projection of $73 million.

That represents an increase over this year’s $69 million cap. It’s a lower number than had once been expected, back when the league was riding high off the new Canadian TV deal and there were suggestions that the cap could grow significantly going forward. But it’s higher than some of the more recent projections, which pointed to the dropping Canadian dollar as a sign that the cap could grow much more slowly.

So basically, the news falls somewhere in the middle for the teams that spend to the cap ceiling or aspire to get there soon. And it also gives us as good an excuse as any to take a deeper look into some of those teams. Who’s in good shape over the next few years? And who’s got some tough choices coming up?

Today we’ll look at five teams on each side of the fence. One of those groups was a lot easier to put together than the other; if I had to split the whole league, I’d say that at least two-thirds would fall firmly into the “bad” category, and you’ll find that even our good teams typically come with a few caveats. That’s life in a salary cap league. We’ll base our evaluation on the answers to various questions: How much salary do they already have committed, for next year and beyond, and for how many roster spots? Are there any players who are locked up long term that seem to represent exceptionally good or bad value? Which key players are coming up for renewal soon, and will the team have enough space to get those deals done? And which highly paid but less productive players are coming off the cap soon, freeing up space?

One key point: We’re looking at the cap ceiling here, and not every team can spend that much. Many teams are on internal budgets, so their cap space relative to the upper limit doesn’t really matter. Teams like the Senators or Coyotes have all the cap space in the world, but they can’t spend it, so they don’t get credit for having lots of room they’ll never use. That’s why this list ends up being heavy on the big-market teams — they’re the ones who are most affected by the ceiling.

(Another note: All dollar figures in this post are the players’ annual average value, which is to say their cap hit. For the purpose of this exercise, we don’t care what their actual salary is. And as I’m sure goes without saying, all the numbers come from the indispensable CapGeek.com.)

This isn’t meant to be a complete list, in the sense that the 20 teams we don’t get to aren’t all stuck in some sort of fuzzy middle, but these 10 teams are the ones that stand out today.

Got your calculators out? Let’s get started.

Good: Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are currently right up against the cap, with some breathing room available due to Mattias Ohlund’s LTIR exemption. But given that they’re one of the best teams in the league, you can handle that.

Down the road, they’re in decent shape, with one crucial caveat we’ll get to in the next paragraph. They have plenty of young talent, and already locked up Calder finalists Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat on matching $3.33 million deals through 2017. Ben Bishop gets a raise to $5.95 million next year, but that seems like fair value the way he’s playing, and Victor Hedman’s $4 million through 2017 looks like one of the best deals in the entire league right now. There are a few question marks (Ryan Callahan at $5.8 million through 2020 stands out), but for the most part this is a very good team that has managed its cap situation reasonably well.

Now we get to the caveat: Steven Stamkos. The Lightning’s franchise player is schedule to hit unrestricted free agency in 2016. He’ll re-sign before then — every superstar re-signs before free agency — but he’ll probably become the highest-paid player in the league in the process. That will complicate things, especially since the team doesn’t really have any major salaries coming off the books that year. Steve Yzerman will find a way to get it done; it’s just a question of how many pieces he has to move to make room.

Bad: Chicago Blackhawks

Over the first decade of the salary cap era, the Blackhawks have become the poster child for how the rules can punish good teams. When they won the Cup in 2010, they had to immediately start shipping out key players to get back to a manageable number. They had to do it again after another championship in 2013. Those moves kept the ship afloat for a few more years. It may not stay that way much longer.

They certainly have the core locked up. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane recently signed matching $10.5 million deals that kick in next year and run through 2023. That represents the highest cap hit in the league, at least for now, but will probably look like fair value relatively soon. Duncan Keith gets $5.5 million on a deal that turns through 2023; that’s great value, but scary terms for a guy who’s already 31.

And then there’s Marian Hossa. He gets $5.275 million through 2021, thanks to one of those back-diving deals that the new CBA outlawed. He’d be 42 when his deal expires, so the odds of him playing effectively through to the end of it are close to zero. That means the Hawks are going to have a diminishing asset on their hands awfully soon, and will probably get hit with a cap recapture penalty at some point.

That all adds up to roughly $32 million locked into just four players for the next six years. Add in $5.9 million for Patrick Sharp, $5.8 million for Brent Seabrook, and $6 million more for Corey Crawford, and this is an awfully top-heavy team. They’ve been pretty good at surrounding their stars with decent depth, and the rising cap will relieve a bit of that pressure as they go. But spending big money on players who’ll eventually be out of their prime — or already are, in Hossa’s case — won’t leave much margin for error.

So yes, the Blackhawks are almost certainly going to have to pay a price down the line. Would they trade any of those Cups for it? Not a chance.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Tuesday, December 9, 2014

10 Fact About a Fun Team: The 1995-95 Blues

Ten Facts About a Fun Team is a new feature in which we’ll take a look back at a notable team and season from NHL history. That team may have been good. It may have been bad. But it was definitely interesting, and as such it deserves to be remembered.

When the St. Louis Blues signed Martin Brodeur last week, something about the move seemed vaguely … familiar.

The signing seemed like a curious decision, and one that was somewhat out of character for a Blues front office that’s spent years patiently building a legitimate Cup contender. The last time they tried to get fancy was the Ryan Miller trade and that didn’t work out well, so you figured the Blues would go back to being, well, the Blues.

But there was a time almost two decades ago when this kind of move — bringing in an aging, Hall of Fame–caliber veteran with a big name that he made elsewhere was pretty much the Blues’ trademark. And during the 1995-96 season, it led to the creation of one of the most fascinating teams we’ve ever seen.

Of course, that year’s team had what we could politely call a “unique” vision at the top of the org chart. We might as well start there.

1. The 1995-96 Blues: From the mind of Mike Keenan

We need to start here, because all the madness that follows springs directly from Iron Mike.

The 1995-96 season was Keenan’s second as the coach and general manager of the Blues. He’d jumped to St. Louis after winning the Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994, citing a technicality in his contract and kicking off a debacle that ended up getting him suspended for 60 days. That suspension, and the half-season lockout that followed, prevented Keenan from wreaking too much havoc on the Blues roster.

The next year was different. With a full offseason to play with, Keenan went to work. He traded Brendan Shanahan for Chris Pronger. He signed Grant Fuhr as a free agent. He signed Shayne Corson, too, losing Curtis Joseph to the Oilers as compensation in the process. And a few weeks into the season, he stripped Brett Hull of his captaincy and gave it to Corson.

Hull didn’t especially appreciate that last move, and it set off a feud with Keenan that would be one of the dominant subplots of the season. Hull was the best player in franchise history and would go on to record his seventh consecutive 40-plus-goal season (not counting the lockout year), but Keenan didn’t like the winger’s offense-first style of play. To this day, it’s fair to say Hull is not a fan.

As the season wore on, the crusty coach/GM decided the franchise needed a new face. And so he did what any of us would do: He went out and landed the biggest star the game has ever known.

2. They traded for Wayne Gretzky

Any hockey fan can picture Gretzky’s greatest moments: smashing records and lifting Stanley Cups as a kid in Edmonton; bringing the game to a whole new segment of fans as a slickly marketed star in Los Angeles; taking one last victory lap as a classy veteran in New York. But you could be forgiven for forgetting that The Great One was also, briefly, a St. Louis Blue. Lots of hockey fans have.

With the 1996 trade deadline approaching and Gretzky playing out the final year of his deal on a bad Kings club, it became apparent that Los Angeles could end up moving its captain. The Rangers emerged as the favorite, but couldn’t close. That opened the door for the Blues, and Keenan got the deal done: Gretzky for Craig Johnson, Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat, and draft picks.

That doesn’t sound like much, and in hindsight it wasn’t. Vopat was the centerpiece, a 19-year-old rookie who’d played 25 games in St. Louis. Johnson and Tardif were both young forwards. Of the group, only Johnson went on to any sort of productive career, although even that was mostly as a depth guy, and none of the players the Kings chose with the draft picks ever played in the NHL.

Keenan might have been a tyrant in the dressing room, but he knew how to win a trade. Gretzky was immediately named captain, relieving Corson of his duties. The idea of the greatest setup man in history being paired with Hull was almost too good to be true. Gretzky even scored in his first game.

And besides, there was little doubt Gretzky would feel right at home in the St. Louis dressing room …

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Monday, December 8, 2014

Weekend wrap: Brodeur returns (but it's a bad idea)

A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.

Theme of the Week: A Legend Returns

Martin Brodeur is back in the winner’s circle. After 21 years in New Jersey, a two-month layoff, and plenty of skepticism that he could still play at an NHL level, Brodeur signed with the St. Louis Blues last week. He made his first start on Thursday, looking merely OK in a 4-3 loss to the Predators. Then on Saturday, he earned his 689th career win, and first as a Blue, in a relief appearance against the Islanders.

And while it’s always nice to see a legend return to the spotlight, the whole Brodeur situation seems … odd. That starts with the image of him wearing a Blues uniform, which will take plenty of getting used to. But it goes beyond that, because the Blues and Brodeur don’t seem like they should be a fit.

For one, the Blues already have two pretty good goaltenders in veteran Brian Elliott and youngster Jake Allen. The latter has struggled somewhat, and Elliott is sidelined by an injury. He’s listed as week-to-week, and there have been conflicting reports as to just how long he’ll be out, but nobody seems to think that his season is in jeopardy, which means at some point the Blues are going to have three guys for only two spots.

It’s possible that the plan here is to just use Brodeur as a stop-gap until Elliott is back and then go forward with the Elliott-Allen pairing. But the rumor mill now says that the Blues could be looking to move Elliott, which would leave them with Allen and Brodeur to carry their Cup hopes.

That would seem like a questionable strategy, given that Brodeur hasn’t been all that good for a long time. Here’s a list of all the goalies who’ve played 100 or more games since 2010, ranked by save percentage. Note that Elliott sits at the very top of the list. Then check out where Brodeur ranks. Prepare to scroll.

Maybe the change of scenery helps. And there’s no criticizing Brodeur for wanting to come back; he deserves to go out on his own terms, and his legacy is intact no matter what. But from the Blues’ perspective, things get trickier. They’re one of the league’s better teams, well positioned to make a run at the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. They could have said the same last year, when they made a midseason blockbuster to land Ryan Miller. I liked that deal at the time, but it didn’t work out, and the Blues ended up spending a ton of assets on a few weeks of average-at-best goaltending. They’re not spending any assets on Brodeur, so the risk factor is lower. But the odds of success seem lower still.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong, both for the sake of the Blues and for a future Hall of Famer who deserves to go out with a trip deep into the playoffs, not to the waiver wire.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s top prize: the Stanley Cup.

5. Detroit Red Wings (17-6-5, plus-18 goals differential) Our fifth spot has become a revolving door of teams with nice records that aren’t quite considered true contenders yet. That’s as good a description as any of the Red Wings right now, after they’ve won three straight to move into a tie for top spot in the division.

4. Anaheim Ducks (18-6-5, plus-6) Goals differential is a tricky thing. The Ducks continue to win, but they’re all close games; they haven’t had a victory by more than one goal since October 24. History tells us that that kind of success in one-goal games is unlikely to continue, but for now they’re a top-five team.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Friday, December 5, 2014

Grab bag: Alfie's finest moment

In this week's grab bag:
- The comedy stars, featuring stunned Craig MacTavish
- Evander Kane's money pushup
- In honor of Martin Brodeur, an obscure Blues backup
- The first ever player to make the depressing CapGeek section with two different teams
- And a YouTube breakdown of Daniel Alfredsson's greatest moment as a Senator...

>> Read the full post on Grantland




Thursday, December 4, 2014

Who should we all be rooting for (and against) in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes?

One of the running themes of the season has been the eventual destination of Connor McDavid. As the first sure-thing franchise player the league has welcomed since Sidney Crosby, McDavid has earned plenty of attention toward the bottom of the standings, and that will only intensify as the season goes on.

But today, let’s forget about who will get McDavid, since we won’t actually know that for several months. Let’s talk about who should get him. After all, we can fight about that right now!

All 14 non-playoff teams will have a shot at the first overall pick in a lottery that’s heavily weighted toward the worst teams, with the odds starting at 20 percent for the last-place team and dropping to as low as 1 percent. Every team that misses the postseason has at least a shot at the top pick, and since it’s far too early for anyone to have clinched a playoff spot, that means every team in the league technically still has a shot at winning the McDavid lottery.

So whose number should we want to see come up? And maybe more importantly, who should we be collectively rooting against?

Here are the factors we’ll be weighing:

Current team quality: This works in a couple of ways. Obviously, the league’s better teams should expect to make the playoffs and skip the lottery, so there’s not much point getting our hopes up for McDavid landing on a team that’s sitting in first place. Besides, McDavid should quickly emerge as an MVP candidate — if he goes to a team that’s already stacked, the rest of the league would be screwed. On the other hand, we also don’t want him going to a total disaster; he’s going to be a fun player to watch, and it would be nice for him to have at least a little bit of talent to play with early on.

Market: The league would certainly like to see McDavid go to a big market where he’ll get more attention. But we won’t overdo it here — the league did just fine in the 1980s with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux playing in smaller markets, and there’s something to be said for giving relatively new markets a boost.

Fan base: A player like McDavid would be a blessing for a long-suffering fan base desperate for something to cheer about. The last thing we should want is to see him go to some city that’s still cleaning up from a Cup parade. And of course, when in doubt, ask yourself the key question: How intolerable would this fan base become the second they knew they were getting McDavid?

Karma: There’s only so much good fortune to go around, so if a team has a history of winning the draft lottery or otherwise lucking out in important ways, we’ll happily hold that against it.

Other stuff: In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m pretty much making this up as I go along.

Make sense? Good. On to the countdown …

30. Pittsburgh Penguins

We can all agree on this one, right? Not only did they win a leaguewide lottery for Sidney Crosby in 2005, but they blatantly tanked to get Mario Lemieux in 1984. Two all-time legends drafted with shady first overall picks are quite enough for one franchise, thanks.

Luckily, they’re a good team in a bad division, so their odds of falling into the lottery are basically zero. But if it somehow happened and the Penguins lucked into McDavid, let’s all just agree to fold the NHL and start a new league without them.

>> Read the full post on Grantland