Monday, December 30, 2013

Weekend wrap: Do the Bruins own the East?

Each Monday, we’ll wrap up three of the biggest stories from the weekend and how they’ll play into the coming week.

Beasts of the East … Usually

Common sense tells us that it shouldn’t be possible to have a frustrating hot streak, but the Bruins may be trying to prove us wrong. They haven’t lost back-to-back games since the first week of November, and have often looked dominant while winning 12 of their last 17. But that stretch has also included blowout losses to the Canucks and Red Wings, as well as an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the lowly Sabres. When they’re at their best, the Bruins seem close to unstoppable. When they’re not … well, they’re still pretty good, but they’re beatable.

Over the weekend, the Bruins showed off both sides of that coin in a home-and-home series against Ottawa. On Friday, they started slowly but switched gears and overpowered the Senators, riding a four-goal third period to a 5-0 win. Tuukka Rask made 33 saves to earn his league-leading fourth shutout of the season, and Reilly Smith scored a pair.

But the next night in Ottawa, the Bruins turned in an inconsistent effort in a 4-3 loss. Playing without captain Zdeno Chara, a late scratch due to injury, Boston fell behind 3-1 early in the second. Goals from Jarome Iginla and David Warsofsky tied the game, but a late breakdown led to a Bobby Ryan goal that restored Ottawa’s lead. Despite a furious final few minutes, the Bruins couldn’t beat Craig Anderson for an equalizer.

Those occasional Bruins lapses may be the only thing keeping them from running away with the Eastern Conference. With the Penguins hurting, the rest of the Metro still unimpressive, and several presumed Northeast contenders fading badly, it’s hard not to get the sense that the East is shaping up as Boston’s to lose. No team has gone to the Stanley Cup final three times in four years since the 2000-03 Devils, but the Bruins have to be considered a favorite to match that right now.

They’ll have to do it without Dennis Seidenberg, their no. 2 defenseman and an underrated contributor. He’s out for the season after tearing his ACL and MCL in Friday night’s win. That’s a major loss, though it does free up some cap room for a potential trade-deadline shopping spree.

As for the coming week, Boston should be able to keep rolling. It plays three straight at home against teams that are .500 or worse, hosting the Islanders, Predators, and Jets.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, December 23, 2013

Weekend wrap: Penguins hurt, but still hot

Each Monday, we’ll wrap up three of the biggest stories from the weekend and how they’ll play into the coming week.

Penguins Keep Streaking

The Pittsburgh Penguins won their seventh straight, earning a 4-3 victory over the Calgary Flames on Saturday afternoon, thanks to a goal and two assists from Sidney Crosby. That gave Crosby 54 points on the year, good for a six-point gap over Chicago’s Patrick Kane for the league lead. It was a good weekend for the Pens captain, who also moved into the top spot in the 24/7 MVP power rankings.

Crosby’s not the only Penguin enjoying a great season. Evgeni Malkin was scoring at close to a 100-point pace before being sidelined by a leg injury that’s kept him out for four games. Chris Kunitz continues to excel on Crosby’s wing, rekindling the debate around his Olympic chances. And James Neal, when he’s healthy and not suspended, has been a force.

And then there’s goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins starter has been excellent, putting up a 21-8-1 record to go with a 2.04 GAA and .923 save percentage. The latter two numbers would represent career bests over a full season, and in theory we should be talking about Fleury as one of the league’s best goalies so far. We’re not, of course, because it doesn’t really matter what Fleury does in the regular season anymore. He’s spent the last two years developing a reputation for playoff meltdowns, and isn’t likely to get much credit for gaudy numbers until he can post them in May and June.

The good news is that he’ll almost certainly get that chance, because the Penguins are going to roll into the playoffs. Pittsburgh has won 12 of its last 13 and 10 straight at home, and have moved to within two points of the Ducks for first place overall. They’ve also opened up a 13-point lead in the Metropolitan Division, a bigger gap than those enjoyed by the other three division leaders combined.

The Pens play their next four on the road, but the schedule isn’t especially daunting. Their next six all come against teams that are currently .500 or worse, including tonight’s matchup with the struggling Senators.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, December 20, 2013

Grab bag: Doc Emrick is bad at poetry

In this week's grab bag: A Christmas Cain, a Sea of Boo, July 1 is going to suck, World Junior panic, a year's worth of Don Cherry jackets, and a YouTube breakdown of the worst Christmas poem of all-time.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ranking all 30 NHL teams based on 24/7 watchability

The much-anticipated debut of HBO's 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic arrived Saturday, and reviews of the first episode were … lukewarm, at best. The consensus was that the Maple Leafs were only modestly entertaining, and the Red Wings were downright dull.

That's a disappointing reception for a show that usually does a great job of making the NHL seem fascinating. Then again, the producers can only work with what they have, and for one week at least they didn't seem to have much.

It was only one episode, of course, and maybe the second will be better. Hockey fans had better hope that these two teams can loosen up a bit, because we're stuck with them. After all, it's not like we can go to the bullpen for a replacement.

But what if we could? What if the two spots on 24/7 weren't automatically given to whoever was playing in the Winter Classic, but instead went to the most entertaining teams, both on and off the ice, of a given moment?

That sounds like the sort of question that calls for an in-depth ranking. So let's give this a shot. Here are all 30 teams, ranked based on how interesting they'd be if we swapped them into 24/7 right now.

30. Columbus Blue Jackets

 David Savard #58 of the Columbus Blue Jackets

What would work: Do you like stories about plucky underdogs, scorned and mocked by everyone only to emerge triumphant at the end?

What wouldn't work: What if we told you we couldn't swing the whole "emerge triumphant at the end" bit? Still interested? Wait, come back …

Breakout star: Sergei Bobrovsky has a nice little character arc going — run out of Philadelphia, finds redemption in Columbus, wins the Vezina, then falters under the increased expectations. Plus, he backed up 24/7 legend Ilya Bryzgalov for a year, so maybe he picked up a few tips.

Dominant story line: A terrible team struggles to stay near the .500 mark but still somehow remains in the playoff race. We'll just call this one "the Metro" for short.

29. Florida Panthers

Mike Weaver #43 congratulates Tomas Kopecky #82 of the Florida Panthers

What would work: They're a rebuilding team that has been improving under a new coach.

What wouldn't work: Let's face it, the Panthers are a bad team playing in a lousy market, and their roster isn't exactly packed with household names. On a show like 24/7, they'd probably be a disaster. If only they had some sort of wacky veteran around to make things bearable …

Breakout star: Oh, hello there, Tim Thomas! Hey, remember when you used to speak your mind freely, and then everyone yelled at you so you stopped doing that? We'd like you to start again.

Dominant story line: After the first few minutes of the debut episode, you set up one of these in front of your television set.

28. Detroit Red Wings

Justin Abdelkader #8 of the Detroit Red Wings

What would work: They already have experience with 24/7, since they're on this year's show.

What wouldn't work: Five minutes after last week's episode ended, nobody could remember a single scene involving a Red Wing.

Breakout star: Based on what we've seen so far, the winner by default is Jimmy Howard doing whatever it is this is supposed to be. Wait, he's hurt now? Um, pass.

Dominant story line: After an especially bad game, coach Mike Babcock skips the bag skate and instead punishes the team by making them break down tape of their own episode.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Venn Diagram of Hockey Hatred

There’s an old stereotype that hockey fans hate everyone. And like most stereotypes, it’s simply not true.

For example, we don’t hate Teemu Selanne. And, uh … well, that’s pretty much it, actually. Other than Selanne, yeah, we hate basically everyone else.

But we hate some people more than others. And our hate isn’t random — it’s based on a series of expectations, passed down from generation to generation, that govern how those in the hockey world should behave. Every fan knows them.

They’ve just never been written down … until now.

Here are the four key reasons a hockey fan would hate someone:

They're overexposed

Hockey players are supposed to blend quietly into the background. Anyone who gets too much attention — whether they asked for it or not — eventually becomes a target.

They just won’t be quiet

Much like small children, hockey fans expect our heroes to be seen but not heard. Anyone who makes any noise or (god forbid) actually forms an opinion must be silenced.

They take cheap shots

Hockey has a code. No, nobody has ever seen it or could agree on what it is. But the code is real, and taking a cheap shot violates it. Probably. Sometimes.

They just have one of those faces, you know?

Come on, we all know them when we see them.

Those are the four tenets of hockey hatred. And once you understand them, you can categorize all our hate into one neat diagram. Like this one...

>> View the full diagram on Grantland

Monday, December 16, 2013

Brian Burke interviews candidates for the Flames' GM job: The top secret transcript

Scene: Brian Burke's office at the Calgary Flames headquarters. Burke sits behind a large desk across from a single empty chair. Behind him, special assistant Craig Conroy is consulting a clipboard.

Conroy: OK Brian. I did what you asked, and arranged for the very best GM candidates from around the league to meet with you today. We've got a pretty full schedule, so we should probably get started.

Burke: Sounds good. I'm ready.

Conroy: OK, so our first candidate is the one everyone's talking about. Former Flames' superstar, already has GM experience, and he's worked with you in the past.

Burke: Sounds just about perfect. Bring him in.

(Joe Nieuwendyk walks into the room and takes a seat.)

Burke: Welcome, Joe, and thanks for meeting with me.

Nieuwendyk: More than happy to. Thanks for the invite.

Burke: So you're obviously a great fit for this job, but I'd like to hear a little bit about what your plan would be if we do hire you. Tell me, what would be the first thing you'd do if you were the next GM of the Calgary Flames?

Nieuwendyk: I'd be looking to acquire a franchise player. Somebody to build the organization around for the next decade. The next Jarome Iginla, so to speak.

Burke: Sounds great. And you'd acquire him by…

Nieuwendyk: … trading myself for him.

Burke: I see.

Nieuwendyk: Maybe throw in a third-liner to get the deal done. You know how it is.

Burke: I think there may be a slight flaw in your plan, Joe.

Nieuwendyk: Hey, do you know any other way to acquire a guy like Jarome Iginla?

Burke: Well…

Conroy (helpfully): You could kick his butt so badly in the playoffs that he begs you to let him join your team!


Nieuwendyk: (glances over at a copy of the standings)

Conroy: Oh, right. Trading it is, then.

Burke: Thanks Joe. We'll be sure to let you know. Craig, who's next?

Conroy: Our next candidate is an experienced GM who says he's worked with you in Toronto and Vancouver.

Burke: Really? Who?

(Dave Nonis enters the room.)

Weekend wrap: Burke returns, the Kings, the Canucks, and everyone's suspended

A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.

It’s Good to be Kings

The Kings came into the weekend as one of the hottest teams in the league, riding a five-game win streak and outscoring their opponents 12-1 over their last three.

On Saturday afternoon, they toyed with the Senators on their way to a 5-2 win, opening the scoring at the 21-second mark and chasing Craig Anderson before the game was five minutes old on their way to a 3-0 first-period lead. The Senators closed to within one before the Kings added a pair of late goals to ice the win.

“We just keep winning. There’s a bunch of things going right right now, and we’ve just got to make sure we stay on top of it,” said Jarret Stoll after the game. “Even on this road trip we knew we were maybe getting away with some plays and some situations where they didn’t score, and we ended up finding ways to win games.”

This is normally the part where I’d touch on all the things the Kings have been doing well, but we have to post this on Monday morning and I’m not sure that gives me enough time to cover everything. So instead, let’s cherry-pick a few highlights. A good place to start would probably be, well, their good starts. Saturday’s game marked the 18th consecutive contest in which the Kings did not allow a first-period goal.

And then there’s the goaltending. The ink had barely dried on all the stories about backup Ben Scrivens being this year’s breakout star when along came backup backup Martin Jones to assume the title. He went 5-0-0 with a 0.99 goals-against average and .967 save percentage in the first five games of his career, and he has moved into a platoon with Scrivens for the starter’s job. Oh, and L.A. should be getting former All-Star and Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick sometime in the new year.

And while that level of goaltending is almost certainly unsustainably high, the Kings are currently shooting just 5.7 percent at even-strength close, which is probably unsustainably low. They’re also one of the league’s best possession teams. I’d get into some of the other advanced stats indicators but that would involve math and I don’t want to anger Darryl Sutter, so let’s just say they’re almost all positive. This team is good.

“We just have that confidence,” Drew Doughty said. “We have that swagger that we had a couple of years ago, and we’re having the time of our lives right now.” That would be “a couple of years ago” as in the time they cruised to a Stanley Cup, by the way.

So how do you beat these guys? Being the Blackhawks seems to help, at least based on Sunday night’s 3-1 Chicago win. The Blackhawks apparently missed the memo about the Kings not giving up goals in the first period, as they poured three past Scrivens en route to a thoroughly dominating win.

The Kings now head back to L.A. for a four-game homestand that will take them to the Christmas break.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, December 13, 2013

Grab bag: "I'm just not that type of player," says that type of player

In the grab bag: NHL teams being strange for the holidays, the Florida Panthers struggle with the concept of "glass", in defense of Boston Bruins fans, how to tell is a guy is really "that type of player", yet another edition of Don Cherry wildlife story time, and a video breakdown of an old school Leafs/Wings donnybrook.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Leafs/Wings 24/7 - Who'll emerge as the star of the series?

he Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings are just weeks away from facing off in this year's Winter Classic in front of 107,000 fans at the Big House, and that's great. The league's annual New Year's Day game has become one of the cooler traditions in sports, even sucking in casual viewers thanks to the sheer spectacle of seeing hockey played in the elements in front of massive crowds.

But hockey fans know that if the Classic is getting close, something even better is right around the corner: 24/7.

Yes, this week we'll finally get to enjoy the return of HBO's behind-the-scenes reality series, which chronicles the event's two teams in the month leading up to the game. This year's four-episode season begins Saturday and runs until January 4.

In the three years since its debut, 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic has become essential viewing for any hockey fan. And from Mike Green's scooter to Bruce Boudreau's facial sauce to Ilya being Ilya, it has proven to be the type of show that can create indelible memories.

So who'll be this year's breakthrough star? It's hard to say, since if history's any guide, it may end up being someone you'd never expect. But here are the 12 players and personalities who I think are the most likely to steal the show.

Pavel Datsyuk

Pavel Datsyuk #13 of the Detroit Red Wings

Datsyuk appears to be the current odds-on favorite to emerge as the star. While he has never seemed like an especially outgoing character, teammates say he's funny and engaging once you get to know him. He's already one of the league's most popular players — or at least one of its least-hated — so 24/7 could take him to another level.

And there's a good chance it will; Datsyuk is the perfect candidate to be a reality TV breakout star. He has been an unlikely success story, going undrafted twice before the Wings finally nabbed him with the 171st pick in 1998. He overcame a language and culture barrier to slowly emerge as a star over his first three seasons, then erupted after the 2005 lockout to become one of the league's top scorers. He's a two-way player (he has won three Selkes as best defensive forward) and one of the cleanest competitors (he won the Lady Byng as most gentlemanly player four straight times).

Even his fellow players love him. He was the first overall pick in the most recent All-Star draft, and every player poll basically turns into the "We love Datsyuk" show. If that's not enough, he's also a hell of a dancer. And he tweets pictures of cats.

He has basically become the heir to Teemu Selanne's "player who nobody says anything bad about ever" throne, and unless he spends every moment of his screen time casually forearming baby otters in the throat, he's going to be the star of the series.

Prediction: HBO's high-tech cameras capture Datsyuk's stickhandling in super slow motion, and nine months later, NHL fans are naming their newborn babies "Pavel Jr."

Joffrey Lupul

Joffrey Lupul #19 of the Toronto Maple Leafs

Other than Datsyuk, this is just about the easiest call of them all. Lupul was pretty much born for this. He can be funny, as demonstrated by his Twitter account. He has a variety of interests, as evidenced by his various forays into the fashion world. And he's not exactly shy in front of a camera, based on his recent experience as a nude model.

The only downside is that Lupul has been hurt recently, which could cut into his camera time in the first episode or two. Of course, the extra down time may have just given him a chance to work on even more material. Besides, if he's healthy enough to get to the makeup chair, I can't see him missing out on the opportunity.

So Lupul's pretty much a lock for a starring role. In fact, once HBO producers get a glimpse of his Zoolander gaze, the only question may be whether they even bother letting any other Leafs on the show.

Prediction: Leafs CEO Tim Leiweke can't figure out why HBO keeps spelling "Jeffrey" wrong.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Five NHL sure things that ended up being huge disappointments

We’re just 13 days away from Christmas Eve, and by now you’ve probably made your requests, dropped all your hints, and written your letter to Santa. Now it’s time to sit back and dream of all the cool stuff you’re hoping to find under your tree on Christmas morning.

And maybe you’ll get everything you hoped for. But let’s face it, the odds are against you. Chances are you’ll just end up being bitterly disappointed, like always.

Luckily, you’re a hockey fan, so you’re used to it. History is filled with examples of hockey fans getting excited about something that seemed like a lock to bring joy and happiness, only to be let down in the end. So to help you get in the right frame of mind for the holidays, here are five examples of hockey sure things that turned out to be massive disappointments.

The 1998 Olympics


It’s hard to describe the level of excitement that most hockey fans felt heading into the 1998 Winter Olympics. For the first time ever, the NHL was taking a break to allow all the best players to compete. Oh sure, we’d had other best-on-best tournaments, like the Canada Cup and World Cup. But this was the Olympics. There were gold medals on the line.

And once all the world’s best players had gathered in Nagano, we were treated to a two-week tournament that featured such memorable moments as …

Um …

Give me a second, I’m sure there was something …

Or maybe not, because once you got past the novelty factor, the 1998 Olympic tournament stunk. And yes, that’s probably an indefensibly North America–centric view to take, given that both Canada and the U.S. finished out of the medals. If you’re from the Czech Republic, you remember Dominik Hasek leading the country to an unexpected gold medal while cementing his status as the best goaltender in the world, and maybe of all time. If you’re Russian, you remember Pavel Bure’s five goals in the semifinal. In you’re from Finland, you may recall Ville Peltonen’s third-period winner in the bronze-medal game.

But the NHL sent its players to the Olympics primarily to drive up interest in the U.S., and from that standpoint, the tournament failed miserably. Team USA, just two years removed from a World Cup win, didn’t do anything memorable aside from trashing its hotel. Canada, meanwhile, lost to Hasek and the Czechs in a shootout that’s best remembered for coach Marc Crawford using a defenseman instead of Wayne Gretzky.

And even those more successful European teams didn’t exactly put on a show. The gold-medal game between the Russians and Czechs was painfully dull, a 1-0 snoozer in which the only goal came on a harmless-looking screened shot from the point. It was a great exclamation point to Hasek’s epic games, but as a showcase for the sport of hockey it was a disaster. (For the men, at least. The women's tournament was pretty great.)

North American fans would get their gold-medal showdowns in 2002 and 2010, and even Sweden’s win at the 2006 Games was plenty of fun. But the 1998 experience didn’t accomplish much of anything, other than reminding hockey fans that the late '90s were incredibly dull.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, December 9, 2013

Weekend wrap: Thornton, Neal, Islanders, Jets and more

A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.

Another Black Eye

The weekend included plenty of important games and individual highlights. But those won’t be the focus today, because as seems to be the case a few times every season, the hockey world is instead left reflecting on yet another scary incident of needless violence.

This time it came in Saturday's game between the Penguins and Bruins. The teams have a long history with each other, and their recent matchups have featured plenty of bad blood. But Saturday’s game went well beyond that, and it left both teams facing down injuries and suspensions.

The lowlight was Shawn Thornton’s outright assault on Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik midway through the first period. The Bruins tough guy grabbed Orpik from behind, slew-footed him to the ice, then delivered a series of punches to his defenseless opponent. The attack knocked Orpik out cold, and he was eventually stretchered off the ice.

Thornton was targeting Orpik after the Penguins defenseman had KO’d Boston’s Loui Eriksson with an open-ice hit on the game’s first shift. The hit was a shoulder into the chest and wasn’t penalized, though it was hard to tell if Eriksson had actually played the puck prior to contact. Thornton had tried challenging Orpik to fight, and when the invitation was refused he apparently decided he’d just have to jump him.

After the game, an emotional Thornton expressed regret. Earlier in the week, he had told that “People could probably criticize that I’m a little too honorable, I suppose, in some instances … If you’re one of those guys that suckers someone when they’re down or you go after somebody that doesn’t deserve it or isn’t the same category as you, that will come back and bite you at some point, too.” The quote sounds awful now, but he wasn’t necessarily wrong. Thornton has been one of the league’s more respected enforcers, in part due to his ability to actually play a little in between fights. That’s a reputation he was obviously proud of, but he’ll have to rebuild it from scratch.

The Orpik incident wasn’t the only ugly moment from a game so vicious that a slash that resulted in a broken ankle was treated as a virtual afterthought. Seconds before Thornton’s attack, Penguins winger James Neal appeared to intentionally knee Boston’s Brad Marchand in the side of the head while he was down on the ice. Although the result wasn’t as significant — Marchand was able to finish the game — you could argue that the act itself was every bit as bad as Thornton’s, if not worse. The NHL apparently doesn’t see it that way, though, as they’ve suspended Neal for just five games.

Thornton won’t be so lucky. He’s been invited to an in-person hearing, meaning he’s likely getting the book thrown at him. Anything less than a double-digit suspension would be a surprise, and it will be well deserved despite the usual efforts to blame the victim. (If Oprik had just dropped the gloves, the thinking goes, Thornton wouldn’t have had to sucker him.)

In the meantime, prepare for another week’s worth of debate over “The Code” and fighting’s place in the NHL, with the usual suspects on each side trotting out the same arguments they turn to every time something like this happens. For a league that insists the players can police themselves, the NHL sure gives us all plenty of opportunity to practice this tired dance.

The Bruins held on for a 3-2 win, not that anyone noticed.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, December 6, 2013

Zone entries: What they are, and why they may be more important than you thought

It happens dozens of times in any period of NHL hockey: An attacking player, usually a forward, carries the puck through the neutral zone. As he crosses center ice and bears down on the opposing team's blue line, defenders start to converge on him.

One of several familiar scenes probably plays out next. Maybe he carries the puck across the line. Maybe he fires it in deep. Or maybe he turns it over and they switch direction to do it all again 50 feet away at the other blue line.

For most fans, those moments aren't memorable or even especially interesting. They're just filler — the back-and-forth part of the game that happens in between the important stuff.

But as the hockey world slowly becomes more open to new ways of analyzing and quantifying what happens on the ice, those filler moments have become the focus for a shift in thinking about how teams generate offense. And it turns out that something as common and seemingly innocuous as a puck crossing a blue line may be surprisingly crucial to getting it into the back of the net.

We'll get to why, and what it means. But first, a bit of background.

The Basics

If a team has possession of the puck in the neutral zone and wants to get it across the other team's blue line and into the offensive zone, it essentially has two choices: control the puck (either by skating with it or passing it across the line to a teammate) or shoot it in deep and chase it.

Each play comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. Carrying the puck across the line is more difficult — defensive teams will clog the neutral zone, and defensemen will wait near the blue line to try to poke the puck away. It also carries higher risk; failing means attacking players can get caught out of position as the play turns the other way. But if a team can manage to do it successfully, it gains the zone with possession.

Shooting the puck in is safer. Other than the occasional fluke play where the puck hits someone on the way in, a shoot-in almost always results in the puck going deep. But then comes the hard part: Now you have to go get it, either by reaching the loose puck first or by taking it away from the defensive player who did. That's easier said than done, and often a dump-in ends in a change of possession. But if a team does manage to win back the puck, it will have control deep in the zone and may even be able to manufacture a quick chance off the turnover.

Is one option better than the other? We'll get to that. But first …

A Little History

Both approaches have been around for years, though the way coaches use them has evolved. The North American game has often favored the dump-and-chase, and has attached a kind of workmanlike ethos to it. Keep it simple. Dump it in, skate hard after it, bang and crash, and good things will happen. Don't go getting fancy.

That became especially true in the '90s, when variations of the neutral-zone trap began to infest the league. When executed well, the trap made it almost impossible to carry the puck through the neutral zone, let alone across the blue line. And in a league that had abandoned enforcing its own rules against obstruction fouls, the trap was usually executed very well indeed.

The end of the 2004-05 lockout brought several rule changes, one of which was meant to hamper the trap. The league eliminated the two-line pass rule, meaning teams could send the puck from their own zone to the other team's blue line with one pass. But while that did make the trap tougher to execute, two other rule changes combined to make the dump-and-chase an even more effective strategy.

First, the league added the trapezoid behind the net. That prevented strong puck-handling goalies like Martin Brodeur from acting as a third defenseman, retrieving the puck and firing it right back out before the attacking team could reach it.

And the league also decided to finally start calling obstruction again, which included an emphasis on defensemen holding up forecheckers. It used to be expected that one defenseman would race back for the puck while his partner ran a little interference on the attacking forwards. Nothing too flagrant, but a little pick here or a straight-arm there was part of the job. The NHL put a stop to that, which meant any defender who went back to gather a dump-in could now expect an opposing forward to be bearing down on him at full speed.

So, despite the game becoming faster and more wide-open after the lockout, dump-and-chase remained the strategy of choice for most teams. Which brings us back to the present day …

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Grab bag: No limts

In this week's grab bag: Albert arrives, Don Cherry won't leave, and the worst CBC montage ever.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A brief history of NHL coaches behaving badly

It’s been a rough week for coaches in the world of professional sports. In the NBA, one was fined $50,000 for spilling a drink on the court to get a free timeout. In the NFL, the league is investigating a coach for stepping onto the field and interfering with a play.

By contrast, the NHL hasn’t had to fine any coaches in months [everyone warily eyes Patrick Roy]. Then again, it’s not as if the league can exactly gloat about how well mannered its coaches are. In fact, the league has a long history of meltdowns, tantrums, assaults, and flat-out cheating behind the bench. Here are 10 such notable incidents from NHL history.

Iron Mike Tries to Fight the Timekeeper

So Mike Tomlin might get fined for briefly stepping onto the field? Big deal. In the NHL, coaches charge onto the ice to try to pummel the official timekeeper.

Well, OK, not all coaches. Actually, only one: Mike Keenan, who attempted the feat back in 1990.

Keenan was upset over a disallowed goal, or perhaps simply mesmerized by that red-sweatered fan with the mullet and parachute pants. In either case, I think we can all agree that when Stu Grimson and Eddie Belfour are trying to calm you down, you may have taken things too far.

Jacques Demers: Change We Can Believe In

Littering the playing surface to get a free timeout? Nice idea, Jason Kidd. But as @geoffdes78 reminded me, Jacques Demers beat you to it by roughly 27 years.

Back in the first round of the 1986 playoffs, Demers and his St. Louis Blues were facing Minnesota in a hard-fought series. Three games in, North Stars general manager Lou Nanne leveled a stunning accusation: In each game, Demers had thrown coins onto the ice in an attempt to create a delay and rest his players.

Demers, being a man of unflinching integrity, quickly set the record straight: He’d only done it in one of the games, not three. “I just happened to be an honest person who didn’t deny it,” he told reporters.

That’s a good quote, but not the best line to come out of the incident. That was from Nanne, who said he assumed Demers was throwing pennies because “nickels would cost him too much.”

Demers didn’t end up having to spend any of his nickels on a fine; the league let him off with a warning.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, December 2, 2013

Weekend wrap: The inevitable crash-and-burn of the Toronto Maple Leafs

A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.

The Stats Guys Are Happy, So the Leafs Must be Losing

Early in the season, we presented the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs as the canary in the advanced-stats mine shaft — the ultimate test case of everything that hockey’s wave of new metrics and data-based analytics thought it knew about what drives success. We've learned the numbers point to the critical importance of possession. Teams that control the puck — and use that control to direct a lot of shots at the net — usually win. Teams that can’t do it usually lose.

But occasionally we see a short-term outlier, and last year’s Toronto team was one. The stats guys said they couldn’t keep winning that way. The Maple Leafs insisted that they could. And over the season’s first few weeks, it looked like Toronto was going to pull it off once again. Leafs fans rejoiced. Old-school media gloated. Celebratory T-shirts were, literally, printed up.

Those days suddenly feel like a very long time ago. The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a free fall.

Last Monday, the Leafs were humiliated by the Blue Jackets on their home ice, dropping a 6-0 decision. On Wednesday in Pittsburgh, they suffered the embarrassment of failing to get so much as a single shot after the second intermission. On Friday, they faced the dead-last Sabres in a battle of the two worst possession teams of the advanced stats era and lost again.

Saturday night brought yet another defeat, this time to the Canadiens. Montreal jumped out to a 4-0 second-period lead before a pair of Leafs goals made the final respectable, but this one was never really in doubt.

Leafs fans won’t want to hear it, but the math is actually pretty simple: If they can’t fix their shot clock issues, the Leafs will need historically good goaltending to win. They were getting that early on, and it helped them start the season 6-1-0. But in recent games, with James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier looking merely good instead of excellent, the Leafs seem overwhelmed. In their last 20, they’ve been under .500 at 8-9-3. They can’t score anymore. The defensive system is a mess. The coach sounds like he’s out of answers. And the season is slipping away from them.

Or maybe not. This could just be a cold streak, after all, the kind that every team hits at least once or twice over a long season. It’s worth remembering that while the Leafs have dropped from the top of the Atlantic down to wild-card status, they’re still four points up on the ninth spot. Plenty of teams would love to trade places with them.

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that the December schedule is absolutely brutal, including several games with the top Western Conference teams that the Leafs have mostly avoided so far. If they’re going to turn their season around, they’ll need to do it against the league’s best.

Oh, and this is the month that the HBO cameras show up. No pressure, guys.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The NHL's concussion lawsuit is here. Now what?

On Monday afternoon, this week in the NHL was shaping up to be an uneventful one, maybe even bordering on dull. Four hundred words later, everything had gone to hell.

That's how long it took for this announcement from a California-based law firm, helpfully accompanied by a delightfully subtle stock photo, to deliver the news: The long-awaited NHL concussion lawsuit has finally arrived. Buckle up; things are probably about to get bumpy.

Here's a look at the suit and what it may mean.

What exactly just happened?

On Monday, 10 former NHL players filed a class-action lawsuit against the NHL in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The 47-page suit, which can be read in its entirety here, alleges that the league knew (or should have known) about the dangers posed by concussions and failed to do enough to reduce the risk of head injuries and educate players about the issue.

The suit seeks rule changes, medical care for former players, and the "full measure of damages allowed under applicable law." There's no dollar value attached to that yet, but in theory it could be very high, well into the hundreds of millions.

Is this basically the NHL's version of the recent NFL suit?

It could be, though we're not there yet.

There are certainly similarities between the NHL's situation and the recent NFL case. Both leagues have been plagued by player concussions, both have made recent rule changes to try to reduce them, and both have struggled with the question of how to make the games safer without rendering the sport unrecognizable to fans. For whatever it's worth, attorney Mel Owens, who is involved in the NHL suit, is a former NFL linebacker.

Once the NFL settled its suit for $765 million in August, the sports world wondered which league would be next, and the NHL seemed like a natural candidate. Now, we appear to be starting down that path.

So everyone already knew this was going to happen?

The specifics of this particular suit weren't known until Monday. But once the NFL litigation began, the clock was ticking on the NHL to face something similar. It has long been seen as inevitable that the league was going to be hit with a massive class-action suit over concussions at some point.

The question was when, and from whom it would come. Now that we have a starting point, other suits will probably follow, maybe quickly.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Alfredsson dilemma: How other returning stars have been welcomed back

The biggest game on this week’s NHL schedule will be one of the last: Sunday night’s matchup between the Senators and Red Wings in Ottawa. While there will probably be better contests, there won’t be a more emotional one, as the game will mark the first time that longtime Senator captain Daniel Alfredsson will play in Ottawa since signing with Detroit in the offseason.

That signing was a shock at the time, and it has led to an ugly divorce between Alfredsson and the Senators, with both sides accusing the other of putting money ahead of loyalty. All of which leads to the inevitable question: What kind of reception will Alfredsson get from Ottawa fans?

In an era when fewer and fewer players spend their entire career with one team, Alfredsson’s situation is far from unique. In just the past decade alone, we’ve seen several high-profile stars return to the city where they made their name. Some got a hero’s welcome. Others got something very different.

What should Alfredsson expect? Let’s look at five possibilities, as helpfully demonstrated by other stars from recent years.

Option 1: We hate you! (i.e., the Dany Heatley)

The backstory: Alfredsson won’t be the first player that Ottawa fans get to welcome back under less-than-ideal circumstances. Whether it’s Alexandre Daigle, Alexei Yashin, Marian Hossa, or Bryan Berard, there’s something about the Senators franchise that tends to lead to ugly breakups.

Heatley's may have been the ugliest. He’d established himself as one of the best players in Senators history, recording back-to-back 50-goal seasons in the first two years after the lockout. But after the 2008-09 season, Heatley told the Senators that he wanted to be traded. To this day, he has never explained exactly why he wanted out, though a personality conflict with then-coach Cory Clouston is the main suspect.

To make matters worse, Heatley used his no-trade clause to block a deal to the Oilers that the Senators liked better than San Jose’s eventual offer — delaying a move long enough to force Ottawa to cough up a $4 million roster bonus.

The return: The Sharks weren’t scheduled to visit Ottawa during the 2009-10 season, so Heatley’s first game back didn’t come until well more than a year after the trade. If he was hoping that time would heal some wounds, he underestimated Senator fans.

The last laugh: At first, it seemed to be all Heatley’s. He played well in his first year in San Jose, while Clouston was out of the NHL by 2011. But Heatley’s play gradually dropped, and the Sharks dealt him to the Wild after only two seasons. These days, he’s been seeing fourth-line duty in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, the main piece the Senators got back in the trade — winger Milan Michalek — is still in the Ottawa lineup and has been more productive than Heatley since the deal.

(Other examples: Chris Pronger returning to Edmonton, Phil Kessel returning to Boston, and Ilya Kovalchuk returning to Atlanta.)

Chances it happen to Alfredsson: Better than you’d think — there’s a surprisingly strong number of Sens fans who feel that their former captain stabbed them in the back, and who have no desire to forgive and forget. The “should Alfredsson get a ‘welcome back’ scoreboard video” debate has been going strong in Ottawa for weeks, and emotions are running so high this week that there have been reports of people getting their coworkers’ Tim Hortons order wrong without apologizing quite as profusely as normal.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, November 25, 2013

Weekend wrap: Blues, Coyotes, Blue Jackets and more

A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.

Central Contenders Left Cursing a Blue Streak

Coming off a 6-1 win against Dallas on Saturday night, the St. Louis Blues have quietly moved to the top of the league in points percentage.

Of course, “quietly” is about what we’ve come to expect from the Blues, who’ve managed to be one of the NHL’s best-run and most consistent teams while never seeming to generate much excitement around the league. We can debate whether that’s due to geography, their recent defense-first mind-set, four decades’ worth of uninspiring playoff runs, or some combination of the above. But the Blues have become an easy team to forget about despite being one of the West’s best over the past three years.

Maybe this is the year that changes, with St. Louis looking like they’re well equipped to emerge from the Western Conference dogfight. They’re a team without an obvious weakness, featuring their usual tight defense combined with a surprisingly productive offense that ranks second in goals per game. That offense has been spearheaded by Alex Steen’s remarkable season, but has also featured a strong year from David Backes and three different defensemen who rank in the league’s top 10 for scoring.

If there has been an area of concern, it’s been in net, where Jaroslav Halak’s numbers have been merely decent. His .906 save percentage is well off his career average, though it’s an improvement over the disappointing .899 he managed last year in limited action. That’s a concern for a team that was hoping its starter would rebound to closer to the .926 mark he put up in 2011-12.

In last week’s first-quarter review, I predicted St. Louis would be the eventual destination for Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. A few Blues fans questioned that, pointing out that Miller wouldn’t necessarily be a major upgrade over Halak. That may be true, though it’s tough to compare their numbers given the radically different teams each is playing behind. If Halak can’t get his game back on track by the new year, I could still see the Blues packaging him with a prospect and a pick to land Miller (with the Sabres then flipping Halak elsewhere for an additional asset), and I’m not the only one.

But that’s speculation for down the road. Right now, the Blues are riding a three-game win streak but facing a brutal stretch of schedule that will see them face the Wild, Avalanche, Sharks, and Kings over the next eight days. It will be a good test for the Blues, who’ll likely need to go through at least a few of those in the playoffs if they view themselves as legitimate Cup contenders.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, November 22, 2013

Grab bag: Waving the white flag

In this week's grab bag: David Clarkson has hungry eyes, the other Red Light, the dawn of Bizarro Cherry, and Roger Neilson gets a video breakdown.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A preview review: How do my preseason predictions look so far?

The NHL season reached an important milestone this week, as every team in the league has now crossed the 20-game mark. Not only does that mean the season is one-quarter over, but traditionally, that it's also now OK to start drawing conclusions about teams.

Of course, none of us actually wait that long to start passing judgment. In fact, we all get started before opening night even arrives. The prediction-filled season preview is practically mandatory at this point, and we here at Grantland were no different.

My preview ran on October 1. Inspired by the NHL's recent realignment, I decided to re-realign the league into four new divisions: contenders, bottom-feeders, teams that were stuck in the middle, and a fourth group that I had no idea what to do with.

So now that we've reached the quarter pole, let's evaluate the evaluations. Twenty games in, here's how I'm doing so far.

The Legitimate Contender Division

Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings

This seven-team division was meant to include the cream of the crop — the teams that would separate from the pack and establish themselves as the clear Stanley Cup favorites.

Teams I was mostly right about: Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues

All three teams have been excellent so far. None are running away and hiding, because they all play in the West and the Western Conference is basically your copy of NHL 95 after your college roommate got drunk and edited all the players to have 99 ratings. But they're still very good.

The Blues and Blackhawks were expected to be the two best teams in the Central, and they've mostly held up their end of the bargain, despite the emergence of the Avalanche and Wild. Chicago has done it about the way you'd expect — with a balanced offense, strong defense, and goaltending that's been good enough.

The Blues have been a bit more interesting. They're supposed to be that team that's efficient bordering on dull, relying on team defense and excellent goaltending without the flashy offensive numbers. Instead, Alex Steen has spent much of the season leading the league in scoring while starter Jaroslav Halak has struggled.

Meanwhile, the Kings are the Kings — lurking around the bottom of the playoff seedings, terrifying the teams above them that might get stuck playing L.A. in the postseason. The loss of Jonathan Quick should have been crushing, but instead it has ushered in the Ben Scrivens Era.

Teams I was maybe wrong about: Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins

All three of these teams have been decent, and two are even leading their divisions. But the cream of the crop? That may be pushing it.

In hindsight, I shouldn't have chosen anyone from the East. The entire conference is a train wreck, so much so that the first-place team wouldn't even be in the playoff picture if it moved West. The West has been the better conference for years, but this season's imbalance is so extreme that it can't possibly continue. But so far, nobody in the East has earned Cup-favorite status.

Team I was super-wrong about: New York Rangers

The Rangers had been the East's top seed in 2011-12, the last full 82-game season. They'd taken a step back in last year's lockout-shortened campaign, and that had cost John Tortorella his job, but there was every reason to think they'd regain their spot at the top of the standings under new coach Alain Vigneault.

Instead, they started slow and have struggled to get above the .500 mark. Part of that is understandable, since the renovations for Madison Square Garden kept them on the road for the season's first nine games. But they haven't been all that much better since.

There's hope, though. Henrik Lundqvist is healthy and playing well, and Rick Nash made his return from a head injury Tuesday. And, of course, they play in the embarrassingly awful Metro division, where their 10-11-0 record is still good enough for a playoff spot.

The Rangers should be fine. But a clear Cup contender? Swing and a miss.

Quote that makes me look smart: "Adding [Daniel] Alfredsson doesn't make [the Red Wings] any younger, obviously, so the potential for major drop-offs and/or injuries is significant."

Quote I would like to have back: "On paper, you could make a case for the Rangers being the most talented team in the league."

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Bruins pull away in the East. The Rangers get it figured out and easily capture the third Metro playoff spot. The Blues pull the trigger on a late-season trade for Ryan Miller.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Five truths that every hockey fan agrees on that aren't actually true

Hockey fans like to argue. Pick a topic, any topic, and we’ll happily spend the entire day screaming at each other. Gretzky vs. Orr, Roy vs. Brodeur, shootouts, fighting, the Hall of Fame, expansion, Don Cherry … You name it, we’re ready to stake out a side and then loudly educate our fellow fans about what utter and unsalvageable morons they are.

But every once in a great while, the unthinkable happens: Hockey fans agree on something. We stumble on a topic that there’s just no arguing over. An objective truth is revealed, and there’s nothing to fight about. Everyone joins hands and sings. A beautiful consensus forms.

Unfortunately, sometimes that consensus is just wrong. So in an effort to set the record straight, today I’m launching a new feature, in which we’ll look at various facts from NHL history that every hockey fan knows to be true, but aren’t.

Here are our first five.

Andre “Red Light” Racicot Was a Terrible Goaltender


These days, any hockey fan making a generic “terrible goalie” joke might name-drop Vesa Toskala or whoever’s currently manning the crease in Philadelphia. But there’s a good chance that, almost two decades after his career ended, they’ll still go back to former Montreal Canadiens backup Andre Racicot. For fans about my age, Racicot is remembered as the undisputed worst goalie of his generation.

But here’s the thing: Looking back, Racicot wasn’t all that bad. Over his career, he put up an .880 save percentage and 3.50 goals-against average, which were reasonable numbers for the early '90s. Check out this list of every goalie who played 40-plus games during Racicot’s five-year career. Racicot ranks 43rd out of 68 guys in save percentage; that isn’t great, but it certainly isn’t close to “worst ever” territory. He’s right in that dependable backup range with guys like Reggie Lemelin and Rick Wamsley, and not even all that far off from guys like Sean Burke and Mike Vernon, who were considered stars.

In fact, during the Canadiens’ Cup year in 1992-93, you could argue that Racicot was pretty much even with teammate Patrick Roy during the regular season. Roy went 31-25-5 with an .894 save percentage and 3.20 GAA, while Racicot went 17-5-1 with an .881 save percentage and 3.39 GAA. It’s all but forgotten now, but when the Habs lost the first two games of their opening-round series to the Nordiques, there were actually calls for Racicot to take over the starter’s job.

So why does everyone think he was terrible? It was partly because he played in one of hockey’s toughest markets while backing up arguably the greatest goalie of all time. Remember, Canadiens fans booed Roy out of town after three Vezinas and two Stanley Cups, so you can imagine how they felt about his backup. And it didn’t help matters that Racicot would occasionally do stuff like this.

But Racicot’s biggest problem is right there in this section's headline. Calling a goalie “Red Light” may be one of the most brutal sports nicknames of all time. Nobody seems to know for sure who coined it — some say it was Don Cherry, others have mentioned legendary Habs beat writer Red Fisher — but it was too good not to stick. It’s even fun to say. Andre “Red Light” Racicot. It flows just right.

So what if it was never really deserved? Once “Red Light” got hung on him, Racicot’s professional reputation was toast, and remains so to this day.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, November 18, 2013

Weekend wrap: The Sabres hit reset, the Avs plummet, and the Wings do something really strange

A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.

Struggling Sabres Refuse to Stand Pat

All season long, the hockey world has been expecting the Sabres to clean house and start looking toward the future. It turns out we were half-right — Buffalo made changes Thursday, but with an eye fixed firmly on the past.

The Sabres' decision to part ways with longtime GM Darcy Regier was shocking only in the sense that they chose not to do it during the offseason. Firing coach Ron Rolston was a mild surprise since he’d only been on the job for 51 games dating back to last season, though he’d also managed to win just 19 of those.

But their replacements raised eyebrows, as the Sabres brought back former star Pat LaFontaine as president of hockey ops (he’ll eventually hire a new GM), and former coach of the year Ted Nolan as interim coach. While both men are undoubtedly popular in Buffalo, LaFontaine has no front office experience and Nolan hasn’t coached in the NHL since 2008.

Can it work? The obvious answer is that it can’t get much worse. LaFontaine might be inexperienced, but he’s well-respected for his hockey smarts and did a good job articulating a long-term vision during the introductory press conference.

Nolan, meanwhile, is one of the league’s great mysteries — the Sabres parted ways with him immediately after his Jack Adams season, and it took him 10 years to get another NHL job (he lasted two seasons with the Islanders before being fired in 2008). He’s an intense guy and will no doubt bring his style of ever-so-subtle player motivation to the Buffalo locker room.

The Sabres split a pair of weekend games with the Maple Leafs, winning 3-1 at home Friday before dropping the rematch 4-2 in Toronto. The Sabres had already beaten the Sharks and Kings this month and actually climbed out of last place overall with Friday’s win, before dropping back down after the Oilers earned two points the next day.

At the very least, the team finally seems headed in the right direction … unless you think the right direction involves the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, in which case you may look back on this move as coming a few months early.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, November 15, 2013

Grab bag: May Day

In the grab bag: Two muppets photobomb a Jets game, A visit to YakeCity, the incredibly detailed page on the NHL web site nobody uses, we mourn Steven Stamkos, and a peace offering to Sabres fans: a video breakdown of the May Day goal.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, November 14, 2013

How did the classic rebuild approach go so right for the Avs and so wrong for the Oilers?

How do you build a winner in the NHL?

Or, more specifically, how do you rebuild one? How do you take a team that has fallen out of contention today and doesn't have the assets to win tomorrow, and reshape it into a perennial contender?

There are plenty of approaches, but one stands out as the most common: You lose. You lose badly, lose often, finish last, and collect high draft picks. Then you draft elite talent and watch it grow into a strong core, eventually supplementing those young stars with veterans and depth guys. And then you win, and win a lot, and everyone forgets about the miserable years that came before. Call it tanking or call it patience. Part of the plan is that you never admit you're following a plan, but every fan knows it when they see it.

It sounds so simple, and for some teams, it is. The Penguins used the approach to win a Cup. The Blackhawks won two. Of course, teams like the Panthers and Islanders haven't had as much luck. Nobody said it was foolproof. And not everyone approves. But you can't argue with success, and a look back at the last decade of Cup winners shows that the plan often works.

Today, various NHL teams are in different stages of the plan, but two stand out as the archetypal examples: the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche. The two teams have followed remarkably similar roads. And yet, somehow, the destinations they've arrived at this year couldn't be more different.

Both the Oilers and Avs had spent much of their recent history finishing near the bottom of the league. Both had used the high draft picks earned in those lost seasons to assemble a roster packed with can't-miss forwards. Both brought in a former player from the franchise's past to make player personnel decisions. And both made a change behind the bench during the offseason, hiring a candidate without NHL coaching experience.

The Avalanche are the NHL's breakthrough story of the season, sitting at 14-3-0 for 28 points and first place in the Central. Even for the most optimistic Colorado homer, their success this year borders on the unimaginable. They have the league's best goal differential and have allowed the fewest goals.3 They've already had a pair of six-game win streaks. They're dominating.

And then there are the Oilers. Their season has been a disaster, with a 4-14-2 record that has left them last in the Western Conference. They've given up more goals than any other team by a mile,4 have won only once at home, and are already 14 points out of a playoff spot. We're not even halfway through November, and the Oilers are done.

How could this happen? Let's look through five critical factors in any rebuild, and see what we can learn from the Oilers and Avalanche.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Hall of Fame class of 2013

The Hockey Hall of Fame formally welcomed five new inductees Monday night — players Chris Chelios, Brendan Shanahan, Scott Niedermayer, and Geraldine Heaney, and coach Fred Shero in the "builder" category.

With the Class of 2013 now official, we can start looking ahead to 2014 and beyond. So here are a dozen names eligible for next year’s vote, and my best guess at their chances.

Dominik Hasek

Eligible since: New in 2014

The case for: Hasek was the undisputed best goalie in hockey for a long stretch in the late '90s, and he belongs in the discussion as the greatest of all time. He won six Vezina Trophies as the league’s best goaltender and is the only goalie in NHL history to win multiple MVPs. He has the highest career save percentage in history. He single-handedly won the gold medal for the Czech Republic in 1998. I could keep going, but it would be overkill.

The case against: He didn’t become a full-time starter until his late twenties, so his career totals in counting stats like wins are less impressive than you might expect. His style could be called “unorthodox" if you were being polite, or “completely insane” if you weren’t. He played professionally until he was 46, making you feel bad about never using your treadmill.

Odds he gets in next year: 97 percent, only because there’s still a 3 percent chance he launches another comeback before then.

Odds he gets in eventually: 100 percent

Bottom line: He’s a lock. Have fun deciphering his induction speech.

Eric Lindros

Eligible since: 2010

The case for: For a time, Lindros was the most feared player in hockey. He won the Hart Trophy in 1995, and there was a time when winning even one Hart all but guaranteed induction — of eligible winners since 1924, only two aren’t in the Hall of Fame. He also played in six All-Star games. Despite playing his entire career in the dead puck era, Lindros's 1.14 career points per game lands him in the top 20, and every eligible player ahead of him is in the Hall except for Kent Nilsson (who played in the high-flying '80s).

The case against: His career was derailed by injuries, he played at least 75 games in a season only once, and he was out of hockey by 34. That means his overall career totals aren’t especially impressive. He (and his family) had a reputation for being incredibly difficult to deal with dating back to his days in junior, which probably shouldn’t matter but does.

Odds he gets in next year: 20 percent

Odds he gets in eventually: 50 percent

Bottom line: Lindros might be the most interesting case out there. His career was cut short by injuries, but you could say the same for Pavel Bure and Cam Neely, and they made it in. We understand concussions much better than we did a decade ago, so the knock against Lindros for being soft or “playing with his head down” has faded. At his peak, there was nobody better. He’d have my vote, but so far the committee hasn’t felt the same.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, November 11, 2013

Weekend wrapup: Bryzgalov is back

A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.

Why You Hefta Be Bad?

God bless the Edmonton Oilers.

A team that has already spent the season giving the league so much — automatic wins, crazy trade rumors, doughnut-based media scandals — topped itself this weekend when it brought Ilya Bryzgalov back to the NHL.

The Oilers agreed to terms with the free-agent goaltender Friday, signing him to a one-year deal worth $2 million. He’ll spend some time in the AHL on a conditioning assignment, then join the Oilers to compete with Devan Dubnyk for the starting job.

While Bryzgalov’s high-priced stint in Philadelphia was a disaster, he’s still one of the league’s most entertaining characters. He also has some history in Edmonton. His infamous “Why you hefta be mad?” monologue was directed at Oiler fans booing Chris Pronger, and he also referred to Edmonton as the North Pole. He clarified that latter remark over the weekend.

Dubnyk has taken much of the blame from Edmonton fans outraged at yet another lost season (the Oilers are already 14 points out of a playoff spot), and he certainly deserves his share based on an ugly stat line. His 3.92 goals-against average and .876 save percentage both rank toward the bottom of the league. And while it’s true that all goalies go through bad stretches, at some point the Oilers were going to have to make a change. If anything, bringing in a capable veteran free agent was probably a smarter strategy than trading away young players in a panic move.

That’s not to say the Bryzgalov signing didn’t cost the Oilers anything, because it did. In order to free up the money to make the deal, Edmonton was forced to move veteran defenseman Ladislav Smid to the Flames for a pair of middling prospects. (There have also been persistent rumors of a pending deal to send Ales Hemsky to the Flyers, but it has yet to happen.)

The Smid deal becomes part of a trivia question, marking only the second time in history that the Battle of Alberta rivals have made a trade with each other. More importantly: Smid was acquired seven years ago as the key prospect in the Pronger trade, which serves as a painful reminder for Oiler fans of just how long this perpetual rebuild is taking.

As for the action on the ice, it was more of the same for the Oilers. They lost to the Flyers on Saturday and the Blackhawks on Sunday, and now sit in the 29th spot in the league.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, November 8, 2013

Grab bag: Won't somebody do something about this out-of-control Flyers goalie? No, not him, the other one.

In this week’s grab bag: Teammates injuring teammates, the drunk helmet-stealing Hawks fan, the end of goalie fights, debating “intent to blow”, Don Cherry can see the future, whether PK Subban should make the Olympic team, and a video breakdown of another Flyer goalie’s epic meltdown.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Division of Zeros: Why is the Metro so terrible?

Let's be clear: This year's Metropolitan can't be called a bad division.

No, that would be too kind. Last year's Southeast was a bad division, but it doesn't exist anymore, thanks to the league realignment that broke it up and stuck half its teams in the old Atlantic with the Columbus Blue Jackets. That gave us the brand-new Metropolitan, a division that makes the Southeast look like the late 1988-89 Smythe.

So, no, the Metropolitan isn't bad. It's terrible. Horrid. Abysmal. It's … [flips through thesaurus to find more synonyms for "bad"; reaches a page that just says "see Metropolitan Division"; sighs heavily and closes book] … look, it's just really very bad.

But why? How did we get here? And is there any hope it can turn things around? And what does it mean for the division's one and only good team?

Let's play a round of 12 questions and see if we can figure it out.

1. Just how bad is the Metropolitan?

Pretty bad. The overall record of the division's eight teams is 49-58-11, for 109 points in 118 games. That's a points percentage of .462, which would average out to 76 points over a full season.

To put that in perspective, in 2011-12, not a single Eastern Conference team had fewer than 78 points. This year, an entire division is looking up at that total.

But as bad as it sounds, that overall record is actually misleading, since it includes the 25 games when the Metro teams were playing each other. In matchups against teams in the other three divisions, the Metro is just 24-36-8, a 67-point pace. Those are draft lottery numbers. And remember, we're including a very good Penguins team in all of this.

Granted, it's still early. But through the season's first month, the Metro hasn't just been bad, it has been historically bad.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Five largely forgotten NHL transactions that ended up being pretty important

NHL history is filled with transactions of all shapes and sizes, and in the grand scheme of things most of them end up being fairly meaningless. But several times a season, whether or not we realize it at the time, a team will make a move that reverberates for years or even decades.

Most of those deals are firmly imprinted in fans’ memories. Twenty years later, many Flyers fans can still recite the Eric Lindros trade by heart. The average Habs fan can’t go more than a few hours in their day-to-day lives without being reminded of the Scott Gomez deal. Entire sections of Toronto newspapers were dedicated to daily rehashings of the Phil Kessel–Tyler Seguin trade (at least until it started looking like a good move, at which point it was mysteriously forgotten).

But then there’s the other side of the coin: those trades and transactions that helped alter NHL history but, for whatever reason, have been largely forgotten.

Now, obviously everyone’s mileage will vary a bit here; if you’re a die-hard fan of one of the teams involved, these “forgotten” moves may not be especially forgotten at all. But for many fans, these history-altering deals have been filed away in the cluttered attic of their memory banks — if they’ve ever heard of them at all.

I’m sure there are plenty of examples out there and it would probably take us several posts to even scratch the surface, but here are five to start with:

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, November 4, 2013

Weekend wrapup: Emery, Kaleta, Bure and more

A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.

Flyers Hit Rock Bottom; Grab Shovels

The biggest news of the weekend came on Friday night, when the struggling Flyers faced the Capitals. Despite missing the injured Alexander Ovechkin, Washington pumped five second-period goals past Steve Mason and Ray Emery on its way to building an eventual 7-0 lead. That had Philadelphia fans chanting for GM Paul Holmgren’s job, and set the stage for the game to devolve into a third-period gong show.

You’ve no doubt seen the highlights by now; Wayne Simmonds running anyone he could find, the line brawl that followed, and then Emery’s rink-length dash to fight his unwilling counterpart, Braden Holtby. Goalie fights are usually high entertainment, but this one was different. It was a ridiculous mismatch between a player with a long résumé of fighting experience and one who’d never been part of one at the pro level — and, more importantly, one who hadn’t done a thing to provoke it other than play for a vastly better team.

Emery won handily, at one point raining punches on the back of Holtby’s head while he was down — all while referee Francois St. Laurent bizarrely stood by, occasionally waving away any Capitals who looked like they might try to help. In postgame comments, Emery seemed to brag about making sure that Holtby “didn’t really have much of a choice” about the fight. In an additional embarrassment, the Philadelphia media named Emery the game’s third star, presumably for the fight and not his .733 save percentage.

But while the Emery fight got all the attention, it wasn’t the Flyers’ most costly of the evening. They lost Vincent Lecavalier and Steve Downie to injuries sustained in fights — the former to a facial injury that could sideline him for weeks, and the latter to a broken orbital bone that had him reportedly leaving the rink on a stretcher.

If the Flyers organization was bothered by Emery’s antics, it didn’t show it. Instead, it gave him the start Saturday night against the Devils, and was rewarded with a 1-0 win. It was the first shutout of the season for the Flyers, and probably one of the easiest any team will get to enjoy. The Devils couldn’t manage more than six shots in any period and put up just 14 on the night.

It was almost as if the New Jersey players were afraid to get anywhere near Emery. I can’t imagine why.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, November 1, 2013

November Pain: Are these eight NHL teams really doomed?

Welcome to November, hockey fans. The good news: We made it through the first month of the season, we're now just two months from the Winter Classic, and we're finally done with the incessant crowd shots of fans wearing Halloween costumes.

The bad news: There's a good chance you're now cheering for a team that's completely and utterly doomed.

That's according to an eye-popping stat that the CBC's Elliotte Friedman unveiled: NHL teams that find themselves four points or more out of a playoff spot on November 1 almost never recover to make the postseason.

On the surface, that seems like it can't possibly be right. Four points is just two wins. Teams can't make up two wins over the course of roughly 70 games?

Not really, as it turns out. Friedman took a deeper look in his weekly "30 Thoughts" column.1 In the seven seasons since the 2005-06 lockout,2 only three teams have managed the comeback: the 2006-07 Flames, the 2010-11 Sabres, and the 2011-12 Bruins. That's it. Every other team that was four points back when the calendar flipped over was a dead team walking.

As you may be aware, today is November 1. And a quick look at the standings shows that eight teams are currently in Friedman's danger zone, four points (or more) out of a playoff spot.3 Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Or maybe not. Here's a look at each of those teams and my best guesses as to whether they can beat the odds.

Buffalo Sabres


Current record: 2-12-1

Points back: 11

How they got here: The Sabres are awful. Buffalo spent heavily when new owner Terry Pegula came aboard in 2011, but has still missed the playoffs for two consecutive years. The Sabres fired longtime coach Lindy Ruff last season, and GM Darcy Regier may be next. Apart from star goalie Ryan Miller, the roster is a mishmash of terrible contracts, teenagers,4 borderline AHLers, and Cody Hodgson.

Buffalo was expected to struggle, and it has. So far this year, when the Sabres haven't been embarrassing themselves and the league with goon tactics, they've been losing. Or both. Come to think of it, mostly both.

Is there hope? No. At least not for this year.

The Sabres already traded Thomas Vanek this week. Miller, a pending free agent, will almost certainly be dealt at some point. Anyone else with a pulse and a tradable contract5 will follow. The Sabres are bad now, but by the time the trade deadline passes, the roster may look like an ECHL club.

And all of that is OK. The Sabres are rebuilding, and so far they're doing it fairly well.6 NHL GMs love to talk about staying competitive and fighting for every point and reloading instead of rebuilding, and that's great if a team can pull it off. But sometimes they just need to finish dead last for a year or two and hope the draft lottery goes their way. That seems to be the Sabres' plan right now.

Prediction: The Sabres contend for last place overall this year, and probably in 2014-15 too. By this time next year, every Buffalo fan has a Google alert set up for Connor McDavid.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Grab bag: We are all the confused extra in this horrible Alan Thicke performance

In this week's grab bag: tongue-in-glass kid rules, the Flyer bunnies will haunt your dreams, debating expansion, Don Cherry is a work of art, and an Alan Thicke performance at the NHL Awards turns into an extra in the second row's worst nightmare.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Coaches and GMs on the hot seat

The exact moment Hartley realized that the little
photo of a tank Brian Burke left on his desk
wasn't meant as a reminder to keep on rolling.

We’re now into month two of the NHL season, and patience is running out in various cities around the league. With several teams struggling and the playoff races already tightening, some franchises will be looking to make major changes very soon.

We’ve already had one coach fired, and there’s little doubt that more will be on the way – probably joined by a GM or two. But who?

Based on my conversation with sources around the league, here are some of the coaches and GMs who find themselves on the hot seat as we head into the season’s second month.

Ron Rolston, Buffalo Sabres – Is rumored to have angered Buffalo management through his failure to do things “The Sabres Way”, such as that time a small child asked him for an autograph and he politely declined instead of repeatedly hitting him in the head.

Dallas Eakins, Edmonton Oilers – Is gradually running out of ways to change the subject every time Kevin Lowe corners him in his office and starts asking him to remind him which Cup-winning Oilers team they were teammates on.

Paul MacLean, Ottawa Senators – Was briefly worried when he recently walked into his office and found a pink slip on his desk, only to realize it was just a $5 bill from the stack of Monopoly money Eugene Melnyk now uses to pay everyone.

George McPhee, Washington Capitals – Even though it’s worked for years, can’t help but worry that owner Ted Leonsis will eventually figure out that there really isn’t an NHL bylaw that says that all GMs must actually have the initials “GM”.

Greg Sherman, Colorado Avalanche – Was absolutely shocked to see his name on this list, since even he had forgotten that he’s still technically the GM in Colorado.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A history of great (and awful) starts to NHL seasons

Four weeks into the NHL season, several teams are off to great starts. The Sharks and Avalanche have been virtually unbeatable, and the Lightning, Ducks, and Maple Leafs have also had an impressive opening month. At the other end of the spectrum, teams like the Sabres, Flyers, and Oilers are off to the kind of starts that can torpedo a team’s playoff hopes before the calendar even flips over to November.

Nothing has been as extreme as what happened last year, when the Blackhawks made it to the second half of the lockout-shortened season before suffering a regulation loss. They shattered the NHL record with their 21-0-3 start, coasted to the Presidents’ Trophy, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Of course, not every early-season streak — good or bad — will lead to such a predictable ending. So let’s see if we can learn anything about what to expect by looking back at five of the greatest starts in NHL history, along with five of the worst.

1984-85 Edmonton Oilers

How they started: 12-0-3

The Oilers were the defending champs entering the season, having finally ended the New York Islanders' run of four straight Cups. If the rest of the league had any hopes of an Edmonton letdown, they were doused quickly by a 15-game unbeaten streak.

How they finished: The Oilers finished with 109 points, which was actually second in the league to Philadelphia’s 113. But they ran the table with relative ease in the playoffs, cruising through the Campbell Conference before beating the Flyers in five to win their second consecutive Cup.

By the way, this team featured a 208-point season from Wayne Gretzky, 71 goals by Jari Kurri, and 37 goals and 121 points from Paul Coffey, who was a defenseman. The '80s were a crazy, fun decade.

1943-44 New York Rangers

How they started: 0-14-1

The Rangers lost their first 11 games and didn’t get a win until mid-December. That actually kicked off a stretch of four wins in five games, perhaps affording some small degree of hope heading into the new year. That was immediately followed by another seven consecutive losses. The 1943-44 Rangers were horrible.

How they finished: The Rangers didn’t get much better. Their record stood at a pathetic 6-39-5 through 50 games, which was especially problematic given that back then the season was only 50 games long. Their 17 points were easily the low point in franchise history, and earned the 1943-44 Rangers a permanent spot on just about every “all-time worst teams in pro sports history” list.

The season’s rock bottom came in a 15-0 loss to the Red Wings on January 23, 1944, which still stands as the biggest blowout in the history of the league. That kicked off a 21-game winless streak to end the season. Yes, the Rangers actually finished the season even worse than they started it. They were that bad.

For all their historic futility, New York’s nightmare season does come with a significant asterisk: the roster had been decimated by World War II, with 10 Rangers leaving to join the armed forces.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, October 28, 2013

Weekend wrapup: Devils, Wild and Sharks

Giving the Devils Their Due

The Devils entered the weekend with little reason for optimism. Ten games into the season, they had only one win and had averaged just two goals per game. And with Cory Schneider hurt and Martin Brodeur struggling badly, a team that had been able to fall back on excellent goaltending for almost two decades was suddenly faced with a glaring weakness in the crease.

To make matters worse, New Jersey couldn’t even throw in the towel and go into tank mode for a high first-round pick in the 2014 draft, because it won’t have one — the Devils lost that choice as part of their punishment for the 2010 Ilya Kovalchuk contract fiasco. The league’s decision mandated that New Jersey could forfeit any first-round pick from the last four years and, for reasons that nobody seems to fully understand, chose not to do so when they owned the 29th-overall pick in 2012. After watching the Devils struggle through the season’s first few weeks, it was hard not to wonder if that decision could wind up costing them the first-overall pick in next year’s draft.

Well, not so fast. For one night, at least, the Devils had something to celebrate, going into Boston and beating the Bruins with an impressive third-period comeback. Trailing 3-2 with just over a minute to play, the Devils stunned the Bruins with a pair of quick goals. Both came on the power play, courtesy of a Torey Krug high stick and our old friend the worst rule in hockey. That snapped a five-game Bruins win streak and bumped Boston back down to a tie for third in the Atlantic.

And as far as those hopeless Devils … don’t look now, but thanks to the general ineptitude of the Metropolitan Division, they’re still very much in the playoff hunt. While they’ve won only two games on the year, their four losses in overtime and shootouts leads the league, and those four loser points give them a total of eight. That’s still pretty bad, but it’s enough to move them ahead of the Flyers and Rangers and to within just three points of a playoff spot.

>> Read the full post on Grantland