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

Friday, October 25, 2013

Grantland grab bag: An (almost) all-goalie edition

In the grab bag: We check in with Canadian goalies, the scariest name in hockey, why we all hate Mike Smith fantasy owners, and a video breakdown of Chris Terreri coming agonizingly close to scoring a goal.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Grantland: What's fair market value for a starting goaltender?

After weeks of rumors that they were on the verge of a major deal for a marquee goaltender, the Edmonton Oilers finally pulled the trigger on the season's first trade Monday, agreeing to send … a fourth-liner to the Sharks.

OK, so that may have been a little bit anticlimactic. But at least it was a reminder that we're entering the part of the season when GMs start making moves. And this year, the early rumor mill has had a running theme: goaltending. That's not terribly unusual, as the position is a point of focus for most teams, but this year's chatter seems especially intense. At some point this season, the thinking goes, we're going to see some blockbuster goalie deals.

So it's probably a good time to assess the trade market — what's the established worth of a decent NHL goaltender? As it turns out, that's not an easy question to answer.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Grantland: A history of goalie's scoring goals, or at least coming close

Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith joined an exclusive club Saturday when he scored against the Detroit Red Wings. That makes Smith one of just 11 goalies in NHL history to be credited with a goal, and one of just six to do it by actually shooting the puck into the other team’s net. So today, let’s take a look back at those other historic goalie goals, along with a few notable near-misses.

February 18, 1905: Fred Brophy goes end-to-end

OK, this one isn’t technically an NHL goal since it predates the formation of the league, but CAHL teams were eligible to compete for the Stanley Cup, so I think it deserves a mention. Brophy was in goal for Montreal Westmount in a brawl-filled contest that saw most of the skaters ejected. Frustrated over a lack of support in a game that Montreal would eventually lose 17-5, Brophy decided to take matters into his own hands, skating the puck the length of the ice and beating Quebec Bulldogs counterpart Paddy Moran. This was well before any rule was in place against goalies carrying the puck over the red line, so Brophy’s move, while exceedingly rare, was legal.

Brophy would score again under similar circumstances in 1906, against the Montreal Victorias. For some reason, neither goal is currently available on YouTube.

November 28, 1979: The Islanders’ Billy Smith makes history

Smith gets credit for the first goalie goal in NHL history on a technicality, as he’s the last Islander to touch the puck before Colorado puts it into its own net (Rockies goalie Bill McKenzie had gone to the bench on a delayed penalty.)

I’ve always loved the way the Rockies defenseman digs the puck out of the net and looks around as if he’s not sure if the goal actually counts or whether he’s supposed to just keep playing.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, October 21, 2013

Grantland weekend wrapup: Blackhawks, Predators, Oilers

Breaking: Reigning Stanley Cup Champions Good at Hockey

With most of the attention in the West focused on the dominating Sharks and the surprising Avalanche, it’s been easy to lose track of the Chicago Blackhawks. But it’s worth checking in with the defending champs, who now have points in five straight games and have climbed to within two points of Colorado for first place in the Central.

On Saturday night, the Hawks toyed with the Maple Leafs, outshooting them 40-20 in a game in which the 3-1 final score probably flattered Toronto. All the scoring came in the second period, with the winner coming on the first career goal from Michael Kostka, a 27-year-old defensive defenseman who spent last year with the Leafs.

That 3-1 final probably felt like a blowout to Chicago fans, as it’s the first time since the season opener against Washington that a Blackhawks contest didn’t end as a one-goal game. All those close games have left Chicago with a goal differential of just plus-4 on the season, despite a 5-1-2 record through eight games.

That fits with the general sense that this year’s Blackhawks haven’t quite clicked yet. The team’s leading scorer through eight games is the unlikely Brandon Saad, with just six points; the big-name forwards have been shifted around as coach Joel Quenneville tries to find line combinations that will provide consistent offense; and the Duncan Keith–Brent Seabrook pairing has been just OK. Goaltender Corey Crawford has looked strong, though, allowing two goals or fewer in four straight.

The good news is that the Hawks should have an opportunity to rack up significant points over the next few weeks, thanks to a schedule packed with struggling teams. They head to Florida this week for a quick two-game road trip to face the Panthers and Lightning before returning to Chicago for the first half of a home-and-home with the Wild. Over the next three weeks, the Blackhawks will play 10 games and face only one team (the Lightning) that currently holds down a playoff spot.

Meanwhile, the Leafs have lost two straight after a 6-1-0 start and remain winless since news broke of the Tyler Bozak–Miley Cyrus victory song scandal. They continue to struggle badly in possession-based metrics despite their winning record, a deficiency that may yet ultimately catch up to them the way that so many have been predicting.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 18, 2013

Grantland grab bag: Tyler Bozak ruins everything

In this week's grab bag: Ryan Miller trade rumors, the Canucks' awful own goal, the only player to suit up for each of the Original Six teams, Patrick Kaleta makes me sad, and hockey vs. the baseball playoffs.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Grantland: The 10 Greatest 5+ Team Players, Ranked

Last week, I looked at the NHL’s Mariano Riveras, the 10 best in hockey history who spent their entire career with one franchise. Then I tried to rank them. Then everyone yelled at me. So, fun times all around.

A reader suggested a natural follow-up: the anti-Riveras, superstars who spent their career bouncing around multiple teams. So this week we’re going to take a look at the 10 greatest players in NHL history who played for at least five franchises. And yes, it goes without saying, we’ll be ranking them.

Fair warning: This list is almost by definition going to be heavily slanted to the last two or three decades, since it was almost impossible to play for five or more teams in the Original Six era. So any octogenarians who are still furious that Milt Schmidt didn’t make the cut last week may want to just skip this one altogether.

One other caveat: We’re looking at the total number of franchises played for, meaning multiple stints with the same team do not count. That technicality ends up disqualifying a surprising number of decent candidates, like Luc Robitaille, Alexander Mogilny, and Teemu Selanne.

I’ll pause here while everyone assembles their own, vastly superior lists.

OK, here we go …

10. Eddie Belfour (1988-2007; Five Teams)


Belfour is third all time in career wins, which is pretty impressive for a guy who didn’t establish himself as a starter until he was 25. That was during the 1990-91 season with Chicago, when he led the league in wins, goals-against average, and save percentage — and won the first of his two Vezinas.

He’d spend six more years in Chicago (during which he made it possible for the Hawks to trade away an unorthodox backup named Dominik Hasek) before being dealt to San Jose for a 13-game stint with a horrible Sharks team. He signed with Dallas and spent five years there, winning his only Stanley Cup in 1999 before closing out his career in Toronto and Florida.

In addition to his impressive numbers, Belfour was flat-out one of the most entertaining players of the 1990s. He combined rare talent with a legendary temper, so you never knew when you’d get to see him have one of his epic meltdowns. I don’t think I can properly express how much I miss the Eddie Belfour era.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Grantland: Why is the Western Conference always better?

True blowouts — the kind that make you cringe a little with embarrassment, even if you're cheering for the winning team — are increasingly rare in the low-scoring NHL, but they still happen. This season, there have been three games in which one team won by six goals or more: The Blues beat the Panthers 7-0, the Sharks embarrassed the Rangers 9-2, and the Ducks shut out that same New York team 6-0.

Notice anything they have in common?

This NHL season began with a shift in the balance of power. The league introduced a divisional realignment that moved the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets east and sent the Winnipeg Jets west. In addition, this year saw the return of inter-conference play.1 Fans were left wondering how those changes would affect the playoff races and whether one conference would emerge with an edge over the other.

Two weeks into the season, it would appear that we already have an answer on that second question: The West is better — and it's not close.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, October 14, 2013

Grantland weekend wrapup: Rangers, Flames, Sabres

The New York Rangers: Still Marginally Better Than the Giants

On Saturday, the Rangers gave up five goals and lost, and it was considered a massive improvement.

That’s how bad things have gotten in New York, where the Rangers have started the season 1-4-0. And that record may even be flattering, since their -16 goal differential is the worst in the league by a large margin (the -11 Panthers are next worst), and their back-to-back blowout losses earlier in the week were as bad a two-game stretch as any team has had in more than a decade.

New York did manage to hang tough with the undefeated Blues for a period Saturday, but gave up three goals on five shots in the second period, despite largely dominating the play. Ryan Callahan’s second goal of the night made it 4-3 in the third and marked the first time all season that the Blues have given up three in a game, but it wasn’t enough. Vladimir Tarasenko restored the two-goal lead midway through the third, and the 5-3 score would hold up as the final.

So what’s wrong with the Rangers? There’s no shortage of theories, most of which can summarized as "just about everything."

New coach Alain Vigneault hasn’t made radical changes to John Tortorella’s defensive system. But he has introduced some tweaks, and so far, the Rangers have looked lost. This was expected to be one of the league’s better bluelines, but normally dependable players like Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have struggled badly. Up front, Derek Stepan, who missed most of training camp while waiting for a new contract, has five assists but has yet to score and owns an ugly -7 rating.

And while you can’t exactly blame this mess on goalie Henrik Lundqvist, he certainly hasn’t been able to bail his teammates out often enough. His 4.21 goals against and .887 save percentage aren’t the sort of numbers we’ve come to expect, and certainly not what he was hoping for as he seeks a record-setting contract extension.

Throw in that their best player, winger Rick Nash, is out indefinitely with a concussion, and that renovations to Madison Square Garden have forced them to start the season with a brutal nine-game road trip, and things start looking exceedingly bleak.

There’s still hope. Although it seems like a lifetime ago, the Rangers did beat a very good Kings team on the road on Monday. And while that game resulted in their only two points of the season, it’s not like the rest of the Metropolitan Division is running away from them. The Caps and Flyers are also stuck at just one win apiece, and the Devils don’t have one at all.

That may not add up to much in the way of optimism, but it’s just about all the Rangers have right now.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 11, 2013

Grantland grab bag: Tomas Hertl cannot be stopped

In this week's grab bag: Tomas Hertl, Team Canada's ugly jerseys, more Tomas Hertl, Ben Scrivens wins twitter, and a breakdown of a vintage Craig Berube-inspired brawl.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Collision Corsi: Old school thinking, modern analytics, and why this year’s Maple Leafs are about to make it all go boom

It's a battle sports fans come to know well over the years. On one side, you have the relatively recent wave of advanced analytics proponents, using new types of stats and theories to challenge the conventional wisdom. On the other side are the old-school thinkers, many of whom have been around the game since before these stats guys were born and question how much insight can be pulled from a spreadsheet.

Hockey was late to the party, but the debate has arrived here, too. There have been some ugly skirmishes, often flaring up when a particular team's on-ice results didn't match what the numbers predicted. Every year seems to bring at least one example. In 2009-10, it was the Colorado Avalanche. In 2010-11, the Dallas Stars.

Perhaps most memorably, the 2011-12 Minnesota Wild managed to lead the Western Conference for much of the season's first half, despite horrible underlying numbers. The stats guys predicted doom. Wild fans scoffed. Insults were hurled. And in the end, the stats guys were right. The Wild plummeted all the way to 12th, missed the playoffs by 14 points, and firmly established themselves as the cautionary example for anyone who'd dare roll their eyes at hockey's analytics community.

This year, we've moved into new territory, and the stakes suddenly seem higher. In any battle, real or metaphorical, things don't get really ugly until you threaten sacred ground. And there may be no more sacred ground in the hockey world than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Yes, the Maple Leafs, who face the Nashville Predators tonight, have become the new test case in the ongoing battle between old-school hockey thinking and a new-school statistical approach. And with all due respect to the Wild, Avalanche, Stars, and even last year's Ducks, they are not the Leafs. They don't have the same history, or the round-the-clock media coverage, or (especially) the same rabid fan base.

That's why this year's version of the debate is going to make the Great Minnesota Wild Dustup of 2012 feels like a warm-up skate.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Grantland: The 10 Greatest One-Team NHL Players, Ranked

We’re now a few weeks removed from Mariano Rivera’s final game at Yankee Stadium, which means most sports fans who watched it have had enough time to stop crying while awkwardly insisting that they’re not crying.

As a hockey fan, I watched Rivera’s exit while thinking How can I take that wonderful baseball moment and translate it into a hockey post? And that’s how I came up with the idea of listing 10 legendary NHL players who, like Rivera, played their entire career with one team.

And then I thought How can I take this idea for a feel-good walk through the pages of hockey history and turn it into an excuse for people to yell at each other? And that’s when I decided that instead of just listing 10 guys, I’d also rank them.

So here we go: the 10 best players in NHL history, in order, among those who spent their entire career with one franchise.

10. Denis Potvin, New York Islanders (1973-1988)


Potvin won three Norris Trophies and four Stanley Cups during a 15-year career in which he established himself as one of the most respected …

Hold on, I need to pause for a minute while all the Ranger fans chant “Potvin Sucks” for a while.

Still waiting.

Still waiting …

OK, you know what, there are only so many hours in the day so let’s just agree that Potvin was one of the most-respected players in the league as long as you weren’t in Madison Square Garden. He captained the Islanders’ early '80s dynasty that captured four straight championships and won 19 consecutive postseason series, a record that likely stands as completely unbreakable in the salary-cap era. He averaged just less than a point per game over his career, and retired as the league’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen.

As for you still-chanting Rangers fans, here’s a fun fact: Potvin claimed that Mike Keenan asked him to make a comeback and join the 1993-94 Rangers team that eventually won the Stanley Cup. Potvin, who by then was 41 years old and had been out of hockey for six years, considered the offer but eventually declined.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, October 7, 2013

Grantland weekend wrapup: Flyers, Oilers, Avs

It's always funny in Philadelphia

Well, that didn’t take long. Less than one full week into the season, we have our first coaching casualty: Flyers boss Peter Laviolette, who was canned after an 0-3 start and replaced by Craig Berube.

While the move may have come stunningly early, it’s not exactly a shock. The Flyers have looked awful so far. And despite this overflowing file folder by my computer labeled “pre-written Flyers goalie jokes," goaltending has been the least of their problems. The much-maligned Steve Mason has been fine in his two starts, including a 32-save performance in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Hurricanes.

But the defense looks old and slow, spending long stretches pinned in its own zone in all three games. And even when the Flyers do get the puck into the other end of the ice, they don’t look dangerous. They’ve managed three goals on the year, just one of those at even strength, and top players like Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, and Jakub Voracek have all been held off the scoreboard.

None of that can be considered acceptable for a heavy-spending team that’s only managed to stay cap compliant thanks to long-term injured reserve exemptions, and that spent heavily on buyouts and acquisitions in the summer. In fairness, offseason additions Vincent Lecavalier and Mark Streit have looked good — with a combined four points, they’ve accounted for half of the roster’s total offense — but the team just isn’t clicking right now. This is where we’d normally add the “small sample size” disclaimer, but even that loses some impact when you recall the Flyers floundering through a 1-5-1 preseason.

Laviolette had long been rumored to be on the hot seat. Now that he’s gone, it may not be long before GM Paul Holmgren has a target on his back, too. The Flyers should be able to record their first win Tuesday night when they host the Panthers. If not, expect things to get ugly in Philadelphia.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 4, 2013

Grantland grab bag: Patrick Roy is the latest in a long line of crazy coaches

In the return of the weekly Grab Bag: A look back at Chris Terreri and/or Craig Billington, a debate over redesigning your uniform, the guy we all hate this week in our hockey pool, and breaking down a 1987 clip of violent coaches.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Grantland: What we learned from opening night

The NHL season opened Tuesday night with three games — a classic rivalry matchup that saw the Leafs beat the Habs 4-3, the Blackhawks earn a 6-4 win over the Capitals on Stanley Cup banner-raising night, and the Winnipeg Jets beat the Oilers 5-4 on their first visit to Edmonton in 17 years. Needless to say, we watched all of it.

Here are 10 vaguely connected thoughts from six hours of opening-night hockey.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Grantland: The 2013-14 NHL season preview megapost

The NHL season opens tonight with three games,1which makes today final call for season previews. Personally, I like to wait until the very last moment to ensure that I can be as wrong as humanly possible about everything. So here we go!

Now, it's important to factor in that this year the NHL has undergone a realignment. The old six-division format, has been replaced by four new divisions: the Atlantic, Pacific, Central, and Metropolitan. The new format sees some teams shifting conferences and will have an impact on …

That's right, "Metropolitan." Yes, that's the actual name. Come on guys, stop laughing, the NHL's marketing department worked really hard on this and that was the best they could come up with.

Anyway, in the spirit of the league's new format, I figured I'd realign the league yet again for this preview. So here's a look at all 30 teams, shifted into four brand-new divisions that I made up: The contenders, the also-rans, the middle-of-the-pack, and the teams where I have absolutely no idea.

Hey, it makes more sense that "Metropolitan," right? Let's get started.

>> Read the full post on Grantland