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