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.

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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.

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