Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 12 favorite posts of 2014

Did you know that if you have a blog and you don’t do some sort of New Year’s “best of” post, they cut off one of your fingers? It’s true.

What follows are a dozen of my favorite posts from 2014. They’re not necessarily the best, since that’s subjective, or the most popular, since in most case I have no idea which ones those would be. These are just the 12 posts that I look back on and go “Yeah, that was a fun one”. In theory, that criteria should be impossible to disagree with, although I’m sure somebody will try.

So if you’re stuck at work on New Year’s, or travelling, or spending time with your loved ones, here are 12 posts from 2014 that you can spend your valuable time on. My gift to you.

January 14 - The NHL dictionary: Advanced stats, the Bettman Point, Old-Time Hockey, and multiple lockout entries.

January 16 - Death to the loser point: Never let it be said that I don’t use my platform to talk about the important issues.

January 21 - NHLPA ’93 vs NHL ’94: the ultimate breakdown: The most-read thing I wrote all year, and it’s not close. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether I should feel proud of that.

January 27 – California Love: My trip to the Dodger Stadium game: The thing about the Glenn Anderson Freeway is real, by the way.

February 13 - Ranking the NHL’s worst contracts: Did it take me almost 5,000 words to get to an answer everybody already knew was coming? Sure, but I was venting.

April 15 - Get in the Ring: A celebration of the 1988-89 Detroit Red Wings: “Hey, we need a detailed breakdown of the old Norris Division in which each team is compared to a member of the original lineup of Guns N’ Roses." Uh, yeah, I might know a guy who can help with that.

June 6 - NHL Playoff Quest: The computer game online walk-through: “This is unquestionably the most obscure genre you will use to write hockey humor all year," they said. “Oh, maybe check back in December," I said.

July 24 - The most depressing passage from every team’s Wikipedia page: Sometimes the best concepts are the simple ones.

August 8 - Signs you’ve hired a bad advanced stat guy: A little old school DGB material for the diehards.

October 23 - The Kurvers Effect: How one terrible trade changed NHL history: An alternate history of the universe in which Floyd Smith doesn’t ruin everything.

November 14 - A farewell to NHL enforcers: I honestly never thought I'd write this sort of post. This one generated a lot of feedback, some of it ugly but most of it along the lines of "Yeah, me too".

December 2 - The entire NHL as represented in the comment section of an online recipe: Is the entire thing one long excuse to set up that Dallas Stars joke? I cannot confirm or deny.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Weekend wrap: Is it time for Lou to go?

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

Theme of the Week: Giving the Devils Their Lou

The New Jersey Devils are a mess. That in itself feels like news, since this has been one of the league’s model franchises going back almost a quarter century. Over the last two decades, the Devils have won three Stanley Cups, made five appearances in the final, finished with 100-plus points in 13 seasons while missing the playoffs in just four, and finished with a points percentage under .500 just once (by a single point, in 2011).

So it would be strange enough to say that they’re a standard-issue mess. At 12-18-7, they’re tied with Buffalo for the second-worst record in the East, and have already been all but eliminated from playoff contention before the season’s second half even arrives. But even that doesn’t go far enough, because as of this weekend, the Devils have now become a mess in ways we’ve never quite seen before.

On Friday, the team announced the firing of coach Peter DeBoer, who becomes the third NHL coach this year to lose his job. DeBoer is a good coach who’ll work again somewhere, but he’s certainly not blameless here. While he guided the Devils to the Cup final in 2012, he left plenty of points on the table last year by insisting on starting Martin Brodeur in half the team’s games, and then seemingly overcompensated this season by using Cory Schneider to the point of exhaustion.

DeBoer’s firing led to the usual speculation as to who would replace him, with early reports suggesting Paul MacLean would get the job. Instead, the team announced a highly unusual co-coaching scenario, with Hall of Fame players Adam Oates and Scott Stevens splitting the job. Oates will coach the forwards, Stevens will take the defensemen, and neither will get an official head coach title or, we’re told, be allowed to speak to the media. And overseeing it all, at least temporarily, will be good ol’ Lou Lamoriello, the longtime GM who steps behind the Devils’ bench on an interim basis for the third time.

The whole thing is bizarre, and it’s led to what would have once been unthinkable: calls for Lamoriello to follow DeBoer into unemployment. Lamoriello has been the Devils’ GM since 1987, almost a full decade longer than any other current GM in the league. He took over a Mickey Mouse organization and turned them into champions, and no front-office face is as tightly linked to his franchise as Lamoriello’s.

And yet some pundits, both locally and beyond, are now asking whether the time has come for Lou to move on, too. This current Devils team bears little resemblance to the one that went to the final just a few years ago, and is largely made up of a mishmash of players and features just a marginal talent level. And they’re old — almost ridiculously old, featuring 16 players over the age of 30 (six of whom are 35-plus).

With the season all but lost, at this point the organization’s best bet is probably to just bottom out and hope for Connor McDavid. If so, maybe this odd three-headed coaching monster is all part of the plan. That may be the only way that it makes much sense — both for the franchise, and for the man who’s calling the shots, at least for now.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

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

5. St. Louis Blues (21-11-3, plus-13 goals differential). After dropping a 4-3 decision to the Stars, they’ve now lost four straight and given up 18 goals in doing so.

4. Nashville Predators (23-9-2, plus-28). They’re two back of Chicago for first in the Central. They also face the Blackhawks tonight.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Weekend wrap: The Fall of the Flames

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

Theme of the Week: The Fall of the Flames

Over the past two weeks, slowly but surely, one of the year’s best stories has been unraveling. During the season’s first two months, the Calgary Flames had emerged as the league’s most unlikely quasi-contender. Despite an underwhelming roster that had most experts pegging them as top candidates to be Connor McDavid’s next home, the Flames started off the year hot, and then defied the odds by staying that way.

On December 4, the Flames beat the Avalanche in overtime. It was their fourth straight win and moved them to 17-8-2, good for 36 points and leaving them just one back of the Ducks and Canucks for first place in the Western Conference. The roster was basically Mark Giordano, a bunch of kids, and some replacement-level spare parts, but they worked hard and never quit, and somehow they just kept winning.

That was the narrative, at least, and if you were the sort who likes to attribute success to intangibles like leadership, culture, and compete level, the whole thing was irresistible. But anyone who pays any attention to underlying numbers could see the Calgary correction on the horizon; just about every warning light on the Flames’ dashboard was flashing bright red and had been for some time. We flagged their high PDO a few weeks ago, when they were shooting the lights out percentage-wise, and their possession numbers have consistently been awful. The stats guys saw what was coming. The fan blogs saw what was coming. The league’s own website saw what was coming.

And since that win over the Avs, the inevitable has arrived. The Flames have lost eight straight, dropped all the way out of a playoff spot, and are now scoring into their own net. And all of that advance warning hasn’t made it any less painful for fans, both of the Flames and of great stories. It was fun to imagine that a team like Calgary really could overachieve on sheer strength of character and hard work. After all, the franchise has largely been a nonfactor for the last decade, victims of thin rosters and shortsighted management. Nobody likes to be wrong about a team, but in this case it sure would have been fun to see the Flames continue to defy expectations.

Can they get back on track? They sure seem to think so; just a few days ago, they gave coach Bob Hartley an extension, at least partly based on their early-season success. And with 47 games to go, there’s still plenty of time to make up lost ground, especially if they can improve their possession game and stop relying on unsustainable percentages.

If not, at least the kids who make up so much of this rebuilding roster can say they’ve had a small taste of winning hockey. That’s not Connor McDavid, but it’s something.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

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

5. New York Islanders (23-10-0, plus-13 goals differential): They’ve won four straight, including impressive weekend wins over the Red Wings and Lightning.

4. Anaheim Ducks (22-8-5, plus-5): A pair of weak efforts resulted in 6-2 losses to both of the Ontario teams last week, but they’ve built up enough of a cushion that they’re still alone in first place overall.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, December 19, 2014

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

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, December 18, 2014

In celebration of the NHL interim coach

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

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

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

Not the Brightest Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What can we learn from the Edmonton Oilers?

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

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

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

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

1. Don’t fall in love with the past

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, December 15, 2014

Weekend wrap: Welcome to Mumpsville

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

Theme of the Week: Welcome to Mumpsville, Population Everyone

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

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

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

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

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

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

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

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

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Good cap, bad cap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got your calculators out? Let’s get started.

Good: Tampa Bay Lightning

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

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

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

Bad: Chicago Blackhawks

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

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

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

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

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. They traded for Wayne Gretzky

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

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

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

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

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, December 8, 2014

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

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

Theme of the Week: A Legend Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

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

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

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, December 5, 2014

Grab bag: Alfie's finest moment

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, December 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the factors we’ll be weighing:

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

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

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

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

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

Make sense? Good. On to the countdown …

30. Pittsburgh Penguins

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

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The quick and easy recipe for a Stanley Cup championship

Winning a Stanley Cup doesn’t have to be difficult! By following the steps of this simple recipe, anyone can make an impressive run to a championship.

1. Start with several large spoonfuls of SMART DRAFTING. Continue until your prospect cupboard is full, then allow to bake slowly. Be patient — you can’t rush this part.

(Hint: You may want to try adding one tsp of TANKING to help the process along, assuming you can stand the smell.)

2. While you wait for your PROSPECTS to finish baking, assemble your other key ingredients. You will need:

• One FRANCHISE-PLAYER FORWARD, drafted with a top-five pick


• One GOOD GOALTENDER (If you don’t have a good goaltender available, an ADEQUATE GOALTENDER WHO PEOPLE THINK IS GOOD can also work.)

Mix together to form a CHAMPIONSHIP CORE, then allow to simmer.

3. When your PROSPECTS are ready, begin slowly adding them to the CHAMPIONSHIP CORE. Go slowly — dumping them all in at once may ruin the dish.

4. Mix in a few dollops of SMART TRADING.

5. Carefully add one or two helpings of FREE-AGENCY VALUE.

6. Sprinkle liberally with CHEAP DEPTH GUYS.

7. Cook together until you reach the SALARY-CAP CEILING.

8. Top with one SMART COACH, a dash of GRIT, and a heaping helping of GOOD LUCK, and serve while hot. Suggested drink pairing: champagne.

TOTAL PREPARATION TIME: three to five years.

33 Reader Comments on “Quick and Easy Stanley Cup Championship”

Chicago Blackhawks: I followed all the directions, and I have to say it really was super easy. In fact, I’ve already made this multiple times. Just wish I’d found this recipe earlier!

Boston Bruins: Same here: This was fantastic! Careful with the salary-cap part, though. If you’re not watching, it can overflow.

Los Angeles Kings: Fantastic recipe. I’m not a huge fan of free agents, so I usually substitute lopsided trade with Columbus, which works just as well.

Washington Capitals: Wait, are you sure there isn’t a step missing or something? I swear I followed all the directions, and it didn’t work at all.

Florida Panthers: Yeah, I’ve been trying this for years, and I never even seem to get past Step 1.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Same here.

Anaheim Ducks: Good recipe, but I’d recommend doubling up on the Norris defenseman. Makes everything so much easier.

Detroit Red Wings: I’ve made this one often, and it always turns out great. Tip: If you’ve run out of top-five-pick franchise players, just swap in a few you have lying around from the sixth or seventh round instead.

Edmonton Oilers: Three to five years? Uh, don’t think so. I’ve had this in the oven for six and it’s not even close to being done.

Philadelphia Flyers: I have a severe allergy to goaltending. Does anyone know of a way to make this dish without it?

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, December 1, 2014

Weekend wrap: Everyone is in first place

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

Theme of the Week: A Logjam at the Top

A look at the top of the overall league standings today reveals an odd quirk: a six-way tie for first place overall, with three of the four divisions featuring a pair of 34-point teams.

In the Atlantic, those two teams are the Canadiens and the Lightning, who’ve essentially owned the division since the season began. We’re all still waiting for the Bruins to eventually join the party, but for now it’s the Red Wings who’ve moved into the third spot, just a point behind.

In the Central, the Blues still can’t shake the surprising Predators, who’ve won four straight. Those two teams will face each other on Thursday, and each also gets a game with the surging Blackhawks this week. And then there’s the Metro, where the Islanders have caught up to the Penguins thanks to a league-leading 17 wins, which marks the best start in franchise history.

As for the Pacific, they just can’t keep up with the rest of the league. That division also features a tie for top spot, but the Ducks and Canucks are stalled at a measly 33 points. Slackers.

Add it all up and you’ve got nine teams — 30 percent of the league — within a point of first place overall. If you’re a fan of parity, you love the look of the standings right now. If you have to put together a top five out of this mess, not so much. Let’s head to the next section and try to sort it out.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

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

5. Nashville Predators (16-5-2, plus-18): I keep waiting for them to fade; they keep winning. Granted, this week’s narrow victories over the Oilers and Blue Jackets aren’t exactly anything to brag about, but wins are wins.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (16-6-2, plus-21): They’ve won three in a row, Victor Hedman is back, and now the schedule serves up five teams with losing records over their next seven games.

3. Chicago Blackhawks (15-8-1, plus-26): Wait, how did a 31-point team sneak in here? The record still doesn’t look all that impressive, but a pair of weekend road wins over the Ducks and Kings sure did, so they’re in.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

At the quarter-pole*, some early NHL awards

We’ve reached the quarter pole in the NHL season, which means two things: It’s too early to start drawing conclusions and throwing around awards, and we’re going to go ahead and do those things anyway. So dig your tuxes and gowns out of the closet, because we’ve got a dozen early-season awards to hand out.

Most Valuable Player: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Ho-hum. Crosby won the award last year, he was the overwhelming favorite to win it this year, and so far that looks like it’s exactly what he’s going to do. He’s not running away with the scoring title, which is a mild surprise. But all the guys keeping pace with him come from struggling teams, and the Hart Trophy basically always goes to someone from a Cup contender. So it’s Crosby by default, which is basically too boring to spend any more time on.

Most Valuable Player Who Isn’t Sidney Crosby: Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers

That’s better! And we’ve got several candidates to consider, like Voracek, who’s tied with Crosby for the lead in points, and Tyler Seguin, who leads in goals scored. Steven Stamkos has been fantastic, Vladimir Tarasenko has owned the highlight reels, and Rick Nash’s hot start left him carrying basically the entire Rangers offense.

And that’s just the forwards, which is … well, which is probably all we need to talk about, since defensemen and goalies rarely win the Hart.1 Besides, we’ll get to those guys in a minute.

I’m going to go with Voracek, who’s recorded a point on over half of the Flyers goals this year, and is basically single-handedly keeping them in the playoff picture. Will it last? No, not at his current pace, but that shouldn’t matter. We’re trying to recognize the first quarter of the season here, not predict the rest of it, so Voracek has earned the right to pick up Crosby’s scraps.

Least Valuable Player: The Backup Goalie, New Jersey Devils

Do you know his name? I didn’t know his name, and apparently neither did Devils coach Peter DeBoer until the weekend, when he finally gave him his first start of the season in the team’s 21st game. Before that, Cory Schneider had gotten the nod each and every time, becoming only the third goalie in the salary-cap era to make that many starts in a row to begin a season. That streak ended on Saturday, when DeBoer remembered that he had a second goaltender on the roster.

The guy’s name is Scott Clemmensen, by the way. That probably sounds familiar, since the journeyman has been backing up around the NHL since 2001, including three separate stints in New Jersey. He got his first start of the season against the Flames in Calgary. He lost. LVP! LVP!

>> Read the full post on Grantland

(* I know, I know.)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Weekend wrap: Are you feeling lucky?

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

Theme of the Week: As Luck Would Have It

Let’s check in on everyone’s favorite stat: PDO, which adds up a team’s shooting and save percentages to come up with a number that settles in around 100, give or take a few points. Both shooting and save percentage are heavily luck-driven, so a PDO that’s significantly above or below 100 can be an indication that a player or team’s performance is being influenced by random chance, meaning it’s less likely to continue. PDO outliers aren’t always the result of luck and luck only — there’s some evidence that talent level and playing style could sustainably boost a team a point or two over 100, for example — but that explanation goes a long way.1

So who have been the NHL’s luckiest and unluckiest teams? The five top PDOs belong to the Predators (103.5), Penguins (102.8), Flames (102.3), Devils (101.6), and Canadiens (101.2).2 That pours some cold water on two of the Western Conference’s best early-season stories in Nashville and Calgary, and the numbers look especially glum for the Flames, a bad possession team shooting a league-leading 10.26 percent that can’t possibly continue. On the other hand, the Predators, Habs, and Devils are seeing their PDO driven more by strong save percentages, and all of those teams have All-Star-caliber goalies. Still, Nashville’s in for a drop — since 2007-08, only one team has stayed over 103 for an entire season.3

At the other end of the PDO scale, five teams are sitting below 98.5. Not surprisingly, three are having lousy seasons: the Oilers (96.4), Blue Jackets (96.9), and Hurricanes (97.5). That tells us those teams should expect at least some improvement as the season goes on. That’s not much consolation, since all three are basically already out of playoff contention, but it’s worth keeping in mind when deciding how hard to lean on the panic button. The Capitals (98.2) have been another disappointment, but they’re still in the Metro mix and are worth keeping an eye on once their luck starts to even out.

That fifth low-PDO team is a weird one: It’s the Vancouver Canucks, who’ve actually been overachieving based on preseason expectations. Their shooting has been fine, but their .901 save percentage is second-worst in the league.4 That doesn’t reflect well on big-money free agent Ryan Miller’s play, but if he drifts up closer to his career average, the surprising Canucks could turn out to be for real.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

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

5. Chicago Blackhawks (12-8-1, plus-19) Hey, look who finally decided to join us. The record still isn’t much to look at, especially when you factor in the three shootout wins, and they lost to Vancouver last night. But the goal differential and the league’s second-best possession numbers earn them a spot, albeit just barely ahead of the Canucks and Ducks.

4. Montreal Canadiens (16-6-1, plus-4) I was all ready to give their spot to Boston if the Bruins had won their showdown on Saturday night. Instead, the Habs looked great while earning a road shutout. You keep finding new ways to make me sad, Bruins.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, November 21, 2014

Grab bag: When Leaf fans attack

In the weekly grab bag:
- Comedy all-stars, including Mike Milbury getting caught with his head down
- Phil Kessel snubs the media; my modest proposal for a new rule for handling these stories
- An obscure goalie who got to back up two Hall-of-Famers at the same time (and also once attacked Brendan Shanahan)
- Something that annoys me about "your" team's P.A. announcer
- Maple Leaf fans litter the ice with their team trailing 8-0. No, not on Tuesday... 24 years ago.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Checking in on the NHL's hot seat

Almost one-quarter of the NHL season is in the books, with several teams hitting the 20-game mark this week. And as usual, we’ve seen the usual array of goals, saves and bloopers, tight games and blowouts, inspiring upsets and outright tanking.

But something has been missing. Somehow, we’ve made it this far without a single coach or GM losing his job, which is rare. We usually get at least a firing or two over the first month, and last year we had one after just three games.1 But this year … nothing.

Or at least nothing yet. It’s inevitable that the pink slips will eventually start flying, and probably sooner than later. It’s never easy to see somebody lose his job, even in the big-dollar world of the NHL, but it does help to be prepared. So here’s a look at 10 seats around the league that are already getting warm or worse.

Sharks Coach Todd McLellan

Why he’s in trouble: McLellan has been on the hot seat for years, and his firing seemed like a sure thing after last season’s playoff collapse against the Kings. He was given a surprising reprieve by GM Doug Wilson, who vowed to overhaul the roster instead. That led into the summer’s odd standoff with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and the team emerged without a captain but with essentially an unchanged core. So far, that patience hasn’t paid off, as the team has hovered around the .500 mark.

Their most recent effort, Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the lowly Sabres, will turn up the heat. It also doesn’t help McLellan’s case that the Sharks have a Stanley Cup–winning head coach on the staff in Larry Robinson, although Robinson has long maintained that he doesn’t want to run a team again.

What could save him: McLellan wasn’t the one who promised to reshape the roster and then didn’t deliver; that’s on Wilson, and maybe he’s the one who should be feeling the heat instead. That’s a mixed blessing for McLellan, since a GM under fire will often have to throw his coach overboard to buy time. But Wilson has shown patience so far.

More importantly, while the Sharks have been a disappointment, they haven’t been all that bad. They’ve been mediocre, sure, but they’re still right in the mix in a surprisingly tight Pacific, and one good week could have them pushing the Ducks for first place.

How hot is it? 4/10 now; 7/10 if they’re not in first place by February; 11/10 if they don’t win at least two playoff rounds.

Prediction: If the team is still stumbling along in December, the comparisons to the 2011-12 Kings will mount. That team made a midseason coaching switch to Darryl Sutter, who’s led them to a pair of Stanley Cup wins.

Flyers Coach Craig Berube

Why he’s in trouble: He’s the head coach of the Flyers, which is one of those positions where the seat starts getting warm on the day you take the job. That’s especially true when the team struggles to get over .500, which the Flyers have for much of the season. And he’s working for a GM who didn’t hire him; Ron Hextall was the assistant GM when Berube got the job last season, and could want to put his own guy in place now that he’s in charge.

What could save him: He’s been on the job for only a year. And last year’s Flyers struggled through the first few months, too, before eventually heating up enough to make the playoffs and then take the Rangers to a seventh game.

How hot is it? 3/10

Prediction: Berube makes it through the season, but needs another playoff spot to keep his job beyond that.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pick your cap: What if hockey's hall of fame worked like Cooperstown

The Hockey Hall of Fame officially welcomed six new members Monday night at the annual induction ceremony in Toronto. As per tradition, there were speeches, highlights, and the unveiling of each member’s plaque.

What there was not was any kind of formal emphasis on specific teams. That’s because, unlike baseball’s Hall of Fame, the hockey version doesn’t associate each new member with one team. Cooperstown inducts each player wearing a cap of the team he’s most associated with, which can lead to plenty of debate.

Hockey doesn’t do that. But what if we did?

It wouldn’t be an especially tough question for this year’s four player inductees; Dominik Hasek would go in as a Sabre, Peter Forsberg as an Av, Rob Blake as a King, and Mike Modano as a Star. But other years, it wouldn’t have been such an easy call. Some of hockey’s greatest stars split their prime years between two or more teams, and choosing just one franchise to induct a player under would lead to all sorts of arguments, hyperbole, and hurt feelings.

That sounds like fun, so let’s give it a try. Let’s reimagine the Hockey Hall of Fame under Cooperstown rules: Each player has to go in as a representative of one team, and one team only.

First, let’s get a few of the easier ones out of the way. Consider this a pregame stretch:

Brendan Shanahan: Red Wings

He played the majority of his 21-year career elsewhere, but the three Stanley Cups in Detroit make this one an easy call.

Doug Gilmour: Maple Leafs

He spent more time in Toronto than anywhere else and had his best seasons there; that’s enough to trump the Cup he won in Calgary.

Dino Ciccarelli: North Stars

He moved around a lot, but he scored three times as many goals with Minnesota as anywhere else.

Al MacInnis: Flames

A tougher call than I expected; he played 10 years in St. Louis and won his only Norris there. But his offensive totals (and Stanley Cup) from his 13 years in Calgary tip the scales.

Paul Coffey: Oilers

Played just seven of his 21 seasons in Edmonton, but they were his best.

Pat LaFontaine: Islanders

A tougher call than you’d think, since his crazy 1992-93 in Buffalo was his signature season. But injuries just limited his games played as a Sabre too much.

Wayne Gretzky: Oilers

Come on.

Now that we’re all warmed up, let’s move on to some tougher cases. Here are eight Hockey Hall of Famers who’d be tougher to nail down.

Patrick Roy: Canadiens or Avalanche?

Roy played 10 full seasons in Montreal to just seven in Colorado, with one season split between the two. But in terms of games played, it’s much closer, at just a 53 percent–to–47 percent edge for the Canadiens. And that’s for the regular season; in the playoffs, Roy actually played 133 games in Colorado to 114 in Montreal.

He split his four Stanley Cups between the two teams. Roy’s numbers in Colorado were significantly better than in Montreal, with his six best seasons in terms of GAA all coming as an Av. But that’s a function of the high-flying ’80s and early ’90s versus the dead puck decade that followed; adjusted for era, his numbers with both teams largely even out.

Perhaps the best argument for the Avalanche is that those were the years that Roy seemed to go from “very good goaltender” to “all-time great” in the eyes of most fans. But that’s because it was the second half of his career, when he started passing milestones and breaking records. As good as he was in Colorado, he was objectively better in Montreal — he won all three of his Vezinas there, and was a postseason first- or second-team All-Star five times, compared to just once in Colorado.

The verdict: Roy goes into the Hall as a Hab, in a decision that wasn’t as close as I thought it would be. By the way, Roy himself was asked about this when he was inducted, and dodged the question.

Brad Park: Rangers or Bruins?

Park isn’t as well known to the current generation of fans as fellow ’70s blueliners like Bobby Orr or Denis Potvin. In fact, that’s a big part of his legacy — he was the runner-up for the Norris Trophy six times over nine seasons without ever winning, the first four to Orr and the last two to Potvin.

With the exception of two years with the Wings, he split his career between the Rangers and Bruins. And it was just about as even a split as you could imagine. He played seven full seasons with each team, plus one year split between them. And his productivity with each team was eerily similar. Via, here were Park’s per-game averages with each team:


Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty close.

The verdict: The Rangers. They drafted and developed him, and he earned the majority of his All-Star selections (and Norris second-place finishes) in New York.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, November 17, 2014

Weekend wrap: Celebrating the best and worst... and most mediocre

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

Theme of the Week: Taking a Moment to Celebrate Mediocrity

Every week of the regular season, we’ve made sure to take a look at the league’s very best teams and its very worst. We’ll do it again this week. But first, what about the teams that don’t stand a chance of making either list? What about the ones that are firmly stuck in the dreaded middle of the pack?

These teams aren’t all that good, nor are they especially bad. They win about as often as they lose. They score about as often as they’re scored on. They don’t seem like a threat to win the Cup, and right now they have no chance of being Connor McDavid’s next home. They’re just … there.

Through the first six weeks, here are the league’s five most mediocre teams.

5. Ottawa Senators (8-5-4, plus-2 goals differential) They’ve won eight and lost nine, and are also well over .500 because the loser point is stupid.

4. Winnipeg Jets (9-7-3, minus-5) They’re just on the outside of the wild-card race. That’s either an accurate description of the standings, or the team’s new marketing slogan.

3. San Jose Sharks (10-8-2, plus-3) Going into the season we had no idea what the Sharks would be, but we knew they wouldn’t be boring. Twenty games in: 10 wins, 10 losses, 56 goals for, 53 goals against, and 49 percent possession. That’s … kind of boring, no?

2. Philadelphia Flyers (7-7-2, minus-2) They’re painfully mediocre, and yet somehow not even the most mediocre team in their own division. The Metro: Feel the excitement!

1. Washington Capitals (7-7-3, plus-1) They’ve got 17 points in 17 games, and the most even goals differential in the league.1 Mostly out of force of habit, I blame Alexander Ovechkin.

Now let’s never speak of these teams again. On to the good and the bad.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, November 14, 2014

The end of enforcers

When I was growing up as a hockey fan in the ’80s, I knew every enforcer on every team. I could rattle off 30 or 40 names if you asked me to, and quite possibly even if you didn’t. I had them listed in order of ability on a page tucked away in the back of a notebook, and when I got bored during class, I’d update the rankings based on the most recent fights.

I got the latest release of Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey for Christmas every year, and still do to this day. I own a custom-made Craig Berube no. 16 Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, quite possibly the only one still in existence. I can remember going into the bank with my allowance to figure out how to buy a money order so I could mail away for the Wayne Gretzky Hockey fight disc. In college, without easy access to cable TV and long before the days of YouTube, I learned how to connect with VHS tape traders so my friends and I could get caught up on the latest bouts.

I tell you all of this not out of pride or embarrassment or even because I think it’s all that interesting, but because I want you to know that when it comes to hockey fights, as George Carlin would say, my credentials are in good order. That’s important, because I loved enforcers back then, and even more, I hated lectures from snobby anti-fighting sportswriters who clearly had never enjoyed a good honest scrap in their life and had no right to talk down their noses to those of us who did.

All of which makes it a very strange experience to write these words: The NHL’s enforcer era is coming to an end, and I’m happy about that. I don’t want those guys in the game anymore.

Let’s start with some recent background for those getting caught up with the shift in the landscape. The NHL has always been a copycat league, and these days the trend is toward teams that can roll four lines that can all be trusted with meaningful ice time. That doesn’t leave much room for designated fighters, and teams have begun dropping them from the lineup. And because the tough guys are there at least part to neutralize other tough guys, each one that loses a job makes it tougher for the next guy to justify his. This summer seemed be the tipping point. The Bruins moved on from Shawn Thornton, the Maple Leafs demoted Colton Orr, and longtime tough guys like Krys Barch, Paul Bissonnette, and Kevin Westgarth all find themselves out of the NHL.

We’re not talking about the end of fighting altogether — at least not yet — but rather of the one-note heavyweight, the guy who’s there to drop the gloves and maybe throw a hit or two, and not much else. The job hasn’t been entirely eliminated; a handful of teams are still holdouts, especially in the Western Conference, and there are more than a few dissenting voices. But when even longtime advocates like Mike Milbury are jumping ship, it’s hard not to see this as less of a temporary trend and more of a permanent change.

All of which takes me back to those days of worshiping the game’s heavyweights, when we’d devour the highlights of the latest matchups and wage impassioned debates over whether Kocur could really hold his own against Kordic. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined a world in which I wouldn’t want those guys in the league.

Not everyone agreed; even then, there were always plenty of media voices railing against the NHL’s culture of violence. But most fans didn’t listen and most of the league’s decision-makers didn’t seem to care. The game needed its enforcers, the thinking went; they kept the rest of the players honest. Hockey was a dangerous game, but you were more likely to keep your stick down and your elbows in if you knew there was a monster at the end of the other bench waiting to hold you accountable.

That was most people’s arguments, but it was never mine. I didn’t doubt it, since it was everywhere, but it wasn’t my case to make, because I never played at a high enough level to know whether it was true of false. And it didn’t really matter, because I had a better reason to cheer on the enforcers and the chaos they caused: It was fun. It made the game more entertaining.

Some people recoil at that sort of argument, as if enjoying a fight just for the sake of it was unseemly. I never really understood why that was. The NHL, like all pro leagues, is an entertainment product; as much as we’d like to assign a higher purpose to our sports, the fact is that as soon as people stop enjoying them and wanting to pay to see them, they go away. If something makes the game more entertaining to enough people, then by definition it has value.

And as a fan, I always thought the enforcers were just about the most entertaining guys. I loved the whole package: the debates over who was the heavyweight champ, and who was next in line in the top contender’s spot; the quick scan of the lineup cards in an attempt to figure out who might pair off; the buzz in an arena when two tough guys lined up next to each other on a faceoff. The third period of a 6-1 blowout could be boring and unwatchable, but mix in a little bad blood and the possibility of a score to settle and it became can’t-miss TV.

That the enforcers were often the smartest guy on the team, and inevitably seemed to be the most active in the community, only added to the appeal. They’d serve up those patented death glares on the ice, but big smiles off of it. They loved their jobs, which is how you knew everything was OK.

When fighting started to drop, the game’s entertainment value dropped in my eyes. I know I wasn’t alone — find any classic scrap on YouTube and check the comments for disaffected fans bemoaning the loss of what the NHL used to be but it quickly became apparent it wasn’t the sort of thing you were supposed to say out loud. So we argued about safety and rats and “policing the game” instead.

That stuff was important, but it wasn’t really the point. Fighting was just fun, and that was all that mattered. And I felt that way, and I made that case whenever I could, right up until it wasn’t fun anymore.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Grab bag: Don Cherry is out of time

In the weekly grab bag:
- When a steak is not a streak
- The Phil Kessel selfie, and other comedy starts
- Let's all mess with Don Cherry
- A future Hall-of-Famer's awkward draft day
- and more...

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Is Daniel Alfredsson a Hall-of-Famer?

It’s not looking good for Daniel Alfredsson. The 41-year-old free agent has yet to rejoin the Red Wings, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the back problems that bothered him throughout the summer are still an issue. While the Red Wings are willing to give the veteran as much time as he needs to make a decision, a return is becoming less likely with every week that goes by.

With Hall of Fame induction ceremonies taking place this weekend in Toronto, attention will naturally turn to potential future classes. And that makes Alfredsson’s status all the more interesting, because if his career ended today, he’d become one of those tough calls that make Hall of Fame debates so much fun.

So let’s do this: If Alfredsson has indeed played his last NHL game, is he a Hall of Famer? Here’s the case for and against.

For: His numbers are good

For forwards in the modern era, topping the 1,000-point mark has long been considered the minimum threshold to get into the Hall of Fame discussion, and Alfredsson clears that mark comfortably with a career total of 1,157. He falls short of the 500-goal mark, another milestone that bolsters a case, but he was never viewed as a pure goal scorer, and his 444 goals are within the lower range of what the Hall seems to consider acceptable.

Against: His numbers are good; they’re not great

Alfredsson’s career totals are decent, but they fall well short of sure-thing territory. He sits 51st in career points, behind guys like Bernie Nicholls and Vincent Damphousse who never even dipped a toe into serious HOF conversation.

That’s not an especially great comparison, since those guys played in a higher-scoring era. But nobody ever said these debates were fair, and some selection committee members might look at Alfredsson’s totals and feel underwhelmed when the comparisons start getting thrown around.

He also only topped 40 goals and 90 points once in his career. Basically, his numbers fall into that “consistently very good, rarely great” category that sometimes fails to impress voters.

For: Some comparable players are already in, or will be soon

One Hall of Famer who overlaps much of Alfredsson’s era and had similar career point totals is Joe Nieuwendyk (1,126), who made it in his second year of eligibility. Sergei Fedorov (1,179) is expected to get in once he becomes eligible in 2015, and Jarome Iginla (1,176) would make it if he retired today. Guys like Glenn Anderson and Joe Mullen are also in, despite playing in the high-scoring ’80s and putting up fewer career points than Alfredsson.

Of course, the most unavoidable comparable for Alfredsson is Mats Sundin. Those two have always been linked thanks to the Leafs/Senators rivalry, and because they were off-ice friends as well as teammates on various Swedish international teams. Sundin finished with significantly better career totals, including 564 goals and 1,349 points, but he had the benefit of playing a few years in the early ’90s. Sundin made it in in his first year of eligibility and nobody really batted an eye, so that would imply that Alfredsson should at least have a shot.

Against: Plenty of other comparable players aren’t

According to’s career similarity scores, Alfredsson’s two most comparable players are Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk. Both of those players have been eligible for a few years and settled into that perpetual “close, but not this year” territory, although Roenick, at least, has an outside shot to get in eventually.

Other guys with similar career numbers include Pierre Turgeon, Alexander Mogilny, Rod Brind’Amour, and Theo Fleury, not to mention a guy like Dave Andreychuk who’s well ahead of all of them. That’s a group of really good players, but none of them ever gained much Hall of Fame momentum.

(By the way, if you’re getting the sense that the Hall of Fame tends to be all over the map with the way it treats offensive forwards, you’re on the right track.)

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, November 7, 2014

Grab bag: Wayne vs. Mario in the battle of awkward ads

In this week's grab bag:
- Three comedy stars, plus one awesome kid
- Are the Sabres tanking?
- An election-week obscure player
- A cautionary tale about giving big money to Cup-winning goalies
- And Wayne Gretzky and his cast of 7-Up misfits challenge Mario Lemieux for the title of history's most awkward hockey ads

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What's going on in the Central?

We’re a month into the season, and for the most part, the standings look about right. There are surprises here and there, to be sure, but things are starting to settle in, and a look around the league’s divisions shows that things are unfolding pretty much according to plan.

We all figured the Atlantic would be some combination of the Bruins, Habs, and Lightning at the top, with the Sabres and Panthers at the bottom, and that’s exactly what it is. We all had the Penguins on top of a logjam in the Metro, and there they are. We figured the California teams would own the Pacific, and while the Canucks and Flames appear to have missed that memo, the division is otherwise about right.

But there’s always one troublemaker, and this year it’s the Central. It’s by far the league’s tightest division, with all seven teams separated by just six points. Nobody’s managed more than six regulation/OT wins. And while it was supposed to be the league’s best division, if the postseason started today, it would send just three teams.

What’s going on? And more importantly, can it last? Let’s see if we can figure any of this out.

What was the Central Division supposed to look like?

Preseason predictions are often all over the map. But as the season approached, it’s fair to say that a reasonably strong consensus started to emerge around the Central. The Blackhawks were the heavy favorite to be the division’s best team, although you could have talked yourself into the Blues if you were sold on their offseason shake-up. The Stars were going to be the division’s most exciting team, and the Wild would be in the same range, but less interesting. The Jets and Predators would be terrible. And the Avalanche were the wild card — some people thought they’d be good, while others thought they’d struggle.

And what does it really look like?

The Blackhawks haven’t looked like themselves, limping out of the gate with a start just north of .500. The Blues weren’t much better early on, but have since strung together a six-game win streak to start resembling the team we expected them to be.

The Wild and Stars switched roles, with Minnesota being the division’s must-watch team while Dallas has been (barely) mediocre. The Jets and Predators have both been surprisingly good, and right now they’re holding down two of those three playoff spots.

And the Avalanche are still the wild card some people think they’ve been terrible, while others think they’ve been really terrible.

So we were wrong about everything?

Sort of, but with a few caveats. The most important, and most obvious, is that it’s still early. We’re only about a dozen games in, which is too soon to start carving any conclusions into stone. Remember, this time last year the Maple Leafs were in first place in the Eastern Conference, and we all remember how that turned out. There’s still plenty of time for things to get back to normal.

But since my editors rejected my proposal of exclusively breaking down old hockey team lip-sync videos until February, when everything settles down, we’ll work with what we have. And what we have are a dozen games from each of these teams, give or take. That’s not a lot, but it’s enough to start putting some pieces together.

Also, we weren’t wrong about everything. The Blues are about where we expected.

Good. Let’s talk about them first.

Gladly. There may not be a team in the division facing more pressure than the Blues, who haven’t been out of the second round in 14 years and could be forced into a “blow it up and start over” scenario if they can’t show that they can hang with the contenders.

So far, so good. The big question for St. Louis was always going to be goaltending. After last year’s Ryan Miller experiment turned out to be a disaster, they went into this season with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Elliott is a veteran who’s been very good for long stretches of his career, and Allen is one of the better prospects at the position, so they were in reasonably good shape, but they didn’t have a sure-thing established starter that most contenders like to have.

A dozen games in, both guys have been fantastic. They’ve had to be, since the offense has been a disappointment — Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the Devils being a perfect example but the team’s lowly even-strength shooting percentage suggests that should pick up. Big free-agent acquisition Paul Stastny has played just four games because of injury, but should be back soon, and young guys like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko haven’t hit their ceilings yet.

The Blues are sitting in first place, albeit by just a point or two over half the division. And they’ve still got lots of room to improve. But right now, they’re the division’s best team.

What about the Blackhawks? Weren’t they also supposed to be unstoppable?

I picked them to win the Cup this year, so obviously I’m scratching my head a bit over an uninspiring start that’s seen them win just five of 13 in regulation/overtime. They were one of the league’s best teams last year and returned largely the same lineup. And their one major offseason move, adding Brad Richards on a $2 million deal, was the sort of low-risk/high-reward move that seemed like it couldn’t fail.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The NHL draft was a beautiful mess in the 1970s

NHL fans love draft weekend. It marks the unofficial start of the offseason, and it serves as a period of renewal as a new rookie class is welcomed while teams wheel and deal to begin the long process of remaking their rosters.

But while the results are inherently unpredictable, the draft itself features a certain sense of familiarity. The league has been holding these things for over half a century, and by now we all know what to expect. We get a bust here, a late-round sleeper there, a trade or two if we’re lucky, and everyone is on a flight home by Saturday night. There’s a rhythm to the whole production that’s become ingrained in its DNA.

It wasn’t always that way. The NHL draft used to be chaos.

Specifically, the draft was chaos for pretty much all of the 1970s. It was still vaguely similar to what we know today, just familiar enough to be recognizable, but none of it made any sense.

If you’re not old enough to remember what went on — or if, like most people, you figured it was just better to pretend the whole decade never happened — then it’s worth your while to take a look back at the madness. Let’s just say it was an odd time to be a hockey fan.

Draft oddity no. 1: It was still relatively new

The first NHL draft wasn’t held until 1963; up until then, amateur players had been allocated exclusively based on club sponsorships and the use of C forms to lock up prospects. Those earliest drafts were quick and relatively unimportant affairs, with as few as 11 players taken across the league and teams frequently passing on their picks.

By the 1970s, the draft had come to more closely resemble what we’re used to today. But it was still fairly new and teams were still figuring out how to approach it. Some franchises spent heavily on amateur scouting; others all but ignored it. Some drafted based on what they needed right then; others looked long term. And some teams viewed their draft picks as critical assets, while others were more than willing to use them as cheap trade bait for acquiring immediate help.

That last factor turned out to be especially important, because it gave a smart GM an opportunity to take advantage of a market inefficiency. More on that in a minute.

Draft oddity no. 2: There was another league out there

The rival World Hockey Association had appeared in 1972 and would last until 1979, creating the odd dynamic of two professional leagues drafting from the same pool of players. That meant that NHL and WHA teams could end up drafting the same players, and teams ran the risk of picking guys who’d report to the rival league instead.

That was especially rough on the WHA, which typically saw most of its first-round talent choose to head to the higher profile NHL. But it complicated things for NHL teams, too, and that uncertainty led to some of the unusual behavior we’ll see in the next few sections. It also created a bizarre situation in which the two leagues would occasionally try to keep their drafts secret, to prevent the other side from knowing who’d been taken where.

Maybe more importantly, the WHA also helped create a landscape where the NHL felt the need to continue adding teams to keep up. That left the league with an eclectic mix of long-established franchises and brand-new markets. There were more front-office jobs than ever before. And not everyone knew what they were doing.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, November 3, 2014

Weekend wrap: The curse of November 1

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

Theme of the Week: The Curse of November 1

Last year, Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman made an intriguing discovery: Since the 2005 lockout, only three teams that had been four points or more out of a playoff spot on November 1 had managed to make the postseason. It sounded crazy — four points is just two wins, after all, and teams have roughly 70 games to make them up — but Friedman showed his work, and the math checked out.

Last season saw a bit of a slowing of that trend; of the eight teams that were at least four points out of the playoffs on November 1, 2013, two — the Stars and Flyers — eventually made it to the postseason. This year, five teams woke up Saturday in the dreaded position of being at least four points back. Will any be able to recover?

We can already go ahead and write off the Sabres and Hurricanes, even though both had decent weekends. The Oilers and Coyotes are sporting identical records and sharing last place in the Western standings, and both have the disadvantage of playing in a Pacific Division that, at least for now, seems like the tougher of the West’s two divisions.

The best odds probably belong to the Blue Jackets, who found themselves five points back in the weaker Eastern Conference. That’s not good, but it could be a lot worse given that Columbus has been fighting through a rash of early-season injuries that’s left it icing a borderline AHL lineup some nights. In a Metro Division that’s still sorting itself out, the Blue Jackets could climb back into the mix once they get healthy, as long as they can find a way to stay within range until then.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 31, 2014

Grab bag: Won't somebody please think of the children in Mario Lemieux commercials

In the weekly grab bag:
- The three comedy stars
- Obscure player of the week Rick Zombie
- The Maple Leafs hold a closed-door meeting
- WE DID IT! The league listens to grab bag readers and finally fixes one of our trivial annoyances
- Don Cherry doesn't say a word about hockey
- And a YouTube breakdown of why you should never let Mario Lemieux near your children during a commercial

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Eight early season surprises

As the season’s opening month comes to an end, we’re getting our first opportunity to try to make some sense of the standings. There’s still plenty of parity in the NHL, and the middle of the league is so bunched up that even a light slate of games can send everyone shuffling up or down. But things are starting to settle into place, and by now we can take a crack at figuring out who we were right or wrong about.

For the most part, things look a lot like the conventional wisdom expected them to. We knew that teams like the Kings and Blackhawks would be good, and we knew that teams like the Sabres and Hurricanes would be awful, and so far they’ve all held up their end of the bargain. Plenty of other teams are about where we’d expected them to be, too, give or take a few points.

And then there are the outliers, that handful of teams stubbornly refusing to play the way they were supposed to. There are always a few troublemakers every year, especially early on, and they tend to settle back into place as the season wears on. But occasionally, those surprise teams end up proving us wrong all year long.

Here’s a look at eight of the league’s most surprising teams, both the good and the bad, and whether they have any chance of keeping it up.

1. Good surprise: Montreal Canadiens (8-2-0, 16 points, first in the Atlantic)

You’d expect a conference finalist from the previous season to be good, even if that deep playoff run was somewhat unexpected. If the team was relatively young and backed by an elite goaltender, you might even expect them to be very good.

But I don’t recall seeing anyone picking the Montreal Canadiens to be the league’s best team, which is what the standings say they’ve been so far. At 8-2-0, the Canadiens are tied with the Ducks for first place overall. They’re a perfect 4-0-0 at home and have already won playoff rematches with the Rangers and Bruins.

Will it last? The current pace obviously won’t continue; nobody’s expecting the Habs to finish with 130 points. The question here is how much they’ll drop. And at least one stat suggests they could drop quite a bit; their goals differential, a paltry plus-1, suggests they’re a lot closer to a .500 team than to legitimate contender status. (That differential is heavily influenced by an early-season 7-1 drubbing by the Lightning, which it’s tempting to write off as just one bad game. But when we’re dealing with a tiny 10-game sample, we can’t really get picky.) They’re also a perfect 3-0 in shootouts, which are basically coin flips.

But other numbers suggest that what the Canadiens are doing could continue. The typical stats that would indicate a fluke — high team shooting percentage, uncharacteristic even-strength save percentage, a PDO well north of 1,000 — don’t flag anything Montreal’s doing as obviously unsustainable. And so far the Habs are winning without especially dominating performances from their best players, like P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, and even Carey Price (who hadn’t looked all that sharp until a recent three-game stretch).

The Canadiens are a good team; they might be the best in the conference. All standard disclaimers about it being early and a long season still apply, but right now, they look like the real deal.

2. Bad surprise: Boston Bruins (5-6-0, 10 points, fifth in the Atlantic)

In 2011, they won the Cup. In 2013, they came within two games of winning it again. Last year, they led the league with 117 points. There wasn’t a team in the East that had been as consistently good as the Bruins for so long, and heading into this year there was every reason to assume it would continue.1

Instead, they’ve spent the first month scraping by as a sub-.500 team, and of their four regulation wins, three have come against bottom-feeders like the Flyers, Leafs, and Sabres. A team that had established a reputation as one of the league’s best defensive units has often looked lost over the first few weeks, perhaps hampered by injuries and contract disputes, and no team has inspired more “they just don’t look like themselves” comments. Vezina winner Tuukka Rask doesn’t appear invincible any more, and now Zdeno Chara is out for four to six weeks.

It’s only one month, but with both the Habs and the Lightning looking every bit as good as advertised, it feels like the top seed in the Atlantic may already be slipping away.

Will it last? Chara’s injury leaves a massive hole in the lineup, and the Bruins don’t have the cap space to go out and do much about it. So it’s quite possible the team continues to lose ground until its captain returns sometime around early December. By that point, any hope of a top seed in the east may be on life support.

But let’s take a step back. Chara will return eventually, and Rask’s career numbers indicate he’ll bounce back. And even now, the tide seems to be turning: The Bruins had won three of four before Tuesday’s third-period meltdown against the Wild, and starting tonight they’ve got six straight games against teams that missed the playoffs last year.

So they’re still good, even if for the time being they’re no longer scary good. But if they’re going to stay in the hunt for the division title, they’ll need to do more than tread water until Chara is back.

>> Read the full post on Grantland