Monday, March 31, 2014

Weekend wrap: Breaking down the Eastern Conference wildcard race

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

The Team We’re All Vaguely Sick Of

So I guess we can just go ahead and pencil the Red Wings in for 23.

That would be 23 consecutive seasons of making the playoffs, of course, the longest active streak in pro sports and one that seemed in mortal danger just a few weeks ago. On March 17, the Wings found themselves three points out and needing to climb past two teams to get into the postseason. What was worse, they were missing their two best players, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, to long-term injuries.

Two weeks later, they’re holding on to one of the East’s wild-card spots. They haven’t exactly done it by catching fire — they’re just 5-3-0 over their last eight — but it’s been enough to pull back into what’s become a turtle derby for the conference’s final two spots.

On Saturday, the Wings went into Toronto to face what should have been a desperate Maple Leafs team and walked out with a 4-2 win. After falling behind 1-0 after one period, Detroit blitzed the Leafs for three goals in the first eight minutes of the second. Toronto pulled back to within one late in the period, but Darren Helm’s hat trick goal midway through the third put a stop to the comeback. The Leafs have now lost eight straight in regulation for the first time since the worst of the Harold Ballard years. They’re a mess, and after this paragraph ends we’re not going to talk about them anymore, because this post is about actual playoff contenders.

The win snapped Detroit’s three-game losing streak and moved it into a tie with Columbus for the two wild-card spots. The Red Wings pulled ahead of the Blue Jackets on Sunday on the strength of a 3-2 win in Tampa, and now sit at 84 points with seven games left to play.

In Datsyuk and Zetterberg’s absence, the biggest story has been Swedish phenom Gustav Nyquist, a 24-year-old winger who had only 40 games under his belt heading into the season and wasn’t even called up to the NHL roster until late November. He’s scored at nearly a point-per-game pace since then, including 11 goals over his last nine games. That included Sunday night’s effort, a goal-of-the-year candidate that saw him shrug off multiple attempted tackles to beat Ben Bishop on a second effort. Even given the inevitable regression from his current 19.6 percent shooting, he seems set to become the latest Red Wing to go from late-round draft pick to first-line fixture.

The Wings probably still need another eight or nine points in their final seven games to wrap up their spot. So sure, we can pencil them in, but let’s also make sure to have an eraser handy. A lot has changed over the last two weeks, and a whole lot more can change over the next two. And that’s especially true if either of the two teams still chasing them can wake up and make a strong push.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, March 28, 2014

Grab bag: When cowardly players avoid the media

In the grab bag:
- The three stars of comedy
- Should fans respect the jersey?
- The NHL's all-time cleanest player
- Debating players who snub the media
- The day Don Cherry became a ballet dancer
- And a YouTube breakdown of happier times in Edmonton

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Canadian Tire Fire: Why are a whole country's teams so bad this year?

Is this godforsaken season going to be over any time soon? I’m asking for an entire country.

And no, I don’t mean winter, although come to think of it, that works, too. I mean the NHL’s regular season. Or, as it’s known in six of the league’s seven Canadian markets, the only part of the season we’re going to get.

Apparently we Canadians used up all our hockey karma in Sochi, because the country’s NHL teams are all going through various stages of misery. If the season ended today (and 80 percent of Canadians would vote for that if we could), the nation would send only one team to the playoffs for the first time in more than four decades. And even that one team isn’t considered a real contender.

The question isn’t whether this had been a bad year for Canadian NHL teams; it’s whether it’s been the worst year ever. In fact, it would be tempting to break out Al Pacino’s Any Given Sunday speech and tell the entire country that “We are in hell right now, gentlemen,” except that couldn’t be true because at least hell is warm.

How did we get here? Where did it all go wrong? And is there any hope for the future? Let’s take a look at each of Canada’s teams, and try to figure this mess out.


Edmonton Oilers

Jordan Eberle #14 (L) and Taylor Hall #4 of the Edmonton Oilers

Derek Leung/Getty Images

The Expectations: After years of misery, this was going to finally be the year the Oilers broke through. Their core of young players (including three former first-overall draft picks) were entering their prime, they’d hired the league’s most sought-after young coach in Dallas Eakins, and Craig MacTavish has returned to the organization as general manager while promising bold moves.

Nobody was calling them Cup contenders, but at the very least, they’d be solidly in the playoff mix.

The Reality: Disaster. They started 1-6-1, and by November 15, they were sitting at 4-15-2 and were already dead in the water. Eakins’s heralded “swarm” defensive system ended up being a complicated misfire, Taylor Hall seems to have regressed, Nail Yakupov looks like a bust, and the goaltending was a nightmare. Only a total washout by the Sabres has kept them from making a return to dead last.

What Went Wrong: Nobody knows.

Honestly, I think that’s a fair assessment. I’ve read more analysis of the Oilers than any other NHL team this year, and there’s just no consensus on what happened.

Goaltending was the biggest problem early, as Devan Dubnyk floundered and Ilya Bryzgalov didn’t help. But it certainly wasn’t the only issue. They’ve been a terrible possession team and have often looked lost defensively. Eakins sounds smart when he talks about the issues, but whatever he’s doing to fix them isn’t working. (And picking silly fights with his best player over water bottle accidents won’t help.)

As for that trio of first-overall picks, they’re now generating headlines like “They took the wrong players.” That’s not good.

Firing Squad: MacTavish isn’t going anywhere. It’s always possible that president of hockey ops Kevin Lowe could be pushed out, but that seems unlikely and wouldn’t change much. That leaves Eakins, if someone has to take the fall for this year’s debacle. But he’s been on the job only for one year, and a knee-jerk firing of your new coach after one season is a Cleveland Browns move. Are the Oilers the Browns of the NHL? [Thinks about it.] Uh, may want to grab a few change-of-address cards, Dallas. Just in case.

Ominous Sign: They just lost a game in which one of their own fans littered the ice with a jersey. That’s bad. The final score in that one was 8-1. That’s worse. It was to the Calgary Flames. That’s … well, they haven’t invented an English word that captures that level of awful yet, but I hear they’re leaning toward “Oilerific.”

Ray of Hope: There are several, believe it or not. The new goaltending tandem of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth has looked competent, sometimes even downright good, so there may finally be some stability at the position. The core of the roster is still young enough that you can convince yourself they’ll improve, especially once Eakins figures out what works at the NHL level. And they’ll have another high pick in this year’s draft, which they could use to take Aaron Ekblad, a blueline stud who’d help a team that’s used its other top picks to load up on young forwards.

YouTube Video to Cheer Up Oiler Fans: This feels like it was a million years ago.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Everything you know is wrong: Five more hockey myths

Hockey fans don’t agree on much, but every now and then we let our guard down and a consensus forms. Unfortunately, just because we all agree doesn’t necessarily mean we’re right.

A few months ago, we set the record straight on five common NHL myths. No, Andre “Red Light” Racicot wasn’t terrible. Yes, the Senators’ decision to keep Wade Redden over Zdeno Chara actually did make sense. No, Ulf Samuelsson’s knee-on-knee hit didn’t end Cam Neely’s career.

It was a start, but there’s more work to do. So in our continuing quest for the unvarnished truth, or at least for slightly more accurate fallacies, here are five more facts that every hockey fan already knows … and that every hockey fan is dead wrong about.

In the Beginning, There Were the Original Six

Every fan knows about the fabled Original Six, because the NHL really gives you no choice in the matter. The Hawks, Wings, Leafs, Habs, Bruins, and Rangers are the six oldest teams in the league, and for many years they made up the entire NHL. The league’s marketing department rarely passes up an opportunity to remind us of that legacy, and to this day, any matchup between two Original Six teams is treated as something special.

But despite what the name would suggest, the “Original Six” weren’t really the league’s original teams. The league had plenty of other franchises come and go during its first few decades, and spent most of that time operating with more than six teams.

The NHL was founded in 1917, following the demise of the National Hockey Association. It started off with four teams, and when the Montreal Wanderers disbanded halfway through the season after their arena burned down, the league was left with just three: the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators, and a nameless Toronto franchise that would eventually become the Maple Leafs.

As the years went by, the league saw teams appear in Quebec City and Hamilton. The Bruins were the first American team, joining the league in 1924. The Rangers and Blackhawks followed in 1926, as did a Detroit franchise that would eventually be renamed the Red Wings.

So it took almost a decade for all six of the “Original Six” franchises to wind up in the NHL — and even then, the league also included teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Eagles at various points. It wasn’t until 1942, a quarter century after its formation, that the NHL finally settled into the six-team league that fans have become familiar with. It would stay that way until 1967, when the league increased to 12 teams to begin what would become known as the expansion era.

Those 25 years were by far the longest stretch of time that the NHL featured the same group of teams, and it was the era that set the stage for everything the league would eventually become. It just wasn’t all that original, no matter what the marketers try to tell us.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, March 24, 2014

Weekend wrap: The Leafs are terrible and probably some other stuff but who even cares

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

Revisiting the Playoff Bubble

On March 13, I wrote a post that examined the 15 teams on the playoff bubble, breaking them down into three groups based on what I considered their odds of making it in. A lot can change in 11 days, so it’s worth going back and updating some statuses now.

My first group was the teams I thought could feel relatively safe. That list had five teams, including the Habs, Lightning, and Wild, and at this point we can probably take those three off the bubble list altogether; they’re all in.

The fourth team in the “safe” category was the New York Rangers. Despite being only three points clear of a playoff spot, I figured they’d be fine based on an easy schedule and their recent addition of Martin St. Louis. They’ve won three straight, but St. Louis has yet to score and they haven’t been able to gain any ground; they’re holding down their spot by that same three-point margin. I still like their chances, but I’ve heard from plenty of nervous Rangers fans who feel like “safe” is stretching things.

That still leaves us with one more team from the “safe” group, but let’s skip it for a minute and move on to the second group, the “need a miracle” teams. The Jets and Senators are done. The Canucks have proven surprisingly feisty and are still hanging around, but it’s only by a thread after yet another injury, this one to Henrik Sedin.

That left seven true bubble teams that could go either way. Of those, only the Devils have really stumbled, managing just one OT win in five games before finally getting a regulation win Sunday night. They’re not quite dead yet, but at this point, their best hope may be that Gary Bettman just decides to ignore the rules and do Lou Lamoriello another favor.

On the other hand, the Flyers have won five straight, including wins over top-tier teams like the Penguins, Hawks, and Blues. That last win came on Saturday by a 4-1 score, with the Blues dominating the shot chart but having Ryan Miller outdueled by Steve Mason. With a four-point cushion and games in hand on everyone chasing them, the Flyers are all but in.

The Red Wings have made a late push and are now holding down a wild-card spot. The Capitals are pushing hard, but have a tough pair of games coming up this week against the Kings and Bruins. And the Blue Jackets are still very much alive, though Sunday’s 2-0 loss to the lowly Islanders is a tough one.

That leaves us with three teams we haven’t mentioned yet, and they probably need their own sections. Let’s start out West.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, March 21, 2014

Grab bag: The St. Patrick's Day Massacre

In this week's grab bag: Comedy stars, a draft lottery debate, injury reports, Fat Balloon, and the St. Patrick's Day Massacre.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, March 20, 2014

An introduction to on-ice percentages

One of the things I like to do in this space, in between reminiscing about the Norris Division and breaking down hockey player lip sync videos frame by frame, is occasionally dip a toe into the advanced stats waters. So far this season, we’ve already introduced most of the basic concepts, walked through how they can be used to project success or failure for a given team, and looked at the surprising importance of zone entries.

Today, let’s take a crack at on-ice percentages. It’s a concept that presents a slight variation on some common stats you’re already used to, and it doesn’t involve any especially onerous math, but it can end up being crucially important to understanding a player’s more traditional stats. And that turns out to be especially true when those stats start telling us something we weren’t expecting.

Let’s start with on-ice shooting percentage.


What is on-ice shooting percentage?

You’re already familiar with a player’s regular shooting percentage, which is a basic stat that most fans understand well. Shooting percentage is simply the percentage of shots on net taken by a player that result in a goal. A player who takes 300 shots and scores 30 goals is shooting 10 percent. That would be better than the league average, which over the last several seasons is right about 9 percent.

On-ice shooting percentage is essentially the same concept, but with an important twist: It counts all shots taken at the opponent’s net when a player is on the ice, including those by his teammates. It’s a measure of how successful a team is at converting its shots with a certain player on the ice, whether or not the player is the one doing the shooting. Like any stat, on-ice shooting percentage can be applied to all game situations or broken down further by specifying even strength, close situations, etc.

It’s a fairly new stat, since it relies on data we’ve only had available to us for a few years. Unlike regular shooting percentage, on-ice shooting percentage isn’t typically mentioned on TV broadcasts or in newspaper stat packages. But it’s become relatively easy to find online, and you can now pull on-ice shooting percentages for every player on sites like (where it appears on every player page as “Sh%” under the dashboard’s “5 on 5 on-ice” header).

Why should we care?

It should go without saying that on-ice shooting percentage will have an enormous impact on a player’s more traditional stats. If a high rate of his own shots go in, he’ll score more goals. If a high rate of those taken by his teammates go in, he should expect more assists.

And unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what we see. Many of this year’s top scorers, including guys like Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby, and John Tavares, also rank in the top 20 for overall on-ice shooting percentage among players with at least 52 games played.

That’s nice, but not necessarily all that useful — after all, we don’t need advanced stats to tell us those players are having good years. The real value here, like with most advanced stats, would lie in helping us make educated guesses about the future, and which players are most likely to sustain their level of performance.

On-ice shooting percentage could do that, but first we need to know whether it’s primarily driven by skill or luck. If it’s a skill, we’d expect players with high percentages to keep racking up points. If it’s mostly luck, we’d expect them to be top candidates to fall back to earth.

So which is it? Let’s find out.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The NHL's top ten Patrick moments

Monday was St. Patrick’s Day, and since you’re a hockey fan, I’m just going to go ahead and assume you’re hungover right now.

And that’s fine, because we’re going to keep it light today with a St. Patrick’s Day theme. The NHL has been blessed with plenty of Pats and Patricks over the years, and they’ve combined to create several memorable moments that are ripe for an arbitrary ranking. Lots of YouTube videos, with not too much thinking required on your part. Or mine, if we’re being honest.

One ground rule: Each Patrick can have only one moment on the list, because otherwise the entire thing would just be one guy. Also, we’re looking at Pats and Patricks here; we will not be including anyone named Patrik or Patrice. Because screw guys named Patrice, that’s why.

So let’s do this … the Top 10 Most Memorable NHL Moments From Hockey’s Pats and Patricks.

10. Patrick Marleau Slams the Canucks’ Window Shut

Around the NHL, Patrick Marleau is known for three things. He’s the Sharks’ all-time leading scorer. He holds the modern record for the best start to a season, scoring 11 goals in his first four games in 2012-13. And he has, without question, the greatest eyebrows in league history. Wait, I guess that’s four things. Math is hard.

In Vancouver, he may wind up with another claim to fame: as the player who ended the Canucks’ run as one of the league’s best teams. After a dominant run that included back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and an agonizing seven-game loss in the 2011 final, the Canucks went into their 2013 first-round matchup against Marleau and the Sharks as slight favorites. Instead, San Jose took a 3-0 series lead into a fourth game that wound up in overtime. That’s when Marleau showed up with the dagger.

The loss was the last game in a Vancouver uniform for Cory Schneider, cost coach Alain Vigneault his job, and set the Canucks down the road to this season’s disaster. As for Marleau, the goal was just one more piece of evidence that Jeremy Roenick was wrong about him.

9. Patrick Sharp Sets the All-Time PIM Record

The NHL has a long history of ugly violence. The 1970s and ’80s featured a number of bench-clearing brawls, some of which came before the game even started, and every now and then a team would randomly climb into the stands and start beating fans with shoes.

So you might assume that any fight that ended up setting the all-time record for total PIMs in one game would probably be an epic battle featuring bloodshed, flying teeth, and maybe samurai swords. Not quite. As we can see at the 4:15 mark of the clip below, the league record actually ended up being broken by a tickle-fight between Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza.

This, of course, is from the infamous Senators/Flyers game in 2004 that featured two line brawls, several additional fights, and a group of officials who wet their pants and started handing out multiple misconducts to every player who got even vaguely involved.

That last bit helped push the game’s PIM total into record territory, and the Sharp/Spezza scrap was the one that put it over the top. Despite it lasting just five seconds, the referees decided the fight was worth a combined 60 minutes in penalties. Sixty! Imagine if any of the punches had landed.

By the way, I’ve always enjoyed the way Sharp’s Wikipedia page includes this disambiguation link: “For the Scottish theologian, see Patrick Sharp (theologian).” Blackhawk fans, does Patrick Sharp have a cool nickname yet? If not, can I suggest “The Scottish Theologian”?

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, March 17, 2014

Weekend wrap: Canadiens comeback, Flyers sweep Pens, and you don't know how the playoffs work

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

Habs Hit a Buzzer-beater

The weekend’s most entertaining matchup was Saturday night’s contest between the Senators and Canadiens in Montreal, though you wouldn’t know it if you’d turned the game off once Ottawa had locked up the win.

And that win really did seem locked up, with Ottawa holding a 4-1 lead with four minutes to play in regulation. Fans like to get dramatic and talk about teams pulling off unheard-of comebacks, but in this case it’s not hyperbole: No team in the history of the league had ever won a game in which it had trailed by three with less than five minutes to play.

Until Saturday night, that is, when the Canadiens stormed back for a win that was both unprecedented and controversial. Lars Eller closed the gap to 4-2 with under four minutes left, and Brian Gionta made it 4-3 with two remaining. A late penalty to Ottawa’s Kyle Turris sent Montreal to the power play and set up a furious final minute. After a frantic scramble in front of Sens goalie Robin Lehner, P.K. Subban somehow had the presence of mind to find an open David Desharnais with a pass with time about to expire, and the center buried it with just 0.3 seconds left on the clock.

The Senators were furious with the goal, arguing that Lehner had been bumped out of position seconds earlier. They weren’t any happier with Francis Bouillon’s overtime game winner, which came on another scramble after Lehner thought he’d frozen the puck. Referee Eric Furlatt was in good position and ruled that the puck had never been covered, but the Senators protested wildly, with Bobby Ryan having to be restrained from going after the officials.

From Ottawa’s perspective, the loss can only be described as crushing. While the Senators can take some consolation in picking up a loser point, they need every win they can get if they’re going to have any hope of making a playoff push. They took yet another loss Sunday, this time falling 3-1 to the Avalanche, and now sit seven points back of a wild-card spot with four teams to pass. They’re basically done.

For Montreal, the crazy finish partially overshadowed the return of Carey Price, who played for the first time since the Olympics after recovering from a leg injury. (Backup Dustin Tokarski got the start Sunday night in Buffalo, and earned his first career shootout in a 2-0 win.) With their star goaltender healthy again and a seven-point cushion in the wild-card race, the Habs are now all but assured of a playoff spot.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, March 14, 2014

Grab bag: The night the paramedics dropped the mike

The grab bag: Comedy stars; pro-hockey memes; the Ballad of Builder Lego; the long change will save us all; Don Cherry lives; and the night the paramedics dropped the Mike.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A look at the NHL's playoff bubble teams

As of today, we’re officially down to one month left in the NHL regular season. And that means it’s time to start figuring out the postseason picture, with our annual look at the playoff bubble.

Most teams have about 15 to 17 games left, so it’s a little early to definitively declare anybody in or out — nobody has actually mathematically clinched anything. But I think we can all agree that a few teams are locks. The Ducks, Blues, Hawks, Sharks, Kings, Bruins, Avalanche, and Pens are in. The Oilers, Flames, Sabres, Islanders, Predators, Panthers, and Hurricanes are done. Everyone’s on board with that, right?

That still leaves 15 teams, which seems ridiculously excessive for a so-called bubble. Then again, this is the NHL’s Age of Fake Parity, where Gary Bettman & Co. pretend that every team with a pulse is still right in the thick of things even though we all know most of them really aren’t. (For example, here’s last year’s bubble piece, written with a quarter of the season left; note how absolutely nobody actually moved in or out of a playoff spot.) If that’s the image the league insists on projecting and fans want to embrace, who am I to argue?

In that spirit, let’s take a look at each of the 15 teams fighting for the eight remaining spots.


Group 1: Should Feel Pretty Safe

New York Rangers

Current status: IN (35-27-4, 74 points, three points up for wild-card spot or Metro berth)

Remaining schedule: The Rangers play 10 of 16 on the road, including five of the next six, but their record away from MSG is actually better than it is at home. In terms of opponents, they have one of the easier schedules of any bubble team; they’ll have 12 games against teams that are currently below them in the standings.

The optimist’s view: They have an easy schedule, they’re relatively hot, they’re just about completely healthy, and they just added a reigning Art Ross winner with a chip on his shoulder.

The pessimist’s view: Well, they just lost Ryan Callahan, so … intangibles? Sorry, I got nothing. They’re in.

Worth noting: It’s unlikely, but if the Lightning end up as a wild card, they could face Martin St. Louis and the Rangers as soon as the second round.

Montreal Canadiens

Current status: IN (35-25-7, 77 points, six points up for wild-card spot)

Remaining schedule: It’s all over the map, bouncing back and forth between top teams and also-rans. Overall, call it medium difficulty.

The optimist’s view: After a tough stretch in January that had coach Michel Therrien on the hot seat, they’ve steadied the ship. The current three-game losing streak is a concern, but they’ve probably banked enough points to weather it.

The pessimist’s view: Goalie Carey Price is still hurt, and at this point we’re not sure when he’ll be back. The Canadiens are not the same team without him, and if he can’t return soon, their cushion could vanish pretty quickly.

Worth noting: If the playoffs started today, they’d face the Leafs for the first time since 1979. And it would be awesome.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Comeback kids: Eight NHL stars who came home

The most surprising move from last week’s trade deadline was the deal that sent Roberto Luongo and his supposedly untradable contract to the Florida Panthers in exchange for goalie Jacob Markstrom and forward Shawn Matthias.

Beyond being a massive shakeup for the Canucks, the trade marks a homecoming for Luongo. While he was drafted and played his rookie season with the New York Islanders, he first established himself as an NHL star over the course of five seasons as a Panther. Now, eight years after the trade that sent him to Vancouver, he finds himself back in Florida, where he’ll presumably finish his career.

That puts him in some pretty good company. More than a few NHL stars have eventually found their way back to teams where they’d made their names to spend their final seasons. Sometimes it worked out great. Sometimes it didn’t.

What does the future hold for Luongo? It’s hard to say, but we can draw some clues from the stories of these eight examples from the NHL history books of stars returning home.

Let’s Never Speak of This Again: Mark Messier and the New York Rangers

First Time Through: Messier was already a star after a decade (and five Cups) in Edmonton, but it was the trade to the Rangers on the eve of the 1991-92 season that transformed him into a league icon. He won the Hart Trophy as MVP in his first season in New York. By 1994, he’d won something even more important.

By the time he reached free agency in 1997, he was pretty much unanimously viewed as the greatest leader in hockey, if not all of sports, and was assumed to be a Ranger for life.

How He Left: The Rangers showed a surprising lack of urgency in retaining their 36-year-old captain, and the Canucks put on a full-court press to lure Messier out of New York and reunite him with coach Mike Keenan. They got their man, signing Messier to a shocking five-year deal that paid him $6 million a season.

Upon arriving in Vancouver, Messier was immediately handed the captaincy at the expense of the popular Trevor Linden. He was also given his trademark no. 11, even though it had been considered unofficially retired since Canucks player Wayne Maki had died of cancer in 1974. Then Messier led the team to a grand total of zero playoff appearances in three seasons.

The Return: Messier’s disastrous stint in Vancouver was cut short when the Canucks bought him out (a move that led to a multimillion-dollar legal battle, which Messier finally won in 2012). The Rangers re-signed him and gave him back the captaincy, at which point he guaranteed he’d lead the team back to the playoffs. He did not, though he did play reasonably effectively for four more years.

The Legacy: Canucks fans hate him. Rangers fans just pretend the whole thing never happened.

A Captain Comes Home: Trevor Linden and the Vancouver Canucks

First Time Through: Linden was the second-overall pick in the 1988 draft, and made his Canucks debut that year as an 18-year-old. He’d spend a decade in Vancouver, earning a reputation as a workhorse and regular 30-goal scorer. In 1991, the 21-year-old became the youngest captain in franchise history, and in 1994 he led the team to within one game of a Stanley Cup.

How He Left: So like I was saying, Canucks fans really, really hate Mark Messier.

After handing his captaincy over the Messier in 1997, Linden lasted just a few more months before a feud with Keenan made his departure inevitable. In February, he was traded to the Islanders for Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe, and a draft pick.

That was actually a pretty decent haul, as Bertuzzi and McCabe both developed into All-Stars. After giving up that much to get him, the Islanders got one full season out of Linden before flipping him to the Canadiens for a draft pick that turned out to be Branislav Mezei because, hey, Mike Milbury. Linden lasted less than a year in Montreal before another trade sent him to Washington.

The Return: In November, 2001, the Capitals dealt Linden back to Vancouver for draft picks. He’d play six more years as a Canuck before retiring in 2008 as the franchise’s all-time leader in games played. His final game in Vancouver featured a lengthy standing ovation, after which Flames captain Jarome Iginla led his team over to shake Linden’s hand in a show of respect.

The Legacy: Seriously, tell the next Canucks fan you see that you think Mark Messier was a better leader than Trevor Linden. You’ll be on fire before you hit the floor.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, March 10, 2014

Weekend wrap: Blues, Bruins, Kings, and more

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

Miller Instinct

With apologies to Roberto Luongo and Martin St. Louis, no deadline trade is likely to have a bigger impact on the playoffs than the Blues’ acquisition of goaltender Ryan Miller in a blockbuster deal with the Sabres. The move signaled a clear “going for it” mentality in St. Louis and improved the team at a key position where it was already fairly strong.

Miller didn’t come cheap — the price seemed high when the deal was announced on February 28, and even higher once the asking prices for rentals came crashing down on deadline day. But none of that will matter if Miller turns out to be the final piece that pushes the Blues from “perennial contender” to “outright Cup favorite.”

And while that’s the sort of judgment we won’t be able to make until the playoffs, the early returns have been encouraging, as Miller immediately led St. Louis to a four-win week. After his first seven days as a Blue, Miller’s record was a tidy 4-0-0 with 1.50 GAA and .933 save percentage, the best debut by a goalie in franchise history.

And yes, small sample size, every goalie has hot steaks, etc. But it was a good week to be a Blues fan, and an even better week to be a fan of seeing teams who aren’t afraid to be aggressive on the trade market being rewarded, so let’s go with it.

The latest example came on Saturday, when the Blues traveled to Denver for a Central Division showdown with the Avalanche. It ended up being a tense defensive battle that stayed tied at zero well into the second, until Blues forward David Backes opened the scoring. Patrik Berglund added an insurance goal in the third, before Colorado’s P.A. Parenteau stuffed in a rebound to make it 2-1. Miller shut the door the rest of the way, making 26 saves and earning the game’s second star.

That win left the Blues five points up on the Avs for first place in the Central, and within one point of the Ducks for first place overall. They moved into sole possession of the league’s top spot Sunday night, with a 3-2 shootout win over the Wild. This time it was backup Brian Elliott getting the start, and he played well enough to spoil Ilya Bryzgalov’s Minnesota debut.

So with 18 games left to play, the Blues are now in position to earn just the second Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history. The first came in 2000. We, uh, won’t talk about how the goaltending turned out on that club.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, March 7, 2014

Grab bag: Trade Deadline Edition

In the grab bag: Comedy stars; Alan May learns not to fight Wendel Clark; debating whiny GMs; trade call delays; and a YouTube breakdown of Luongo vs. Schneider.

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

The NHL's top secret application form for players demanding a trade

The NHL’s trade deadline passed Wednesday, with 38 players moved in 20 separate deals. It was a busy day, thanks in part to an unusually high number of players who reportedly asked to be traded.

While there’s a thin line between a request and a demand, and we may never know for sure who really asked for what, various reports indicated that stars such as Martin St. Louis, Ryan Kesler, and even Martin Brodeur told their teams they wanted out.

All of which got us wondering: How does an NHL player actually make that sort of request? Does he go through his agent? Does it involve a face-to-face meeting with the GM? Are there mountains of paperwork to fill out?

As it turns out, the whole process is much simpler than all that. The player just has to complete an application form. And luckily, our top-secret sources had one handy they could share with us.


First name: __________________

Last name: __________________

Nickname among local media (current):


Nickname among local media (the second you’re gone and they start throwing you under the bus):


Is is true that you would like to be traded?

( ) You know, I’d rather not get into all that right now.

( ) I just want to focus on tonight’s game, you guys.

( ) I have no comment at this time.

( ) I have no comment at this time, but this super-anonymous source who happens to have the same phone number as my agent sure does.

Once the news of your request leaks, what will be your publicly stated reason for wanting a trade at this time?

( ) I just want more playing time.

( ) I just want to play for a winner.

( ) I just want to be closer to my family.

( ) I just want to play more for a winner near my family. [Blinks eyes innocently while hugging a puppy.]

And what is your actual reason for wanting a trade at this time?

( ) My current GM won’t agree to my extension demands because it turns out he’s actually seen me play; hoping new one somehow hasn’t.

( ) My GM didn’t originally pick me for the Olympic team and I’m being a big baby about that, even though nobody will call me on it because I’m so adorable.

( ) Oh, I don’t want to name any names, but let’s just say their initials are “John Tortorella.”

( ) Other: _____________________ (Additional sheets of paper are available for members of the New York Islanders.)

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Ten thoughts from the NHL trade deadline

The NHL’s trade deadline passed Wednesday, and as always, it was capped off by a hectic few days. There were 20 deals made yesterday, and a total of 33 in the week leading up to the deadline.

Some teams, like the Sabres, were very busy. Others, like the Maple Leafs, were … uh, not especially busy. And some teams probably wish they’d just sat the whole thing out.

Here are 10 thoughts on some of the biggest moves and non-moves from the past few days.

Luongo Unchained

It took two years, but Roberto Luongo finally got his wish: a trade out of Vancouver. He even wound up going to what had long been reported as his preferred destination, the Florida Panthers, in exchange for Jacob Markstrom and Shawn Matthias.

At last season’s deadline, Luongo was devastated over not moving and infamously told reporters, “My contract sucks.” The contract didn’t get any better, but apparently the Canucks’ asking price came down enough that new ownership in Florida was willing to pull the trigger.

The deal is risky for the Panthers, but it offers a clear upgrade in goal for a team that has been seeking stability at the position for some time. The bigger spotlight is on the Canucks and general manager Mike Gillis, who spent the last year turning one of the league’s best goaltending duos in Luongo and Cory Schneider into some spare parts and future pieces. They alienated Luongo, traded the other guy instead, made up with Luongo, and then incomprehensibly alienated him again. The entire scenario would have seemed impossible 12 months ago, but here we are.

But while it’s tempting to point and laugh in the direction of Vancouver, it’s worth remembering that the Canucks still got out from under a bad contract that was supposed to be untradable. (Well, mostly out from under it — they could still get burned by recapture penalties down the road.) As others have pointed out, if a new GM had come in and made this deal, the perception might be different. When it’s Gillis cleaning up his own problem, though, the standards change, and this isn’t playing well in Vancouver.

But hey, if Canuck fans were disappointed, at least they could look forward to reaping a windfall for Ryan Kesler. More on that in a second.

Martin St. Louis Turns Heel

Let’s get this out of the way: Martin St. Louis screwed the Tampa Bay Lightning.

St. Louis was reportedly upset about being snubbed from Team Canada when the selections were first announced. That roster was picked by Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, and it opened a rift that apparently couldn’t be healed, even though St. Louis eventually made the team after all, as an injury replacement.

We don’t know exactly what happened behind closed doors between the parties — St. Louis has implied that there’s more to the story than just the Olympic snub — but it’s hard to think of a scenario where the player ends up looking good here. He didn’t just demand a trade; he also gave Yzerman only one destination to work with. That was the Rangers, and under the circumstances, Yzerman did reasonably well. He picked up Ryan Callahan, a 2015 first-round pick, and a conditional pick that could become a 2014 first. Callahan is likely a rental, but with the Lightning headed to the playoffs, he’ll help soften the loss of St. Louis a little bit.

But only a little bit, because this is a major loss for the Lightning. St. Louis is the reigning Art Ross winner, and despite his age, he’s still an elite offensive player. He’s also been one of the league’s most respected and popular players. But that reputation will take a well-deserved beating now, and all the apology letters in the world won’t help.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Do's and Don'ts of the NHL trade deadline

The NHL trade deadline is Wednesday. That means if you’re a general manager, you’re probably really busy right now. Your scouts are working overtime. Your fans are demanding action. Your phone is ringing off the hook, or at least it would be, if anyone still used phones that had hooks.

So, uh, why are you taking a break from all that to browse Grantland articles? My guess is you’re looking for last-minute advice to guide you through this hectic time. And luckily, I’ve got you covered. Because while nobody can know for sure what will happen tomorrow, a look back through the history books can offer us at least a few clues.

So before you get back to work, my NHL GM friend, here are some dos and don’ts to guide you through the busiest day of the year.

Do: Target guys with really violent-sounding names.

If you can pick up a guy with scary-sounding first and last names, everyone will be so intimidated that they’ll spend decades referring to it as the greatest trade deadline deal of all time, even though it’s clearly not.

Historical Precedent: In 1980, the New York Islanders traded Billy Harris and Dave Lewis to the Kings for center Butch Goring, a move that to this day is referred to as the “gold standard” of trade deadline deals.

I mean … it’s the name, right? “Butch Goring.” That’s pretty badass. It sounds like a name George Carlin would have made up for his NRA bit. So I’m going to assume that’s why we’re all still raving about a trade involving a solid but not especially spectacular veteran.

Well, that and that the Islanders went on to win four straight Stanley Cups after making this deal. That probably helped. But this was an Isles team that already had Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, and Denis Potvin — and the Islanders were also the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners. They were already pretty good.

Did Goring help put them over the top? Probably. Would we remember this deal as fondly if his name had been Percival Cuddlepants? Probably not.

Do not: Trade the best player your franchise has ever had to the league’s most talented team.

Generally speaking, you should probably avoid trading your all-time best player under any circumstances. That seems like a solid strategy. But if for some reason you decide you have to send your star packing, maybe do the rest of the league a favor and don’t send him to a team that’s already completely stacked.

Historical Precedent: At the 1991 deadline, the Hartford Whalers sent former captain and all-time franchise leading scorer Ron Francis to the Penguins as part of a six-player blockbuster.

Pittsburgh was already absolutely loaded, with a star-studded roster featuring players like Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Paul Coffey, Mark Recchi, and Kevin Stevens. All that talent hadn’t quite clicked yet, and they were just three games over .500 the day the deal was made. But adding Francis was the tipping point, as he helped the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 1991 and 1992, and went on to record four 90-plus-point seasons in Pittsburgh.

It’s worth mentioning that at the time, the trade didn’t seem especially uneven. The Whalers did get John Cullen, who was fifth in league scoring at the time. But in hindsight, it was one of the more one-sided deals in league history. Cullen only lasted one full season in Hartford, and the Whalers never won another playoff round before moving to Carolina in 1997.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, March 3, 2014

Weekend wrap: Sabres, Canucks, outdoor(?) games, and more

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

Sabres Rattled

It’s not often the last-place team grabs all the headlines this late in a season, but the Buffalo Sabres were at the center of two of the league’s top stories this weekend.

On Friday, the Sabres pulled off the biggest trade of the season, sending star goaltender Ryan Miller and team captain Steve Ott to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, a prospect, a first-round pick in 2015, and a conditional pick.

The deal is a classic “going for it” move for St. Louis, as it acquires a former Vezina winner who’s still considered one of the league’s best. Halak and Miller have put up similar stats in recent years, and even Blues GM Doug Armstrong admitted that the deal offered no more than an incremental improvement in the crease. But with St. Louis emerging as one of a handful of top contenders for the Stanley Cup in a very tough Western Conference, even a small upgrade could make the difference between early-round disappointment and the franchise’s first championship. While it didn’t come cheap, the acquisition of Miller has received generally positive reviews.

From the Sabres’ perspective, while it’s always difficult to trade a franchise player, the consensus was that new GM Tim Murray did well in the deal. He got a top prospect and a first-round pick, and there’s a good chance of the conditional pick becoming another first. Given the thin market for goalies over the years, that’s a decent haul on its own. But in Stewart and Halak, he also gets two veteran players whom he can turn around and trade for more futures over the next few days.

Combine those incoming deals with the expected trade of Matt Moulson, as well as possible moves involving players like Tyler Myers and Christian Ehrhoff, and the Sabres should come away from the deadline with an absolute windfall of picks and prospects. That includes multiple firsts in the 2015 draft, which is highlighted by future franchise player Connor McDavid. This is how you do a rebuild. Murray is not screwing around.

All of which served to provide long-suffering Sabres fans with some hope that the organization is finally on the right track. So it goes without saying that the optimism was allowed to last for less than 24 hours before the franchise suffered yet another black eye: the surprise resignation of president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine on Saturday.

LaFontaine had only been on the job for less than four months, having been hired to great fanfare in November. Now he’s headed back to his old job at the league head office. It’s the second time in LaFontaine’s managerial career that he’s had a stunningly short stint with an NHL team, having lasted just 40 days with the Islanders in 2006.

There’s talk that LaFontaine and Murray weren’t on the same page about Miller, which would explain the conflicting reports coming out of Buffalo leading up to Friday’s deal. Others suggest that there’s something bigger going on. Either way, while LaFontaine may have been higher in the team’s org chart, general managers rarely lose front office power struggles, especially ones that come just weeks after they’ve been hired.

With all due respect to LaFontaine, judging by the work Murray has managed to do so far, Sabres fans have to feel like the right guy kept his job. It was a disruptive weekend in Buffalo, and there’s more to come before Wednesday’s deadline, but for the first time in years this looks like a team with a plan.

>> Read the full post on Grantland