Friday, May 30, 2014

Grab bag: It feels a little like '93

In the grab bag:
- The week's three comedy stars, with a Vladimir Putin cameo
- An obscure player who was drafted ahead of Henril Lundqvsit and looked like Mr. Bean
- Debating the NHL's playoff scheduling policy
- Why do backup goalie still have to sit off by themselves in some rinks?
- Don Cherry has an eventful week
- And a YouTube breakdown of happier times for the Habs

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Your guide to the Montreal Canadiens' 2014 playoff controversies, ranked in increasing order of ridiculousness

The Montreal Canadiens will face the New York Rangers Thursday in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final. They forced that game by extending the series on Tuesday, in a wild 7-4 win that saw them light up the previously unbeatable Henrik Lundqvist.

So what happens Thursday? Your guess is as good as mine. The Canadiens’ playoff run has been one of the most unpredictable in recent memory, already featuring a sweep, a seven-gamer, a major injury, and a rotating cast of heroes and goats.

But here’s one thing we can count on: The game will produce some sort of controversy. It wouldn’t be a 2014 Montreal Canadiens playoff game without some.

And we’re not just talking the run-of-the-mill stuff every team goes through this time of year — a weird bounce here, a possible dive there, and a healthy dose of referee-baiting between each game. No, the Canadiens are well past all that. They’ve spent the last six weeks finding new and exciting ways to give hockey fans something to argue about.

Some of it has to do with their being the only Canadian team in the playoffs, and all the media scrutiny that goes along with that. Some of it may just be a weird fluke. And, let’s be honest, a big part of it is that this is self-inflicted by a Montreal team specialized in drumming up minor controversies as part of a concentrated “the whole world is against us” campaign they’ve used to define their playoff run. Hey, if it works, it works.

But whatever is behind the phenomenon, you have to admire any team that can generate more postseason controversies than games played. So, in honor of the Canadiens’ achievement, let’s take a look back at the most controversial moments of their playoff run, in increasing order of ridiculousness.

No. 20: The Brandon Prust hit

Of all of Montreal’s playoff controversies, this was the most straightforward. A guy throws a hit that injures an opponent, in this case New York’s Derek Stepan. Some think it was dirty, others call it clean. The league weighs in with a suspension, which the player grudgingly accepts.

All of which is pretty much par for the playoff course. Then again, we’re just dealing with the hit itself — the fallout comes later in our list.

No. 19: Montreal bars sue the Bell Centre

By now you’ve heard about how Montreal fans have taken to packing the Bell Centre to cheer on the Habs, even for road games. The Canadiens have been inviting fans to watch the games on the arena’s big screen, with portions of the proceeds going to charity.

It’s a cool story, and further evidence of just how hockey-obsessed Montreal can get during a playoff run. But not everyone is happy about it; Montreal bar owners are going to court to try to stop the team from staging the events — or at least to prevent the team from selling beer during them. Have you ever seen 21,000 die-hard Montreal Canadiens fans who don’t have access to beer? I haven’t, but I once had to spend a half hour with two, and I feel qualified to tell you this is a really bad idea.

No. 18: P.K. Subban gets pelted with a water bottle after scoring an OT winner

Hey, maybe Subban looked thirsty.

Also, go ahead and get used to seeing P.K. Subban’s name, because he’s going to show up in this list kind of a lot.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, May 23, 2014

Grab bag: 52, 53, 54... Bossy's record is no more

In the grab bag:
- The week's three comedy stars
- My Teemu withdrawal sets in
- A rare bust from the loaded '88 draft
- What's wrong with Thomas Vanek?
- Don Cherry drops an f-bomb (or does he?)
- And a YouTube breakdown of Selanne's record-shattering goal

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How long will the western reign of the Kings and Blackhawks last?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks are locked in a battle for Western Conference supremacy, with the winner heading on to play for the Stanley Cup.

Oh, right — you have heard that one, because this year’s Western Conference final is a repeat of last year’s matchup. It’s also L.A.’s third straight trip to the final four, and Chicago’s fourth in six years. The two teams have combined to win the last two Stanley Cups, and three of the last four. And with all due respect to the Rangers and the Habs, the winner of this year’s series will likely be a solid favorite to take home the championship yet again next year.

There sure seems to be a pattern developing here — a two-headed Western monster that isn’t leaving much room for other contenders. That’s not good news for teams like the Blues, Sharks, and Ducks, who’d like to think of themselves as having legitimate Cup chances. And it’s especially rough on teams like the Avs, Wild, and Stars, who seem to be on the verge of breaking into that group. As for teams like the Oilers, Flames, and Predators — well, they probably feel like they should just give up now.

But hold on. After all, this is the NHL, where fortunes can change quickly. All hockey fans need to do is take a look at the Vancouver Canucks to see how quickly an elite team can crumble. If you’re a fan of a Western Conference team, maybe there’s still hope.

So let’s take a deeper look at how the Hawks and Kings got here, and whether we can find any signs that they’re on the verge of letting somebody else have a chance any time soon.

The Talent

Let’s start with the easy one: Both of these teams have a ton of really, really good players. I know, that’s not exactly breaking news. But the Kings and Blackhawks aren’t just stacked with talent; they’re stacked with talent in remarkably similar ways.

Both teams are built around a top two-way center, with Chicago captain Jonathan Toews getting some recent “best player in hockey” talk and L.A.’s Anze Kopitar not far behind. Both players are surrounded by a very good top six, with the Kings boasting big names like Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, and Mike Richards, while the Hawks can send out an even better trio in Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa.

Both teams feature a stud defenseman anchoring the blue line (Chicago’s Duncan Keith and L.A.’s Drew Doughty), both have a very good no. 2 defenseman who could be a top guy on many teams (Brent Seabrook and Slava Voynov, respectively), and both supplement that top pairing with a solid complement of supporting pieces.

Then there’s goaltending. In Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick, each team has a solid goalie who seems to elevate his game in the playoffs. We’ll leave that “seems to” in there since there’s always the risk that playoff sample sizes can be misleading — but both guys have been excellent again this year, and it’s fair to say both teams are very comfortable with their goaltending when the games start to matter.

So, yeah, both teams have deep rosters featuring plenty of great players. After all, that’s what you’d expect from a pair of Stanley Cup contenders. But if you’re a Western Conference team hoping the Kings and Hawks will come back to the pack over the next few years, the depressing parts come next.

The Salary Cap

The NHL has been a salary cap league since 2005, and we’ve become used to seeing top teams feel the strain of financial pressure within a few years. The best teams end up overspending on their elite talent, the supporting guys have to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and the resulting lack of depth brings the top team back to the pack. Call it the Pittsburgh Model.1

And in fact we’ve already seen that scenario play out with one of these teams. When the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, they were forced to part ways with a big chunk of their roster, including good players like starting goalie Antti Niemi, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, and forward Andrew Ladd. It was exactly the sort of enforced parity that hockey fans had been promised under a cap system.

And all of that kept the Blackhawks from the ranks of the elite teams for … two whole years. They’d win another Cup by 2013, and now they’re on the verge of yet another. And looking ahead, they’re not exactly in bad shape for next year and beyond.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

A complete history of the Obscure Former Player of the Week

My favorite thing to write at Grantland every week is the Grab Bag. I’ve been doing it for two seasons now, and it gives me an excuse at the end of every week to ramble about current stories, spend way too much time on YouTube, and make a bunch of jokes about stuff that happened 25 years ago that nobody will get.
One of my sections is the Obscure Former Player of the Week. So I pretty excited to get an email from a reader this week who was a fan of the feature, and had taken the time to crunch some numbers about the various players who’ve been mentioned. Obscure players and overly complicated statistical analysis? Count me in.

So even though I suspect it may not interest anyone but me, I’m going to repost it here. A big thanks to reader Mitchell for putting this together, and congratulations to him on his appointment to the unpaid position of official historian of the obscure player section. Everyone go follow him on Twitter at howintensive.

  • There have been 51 Obscure Former Player sections, with 52 players total. (The only double-up: Greg Adams and Greg Adams)
  • There have been two Grab Bags with no Obscure Player section. (11/1/13 & 11/8/13).
  • Position breakdown: 14.5 right wingers, 9 left wingers, 11 centers, 10.5 defensemen, and 7 goaltenders (All positions based on, with half points awarded for players listed at multiple positions)
  • Most represented season: 1991-92, with 22 Obscure Players playing at least one game that year
  • Most common reason for being chosen: Name oddities and/or puns accounted for 17 selections
  • Homer watch: Of the 52 Obscure Former Players, only nine played for the Leafs at some point. (I was shocked by this. I would have put the over/under at 20, easily.)

And here's the full list, and their reason for being selected:

Rick Vaive - RW '79-'92 (5/16/14) - Stripped of his captaincy with the Leafs.
Jimmy Mann - RW '80-'88 (5/9/14) - Jets draft bust
Stephane Quintal - D '89-'04 (5/2/14) - New head of Player Safety
Sergei Krivokrasov - RW '93-'02 (4/25/14) - Every playoff goal was an OT game winner
Frank McCool - G '45-'46 (4/18/14) - Historic shutout streak, won a championship, and disappeared.
Ted Irvine - LW '64-'77 (4/11/14) - Father of Chris Jericho
Todd Okerlund - RW '88 (4/4/14) - Father was "Mean" Gene Okerlund
Val Fonteyne - LW '60-'74 (3/28/14) - Full season without a penalty
Pat Falloon - RW '92-'00 (3/21/14) - Draft bust
Bill Derlago - C '79-'87 (3/14/14) - "Builder Lego"
Alan May - RW '88-'95 (3/7/14) - Most-traded player at the deadline
Larry Goodenough - D '75-'80 (2/28/14) - Good enough name.
Norm Maracle - G '98-'02 (2/22/14) - Do you believe in Maracles?
Kelly Kisio - C '83-'95 (2/14/14) - Valentine's Day pick
Dave Silk - RW '80-'86 (2/7/14) - Miracle on Ice player
Bronco Horvath - C '56-'68 (1/31/14) - In honor of Denver playing in the Super Bowl
Shawn Chambers - D '88-'00 (1/24/14) - Rated 1/100 in NHLPA '93
Larry Playfair - D '79-'90 (1/17/14) - Did not actually play fair
Rob Zamuner - LW '92-'04 (1/10/14) - Made Canadian Olympic Team instead of Mark Messier in 1998
Fred Sasakamoose - C '54 (1/3/14) - Born on Christmas; first Native Canadian to play.
Herb Cain - LW '34-'46 (12/20/14) - Led NHL in scoring but is not in HOF
Corey Millen - C '90-'97 (12/13/13) - Forgotten part of the Iginla-to - Calgary blockbuster.
John Albert - C '14 (12/6/13) - ALBERT ALBERT ALBERT.
Vincent Riendeau - G '88-'95 (11/22/13) - Another goalie nicknamed “Red Light”; gave up Lidstrom's first goal.
Terry Yake - C '89-'01 (11/15/13) - Was not pronounced "Teriyaki"
No section (11/8/13)
No section (11/1/13)
Jim Boo - D '78 (10/25/13) - Halloween name
Vic Lynn - LW/D '43-'54 (10/18/13) - Played for all 6 Original Six teams
Don Murdoch - RW '77-'82 (10/11/13) - “The Tomas Hertl of the 1970s”
Chris Terreri - G '87-'01 (10/4/13) - Devils' starter who lost his job to Martin Brodeur
Hugh Jessiman - RW '11 (6/28/13) - Draft bust in ultra-deep 2003 draft.
Blaine Lacher - G '95-'96 (6/21/13) - Had a good lockout-shortened season w/ Bruins; also a cool nickname
Darin Kimble - RW '89-'95 (6/14/13) - Enforcer who played for both Blackhawks and Bruins
Bill Muckalt - RW '99-'03 (6/7/13) - Forgotten piece of Alexi Yashin trade; went through entire NHL season without a goal.
Bill McCreary - RW '81 (5/31/13) - Not the referee; once flattened Gretzky
Per Djoos - D '91-'93 (5/24/13) - Was named Pear Juice
Lonny Bohonos - RW '96-'99 (5/17/13) - Was on line with Mats Sundin during playoffs for some reason
Chris Kontos - LW/C '83-'93 (5/10/13) - “The guy who had that one really crazy playoff run. No, not John Druce. The other one.“
Manon Rheaume - G (5/3/13) - Female goalie who played for the Lightning in an exhibition game.
Tony Twist - LW '90-'99 (4/26/13) - Do not mess with Tony Twist, on the ice or in the courtroom
Neil Sheehy - D '84-'92 (4/19/13) - Wore number 0
Greg Adams - LW '81-'90 & Greg Adams - LW '85-'01 (4/12/13) - Two different players on same team, same name.
Marc Bergevin - D '85-'04 (4/5/13) - Got traded 7 times, plenty of own goals, now Habs GM
Mike Sillinger - C '91-'09 (3/29/13) - Owns the record for most times being traded
Harold "Mush" March - RW '29-'45 (3/22/13) - March Madness
Phil Bourque - LW '84-'96 (3/15/13) - Did the upside down blade on breakaway before Kaspar Daugavins
Steven Halko - D '98-'03 (3/1/13) - Never scored despite many SOG and lots of ice time
Kari Takko - G '86-'91 (2/22/13) - Part of the Takko-Bell trade
Chris Valentine - C '82-'84 (2/15/13) - Only Valentine to play in NHL.
Reggie Savage - C '91-'94 (2/8/13) - Scored first career goal on a penalty shot; great name
Nolan Baumgartner - D '96-'10 (2/1/13) - Part of 2 big trades- Eric Lindros draft trade, and Clark-Sundin.
Dave McLlwain - C/RW '88-'97 (1/25/13) - Played in all four divisions in one season

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Firing squad: Who's in and who's out around the NHL

With the end of the second round of the NHL playoffs, we have reached an unofficial milestone on hockey’s calendar: the end of the annual coach and GM firing season.

It’s unlikely any of the four remaining teams will be making changes to their bench or front office, which means everyone (with one odd exception we’ll get to in a moment) who is going to get fired has been fired. And that makes this a good time to run through the current openings to see if we can figure out who could wind up with those jobs.

But first, here’s a recap of the teams that have already filled vacancies since the regular season ended:

  • The Predators fired Barry Trotz, the only coach in the team’s 15-season history, and moved quickly to replace him with former Flyers coach Peter Laviolette.
  • The Hurricanes replaced longtime GM Jim Rutherford with director of hockey ops (and former Hurricanes/Whalers franchise player) Ron Francis. For now, Rutherford remains in the role of team president.
  • The Flames ended their five-month search for a new GM by plucking former Coyotes assistant GM Brad Treliving out of Phoenix.
  • The Flyers “promoted” Paul Holmgren to president, making room for Ron Hextall to take over the GM’s job. Incidentally, the move came just days after team owner Ed Snider told the media that wouldn’t be making the change.

That’s a lot of movement, but it still leaves several openings around the league, with more than a few big-name candidates available to fill them.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Who they fired: General manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma. Wait, no, not Bylsma. Yet.

The Penguins were expected to make changes after another disappointing playoff run, with Bylsma’s firing considered all but a sure thing and Shero also a possible casualty. So when the team called a press conference just days after being eliminated by the Rangers, it wasn’t hard to figure out what was coming. And pretty soon, various media were reporting the news: Bylsma and Shero were both gone.

Then the press conference got started, and it turned out Bylsma hadn’t been fired after all. This was … strange. You get false reports circulating on Twitter all the time, but this wasn’t some random blogger looking for a lucky scoop; it was several of hockey’s most trusted insiders all getting the same bad info. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if something changed at the last minute.

In any case, Shero is out and Bylsma probably will be too. The Penguins say the new GM will make the call on the coaching staff, and the assumption is that Bylsma will still end up getting the pink slip. It will just come a few days (or weeks) later than everyone expected.

Intriguing candidate: One interesting name that surfaced in multiple reports was player agent Pat Brisson, whose clients include franchise player Sidney Crosby. That would have certainly made it clear who was running the team, and Brisson has been linked with GM openings in the past. But he’s apparently decided not to pursue the job, possibly because he couldn’t afford the pay cut. That leaves a wide-open field that includes former Shero assistant and current interim GM Jason Botterill.

As for that likely head coach opening … I’ll just leave this here.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, May 19, 2014

NYR/MTL - What the heck just happened?

Here’s what we all knew for sure heading into Saturday’s opening game of the Eastern Conference final between the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers:

  • The series would feature two of the hottest goalies in the league, and arguably two of the very best in the world right now. New York’s Henrik Lundqvist had just shut down the Penguins to earn his fifth consecutive Game 7 win, while Montreal’s Carey Price had outdueled Tuukka Rask en route to an upset win against the heavily favored Bruins.
  • The Rangers had found a way to survive despite a lack of production from their stars. Rick Nash had yet to score in the postseason, Martin St. Louis was stuck at three goals through 14 games, and Ryan McDonagh had just three points.
  • New York was riding an almost comical streak of offensive futility against Montreal. It had managed just one goal against the Habs in three games this season. In the last two full seasons, it had scored twice in six games.
  • Add it all up — the hot goalies, the slumping stars, and the recent history — and we could bet the house on one thing: The Rangers were going to have a real tough time scoring goals in this series.

And here’s an updated list of what we know after Game 1:

  • We don’t know anything.

By the time the game was over, Nash, St. Louis, and McDonagh had broken their slumps, Price was on the bench, and the Rangers had racked up seven goals in a stunning Game 1 win.

Compare that result to yesterday’s Game 1 of the Western final, which went pretty much the way you’d expect. We got strong goaltending, tight defensive play, the now-traditional confusing goalie interference call, a key goal by Jonathan Toews, and, eventually, yet another Blackhawks win on home ice. All of it made sense. Was that so hard, Eastern Conference final?

Apparently so. And since it turns out we didn’t have any of the answers we thought we did, maybe it’s time to start asking some Rangers/Habs Game 1 questions instead.

What the hell was that?

That was a 7-2 Rangers win in Game 1 of the conference final. They now lead the series 1-0. Game 2 is Monday in Montreal.

Yeah, but … what the hell was that?

It was an old-fashioned butt-kicking is what it was, one of the worst in Montreal’s storied playoff history. The Rangers outshot and outskated the Canadiens, and their once slumbering power play racked up three goals.

And as bad as things were for the Canadiens, in some sense the score may even have flattered them — the Rangers backed off a little after they made it 7-1, spreading out power-play time to some of their third- and fourth-line guys. And of the Habs’ two goals, one was a flukish short-handed goal that came well after the game was decided and the other was on a play that should have been whistled dead on a too-many-men penalty.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, May 16, 2014

Grab bag: When handshake lines go bad

In this week's grab bag:
- The Milan Lucic handshake controversy
- When captains lose their "C"
- Coach's Corner goes full Donception
- Comedy all-stars
- The NHL's dumb instigator sub-rule
- And a YouTube breakdown of the Penguins' game seven heart-breaker against New York.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Playoff goalie stock watch

At times, the NHL playoffs can feel like they’re all about the goaltenders. It’s the most highly visible position in the sport, and in a short series where an entire season can come down to one play, the goalies are often the first to get the credit, and always the first to get the blame.

One guy stands on his head and steals a game. Another gives up a bad goal and loses his job. And then someone else has 20,000 fans booing him, right up until he makes a game-saving stop and everyone goes back to pretending they loved him all along. Sometimes, if a series goes long enough, one goalie gets to be all three of those guys.

It can be hard to keep track of it all. So with the second round almost over, this seemed like a good time to take stock of the market and check in with the goalies who’ve played key roles in this year’s postseason.

Stock Rising: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Price had the best season of his career, which was good. He was the starter on gold medal–winning Team Canada in Sochi, which was better. But now that he’s led the Canadiens into the Eastern Conference finals, vanquishing the heavily favored Bruins along the way, he may be approaching legend status. He’s not there yet — this is Montreal, after all, where you either win the Cup or apologize to everyone for wasting their time. But if Price keeps generating stats like this one, it’s hard to bet against him.

The almost creepily stoic Price was good against the Lightning and great against the Bruins. In between, he managed to work in an adorable dog-rescue story. Can he keep it going? I wouldn’t put it past him. Then again, these days nobody is putting anything past him.1

Holding Steady: Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings

Quick’s reputation has always been tied directly to his playoff performance, since his career regular-season numbers are only a little better than average. But it’s his postseason play that has earned him his elite status (and massive contract). He was unbeatable during the Kings’ 2012 Cup run, and almost as good during last year’s trip to the conference finals.

He hasn’t managed to perform the same magic this year, and that’s a big part of the reason the Kings are facing a Game 7 against Anaheim on Friday night. He looked like he was back in beast mode during a six-game win streak that eliminated the Sharks and put the Ducks in a 2-0 hole, but returned to earth while Anaheim clawed back.

If the Kings lose Friday, Quick’s postseason will go down as a disappointment. If they win, his stature as one of the league’s best big-game goalies will be set to grow yet again.

Stock Rising: Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

Corey Crawford #50 of the Chicago Blackhawks

Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

Like Quick, Crawford has his share of doubters based on his regular-season numbers. And his postseason totals hadn’t been especially impressive, either, right up until he led the Blackhawks to last year’s Stanley Cup. That was enough to earn him a big contract extension, one that some pointed to as a possible overpay based on one random hot streak.

Well, make it two random hot streaks, because Crawford’s been fantastic so far this postseason. His Game 3 shutout against the Blues helped turn that series around, and he went into lockdown mode on Tuesday to eliminate the Wild. His .931 save percentage and 1.97 GAA are among the league leaders, and he’s doing it with the type of saves that leave opponents making adorably sad faces.

It’s been more than two decades since a starting goalie won back-to-back Cups.2 Crawford is halfway there.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, May 12, 2014

Rick Nash is not alone - Eight more struggling playoff stars

Rick Nash watch: Day 25. Two more shots on goal Sunday night against the Penguins. That brings the total to a league-leading 51. Yet still no … what do they call those things? Where the puck goes in the net and the red light goes on? It’s been so long, nobody can remember.

Luckily for Nash, misery loves company. And the Rangers winger has plenty of company around the league in the “struggling superstar” club. Here’s a look at one player from each of the eight remaining teams who is mired in an offensive drought.

Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens

Montreal’s leading scorer doesn’t exactly have a long résumé of postseason success. His only prior playoff experience came last season, when he went pointless in four games, and he’d managed just a lone assist through the first three against the Lightning in the opening round. But he seemed as if he may have finally broken through when he scored the winning goal in Game 4, helping the Canadiens complete the sweep and setting up a second-round matchup with the Bruins.

But so far Boston has shut him down; he’s had no goals and two assists over the first five games. The Bruins have a habit of doing that — there may not be a team that’s better at it, and Pacioretty himself has acknowledged that Zdeno Chara is dominating their matchup. That can’t be an easy admission to make given the two players’ history, but it’s the reality.

Tonight’s Game 6 is in Montreal, meaning the Habs can use the last line change to try to get Pacioretty away from Chara (though the Bruins are generally very good at countering that strategy). If he can get going, Montreal has a decent shot at extending the series to a seventh game. If not, fans and media in this market will make sure he hears about it.

Mike Richards, Los Angeles Kings

Richards has been held to just three points through 11 games. That’s nothing to write home about, but it’s also not the sort of thing that would ordinarily cause Kings fans to panic. After all, Richards hasn’t been a top scorer since he arrived in L.A. Instead, he’s built on his reputation as a solid two-way player who plays tough minutes against the opposition’s best players. You’d like to see him chip in offensively, sure, but you can live with lower scoring totals as long as he’s holding his opponents in check and making the players around him better.

But Richards hasn’t really done that, either; through the postseason, he’s yet to be on the ice for a 5-on-5 goal for (but has been on for five against). He has been on for more 5-on-5 shots for than against, which suggests he should be OK once the percentages start to even out. The question is whether the Kings will be able to last long enough against the surging Ducks for that to happen.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Is this the worst it's ever been? Part four

Randy Carlyle attempts to remember
what a smile feels like

Almost six years ago, the Maple Leafs were in a bad place. They'd missed the playoffs for a team record three straight years. The Muskoka Five situation had just unfolded. They'd fired John Ferguson Jr., but failed in their efforts to lure Brian Burke out of Anaheim. And fans were starting to wonder: Is this the worst it's ever been?

So I decided to find out. In what would go on to become one of the most popular set of posts from this blog's first year, I went back to 1983 and reviewed a quarter century of Maple Leafs misery, assigning a "How bad was it?" score to each season.

The conclusion: Yes, it really was the worst that it had ever been. With a final score of 95/100, the just-completed 2007-08 season took the crown as the worst in recent Leafs history.

But that was a long time ago. In the years since, I've often heard from fans wanting to know when I'd update the series with entries from the Burke/Nonis era. I always figured I'd know when the time was right. Today, with news of Randy Carlyle's contract extension, I think that time has arrived.

And so, six seasons later, it's time for the sequel. Welcome to part four, as we try to answer the question: Is this the worst it's ever been?


The good: The Leafs fail to hire a GM during the summer like they said they would, and head into the season with Cliff Fletcher still in charge. But it turns out to be all part of a master plan, as Brian Burke mysteriously becomes available a month into the season and is hired after all. He gives an entertaining press conference that introduces the word "truculence" to the sports world, and eventually has his own guys in place, like Ron Wilson and Dave Nonis. He also outbids Ottawa for college free agent Tyler Bozak, who projects as a possible third-liner someday.

The bad: Before Burke arrives, Fletcher makes a series of odd moves, like trading up to draft Luke Schenn, signing Jeff Finger and trading away Alex Steen. He also fails to get anything for Mats Sundin's negotiating rights, and gives the Habs a second round pick for some punk kid named Mikhail Grabovski.

The team struggles through another non-playoff year, finishing last in the Northeast while leading the NHL in goals allowed. Jason Blake is the team's leading scorer. The goaltending, led by Vesa Toskala and Curtis Joseph, is terrible. Burke should probably get to work on fixing that.

Sundin eventually signs with the Canucks, then comes back to Toronto and beats the Leafs with a shootout-winning goal. It's pretty much the highlight of the season.

How bad was it? 75/100. The team is terrible, but at least Burke seems to have a plan. For the first time in years, there's a palpable feeling of hope.


The good: The Leafs draft Nazem Kadri, leading to one of the great draft floor moments of all time. In September, Burke trades three draft picks to the Bruins for Phil Kessel. Despite missing the first month, Kessel scores 30 goals andeveryone agrees that the deal will be a good one for the Leafs as long as the draft pick doesn't end up being unexpectedly high, like tenth.

Later in the season, Burke acquired Dion Phaneuf in exchange for a handful of spare parts, and also manages to somehow offload both Toskala and Jason Blake's contract.

The bad: Burke signs a ton of free agents, pretty much all of whom are expensive busts. The team loses its first eight games and is basically eliminated from the playoffs by Halloween. Toskala and rookie Jonas Gustavsson provide the team with almost historically bad goaltending, and as the season wears on, it becomes apparent that the Leafs could finish dead last and hand the Bruins the #1 overall pick. They avoid that, narrowly, but finish 29th instead.

How bad was it? 90/100. Just an awful year. Among the many, many awful elements of this season was the nagging feeling that Burke wasn't as smart as we'd all hoped he was, and the next few years was just going to be more of the same. But the Phaneuf trade inspired just enough confidence to keep this year out of "worst ever" contention.

Grab bag: We've reach Peak P.K. Outrage

In the weekly grab bag:
- The week's three, er, two comedy stars.
- All P.K. outrage, all the time.
- Rick Nash's depressing capgeek page.
- The maximum choas theory of missed goals
- A Jets draft bust. No, the other Jets.
- And new Flyers' GM Ron Hextall stars in the YouTube breakdown. I bet you can't possibly guess which game.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

What can the rest of the league learn from the NHL's big four?

Midway through the second round of the playoffs, the NHL has a shot at an interesting conference final scenario. The Kings, Blackhawks, and Penguins are all leading their series, and the Bruins are still very much alive despite trailing the Canadiens, 2-1. If Boston can come back and the other three teams hold on, we’d be left with a repeat of last year’s final four.

That would be an especially rare result, not just in the NHL but across North American pro sports. The NHL has only had one repeat final four since the Original Six era (it happened in 1977). And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s only happened once in MLB (1978) and once in the NBA (1952); it’s never happened in the Super Bowl–era NFL.

So would a final four repeat just be a fluke? Or is it possible these teams know something the rest of the league doesn’t? That Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and L.A. also happen to be the league’s four most recent Cup winners might make you lean toward the second option.

I figured I’d take a deeper look at these four teams, and see what sort of lessons they could offer us about building a successful NHL contender. That turned out to be easier said than done, because while they have plenty in common, finding any one factor that applied to all four gets tricky. Have you ever tried to get four kids to pose for a photo, only to find that one is constantly wandering off? That’s what this felt like.

So instead, here are eight lessons we can learn from most of the NHL’s big four, along with the one team from the group that ruins it.

Lesson 1: Build the blue line around a stud defenseman

Duncan Keith #2 of the Chicago Blackhawks

Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

They say you build a championship team from the net out. We’ll get to the goaltending part of that equation in a minute, but whoever you’ve got in the crease will need a solid blue line in front of him. And the easiest way to build one is to find one stud to handle the heavy lifting.

Chicago’s Duncan Keith is the odds-on favorite to win the Norris this year, thanks to a season that saw him rack up 61 points while logging big ice time. He’s already won the award once, in 2010. Not bad for a guy who slipped to the 54th pick in the 2002 draft, just behind such noted stalwarts as Alexei Kaigorodov and Barry Tallackson.

If Keith doesn’t win, this year’s award will probably go to Boston’s Zdeno Chara, another previous winner who’s a finalist for the sixth time. In addition to being absolutely terrifying, Chara is probably the most successful free-agent signing of the cap era. It seems strange now, but there were doubts about Chara’s overall game when the Bruins pried him out of Ottawa with a $37.5 million offer in 2006. Eight years later, not so much.

The Kings’ Drew Doughty didn’t earn a spot in this year’s top three Norris vote-getters, though there’s a good chance he finishes fourth. He’s the youngest of the trio at 24, which means we probably haven’t seen his best yet. That’s a scary thought for a guy who was already a Norris finalist in 2010 at the age of 20.

Having one of the league’s best defensemen on your roster doesn’t guarantee you a deep playoff run — hello, Shea Weber — but it sure helps.

The exception: Is Kris Letang a stud? He’s certainly paid like one, and he was a Norris finalist just last season. But despite his inspiring comeback this year, he’s not really viewed as being in that Chara/Keith/Doughty ballpark.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Can the Wild comeback and stun the Blackhawks?

The Minnesota Wild were a great first-round story, beating the heavily favored Colorado Avalanche in overtime of Game 7 to become the only 4-seed to advance. But that win earned them an even tougher matchup in Round 2 against the defending champs. And so far, the Chicago Blackhawks have handled them easily, winning the first two games by a combined score of 9-3 and looking like a team that’s going to sweep this series easily.

So can the Wild find another miracle? Can they actually come back and win this thing?

No. No, they can’t. See you tomorrow.

[Note from editor: We were actually kind of hoping for more than 100 words on this one.]

Ah. OK, sure. No problem. Let’s try this again.

No. No, they can’t. They really, really, really, really, really, really …

[Note from editor: Nice try.]

Huh. This is shaping up to be a tougher post than I thought.

But I’m always up for a challenge, so let’s look at it from this angle: If the Wild have any hope of winning this series (they don’t), where would it come from? What would need to go right for Minnesota to pull off a second consecutive upset?

If we’re going to see another Minnesota Miracle, here are five ways it could happen.

They win the goaltending battle

If the Blackhawks have anything approaching a weak spot in their lineup, it’s in goal. Even with his Cup ring, Corey Crawford is typically viewed as a solid, reliable goaltender who slots in a notch below the league’s elite. (Hawks fans would disagree with this assessment, but that’s why they’re Hawks fans.)

So if you’ve got one of those top-tier goalies, you should have an edge against Chicago. That’s not great news for the Wild, though, who are relying on the notoriously inconsistent Ilya Bryzgalov. That would be the same Bryzgalov who struggled in the Colorado series, lost the starting job to rookie Darcy Kuemper, and then had to go back in when Kuemper was hurt late in Game 7. His numbers so far this postseason are ugly, but the Wild don’t have any other options. Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom are still out. The backup is now John Curry, a minor league veteran who’s never played a minute of NHL postseason action. Byrzgalov is all the team has left.

That’s not to say he can’t get hot and steal a series, because hockey history has taught us that any goalie can get hot and steal a series. It may be a long shot, but when it comes to Minnesota Wild optimism, that’s all we’ve got.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, May 5, 2014

Joe Thornton, Steve Yzerman, and the tricky business of labeling "winners"

You have to give the San Jose Sharks some credit: Just when you thought they’d run out of ways to have their season end in disaster, they go and surprise you.

This year’s Sharks’ implosion came in the first round against the L.A. Kings, with San Jose becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead. They lost all four by three goals or more, and were outscored 18-5, including a 5-1 Game 7 loss on home ice. And once again, we’re all left to wonder why this team can’t win when it counts.

There’s no question that the Sharks have been one of the league’s best teams for the past decade and a half. Since 1999, they’ve made the playoffs more times than the Penguins (14), won more playoff rounds than the Bruins (12), have more division titles the Blackhawks (six), and been to more conference finals than the Kings (three).

And of course none of that matters, because those teams have won Cups and the Sharks have yet to even make the final. Consistency is a wonderful thing, except when you’re consistently not quite good enough.

And now, the Sharks now find themselves facing a similar decision asthe St. Louis Blues: do you stick with the core and try again, or blow it up and start over?

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, May 2, 2014

Grab bag: The Wild shock the Avs

In the weekly grab bag:
- Ryan O'Reilly's bad day gets worse
- Nobody has any idea how goaltending interference works anymore
- Meet the NHL's new sheriff (and watch him fight Bob Probert)
- Should we criticize the PHWA's award voting?
- and the Wild shock Patrick Roy and the Avalanche in game seven overtime. No, the other time.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Still looking for a bandwagon team? The eight remaining candidates, ranked

The transition from the first round of the NHL playoffs to the second is always a tricky one for hockey fans. You go from having games on all evening to a much sparser schedule, and even the occasional night off. And more important, you go from having more than half the league’s teams on the ice to just more than a quarter.

That means, statistically, your team is probably out. And that development may have left you searching for a bandwagon to jump on.

If so, I’m here to help. Choosing a bandwagon team is a tough call — you have to strike just the right balance. You want the team to be good enough to have a realistic chance to win the Stanley Cup, but not so good that you look like some sort of front-runner. You want to be joining a fan base that’s large enough that you’ll feel welcome, but not so large that you’ll be lost in the crowd. And you want to make sure you’re going to be rooting for players who won’t make you feel all icky for doing so.

It’s a personal decision, and I can’t make your pick for you. But I can offer some guidance, in the form of this ranked list of the remaining teams and the pros and cons of cheering them on the rest of the way.

8. Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago Blackhawks

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The good: They have a ton of talent, led by Jonathan “Captain Serious” Toews, who’s recently been earning some “best player in hockey” chatter. They have Patrick Sharp, who looks like this. And coach Joel Quenneville has been known to bust a move when he’s not grabbing a crotch.

So they’re tons of fun to watch. They’re also good. Really good. They won the Stanley Cup last year, and also in 2010. If they win it again this year, they’ll be as close to an NHL dynasty as we’re likely to see in the salary-cap era.

Your mileage may vary: Patrick Kane basically comes across as every smug townie with a mullet you’ve ever known, which was annoying a few years ago but has somehow become kind of endearing.

The bad: You saw the part about them being the defending champs, right? If you jump on their bandwagon now, you’re a transparent front-runner and the hockey gods will smite your team.1

Also worth noting: Their star defensemen occasionally do stuff like this and this. And they’re not even nice about it.

Bottom line: No. Just … no. Were you honestly thinking about picking the defending champs? Wakey wakey.

7. Los Angeles Kings

Justin Williams #14 of the Los Angeles Kings

Harry How/Getty Images

The good: For pure entertainment value, Darryl Sutter is the best coach in the NHL and it’s not close (as long as you don’t have to ask him any questions). And he’s got an awfully good team in front of him, including most of the key pieces from L.A.’s 2012 championship run. That includes guys like Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar, as well as the Dry Island Twins.

And their Twitter account is sometimes clever, if that sort of thing matters to you.2

Your mileage may vary: How do you feel about the whole concept of “doing things the easy way”? Would you say that’s a deal-breaker?

The bad: The Kings are two years removed from a Cup, so you don’t really get any creativity points for picking them. Their games often end up being low-scoring, so they’re not a great choice if you prefer your wins mixed in with a ton of excitement. And their captain, Dustin Brown, has a reputation as one of the league’s most prolific divers.

Bottom line: Nope. Keep going.

>> Read the full post on Grantland