Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The year in trades: How many of last season's deals actually worked out?

I miss trades. The NHL used to be a league filled with them, from small deals to major blockbusters. At any given time, there always seemed to be at least one major star on the verge of moving, sometimes several, and occasionally they’d all get swapped for each other. For a fan, it was all great fun.

But over the years, things began to change. The salary cap, among other factors, made player-for-player deals less common, and in recent years the midseason trade market had almost dried up completely. There were still plenty of minor deals, and even occasional blockbusters during the offseason, but once the season started we were lucky to get a handful of moves involving anyone the typical fan had ever heard of.

And then came the 2013-14 season, and the trade market was suddenly … well, not busy. But it was at least marginally active, with several big names being moved and even a few old-fashioned midseason blockbusters. Was there hope? Had the art of the deal finally returned?

It’s too early to tell. But the NHL has a well-established reputation as a copycat league, where owners and GMs of the also-rans continually look at what the winners are up to and yell “Let’s start doing that!” So if we want to know whether this year’s trade market was a blip or a trend, we have to start with this question: “Did any of those deals actually work out?”

So let’s find out. Here are 10 of the biggest trades that went down during the 2013-14 season, and whether they turned out to be worth it in hindsight.

Thomas Vanek, Version 1

The deal: On October 27, the Sabres sent Vanek to the Islanders for Matt Moulson, a first-round pick in either 2014 or 2015 (the Islanders chose to give up the 2015 pick), and a 2015 second-rounder. Buffalo retained some of Vanek’s salary.

At the time: Vanek was a pending free agent and seemed unlikely to want to re-sign with a Sabres team that was well into a scorched-earth rebuild. But while seeing him traded wasn’t a surprise, the destination was — the Islanders were a borderline playoff team at best, and they gave up a good player and two high picks to acquire a guy they didn’t even know if they could sign long term.

In hindsight: A disaster. Vanek played well enough, but the Islanders’ season tanked and they couldn’t work out an extension despite offering him far more money than he’d eventually wind up getting. The Islanders ended up having to cut their losses by trading him at the deadline, getting back far less than they paid for him (see below). Meanwhile, the Sabres traded (then later re-signed) Moulson and now own the Islanders’ top pick in a 2015 draft that could be one of the best in years.

Teachable moment: Don’t jump the gun on a rebuild. The Islanders haven’t won a playoff round since 1993, so you can understand some impatience, but they weren’t ready to make this sort of deal. In a way, you have to admire New York GM Garth Snow’s willingness to get aggressive when going after star players, but this move was too much too soon.

Ben Scrivens

The deal: On January 15, the Oilers acquired Scrivens from the Kings for a third-round pick.

At the time: The Kings had one goalie too many, because of the emergence of rookie Martin Jones. The Oilers had too few, because of them being the Oilers. So they added some relatively cheap depth.

In hindsight: It didn’t take long for Scrivens to have an impact — just two weeks after the trade, he put on one of the best goaltending performances in recent history. He also played well enough to allow the Oilers to completely change course in net. By the time the trade deadline rolled around, they’d traded away Ilya Bryzgalov and Devan Dubnyk and added Viktor Fasth. Heading into next season, Oilers fans may actually feel good about their goaltending for the first time in years.

Teachable moment: There are always goaltending bargains available. The depth of players at the position has never been better, so if you need an upgrade in net you can usually find one without paying a fortune. Why yes, that was ironic foreshadowing for our next entry thanks for noticing.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Forrest Gumps of the NHL

Let’s go back in time to 20 years ago this month. It’s July 1994. The Rangers have just snapped a 54-year Stanley Cup drought, the Panthers and Mighty Ducks have finished their inaugural seasons, Wayne Gretzky has won his final Art Ross, and the rookie of the year is a fresh-faced goalie named Martin Brodeur. The NHL is booming and on the verge of finally surpassing the NBA, as long as it doesn’t go and do anything stupid like letting its new commissioner lead the league into a pointless lockout.

And while all of this is going on, a lovable dunce named Forrest Gump is ruling the box office. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his work in the title role, bringing to life a character with a talent for spewing syrupy catchphrases and accidentally wandering into some of history’s greatest moments.

NHL players have never been much for catchphrases, unless you want to count “play a full 60 minutes.” But a few players have had an odd knack for the other half of Gump’s trademark. Here are five NHL players whose careers ranged from mildly successful to downright disappointing, but who somehow managed to make multiple appearances in the history books all the same.

Ty Conklin raises the roof

Conklin is just about the archetype of the journeyman backup goalie. In an NHL career that spanned more than a decade, he played for six franchises and never had a year when he started the majority of his team’s games. He wasn’t drafted, and he never won an award, played in an All-Star Game, or even started a playoff game. He just bounced around, signing free-agent deals and doing a reasonably dependable job for whichever team he managed to latch on with.

In fact, you could argue that Conklin had one of the most forgettable careers of any goalie who ever stepped foot inside an NHL arena. But that was the key — he was only forgettable inside. Because once they started playing games outdoors, Ty Conklin somehow became the most prolific goaltender in NHL history.

Despite never being a full-time starter, Conklin found himself as a starting goaltender in the league’s first three regular-season outdoor games. He started that streak in 2003, when the Oilers hosted the Canadiens in the inaugural Heritage Classic. Thanks to an injury to Edmonton starter Tommy Salo, rookie backup Conklin got the start in what at the time was assumed to be a one-off event.

But four years later, the league headed outdoors again for the first Winter Classic, with the Sabres hosting the Penguins. Conklin was in Pittsburgh that year backing up Marc-Andre Fleury, and when Fleury sprained his ankle, Conklin got the start again. He was the winning goalie, even making a spectacular save to set the stage for Sidney Crosby’s shootout winner.

The following year, Conklin was backing up Chris Osgood in Detroit when the Red Wings headed to Wrigley Field to play the Blackhawks. Needless to say, Osgood got hurt and Conklin was pressed into action yet again, earning the decision in a 6-4 Red Wings win.

Sadly, that would spell the end of his outdoor streak, thanks to the NHL’s stubborn refusal to implement my proposed “Just give the Winter Classic to whichever team employs Ty Conklin” rule. But he did come close to a fourth appearance; he was a member of the Red Wings when it was announced that Detroit and Toronto would face each other in the 2013 Winter Classic. That year’s lockout postponed the game and spelled the end of Conklin’s pro career — not to mention sparing starter Jimmy Howard from an inevitable mysterious injury.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The most awkward passage from every team's Wikipedia page

I love Wikipedia. It’s a great source for information and anecdotes about just about everything you could imagine. Granted, not all of that information is true, or vaguely accurate, or even spelled correctly. But it’s interesting, and you can learn a lot. NHL teams are no exception, and all 30 have extensive Wikipedia pages that go into exhaustive details about the franchise’s historic highs and lows.

It’s that latter category that can be especially fun. So I spent some time reading through the site’s version of each team’s history and picking out the most ridiculous passages. Here are my selections for the strangest, funniest, or just plain saddest direct quotes from each NHL franchise’s current Wikipedia page.

Anaheim Ducks

Another well known blunder occurred in October 1995 when Wild Wing, attempting to jump through a “wall of fire”, accidentally tripped causing the mascot to land on the fire and set his costume ablaze.

Yes, this is an actual thing that really happened. If you’ve ever wanted to watch footage of a mascot face-planting (beak-planting?) and catching fire, repeatedly, set to the soundtrack of a Beastie Boys song, then you’re in luck.

Arizona Coyotes

The franchise would not win another playoff series for 25 years.

Is that good? I feel like that’s not good.

Boston Bruins

[Frank] Brimsek had an award-winning season, capturing the Vezina and Calder Trophies, becoming the first rookie named to the NHL First All-Star Team, and earning the nickname “Mr. Zero”. The team skating in front of Brimsek included Bill Cowley, [Eddie] Shore, [Dit] Clapper and “Sudden Death” Mel Hill (who scored three overtime goals in one playoff series), together with the “Kraut Line” of center Milt Schmidt, right winger Bobby Bauer and left winger Woody Dumart.

Man, they just don’t make clever hockey nicknames like Mr. Zero and Sudden Death any more. Then again, they don’t make blatantly racist hockey nicknames like the Kraut Line anymore either. Maybe ease up a little there, 1930s Boston.

Buffalo Sabres

During a face-off and through the fog, Sabres center Jim Lorentz spotted a bat flying across the rink, swung at it with his stick, killing it. It was the only time that any player killed an animal during an NHL game.

I’m glad someone took the time to clarify that NHL players killing animals during games is relatively rare. I’m pretty sure that’s in The Code somewhere.

Calgary Flames

Harvey the Hound is the Flames’ mascot. [...] Harvey is famous for an incident in January 2003 where he had his tongue ripped out by Edmonton Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish as he was harassing their bench.

This also actually happened. Apparently, being an NHL mascot is a much more dangerous job than you’d think. I wonder if a player has ever killed one during a game.

Carolina Hurricanes

In 2006–07, the Hurricanes finished third in the Southeast and eleventh overall in the Eastern Conference. This finish made them the first champions since the 1938–39 Chicago Black Hawks to have failed to qualify for the playoffs both the seasons before and after their championship season.

Nice try, nefarious Wikipedia vandal, but your made-up “facts” aren’t going to fool any real hockey fans. I mean, really: The 2006 Hurricanes winning the Stanley Cup? As if that ever happened.

Chicago Blackhawks

According to Jim Coleman, sportswriter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, [owner Frederic] McLaughlin felt the ‘Hawks were good enough to finish first. [Coach Pete] Muldoon disagreed, and in a fit of pique, McLaughlin fired him. According to Coleman, Muldoon responded by yelling, “Fire me, Major, and you’ll never finish first. I’ll put a curse on this team that will hoodoo it until the end of time.” The Curse of Muldoon was born — although Coleman admitted years after the fact that he had fabricated the whole incident and became one of the first widely known sports “curses.”

A quick power ranking of the many things I love about this passage:

5. The use of the phrase “in a fit of pique.”

4. The completely unnecessary scare quotes on “curses.”

3. That the curse applied to regular-season standings and didn’t actually prevent the team from winning multiple Stanley Cups over the next decade. Oops. Always take a minute to think your curses through, spurned NHL coaches!

2. The almost casual mention of the entire thing being completely and totally made up.

1. “Hoodoo it until the end of time.” I have no idea what that even means but I thoroughly enjoyed it and plan to start working it into every conversation I have.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Bizarro-meter returns: Which team has had the weirdest offseason?

The NHL offseason isn’t over yet; it’s only mid-July, which means we still have roughly seven weeks until training camp starts. But it’s mostly over, in the sense that virtually all the big signings, trades, hirings, and firings have already taken place. While we’ll probably get the occasional surprise or two over the next month, we’re well into the summer dead zone now.

And you know what that means: It’s time to fire up the NHL Offseason Bizarro-meter! Last season we debuted the system for a breakdown of the Toronto Maple Leafs summer moves, and the poor thing barely survived. But we’ve spent the year tweaking the hardware, and we paid for the extended warranty, so let’s push things one step further by running through the entire league and seeing which teams’ moves made the least sense.

Here’s a look back at every team’s offseason so far, broken down by division and ranked in order of increasing Bizarro-meter score.

Note: For our purposes, a team’s offseason is defined as everything that happened from the moment it played its final game.


New Jersey Devils

Their offseason so far: They re-signed Jaromir Jagr and added Martin Havlat on a deal that was cheap and low-risk, and Mike Cammalleri on a deal that was not. They’ve also apparently moved on from Martin Brodeur, which we all knew was coming but still seems kind of sad.

But their strangest move was: Signing goaltender Cory Schneider to a seven-year, $42 million deal. Schneider has great numbers in recent years, but they’ve come in only 143 career games, and history tells us that assuming a goalie is a sure thing based on limited action can lead to disaster. That’s the conundrum that comes with signing goalies to long-term deals: By the time they’ve played enough to know what they are, they often don’t have enough years left to justify a long-term commitment.

Bizarro-meter reading: 3.3/10. Schneider’s deal is a gamble, although it’s probably one the Devils had to take.

Carolina Hurricanes

Their offseason so far: The two biggest moves of the offseason were the hiring of beloved former franchise player Ron Francis as GM and Bill Peters as head coach.

But their strangest move was: Not really improving the roster; they tinkered around with some depth additions, but that’s pretty much it.

Bizarro-meter reading: 3.5/10. The Francis hiring has been rumored for years, but if he doesn’t get busy soon, the Hurricanes have the potential to be bottom-feeding bad next year.

Philadelphia Flyers

Their offseason so far: Ron Hextall became GM after Paul Holmgren was “promoted” out of the job, which was pretty weird in its own right. Hextall’s first major move was trading Scott Hartnell for R.J. Umberger, and he also added Nick Schultz via free agency.

But their strangest move was: Not doing all that much. After years of the Flyers making offseason waves, Hextall has been mostly quiet. Sure, he doesn’t have any cap space to work with, but it’s not like that’s ever stopped this team before.

Bizarro-meter reading: 4.5/10. Whoever thought this guy would turn out to be the levelheaded one?

New York Rangers

Their offseason so far: They bought out Brad Richards and avoided overspending to retain free agents like Benoit Pouliot, Brad Boyle, and Anton Stralman. Their one major free-agent signing, defenseman Dan Boyle, took a discount to come to New York.

But their strangest move was: The Tanner Glass signing was odd, although even that deal was at least relatively cheap.

Bizarro-meter reading: 5.0/10. The New York Rangers are being financially responsible? What planet is this?

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The best and worst of a decade of free agency

I was on vacation last week, but whenever I flipped on a TV or checked Twitter, every sports fan I saw was going nuts about some sort of big free-agency signing. I checked the hockey transactions when I got back, and I’ll be honest: I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. I guess everyone was just really excited about Bryan Lerg.

But now that I’m back, I figured today would be a good day for a look back on NHL free agency. And not just this year’s edition — I want to go all the way back over the past decade. After all, this summer marks the 10th offseason of the NHL’s salary cap era. If you remember, that era kicked off in 2005 with a brand-new CBA that, among other things, allowed players to earn unrestricted status much quicker than under the old rules. That was supposed to make free agency a more important part of building a contender, as more big names hit the market in their prime. Of course, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

So let’s take a look back through that first decade of salary cap free agency and use the powers of hindsight to figure out which were the best and worst deals handed out each year (from the teams’ perspective). A few quick ground rules: First of all, we’re dealing only with players who changed teams; extensions feel like a different category. And we’re focusing on the big-dollar deals here, since we don’t want the “best” category to be overrun with minor deals for players who went on to unexpectedly develop into stars.

Let’s start at the beginning: August 2005, when the league emerged from a yearlong lockout and teams got their first crack at a new world of free agency.


The 2005 offseason was a strange one. The lockout ended in July, and teams were given the opportunity to use unlimited compliance buyouts to get under the new salary cap. In theory, that should have flooded the market. In reality, teams largely played it cautious.

Best: Scott Niedermayer, Mighty Ducks, $28 million over four years

This one’s not an especially tough call, as Brian Burke and the Ducks nabbed a reigning Norris winner and future Hall of Famer who still had plenty of good years left. (They also had an advantage over other teams in the form of Scott’s brother Rob, who was already on the roster. The two had always wanted to play together.)

Scott Niedermayer posted a career high in points in his first season in Anaheim. When he was joined by Chris Pronger for 2006-07, the dominant duo gave the Ducks the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

Worst: Alexander Mogilny, Devils, $7 million over two years/Vladimir Malakhov, Devils, $7.2 million over two years (tie)

You see what I mean about playing it cautious — while these two deals were mistakes, they weren’t the kind of long-term cap crushers we’d see in later years.

But yeah, it was a bit of a rough offseason for the Devils, who used the cap space saved by Niedermayer’s departure to sign a pair of bad deals. Mogilny lasted only half a season before being buried in the minors and eventually being placed on the injury list. Malakhov was sent home around the same time, and was eventually dealt to the Sharks in a deal that saw the Devils send a first-round pick to San Jose just to get rid of his cap hit.


With one salary cap season under their belts, NHL GMs started getting more aggressive. The results were mixed, although most of the biggest deals signed this summer — like Brad Richards, Patrik Elias, Marty Turco, Bryan McCabe, and, most memorably, Rick DiPietro — were teams re-upping with their own players.

Best: Zdeno Chara, Bruins, $37.5 million over five years

Another easy call, and arguably the last big-time free agency deal that actually worked out well. The Senators famously chose to keep Wade Redden and let Chara test the market, a decision that was an utter disaster in hindsight (but, despite what you may remember, not all that unthinkable at the time). The Bruins swooped in and signed him to one of the league’s richest deals and he’s been their top defenseman ever since, winning a Norris Trophy and a Stanley Cup along the way.

One largely forgotten piece of this story: Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli had been hired but had not yet officially started work for Boston when the Chara deal was signed, as his previous team had insisted that he not leave until July 15. That old team: the Ottawa Senators. Was Chiarelli secretly involved in making the Chara deal anyway? We may never know, but let’s just say that Senators fans have their suspicions.

Worst: Ed Jovanoski, Coyotes, $32.5 million over five years

For the second straight year, NHL GMs managed to avoid signing any truly disastrous deals. Jovanoski had just turned 30 and was already battling injuries when the cash-strapped Coyotes made the curious decision to give him a deal that was just short of Chara’s. But it’s not like the deal was awful — he played well enough while finishing out the full deal in Arizona, and he’s even still (technically) active today.

Hey, maybe NHL GMs aren’t so dumb after all!


Huh. Hold that thought. This is the year things started getting ugly.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Grab Bag: More than a team

In the season' final grab bag (no really this time) (maybe):
- My picks for the five best and five worst FA signings
- The worst obscure player contract ever
- Did Don Cherry receive the Order of Canada?
- Comedy all-stars
- And the 1989-90 Washington Capitals lip synch their way through the legendarily awful anthem "More Than a Team"

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Ten key free agency questions

July 1 has traditionally been a day full of questions for hockey fans. Questions like: “Wait, he got how much?” And, “for how many years?” And, “are you joking right now?” And, “has everyone in this league lost their damn minds?”

Welcome to NHL free agency, which officially begins today at noon ET. In honor of the occasion, here are 10 more important questions to consider as we count down to the opening of the vaults.

1. How much did Thomas Vanek cost himself?

When Vanek signs a deal, which he’ll likely do early on today, he’ll be joining his fourth team in the last calendar year. He started the 2013-14 season with the Buffalo Sabres, and finished it with the Montreal Canadiens.

In between came a four-month stint with the Islanders, who gave up a hefty package to pry him out of Buffalo. They reportedly offered the pending free agent a seven-year, $50 million deal to stay in New York, but were turned down and eventually had to recoup some of their losses by sending Vanek to Montreal. The star winger went on to post a disappointing playoff run that had some questioning his work ethic and suggesting that he’d torpedoed his value.

This week, we’ll find out just how much Vanek cost himself. While it’s hard to imagine that he’ll get anything approaching the Islanders’ offer, he’s still in line for a big payday. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun reported yesterday that up to 10 teams had made contact with the Vanek camp. One of those teams is Minnesota, which has been widely assumed to be Vanek’s preferred destination all along (he was a member of the Gophers squad that won a national championship in 2003). The Wild reportedly don’t want to offer a long-term deal, but Vanek may be willing to take fewer years for the right fit.

Of course, that could all go out the window if somebody decides to break the bank on a player who, it should be remembered, has been one of the highest-scoring wingers in hockey in recent years. He almost certainly won’t get Islander money, but somebody somewhere will be ready to pay up.

2. Where does Ryan Miller land?

The last time we had a Ryan Miller Watch, it was in an attempt to figure out which team would make a midseason trade for him. That team ended up being the Blues, which pulled off a blockbuster with the Sabres to bring in the former Vezina winner as what they hoped would be the final piece of a Stanley Cup puzzle.

We know how that turned out — after a strong start in St. Louis, Miller struggled down the stretch and the Blues coughed up the division title before going out in the first round against Chicago. That wasn’t all Miller’s fault, of course, but it was enough to convince the Blues to move on.

That leaves Miller as the top name available in today’s goaltending market. But that market is suddenly a very tight one, with few teams actually in need of a starter right now. And that has left Miller with far fewer options than you might have expected considering how much demand there was for his services just a few months ago.

One possibility that makes a lot of sense is Vancouver, and Miller has reportedly been visiting with the Canucks this week. If that deal doesn’t happen, it’s hard to find too many fits elsewhere around the league. The Sharks, Wild, or even the Penguins could be looking to shake things up in goal. The Flames could use help, and the Hurricanes could, too, if they find a taker for Cam Ward (which they won’t). But all of those scenarios come with question marks. And don’t forget that Jonas Hiller, another good goaltender with a strong résumé as a starter, is also available.

The betting here is that Miller works something out with the Canucks, but if those talks fall apart, he could be in for a long week.

>> Read the full post on Grantland