Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Season preview, part two: The middle of the pack

Yesterday, we kicked off NHL season preview week with a look at the bottom-feeder division — the league’s truly hopeless teams. Today we’re moving up the standings, with what we’re calling the Stuck-in-the-Middle Division. These are the teams that are good, but not great — they’re not quite Stanley Cup contenders, but each should be right in the middle of the playoff race.

Some of the teams we’ll be covering today are passing through this section on their way to bigger and better things, while others are tracking in the opposite direction. And a few are in what may well be the worst possible situation an NHL team can find itself in: stuck in no-man’s-land, not really good enough to contend but never quite bad enough to land the sort of high draft pick who could turn into a franchise player. Spend more than a season or two in that zone and it can take a franchise years to recover.

Here’s hoping that none of today’s squads meets that sort of ugly fate. These are the eight teams that should be in the mix this year, but probably won’t be around once the big trophy comes out. And yes, you may notice a theme today, as one of the league’s divisions ends up dominating the list.

Minnesota Wild

Last season: 43-27-12, 98 points, earned a wild-card playoff berth, then upset the top-seeded Avalanche in the first round before being eliminated by the Blackhawks

Offseason report: Two years after landing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild jumped back into the free-agency pool by making winger Thomas Vanek their big acquisition. He came a little cheaper than those two other guys, clocking in at just under $20 million on a three-year deal.

Outlook: The Wild were a 98-point team last year despite a difficult goaltending situation.1 With Vanek in the top six and some better luck on the health front, there’s every reason to think that they should be even better this year.

And yet … it’s still tough to get excited about the Wild, given that they’re stuck in the league’s toughest division. To win the Cup, they’ll have to get through the Blackhawks, Blues, Avs, and Stars just to make it out of the Central and earn the right to face whoever emerges from the almost-as-tough Pacific. That’s an awfully tough road, even for a team that should threaten the 100-point mark.

Key number: 2 minutes, 20 seconds — the gap between Suter’s league-leading 29:24 of average ice time and the next-most-used player. The poor guy should be exhausted, but he doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of it.

Best case: One of the goalies stays healthy all season,2 Vanek helps jump-start the offense, and Suter continues to be a machine. The Wild make the sort of leap that one good team seems to make every year, spending the season going toe-to-toe with the Hawks and Blues for the division crown.

Worst case: After another year of scrambling for a wild-card spot, it becomes clear a team that spent like a Stanley Cup contender has failed to reach that level.

Bold prediction: Despite all the attention that the big-money guys get, 22-year-old Mikael Granlund emerges as the breakout star and leads the team in scoring.

New Jersey Devils

Last season: 35-29-18, 88 points, 10th in the East, missed playoffs

Offseason report: Their biggest acquisition was Mike Cammalleri, who signed a five-year, $25 million deal. That seems like it may be on the high side for a 32-year-old, until you remember that for this roster, adding Cammalleri will seem like a youth movement.

They also parted ways with Martin Brodeur, handing the full-time starter’s job to Cory Schneider.3 After years of splitting time with Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and Brodeur last year, this will be the 28-year-old Schneider’s first NHL season as an undisputed starter.

Outlook: The Devils fell out of the mix quickly last year and never really recovered, despite a late push to get within shouting distance of a playoff spot. And they’re an old team that relies heavily on declining guys like Jaromir Jagr (42) and Patrik Elias (38), so in theory we should expect them to be even worse this year.

But despite that, there’s reason to believe that they’re better than we all think. They were a very good possession team last year, which would normally translate to a playoff spot. It didn’t for the Devils because they gave up too many goals, and most of that falls on Brodeur.4 With him gone and Schneider starting 60-plus games, that problem appears to be solved. And despite the goaltending, New Jersey still would have made the playoffs if not for a fluke of bad luck that we’ll cover in the next section.

Key number: 0-13 — the Devils’ absurd record in shootouts last year, an unprecedented level of futility that morphed into outright comedy as the season went on. Shootouts are basically coin flips, and if the Devils had gone even 5-8 they would have been in the playoffs.

Best case: Schneider takes his long-overdue opportunity and runs with it, providing Vezina-level goaltending. The older stars keep churning for another year, the kids hold their own, the shootout luck evens out, and the Devils cruise to a mid-90s point total and an easy Metro playoff spot.

Worst case: Schneider struggles out of the gate, then has to hear whispers about Brodeur all season long. Meanwhile, the old guys start their inevitable decline, and the Devils plunge toward the bottom of the Metro.

Bold prediction: In their season opener next Thursday, the Devils beat the Flyers in a shootout.

Detroit Red Wings

Last season: 39-28-15, Eastern Conference wild card, lost in the first round

Offseason report: After years of being big players in free agency, the Wings were largely shut out this year, failing to make a major improvement to a blue line that desperately needs it. And perhaps their biggest offseason move was the one they didn’t make: re-signing coach Mike Babcock. He enters the season with just one year left on his deal, and plenty of speculation that he’s looking for a new challenge elsewhere.

Outlook: The Red Wings are really old. Key contributors like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Niklas Kronwall are all well into their thirties, and the team is still mulling the return of 41-year-old Daniel Alfredsson.

The Red Wings are also kind of young. Breakout star Gustav Nyquist leads a group of players that are just entering their prime, giving the Red Wings yet another generation of potential stars. That mix of young and old makes it hard to nail this team down — they could go in a few different directions.

Key number: 18.3 — Nyquist’s shooting percentage last year, which is Steven Stamkos territory. Nyquist certainly has the sort of talent that would lead you to expect him to put up a decent number in this category. But he was just a 6.1 percent shooter in 40 career games before last season, so it seems fair to assume we’ll see a drop this year.

Best case: The old guys stay healthy, the young guys take another step, the normally dependable Jimmy Howard rebounds from an off year, and the Wings return to quasi-contender status.

Worst case: Age and injuries wreak havoc once again, Howard struggles, and Babcock’s status becomes a running sideshow as the Wings finally miss the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.

Bold prediction: Nyquist plays a full season after being limited to just 57 games last year, but fails to improve on his 28 goals.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, September 29, 2014

Season preview, part one: The Bottom Feeders

Welcome to Grantland’s annual NHL preview, in which we run through all four divisions in an attempt to figure out what to expect from the league’s 30 teams.

By “all four divisions,” of course, we don’t mean the league’s actual four divisions — the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Pacific, and Central. That would be boring. Instead, we’re dividing the league into four more suitable groups. Today we’ll look at the bottom feeders, tomorrow we’ll cover the middle of the pack, on Wednesday we’ll look at the top Cup contenders, and then on Thursday we’ll wrap up with the teams that nobody can figure out.

First up is the bottom feeders, the group of seven teams most likely to be challenging for last place overall. In a normal year that would be a bad thing, since abject incompetence on and off the ice isn’t exactly something to be proud of. But this year comes with the promise of a nifty consolation prize or two: Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, a pair of draft-eligible forwards who some think could be the best prospects to enter the league since Sidney Crosby.1

The new draft lottery system guarantees the 30th overall team a top-two pick, so if you were going to finish dead last, this would be the year to do it. In no particular order, here are the seven teams with the best chance to earn that, um, honor.

Florida Panthers

Last season: 29-45-8, 66 points, finished 29th overall, missed playoffs

Offseason report: We’d might as well start with the team that won last year’s draft lottery thanks to an ugly season and some Ping-Pong ball luck. The Panthers followed the season up by being uncharacteristically busy in free agency, thanks partly to new ownership and partly to that pesky salary floor. The Dave Bolland signing was pretty much universally mocked as a staggering overpay, but they also added some solid players in Willie Mitchell and Jussi Jokinen, and they didn’t lose any major contributors aside from Tom Gilbert.

Oh, and they used that first overall pick and took Aaron Ekblad, who was somehow eligible even though he’s clearly 32 years old. He’s expected to make the opening-night lineup, although it’s rare for an 18-year-old defenseman to have much impact.

Outlook: The Panthers were awful last year; only the Sabres had fewer goals scored or a worse differential, and only the Oilers gave up more goals. Florida will get a full season from Roberto Luongo, which should address the goals-against problem, and 19-year-old Aleksander Barkov has the raw talent to help on the offensive side. And the free agents should help — even Bolland, who’s a useful player even if his contract is ridiculous.

So they’ll be better this year; it would be hard not to be. But that may not be saying much, because they’re miles away from contending.

Key stat: 10.0 percent — Florida’s power-play efficiency last year, worst in the league by far. Everyone else managed at least 14 percent. The Panthers were also dead last on the penalty kill.

Best case: Barkov is the breakout story of the year, Ekblad wins the Calder, Luongo reminds everyone that he’s one of the very best goalies of our generation, and Bolland sprinkles the locker room with some of that magic winner dust that the Maple Leafs spent all of last year insisting he had. Fellow Atlantic teams like Toronto, Detroit, Ottawa, and Buffalo all stumble, and suddenly the Panthers are wild-card contenders.

Worst case: Everything unfolds pretty much the same way it did last year, the free agents are all busts, Ekblad needs a year to adjust to the pro game, and Luongo never quite recovers from the emotional devastation of this. Then they don’t win the lottery because they used up all their karma last year.

Bold prediction: The Panthers are better than most expect, hanging tough in the playoff race right up until the 75-game mark, at which point they’re considerate enough to step aside and let the good teams duke it out.

Carolina Hurricanes

Last season: 36-35-11, 83 points, 13th in the East, missed playoffs

Offseason report: The summer was a relatively quiet one in terms of player moves, as the team mostly tinkered with the roster and failed to find a taker for Cam Ward and his $6.3 million contract.

But it did feature a shakeup behind the bench and in the front office, with Bill Peters in as coach and Ron Francis in as GM. Neither man has held that job at the NHL level, but Peters spent three years working under Mike Babcock in Detroit and Francis is a franchise legend who should get a long honeymoon period.

Outlook: An organization that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009 seems to be entering a transition phase, and there’s little reason to think they’ll be any good this year. The roster was already thin on talent before losing Jordan Staal, who fractured his fibula during a preseason game and could miss four months. Eric Staal can still be dominant, but he turns 30 next month and hasn’t topped 80 points since 2008. You never know what you’re going to get from Alex Semin, and Jeff Skinner has yet to top the point-per-game average he put up as an 18-year-old in 2010-11.

There’s some talent here, but it’s not hard to imagine the whole thing going south in a hurry. And if it does, will Francis shift into full-fledged rebuild mode and start moving veterans?

Key stat: 1 — rank of Carolina’s Anton Khudobin in career save percentage among the 69 goaltenders who’ve played at least 50 games since 2009. Small sample size, sure — he’s played only 57 games in that time, bounced around three teams, and last year was the first time in his career that he was a starter for any length of time. But there’s at least a chance that the Hurricanes have found a hidden gem here.

Best case: Khudobin is a late-blooming stud in the Tim Thomas/Dominik Hasek mode, Eric Staal looks strong, Skinner has a career year, and Andrej Sekera shows that last year’s breakout was no fluke. The Hurricanes challenge for a playoff spot, and even get a midseason gift when some team that’s lost its own goalie to injury panics and takes Ward off their hands.

Worst case: Khudobin is just OK and the Hurricanes are in the mix for last place. By midseason, the Eric Staal trade watch is on.

Bold prediction: Carolina finishes in last place in the Metro by double-digit points.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In memory of the holdout

NHL training camps opened last week, and all players have now reported, completed their fitness testing, and started playing preseason games.

Well, almost all players. A few aren’t there yet, because they’re sitting at home waiting for a new contract. The most notable name in that group is Blue Jackets star Ryan Johansen, whose increasingly ugly contract dispute has left him millions of dollars away from the team’s best offer.

Except that Johansen isn’t holding out. Neither are Torey Krug and Jaden Schwartz, and neither was P.K. Subban two years ago nor Drew Doughty the year before that. A restricted free agent without a deal isn’t holding out — he just doesn’t have a contract, and he’s not allowed to play without one. Stop calling RFAs holdouts. I feel very strongly about this.

No, a real holdout comes when a player has a valid deal and refuses to honor it, usually because he wants to renegotiate for more money. And those holdouts are essentially nonexistent in today’s NHL, thanks to the 2005 CBA, which made it impossible to tear up an existing contract. That change eliminated the incentive to stay home, and basically made long holdouts obsolete.

That’s a good thing, because it wasn’t always that way. Years ago, true holdouts happened all the time in the NHL, often involving superstar players who’d sit out for months or even a full year in an attempt to get their way. Somehow, this didn’t seem like all that big of a deal at the time — everyone just kind of accepted it.

Usually, those old-school holdouts eventually ended with a new contract and some hurt feelings. But sometimes, the impact was far greater. Here are five players who decided they didn’t like their contracts and held out, and who helped change NHL history along the way.

Ken Dryden lawyers up

For a team that spends so much time celebrating its many legendary stars, the Montreal Canadiens have dealt with a surprisingly long list of holdouts over the years. Guy Lafleur once threatened to walk out and take Larry Robinson with him. Patrick Roy’s infamous tantrum behind the bench was essentially a midseason holdout, although it didn’t last long. And in maybe my favorite contract dispute story of all time, the Canadiens once forced a reluctant Jean Beliveau to finally sign with them by buying his entire league.

Dryden’s case wasn’t quite as dramatic, but it came close. In 1973, the towering goaltender had played two full seasons as the Canadiens’ starter, and had already amassed two Cups, a Conn Smythe, a Calder, and a Vezina. He was the best goalie in the league at the age of 25. And he figured he deserved a raise.

That was a bit of a problem, because the Canadiens weren’t interested in reworking his deal, which reportedly paid him $80,000. That wasn’t bad money back then, but in an era where superstars were starting to get six-figure deals, Dryden knew he was worth more. He didn’t have any leverage, though. After all, what was he going to do — go out and find another job?

Yes, as it turns out. Unable to come to an agreement with the team, Dryden took the entire 1973-74 season off. He used the time to finish his law degree and got some experience working at a Toronto firm. When time permitted, he suited up for Vulcan Industrial Packaging of the Toronto Lakeshore League. He played defense.

Dryden’s holdout lasted until he re-signed with the Canadiens in time for the 1974-75 season, getting the sort of big-money deal he’d wanted all along. He went on to win four more Vezinas and four more Stanley Cups in Montreal before retiring for good in 1979, at the relatively young age of 32.

Then he enjoyed a successful post-playing career as a best-selling author, general manager, politician, Grantland contributor, and yes, it goes without saying, a lawyer.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Suggested new season's resolutions

Finally, NHL hockey is kind of, sort of back.

After weeks of signings and trades, offseason training updates, and fuzzily tweeted photos of rookie scrimmages, today’s the day that full training camps officially open across the league. The 2014-15 season has finally arrived.

As we count down to opening night in less than three weeks, this is a good time to make some new year’s season’s resolutions. After all, everyone who enjoys this sport, from the brand-new fans to the longtime diehards, could probably stand a little improvement. So let’s take a moment to think about the ways in which we could all become better fans.

You could probably come up with a few self-improvement ideas of your own. But if you could use a nudge, I’ve taken the liberty of making a half-dozen suggestions.

Let’s stop making everything about character

To be clear: Character matters. It matters in all walks of life, and that’s especially true in professional hockey. Some guys work hard, and others are lazy. Some guys are good in the room, and others are poison. Ninety percent of NHL players are so close in talent these days that a little extra effort here or a little bit better team chemistry there could be the difference in deciding a game or two, and those one or two games could decide who makes the playoffs.

But while character matters, it’s not the only thing that matters. And that may come as a surprise if you spend much time consuming what passes for hockey analysis these days. At some point over the last few years, it feels like character went from being one factor out of many to being the most important factor, sometimes even the only one. Every coach explaining away a loss, every columnist breaking down the action, every fan who calls in to the postgame show … these days, everyone drones on and on about character.

And that’s kind of ridiculous, because character isn’t everything. It’s not more important than talent. It’s not more important than systems. It’s not more important than using a player in the right role for his skill set. It’s not even more important than luck (more on that one in a bit).

And yet character — along with related concepts like chemistry, culture, body language, and compete level has taken over hockey analysis. Teams don’t lose anymore because they have bad players or a flawed game plan. Now, they only lose when they don’t compete hard enough. If everyone had just worked harder, we’re told, everything would have been fine.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is kindergarten thinking: “Everybody can be a winner if they just try their very best.” Well, no, they can’t. Not in the NHL. It’s all well and good to be a hard worker and a good teammate, and players should certainly strive to be both. But some players are just better than others, and sometimes the coach’s X’s and O’s turn out to be a mess, and sometimes you play great and the puck just bounces the wrong way. And at some point we all just stopped talking about that stuff and decided to make it all about personality.

There’s a concept in psychology called the fundamental attribution error, which basically goes like this: When something happens to us, we consider a wide range of reasons, but when it happens to somebody else, we assume that it can only be the result of internal factors. If I cut you off in traffic, it’s because I’ve had a hard day at work and my kids are screaming in the backseat and all of this rain has reduced visibility. If you cut me off, it’s because you’re a jerk.

Once you learn to recognize it, the fundamental attribution error starts showing up everywhere in today’s hockey coverage. A star player who hits a cold streak over the course of a playoff series couldn’t have been shut down by a superior player, or put in the wrong role by his coach, or limited by an injury, or just had a run of plain bad luck over a short span of games. No, he has to have suffered a moral failure. He didn’t compete. He didn’t want it bad enough. He was mentally fragile, he’s not a winner, and he didn’t “just find a way,” whatever that means.

We’ve taken a small but important part of success or failure and made it everything. We’ve turned hockey into a modern morality play, complete with heroes and villains, where the good guy always wins in the end. Because, after all, whoever wins is by definition the good guy, since otherwise they couldn’t have won.

It makes us sound silly, and it’s time to rein it in. “Just do your best and everything will work out fine” is a cute thing to tell a nervous kid on the first day of school. But it’s not a strategy for a professional sports team, and we shouldn’t try to pass it off as intelligent analysis.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What comes next for the hockey analytics movement?

This time last year, mentioning the word “analytics” in hockey circles was a good way to bring any conversation to a screeching halt. At best, you might get blank stares. At worse, you could expect a scowl, followed by a clichéd lecture about spreadsheets, protractors, and just watching the damn games.

Those days now seem like a very long time ago. In what became known as hockey’s summer of analytics, several of the community’s top minds were snapped up by NHL teams. Fan forums and Twitter lit up with those wanting to learn about these newfangled numbers. Talk radio was debating the merits of Corsi and Fenwick, and even old-school media began incorporating the newer stats into their work. Suddenly, analytics is everywhere.

All of this has left the field with new credibility, as even longtime critics have been forced to concede that there’s value in analytics. But it’s also left behind a void, with thought leaders like Tyler Dellow and Eric Tulsky now largely silenced by the terms of their new employment.

On Saturday, several of the field’s top remaining names gathered in Calgary for the second Alberta Analytics Conference. The event was organized by Rob Vollman1 and attended by roughly 70 fans, as well as media and at least one team executive.2

As you’d expect, the day featured the occasional mention of how much the tide had turned, and maybe even a little bit of gloating. But for the most part, the focus was on the future. Hockey analytics has arrived and is here to stay. But compared to sports like baseball, the field is still in its infancy. Despite the progress of the last year, there’s a long road ahead, and lots of ground still left to be covered.

So where do we go from here? Here are five areas you can expect to hear more about over the coming months and years.

All the small things

The best known of the new wave of hockey stats is Corsi, which measures the number of shots that each team attempts. Corsi3 turns out to be hugely important — it’s one of the best indicators we have of future success, especially at the team level. Put simply, teams that can gain an edge in possession and create more shot attempts usually go on to beat the teams that can’t. As far as analytics go, this is settled science and has been for a long time.

Great. So now what?

After all, any coach who looked at the numbers is going to want to know: If Corsi is so important, how do I improve my team’s number? “Be a better possession team” isn’t a useful answer. “Create more Corsi events” is even worse. All of this stuff may be useful for predicting future success and failure at a macro level, but as a practical matter it isn’t useful to coaching staffs unless it can translate into specific changes to a team’s strategic approach.

We covered one example last season: zone entries. At last year’s Sloan Conference, Tulsky and others presented a paper that looked at the value of entering the offensive zone with possession, as opposed to dumping the puck in deep and then trying to retrieve it. They found that entry with possession was roughly twice as valuable in terms of generating shots and scoring chances. That went against conventional North American hockey wisdom, which has long leaned toward the safer dump-and-chase approach, but the numbers were convincing. It was also exactly the sort of insight that a coach can actually use, and in fact, some NHL coaches did.4

Now, analysts like Justin Azevedo are looking for similar breakthroughs. On Saturday, Azevedo presented his efforts to study what he refers to as microstats, the sort of common plays that take place on virtually every shift, but that aren’t tracked separately in the box score. Azevedo wants to know whether the way teams approach those common plays could impact their Corsi.

For instance, think about the stretch pass. Hockey fans have come to appreciate the ability of a defenseman to make a long pass across multiple zones to a streaking forward; it’s one of the most coveted skills that an offensive blueliner can have. But how often do stretch passes succeed? And do the failed attempts, which can often result in an icing call or, worse, the play quickly coming back the other way, hurt a team more than the successful ones help?5

Those are the sort of questions that will become more common as fans like Azevedo figure out what’s worth tracking. It’s daunting work; unlike shot attempts, the data can’t be scraped from the NHL’s logs, so it has to be tracked manually by somebody watching the game and recording each play they see. It’s hard for one person to track more than one team at a time,6 and much of the work is subjective and prone to error.

It’s a tough job, but it’s the sort of thing that will have to be done if analysts want to answer that coach’s question: Great, now what?

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, September 12, 2014

The pros and cons of the inevitable NHL expansion

The NHL’s sleepy summer got a brief jolt when reports surfaced that the league was on the verge of adding four new teams. The league would be welcoming expansion franchises in Seattle, Toronto, Quebec City, and Las Vegas, we were told, and all four new teams would be up and running by 2017.

The league quickly denied the reports … kind of. It was one of those “there’s no truth to this specific story right now” sort of denials, leaving open the possibility that expansion could still be coming in the near future. And realistically, it has to be. With revenues at record levels, it seems inevitable that it won’t be long before the league expands for the first time since the 2000-01 season.

But should it? As with any major business decision, there are pros and cons to NHL expansion. Let’s run through some of the arguments that could be made on either side.

Pro: Money. We might as well get this one out of the way first, since it’s easily the biggest reason that we’re even talking about any of this. So: money. A very, very big pile of money.

The NHL and its owners will make a ton of money off of another round of expansion. Initial reports estimated that the league would be looking for a $350 million expansion fee for each new team,1 for a total of $1.4 billion. That seems like a big number, but Gary Bettman practically scoffed at it, suggesting the league would be aiming much higher. One report suggesting that bidding for a new Toronto team alone could start at $800 million and perhaps top $1 billion, which would be a North American sports record for an expansion fee.

Even better, at least from the owners’ perspective, is that the expansion fees won’t count as hockey-related revenue, which means it wouldn’t be shared with the players in the form of an increased salary cap. All that money would essentially go directly into the owners’ pockets. That seems like a pretty easy vote to take.

Con: While the league would surely love to cash four new expansion fee checks, there’s a legitimate question as to whether there are really four markets out there that could support a new NHL team.

While the league has never been more successful in terms of overall revenue, it’s not like demand for the product is soaring, and there are legitimate questions about the proposed destinations. Las Vegas has never had a major pro sports team, and Seattle doesn’t have an arena or any current plans to build one. Combine that with the fact that neither city is exactly known as a hotbed for hockey fans,2 and you get a decent argument that the destinations don’t make much sense.

Quebec City, of course, has already had an NHL team, which it lost back in 1996 due to financial pressures. The league’s business landscape has changed significantly since then, especially as it relates to Canadian teams, so there’s a good chance that Quebec City could work as a reclamation project in the same way that Winnipeg has. But it wouldn’t be a sure thing.

Meanwhile, it’s worth mentioning that not all 30 of the current franchises are exactly thriving. While nothing is imminent, struggling teams like the Panthers, Predators, and Coyotes could need to move someday, or at least want to be able to legitimately threaten it to squeeze more out of their current homes. They can’t do that unless there are viable markets available.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Unanswered NHL questions

With another two weeks left before NHL training camps open and not much coming across the news wire, it can be tempting to assume that all the offseason’s major story lines have been neatly wrapped up.

For the most part that’s true, but there’s still occasional news trickling in. For example, this weekend we learned that the league had finally gotten around to finding a venue for the Winter Classic in Washington, D.C.,1 just nine short months after they announced the teams involved.

Meanwhile, we’re still looking for a resolution on several other important stories. Here are five offseason subplots on which fans are still waiting for a resolution.

Where will Martin Brodeur play?

This is the time of year when the free-agent pickings start to look pretty sparse. Dustin Penner could help somebody, maybe Todd Bertuzzi if you were desperate, and even good old Paul “BizNasty” Bissonnette is still out there for a team looking to boost its Klout rating.

Other than that, the list is pretty thin. Well, except for that surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer who owns most of the all-time NHL records at his position.

That would be Brodeur, of course, who spent 20 years as the undisputed starter in New Jersey before splitting time with Cory Schneider last season and is now an unrestricted free agent. Given his résumé, you might expect that there’d be a long lineup of teams waiting to talk to him, but there’s been surprisingly little buzz around the nine-time All-Star.

That’s partly because the market for goaltending is already saturated, and partly because Brodeur hasn’t actually been all that good over the past few years. There just aren’t any teams that feel like they’re one .900 save percentage starter away from contending, and Brodeur has never seemed all that enthusiastic about accepting a backup role. That’s led to some recent talk that he may just retire, and the Devils say they have a front office spot waiting for him if he wants it.

Still, there are some scenarios remaining in which it could make sense for Brodeur to come back. He could wait for the season to start and see which team runs into inevitable injury problems. He could accept a backup role on a team where the starter is either on shaky ground or injury-prone, with an eye toward winning at least a share of the job. Or he could talk himself into settling for one last Cup chase by accepting a full-time backup job on a legitimate contender.2 So while the odds aren’t looking great, he does have options.

Then again, maybe the best fit would be to return to New Jersey for one more year, back up Schneider, and go out as a hero — or a trade deadline rental if the perfect destination happens to open up during the season. That could be a tough pill for a competitive guy like Brodeur to swallow, but it might be preferable to ending his career with what could be shaping up as an extended Jerry Rice–in-Seattle moment.

Is Daniel Alfredsson coming back?


Unlike Brodeur, the question with the 41-year-old Alfredsson isn’t “where,” since he’s only interested in playing in Detroit. The questions are whether his body will let him play one more year, and whether the Red Wings want him back.

After 17 years in Ottawa, Alfredsson chose to go to Detroit last year in hopes of winning his first Stanley Cup. He performed well enough — his 49 points were actually good enough for a share of the team lead on the injury-ravaged Wings but didn’t get close to that championship, as the team barely made the playoffs and bowed out quickly in the first round. He has battled back problems in recent years, and while he’s indicated his interest in returning, that could change if he doesn’t feel right once he’s back on the ice.

While the Wings would miss Alfredsson’s leadership, they do have a decent dose of youth on the way that could use his ice time. Earlier in the offseason, GM Ken Holland stopped short of guaranteeing him a roster spot. But more recent reports have been more positive, and there seems to be a fit here. The team doesn’t have much cap space, but could do a bonus-laden deal that would ease that pressure for this year. Chances are, this one doesn’t get decided until shortly before training camp, but the betting is that Alfredsson will be back.

By the way, Alfredsson and Brodeur aren’t the only veterans we may not have seen the last of. Guys like Tim Thomas, Saku Koivu, Ed Jovanovski, and Ray Whitney are all still unsigned, and none have officially retired. Heck, even Teemu Selanne hasn’t quite gotten around to hanging up the skates for good yet, although if he plays it will be in the KHL.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, September 8, 2014

Things overheard at the Maple Leafs statue unveiling

MLSE also spent a ton of money on a tribute to
Toronto FC’s greatest players, but halfway through
the ceremony the best statues just walked out.

After weeks of speculation, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally unveiled their new Legends Row on Saturday as part of their Fan Fest weekend. The new monument features bronze statues of Ted Kennedy, Johnny Bower and Darryl Sittler, with other legends from franchise history being added each year leading up to the team’s centennial celebration in 2017.

The event was a big deal for Maple Leaf fans, so it goes without saying that DGB spies were in attendance. Here’s a selection of some of the things they managed to overhear.

  • Yes, it certainly is a thrill to get a glimpse of a superstar from a long-bygone era who you can only remember through stories passed down to you from your grandparents, but maybe don’t say that out loud to Darryl Sittler, ok Mr. Dubas?

  • Oh cool, they left plenty of space for another eight to ten good players, just like they did for the current roster.

  • Quick, get these wonderful tributes to the franchise’s beloved past unveiled before Tim Leiweke shows up with a blow torch and starts melting everything down.

  • This one statue of a guy taking a penalty shot is so lifelike that if you stare at it long enough it almost seems like it’s actually moving ever so slowly towards… oh, sorry Mr. Allison, didn’t realize you were here today.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sailing the seven C's

Being an NHL captain used to be a pretty stable job. Once you were handed a “C,” you could expect to hold on to it for a while, maybe even a couple of decades if you were lucky and/or Steve Yzerman. Even the league’s most dysfunctional teams made a change only every few years, so when the time came to pass the torch, it was a big deal.1

These days, some teams change captains roughly as often as Apple updates iTunes. At this time last year, there were an unprecedented eight teams without a captain. Heading into this season, we’re looking at seven openings, including three repeat appearances from last year’s list.

Here’s a look at those seven openings, and our best guesses as to who’ll end up filling them.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres went into last season without a captain after trading Jason Pominville. They decided to split the honor between Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott, and then ended up trading both of those guys, too.

Those deals came as part of a full-scale rebuild that’s left the team without any longtime Sabres who’d make for an obvious choice. Tyler Myers had a rebound season and could be a possibility. Cody Hodgson might work, too. I suggested Drew Stafford for the job last year, and Sabres fans nearly burned my house down. So let’s stay away from him.

The other option would be a recent acquisition like Matt Moulson or former Habs Josh Gorges or Brian Gionta, the last of whom was captain in Montreal before signing in Buffalo. It’s relatively rare to hand the “C” to a player who just arrived, but it’s not unprecedented. And there might be some appeal in having a division rival’s former captain slide in and take over.

Best bet: It wouldn’t be a shock to see them go without a full-time captain until the rebuilding process stabilizes a bit. But that’s a boring prediction, so let’s go with Gionta, who gets to handle the job for a few years until they’re ready to give it to Connor McDavid.

Montreal Canadiens


With Gionta gone, the Habs are looking for someone to take over one of the tougher captaincy jobs in hockey. This sort of thing is a big deal in Montreal, where the list of former captains includes legends like Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, and Maurice Richard.

While you could make a case for Brandon Prust and Tomas Plekanec, this one seems like it’s going to end up being a two-man race between defensemen Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban. Markov is the veteran option, having played his entire 13-year career in Montreal, and would make plenty of sense. Subban represents the future, having just signed the biggest contract in franchise history, and would also make plenty of sense.

Best bet: It seems like a sure thing that Subban will be the Habs’ captain soon; the only question is whether they just go ahead and do it now, or give the veteran Markov a short transition run first. Either scenario would work, but let’s go ahead and make Markov the pick.

Ottawa Senators

Subtract the storied history and the Senators find themselves in essentially the same situation as Montreal: a choice between a veteran defenseman who’s been with the team forever, and a younger, better one who may not be ready to lead yet. In this case, those roles would be filled by Chris Phillips and Erik Karlsson, respectively. Chris Neil and Marc Methot may also get some consideration, but the odds are it comes down to a choice between the two blueliners.

Phillips deserves the honor, having spent his entire 16-year career in Ottawa, and he wanted the job a year ago. But his play has dropped off noticeably in recent years, and he was rumored to be a trade target at last season’s deadline. After following up the shocking end of Daniel Alfredsson’s captaincy with Jason Spezza’s one-and-done reign, the team might not want to hand the “C” to another player who’s unlikely to be around much longer.

Best bet: There’s a chance the team might choose to go without a captain altogether (an option their fans seem to support), but my guess is that they just take the plunge with Karlsson now.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A look back at the NHL's forgotten lockout

Twenty years ago this month, NHL fans had plenty to talk about. Training camps were set to open. The New York Rangers were getting ready to raise the banner on their first Stanley Cup title in 54 years. And hockey fans were about to get their first taste of what would become the league’s trademark over the next two decades: an extended, season-disrupting work stoppage that would alienate fans and change the way the game was played, both on and off the ice.

Granted, compared to what we now know was to come, the 1994 lockout could be viewed as just a warning shot, and in the years since it’s been largely forgotten. But back then, as the September days ticked past and the unthinkable slowly turned into the inevitable, it was unlike anything hockey fans had ever seen before. And the dispute set the stage for Rounds 2 and 3 and beyond, as one side would eventually suffer an embarrassing loss that it swore it would never repeat.

As the calendar flipped over to September 1994, the players and owners were clearly headed toward some sort of labor showdown. The league’s collective bargaining agreement had expired, and the owners refused to play out the season without a new one, arguing that doing so would leave them vulnerable to a midseason strike that could wipe out the remainder of the year. That concern wasn’t unreasonable, considering that Major League Baseball was just days away from canceling the World Series because of just such a stoppage.

The NHL had gone through labor disputes before, including a 10-day player strike in 1992 that briefly threatened that year’s playoffs.1 But the 1994 dispute was something altogether different. This time it was the owners who were threatening to shut the game down, while loudly threatening they were willing to miss extended time to get the right deal. More importantly, they were doing it all under the leadership of a fresh-faced, new commissioner who’d assured them victory: Gary Bettman.

Bettman had been hired in December 1992, partly as a response to that year’s strike.2 He came over from the NBA with a reputation as one of the sports world’s smartest and most ambitious young executives. His NHL mandate: aggressive expansion, a new American TV deal, a focus on growth (especially in the southern U.S.), and lasting labor peace … under the owners’ terms, of course.

Those terms, it was widely assumed, would include some sort of salary cap.3 In a move that would become familiar to hockey fans a decade later, Bettman himself refused to call it that, insisting that the owners’ proposal was merely a tax plan, but the result would have been essentially the same. The players, under the leadership of Bob Goodenow, were open to a small tax, but preferred that the league achieve the bulk of its financial goals through revenue sharing instead. With the owners insisting that rising salaries and growing financial disparity between teams necessitated a hard line, there was talk the entire season could be at stake. This work stoppage, we were warned, could be The Big One.

The owners’ stance didn’t come without risk. The potential opportunity cost was enormous; not only had the baseball strike given the NHL a chance to start the season without any competition from the Fall Classic, but the league was still riding high off an exciting season that culminated with the Rangers’ dramatic Cup win. The positive buzz was so strong that there was talk of the NHL actually threatening the NBA as America’s third-most popular sport.4 With the sort of momentum the league had been chasing for a generation finally behind it, it seemed like the worst possible timing for an extended work stoppage.

Despite that, it quickly became clear the situation was dire. Bettman had actually fired the first shot in August, unilaterally withdrawing several player benefits in a move the owners claimed was meant to spur negotiations. While talks had indeed resumed in August, the move served to unify the players against the owners and their new commissioner. Those bad feelings eventually culminated in a memorable Chris Chelios rant in which he appeared to threaten Bettman’s safety.5

In an odd twist from the league’s future lockouts, the 1994 dispute didn’t prevent the start of training camps. Players reported in mid-September as scheduled, and the exhibition schedule was played. But as the countdown toward opening night continued, any chatter around line combinations or rookie debuts was quickly replaced by lockout talk. As camp wore on, the usual battles for lineup spots began to feel futile.

After weeks of stalled negotiations and sniping in the media, the inevitable became official on October 1, 1994, as Bettman announced that the season would not begin as scheduled. The usual script was followed, with the owners expressing their ever-so-sincere regret and the players swearing they were united. The first batch of games was officially canceled three weeks later, with more to follow as the lockout wore on. At one point, the players considered retaliating by reducing that year’s playoffs. Of course, that would require that the playoffs were actually played; that possibility seemed less and less certain as the weeks passed.

>> Read the full post on Grantland