Friday, October 31, 2014

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

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Eight early season surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The dirtiest clean hits of all-time

Well, we knew it couldn’t last. The NHL’s department of player safety has finally had to get back to business.

It can thank San Jose enforcer John Scott, who left the bench to start a fight in Sunday’s game between the Ducks and Sharks, earning himself a two-game suspension. It was the first ban for an on-ice infraction all year, including the preseason, ending an almost unheard-of period of peace and quiet for our friends in the department of player safety.

In recognition of the recent stretch of leaguewide good behavior, let’s take a look back at some other incidents from NHL history that also didn’t earn a suspension. Of course, circumstances were a little different back then. For all the criticism the department of player safety comes under these days for just about any suspension it hands out (and especially the ones it doesn’t), it’s fair to say that today’s players don’t get away with anywhere near as much as they used to.

As evidence, consider the five hits below. None were deemed worthy of a suspension at the time. Today, that probably wouldn’t be the case. So let’s take a look back at some of the dirtiest clean hits of all time.

Matt Cooke on Marc Savard, March 7, 2010

The hit: We might as well get the obvious one out of the way first.

This was the hit that literally changed the sport, or at least its rulebook. Matt Cooke’s blindside hit of Marc Savard was vicious, dangerous, and unnecessary, a blatant attempt to injure a defenseless opponent. It was also, strictly speaking, legal. It wasn’t an elbow or a charge, it wasn’t especially late, and Cooke didn’t leave his feet. As much as the hit turned everyone’s stomach, there was nothing in the rulebook that said it was dirty.1

The verdict, then: No suspension, since the play didn’t technically break any rules and similar hits had always been deemed clean. But in an era in which we were beginning to understand the seriousness of concussions, it sure seemed like Cooke’s hit should have been suspendable, and even Don Cherry wanted him gone. It led to the introduction of Rule 48 the following offseason, which made it illegal to hit a player in the head from the blind side.

The verdict, now: If Cooke did it? He’d be out of the league. That’s not an exaggeration; after Cooke was busted for targeting the head yet again a year later, the league made it clear he had to change his game or find a new job. To his credit, for the most part he has.2 But if he ever throws another hit like this one, they’ll have the nameplate off his locker before the whistle finishes blowing.

If it was someone other than Cooke, we’d see a lengthy suspension that would depend partly on the resulting injury and the offending player’s history. Rule 48 is still poorly understood by many fans, and it’s led to plenty of debate over just how severe the resulting bans should be, but to its credit, the league has done a good job of making it clear that blindside hits to the head are no longer tolerated.

Which is a good thing, because those hits used to happen all the time, and sometimes they were really ugly, as we’ll see in our next clip.

Mark Messier on Mike Modano, February 26, 1994

The hit: Early in the third period of a 1994 regular-season game between the Stars and Rangers, Mike Modano cuts across the blue line and momentarily looks down for a pass in his skates. New York’s Mark Messier catches him with his head down.

Ignore the stuff with the stretcher that happens at the end of the video. The hit itself is a classic blindside, as Modano is in a defenseless position and Messier delivers a …

[Realizes everyone is just skipping ahead to the stretcher part anyways.]

Sigh. Yes, this is the infamous clip in which the medical staff drops Modano’s stretcher. Go ahead and watch that part 30 or 40 times if you must, but we’re not going to make fun of it here because we’re a little more mature than that, thank you very much. (And, uh, we already covered it frame by frame a few months ago.)

So Modano is in a defenseless position and Messier delivers a shoulder to the head that appears to knock him out cold. To make matters worse, Modano’s helmet comes off and he hits the back of his head on the ice, opening up a bad gash. He suffered a concussion and missed several games.

The verdict, then: No penalty, no fine, no suspension. Also, Modano’s own GM defended the play, saying, “I don’t know if it was so much a hit as Mike turned and skated right into him.” That’s a real quote. The whole incident was probably the most mind-boggling thing Messier was ever involved in, right up until that commercial that came out a few weeks ago in which he’s standing in a room full of Canucks fans and none of them are throwing garbage at him.

The verdict, now: In 1994, this was considered a clean hit. Today, it would be a classic Rule 48, and the resulting injury would make a hefty suspension all but inevitable. As a star player, Messier would get some benefit of the doubt. But he also had a history of questionable plays on his record, including a 10-game suspension for sucker punching Jamie Macoun in 1985. He’d get at least that much for this hit, and probably more.

(By the way, this wasn’t even the most ridiculous non-suspension hit against a Dallas Stars player in 1994. More on that in a minute.)

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 24, 2014

Grab bag: Nobody has ever really liked the Oilers

In this week's grab bag:
- Debating goaltender interference
- An obscure draft bust who made history
- Pool-ruining homers
- Comedy stars
- And we head back to a time when the Oilers were on top of the hockey world... and still nobody liked them.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Kurvers Effect - How one terrible trade changed NHL history

If you know any Maple Leafs fans, you may have noticed that they’ve been even crankier than usual over the past few days. That’s because last week marked the 25th anniversary of one of the worst trades in the history of hockey: the Tom Kurvers deal.

The notorious trade went down on October 16, 1989, and saw New Jersey send Kurvers to Toronto in exchange for a first-round pick in the 1991 draft. Kurvers was a decent enough offensive defenseman, but the Maple Leafs were terrible, and the pick ended up being third overall. The Devils used it to select Scott Niedermayer, and the rest is history.

All of that makes the deal bad enough, but it may have actually been even worse. The Leafs nearly finished dead last in 1990-91, which would have given the Devils the first overall pick. And they would have used that pick on arguably the most heavily hyped prospect the league had ever seen: Eric Lindros, a junior powerhouse who was considered a sure thing to become the next Gretzky or Lemieux.

Once they realized how badly they’d screwed up, the Leafs went into scramble mode to make sure they didn’t finish last. At one point, they even made a laughable deal with last-place Quebec, acquiring several veterans in exchange for picks and prospects in a transparent attempt to try to help the Nordiques tank. It worked — barely. The two teams were tied for last overall as late as February, before the Leafs finally strung together just enough wins to escape infamy.

It all worked out wonderfully for the Devils; in hindsight, Niedermayer went on to have the better career, largely because of Lindros’s injuries and disputes with various teams’ management. But the fact remains that if they hadn’t made the Kurvers trade, there’s an excellent chance the Maple Leafs would have out-tanked the Nordiques, finished last in 1991, and drafted Lindros.

Like most Maple Leafs fans, I’ve spent far too much time imagining an alternate reality in which this horrible trade had never taken place. And it turns out that doing so can be an interesting exercise, because if you leave Kurvers in New Jersey and accept that doing so means the Leafs end up finishing last, a surprisingly big chunk of NHL history starts to unravel.

So just for fun (and maybe a little bit of psychotherapy for Leafs fans), here’s an alternate history of the NHL, offering up a lesson on how one awful trade can change just about everything.

October 16, 1989, in Newark, New Jersey: Tom Kurvers had heard the rumors that a deal was close, and today, the phone call he’d been waiting for finally came: The 27-year-old defenseman is on the move.

After speaking to his realtor and confirming that his offer on a new apartment had been accepted, Kurvers said a quick good-bye to teammates before heading home to start packing. He won’t have much time, since he’s expected to be back in time for practice tomorrow.

Nothing else interesting happened to Kurvers today.

June 22, 1991, in Buffalo, New York: In a moment that came as no surprise to anyone, Eric Lindros was chosen with the first overall pick of today’s NHL entry draft. The heavily hyped prospect was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who held the top pick by virtue of their last-place finish during the 1990-91 season.

While Lindros had made headlines by refusing to play for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds after being taken with the first overall pick of the junior league OHL draft in 1989, there would be no such controversy this time. “I’m thrilled to be joining my hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs,” a beaming Lindros told reporters. “Besides, this is the NHL. Who wouldn’t want to play for the team that drafted them?”

The expansion San Jose Sharks took Pat Falloon with the second overall pick. The first defenseman taken was Kamloops Blazers blueliner Scott Niedermayer, who went to the Quebec Nordiques third overall.

January 2, 1992, in Calgary, Alberta: Doug Gilmour’s midseason holdout dragged on today, with no trade in sight for the disgruntled Flames center.

The former All-Star is unhappy with his contract and recently walked out on the team in an attempt to force a trade. The rumor mill has speculated he’d prefer to go to a big-market team. However, that could be easier said than done, since many of the league’s larger markets already have clearly established first-line centers, including Los Angeles (Wayne Gretzky), New York (Mark Messier), and Toronto (Lindros).

One team that could be a fit is the Philadelphia Flyers, who have been known to be on the market for a top center, and are said to be willing to make a blockbuster deal under the right circumstances. However, one scout suggested that the team may be better off filling that void by convincing last year’s first-round pick, Swedish prospect Peter Forsberg, to head to North America and put on the orange and black.

Meanwhile, tempers are rising in Calgary as fans wait for the team to pull the trigger on a Gilmour deal. “Just trade the guy if he doesn’t want to be here. It’s not like you could screw that up,” said one Flames fan. “I bet if we play our cards right we could probably even get a former 50-goal scorer!”

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How history's worst teams can offer up some hope for Oiler fans

So stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Edmonton Oilers seem like they might be terrible this year.

Last night’s win over the Lightning moved them to 1-4-1 and one point clear of dead last place in the league. They’ve been a mess defensively, the goaltending has been shaky, and the young forwards have often looked overwhelmed. While it’s still reasonably early, so far the Oilers are on track to miss the playoffs, and probably by a lot.

You should have stopped me by now because of course you have heard this one before. You’ve heard it for most of the past eight seasons, ever since the Oilers fell one game short of a shocking Stanley Cup upset back in 2006. At the time, it seemed like Edmonton was on the verge of something special. Ever since, they’ve become a punch line.1

If it’s any comfort to Oilers fans, they’re not the first team to endure this much misery. While the modern NHL draft system is meant to encourage quick turnarounds for the league’s worst teams, it doesn’t always work out that way, and Edmonton isn’t the first team to go through an extended stretch of bottom-feeding. So rather than pile on the Oilers today, I figured it would be nice to remind them that they’re not alone. If misery loves company, then Oilers fans should feel right at home as we look back at some other teams from the post-expansion era that suffered through at least five years of utter failure.

Washington Capitals, 1974-82

How bad were they? Worse than any team has ever been.

That’s not an exaggeration – the 1974-75 Caps were the worst team in NHL history, going 8-67-5 for 21 points and surrendering a record 446 goals. Only one player on the team managed more than 35 points, and their season included an NHL record 17-game losing streak.2 Their goal differential that year was an almost unfathomable minus-265, meaning that on an average they were outscored by more than three goals in each and every game.

They weren’t that much better the next year, putting up just 32 points, and they didn’t top 70 points over the franchise’s first eight seasons.

How they got so bad: They were an expansion team with bad timing. By adding the Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts, the NHL went from eight teams to 10. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but remember that the World Hockey Association was icing 14 teams of its own at the time. That added up to 24 professional teams in North America, at a time when Canada was supplying virtually all the talent. There just weren’t enough good players to go around, and anyone whom Washington or Kansas City could have targeted in the expansion draft or free agency likely just went to the WHA instead. (The Scouts were almost as bad, putting up seasons of 41 and 36 points before moving to Denver and later New Jersey.)

Rock bottom: They lost their first 37 road games. When they finally won one, they celebrated by skating a garbage can around the ice like it was the Stanley Cup.

Turning point: The Capitals were terrible for the rest of the ’70s and beyond. They finally turned things around in 1982-83, in Bryan Murray’s first full season behind the bench. They’d built up some decent youth, including Bobby Carpenter and future Hall of Famer Mike Gartner up front, and the blue line included a newly drafted teenager named Scott Stevens. They managed 94 points, the first time in nine seasons that they’d surpassed even 70, and made the playoffs for the first time in history.

Hope for Oilers fans: Even the worst team in the history of the NHL was bad for only eight straight seasons, which by my calculations means Edmonton has to be good this year. It’s science!

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, October 20, 2014

Weekend wrap: When a bad start isn't just a bad start

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

Theme of the Week: When a Slow Start Isn’t Just a Slow Start

Last week we talked about the value of patience, and of not overreacting to an especially hot or cold streak over the season’s first few games. But sometimes a short streak isn’t just a short streak, but the continuation of a long-term pattern. And when that’s the case, it gets a lot tougher to appeal to a fan base’s sense of patience.

No team is riding a more embarrassing long-term stretch than the Edmonton Oilers, who’ve been among the worst teams in the league ever since their surprise run to the Stanley Cup final in 2006. That included three straight years in which the Oilers picked first overall at the draft, which is the sort of injection of surefire young talent that’s supposed to make an eventual run of success all but inevitable. It hasn’t happened yet in Edmonton, and it’s starting to look like it never will.

Last year, the Oilers went into the season with a new coach and plenty of optimism, then saw any hopes of so much as sniffing the playoffs smashed by the end of October thanks to a horrific start marked by laughably bad goaltending and defense. This year, somehow, they’ve been even worse. The goaltending and defense are awful once again, they’re sitting in last place overall, and the early reviews have been withering.

There are a handful of positive signs, including a respectable effort in their most recent loss, a 2-0 decision to Vancouver on Friday night, and a rock-bottom PDO that suggests they can’t possibly be as bad as the scoreboard says they are. But given recent history, it’s hard to tell an Oilers fan to stay optimistic. Somehow, they may be just weeks away from once again turning their attention to organizing draft lottery parties.

To a lesser extent, we’ve seen a similar reaction in Toronto. The Leafs haven’t been awful they’re 2-3-1 and have shown some improvement as a puck possession team after emphasizing that all summer — but they’ve already had a pair of home games interrupted by fans tossing jerseys on the ice. That sort of display seems vaguely ridiculous just six games into a season, and it is. But when you’ve only won three playoff games in a decade, it’s hard to act surprised when your fans jump the gun.

We’d probably see the same sort of reaction in Winnipeg, except they’re still in the final stages of their honeymoon period, and in Florida, except nobody’s at the games. And then there’s the Avalanche, who’ve recently seen long stretches of losing interrupted by the occasional Cinderella season inevitably followed by more losing. Their fans may not know what to think right now, but that picture is clearing up by the game. More on them in a minute.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 17, 2014

Grab bag: Attack of the Mighty Duck mushroom men

In the Friday grab bag:
- This week's comedy stars
- Florida Panthers crowd outrage
- an obscure player does the impossible
- the return of Don Cherry
- and a dancing candle, purple mushroom men and a frozen rock star welcome the Mighty Ducks to the NHL

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

When captaincies go bad

After months of speculation, the San Jose Sharks finally named their new captain last week: nobody. They won’t have one this year, going with four alternates instead.

That’s going to be a little bit awkward for Joe Thornton, who wore the “C” last year before having it taken away after the Sharks’ painful first-round loss to the Kings, and is still on the roster. And then there’s Patrick Marleau, who was San Jose’s captain for five years until he was stripped back in 2009, and is also still on the roster.

But while the Sharks’ situation was unusual, and probably handled about as poorly as it could have been, it wasn’t unprecedented. In fact, lots of star players have had a “C” taken away over the years,1 and many times the whole thing has been handled quite amicably.

But “quite amicably” is boring. We want some bad blood. So for today’s history lesson, let’s look back at five cases of NHL captains who lost their “C” under less-than-ideal circumstances. You’re not alone, Joe — and some of these guys had it even worse.

Rick Vaive Hits the Snooze Button

Being the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the Harold Ballard era was a tough job. Ballard was essentially every stereotype of a rotten, greedy sports owner brought to life, except worse. He was a miserable crank, not to mention a convicted fraud, and legend has it that he once shut off the Maple Leaf Gardens drinking fountains and cranked up the thermostat on a hot day to force fans to buy soda (on which, it goes without saying, he’d raised the price).

So it was no surprise that Ballard didn’t get along with his captains — or just about anyone, for that matter. In 1979, Ballard and GM Punch Imlach started a feud with Leafs franchise player and captain Darryl Sittler that culminated in the future Hall of Famer slicing the “C” off his own jersey with a pair of scissors. Sittler was eventually given the captaincy back, and wore it for two more years before finally tiring of Ballard’s sideshow for good and requesting a trade.

Vaive took over the Leafs captaincy during the 1981-82 season, the first of a franchise record three straight in which he’d score 50 goals. He held the honor until a Saturday morning in Minnesota in February 1986. Vaive had gone out with former teammate John Anderson for what he called a “late-night bull session” and overslept the next day. He missed a scheduled practice, and Ballard responded by stripping him of the captaincy. He was traded to Chicago a year later.

After the Sittler and Vaive debacles, the Maple Leafs apparently decided that captains were more trouble than they were worth, going without one for three full seasons. That ended with two years of Rob Ramage, which gave way to the beloved Wendel Clark–Doug Gilmour–Mats Sundin era. With Ballard long gone, these days captains are finally treated with some respect in Toronto. (Until the team loses a few games in a row, in which case we ask Sittler if we can borrow his scissors.)

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, October 13, 2014

Weekend wrap: Don't overreact to anything (including the completely unbeatable Penguins)

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

Theme of the Week: Not Overreacting

There are always lessons to be learned from a season’s first few nights; it just takes a while to figure out which ones. This time last year, we were all buzzing about the upstart Avalanche stomping the contending Ducks in a season-opening 6-1 blowout. It turned out that Colorado was for real — but so was Anaheim, which shrugged off the loss on the way to a 116-point season.

This year has offered up a few more surprises. But it’s been less than a week; most teams have played just two games, with a handful sitting at three. Every team will have good or bad three-game stretches a dozen times a year, and they tell us virtually nothing, just like much of this week’s action. We probably don’t know much yet. Don’t overreact to anything you’ve seen so far.

But that’s easier said than done, because the early days of a season magnify every flaw — and every strength. And so far, not many teams have looked stronger than the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They won an exciting 6-4 shootout against a very good Ducks team on Thursday, then toyed with a not-so-good Maple Leafs team en route to a 5-2 win on Saturday night. In both games, the Penguins looked unstoppable early on, jumping out to a 3-0 first-period lead. The Ducks were good enough to claw back and make a game of it, forcing the Penguins to hit the gas pedal again. The Maple Leafs, not so much.

Through two games, Pittsburgh’s stars have looked dominant. Sidney Crosby has six points, Evgeni Malkin has four, and new acquisition Patric Hornqvist has scored twice. Sophomore defenseman Olli Maatta had three assists in the opener. If there’s a downside, it’s that Marc-Andre Fleury has been merely OK, but that’s all he has needed to be.

New coach Mike Johnston has emphasized possession, moving away from a dump-and-chase strategy. He wants the team’s best players to keep the puck on their sticks, and for the first two games, that’s exactly what’s happened. The Penguins toyed with the Maple Leafs on Saturday night, to the point where Toronto fans booed the team off the ice, even tossing a jersey in protest.

Afterward, in the hallway outside the Penguins’ dressing room, Johnston offered up praise for his high-powered offense. “You saw in the preseason, we had trouble scoring goals. I thought we were generating chances, we just weren’t converting,” he said. “But the last two games, we seem to be able to get out to a good start. The biggest thing for me tonight was how we finished. I thought the second period and into the third we were managing the puck a lot better than we did against Anaheim, and that’s where we really have to build.”

While it’s hard to watch Pittsburgh’s first two games without getting excited about this team’s chances, jaded Penguins fans may be able to manage it. This has been an excellent regular-season team for years, but it has become a franchise that is only ever judged based on what it does in the playoffs. Even in the aftermath of Saturday’s cakewalk in Toronto, talk in the Penguins locker room eventually turned to last year’s playoff disappointment. You get the sense that this team could go 82-0-0 and lose in the conference finals, and the season would be deemed a failure.

But for now, it’s hard not to be impressed. The Penguins are off until Thursday, when they’ll start a three-game homestand with a game against the Stars.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 10, 2014

Grab bag: The redemption of Gary Bettman

It's the return of the Friday Grab Bag. This week:
- The three comedy stars of the preseason
- The end of the enforcer era
- Should we like Gary Bettman now?
- A YouTube breakdown of the worst season opening video montage ever made
... and more

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fourteen opening night story lines to ridiculously overreact to

Hockey fans are a happy bunch this week. After more than three months of waiting, we’re just days away from the return of games that count. The NHL’s opening night is almost here.

Well, make that opening nights, since the NHL basically stretches its debut into a two-part production. The season opens with four games on Wednesday night, followed by 12 more on Thursday. By the end of that second night of action, 28 out of the league’s 30 teams will have played at least once.

And, of course, we’ll overanalyze all of it. One or two games out of an 82-game schedule is such a ridiculously small sample that we won’t able to draw any conclusions, but that doesn’t mean we won’t try. By Friday, we’ll be convinced we have most of these teams all figured out.

To help us get there, here are 14 story lines to overreact to as the 2014 season gets under way.

1. The Kings twist the knife.

For the second time in franchise history, the Los Angeles Kings will raise a Stanley Cup banner on Wednesday night. The game will mark the first meaningful hockey played at the Staples Center since the June night that ended with Alec Martinez’s championship-winning overtime goal, and the atmosphere should be electric.

And, in a delightful bit of league-sanctioned trolling, the Kings’ opponent will be the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks, of course, had the Kings down three games in their opening-round series last year, before collapsing and losing four straight. That loss sent San Jose into a franchisewide state of existential crisis, and the team still doesn’t seem to know which direction it’s headed this year.

This feels like the sort of game the Sharks will end up winning, marking the first step on a road to redemption that eventually returns them to the ranks of the league’s elite. But unless you’re a San Jose fan, a Kings win — especially one involving a big comeback — would probably be more fun.

2. Taking the Flames’ temperature

Calgary isn’t expected to be good this year; the team is young, it’s rebuilding, and nobody thinks it will challenge for a playoff spot.

But just how bad will the Flames be? More specifically, will they be bad enough to contend for the top pick in this year’s draft? Most seem to think they will, but then again, we thought that last year, and Calgary outperformed expectations just enough to finish well clear of the Sabres, Panthers, and Oilers. And the team has a decent goalie now, having signed Jonas Hiller as a free agent. While they almost certainly won’t make the playoffs, there’s at least a chance that this year’s Flames could be good enough to play themselves out of McDavid/Eichel territory.

We’ll get our first chance to see how they stack up against their fellow also-rans this week, as the Flames open with a pair of games against non-playoff teams. They host the Canucks on Wednesday, and then head to Edmonton to face the Oilers on Thursday.

3. Ryan Johansen and the Blue Jackets look for a quick start.

Until yesterday, Columbus was headed into the season in a tough spot. Forecast as a borderline wild-card team, the Blue Jackets looked like they’d go into the season missing their entire top line due to Nathan Horton’s bad back, Boone Jenner’s broken hand, and Ryan Johansen’s ongoing contract dispute.

Horton and Jenner are still out, but Johansen signed a three-year deal on Monday and should be in the lineup for the Blue Jackets’ opener. That’s good news for a team that will need every point it can get. More good news: The Jackets get to open on the road on Thursday with what should be an easy matchup against the lowly Sabres, followed by a three-game homestand. That all adds up to a chance for a decent start, for a team that looked like it was in trouble just a few days ago.

4. St. Louis is the center of attention.

Thursday’s game between the Rangers and Blues will give St. Louis fans their first chance to cheer on Paul Stastny in regular-season action. The former Avs center joined the Blues in July, signing a four-year, $28 million contract that carried the highest annual value of any free-agency deal. That’s a big investment, and Stastny will be under pressure to start paying dividends right away.

The game could feature another new-look center, although this one will have “St. Louis” on the back of his jersey instead of the front. The Rangers are toying with the idea of shifting Martin St. Louis to center while Derek Stepan is out with a broken fibula. The 39-year-old St. Louis has spent nearly his entire career on the wing, but certainly has the skill to adapt if called on. If he can make the move successfully, it would fill the one major hole in the Rangers’ early-season lineup.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Place your bets on the NHL's individual awards

With Wednesday’s NHL opening night almost upon us and the team-based predictions already filed away, we’ve got one last chance to make some picks for the various individual awards. And you can bet there will be a few surprises as the season unfolds.

Literally, you can bet on that. The NHL isn’t like the NFL, where you can find someone offering odds on every little thing. But some online sportsbooks do release lines for various pro hockey player props, and that includes the major individual awards. Those odds can be a good sign of who’s expected to do what.1 And they can offer up a fun preseason challenge: figuring out whether any underdogs have a shot at earning some hardware.

So let’s take a crack at five major NHL awards. We’ll start by looking at the favorite and whether they really deserve that status. Then we’ll dig further down the list to try to find the best long-shot candidate, which we’ll define as anyone who’s listed at odds of 10/1 or longer. Finally, we’ll go off the board by picking a candidate who didn’t even make the oddsmaker’s list, but who still has a realistic chance at an upset win.

All of that ends up being harder than it sounds for a few of these awards, but nobody said this would be easy. We’ll start in the same place that most team’s chances of a decent season rest: with the guys in goal.

Vezina Trophy (best goaltender)

The Vezina is voted on by the GMs, who probably weigh traditional stats like wins and goals-against average a little too highly, but the results are about what you’d expect most years.

The favorite: Last year’s winner, Tuukka Rask, gets the top spot at 3/1, just edging out Henrik Lundqvist at 4/1. No argument here; these are the best two goalies in the league.

The long shot: I was all set to go with Cory Schneider, who was originally listed at 10/1. I guess I wasn’t the only one, as he’s since dropped down to 8/1. I also thought about going with Ben Bishop (12/1), just to confuse all the Lightning fans who are still mad at me for suggesting he may not be a sure thing.

Instead, I’m going with Pekka Rinne at 12/1, and it’s not a pick I feel great about, largely because I’m not big on the Predators’ chances. But Rinne was a finalist in 2011 and 2012, and if he’s healthy and can get Nashville into the playoff hunt, then he’d have a chance. Then again, those are two really big “ifs,” since he’s 31 and coming off hip arthroscopy, and the Predators look like they’ll have a tough time making much noise in the Central. I basically talked myself out of this pick in one paragraph. Let’s just move on.

Going off the board: There are only 17 goalies on the list, so we’ve got almost half the league to work with. And there are some good names to pick from, including Jonathan Bernier, Brian Elliott, Nicklas Backstrom, and maybe even Frederik Andersen. But I’m going to go with Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings, who’s been very good over the course of his career and should rebound from an off year in 2013-14.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Season preview, part four: The contenders

And then there were seven. After covering the bottom feeders, the middle of the pack, and those that defy any logical projection, NHL season preview week wraps up today with our final group of teams: the best of the best.

If you’ve been following along all week, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Appearing on the list below all but guarantees that a team will go on to have a good season. By now you’re probably squirming with suspense, wondering whether your favorite team was fortunate enough to …

Wait, if you’ve been following all week, then by process of elimination you already know who’s on the list. Crap. I didn’t think this through very well.

Ah, well. Here are my picks, in no particular order, for the seven teams that enter the season as Stanley Cup favorites.

Los Angeles Kings

Last season: 46-28-8, 100 points, third place in the Pacific Division, won the Stanley Cup

Offseason report: Cap pressure prevented them from adding much, although they did manage to re-sign playoff hero Marian Gaborik as well as Matt Greene. Willie Mitchell and Colin Fraser were lost to free agency; both were solid contributors, but not critical pieces.

Minor tweaks aside, this year’s Kings will essentially be the same as last year’s version. That’s not good news for the rest of the league.

Outlook: The Kings finished last year ranked 25th in goals scored and first in goals allowed, so it’s not hard to see which end of the ice they’re best at. Team defense, from two-way force Anze Kopitar to blueline stud Drew Doughty, is excellent, and they implement Darryl Sutter’s system just about perfectly. Jonathan Quick is a divisive goalie; some view him as a sure-thing superstar, while others see merely a good goaltender on the league’s best defensive team, with a reputation inflated by a few playoff hot streaks. In either case, he’ll deliver strong numbers, and if he gets hurt, there’s always last year’s rookie breakout, Martin Jones.

That leaves the goal scoring, which has been the Kings’ weak spot for several years now. So far they’ve managed to flick the switch on the offense once the playoffs start, but that’s not something you want to count on every year. A full season of Gaborik will help if he can stay healthy all year, which he often doesn’t.

Key stat: 56.74 — the Kings’ Fenwick percentage at 5-on-5/close, the best in the league by a decent margin. In other words, no team has the puck more than L.A. This stat is also one of the best predictors we have of future success, which is why analytics guys get little hearts in their eyes whenever they talk about the Kings.

Best case: They continue to be impossible to score on, the offense finds a pulse, and they cruise through the year on the way to adding a Presidents’ Trophy to their hardware case.

Worst case: They once again struggle to score goals, and Quick and the defense lapse just enough that they take a small step back and into the mid-90s point range, which in the West means they have to sweat a little for their playoff spot.

Bold prediction: Coming off last year’s strong playoff run and a Conn Smythe near miss, Doughty rides that momentum and another strong season to his first career Norris.

New York Rangers

Last season: 45-31-6, 96 points, second in the Metro, lost to the Kings in the Stanley Cup Final

Offseason report: The Rangers turned over a big chunk of the bottom half of their roster, as cap pressure had them parting ways with useful contributors like Brad Richards, Benoit Pouliot, Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett, and Anton Stralman. They restocked by adding a handful of players, most notable veteran blueliner Dan Boyle and winger Lee Stempniak.

Outlook: Despite the offseason shakeup, the Rangers are returning essentially the same core that made a run to the final last year. They’ll miss Derek Stepan for the season’s first month or two with a broken leg, but they’ll have a full season of Martin St. Louis, and the addition of Boyle should help. And of course, they have arguably the best goaltender on the planet in Henrik Lundqvist. They should at least match and probably exceed last year’s regular-season success. The deep playoff run is a longer shot, but certainly not out of the question.

Key stat: $81 million — the total amount of salary and buyouts on the books for the Rangers this season, the highest total in the league by almost $3 million. (They’re still under the $69 million salary cap, barely, because that’s based on the average annual value of each contract, not the total dollars paid out in a given year.)

Best case: They make it all the way back to the final, and this time they don’t suffer from awful puck luck once they get there.

Worst case: A long-term Lundqvist injury could drop them all the way out of playoff contention, although he’s been a workhorse his whole career, so that seems unlikely. More realistically, if aging veterans like St. Louis, Boyle, and/or Rick Nash start to slow down, it could spell trouble for a team that finished just 11th in the conference in goals scored last year. And remember, they’re coming off a short offseason, so fatigue could become a factor.

Bold prediction: We finally get an Islanders/Rangers playoff matchup for the first time in 20 years.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Season preview, part three: Your guess is as good as mine

One of the tricks of the season-preview business is that you always start at the bottom and work your way up, building suspense along the way. That’s the basic approach we’ve taken for our NHL preview; on Monday, we covered the Bottom-Feeder Division, and yesterday it was on to the Middle-of-the-Pack Division.

By the end of that second post, we’d covered half the league. And when it went up, fans of the teams that hadn’t been mentioned yet were thrilled. Clearly, this meant their teams were considered Stanley Cup contenders. Celebrations broke out across the hockey world.1

Not so fast.

Today we introduce the “Your Guess Is As Good As Mine” Division. These are the teams that are expected to be … well, pretty much anything. Yes, I’m supposed to be the expert, which means my job is to pretend like I know everything. I don’t. And when it comes to these teams, I’m not ashamed to say I’m stumped.

So here we go: the eight teams with the widest range of possible outcomes. Could the eventual Stanley Cup winner be one of the teams below? Sure could. What about Connor McDavid’s new home? Wouldn’t surprise me. Could one of these teams manage to accomplish both those things? That shouldn’t technically be possible, but what the hell. With this group, all bets are off.

Colorado Avalanche

Last season: 52-22-8, 112 points, first in the Central, upset by Minnesota in the first round

Offseason report: They lost Paul Stastny to free agency, but replaced him with future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla, which is close to a wash. They traded P.A. Parenteau to Montreal for Danny Briere and lost backup goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere to retirement. And they named Joe Sakic the new GM while demoting Greg Sherman, which was shocking because everybody sort of assumed they had already done that last year.

Also, everyone on the roster got older. That’s not exactly breaking news, since the same could be said for every team, but it seems especially important in Colorado’s case, because this is a team led by an extremely young core. Guys like Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly, and Gabriel Landeskog should all still be improving with each year that goes by. If this team of kids racked up 112 points last year, how much better could they be this year?

Outlook: Ah hell, let’s just get it out of the way now …

Key stat: 46.7 percent — Colorado’s 5-on-5 Fenwick percentage last year, fourth-worst in the league. The Avalanche were a terrible possession team, which tells us they shouldn’t win many games. Now clearly, the Avs did win a lot of games — for one season. But the numbers say it can’t continue, and that a big drop-off this year is inevitable. Remember how last season, Toronto became the lightning-rod team for the analytics argument? That’s the Avalanche this year. And we all remember how that story ended for the Maple Leafs.

So are the Avalanche equally doomed? Maybe, although there’s hope. They could improve their possession game, although that’s no small fix. If they can’t, they’ll need to win with high-percentage shooting and excellent goaltending. They got both last year, including 8.77 percent 5-on-5 shooting that ranked second in the league. With all their talent up front, you’d expect them to be better than average in that category, but history suggests that last year’s numbers probably aren’t sustainable.

And then there’s Semyon Varlamov, who’d essentially been a league-average goalie before breaking out last year and very nearly winning the Vezina. He’s only 26, so it’s possible that last year really did signal his emergence as an elite goaltender. But if he takes a step back to merely very good, the Avalanche could be in trouble.

For their part, the Avalanche brain trust are saying they’re not worried about the analytics. Of course, there’s not much else they could say.

Best case: The Avs beat the percentages and basically repeat last year (minus the early playoff exit), solidifying their place as one of the league’s elite teams. Eat it, math nerds.

Worst case: The percentages catch up to them, and they crash and burn all the way out of the playoff race. Eat it, old-school dinosaurs.

Bold prediction: They earn a Western wild-card spot, and nobody on either side quite feels satisfied.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Last season: 36-24-8, 80 points, third in the East, home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, baby! … immediately followed by 2-12-0. The end result: 38-36-8, 84 points, 12th in the East, missed playoffs.

Offseason report: After seeing their season end with yet another collapse, the Leafs moved quickly to shake up the organization by hiring Brendan Shanahan as team president. He kept GM Dave Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle, but fired most of their assistants. That’s not exactly cleaning house, but you can’t help but feel like Nonis and (especially) Carlyle are on borrowed time and know it.

On the ice, the team signed Stephane Robidas and traded for Roman Polak in an attempt to address its consistently leaky blueline, and brought in several cheap free agents to compete for depth spots up front. The Leafs didn’t show much interest in re-signing Nikolai Kulemin or Jay McClement; they did try to bring back Dave Bolland, but lucked out when they were outbid by the Panthers.

Outlook: Much like the Avalanche, the numbers say the Maple Leafs simply can’t win without either fixing their possession problems or posting crazy-high percentages at both ends. Unlike the Avs, the Leafs at least seem to realize that’s a problem. Carlyle and his new staff are making adjustments to the team’s much-maligned defensive system, and Shanahan even hired an analytics team to educate key decision-makers going forward.

Those are positive changes, but they won’t fix the problem right away, which means the Leafs will need another season of excellent goaltending and above-average shooting just to make the playoffs. They can probably get the latter, thanks to a decent forward group led by Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. As far as the goaltending, Jonathan Bernier was excellent last year until he got hurt during his return to Los Angeles on March 13. That left the starter’s job with James Reimer, who took most of the blame for the season-ending slide.

Surprisingly, Reimer is back this year, although the starter’s job is clearly Bernier’s. Between them, they’ll need to provide All-Star-caliber goaltending, at least until Carlyle (or his replacement) can fix the defense. If they do, and if the other key players can stay reasonably healthy like they did last year, then this team can make the playoffs.

Key stat: .911 — Reimer’s save percentage from the moment Bernier was hurt through the end of the season, the stretch in which everyone agreed he was unquestionably terrible and was to blame for the team missing the playoffs. The lesson: Never let yourself get on the wrong side of a narrative in Toronto. The other lesson: With even slightly below-average goaltending, this Maple Leafs team will be terrible.

Best case: Kessel racks up his usual 35 goals and 80 points without breaking a sweat,2 Bernier is fantastic, the free agents help steady the ship, Carlyle and his new staff mesh well, the defensive changes work, Dion Phaneuf settles down, and the team has the same sort of good injury luck that it had last year. The Leafs make the playoffs. Man, that was a long list.

Worst case: The goaltending is just OK, a few guys get hurt, and the defensive improvements don’t pay immediate dividends. By November, they’re already out of the playoff race and Carlyle shifts into full Art Howe–in-Moneyball “I’m playing my team in a way that I can explain in job interviews next year” mode. They get dangerously close to bottom-five territory (but naturally don’t win the lottery), and Shanahan has no choice but to clean house.

Bold prediction: Steve Spott or Peter Horachek is the Leafs’ interim coach by Christmas; somebody currently behind the bench for another NHL team is the Leafs’ coach by next season.

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