Tuesday, November 25, 2014

At the quarter-pole*, some early NHL awards

We’ve reached the quarter pole in the NHL season, which means two things: It’s too early to start drawing conclusions and throwing around awards, and we’re going to go ahead and do those things anyway. So dig your tuxes and gowns out of the closet, because we’ve got a dozen early-season awards to hand out.

Most Valuable Player: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Ho-hum. Crosby won the award last year, he was the overwhelming favorite to win it this year, and so far that looks like it’s exactly what he’s going to do. He’s not running away with the scoring title, which is a mild surprise. But all the guys keeping pace with him come from struggling teams, and the Hart Trophy basically always goes to someone from a Cup contender. So it’s Crosby by default, which is basically too boring to spend any more time on.

Most Valuable Player Who Isn’t Sidney Crosby: Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers

That’s better! And we’ve got several candidates to consider, like Voracek, who’s tied with Crosby for the lead in points, and Tyler Seguin, who leads in goals scored. Steven Stamkos has been fantastic, Vladimir Tarasenko has owned the highlight reels, and Rick Nash’s hot start left him carrying basically the entire Rangers offense.

And that’s just the forwards, which is … well, which is probably all we need to talk about, since defensemen and goalies rarely win the Hart.1 Besides, we’ll get to those guys in a minute.

I’m going to go with Voracek, who’s recorded a point on over half of the Flyers goals this year, and is basically single-handedly keeping them in the playoff picture. Will it last? No, not at his current pace, but that shouldn’t matter. We’re trying to recognize the first quarter of the season here, not predict the rest of it, so Voracek has earned the right to pick up Crosby’s scraps.

Least Valuable Player: The Backup Goalie, New Jersey Devils

Do you know his name? I didn’t know his name, and apparently neither did Devils coach Peter DeBoer until the weekend, when he finally gave him his first start of the season in the team’s 21st game. Before that, Cory Schneider had gotten the nod each and every time, becoming only the third goalie in the salary-cap era to make that many starts in a row to begin a season. That streak ended on Saturday, when DeBoer remembered that he had a second goaltender on the roster.

The guy’s name is Scott Clemmensen, by the way. That probably sounds familiar, since the journeyman has been backing up around the NHL since 2001, including three separate stints in New Jersey. He got his first start of the season against the Flames in Calgary. He lost. LVP! LVP!

>> Read the full post on Grantland

(* I know, I know.)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Weekend wrap: Are you feeling lucky?

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

Theme of the Week: As Luck Would Have It

Let’s check in on everyone’s favorite stat: PDO, which adds up a team’s shooting and save percentages to come up with a number that settles in around 100, give or take a few points. Both shooting and save percentage are heavily luck-driven, so a PDO that’s significantly above or below 100 can be an indication that a player or team’s performance is being influenced by random chance, meaning it’s less likely to continue. PDO outliers aren’t always the result of luck and luck only — there’s some evidence that talent level and playing style could sustainably boost a team a point or two over 100, for example — but that explanation goes a long way.1

So who have been the NHL’s luckiest and unluckiest teams? The five top PDOs belong to the Predators (103.5), Penguins (102.8), Flames (102.3), Devils (101.6), and Canadiens (101.2).2 That pours some cold water on two of the Western Conference’s best early-season stories in Nashville and Calgary, and the numbers look especially glum for the Flames, a bad possession team shooting a league-leading 10.26 percent that can’t possibly continue. On the other hand, the Predators, Habs, and Devils are seeing their PDO driven more by strong save percentages, and all of those teams have All-Star-caliber goalies. Still, Nashville’s in for a drop — since 2007-08, only one team has stayed over 103 for an entire season.3

At the other end of the PDO scale, five teams are sitting below 98.5. Not surprisingly, three are having lousy seasons: the Oilers (96.4), Blue Jackets (96.9), and Hurricanes (97.5). That tells us those teams should expect at least some improvement as the season goes on. That’s not much consolation, since all three are basically already out of playoff contention, but it’s worth keeping in mind when deciding how hard to lean on the panic button. The Capitals (98.2) have been another disappointment, but they’re still in the Metro mix and are worth keeping an eye on once their luck starts to even out.

That fifth low-PDO team is a weird one: It’s the Vancouver Canucks, who’ve actually been overachieving based on preseason expectations. Their shooting has been fine, but their .901 save percentage is second-worst in the league.4 That doesn’t reflect well on big-money free agent Ryan Miller’s play, but if he drifts up closer to his career average, the surprising Canucks could turn out to be for real.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s top prize: the Stanley Cup.

5. Chicago Blackhawks (12-8-1, plus-19) Hey, look who finally decided to join us. The record still isn’t much to look at, especially when you factor in the three shootout wins, and they lost to Vancouver last night. But the goal differential and the league’s second-best possession numbers earn them a spot, albeit just barely ahead of the Canucks and Ducks.

4. Montreal Canadiens (16-6-1, plus-4) I was all ready to give their spot to Boston if the Bruins had won their showdown on Saturday night. Instead, the Habs looked great while earning a road shutout. You keep finding new ways to make me sad, Bruins.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, November 21, 2014

Grab bag: When Leaf fans attack

In the weekly grab bag:
- Comedy all-stars, including Mike Milbury getting caught with his head down
- Phil Kessel snubs the media; my modest proposal for a new rule for handling these stories
- An obscure goalie who got to back up two Hall-of-Famers at the same time (and also once attacked Brendan Shanahan)
- Something that annoys me about "your" team's P.A. announcer
- Maple Leaf fans litter the ice with their team trailing 8-0. No, not on Tuesday... 24 years ago.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Checking in on the NHL's hot seat

Almost one-quarter of the NHL season is in the books, with several teams hitting the 20-game mark this week. And as usual, we’ve seen the usual array of goals, saves and bloopers, tight games and blowouts, inspiring upsets and outright tanking.

But something has been missing. Somehow, we’ve made it this far without a single coach or GM losing his job, which is rare. We usually get at least a firing or two over the first month, and last year we had one after just three games.1 But this year … nothing.

Or at least nothing yet. It’s inevitable that the pink slips will eventually start flying, and probably sooner than later. It’s never easy to see somebody lose his job, even in the big-dollar world of the NHL, but it does help to be prepared. So here’s a look at 10 seats around the league that are already getting warm or worse.

Sharks Coach Todd McLellan

Why he’s in trouble: McLellan has been on the hot seat for years, and his firing seemed like a sure thing after last season’s playoff collapse against the Kings. He was given a surprising reprieve by GM Doug Wilson, who vowed to overhaul the roster instead. That led into the summer’s odd standoff with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and the team emerged without a captain but with essentially an unchanged core. So far, that patience hasn’t paid off, as the team has hovered around the .500 mark.

Their most recent effort, Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the lowly Sabres, will turn up the heat. It also doesn’t help McLellan’s case that the Sharks have a Stanley Cup–winning head coach on the staff in Larry Robinson, although Robinson has long maintained that he doesn’t want to run a team again.

What could save him: McLellan wasn’t the one who promised to reshape the roster and then didn’t deliver; that’s on Wilson, and maybe he’s the one who should be feeling the heat instead. That’s a mixed blessing for McLellan, since a GM under fire will often have to throw his coach overboard to buy time. But Wilson has shown patience so far.

More importantly, while the Sharks have been a disappointment, they haven’t been all that bad. They’ve been mediocre, sure, but they’re still right in the mix in a surprisingly tight Pacific, and one good week could have them pushing the Ducks for first place.

How hot is it? 4/10 now; 7/10 if they’re not in first place by February; 11/10 if they don’t win at least two playoff rounds.

Prediction: If the team is still stumbling along in December, the comparisons to the 2011-12 Kings will mount. That team made a midseason coaching switch to Darryl Sutter, who’s led them to a pair of Stanley Cup wins.

Flyers Coach Craig Berube

Why he’s in trouble: He’s the head coach of the Flyers, which is one of those positions where the seat starts getting warm on the day you take the job. That’s especially true when the team struggles to get over .500, which the Flyers have for much of the season. And he’s working for a GM who didn’t hire him; Ron Hextall was the assistant GM when Berube got the job last season, and could want to put his own guy in place now that he’s in charge.

What could save him: He’s been on the job for only a year. And last year’s Flyers struggled through the first few months, too, before eventually heating up enough to make the playoffs and then take the Rangers to a seventh game.

How hot is it? 3/10

Prediction: Berube makes it through the season, but needs another playoff spot to keep his job beyond that.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pick your cap: What if hockey's hall of fame worked like Cooperstown

The Hockey Hall of Fame officially welcomed six new members Monday night at the annual induction ceremony in Toronto. As per tradition, there were speeches, highlights, and the unveiling of each member’s plaque.

What there was not was any kind of formal emphasis on specific teams. That’s because, unlike baseball’s Hall of Fame, the hockey version doesn’t associate each new member with one team. Cooperstown inducts each player wearing a cap of the team he’s most associated with, which can lead to plenty of debate.

Hockey doesn’t do that. But what if we did?

It wouldn’t be an especially tough question for this year’s four player inductees; Dominik Hasek would go in as a Sabre, Peter Forsberg as an Av, Rob Blake as a King, and Mike Modano as a Star. But other years, it wouldn’t have been such an easy call. Some of hockey’s greatest stars split their prime years between two or more teams, and choosing just one franchise to induct a player under would lead to all sorts of arguments, hyperbole, and hurt feelings.

That sounds like fun, so let’s give it a try. Let’s reimagine the Hockey Hall of Fame under Cooperstown rules: Each player has to go in as a representative of one team, and one team only.

First, let’s get a few of the easier ones out of the way. Consider this a pregame stretch:

Brendan Shanahan: Red Wings

He played the majority of his 21-year career elsewhere, but the three Stanley Cups in Detroit make this one an easy call.

Doug Gilmour: Maple Leafs

He spent more time in Toronto than anywhere else and had his best seasons there; that’s enough to trump the Cup he won in Calgary.

Dino Ciccarelli: North Stars

He moved around a lot, but he scored three times as many goals with Minnesota as anywhere else.

Al MacInnis: Flames

A tougher call than I expected; he played 10 years in St. Louis and won his only Norris there. But his offensive totals (and Stanley Cup) from his 13 years in Calgary tip the scales.

Paul Coffey: Oilers

Played just seven of his 21 seasons in Edmonton, but they were his best.

Pat LaFontaine: Islanders

A tougher call than you’d think, since his crazy 1992-93 in Buffalo was his signature season. But injuries just limited his games played as a Sabre too much.

Wayne Gretzky: Oilers

Come on.

Now that we’re all warmed up, let’s move on to some tougher cases. Here are eight Hockey Hall of Famers who’d be tougher to nail down.

Patrick Roy: Canadiens or Avalanche?

Roy played 10 full seasons in Montreal to just seven in Colorado, with one season split between the two. But in terms of games played, it’s much closer, at just a 53 percent–to–47 percent edge for the Canadiens. And that’s for the regular season; in the playoffs, Roy actually played 133 games in Colorado to 114 in Montreal.

He split his four Stanley Cups between the two teams. Roy’s numbers in Colorado were significantly better than in Montreal, with his six best seasons in terms of GAA all coming as an Av. But that’s a function of the high-flying ’80s and early ’90s versus the dead puck decade that followed; adjusted for era, his numbers with both teams largely even out.

Perhaps the best argument for the Avalanche is that those were the years that Roy seemed to go from “very good goaltender” to “all-time great” in the eyes of most fans. But that’s because it was the second half of his career, when he started passing milestones and breaking records. As good as he was in Colorado, he was objectively better in Montreal — he won all three of his Vezinas there, and was a postseason first- or second-team All-Star five times, compared to just once in Colorado.

The verdict: Roy goes into the Hall as a Hab, in a decision that wasn’t as close as I thought it would be. By the way, Roy himself was asked about this when he was inducted, and dodged the question.

Brad Park: Rangers or Bruins?

Park isn’t as well known to the current generation of fans as fellow ’70s blueliners like Bobby Orr or Denis Potvin. In fact, that’s a big part of his legacy — he was the runner-up for the Norris Trophy six times over nine seasons without ever winning, the first four to Orr and the last two to Potvin.

With the exception of two years with the Wings, he split his career between the Rangers and Bruins. And it was just about as even a split as you could imagine. He played seven full seasons with each team, plus one year split between them. And his productivity with each team was eerily similar. Via Hockey-Reference.com, here were Park’s per-game averages with each team:


Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty close.

The verdict: The Rangers. They drafted and developed him, and he earned the majority of his All-Star selections (and Norris second-place finishes) in New York.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, November 17, 2014

Weekend wrap: Celebrating the best and worst... and most mediocre

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

Theme of the Week: Taking a Moment to Celebrate Mediocrity

Every week of the regular season, we’ve made sure to take a look at the league’s very best teams and its very worst. We’ll do it again this week. But first, what about the teams that don’t stand a chance of making either list? What about the ones that are firmly stuck in the dreaded middle of the pack?

These teams aren’t all that good, nor are they especially bad. They win about as often as they lose. They score about as often as they’re scored on. They don’t seem like a threat to win the Cup, and right now they have no chance of being Connor McDavid’s next home. They’re just … there.

Through the first six weeks, here are the league’s five most mediocre teams.

5. Ottawa Senators (8-5-4, plus-2 goals differential) They’ve won eight and lost nine, and are also well over .500 because the loser point is stupid.

4. Winnipeg Jets (9-7-3, minus-5) They’re just on the outside of the wild-card race. That’s either an accurate description of the standings, or the team’s new marketing slogan.

3. San Jose Sharks (10-8-2, plus-3) Going into the season we had no idea what the Sharks would be, but we knew they wouldn’t be boring. Twenty games in: 10 wins, 10 losses, 56 goals for, 53 goals against, and 49 percent possession. That’s … kind of boring, no?

2. Philadelphia Flyers (7-7-2, minus-2) They’re painfully mediocre, and yet somehow not even the most mediocre team in their own division. The Metro: Feel the excitement!

1. Washington Capitals (7-7-3, plus-1) They’ve got 17 points in 17 games, and the most even goals differential in the league.1 Mostly out of force of habit, I blame Alexander Ovechkin.

Now let’s never speak of these teams again. On to the good and the bad.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, November 14, 2014

The end of enforcers

When I was growing up as a hockey fan in the ’80s, I knew every enforcer on every team. I could rattle off 30 or 40 names if you asked me to, and quite possibly even if you didn’t. I had them listed in order of ability on a page tucked away in the back of a notebook, and when I got bored during class, I’d update the rankings based on the most recent fights.

I got the latest release of Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey for Christmas every year, and still do to this day. I own a custom-made Craig Berube no. 16 Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, quite possibly the only one still in existence. I can remember going into the bank with my allowance to figure out how to buy a money order so I could mail away for the Wayne Gretzky Hockey fight disc. In college, without easy access to cable TV and long before the days of YouTube, I learned how to connect with VHS tape traders so my friends and I could get caught up on the latest bouts.

I tell you all of this not out of pride or embarrassment or even because I think it’s all that interesting, but because I want you to know that when it comes to hockey fights, as George Carlin would say, my credentials are in good order. That’s important, because I loved enforcers back then, and even more, I hated lectures from snobby anti-fighting sportswriters who clearly had never enjoyed a good honest scrap in their life and had no right to talk down their noses to those of us who did.

All of which makes it a very strange experience to write these words: The NHL’s enforcer era is coming to an end, and I’m happy about that. I don’t want those guys in the game anymore.

Let’s start with some recent background for those getting caught up with the shift in the landscape. The NHL has always been a copycat league, and these days the trend is toward teams that can roll four lines that can all be trusted with meaningful ice time. That doesn’t leave much room for designated fighters, and teams have begun dropping them from the lineup. And because the tough guys are there at least part to neutralize other tough guys, each one that loses a job makes it tougher for the next guy to justify his. This summer seemed be the tipping point. The Bruins moved on from Shawn Thornton, the Maple Leafs demoted Colton Orr, and longtime tough guys like Krys Barch, Paul Bissonnette, and Kevin Westgarth all find themselves out of the NHL.

We’re not talking about the end of fighting altogether — at least not yet — but rather of the one-note heavyweight, the guy who’s there to drop the gloves and maybe throw a hit or two, and not much else. The job hasn’t been entirely eliminated; a handful of teams are still holdouts, especially in the Western Conference, and there are more than a few dissenting voices. But when even longtime advocates like Mike Milbury are jumping ship, it’s hard not to see this as less of a temporary trend and more of a permanent change.

All of which takes me back to those days of worshiping the game’s heavyweights, when we’d devour the highlights of the latest matchups and wage impassioned debates over whether Kocur could really hold his own against Kordic. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined a world in which I wouldn’t want those guys in the league.

Not everyone agreed; even then, there were always plenty of media voices railing against the NHL’s culture of violence. But most fans didn’t listen and most of the league’s decision-makers didn’t seem to care. The game needed its enforcers, the thinking went; they kept the rest of the players honest. Hockey was a dangerous game, but you were more likely to keep your stick down and your elbows in if you knew there was a monster at the end of the other bench waiting to hold you accountable.

That was most people’s arguments, but it was never mine. I didn’t doubt it, since it was everywhere, but it wasn’t my case to make, because I never played at a high enough level to know whether it was true of false. And it didn’t really matter, because I had a better reason to cheer on the enforcers and the chaos they caused: It was fun. It made the game more entertaining.

Some people recoil at that sort of argument, as if enjoying a fight just for the sake of it was unseemly. I never really understood why that was. The NHL, like all pro leagues, is an entertainment product; as much as we’d like to assign a higher purpose to our sports, the fact is that as soon as people stop enjoying them and wanting to pay to see them, they go away. If something makes the game more entertaining to enough people, then by definition it has value.

And as a fan, I always thought the enforcers were just about the most entertaining guys. I loved the whole package: the debates over who was the heavyweight champ, and who was next in line in the top contender’s spot; the quick scan of the lineup cards in an attempt to figure out who might pair off; the buzz in an arena when two tough guys lined up next to each other on a faceoff. The third period of a 6-1 blowout could be boring and unwatchable, but mix in a little bad blood and the possibility of a score to settle and it became can’t-miss TV.

That the enforcers were often the smartest guy on the team, and inevitably seemed to be the most active in the community, only added to the appeal. They’d serve up those patented death glares on the ice, but big smiles off of it. They loved their jobs, which is how you knew everything was OK.

When fighting started to drop, the game’s entertainment value dropped in my eyes. I know I wasn’t alone — find any classic scrap on YouTube and check the comments for disaffected fans bemoaning the loss of what the NHL used to be but it quickly became apparent it wasn’t the sort of thing you were supposed to say out loud. So we argued about safety and rats and “policing the game” instead.

That stuff was important, but it wasn’t really the point. Fighting was just fun, and that was all that mattered. And I felt that way, and I made that case whenever I could, right up until it wasn’t fun anymore.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Grab bag: Don Cherry is out of time

In the weekly grab bag:
- When a steak is not a streak
- The Phil Kessel selfie, and other comedy starts
- Let's all mess with Don Cherry
- A future Hall-of-Famer's awkward draft day
- and more...

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Is Daniel Alfredsson a Hall-of-Famer?

It’s not looking good for Daniel Alfredsson. The 41-year-old free agent has yet to rejoin the Red Wings, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the back problems that bothered him throughout the summer are still an issue. While the Red Wings are willing to give the veteran as much time as he needs to make a decision, a return is becoming less likely with every week that goes by.

With Hall of Fame induction ceremonies taking place this weekend in Toronto, attention will naturally turn to potential future classes. And that makes Alfredsson’s status all the more interesting, because if his career ended today, he’d become one of those tough calls that make Hall of Fame debates so much fun.

So let’s do this: If Alfredsson has indeed played his last NHL game, is he a Hall of Famer? Here’s the case for and against.

For: His numbers are good

For forwards in the modern era, topping the 1,000-point mark has long been considered the minimum threshold to get into the Hall of Fame discussion, and Alfredsson clears that mark comfortably with a career total of 1,157. He falls short of the 500-goal mark, another milestone that bolsters a case, but he was never viewed as a pure goal scorer, and his 444 goals are within the lower range of what the Hall seems to consider acceptable.

Against: His numbers are good; they’re not great

Alfredsson’s career totals are decent, but they fall well short of sure-thing territory. He sits 51st in career points, behind guys like Bernie Nicholls and Vincent Damphousse who never even dipped a toe into serious HOF conversation.

That’s not an especially great comparison, since those guys played in a higher-scoring era. But nobody ever said these debates were fair, and some selection committee members might look at Alfredsson’s totals and feel underwhelmed when the comparisons start getting thrown around.

He also only topped 40 goals and 90 points once in his career. Basically, his numbers fall into that “consistently very good, rarely great” category that sometimes fails to impress voters.

For: Some comparable players are already in, or will be soon

One Hall of Famer who overlaps much of Alfredsson’s era and had similar career point totals is Joe Nieuwendyk (1,126), who made it in his second year of eligibility. Sergei Fedorov (1,179) is expected to get in once he becomes eligible in 2015, and Jarome Iginla (1,176) would make it if he retired today. Guys like Glenn Anderson and Joe Mullen are also in, despite playing in the high-scoring ’80s and putting up fewer career points than Alfredsson.

Of course, the most unavoidable comparable for Alfredsson is Mats Sundin. Those two have always been linked thanks to the Leafs/Senators rivalry, and because they were off-ice friends as well as teammates on various Swedish international teams. Sundin finished with significantly better career totals, including 564 goals and 1,349 points, but he had the benefit of playing a few years in the early ’90s. Sundin made it in in his first year of eligibility and nobody really batted an eye, so that would imply that Alfredsson should at least have a shot.

Against: Plenty of other comparable players aren’t

According to hockey-reference.com’s career similarity scores, Alfredsson’s two most comparable players are Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk. Both of those players have been eligible for a few years and settled into that perpetual “close, but not this year” territory, although Roenick, at least, has an outside shot to get in eventually.

Other guys with similar career numbers include Pierre Turgeon, Alexander Mogilny, Rod Brind’Amour, and Theo Fleury, not to mention a guy like Dave Andreychuk who’s well ahead of all of them. That’s a group of really good players, but none of them ever gained much Hall of Fame momentum.

(By the way, if you’re getting the sense that the Hall of Fame tends to be all over the map with the way it treats offensive forwards, you’re on the right track.)

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, November 7, 2014

Grab bag: Wayne vs. Mario in the battle of awkward ads

In this week's grab bag:
- Three comedy stars, plus one awesome kid
- Are the Sabres tanking?
- An election-week obscure player
- A cautionary tale about giving big money to Cup-winning goalies
- And Wayne Gretzky and his cast of 7-Up misfits challenge Mario Lemieux for the title of history's most awkward hockey ads

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What's going on in the Central?

We’re a month into the season, and for the most part, the standings look about right. There are surprises here and there, to be sure, but things are starting to settle in, and a look around the league’s divisions shows that things are unfolding pretty much according to plan.

We all figured the Atlantic would be some combination of the Bruins, Habs, and Lightning at the top, with the Sabres and Panthers at the bottom, and that’s exactly what it is. We all had the Penguins on top of a logjam in the Metro, and there they are. We figured the California teams would own the Pacific, and while the Canucks and Flames appear to have missed that memo, the division is otherwise about right.

But there’s always one troublemaker, and this year it’s the Central. It’s by far the league’s tightest division, with all seven teams separated by just six points. Nobody’s managed more than six regulation/OT wins. And while it was supposed to be the league’s best division, if the postseason started today, it would send just three teams.

What’s going on? And more importantly, can it last? Let’s see if we can figure any of this out.

What was the Central Division supposed to look like?

Preseason predictions are often all over the map. But as the season approached, it’s fair to say that a reasonably strong consensus started to emerge around the Central. The Blackhawks were the heavy favorite to be the division’s best team, although you could have talked yourself into the Blues if you were sold on their offseason shake-up. The Stars were going to be the division’s most exciting team, and the Wild would be in the same range, but less interesting. The Jets and Predators would be terrible. And the Avalanche were the wild card — some people thought they’d be good, while others thought they’d struggle.

And what does it really look like?

The Blackhawks haven’t looked like themselves, limping out of the gate with a start just north of .500. The Blues weren’t much better early on, but have since strung together a six-game win streak to start resembling the team we expected them to be.

The Wild and Stars switched roles, with Minnesota being the division’s must-watch team while Dallas has been (barely) mediocre. The Jets and Predators have both been surprisingly good, and right now they’re holding down two of those three playoff spots.

And the Avalanche are still the wild card some people think they’ve been terrible, while others think they’ve been really terrible.

So we were wrong about everything?

Sort of, but with a few caveats. The most important, and most obvious, is that it’s still early. We’re only about a dozen games in, which is too soon to start carving any conclusions into stone. Remember, this time last year the Maple Leafs were in first place in the Eastern Conference, and we all remember how that turned out. There’s still plenty of time for things to get back to normal.

But since my editors rejected my proposal of exclusively breaking down old hockey team lip-sync videos until February, when everything settles down, we’ll work with what we have. And what we have are a dozen games from each of these teams, give or take. That’s not a lot, but it’s enough to start putting some pieces together.

Also, we weren’t wrong about everything. The Blues are about where we expected.

Good. Let’s talk about them first.

Gladly. There may not be a team in the division facing more pressure than the Blues, who haven’t been out of the second round in 14 years and could be forced into a “blow it up and start over” scenario if they can’t show that they can hang with the contenders.

So far, so good. The big question for St. Louis was always going to be goaltending. After last year’s Ryan Miller experiment turned out to be a disaster, they went into this season with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Elliott is a veteran who’s been very good for long stretches of his career, and Allen is one of the better prospects at the position, so they were in reasonably good shape, but they didn’t have a sure-thing established starter that most contenders like to have.

A dozen games in, both guys have been fantastic. They’ve had to be, since the offense has been a disappointment — Tuesday’s 1-0 win over the Devils being a perfect example but the team’s lowly even-strength shooting percentage suggests that should pick up. Big free-agent acquisition Paul Stastny has played just four games because of injury, but should be back soon, and young guys like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko haven’t hit their ceilings yet.

The Blues are sitting in first place, albeit by just a point or two over half the division. And they’ve still got lots of room to improve. But right now, they’re the division’s best team.

What about the Blackhawks? Weren’t they also supposed to be unstoppable?

I picked them to win the Cup this year, so obviously I’m scratching my head a bit over an uninspiring start that’s seen them win just five of 13 in regulation/overtime. They were one of the league’s best teams last year and returned largely the same lineup. And their one major offseason move, adding Brad Richards on a $2 million deal, was the sort of low-risk/high-reward move that seemed like it couldn’t fail.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The NHL draft was a beautiful mess in the 1970s

NHL fans love draft weekend. It marks the unofficial start of the offseason, and it serves as a period of renewal as a new rookie class is welcomed while teams wheel and deal to begin the long process of remaking their rosters.

But while the results are inherently unpredictable, the draft itself features a certain sense of familiarity. The league has been holding these things for over half a century, and by now we all know what to expect. We get a bust here, a late-round sleeper there, a trade or two if we’re lucky, and everyone is on a flight home by Saturday night. There’s a rhythm to the whole production that’s become ingrained in its DNA.

It wasn’t always that way. The NHL draft used to be chaos.

Specifically, the draft was chaos for pretty much all of the 1970s. It was still vaguely similar to what we know today, just familiar enough to be recognizable, but none of it made any sense.

If you’re not old enough to remember what went on — or if, like most people, you figured it was just better to pretend the whole decade never happened — then it’s worth your while to take a look back at the madness. Let’s just say it was an odd time to be a hockey fan.

Draft oddity no. 1: It was still relatively new

The first NHL draft wasn’t held until 1963; up until then, amateur players had been allocated exclusively based on club sponsorships and the use of C forms to lock up prospects. Those earliest drafts were quick and relatively unimportant affairs, with as few as 11 players taken across the league and teams frequently passing on their picks.

By the 1970s, the draft had come to more closely resemble what we’re used to today. But it was still fairly new and teams were still figuring out how to approach it. Some franchises spent heavily on amateur scouting; others all but ignored it. Some drafted based on what they needed right then; others looked long term. And some teams viewed their draft picks as critical assets, while others were more than willing to use them as cheap trade bait for acquiring immediate help.

That last factor turned out to be especially important, because it gave a smart GM an opportunity to take advantage of a market inefficiency. More on that in a minute.

Draft oddity no. 2: There was another league out there

The rival World Hockey Association had appeared in 1972 and would last until 1979, creating the odd dynamic of two professional leagues drafting from the same pool of players. That meant that NHL and WHA teams could end up drafting the same players, and teams ran the risk of picking guys who’d report to the rival league instead.

That was especially rough on the WHA, which typically saw most of its first-round talent choose to head to the higher profile NHL. But it complicated things for NHL teams, too, and that uncertainty led to some of the unusual behavior we’ll see in the next few sections. It also created a bizarre situation in which the two leagues would occasionally try to keep their drafts secret, to prevent the other side from knowing who’d been taken where.

Maybe more importantly, the WHA also helped create a landscape where the NHL felt the need to continue adding teams to keep up. That left the league with an eclectic mix of long-established franchises and brand-new markets. There were more front-office jobs than ever before. And not everyone knew what they were doing.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, November 3, 2014

Weekend wrap: The curse of November 1

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

Theme of the Week: The Curse of November 1

Last year, Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman made an intriguing discovery: Since the 2005 lockout, only three teams that had been four points or more out of a playoff spot on November 1 had managed to make the postseason. It sounded crazy — four points is just two wins, after all, and teams have roughly 70 games to make them up — but Friedman showed his work, and the math checked out.

Last season saw a bit of a slowing of that trend; of the eight teams that were at least four points out of the playoffs on November 1, 2013, two — the Stars and Flyers — eventually made it to the postseason. This year, five teams woke up Saturday in the dreaded position of being at least four points back. Will any be able to recover?

We can already go ahead and write off the Sabres and Hurricanes, even though both had decent weekends. The Oilers and Coyotes are sporting identical records and sharing last place in the Western standings, and both have the disadvantage of playing in a Pacific Division that, at least for now, seems like the tougher of the West’s two divisions.

The best odds probably belong to the Blue Jackets, who found themselves five points back in the weaker Eastern Conference. That’s not good, but it could be a lot worse given that Columbus has been fighting through a rash of early-season injuries that’s left it icing a borderline AHL lineup some nights. In a Metro Division that’s still sorting itself out, the Blue Jackets could climb back into the mix once they get healthy, as long as they can find a way to stay within range until then.

>> Read the full post on Grantland