Monday, June 30, 2014

Dispatches from the 2014 NHL draft

The NHL draft was held over the weekend in Philadelphia, a fact that would have been hard to miss if you were a hockey fan in the city. If the bright orange draft-themed banners that seemed to have been hung on every square inch of available space didn’t tip you off, the steady stream of hockey personalities who took over much of the downtown area would have.

They were everywhere. There’s Gary Bettman wandering by a hotel. There’s David Poile chilling out on a patio. There’s some random teenager who you don’t recognize, but his neck is the width of your chest so he’s clearly going in the first round. At some point, your brain switches over to assuming that everyone in the city is secretly an NHL employee, and you start eavesdropping on random conversations in hopes of overhearing some top-secret info. (One guy even managed to get this strategy to work.)

The opening round was held Friday night, just 24 hours after the NBA held its draft in New York City. The leagues share some common traits when it’s time to divvy up the next generation of players, but the NHL draft is distinct in several notable ways. For one, there’s no guarantee a Canadian will be picked first overall. More important, the teams themselves play a much more prominent role in the NHL draft than in any other league. The front offices and scouting staffs fill up the draft floor, with GMs (or other team personnel) announcing the first-round picks themselves. That creates a fun dynamic and offers up plenty of opportunities for the host team’s crowd to play a role. Did I mention this year’s draft was in Philadelphia? Yeah, Flyers fans were going to make themselves heard.

That became clear almost immediately, before the draft had even officially begun. Minutes before the first pick, the NHL attempted to run through a quick roll call, giving each team the chance to confirm its presence and inform the league of who’d be making the picks. It’s supposed to be a formality. Flyers fans had other ideas, quickly deciding to greet the announcement of each team with loud “SUCKS” chants. They weren’t equally distributed — the Kings actually got some tepid applause and the Penguins, naturally, got it worst of all — but it set the tone for what was to come.

(And by the way … why does the NHL have a pre-draft roll call? I get that you need to know who’s authorized to make each team’s picks, but that seems like something that could be handled with an email. Are they concerned that the Carolina Hurricanes might not show up? Do the Dallas Stars sometimes wander in late to these things? Did the Winnipeg Jets’ mom forget to let the league know about their dentist appointment? It’s very confusing.)

After warming up, the Philly crowd got down to the real order of business: mercilessly booing Bettman every time he got near the lectern. The crowd gave it to him with both barrels, and they didn’t even let up when he tried one of his now-traditional cheesy jokes (“I thought this was the city of Brotherly Love?”). It was a strong performance, but not a perfect one, because they still let themselves get suckered in by the now-traditional sight of GMs thanking the host city for its hospitality. The supposedly hard-nosed Flyers fans went for it every time, rewarding the gambit with cheers, which resulted in more and more teams pulling it out as the night went on. You are only encouraging them, Philadelphia. If you don’t boo them for transparently sucking up to you, how will they ever learn?

Once the GMs managed to make their picks, the first round played out largely as expected. The Panthers held on to the first overall pick despite spending the week teasing the hockey world with talk of trading down. They chose Aaron Ekblad, a well-rounded defenseman who’d emerged as the consensus top player on most draft boards.

Ekblad was followed by the “big three” centers: Sam Reinhart (to Buffalo), Leon Draisaitl (to Edmonton), and Samuel Bennett (to Calgary). That set the tone for a first round that was dominated by forwards, with 25 of 30 picks being used on centers or wingers. The other five picks were defensemen; no goalie was taken until Saturday, when a mini-run on the position opened the second round.

Mix in a disappointing lack of trades — there were a few, which we’ll get to in a second, but nowhere near the parade of blockbusters we’d been hoping for — and you had a first round that didn’t offer up much in the way of shockers. That may explain why the fans were as loud as they were; once they realized the league’s GMs were planning on business as usual, the Flyers faithful decided to make their own fun.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 27, 2014

Grab bag: Burns vs. McCreary in a Hall of Fame showdown

In the season's final grab bag:
- Comedy stars, this time not featuring Darryl Sutter
- Free agency will be terrible and your favorite team is going to screw it up
- An obscure player that Leaf fans may want to skip
- I miss Ron MacLean's cheesy NHL award comedy skits
- And new Hall of Famers Pat Burns and Bill McCreary face aoff in a towel-waving showdown in the YouTube breakdown

>> Read the full post on Grantland

"We have a trade to announce": A brief history of Gary Bettman breaking mid-draft deals

“We have a trade to announce.”

Those six words have to rank among hockey fans’ favorite phrases. And ironically, that’s especially true when they’re spoken by one of the sport’s most unpopular figures: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

That’s because “We have a trade to announce” has become Bettman’s go-to catchphrase when a deal is struck during the NHL draft; they’re the words he uses to inform fans that they’re going to want to stop booing him long enough for him to break down the details. Sometimes the deal that follows is a blockbuster; sometimes it’s just a boring flip of draft picks. But you never know until Bettman lays out the details, piece by piece, into a live microphone in front of a few thousand fans.

And make no mistake, Bettman seems to relish the moment. This is a guy, after all, who spends pretty much all of his time getting pelted with hockey-fan venom. Whether he’s introducing the draft or giving a press conference or handing out the Stanley Cup, he’s basically on the receiving end of a nonstop barrage of negativity. Why wouldn’t he savor the one opportunity to soak in some good vibes?

This year will mark Bettman’s 22nd draft as NHL commissioner, and with trade speculation hitting overdrive in the days leading up to the first round, there’s an excellent chance we’ll get to hear him announce a deal or two Friday night. Let’s hope so, because Bettman’s trade announcements double as a teachable moment for hockey fans and, indeed, for human beings everywhere.

So in anticipation of that moment, let’s look back through history at the life lessons we could all learn from Bettman’s announcements of different kinds of trades over the years.

The Blockbuster

The trade: At the 2012 draft, the Penguins sent Jordan Staal to the Hurricanes for Brandon Sutter, prospect Brian Dumoulin, and a first-round pick. This was a major deal that had been rumored for days, and as an added bonus that year’s draft was being held in Pittsburgh.

The announcement: If I had to pick one draft-floor deal as the archetypal Bettman announcement, this is the one I’d go with. It basically has it all:

• The “We have a trade to announce” intro, followed by the requisite excited crowd reaction.

• An added nudge to the local fans to pay attention, since it involves their favorite team. (Seriously, look how proud of himself Bettman is after he throws that in. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him that happy.)

• The pauses between names that are just long enough to let the crowd react, but not so long that the whole thing feels overly dramatic.

• At least one awkward moment. In this case, it comes after Bettman announces the first-round pick and Sutter, then drops an exaggerated “AND” like he’s a parent reading Fox in Socks to a toddler. This whips the crowd into a frenzy, at which point Bettman reads off the name of a prospect that none of them have ever heard of.

• The immediate repeating of the details, which nobody ever listens to. I’d love to see him change the names on us some time, just to see what would happen.

• All the classic Bettman mannerisms you’ve come to know and love: the head shake, the eyebrow flexes, the random finger points.

Seriously, this whole sequence was pretty much perfection. He knocked it out of the park.

The life lesson: There’s no substitute for experience. Once you close in on 20 years of doing something, you should expect to be pretty darn good at it.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, June 26, 2014

2014 draft preview: Ten players, ten questions

The NHL draft will be held this weekend in Philadelphia. The first round goes Friday night, with the rest held throughout the day on Saturday.

Drafts are a fascinating business; everyone comes up with their rankings and mocks, and then inevitably some sure-thing prospect starts sliding, someone else goes too early, and some team comes along and blows it all up by going completely off the board.

That’s partly due to the inherent difficulty in scouting and projecting teenagers. But it also speaks to the different philosophies that organizations have when it comes to drafting prospects. So instead of running down each and every name that could go off the board, I thought it might be more interesting to focus on some of those key philosophical questions, and how they could impact tomorrow’s opening round.

So let’s take a look at 10 names that will factor prominently into the weekend’s action. These aren’t the 10 best players in the draft (I’ve left out some possible top 10 picks like Michael Dal Colle and Jake Virtanen), but they may end up being the 10 most interesting to keep an eye on. And where they end up going could tell us a lot about how teams think about the draft.

The player: Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie (OHL)

Ekblad is pretty much the unanimous pick as the top defenseman in the draft, and he may well go first overall. He’s got everything scouts love in a blueliner: size, vision, hockey sense, and a big shot that netted 23 goals last year.

Whenever his name comes up, the conversation inevitably turns to his maturity. Every draft class seems to have one player who seems 10 years older than everyone else (call it Landeskog Syndrome), and this year that’s Ekblad. The NHL brought a few of the top prospects to a few events during the Stanley Cup final, and at first I thought Ekblad was a league employee hired to shepherd the younger kids around. It’s increasingly rare to see a defenseman be able to step into the league and have any sort of impact right out of junior, but Ekblad could be the guy who can do it.

The bigger question: How do you feel about using a high pick on a defenseman?

If he goes first overall, Ekblad will be the first defenseman taken with the top pick since Erik Johnson in 2006, and just the second since a streak of three straight from 1994 to 1996. That’s largely because defensemen typically take longer to develop than forwards, making them tougher to project at this age. Everyone wants to build around a guy like Drew Doughty, taken second overall by the Kings in 2008, but the last decade has also seen teams use top-five picks on blueline disappointments like Cam Barker, Thomas Hickey, and Luke Schenn. Forwards can be busts, too, of course, but they’re generally the safer pick because they arrive closer to their NHL peak.

It’s possible Ekblad could face a situation similar to Seth Jones’s last year. Jones spent most of the season as the expected top pick, only to drop all the way to no. 4 on draft day as the Avs, Panthers, and Lightning all opted for forwards. It’s unlikely Ekblad will fall that far, since you’d have to assume the forward-heavy Oilers would snap him up if he fell to them at no. 3, but he’s far from a sure thing at no. 1.

The player: Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay (WHL)

Reinhart has been on the radar as a possible first-overall choice for years, and while Central Scouting has him ranked third, he could still go with the top pick. He’s not a can’t-miss prospect in the mold of Sidney Crosby or John Tavares (or even Connor McDavid, next year’s presumptive top pick). But he is an impressively complete player for an 18-year-old, and projects as a first-line center who’ll be able to play in all situations.

Reinhart’s brother Griffin went fourth overall in 2012. That seems to be the worst-case scenario for Sam, and there’s a decent chance he goes first. That could depend on the Florida Panthers, who own that pick right now but may not by the time the draft starts.

The bigger question: What should it cost to trade up to no. 1?

It has become an annual draft tradition: The team that owns the no. 1 pick advertises that it’s available, we all go into a frenzy of trade rumors and scenarios, and then the team keeps the pick after all. The first-overall pick hasn’t actually been traded since 2003. We may be headed down the same path this year, although the Panthers seem more interested in dealing down than most teams. It’s yet another new era in Florida, with new ownership and a new coach in Gerard Gallant, and GM Dale Tallon seems intent on improving the team right now. That could mean dropping down a few spots in exchange for some immediate NHL help.

As you’d expect, that has led to every team in the top eight being linked to some sort of deal with the Panthers. Determining draft pick value is notoriously difficult — this may be the best attempt I’ve seen so far — and that’s especially true when veteran players are added into the mix. Despite all the talk, the odds are good the Panthers end up keeping the pick. But if some team wants to move up and snag a potential franchise player like Reinhart, the Panthers swear they’re open for business.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

My NHL awards ballot

The NHL handed out its annual awards last night in Las Vegas. As a die-hard hockey fan for the better part of three decades, I’ve always looked forward to the awards announcement, not just for the show itself, but also for the unveiling of the final results, where you get to see every vote that was cast.

It’s always an especially fun topic to discuss. And by “discuss,” of course, I mean “complain about endlessly.” What is wrong with these votes? Why can’t they ever get anything right?

But this year came with a twist for me: For the first time, I had a vote of my own. As a rookie member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, I got to cast a ballot for five awards, as well as the All-Star and All-Rookie teams.

And … uh … it turns out it’s a lot tougher than it looks.

But after several hours of research, a few more hours of tinkering with my choices, and then many, many hours of rocking back and forth while being overwhelmed by a crippling sense of self-doubt, my ballot was submitted back in April. And because the PHWA is encouraging members to reveal their picks, mine can be found below. Have a look, and then meet me in the comments, where I swear I will fight each and every one of you.

Hart Trophy (MVP)

My ballot:

1. Sidney Crosby

2. Ryan Getzlaf

3. Claude Giroux

4. Semyon Varlamov

5. Patrice Bergeron

Actual winner: Crosby

Any MVP vote these days seems to require a clarification of what “most valuable” really means, so here’s my interpretation: I think the best players are the most valuable, regardless of how their teams ultimately end up doing. I’m not against using team impact as a sort of tiebreaker in really close cases, but otherwise I’m just picking the best player.

This one wasn’t an especially close case — Crosby won easily, and Getzlaf and Giroux were second and third on most ballots (although not necessarily in that order). I have no issue considering a goalie for MVP, and Varlamov earned my vote based on his strong play under a heavy workload. And Bergeron is just a monster.

My top five ended up matching the actual final results exactly. Hey, this is easy!

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, June 23, 2014

NHL offseason primer

Hey, remember when that one team won the Stanley Cup? Seemed like a good team; I think they wore black. I seem to recall something about a grumpy coach who took off his shirt during the parade, although that may have been a nightmare I had.

But it’s easy to forget all that these days. After all, the Stanley Cup final ended 10 days ago, and that’s quite a while in the NHL at this time of year. We’re now firmly into offseason mode, and the next few weeks are the busiest of the year for NHL front offices working toward reshaping their franchises.

By the end of next week, rosters around the league will look very different than they do right now. Some teams will have transformed themselves into contenders; others will tread water; and a special few will manage to ruin any chances they had.

Here’s a guide to what to look for between now and then.

Compliance Buyout Window

The first order of business is the buyout period, which has already started. Buyouts can fall into two categories, and while players can also be bought out the old-fashioned way, accompanied by a cap-hit penalty that lasts twice the number of years remaining on their deal, the real focus will be on compliance buyouts.

Last year’s CBA gave each team two compliance buyouts,1 and this is the last year they can be used. A player who receives this kind of buyout still gets his money, but his cap hit disappears from the books.

It’s a two-step process, with players first needing to clear waivers before a team can make the buyout official. Several players hit the wire over the first few days, including Aaron Rome, Jordin Tootoo, and David Booth; we also saw the merciful end of the Ville Leino era in Buffalo. But the biggest news broke late last week.

First up came the Rangers’ buyout of Brad Richards, whose impending doom was an uncomfortable side plot of the Rangers’ Cup playoffs run. His age (34) and contract (six years left at a $6.67 million cap hit) made the move inevitable, and having his ice time cut in the final basically sealed the deal. He’ll land on his feet somewhere, but the Rangers really had no choice.

The Kings faced a similar dilemma with Mike Richards, although he was never the sure thing his Rangers namesake seems to be. But he owns a similar contract2 and really seemed to have lost a step during the team’s playoff run. You’ll note that I said “owns,” as in present tense — the team eventually ended the speculation by announcing that it wouldn’t be buying him out.

That leaves a few more players still awaiting word on their fates, including:

Martin Havlat, San Jose Sharks: The onetime star was a healthy scratch during the playoffs and carries a cap hit of $5 million next year. On a team looking to make changes, this one’s an easy call. He’s gone.

Ryan Malone, Tampa Bay Lightning: Declining production mixed with problems off the ice and a $4.5 million cap hit mean that, like Havlat, he’s all but a sure thing.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins: If he’d struggled again in the playoffs, Fleury probably would have been another easy call. Instead, he played fine, and that could be enough for the Penguins to hold on to him. Pittsburgh has a new GM, and has indicated it may not use its buyouts at all. Also working in Fleury’s favor: His deal expires after next year.

The Trade Market

To some extent, the draft has replaced trade deadline day as the most likely source of blockbuster deals (with the added bonus of then seeing those deals awkwardly announced live by Gary Bettman). This year features an unusually high number of star players who could be moved. And you know what that means: Get ready to hear endless reports about teams wanting “a player, a pick, and a prospect.”

Here are five star players who could have new homes by Saturday:

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 20, 2014

Grab bag: We could be heroes

In the grab bag:
- Debating whether coaches and players should speak nicely to the media
- In honor of the World Cup, an obscure player who may have been the greatest soccer player in NHL history
- Comedy all-stars, including topless Darryl Sutter
- What it's like to be on the ice after the Stanley Cup is handed out
- Capgeek trend tool sadness
- And an army of creepy children pay tribute to hockey heroes at the NHL Awards

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What we got wrong in the 2014 playoffs

Kings over Rangers? I think we all saw that coming.

Well, maybe not all of us. But while the Kings certainly followed an unusual path to get their hands on the Cup, nobody who was paying attention would call it a shock that they ended up as champions. And even the Rangers’ unlikely run was a possibility that plenty of smart fans had been whispering about for much of the season’s second half.

But even if you weren’t surprised by how the postseason ended, you probably got to enjoy a few unexpected twists and turns along the way. That’s because there were several points we all seemed to agree on in the playoffs’ early days, and which turned out not to be such a sure thing after all.

So here are a half-dozen things that, in hindsight, we were wrong about when it comes to the 2014 playoffs. And yes, it goes without saying that “we” doesn’t mean everyone. Hockey fans are never unanimous on anything, and some of us surely turned out to be right on a few of these. But I do think it’s fair to say that there was, at the very least, a strong consensus on these points.

(Except for you, of course; you knew that all the stuff would work out exactly the way it did. You just forgot to tell the rest of us.)

The Penguins’ chances all came down to Marc-Andre Fleury

What we thought: The Penguins cruised to the top seed in a weak Metro Division. But the regular season didn’t matter in Pittsburgh; they’d be judged by how they did in the playoffs. And no player would be under the microscope more than Fleury, their much-maligned goaltender with a history of playoff struggles. If he played well, the Penguins would head for the conference finals or beyond. If they fell short, he’d be the reason why.

What actually happened: Fleury was fine, putting up his best playoff numbers in five years. The Penguins still lost, and it cost lots of people their jobs, but the blame couldn’t be directed Fleury’s way.

Where we went wrong: For the Penguins, plenty. They blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers, with the offense drying up to the tune of just three goals over those final three games. Sidney Crosby slumped, James Neal all but disappeared, the defense struggled, and the team’s lack of bottom-six depth was exploited. Once the playoffs ended, GM Ray Shero and (eventually) head coach Dan Bylsma were fired, and we could be on the verge of major roster changes in Pittsburgh.

Fleury, meanwhile, largely escaped any blame for the team’s disappointing postseason. He wasn’t great, outside of posting back-to-back shutouts early in the Rangers series, but he wasn’t the story. In fact, he seemed to be about as much of a nonfactor as a goaltender can be under the playoff spotlight.

In a sense, that puts the Penguins in a tough spot. If Fleury had struggled again, there’s a good chance the team would have moved on from him via trade or buyout. Instead, there’s a good chance they go into next year with him as the starter, and face many of the same questions once their 2015 playoff run starts.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, June 16, 2014

The not-supposed-to Stanley Cup champions

The Kings will parade the Stanley Cup through Los Angeles today, after earning the title by beating the Rangers on Friday night. You’ve seen the highlight by now — defenseman Alec Martinez jumping into the rush, then burying a rebound to end the game and make the Kings the first team in 34 years to win the Cup in overtime on their home ice. The goal ended the series in five remarkably close games, marking the third time in the final that the Kings beat New York in sudden death.

The win didn’t come as much of a surprise; just two years removed from a championship in 2012, the Kings weren’t exactly a long-shot pick heading into this year’s postseason, and by the time they reached the final they’d established themselves as the favorite.

But while the end result was predictable, the path the Kings followed to get there was not. In fact, the team spent much of the season defying conventional wisdom about how championship teams are supposed to be built. And in doing so, the Los Angeles Kings became the not-supposed-to Stanley Cup champs.

You’re not supposed to come back from down 3-0 in a series. Let’s start there, because it’s where the Kings themselves started, almost eight weeks ago. They opened the playoffs against the San Jose Sharks, a regular-season powerhouse who’d finished 11 points ahead of them in the standings. The Sharks won the first two games in San Jose, pummeling the Kings by scores of 6-3 and 7-2, and then took Game 3 in Los Angeles on a Patrick Marleau overtime winner that should have ended the Kings’ run before it ever really began.

Here’s one of those dirty little secrets of playoff hockey: When a series gets to 3-0, we all close the book. It’s over. We can’t say that out loud, because hey, anything can happen, right? Well, no, it’s can’t, we think to ourselves, and history has shown that we’re almost always right. When the horn sounds on Game 3 and it’s the same team celebrating for the third time in a row, we lift up the losing team by the scruff of its neck and gently place it into a pile labeled “Done.”

But the Kings crawled out of the pile and kept on, staving off elimination with a Game 4 win. There was talk last week of players later telling people that they left the ice after that game already knowing they had the series won, and Drew Doughty came right out said that they could see the panic in the Sharks players’ eyes. There’s probably more than a little bit of revisionist history going on here, but you know what they say about the winners and the history books.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 13, 2014

Grab bag: The most important Rangers vs. Kings battle of all-time

In the weekly grab bag:
- Comedy all-stars, including the world's strangest Darryl Sutter impression
- Everyone who has a slump is not terrible
- On Friday the 13th, an obscure player who wore a goalie mask, was named Jason, and kept attacking people
- Debating the NHL vs NBA
- Don Cherry dances in Times Square
- and the Rangers and Kings faceoff in a battle of terrible 1970s novelty songs.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Dispatches from a Cup Final

New York, New York. The city so nice, they played here twice.

Wait, I may have gotten that line wrong. Which would be fitting, given that so many of us got much of this Stanley Cup final wrong too. Like most, I picked the Kings to win, but I figured it would be a long series in which L.A. controlled the play but New York held on thanks to a pronounced goaltending edge. Instead, the Rangers went into last night having been every bit as good or better than the Kings for long stretches, but on the verge of being swept anyway thanks largely to Jonathan Quick’s brilliance.

In last night’s Game 4, the script finally held. The Kings were dominant, coming at the Rangers in waves and eventually outshooting them 41-19. But this time it was Henrik Lundqvist who slammed the door, keeping the Rangers alive.

And because of that, we’re headed back to L.A. for Game 5 Friday night. If the Kings win, they lift the Cup on home ice. If they lose, what seemed like a sure thing this time yesterday suddenly gets really, really interesting.

I spent the week in New York, covering Games 3 and 4 and all the talk in between. Here are 10 quasi-related dispatches from the City That Never Sweeps.

1. It’s Better to Be Lucky Than Good

Most playoff series end up being defined by a theme, and this one was shaping up as a battle between two contenders. In one corner: puck luck, specifically the Rangers’ almost total lack of it when it mattered. In the other: the dreaded two-goal lead and the Kings’ continuing ability to overcome it.

Last night, both themes got flipped. The Rangers jumped out to a 2-0 lead for the third time in the series, thanks to a nifty first-period deflection by Benoit Pouliot and a Martin St. Louis rebound goal in the second. That led to lots of cracks about the Kings having them right where they wanted them, and Rangers fans weren’t laughing when Dustin Brown cut the lead to one on a short-handed breakaway.

But this time the lead held. And it held in part thanks to an almost extraordinary sequence late in the third that saw a puck squeeze by Lundqvist only to die in a pile of ice shavings on the goal line. Derek Stepan had the presence of mind to swat the puck away with his hand without covering it,1 and the Rangers survived. It echoed a similar play in the first, in which Jeff Carter somehow couldn’t get a stick on another goal-line puck.

After the game, Kings captain Dustin Brown didn’t want to talk about bad luck. “You make your own bounces this time of year,” he told us. And then he repeated himself, in slightly different words, when asked about it again. New reporters would arrive and ask yet again, and by the third or fourth time through the same question, he seemed almost pained.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, not surprisingly, was in a somewhat better mood when the topic came up. “I’ve been in the game a long time to know that sometimes the hockey gods are there,” he said. “They were there tonight.”

2. The Series of Girardi’s Discontent

The luck didn’t all go the Rangers’ way. Brown’s breakaway came after Dan Girardi’s stick decided that a harmless-looking offensive zone pass attempt would be a good time to explode. Brown picked up the puck and skated in alone, beating Lundqvist on a slick move that left the Rangers goalie tumbling backward into his own net.

It was just the latest forgettable moment in what has become a brutal series for Girardi, who’s usually a dependable defensive presence. His fanned clearing attempt led to Justin Williams’s overtime winner in Game 1, and he’s spent most of the series looking slow, indecisive, and vulnerable, to the extent that you start to wonder if he’s hurt. None of that has gone unnoticed by Rangers fans, who spent much of the game politely encouraging him to play better.

Part of me was relieved to see Girardi avoid wearing the goat horns in another loss. The other part shudders to think what the hockey gods have in store for him tomorrow.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

When puck luck goes bad

You’ve seen the stat by now. Through the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals, the Los Angeles Kings had not played one single second with a lead. And yet they arrived in New York up two games to none, thanks to a pair of overtime wins, both of which they racked up after coming back from a two-goal deficit.

While it’s rare to see a team come back and win the Cup after dropping the first two games on the road — it’s happened just five times in 48 such series — it wasn’t hard to think the Rangers had a shot if they could win Game 3. They’d shown they could play with the Kings. Now they just needed something to show for it.

After New York’s game-day skate on Monday, center Derick Brassard was asked whether the Rangers deserved a better fate. “Obviously it’s frustrating, to work so hard and not get rewarded with anything,” he said. “We know that we can beat them. If we go out there and play our game and the puck goes our way a little bit, I think we have a great chance.”

Talking about the puck going their way is the closest most hockey players will come to acknowledging the role of luck — one of the few four-letter words they’ll think twice about saying at the rink. But there’s no doubt the Rangers found themselves down 2-0 largely due to some tough breaks. Justin Williams’s overtime winner in Game 1 came after the puck hopped over Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi’s stick, and the turning point of Game 2 was when Dwight King’s goal was allowed to stand despite the fact he was sitting on top of Henrik Lundqvist at the time.

There are a hundred breaks like that in any game, of course, and we forget almost all of them seconds after they happen. Harping on luck is for losers, we’re told, and besides, all those breaks even out over a long season. In a short series, not so much.

But still … the Rangers had to get a bounce or two in Game 3, right?

Earlier in the day, Kings winger (and possible Conn Smythe front-runner) Williams talked about the dangerous game the team was playing. “We are well aware of the circumstances coming into the game. Could we be coming in here zero to two? Yes. Could it have been tied? Yes, absolutely,” Williams said. “We found a way to get it done. We’re proud of that.”

You felt like there was a “but” coming, and there was: “But we know we don’t want to give any life to this team.”

Heading into Game 3, a big part of that Rangers life force was expected to come from MSG fans witnessing the arena’s first Stanley Cup finals game in 20 years. But the crowd wasn’t all that loud, perhaps because of a choppy first period that saw the two teams combine for just nine shots, or maybe because some fans were realizing they had paid thousands of dollars for their seats. Most of the noise in the first was directed at the officials, who let all sorts of possible fouls go uncalled. We always want the referees to let the players play, right up until they actually do.

The first sign that the puck-luck pendulum hadn’t swung came late in the first, when Mats Zuccarello appeared to have an open net from in close. He hacked at the puck as he fell, only to be denied by a combination of the post and/or a diving Jonathan Quick’s stick (even Quick wasn’t sure if he’d touched it). An inch here or there, and the puck goes in, and maybe this time the Rangers can even hold a lead.

Instead, the dagger came at the buzzer. A harmless-looking Jeff Carter rush as the seconds ticked down ended with a wrist shot from well out. It was the kind of save Lundqvist makes every time, but this time a sliding Girardi got a leg in front of it. It tipped off his skate, the deflection was enough to fool Lundqvist, and after a review to make sure time hadn’t expired, the goal stood. After the game, Girardi was left shaking his head when asked about the goal. “Half an inch higher, it doesn’t hit me,” he said. “That’s just how it’s going.”

When the period was over, the Kings still hadn’t led in the series for so much as a single second — just for a fraction of one.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

The Rangers have hope! Yeah. but...

We’re two games into the Stanley Cup final, and it’s not going well for the New York Rangers. Both games followed a similar script — the Rangers built up a two-goal lead, then collapsed and lost in overtime. Now they’re hosting Game 3 tonight, facing a virtual must-win against an L.A. Kings team that seems to be toying with them.

There’s a temptation to bury the Rangers, and if this keeps up for two more games we’ll get the chance to do it for real in a few days. But today, I thought we’d go in a different direction. Because while it’s true that coming home down 2-0 in the series is the worst-case scenario in terms of wins and losses, it hasn’t been all bad for the Rangers. There’s room for optimism here. So we’re going to walk through a few reasons why New York fans should feel like they can absolutely come back and win this series.

And then, once we’ve done that, we’ll inject some reality to crush that hope back into a fine powder of despair.

(Sorry, New York – never ask a Maple Leafs fan to supply your optimism.)

They’re Playing Pretty Well

The most cited stat over the past 48 hours is one that doesn’t even sound possible: The Kings are up in the series 2-0 despite not leading in either game for so much as a second. That speaks to the quirkiness of sudden-death overtime, but also to how well the Rangers have played for long stretches. Despite some predictions that they wouldn’t be able to hang with the Kings unless Henrik Lundqvist stood on his head, the Rangers have absolutely looked like a team that can hold its own.

The blown leads are obviously a major concern, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Rangers have had to play well to get those leads in the first place. If they can keep that up, and get an extra bounce or two along the way, then they can wind up right back in this thing.

Yeah, but: It’s all well and good to talk about deserving a better fate, but that won’t change the fact that the Rangers are down 2-0 and now need to win four out of five. That’s an awfully tough hill to climb against a team like L.A., no matter how well you’re playing.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

NHL Playoff Quest - The Complete Walkthrough

Welcome to the walkthrough for NHL Playoff Quest. In this challenging new adventure game, you assume the role of a valiant Hockey Player trying to capture the legendary Stanley Cup. But the journey is fraught with peril, and only the truly heroic can survive. This walkthrough will guide you through the various strategies, side quests, and boss fights that stand between you and winning the game.

As the game begins, you are on the bench listening to the last few bars of the national anthem. Depending on the arena you’re in, this scene will take between three and 35 minutes. It cannot be skipped. Once the song ends, be sure to hit the “Let’s Go Now, Boys” button a few times to build up your Leadership Points. Wait until your coach taps you on the shoulder, and then jump on the ice. Note: Do not jump on the ice before the coach taps you, as this will activate “1979 Bruins mode” and make the game unwinnable.

Main Quest Chapter 1: FIRST PERIOD

Early in the game, your character will be wearing a standard-issue set of Titanium Hockey Armor. At this point, you can decide whether or not to also don the Visor of Eye Protection; refusing to do so will make you vulnerable to career-ending eye injuries, but also unlock the “Good Canadian Boy” achievement. This is also a good time to equip a weapon.

Starting weapon: HOCKEY STICK

Your hockey stick can be used to deal damage to opposing players. The basic attacks include the hook, slash, and trip. You can also execute the “Spear Junk” attack, although if you use it too frequently, you’ll eventually get a reputation as a player who spears junk even though that’s totally unfair because come on who doesn’t spear a little junk sometimes, am I right?

While you’re hacking and slashing opponents, you may occasionally see a small black disk slide by in the background. This is The Puck, and you can use your hockey stick to direct it toward the opponents’ defensive zone. (Be careful not to accidentally shoot the puck into the stands, as this will initiate the World’s Dumbest Rule side quest.)

Once you successfully move the puck near the opponent’s net, you will face your first boss fight.


In this battle, your objective is to use your hockey stick to shoot the puck past the goaltender and into the net behind him. This is trickier than it sounds, since with every few seconds that go by, the goaltender’s equipment will get larger and larger and nobody will care. The best strategy is to aim for the nearest defenseman’s shin pad and hope the puck deflects nine times before reaching the net. Alternately, if you wait long enough, the goaltender will eventually drop into a butterfly stance, increasing the amount of space at the top of the net from half an inch all the way up to three quarters of an inch.

Or you could just skate toward him at full speed, “accidentally” trip, and plow into his leg. This strategy ends the boss fight immediately.

You’ll know you’ve won the battle when you see a red light flash and hear a goal horn sound 500 times. Proceed to the next chapter.

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Grab Bag: And then a hero comes along

In the grab bag:
- Youppi takes the Walk of Shame
- Is the "Final" or the "Finals"?
- An obscure player that Ranger fans love, even though they've forgotten he once played for them
- The stick slashing rule is broken
- Don Cherry reaches summer reruns
- And Mariah Carey serenades the Rangers, Canucks, and a sullen Gary Bettman

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

2014 Stanley Cup Preview

The Kings and Rangers drop the puck in Los Angeles tonight to open the Stanley Cup final. The Kings are looking for their second title in three years, and the oddsmakers have made them the favorites. That’s no surprise — we’ve spent most of the year talking about how much stronger the Western Conference has looked, and the Kings have already beaten three excellent teams to get here.

But while the Rangers may have had the easier path to the final, they’re a dangerous team to dismiss. After a rocky first half, they’ve come together nicely under a new coach, and they’re riding the most dangerous weapon in playoff hockey: a hot goaltender.

So are the Kings really better? And if so, by how much? To find out, let’s have a look at who owns the edge in 10 key categories, along with our official Stanley Cup prediction.


Rangers: We might as well get this category out of the way first, since it’s going to be the big story. Goaltending is always the most-dissected factor in any playoff series, and it’s hard to remember a final in which the matchup has seemed as crucial as this one.

Henrik Lundqvist is the most important player in the series, and no individual performance will go further in deciding who comes away with the Cup. The math is fairly simple: No team does a better job of controlling possession and winning the shot battle than the Kings, and if that continues, the only way the Rangers can win is if their goaltender outplays the other guy.

Luckily, that’s essentially what Lundqvist has been doing for the last six weeks, and it’s why the Rangers are here. He hasn’t been unbeatable — he’s been pulled twice, including as recently as Game 5 against the Canadiens. But he’s been remarkably consistent, giving up two goals or fewer in 15 of his 20 starts. And when he’s playing well, he exudes the sort of “can’t beat this guy” vibe that can get teams to change their style, forcing extra passes and waiting for the perfect shot.

A skeptic might point out that in Ray Emery, Steve Mason, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Dustin Tokarski, Lundqvist hasn’t had to outplay an elite goaltender yet. Against the Kings, he will. Maybe.

Kings: Jonathan Quick remains one of the most divisive players in hockey. Where some see a superstar who has the ability to elevate his game at crucial moments (and has a Cup ring to prove it), others see a goaltender who’s been merely average over the course of his career while playing on a great defensive team. Some see a stunning history of highlight reel saves; others see a guy who’s often left diving across the net in desperation after overplaying the puck. Some see a goalie who could outplay Lundqvist; others see one who struggled just to stay even with Corey Crawford.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, although it’s worth pointing out that Quick isn’t exactly coming into the final on a hot streak, having given up 13 goals over the Kings’ last three games. But he did earn his ring in 2012 by beating a future Hall of Famer in Martin Brodeur, so it’s not like the Lundqvist matchup is going to intimidate him. And the Kings probably don’t need him to win the head-to-head matchup — a draw would suit them just fine.

Edge: A big edge to the Rangers. Goaltending is notoriously difficult to predict, and anything can happen in a short series. Quick could absolutely outplay Lundqvist, and if he does, the Kings should win the series easily. But if not, the Rangers have a real shot at the Cup, and Lundqvist would be a sure thing for the Conn Smythe.


Kings: Drew Doughty is probably the league’s best young defenseman, and you could make a decent argument for him being the league’s best, period.1 The rest of the blue line is also young, with Slava Voynov (24) and Doughty’s partner, Jake Muzzin (25), both logging big minutes, while dependable third-pairing guy Alec Martinez (26) recently added Game 7 OT winners to his skill set. Those four are supported by veterans Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, while Robyn Regehr could return from injury later in the series.

Rangers: Like L.A., New York’s blue line is young and talented. The oldest defenseman on the roster is Dan Girardi, which doesn’t seem right because he has never seemed that old.2 His partner, Ryan McDonagh, has been one of the breakout stars of the playoffs, and is tied for the team lead in scoring after lighting up the Canadiens. The Marc Staal–Anton Stralman pairing doesn’t get much attention but has been very solid. Kevin Klein and John Moore make up the third pairing, or at least they will once Moore returns from suspension after Game 1.

Edge: The Kings, although not by as much as you might think.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

20 Cupless Canadian seasons - Which was the most painful?

Canadian hockey fans probably don’t want to talk about it.

“It,” of course, is the nation’s Stanley Cup drought. With the elimination of the Montreal Canadiens, the country is now assured of going Cupless for the 20th consecutive season. During that span, we’ve seen Canadian teams fall one win short some years and not even come close in others. It’s all been very painful.

But just how painful? Oh, we’re going to talk about it, Canada. We’re going to talk about it in detail. Specifically, we’re going to look back at each of those seasons, and we’re going to rank them based on just how much it hurt. It’s the only way we can begin to heal.

So here’s the deal — for each of the country’s 20 consecutive Cupless seasons, we’re going to take the last surviving Canadian team (based on playoff games won) and rank the pain it caused based on three key categories:

Bandwagon factor: How much fun was the run? Was it a team that fans of other franchises could get behind, at least temporarily? Remember, any decent Canadian hockey fan’s default position is to root against the country’s other teams. But if the right story comes along, we can allow ourselves to get on board for a few weeks.

Hope index: How close did the team come? The length of the playoff run obviously factors heavily here, but the quality of the team does too. There are some teams that win a round or two without ever looking like a real threat to win it all, while others can bow out early but still have felt like they were this close.

Eventual heartbreak: Pretty self-explanatory — how badly did it all end? The previous two categories factor in here, too, since it always hurts more when you get suckered in by a fun team that looked like it really had a shot. We’ll award bonus points for losing in an especially painful and/or creative way.

We’ll take those three categories, then use them to come up with an overall rating (not an average), which will be the basis of our rankings. All of which will allow us to answer the question: In 20 years of Cupless Canadian misery, which years were the worst of them all?

It’s for the best, Canada. But it may hurt.

No. 20 — 1995

Last team standing: The Vancouver Canucks, who were swept by the Blackhawks in the second round.

Bandwagon factor: 3/10. This was a weird year. The first lockout had wiped out half the season, and even when play resumed it just never felt quite right. But the Canucks were likable enough, even though they’d already had a long run the year before.

Hope index: 5/10. Canada had won eight of the last 11 titles, and the Canucks had fallen just one game short the year before. We pretty much owned the Cup at this point.

Eventual heartbreak: 1/10. Ah, well, can’t win ’em all, right?

Overall misery rating: 2.3/10. Remember, we had no idea what was coming. We just assumed this was a temporary blip.

No. 19 — 2012

Last team standing: The Ottawa Senators, who lasted seven whole games before losing to the Rangers in the first round.

Bandwagon factor: 1/10. You saw the part about it being the first round, right? The Canucks were the only other Canadian team to even make the playoff this year, and they were the ones we expected to go deep. Once they were out, it took everyone a few days to remember Ottawa was still alive.

Hope index: 1/10. First … round …

Eventual heartbreak: 5/10. Any seven-game loss is tough, and this one saw the Senators blow a 3-2 series lead by dropping a pair of one-goal games.

Overall misery rating: 2.5/10. Shrug. After what was then 18 consecutive Cupless seasons, this one barely registered.

No. 18 — 1996

Last teams standing: A four-way tie, with the Leafs, Canadiens, Canucks, and Jets all lasting six games in the first round.

Bandwagon factor: 1/10. With four teams all going out within 24 hours (and a fifth, the Flames, eliminated a few games earlier), nobody had any time for bandwagons.

Hope index: 2/10. There were five Canadian teams in the playoffs. Somebody had to last for a round or two, right?

Eventual heartbreak: 5/10. Actually, this one needs an asterisk, because the Jets loss also spelled the end of NHL hockey in Winnipeg for 15 years. The franchise was known to be moving south once its season ended, so the elimination hurt. The others, not so much.

Overall misery rating: 2.6/10. Pretty much all of which is due to the Jets.

No. 17 — 1998

Last teams standing: The Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators, both of whom lasted five games into the second round.

Bandwagon factor: 6/10. Both teams had pulled off first-round upsets, and the Senators had won a playoff round for the first time in their history. If you were into underdogs, you could get behind these teams.

Hope index: 2/10. They were nice stories, but nobody realistically thought either of these teams was winning the Cup.

Eventual heartbreak: 2/10. Both got thoroughly stomped in the second round.

Overall misery rating: 2.9/10. Four years and counting. The drought was officially on.

No. 16 — 2001

Last team standing: The Toronto Maple Leafs, eliminated by the Devils in Round 2.

Bandwagon factor: 3/10. This was right in the middle of the Mats Sundin era, and was one of four consecutive years that the Leafs were the last Canadian team standing. Many of those teams were reasonably likable. This one was not. In fact, by this point everyone other than die-hard Leafs fans hated this team. I can’t imagine why. They seemed like such a pleasant bunch.

Hope index: 3/10. The Leafs took a step back this season and were just a 90-point team. And by now, the pre-cap league had firmly settled into the Wings/Avs/Devils era of dominance; if you weren’t one of those three teams, you were a long shot.

Eventual heartbreak: 4/10. While everyone likes to pretend the Leafs immediately fell apart after the Tie Domi elbow, they actually took the Devils to Game 7. But their season ended with a 5-1 blowout loss, making it pretty clear this team just wasn’t good enough.

Overall misery rating: 3.2/10. This was definitely the least painful of the (surprisingly frequent) solo Leaf appearances on our list.

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