In this week's grab bag:
- The Steven Stamkos decision is going to be insufferable
- An Christmas-themed obscure player trips up a legend
- An unwritten rule for hockey announcers following a fight
- The week's three comedy star
- And the 1984 Flyers would like to read you a Christmas poem
Friday, December 18, 2015
In this week's grab bag:
Thursday, December 17, 2015
15. Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks
Current standings: 15-14-1, second place in the Pacific
Estimated cap room: $1 million (assuming Ben Smith is on the LTIR)
Remember when a Patrick Marleau deal felt like a sure thing? That was only a few weeks ago, but the buzz around that move has quieted down significantly. The wide-open Pacific says Wilson should be looking to deal; the cap says he might not be able to. Either way, he tends to do most of his trading in the offseason or at the trade deadline. And history says we shouldn't expect anything over the next few weeks; he hasn't made a deal in December since 2006.
14. Don Sweeney, Boston Bruins
Current standings: 17-9-4, second place in the Atlantic
Estimated cap room: $600,000
You have to hand it to Sweeney -- the rookie GM certainly wasn't shy about pulling the trigger after being promoted in the offseason. He made several big trades, including those involving Dougie Hamilton, Milan Lucic and Martin Jones (twice). Granted, those deals got mixed reviews, but the key point is that Sweeney doesn't seem to have gotten the memo in his orientation package about being timid on the trade front. The only thing keeping him from ranking higher is the Bruins' tight cap and their place in the standings -- not bad enough to rebuild, not quite good enough to go try to load up.
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Confusion reigned Monday night, as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks announced that Trevor Daley and Rob Scuderi would switch teams. Thanks to the handful of remaining fans who are old enough to remember such things, it was eventually explained that this was an obscure type of player transaction known as a "midseason trade."
OK, that's laying it on a little thick, but fans could be forgiven for needing a refresher on how these deals work, given that we'd had only one all season, and that one didn't involve any actual NHL players. But now that general managers Stan Bowman and Jim Rutherford have broken the seal for the rest of the league, why stop at one? We got a minor deal between the Habs and Coyotes Tuesday night. Maybe Scuderi-for-Daley can be the domino that finally, mercifully gets the trade market moving.
That's probably a pipe dream, but just in case: Who's up for an old-fashioned ranking post? Let's take all 30 teams and try to figure out which ones are the most likely to make a trade or two (or more) between today and the week leading up to the trade deadline, when everyone tends to wake up and start dealing.
I'll be looking at each team's position in the standings and how much cap room it has available. More importantly, we'll be looking at the track record of each of the 30 GMs, which ones tend to be the most risk-adverse, and which ones are willing to get aggressive.
Remember, this isn't a ranking of the best GMs -- it's a ranking of the ones who are most like to make a deal over the next six to eight weeks or so. And sure, sometimes the best trade is the one you don't make, as the cliché goes, but for this exercise we're looking for quantity over quality.
Is this all an exercise in guesswork? Mostly. Does it virtually guarantee that two GMs I've ranked low will hook up on a blockbuster by the end of the week? Almost certainly. Will I attempt to take credit for that by claiming the whole thing was an elaborate reverse jinx? Cannot confirm or deny.
30. Ken Holland, Detroit Red Wings
Current standings: 16-9-6, second place in the Atlantic
Estimated cap room: $5.2 million
As the longest tenured GM in the league, nobody gives us more of a track record to look at than Holland. And that track record is fairly clear: Don't expect the Red Wings to do much until the deadline nears. That's when Holland typically does all of his trading work; he hasn't made an offseason deal involving players since 2012, and hasn't made one between opening night and the end of January since 2002. (That was the big "Jason Woolley from Buffalo for future considerations" blockbuster, in case you were wondering.) History says he'll probably do something around the deadline, but if he makes a deal before then, it will be the first time in the history of the cap era.
29. Brian MacLellan, Washington Capitals
Current standings: 21-6-2, first place in the Metro
Estimated cap room: $40,000
MacLellan has only been on the job since last offseason. Last season, he didn't make any midseason deals until the deadline, and his only move that approaches "big deal" status was last summer's T.J. Oshie trade. That doesn't give us much to work with, but we might not need it. As currently constructed, the Caps are already very good and very close to being capped out, so we're unlikely to see much action in Washington until closer to the deadline.
Last night's NHL schedule featured a pair of games within the New York city limits, with both the New York Rangers and New York Islanders playing host. The results were mixed, featuring a win and a loss for the home teams. This was good news, and we'll get to that in a minute.
At Madison Square Garden, the Rangers snapped the Edmonton Oilers' six-game win streak, taking the lead on a Rick Nash goal late in the second and then holding on through the third before icing the win with an empty netter in the final minute. The victory avenged last week's shootout loss in Edmonton.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the Islanders were dropping a 5-1 decision to the Florida Panthers. The result wasn't necessarily surprising -- the Isles were at the end of the dreaded three-games-in-four-nights stretch -- but still had to feel like a missed opportunity to gain some ground on the idle Washington Capitals. The loss snapped a three-game Islanders win streak, and allowed the Rangers to leapfrog them into second place in the Metro.
In other words, if you're a hockey fan, the night went just about perfectly. Stay with me, Islanders fans, because you know I've always had your back.
Here's the deal: We want the Islanders and Rangers to spend the rest of the season fighting back and forth for second and third place in the Metro. No, scratch that: We need that to happen. There's no room here for either team to get red hot and surge into first, nor can either slump badly and plummet down to fourth. No, they need to keep doing what they did last night: play a nice game of leapfrog with second and third spots, and leave the rest of the division alone.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Hockey history is a rich tapestry of traditions, trends and innovations. Many stuck around to become part of the game's enduring fabric. Others, not so much. "It made sense at the time" is an ongoing feature in which we'll look back at one of the odder things that used to be part of the NHL's culture and wonder how exactly it made sense at the time and that everyone was OK with it.
At least week's board of governors' meeting, the NHL surprised no one by doing away with its much-maligned compensation plan for hiring coaches and GMs. The system had been meant to standardize compensation for teams that hired away personnel who were still under contract to other teams, but was doomed by confusion over whether it should apply to those who'd already been fired.
In other words, it was a nice idea in theory that turned into an embarrassing mess once it saw the light of day. It will probably not shock you to learn that this is not the first time this has happened to the NHL.
In the years leading up to the 2004 lockout, the NHL featured an ever-increasing disparity between franchises in terms of revenue and spending power. This led many to yearn for a hard salary cap, while others proposed milder solutions like a luxury tax or increased revenue sharing, but virtually everyone agreed that it was a problem. And this was especially true when it came to free agency, as small-market teams found it difficult to hold on to star players who knew that a big-market payday was looming on the horizon.
The NHL's higher-ups, to its credit, took action. They couldn't solve the problem -- that was what the coming lockout would be for -- but they could do the next best thing and even the playing field.
Monday, December 14, 2015
So ... the Vancouver Canucks are bad. We all agree on that, right?
That feels like a question we shouldn't even have to ask about a team that lost its 20th game of the season Sunday night. The Canucks have lost more times than the Toronto Maple Leafs, or the Buffalo Sabres, or the Carolina Hurricanes. They've lost more than the Calgary Flames or the Edmonton Oilers. They've lost as many games as the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that was losing so much that they went out and hired John Tortorella, and what kind of franchise does that?
So yes, the Canucks are bad, just as all of the hockey world's most handsome experts predicted. But someone had better tell the standings page, which has Vancouver sitting in a tie for second place in their division. That's partly because they play in the Pacific, and you and your buddies from your beer league could make the playoffs in this season's Pacific. And it's partly because the team has had the good sense to do a big chunk of its losing in overtime and the shootout, allowing them to rack up a league-leading eight loser points.
(Yes, some fans would insist that there's no such thing as a "loser point," and that the Canucks are really just earning a whole bunch of regulation ties and then merely failing to earn a bonus point for winning once the gimmicks kick in. These people are delusional, and if you encounter one you should simply ask them why the extra point column on the standings page has the word "loss" right in it and then run away while they're staring at it in confusion and trying to remember what words mean.)
Friday, December 11, 2015
In the Friday Grab Bag:
- All these Steven Stamkos to Toronto rumors are stupid. Or are they?
- Should referees target known divers?
- An obscure player drops the gloves with a legendary pacifist
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the highest scoring game in the history of the NHL, which happened 30 years ago today.
Thursday, December 10, 2015
The hockey world has spent the past few weeks discussing the NHL's scoring rates, and what (if anything) the league should be doing about them. I've covered the topic from a few different angles, and each time I do I get a big dose of feedback from readers. Some are pining for the high-scoring days of the 1980s and '90s. Others aren't sure there's really much of a problem at all. And almost everyone has an idea about what's behind the league's two-decade drop in scoring.
The usual suspects show up often: The goalies are too big and too good; their equipment is out of control; defensive systems are too well-coached; the rulebook isn't enforced properly; the rinks are too small; and the loser point has left everyone playing for the tie.
But there's another culprit that comes up surprisingly often, so much so that it's easily one of the most common I hear from fans: talent dilution. There are too many teams and not enough players.
The argument goes something like this: If you want to know why scoring rates started to plunge in the early '90s, look at what else changed in the game around the same time. In 1991, when scoring was high, the NHL had 21 teams. It added five more over the next three years, and another four more by 2000. That's a 42 percent increase in teams, and roster spots, in less than a decade.
All that expansion, the thinking goes, might well have added new fans and increased the league's reach, not to mention its revenue. But it also watered down the talent level, to the point that hundreds of players who wouldn't have made the cut in a 21-team NHL were suddenly holding down big-league jobs. Those guys weren't as skilled, so of course we saw a drop in goals. Each team had fewer guys who could score them. And further expansion will only make things worse -- if anything, we could use a good round of contraction.
It's a convincing argument. And it's a timely one, as the NHL continues to tiptoe down the path to adding new teams. If the talent dilution theory is true, the scoring situation might be about to get even worse.
Luckily for us, it's not true. Talent dilution isn't behind the scoring drop. And here's why.
Wednesday, December 9, 2015
You're not supposed to think about playoff matchups in December. You're not supposed to think about them at all, in fact, at least until they're set in stone. If you're a player, you're "looking ahead," which one of hockey's great sins. And if you're a fan, you know not to bother because the hockey gods will take away any matchup they catch you getting too excited about.
And yet, it was awfully hard not to start thinking ahead Tuesday night, as the NHL rolled out a busy nine-game schedule. All nine featured at least one team that went into the night holding down a playoff spot, with 11 such teams in action in total. We were facing the possibility of some great matchups, including great rivalries Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues-Chicago Blackhawks and New York Islanders-New York Rangers.
But we have the potential for something even more entertaining: chaos. Maximum chaos. It's going to happen one of these years, and this just might be the one.
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
Last week, I wrote about the high-powered Dallas Stars, and how hockey fans everywhere should be cheering them on. Many of you agreed, and I’m pleased to confirm that the Stars’ bandwagon is now standing-room only.
But not everyone was on board, and there were two main objections that kept coming up. The first could be summarized as “Tell me to cheer for the Dallas Star one more time and I will and burn your house to the ground,” which came pretty much exclusively from Sabres fans. Come to think of it, I can’t really argue there. That one’s on me, Buffalo.
The second objection was something along the lines of: Why bother? Offense-first teams like the Stars may be fun, the argument went, but they never win in the modern NHL. Dallas will put up gaudy numbers, sure, but when the playoffs come along they’ll eventually run into some boring defense-first team that will shut them down. That’s how it always happens.
And while that’s not entirely true – we have seen some high-skill teams win it all over the years – it does have a familiar ring to it. So today, let’s take a look back at five teams from the past two decades who tried some variation of what the Stars are doing this year, only to see it all end in heartbreak.
It will be painful, but we need to do it. We’re all Dallas Stars fans now. We might as well prepare ourselves for what’s coming.
It’s a trap: The 1994-95 Red Wings
Why they were great: The early 90’s Red Wings were one of the best offensive teams of their generation, and by 1995 they’d led the Western Conference in scoring for four straight years. But they couldn’t seem to break through in the playoffs, and were coming off two straight first round exits.
The 1995 squad was stacked with offensive talent, including future Hall-of-Famers Sergei Fedorov, Paul Coffey and Dino Ciccarelli, a young Nicklas Lidstrom, and captain Steve Yzerman, who missed half the season with an injury but returned for the playoffs. When they hit the postseason, they looked unstoppable through the first three rounds, losing just two games as they rolled into the final as a heavy favorite.
But then they ran into: The New Jersey Devils, a low-scoring collection of pluggers under the guidance of defensive mastermind Jacques Lemaire. They played the neutral zone trap and relied on blatant clutch-and-grab tactics to slow down more offensively skilled teams and the goaltending of Martin Brodeur to shut the door on the few scoring chances they did allow. The high-powered Red Wings never had a chance, held to two goals or less in every contest of a four-game sweep. The rest of the NHL realized that the trap could trump skill, and the dark cloud of the Dead Puck Era settled over the league, never to be dispelled.
Or at least, that’s the story we all seem to have agreed on over the years. The reality is a little bit more complicated. For example, those defense-first Devils actually allowed more goals during the 94-95 season than the high-flying Red Wings did. And while they didn’t score much in that year’s lockout-shortened season, they’d led the Eastern Conference in goals scored in the previous year, so it’s not like they didn’t have a few guys who could put the puck in the net.
For the most part, hockey fans haven’t let any of that get in the way of a good narrative. And it’s certainly true that the 1995 final was an example of defense beating offense. But this upset probably gets too much credit for ushering in the defensive era; it’s not like it was some sort of unstoppable juggernaut getting derailed by an expansion team.
No, that came next year…
Monday, December 7, 2015
Are the Carolina Hurricanes any good?
That's the question that popped into my head as I was watching their comeback win over the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday night. It was an up-and-down game, one in which the Hurricanes were up 3-2 after two periods, blew that lead and trailed midway through the third, and then stormed back with two late goals for a regulation win. And that's a fitting outcome for an up-and-down team that has had its moments despite the fact that they're probably not very good. Unless they are. Which they're not. We think.
On the surface, it seems like an easy question, one that can be answered with one glance at the standings. So let's start there: The Hurricanes' win over the Coyotes vaulted them from a share of dead-last in the league all the way up to 25th overall. And while it's no doubt a source of pride to pass teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets, that still leaves them far closer to the first overall pick than the playoff race.
So, yeah, they're bad. End of post, and sorry for wasting your time.
Friday, December 4, 2015
In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Thoughts on the John Scott all-star campaign
- What GMs like Tim Murray get wrong about trading
- A look back at the only fights in all-star game history
- Adding a new term to the hockey lexicon
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the days when a coach attacking a player didn't mean him names
Thursday, December 3, 2015
On Wednesday, we looked at a half dozen Eastern Conference teams with unsettled goaltending situations. Some were old-fashioned controversies, whereas others were short-term situations caused by slumps or injuries.
We move on to the West, where we'll start with a team that seems to have a permanent spot on this list over the years.
Edmonton Oilers: Cam Talbot vs. Anders Nilsson
In this corner: Coming off a surprisingly good season with the New York Rangers, Talbot was the Oilers' offseason trade target. They got him, at the cost of three draft picks. Would he finally stabilize years of shaky goaltending? Spoiler alert: These are the Oilers we're talking about.
And in this corner: Nilsson was another trade piece, although one that received far less attention. He came over from the Chicago Blackhawks to provide the organization with some depth, and perhaps push Ben Scrivens for the backup job.
The results so far: Nilsson pushed Scrivens all the way to the AHL, and he didn't stop there. He's earned a share of the starter's job with Talbot, who hasn't played well at all.
Prediction: The Oilers have a decision to make on Talbot, and soon; he'll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and with Edmonton looking like it will be well out of the playoff race, you'd expect the team to either sign him long term or try to flip him at the deadline to recover some of the assets it gave up to get him. That still gives Talbot a few months to find his game and reclaim the starter's job, and there's good reason to think that he can.
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Ah, the good old-fashioned goaltending controversy. Nothing makes a coach or general manager's job easier than seeing one guy grab the job and run with it. But with more league-wide depth at the position than ever, it's inevitable that several teams end up splitting duties, at least temporarily. Sometimes it works. Often, it does not.
By my count, there are a dozen cases around the league where teams are facing some degree of uncertainty over just who owns the crease. Some are developing into classic goalie controversies, the kind where two (or more) guys get their hands on the job and tug it back and forth over the course of a season. Others are situations caused by slumps or injuries, the kind teams hope will be only temporary.
We'll start with the East today; the West will get its turn tomorrow. Here are six Eastern Conference teams with goaltending situations currently up for grabs.
Detroit Red Wings: Jimmy Howard vs. Petr Mrazek
In this corner: Howard is a former All-Star who had been Detroit's starter for six years before being overtaken by Mrazek in time for last season's playoffs.
And in this corner: Mrazek is a 23-year-old who would make spot appearances in Detroit for two years before earning the backup job last season. He got the start in all seven playoff games against the Lightning, and he played well.
The results so far: It was a mild surprise when the Wings went to Mrazek last spring, and some suspected that the departure of coach Mike Babcock would mean Howard getting the job back. But new boss Jeff Blashill has treated it as an open competition, and so far Mrazek has been better, posting a .928 save percentage to Howard's .914 and earning 15 of the team's 26 starts.
Prediction: Mrazek's grip on the job is getting firmer. Howard hasn't been bad by any stretch, but he's being outplayed by a younger, cheaper option. If that continues, what happens next could get tricky; Howard remains signed through 2018-19 on a contract that carries a $5.3 million cap hit, and he would become yet another questionable long-term contract in Detroit. Mrazek is earning $738,000 this season, after which he'll be a restricted free agent.
As leaguewide scoring rates continue to drop and the NHL mulls yet another round of rule changes to boost offense, many fans are no doubt wondering: What can I do? What kind of steps could a typical fan take to help the league get back to the sort of exciting action it used to showcase a generation ago, before defense and goaltending took over?
The answer has always been: not much. Fans can complain all they want, but the issue is a complicated one and the league has shown precious little resolve to make the sort of drastic changes that might address it. You can vote with your eyeballs or your wallet, but that’s about it. There’s nothing you can do to help the league save itself.
Until now. This season, there really is a simple action we all could take that could make a difference.
This season, we all need to cheer for the Dallas Stars to win the Stanley Cup.
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
The big sports story of the weekend: Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant announced that this will be his final season. He made the announcement Sunday, then went out and had the chance to tie the game on a dramatic, last-second shot. It did not go well.
That has led to plenty of talk about how Bryant has held on too long. You never want to say a player should have retired before he or she was ready -- after all, their job is to play. And if someone is still willing to pay them to do it, they're under no obligation to go out on our terms. But it's probably fair to see that some players' final years end up being, um, slightly below peak productivity. Yes, let's go with that.
That's true for the NHL, too, of course. Sometimes, a legendary player ends his career with an exclamation point. And sometimes, the end comes as more of an ellipsis, trailing off into an awkward silence, followed by a shrug and a "never mind."
So, in an effort to make Kobe feel better about how things are ending, here are 10 examples of NHL legends whose final seasons didn't quite meet the high standards they'd established over the rest of their careers.
It's fun to remember him as: Perhaps the greatest pure goal scorer the league has ever seen.
So let's forget the part where: ... he tried to hang on for one more post-lockout year with the Arizona Coyotes.
In his prime, Hull was the answer to the question "What would happen if a guy with the goal-scoring skills and instincts of Alexander Ovechkin played in an era where you could actually score goals?" That answer involved three straight seasons with 70-plus goals and a grand total of 741 career goals.
But none of those goals came with the Coyotes. Hull signed a two-year contract with the team as a free agent in 2004, then saw the first year of the deal wiped out by the lockout. When play resumed in 2005, a 41-year-old Hull didn't exactly look like a great fit for the new, faster NHL, and he lasted just five games before calling it quits.
Hull was all sorts of fun to watch for the better part of two decades. But when your retirement headline includes the words "effective immediately," you've probably held on too long.
It's fun to remember him as: One of the most decorated goaltenders of all time, a three-time champion and the league's ultimate "can't-picture-him-in-any-other-uniform" guy.
So let's forget the part where: ... he tried a seven-game comeback with the St. Louis Blues.
Brodeur spent 21 years with the New Jersey Devils, winning three Cups, earning a trophy case full or hardware and firmly establishing himself as a Devils legend. When he and the franchise parted ways after the 2014 season and he made it through the offseason without signing elsewhere, hockey fans celebrated a terrific career while breathing a sigh of relief that we wouldn't have to see the NHL's "Willie Mays-as-a-Met" moment.
But then came December and a call from the Blues. St. Louis already had Jake Allen, and Brian Elliott was on his way back from a knee injury, but they wanted another experienced goalie because, well, nobody was quite sure, but that's a story for another time.
Brodeur came in, started five games, and played fine. He wasn't good, but he didn't embarrass himself. But when Elliott returned a month later, Brodeur dropped to third on the depth chart and never played again. He retired midseason and took a front-office job in St. Louis.
Monday, November 30, 2015
After a relatively quiet first few weeks of the season, the department of player safety was back in the spotlight over the weekend, faced with decisions on two controversial plays: Brandon Dubinsky's crosscheck to Sidney Crosby's neck and Matt Beleskey's late hit that injured Derek Stepan.
The verdicts: One game for Dubinsky and nothing at all for Beleskey. The reaction, as always: Frustration, eye rolls and plenty of criticism that the league just isn’t doing enough to get questionable hits out of the game.
The department has an important job, and because of that they deserve to be scrutinized. For my money, I thought Dubinsky got off too lightly with a one-game suspension, and I gave my thoughts on the Beleskey hit as it happened. I’d like to see the DOPS hand out harsher suspensions overall, although that's something that will only happen when their bosses -- the league’s 30 teams -- give them the go-ahead to start doing so.
But after we’re done shaking our heads over another round of relatively light sentences, let’s do something else. Let’s take a step back and recognize how far this league has come in recent years. Because, when it comes to discipline and player safety, the current lay of the land, imperfect as it is, would be all but unrecognizable to fans even a generation ago.
Friday, November 27, 2015
The NHL has a packed schedule today, and since everyone else who works for ESPN is American and has the day off, I decided to take over their hockey site with a live blog. I'll be updating throughout the day. Drop by, and feel free to jump into the comments section, since I'm guessing I'll need the backup.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
In this week's Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL needs to stop making terrible rule changes that won't fix the scoring problem
- An obscure player is used as a pawn in one of the great shady trades of all-time
- Comedy stars, in which Ryan Kesler defrauds someone other than the Ducks' cap consultant
- Why the NHL all-star game should be like Survivor
- And a YouTube breakdown of the most awkward interview in the career of Gary Bruce Bettman. Wait, "Bruce"?
The highlight of Wednesday night's packed schedule was a showdown between the two teams sitting on top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers faced off in New York, with the Canadiens earning an emphatic 5-1 win in what felt very much like a statement game.
And so, on the morning after, we can all agree on who now deserves the title of the East's best team.
The Washington Capitals.
Well, OK, I might be getting a bit ahead of myself here. The Canadiens deserve full credit for Wednesday night's impressive win, even if it might have cost them Carey Price, who left after two periods with another apparent leg injury. And nobody's going to write off the Rangers based on one game, even though their fans must be at least a little worried about how easily the Habs' speedsters exposed them all night.
But while all this was going on in New York, the Capitals were earning a tidy 5-3 home win over the Winnipeg Jets, drawing within three points of the Rangers for first in the Metro, with Washington holding a game in hand. Both teams have been hot in November. And putting aside the (embarrassing, inexcusable) presence of the loser point, the Rangers woke up Thursday with a 16-6 record, while the Caps are 15-6. Not much to choose from there.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
The 1992-93 NHL season is often seen as among the best ever. Mario Lemieux beat cancer and had 160 points in 60 games. Teemu Selanne obliterated the rookie scoring record with 76 goals. A new wave of Russian stars like Sergei Federov, Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure were dazzling fans. And the league saw 14 players hit the 50-goal mark, and 20 reach 100 points.
The season also featured 7.26 goals per game. That was well down from the high-flying 80s, which at their peak had topped the 8.00 mark, but it was the highest offensive output in four years. And, although we didn’t know it at the time, it was the highest mark we’d see for another 22 years and counting.
The following year, which happened to be the first full season under the watchful eye of a new commissioner named Gary Bettman, scoring dropped to its lowest level in two decades. While some were confident that the plunge was a temporary blip, there was general agreement that something should be done. The only question was: What? And so the debate began.
If that sounds a lot like the sort of conversation we’re having right now, well, that’s because it is. This has been kind of a thing for the NHL ever since Bettman arrived. Scoring drops, the league scratches its head, and then someone announces that they’ve come up with a solution.
The whole thing can start to feel repetitive. So I went back over the last 22 years of NHL history, and found articles from each and every season in which somebody is expressing concern about plunging scoring rates, and the league is assuring us that it has it all figured out. Just for fun, we’ll also look at what (if any) rules actually did change that year, and keep track of the overall league-wide scoring rate.
So yes, today’s NHL may feature scoring levels that are headed towards historical lows, and have been for decades. But don’t worry, everyone: the NHL is on this. They’ve got it all figured out. And they’ve got a plan to get scoring back to where it needs to be…
The season: 1993-94
The headline: Scoring is down but fights are flourishing (January 12, 1994)
The proposed changes: Among a long list of complaints and grievances, the referees are singled out for allowing too much obstruction.
What actually happened: Not much. The league made one minor change, slightly loosening the rules around goals scored with a high stick.
Money quote: “Last season at this point, each game averaged 7.30 goals. So far this year, the average is 6.06.” Don’t worry, I’m sure it won’t last.
Average goals/game: The final goals-per-game average settled in at 6.48, making 93-94 the lowest scoring season since 1973-74. Or, as we call it now: “the good old days”.
The season: 1994-95
The headline: Neutral-zone trap to champagne pop (June 26, 1995)
The proposed changes: A crackdown on obstruction “so that skilled players aren't nullified”. Also mentioned is a “more radical suggestion”: eliminating the two-line offside.
What actually happened: Neither of those changes would actually be made for a decade.
Money quote: “Claude Lemieux of the Devils, who won the Conn Smythe trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs, seemed insulted when asked about critics of the team's efficient neutral-zone trap. ‘Well, too bad,’ he said. ‘Go watch a show somewhere else.’” Which they did, according to weeping TV executives.
Average goals/game: 5.98. This was the first time the league had been below the 6-goal mark since 1970.
The season: 1995-96
The headline: League hopes anti-trap rules lead to more excitement (Sept 30, 1995)
The proposed changes: This article covers the NHL’s attempt to crackdown on obstruction, especially in the neutral zone. Nobody seems to really like it, with Mike Milbury complaining that “Hockey as we know it has ceased to exist”.
What actually happened: The crackdown resulted in a temporary boost to powerplays and overall scoring. Then the season ended with a triple overtime 1-0 game.
Money quote: “Labour troubles will be a thing of the past – and the controversial neutral zone trap may be doomed too…” Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and call that an 0-for-2.
Average goals/game: 6.28, which remains the highest mark of the last two decades and counting.
The season: 1996-97
The headline: Nice spin, but quality is answer (January 21, 1997)
The proposed changes: Bettman shrugs off plunging scoring rates by pointing to better goaltending, although director of officiation Bryan Lewis admits that referees need to do a better job of calling the rulebook.
What actually happened: No major changes.
Money quote: “In his annual state-of-the-league address during last weekend's All-Star festivities, Commissioner Gary Bettman sounded like Mr. Rogers.” Seriously, this whole article is just the legendary Helene Elliott going full B.S. detector on Bettman. By this point, the media was officially turning on the new commissioner.
Average goals/game: 5.84.
Monday, November 23, 2015
In a league where the best of the best monopolize most of the attention, there aren’t many sixth-place teams that could be described as “fascinating.” The Winnipeg Jets are becoming the exception that proves the rule.
The Jets are a deep team, one that’s stacked with young players at both the NHL level and beyond. They have an excellent blue line and an underrated cast of forwards. They have the talent to beat any team in the league on any given night, and they’ve already notched wins over the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. They’re a darn good team.
They’re also in the Central Division, where “darn good” isn’t good enough. At 10-9-2, they’ve banked 10 ROWs and 22 points, which would be good for third in the Pacific. In the Central, that leaves them sixth, looking up at five excellent teams, none of whom seem likely to have the sort of extended cold streak that would allow a team chasing them to gain big ground. A recent six-game losing streak appeared to have the Jets in danger of falling out of the hunt entirely, even before the calendar flipped to December.
Friday, November 20, 2015
In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The one change the NHL must make to save the new all-star format
- Debating the league's scoring woes with the worst fan of all: The Hockey Hipster
- An obscure Ralph
- The three comedy stars of the week
- And a YouTube breakdown of just how awesome Mario Lemieux really was.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
Last week, the Tampa Bay Lightning traded goaltender Kevin Poulin to the Flames for future considerations. It was an almost completely unremarkable trade, one that went all but unnoticed by anyone who wasn’t directly related to Poulin himself. But it was noteworthy in one way: It was the first (and so far only) trade of this regular season.
That’s become the new normal in this league. This is the third time since 2010 that we’ve made it well into November before the first deal of a new season. History tells us that the market will start to pick up soon, but not all that much, with a smattering of deals between now and the trade deadline. If we’re lucky, fans will get a handful of moves that feature players they’ve actually heard of.
Trading used to be a big part of both the typical GM’s toolbox and the NHL’s overall entertainment package, but it’s been dying a slow death in the cap era. And we all know why: It’s the dollars. The salary cap complicated everything, we’re told. It’s just too hard to make a deal these days.
But while all of that is probably true, we don’t have to let the trade market die a slow death. I have an idea that could help revive the lost art of the deal. The NHL has the power to deliver an adrenaline boost to the market, ushering in a new era of wheeling and dealing and reigniting hot stove debates across the league. And all it will take is one relatively straightforward new rule.
Fair warning: you’re going to hate it… at first.
I mean, you’re a hockey fan. You hate change. You complain about the state of the game constantly, but the mere suggestion of even the smallest tweak puts you on the defensive. You miss ties, you’re still not over the trapezoid, and the last time one of your friends suggested making the nets slightly bigger you stabbed them with a plastic fork. It’s a hockey fan thing. I get it.
So yes, you’re going to think this idea sounds ridiculous and unworkable and you’ll immediately go into defensive hockey fan mode, coming up with a dozen reasons why it could never work. All I’m asking is that you give it a chance. Let it percolate. Wait a few hours before you track me down on Twitter and call me an idiot. And during that time, think about how much fun it would be to have trading back in the NHL.
Promise? Then let’s get started.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
The Maple Leafs picked up a 5-1 win over the Avalanche last night behind 34 saves by James Reimer. That continues a November hot streak by the goalie, one that has him firmly within the top ten in league-wide save percentage and earned him a selection as the league’s third star last week.
Reimer’s revival has been a welcome site for Maple Leaf fans. It’s also a confusing one, at least for those who’d spent the last two years convincing themselves that he was a bum. Things change fast in Toronto, especially for the guys in the crease.
Let’s remember that backstory here. Reimer was an unheralded quasi-prospect when he arrived in Toronto midway through the 2010-11 season, all smiles and “aw shucks” demeanor. It was supposed to be a cup of coffee, but he played well, and had earned the starter’s job by the end of the following season. He looked great during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, even earning a Hart vote. At long last, the Leafs had found their goalie.
And then came That Game, and everything changed. The Leafs’ third period collapse against the Bruins sent the entire franchise into panic mode and quashed the reputations of more than a few of its players, Reimer included. Suddenly, he was the guy who couldn’t win the big one, a deer-in-the-headlights with shaky rebound control. It wasn’t remotely fair – the only reason the Leafs were in a position to collapse in game seven was that Reimer had single-handedly dragged them there. But it didn’t matter. In the eyes of Toronto, Reimer was damaged goods.
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
The Patrick Marleau trade watch continues this week, with rumors swirling that the Sharks could be shopping the forward, possibly at his request. The story feels familiar, one that plays out multiple times every season – the veteran star on the middling team, with both sides wondering if a change of scenery wouldn’t be for the best.
But there’s a twist here that makes the Marleau situation somewhat unique. The forward has spent his entire career in San Jose, and is currently in his 18th season with the Sharks. While veterans are dealt all the time, it’s remarkably rare to see a guy spend anywhere near that much time with one franchise and then leave via trade.
How rare? According to Elias Sports Bureau, just 21 players in NHL history have played at least 15 full seasons with one franchise, then moved on to play for another team. Of those, nine left as free agents, including recent cases like Daniel Alfredsson and Martin Brodeur (as well as current Bruins’ GM Don Sweeney). Three more went to the WHA and then returned to the NHL when the league absorbed their new clubs. And one, Serge Savard, was plucked in the waiver draft.
That leaves just eight players in the history of the NHL that have done what Marleau may be on the verge of doing: Play the first fifteen years or more of their career for one franchise, and then find themselves traded out of town. So I figured I’d take a look back at each of those cases, and see if there’s anything that Marleau and the Sharks can learn from them.
The prelude: Bourque was a first round pick in 1979 and made the Bruins as a teenager that same year. He’d go on to play almost 21 full seasons in Boston, winning five Norris Trophies, earning 12 first-team all-star honors, and recording over 1,500 points. His time in Boston saw him achieve just about everything a player could ever hope to… with one exception.
The trade: With no Cup rings after two decades in Boston and the Bruins on the verge of missing the playoffs, Bourque requested a trade to a contender. On March 6, 2000, the Bruins sent him and Dave Andreychuk to the Avalanche in exchange for Brian Rolston, Samuel Pahlsson, Martin Grenier and a first round pick.
The aftermath: This deal is pretty much the sports world’s gold standard for trades involving a long-time franchise player. The Bruins didn’t get much for their superstar, but that was hardly the point. This move was all about getting Bourque his ring. And while it didn’t happen in 2000, that just set the stage for one of the most cherished moments in hockey history to play out one year later.
The lesson: Sometimes, it’s more important to find the right fit for your long-serving veteran that it is to squeeze every drop of value out of a trade. Unfortunately, that sort of sentiment seems unlikely to apply here. Marleau has his fans in San Jose, but he’s nowhere near as beloved as Bourque was in Boston – and that extends to a front office that’s seemed to want a divorce for years. They’ll move Marleau if the right deal comes along, but don’t look for the Sharks to be doing him any favors.
Monday, November 16, 2015
As the debate over bigger nets rages on, one suggestion for increasing scoring seems to be gaining traction with a good percentage of hockey fans: Why can’t the NHL just bring back the crackdown against clutch-and-grab hockey that worked so well in the aftermath of the 2005 lockout?
It’s easy to see the appeal. Ordering the referees to simply call the game more strictly avoids the sort of significant rule changes that so many fans are apparently desperate to avoid. And when it was last tried in 2005-06, a crackdown really did seem to work: scoring jumped by a full goal-per-game over the previous season, and that year remains the only one since 1995-96 in which league scoring averaged better than six goals-per-game.
Those numbers point to what seems like an obvious conclusion: When the refs cracked down on obstruction, the game opened up and scoring soared. But as officials loosened up, the clutch-and-grab style crept back into the game, and scoring eventually plummeted back to Dead Puck Era levels. So if you want more goals, there’s your answer: Just tell the refs to get strict again. Simple, right?
It would be nice if it were that easy. But there are two problems with going back to the 2005-06 approach. The first is that the post-lockout crackdown didn’t actually open up the game as much as you’d think – despite the nice boost overall, even-strength scoring didn’t increase significantly. The jump in goals-per-game was due almost entirely to a massive increase in powerplays. At even strength, the great obstruction crackdown hardly moved the needle at all.
It’s true that a powerplay goal is still a goal, and an offensive boost built almost entirely on special teams is still a boost. But the NHL needs to increase scoring across all situations, or risk training fans to simply wait for powerplays while tuning out during the vast majority of the game that’s played at even strength. (For the same reason, changes like banning icing on powerplays or making penalties last the full two minutes even if a goal is scored just end up being bandaids on the bigger problem.)
So that’s strike one against the “just call the rulebook” movement. But there’s a bigger flaw with the argument: It relies on the assumption that the faster, more open style of play in 2005 was only temporary, and that players went right back to clutching and grabbing with impunity once the referees lost their nerve. And that’s simply not true.
In fact, it’s hard to overstate this: The clutch-and-grab style that had become common in the NHL over recent decades bears almost no resemblance to the game we know today. This seems to be news to some hockey fans, presumably the ones who are relatively new to the game, or at least have bad memories. So maybe a quick refresher is in order. Go back and watch footage from virtually any game played from 1995 through 2005 and count the flagrant hooks, holds and outright open-field tackles that go uncalled. And not just uncalled, but all but completely unnoticed, no more noteworthy than a dump-in or drop pass.
Friday, November 13, 2015
The Grab Bag returns, and makes its debut on ESPN.com. In this week’s edition:
- A rant about low scoring, bigger nets and appeals to tradition
- An obscure player who can end the dogs vs. cats war once and for all
- Wait, how was Don Cherry not on the Canadian Walk of Fame already?
- The week’s three comedy stars, which you all somehow talked me into keeping
- And a YouTube breakdown of that ridiculous Sabres anti-drug song, featuring an exclusive interview with the guy who wrote it.
Thursday, November 12, 2015
That phrase once appeared on the cover of a famous book. And it should probably appear on the cover of programs in NHL arenas, because it’s good advice for hockey fans who like to overreact to slow starts and small sample sizes. Most of the time, an early season slump is just a slump, and the right answer it to shrug it off and move on.
And yet… Sometimes a slump is more than that. Sometimes it’s the start of something bigger, the sort of long-term downturn that changes the way we view an NHL star. A seemingly minor slump might end up being that first blinking light on the dashboard, warning us that a player could struggle through the rest of a season, or even a career.
The problem, of course, is that we don’t really know when that’s the case; we have to wait and see how it all plays out. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a wild guess carefully analyze the situation in an attempt to figure it out. So today, let’s look at eight names from around the NHL world who are off to a rough start, and try to answer the question: Is it time to panic?
Jakub Voracek, Flyers
The season so far: One year after enjoying a breakout season (and signing a $66 million extension), Voracek has no goals. That’s bad, right? I think that’s bad.
Panic time?: You could forgive Flyer fans for being nervous here – after all, no franchise has a longer track record of seeing big money contracts blow up in its face. And Voracek’s lack of goals isn’t exactly a new development – even during last year’s breakout, he had only six in the season’s second half. And while he’s never been a pure goal scorer, even his five assists on the year are well below expectations.
All that said, a look beyond Voracek’s boxcar stats shows some positive signs. He leads the team in shots on goal by a wide margin, and his possession numbers are as strong as ever. Voracek himself sounds like he’s getting frustrated, and guy carrying cap hits north of $8M don’t often get much benefit of the doubt. But Voracek deserves at least a little bit of patience here, because his numbers say he should get on track soon. So don’t throw any batteries at him, Flyer fans. Or at least, no more than usual.
Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks
The season so far: I’m not saying it’s been a tough year for the Ducks, but we also would have accepted “Corey Perry”. Also, “Jakob Silfverberg”. And “Ryan Kesler”. And also, “pretty much everyone who plays for Anaheim and isn’t a goalie”.
But Getzlaf gets the nod, based on a season-long goalless slump. Granted, he missed a few games due to an appendectomy. But he’s just looked off at times, and doing stuff like this doesn’t help.
Panic time?: Getzlaf is on the wrong side of 30, so anything approaching a long-term slump is cause of concern – age comes for everyone eventually, and when it does the downturn can often be sharp and brutal. But this slump hasn’t quite hit “long-term” status quite yet, and Getzlaf has looked good playing with Perry in recent games. The Ducks are slowly but surely shaking off their awful start, and since they’re in the Pacific, they haven’t exactly been left behind by the rest of the division. They should be OK, and their captain should too.
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
With the Hockey Hall of Fame’s class of 2015 now enshrined, attention has already turned to next year’s potential inductees. And most of that focus is on players who’ve missed the cut in previous years and could finally hear their name called.
That’s because the list of newly eligible players is, to put it kindly, underwhelming. Call it a fluke or, or lay the blame on the 2012-13 lockout – after all, not too many legends want to end their career playing through a rushed half-season. Either way, while the list of 2016 first-timers club has its share of good players and respected journeymen, there’s not a single Hall of Famer to be found.
Or is there? I’ve always preferred to look on the bright side of things, and I’m up for a challenge. So today, let’s take a look down that list of new candidates, and see if we can’t come up with some good arguments in their favor.
Jose Theodore – By all accounts, has always done a wonderful job of taking care of Jarome Iginla’s Hart Trophy.
Jamie Langenbrunner – Is a former star player who once played for the Devils and is now very old, so we should probably get our votes in now before he inevitably signs with the Blues.
Wade Redden – Personally made you a better spouse, parent and friend by single-handedly putting an end to all that time you used to waste having “worst contract in NHL history” debates.
Miikka Kiprusoff – Could probably sway a lot of voters by putting together a highlight reel of him and his teammates on the 2004 Flames. Just make sure none of those clips involve Martin Gelinas, since nobody in the NHL ever bothers watching replays involving him until it’s too late.
Connor McDavid’s recent injury was a devastating blow to both his Calder chances and the Oilers already shaky playoff hopes. It also hit the pause button on his rookie rivalry with Jack Eichel, temporarily shutting down a storyline that figured to be one of the season’s best. After all, those two players will be forever linked by hype, circumstance, and, of course, those four ping pong balls that determined their futures.
That would be the April draft lottery, one that saw the Oilers leap past the last place Sabres for the top overall pick. With McDavid ranked as the consensus number one, that moment felt like a brutal loss for the Sabres, a perception that was only reinforced by their own GM. (Not everyone sees it that way; many Sabres fans insist they were just fine with getting either player all along. These people are crazy, but they’ll burn my house down if I don’t mention them.)
While McDavid’s injury puts the Eichel comparison on hold, it does lead to a fun question: Which draft lottery loss was the most painful in league history? Which last place team took the worst hit by dropping down to number two?
The NHL introduced the draft lottery in 1995. Not counting last year, that leaves us with an even ten instances where a team has “lost” the lottery, which we’ll define as the last place overall team getting passed over for the top pick. (So we’re not counting 1995, 1999 or 2011, when the winning team didn’t move up to first.) With the benefit of some hindsight, we can look back at the teams involved, the eventual top pick, and the player who fell to number two, and try to figure out which loss hurt the most.
We’ll work our way down from best to worst. And we’ll start in 1998, the first time the lottery ever resulted in the top pick changing hands… sort of.
#10 - 1998
Last place team: Tampa Bay Lightning
Lottery winning team: San Jose Sharks, by virtue of owning the Florida Panthers’ pick
First overall pick: Vincent Lecavalier
How much did it hurt?: This is the easiest call on the list, because it didn’t hurt at all. Literally. It had no impact on anything, as you may already suspect if you’re thinking “Uh, I don’t remember Lecavalier being drafted by the Sharks.”
That’s because the last place Lightning went into the lottery with an insurance policy in their back pocket. At that year’s deadline, they’d traded Bryan Marchment and David Shaw to San Jose for Andrei Nazarov, and convinced the Sharks to toss in a sweetener: the right to swap their first round pick for the Panthers’, which San Jose had acquired earlier in the season. With the Lightning well back of the Panthers in the standings, the swap option wouldn’t matter… unless Florida won the lottery.
They did, and the Lightning moved back up to first. The Sharks got the second pick, flipped it to Nashville (who took David Legwand), and ended up getting Brad Stuart third overall. And Lecavalier headed to Tampa Bay to become “the Michael Jordan of hockey”.
#9 – 2000
Last place team: Atlanta Thrashers
Lottery winning team: New York Islanders
First overall pick: Rick DiPietro
How much did it hurt?: A ton – for the Islanders. It’s not often that you can use the phrases “disastrous lottery win”, but such was the Mike Milbury era. The Isles jumped from fifth to first and did a jig about it, then used the top pick on DiPietro. It’s fair to say it didn’t work out. Not only did DiPietro eventually get one of the worst contracts (and later one of the most expensive buyouts) in NHL history, but the Islanders made room for him by trading a young Roberto Luongo to Florida.
Meanwhile, the Thrashers dropped down to the second pick and wound up with Dany Heatley, who they probably would have taken anyway. And Atlanta even got some karmic payback against the Islanders the following year, which we’ll get to further down this list.
Friday, November 6, 2015
Hey everyone… It’s been a pretty quiet week, as I imagine you can understand, but I did want to pop in to mention two things.
First, I want to once again offer up my thanks to everyone who had kind things to say about Grantland after last week’s news. I literally can’t believe how many people took the time to reach out over social media, email, through private messages, etc. I tried to reply to as many of you as I could, but if I missed you then at least know that I read everything people sent and it was sincerely appreciated.
Next, I promised that I’d update you as soon as I had an idea what comes next, and now I do, at least for the short term. I’m happy to let you know that I’ll be joining the hockey team on ESPN.com starting next week. I’ve had the chance to get to know a lot of ESPN’s hockey folks over the years and have been reading them for longer than that, and I’m looking forward to being a part of what they do.
Break time is over, and now it’s back to work. Thanks again for reading, and for your support over the years.
Monday, November 2, 2015
So by now you’ve probably heard the news: Grantland is no more. ESPN pulled the plug on the site on Friday, ending a four year run which I was lucky enough to be a small part of.
This isn’t exactly a new experience for me; before I was able to make writing a real job, I spent over a decade working in high tech, so I’m used to the reality that businesses sometimes make tough choices and people get caught in the middle of it. But this sucks. And it sucks because Grantland was easily the best job I’ve ever had.
I started with the site on an occasional basis in early 2012, joined the staff as a part-timer a year later, and was hired full-time shortly after that. I got to meet lots of cool people, travel to about half the league’s arenas (plus a football and baseball stadium) and be on the ice for two Cup celebrations.
And most importantly, I got to work with and learn from an almost ridiculous cast of talented writers and editors. I’d been reading Bill Simmons for over a decade. Katie Baker may be the best sports feature writer alive. I got to hear an editor say "Your post is up next once I finish with Charles Pierce." Barnwell, Mays, Keri, Phillips, Lowe, Rembert… I won’t try to list everyone, because it would be the entire masthead. But I basically got to spend the last few years being a fourth-line winger for the late-70s Canadiens, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Since I find myself with some unexpected time on my hands, I thought I’d pull together some of my favorite posts from the Grantland years and drop them all into one place. I hope this list brings back some memories for you, or gives you a chance to read some stuff that you missed the first time around. But if I’m being honest, this one is as much for me as it is for you. Time moves fast and at some point it will be on to the next thing, and I like the idea of taking a minute to put all of this in one place.
The fun stuff
I love hockey. It’s been an important part of my life. But it’s a game, and games are supposed to be fun, and most of what I do reflects that. If you can laugh at this stuff, at least every once in a while, you might be doing it wrong.
- 20 years of Gary Bettman Stanley Cup presentations from least to most awkward – Quite possibly my definitive Grantland hockey post. You know you’ve got a good idea for a post when you pitch it to your editor and she literally squeals with delight.
- NHLPA 93 vs NHL 94: The definitive head-to-head breakdown – This was the post I was born to write. And yes, I know you disagree with the conclusion. I’m still right and you’re wrong.
- The Connor McDavid draft lottery power rankings – On the day it went up, a fun post. In hindsight… well, you know.
- The faker's guide to advanced stats in hockey – This one was meant to be fun, but I still hear from people to this day who’ve used it to dive into the analytics world.
- The 25 Stages of a marathon playoff overtime – Honestly, I was just glad to find out that I wasn’t the only one who does the "forget there are no commercials" thing.
- The 20 types of depressed sports fans – OK, "fun" may be the wrong word for this one, but sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. This one went super viral, and as far as I know it’s the most widely read thing I’ve ever written.
Friday, October 30, 2015
In this special Halloween edition of the grab bag:
- The one problem with the coach's challenge, and its simple fix
- In praise of the Avalanche's brilliant sound effects
- The closest thing the NHL has ever had to a Jack O-Lantern
- Comedy stars (and costumes)
- And the world's most terrifying man is here to sing you an awkward love song.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
It’s the end of October, which means two things for NHL fans: Your Twitter feed is being overtaken by awkward photos of your favorite players in horrible Halloween costumes, and it’s time to take stock of the first month of regular-season action.
We’ve already covered most of the big trends — Canadiens good! Blue Jackets bad! Ducks maybe even worse! — so we won’t rehash those here. Instead, let’s drill down a bit to some of the league’s other moving parts. Here are some of the first month’s more interesting stories and the direction they’re headed.
Stock Rising: Max Pacioretty
It feels like it shouldn’t be possible for a player in the ravenous Montreal market to be underrated, and that’s especially true when that player is the captain. But I think there’s a good case to be made that Pacioretty has spent most of his career in that category. He probably won’t be there much longer.
Pacioretty sits tied for sixth in the NHL in scoring with 11 points through Montreal’s first 10 games. He’s unlikely to keep up that pace; he’s never topped 70 points or been a point-per-game scorer in his career. But he has been one of the league’s most consistent wingers, good for 30-plus goals and 60-plus points year after year. Since his breakout year in 2011, Pacioretty has more goals than any pure winger other than Alex Ovechkin — more than Patrick Kane, or Corey Perry, or Phil Kessel.
And yet you rarely hear him mentioned with those sorts of guys, despite playing in arguably the most rabid media market in the league. If anything, he’s often been underappreciated. Maybe that’s because the low-key Pacioretty can’t compete with the star power of a Carey Price or P.K. Subban. Maybe it’s a style thing; Pacioretty is more likely to score based on opportunism and his quick release than on highlight-friendly end-to-end rushes. Or maybe a city that’s used to cheering on legends like Rocket Richard and Guy Lafleur has trouble getting excited for a player who’s merely very good.
But in any case, Pacioretty deserves more credit than he gets. Of course, once he’s led the 81-1-0 Habs to a Stanley Cup, that should change.
Stock Falling: Goalies We Thought Were Good
Among goaltenders with at least five starts heading into last night’s action, just four had posted save percentages under .875. One of those is Jonas Hiller. The other three were expected to be good.
Nobody has had a strong start in Columbus, but no one there has been worse than Sergei Bobrovsky. He ranks last in save percentage and goals-against average and has already been quoted as having “zero confidence.” That’s not what you want to hear from a goaltender, especially one who’s just three years removed from a Vezina Trophy. His numbers have been trending in the wrong direction since then, but they were still solid enough last season that you’d assume this is just an early-season blip. The Blue Jackets better hope so; Bobrovsky is signed through 2019 on a deal that carries the second-biggest cap hit of any goaltender.
In Colorado, Semyon Varlamov has been nipping at Bobrovsky’s heels at the bottom of the stats page. Yet he’s just two years removed from finishing a close second in the 2014 Vezina race. And the guy who beat him out for that award, Boston’s Tuukka Rask, has been almost as bad. Rask posted a shutout Tuesday, and it still left him with the league’s third-worst goals-against average.
History tells us that all three guys will be fine — always rely more on the big sample size of a career’s worth of work than on a few shaky weeks, especially with goalies. But the position is a funny one, and a rough enough start really can torpedo a season if it burrows far enough into a guy’s head. Goaltending is voodoo, and right now the Blue Jackets, Avalanche, and Bruins are hoping it won’t end up being the evil kind.
Stock Rising: Jamie Benn
Benn was one of the league’s best stories last season, winning the Art Ross as the league’s top scorer with a four-point game on the season’s final night, including the clinching point with just 10 seconds left.
It was a cool moment, one that capped off a breakout season for the 26-year-old winger. But it wasn’t one that anyone expected him to have much chance of repeating. After all, his 87 points last season was the lowest total to lead the league in over 50 years, helped by some second-half injuries to Sidney Crosby. Benn had earned the title, but his reign was assumed to be a Jarome Iginla–style one-and-out, a case of a player having the good timing to enjoy a career year in a season when everyone else went cold.
But as the season’s first month draws to a close, there’s a familiar name right back on top of the league scoring race. After Tuesday’s three-point performance, Benn has 15 points through nine games, good for the league lead. He remains a key part of the high-flying Stars offense, one that’s made Dallas the most entertaining team in the league.
If he stays healthy, there’s no reason to think he can’t challenge for yet another Art Ross. And this time, nobody will be able to call it a fluke.
Stock Falling: The Islanders’ New Home
The Islanders finally moved out of Nassau Coliseum, generally considered the worst arena in the NHL, at the end of last season. Their new home is the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It’s fair to say reviews have been mixed.
The Barclays Center isn’t anyone’s idea of a classic hockey arena; in fact, it’s barely a hockey arena at all, depending on where you get stuck sitting. It also seats just 15,700 for hockey, the second-lowest capacity in the league. And so far, the Islanders are having trouble filling even that many seats, as many of their fans don’t seem to like the new building. Plus there’s that weird SUV parked in the corner that makes you think you accidentally tuned into a Spengler Cup game.
The good news is this doesn’t seem to be affecting the Islanders, who are icing one of the best teams in the league. And it’s not like the franchise had a ton of options. The Islanders desperately needed to get out of the Coliseum before it completely fell apart, and when they couldn’t make a deal to stay in Uniondale, they took what was available. The Barclays Center may be far from ideal, but it was almost certainly the best option.
As with most NHL problems, winning will fix some of this. If the Islanders keep playing like they have been, attendance should get a boost, and maybe some of those fans will realize they don’t mind the new rink so much after all. The flip side is that the seats stay empty and an Islanders team that could be a Cup contender finds itself heading down the stretch without any discernible home-ice advantage. We’ll see how it works out, but the early returns aren’t encouraging.
Tuesday, October 27, 2015
It’s over. With Saturday night’s 4-3 decision over the Avalanche, the Blue Jackets finally snapped an eight-game losing streak and got into the win column for the first time on the season. The streak is dead.
It’s hard to overstate just how awful the Blue Jackets’ 0-8-0 start had been. The NHL has a long and glorious history of teams getting off to season-crushingly terrible starts, but none quite like this. No team in the past seven decades has managed to start a season without earning so much as a single point through its first eight games. None of the modern era’s biggest losers — not the 1974-75 Capitals, or the 1992-93 Senators or Sharks, or even the 2009-2010 Maple Leafs — had ever face-planted out of the gate quite that badly.
You have to go all the way back to the 1940s to find a start as bad as the one the Blue Jackets just suffered through. That would be the 1943-44 Rangers, who lost their first 11 and didn’t win a game until mid-December. And while the Blue Jackets didn’t quite reach that level of futility, when you factor in the weight of expectations (not to mention the presence of the loser point), I think there’s a pretty reasonable case to be made that the Blue Jackets’ start was the worst the NHL has ever seen, from anyone, at any time.
Remember, it was only three weeks ago that the Blue Jackets were itching to drop the puck on a regular season that was teeming with optimism. After a strong finish to 2014-15, a big trade in the offseason, and a strong performance over the preseason schedule, the Blue Jackets were ready to storm out of the gate and claim a place among the Metro’s contenders. Some well-known experts were even picking them to go to the conference finals.
And then came 0-8-0. And while it’s over now, like all wonderful things, we shouldn’t let The Streak fade into the fringes of our memories. No, we need to cherish it, to hold it close, to press it tightly against our cold little hockey fan hearts. And so today, we’re going to say goodbye to the Blue Jackets’ losing streak in the best way we know how: By reliving it, one game at a time. For Blue Jackets fans, it will be cathartic. For the rest of us, well, it might make us feel better about our own lousy teams.
So travel back with me to a time long past, in a long-ago era when the city of Columbus was happy and the Blue Jackets were going to be good. Eighteen whole days ago, to be precise.
0-1-0 — October 9, Rangers at Blue Jackets
The opponent: The Blue Jackets don’t get any early favors from the schedule-maker, as they start the season with a home-and-home against the team that won the Metro last season.
Reason for optimism: Sure, it’s a tough opponent, but that’s what you want, right? This is going to be the year that the Blue Jackets establish themselves as contenders in the Metro, and there’s no better way to send a message than by beating the defending champs.
Columbus fans are thinking: The Rangers, huh? Good. It’s like your first day in prison — you go over to the biggest guy in the yard and pop him in the mouth, right?
Bad omen: Less than a minute in, the Blue Jackets are storming the Rangers’ crease when a loose puck squirts out to Ryan Murray, who has an open net. He fans on the shot.
What happened: With the game tied at 1 with less than four minutes to go in the third, big offseason acquisition Brandon Saad scores on the power play to give the Blue Jackets the lead. But then they collapse, giving up two Rangers goals in 17 seconds, then one more a minute after that. The Rangers win, 4-2.
Highlight: The Blue Jackets look great early on, taking the game to New York in front of a raucous home crowd. When Saad snaps home what looks like it will be the winner, the place comes unglued. This season is going to be fun!
Lowlight: Kevin Hayes’ game winner is awful, coming on a nearly impossible angle from deep in the corner.
Depressing postgame quote: “It’s early in the season. I’m not going to read too much into it after one game,” says team captain Nick Foligno, while wondering where all that foreshadowing thunder and lightning is coming from.
Sadness rating: 2/10. OK, that hurts, but nobody was expecting them to go 82-0-0. And hey, at least they get a quick rematch, right?
0-2-0 — October 10, Blue Jackets at Rangers
The opponent: The Rangers. You may remember them from their recent work in “Three goals in 77 seconds.”
Reason for optimism: Despite the loss, the Blue Jackets had been the better team for 57 minutes the night before. They just need to put together a full game this time.
Columbus fans are thinking: You know, a split here won’t be the worst thing in the world.
Bad omen: Just 80 seconds in, a brutal giveaway by Fedor Tyutin results in a Rangers 2-on-0 in front of Sergei Bobrovsky that Oscar Lindberg buries.
What happened: Lindberg adds another, followed by Dominic Moore, and the Blue Jackets are down 3-0 before the game is six minutes old. They go on to lose, 5-2.
Highlight: Late in the first, Bobrovsky stops Rangers sniper Rick Nash on a penalty shot, because it’s becoming apparent than no Blue Jackets draft pick will ever score a big goal again.
Lowlight: When Moore finds the net, the Blue Jackets have surrendered six goals in less than nine minutes of action against the Rangers over two nights.
Depressing postgame quote: “We aren’t going to win games by giving up five goals,” predicts head coach Todd Richards. Accurately, as it turns out.
Sadness rating: 4/10. OK, tough start. But luckily, the schedule serves up a cupcake next...
Monday, October 26, 2015
A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.
Theme of the Week: Lame Ducks
Three weeks into the season, the bottom of the league standings is starting to feel familiar. We’ve covered the stunning collapse of the Blue Jackets, but most of the other teams are the ones we’re used to seeing. The Sabres are there. So are the Maple Leafs and the Hurricanes, and the Oilers aren’t far off.
But mixed in with those bottom-feeders is one team that wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near this territory, and it’s the team that has the league buzzing right now. That would be the Anaheim Ducks, the preseason Pacific Division favorites and Stanley Cup contenders who’ve stumbled out of the gate; at 1-5-1, they’re looking up at everyone other than the Jackets.
A bad start is a concern for any team, but the Ducks’ problems go well beyond wins and losses. Somehow, a team built around Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry can’t score. Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Wild marked the fourth time in seven games the Ducks have been shut out. They’ve managed just six goals this season, with four coming in their only win. Other than that one game, the offense has been all but nonexistent.
When you see numbers that extreme, you’re almost always going to be dealing with some crazy percentages, and that’s exactly what we see in Anaheim. A team that has shot over 8 percent at even strength in each of the last four seasons (including a league-leading 9.6 percent in 2013-14) currently sits at just 2.5 percent. That’s not just unsustainable, it’s borderline ridiculous. With all the talent the Ducks have up front, the goals are going to come. Probably a lot of them, and probably soon. The wins will follow.
The question now is whether they’ll come soon enough to save Bruce Boudreau. Last week, we figured Boudreau’s seat was feeling decidedly warm; two more low-scoring losses later, it’s downright sizzling. I still think a coaching change would be a mistake, an overreaction to a slump that’s been largely driven by a big dose of short-term bad luck. But the Ducks are a team built to win now, and that’s not a scenario that typically results in a patient approach. If Boudreau does go, the Ducks won’t be lacking in experienced candidates to replace him. They could turn the reins over to assistant Paul MacLean, AHL coach Dallas Eakins, or even the man Boudreau replaced in 2011, Randy Carlyle.
That’s looking ahead, but maybe not all that far ahead. Things don’t get any easier this week: The Ducks are in Chicago tonight and follow that with trips to Dallas and St. Louis before returning home to face Nashville.
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. Winnipeg Jets (5-2-1, plus-7 goals differential) A tough call, but they slip into the final spot on the strength of last night’s big win over the Wild.
4. Dallas Stars (6-2-0, plus-6) An impressive five-game winning streak ended with a thud against the Panthers on Saturday.
Friday, October 23, 2015
In this week's grab bag:
- The broken compensation system for fired coach's is working perfectly
- Stop saying "it's early"
- Comedy stars: Um, everything OK out there in Vancouver?
- An obscure player that somehow turns into a poem
- And the NHL's original instant replay controversy, featuring a real live interview with the man who made the call.
Thursday, October 22, 2015
It took less than three weeks for the NHL season to claim its first coaching casualty. Yesterday, the Blue Jackets announced they’d fired Todd Richards after a disastrous 0-7-0 start, one that threatens to all but eliminate Columbus from the playoff race before the calendar has even flipped to November.
Richards will be replaced by John Tortorella, which is … interesting. Tortorella has a Cup ring, although you have to go back to the pre-cap era to find it, and he had some success with the Rangers. But he wore out his welcome in New York, and his one-year stint with the Canucks was a disaster. At the very least, his temperamental style could be a tough fit for a dressing room that was already miserable.
So now that the Richards watch is over, who’s next? The reality of life as an NHL coach is that you always seem to be just one bad slump away from hearing whispers about a pink slip with your name on it. It’s not a fun part of the business, but it’s part of the job that these guys sign up for. Here are a half-dozen other coaches whose seats are getting warm.
Claude Julien, Boston Bruins
Why he’s in trouble: The Bruins went into the year as a tough team to figure out. They’re still icing essentially the same core that went to a Cup final just three years ago, so the talent is there for at least a playoff run, if not more. But after a disappointing playoff miss in 2014-15 was followed by a confusing offseason under new GM Don Sweeney, this felt like a team headed in the wrong direction.
So far, the results have been mixed. An 0-3-0 start had the makings of a disaster, but they’ve clawed back to 2-3-1. That’s at least respectable, if not playoff-worthy.
But Julien has bigger problems than the Bruins’ record. He was very nearly fired in the offseason, as the team fired Peter Chiarelli and left the coach’s fate up to the new GM amid rumors that Bruins president Cam Neely wanted him gone. And while Sweeney ultimately spared Julien, it was a decidedly lukewarm vote of confidence, and Julien is still the dreaded “holdover that the new GM didn’t hire.” It may be only a matter of time before Sweeney decides to bring in his own guy, and a skeptic might even suggest that the rookie GM is only keeping Julien around to give himself an extra card to play if the season goes bad.
What could save him: The obvious answer is winning, and that will be the case for every coach on this list. But while Julien will continue to buy time if he keeps the Bruins in the playoff race, it’s possible that even that won’t be enough. If he’s going to be the long-term answer in Boston, Julien will need to make sure he’s on the same page as Neely and Sweeney as far as their vision for the team’s future. Failing that, he’d better take the Bruins on a deep playoff run — and he probably hasn’t been given a good enough roster to make that happen.
How hot is it? 9/10. Sweeney and Neely have said all the right things, but it’s not hard to read between the lines.
Who could replace him: The usual suspects will be mentioned, but here’s a long shot to consider: former Devils coach Adam Oates. He’s a former Bruin and ex-teammate of both Sweeney and Neely (the latter scored 50 goals playing on a line with him). He even thanked both guys in his Hall of Fame speech. Being old pals with someone doesn’t necessarily make you the best candidate for the job, but it’s funny how often it works out that way in the hockey world.
Prediction: Julien hangs on longer than expected, but he gets the pink slip late in the year as the Bruins fall out of the race. Sweeney names an interim coach to close out the season, then chases a big name in the spring.
Bruce Boudreau, Anaheim Ducks
Why he’s in trouble: The Ducks are firmly in win-now mode, and they came into the season looking like they’d do just that, with many of the so-called experts (including me) picking them as Western Conference champs.
But while there was plenty of optimism around the Ducks, it always came with a “but” attached — as in, “but wait until we see what they do in the playoffs.” The Ducks have won three straight division titles, but they have seen each of those years end in a disappointing Game 7 loss. That includes last year’s conference final loss to the Hawks, one in which they blew a 3-2 series lead with a pair of bad losses.
Fair or not, a lot of that disappointment has come to rest at the feet of Boudreau, who had some similarly dominant regular-season teams in Washington that never got over the hump in the playoffs. He’s now firmly saddled with the reputation of a guy who can’t win the big one. Those raps are almost always arbitrary and unfair, and it only takes one successful run to erase them forever. But Boudreau hasn’t had that run yet, and with so many chips already in the middle of the table, the Ducks could be running out of patience.
To make matters worse, the Ducks stumbled out of the gate with an 0-3-1 record, managing just a single goal in the process. That switched the narrative from “Boudreau needs to win in the playoffs” to “Boudreau might not even make it that far.” An impressive win over the Wild on Sunday relieved some pressure, but now the Ducks have a brutal five-game road trip against Central heavyweights.
What could save him: In the short term, a few wins would do the trick. Long-term, Boudreau may need at least a trip to the final to keep his job.
How hot is it? 6/10. Let’s all take a breath. Boudreau has the best regular-season points percentage of any coach with at least 500 games — better than Bowman, Arbour, Quenneville, anyone. Firing him because he’s had some bad luck in Game 7s would be questionable; doing it after a few tough games in October would be madness.
Who could replace him: Speaking of madness, the rumor mill churned out a fun name this week: Randy Carlyle. That would be the same Carlyle the Ducks fired in 2011 to bring in Boudreau. He was last seen presiding over several disastrous Maple Leafs seasons, so he’d seem to be an odd choice for a second stint in Anaheim. And if you’re an analytics fan, replacing Boudreau with Carlyle would seem like utter insanity. But Carlyle is apparently still very well respected around the league, and it’s worth remembering that former Leafs GM Dave Nonis is now a consultant in Anaheim. Could it happen? It would be mind-boggling.
Prediction: If the Ducks fire Boudreau and bring in Carlyle, it ends in disaster. But I think Bob Murray is too smart for that, and that Boudreau gets at least one more playoff run behind the Anaheim bench.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
The Montreal Canadiens are off to a great start. They’re the league’s only undefeated team at 7-0-0, just about everyone on the roster is playing well, and they’re on top of any set of power rankings you can find.
But all of that pales in comparison to the undisputed highlight of the season: Carey Price doing this to Chris Kreider.
It’s worth remembering that there’s some history here. Two seasons ago, Kreider ended Price’s season in an ugly collision during the conference final. So was this payback? Price denied it, but nobody believes him. It’s just more fun to assume it was on purpose, because goalies attacking players never fails to be awesome.
So today, we’re going to flip through the pages of history and offer up some advice for those goalies out there who might want to exact a little revenge of their own. We won’t include any goalie-on-goalie violence, partly because it doesn’t fit the theme, and partly because goalie fights deserve a post of their own someday. No, today is about goalies lashing out at everyone else — especially those big shots in their fancy skates and comfortable pads, always scoring goals and sucking up glory and getting hats thrown at them. They could use a stiff trapper upside the head.
And luckily, history has provided us with plenty of examples of just how a jilted goalie could go about it. There are a dozen distinct ways for a goaltender to go on the attack, and we’re going to review them all.
The “Accidental” Bodycheck
The move: Skate behind your net. Wait for an incoming opponent to try to cut by, knowing he’s not allowed to touch you. Then drop your shoulder into his chest and send him flying.
The master: Carey Price, apparently. Who knew?
Let’s watch it again, this time in GIF form:
Carey Price’s Revenge pic.twitter.com/WOPM5yFA2Y
— Stephanie (@myregularface) October 16, 2015
So good. But you have to wonder: Wherever did an upstanding young Montreal goaltender learn this sort of anti-Ranger behavior? Oh. Oh, right.
Pro tip: The hit itself is nice, but I think we can all agree that it’s the stare-down afterward that really makes it.
The Retaliatory Punch After a Collision
The move: It’s one of those unwritten rules of goaltending: If a player collides with you, even accidentally, you’re legally allowed to do pretty much anything you want to them for a period of five seconds.
The master: Literally everyone. I don’t care who the goaltender is — as soon as he’s knocked over, all bets are off. Anytime a player goes hard to the net and you hear a whistle, there’s a good chance the next thing you see will be an enraged goaltender awkwardly crawling on top of him with arms flailing. It appears to be an instinctive territorial thing. If you strapped a set of pads on Mother Teresa and somebody accidentally slid into her and nudged her legs, she’d be all “%&#*@#$% needs to eat some blocker!”
This rule applies outside the crease as well, by the way. I’ve always been partial to Don Beaupre’s swinging backhand.
Pro tip: Don’t feel like you have to aim for the face. Remember, this is a free shot; it’s OK to get creative.