Friday, January 30, 2015

Grab bag: Martin Brodeur's ultimate goal

In this week's grab bag:
- Comedy stars, including a power ranking from all-star weekend
- Outrage over ads on jerseys
- An obscure player whose name you made fun of as a kid
- A fond look back at the Canadian talkshow magic of Don Cherry's Grapevine
- And a YouTube breakdown of what Martin Brodeur once called his greatest moment

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Breaking down the league's goaltending controversies

Goalie controversies are almost always fun. There are two guys (or more), one job, and a whole lot of passive-aggressive sound bites about just wanting what’s best for the team. If we’re really lucky, the two guys involved actively hate each other, although that’s just an added bonus.1

Goalie controversies are also relatively rare these days. Right now, roughly two-thirds of the league has a goaltending situation that’s more or less set, with one clear starter and a capable backup. For our purposes, that list includes teams with an established starter who’s currently hurt, such as Nashville, Detroit, and Columbus.2

That leaves 10 teams where the situation is somewhat more unsettled. These aren’t necessarily full-blown goaltending controversies in the classic sense, and the guys involved probably don’t hate each other, although it’s more fun if we go ahead and pretend that they do. But they are cases in which there’s at least some degree of uncertainty, so let’s see if we can figure out how they might end up.

St. Louis Blues: Brian Elliott vs. Jake Allen

In this corner: Elliott looked like a fringe NHLer over the first few years of his career, before a breakout 2011-12 season in which he won the Jennings and earned a spot on the All-Star team. He followed that up with an off year, but he’s been excellent in the two years since (not to mention stealing the show at All-Star weekend).

And in this corner: At 24, Allen is the goalie of the future in St. Louis. There was some thought that the future would arrive this year, but so far Allen hasn’t been especially impressive.

The battle so far: Elliott has clearly had the better season. The two goalies have split starts almost evenly, but that’s due to a knee injury Elliott suffered in November. That was the same injury that led to the Blues’ bizarre decision to bring in Martin Brodeur, which created the impression that they were hedging their bets on their established tandem. Brodeur was merely OK in seven games of action, and on Tuesday it was announced that he’s retiring.

On its own, the Brodeur situation may seem like a blip, one that was odd but ultimately didn’t disrupt the status quo in the long term. But there’s context here — this is the second year in a row that the Blues have added a big-name goalie during the season, following last year’s expensive trade for Ryan Miller. It sure doesn’t seem like the organization trusts Elliott to be the undisputed starter on a Cup contender, does it?

And the winner is: Elliott. It has to be, right? He’s done everything you could ask a guy to do over the last two years, he’s an All-Star, and as long as he stays healthy, the job has to be his. There’s no question about it. (Fast-forwards a few weeks to visions of “Blues talking to Hasek about comeback?” headlines.) OK, there’s not much question about it.

Carolina Hurricanes: Cam Ward vs. Anton Khudobin

In this corner: Ward has a reputation as one of the game’s top goalies, thanks to his Conn Smythe–winning performance in the 2006 playoffs. But that was nine years ago, and since then he’s been an average goalie at best, even though he’s paid as if he were an elite guy.

And in this corner: Khudobin is a late bloomer who was a backup in Minnesota and Boston before arriving in Carolina, where he was fantastic last year when Ward missed much of the season due to injury. It seemed like a good bet he’d end up as the starter this year, either by outplaying Ward or by seeing the veteran traded away by the rebuilding Hurricanes.

The battle so far: It’s been surprisingly even — Khudobin has been better, but not by all that much. And while Ward’s name comes up in trade rumors every now and then, the market for him seems to be lackluster given his contract.

And the winner is: GM Ron Francis, if Ward can play well enough to convince some other team to take his deal off Carolina’s hands. Assuming that doesn’t happen, this one looks like a split decision until next year.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, January 26, 2015

My (mostly) nice weekend with the NHL all-stars

I’m not a huge fan of NHL All-Star Weekend. You probably got that impression from last week’s post, in which I spent roughly 3,000 words listing some of the event’s biggest problems. Let’s just say that was the edited version.

Shortly after that post went live, I was on a plane to Columbus, site of this year’s game. By the time I’d touched down and checked into my hotel, All-Star Weekend had managed to get even worse with news that a pair of the game’s biggest stars, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, had pulled out. Erik Johnson soon followed. The whole thing was shaping up as a disaster.

But over the course of the weekend, I spoke to a few people who’d read last week’s post. And while they generally agreed with the points I’d made, they all gave me the kind of side-eye that suggested I may have gone Krusty Burglar on the whole concept. So for today’s post, I’m going to switch lanes. We’re going positive. Nothing but nice. I am going to make 25 observations about an All-Star Weekend spent in Columbus, and they will all be positive, damn it.

Never let it be said I don’t challenge myself as a writer. Let’s put on our happy faces and do this.

Friday Afternoon: Media Day

Media day is a two-hour affair that sees most of the players led out to podiums where they could take questions from the media and/or stare into the distance while awkwardly waiting for someone to notice them.

No. 1 — Captain Nick Foligno: The announcement that Foligno would be captain of one of the teams raised some eyebrows. While he’s having a decent season and plays for the host team, the Blue Jackets winger isn’t exactly a household name, and you had to wonder if the NHL would have been better served with a bigger star.

But Foligno was having fun with the role, and he had been ever since he was told he’d be captain. That was especially true for his most visible role of the weekend: making his team’s picks during Friday night’s All-Star draft. A few hours before draft time, he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to bother meeting with his assistants, Drew Doughty and Patrick Kane, but figured he could draw on his fantasy football experience if needed. (He joked that he might cross names out of a magazine.)

This was actually the second straight All-Star Game for which Foligno played for the host team. Three years ago, he was a depth guy on the Senators when the game came to Ottawa. I asked him if, back then, he saw himself being named All-Star captain the next time around. He laughed and admitted he did not.

Not too many fans did either, even as recently as a week ago. But Foligno is a likable guy who has been through a lot in recent years, and it was nice to see him get some national recognition.

No. 2 — Ryan Getzlaf takes aim: Getzlaf was an assistant captain for Jonathan Toews’s team, and he didn’t seem to be taking the job too seriously. He said he hadn’t put much thought into his rankings and was worried that the notoriously focused Toews might force him to attend a strategy meeting. “Johnny’s pretty serious at some points,” he said. “I’m going to bring my empty portfolio and open it up like I’m going to talk about something.”

When Getzlaf was asked who he’d like to see go last, he said he was disappointed fellow Duck Corey Perry wasn’t there to do the honors. But he had a backup plan: Drew Doughty, the Kings defenseman and Getzlaf’s occasional teammate on Team Canada. “Dewey could use it. We’d knock him down a little bit, let him sweat it out at the end.” He seemed genuinely disappointed to learn Doughty was an assistant for Team Foligno and wasn’t eligible to be picked.

No. 3 — Doughty responds: Did I immediately find Doughty and narc on Getzlaf? Yes I did. He had a laugh about it, before suggesting he might conspire to help teammate Anze Kopitar win the car that goes with being the last pick. Then Doughty paused and asked whether Getzlaf was in the draft pool. (He wasn’t.)

The moral: Next year, Doughty and Getzlaf can’t both be assistant captains. This grudge match needs to go down. Make it happen, NHL.

No. 4 — Phil Kessel holds court: By now, you know the drill with Kessel and the media. He doesn’t have the personality to deal with it, he’s occasionally rude, and he always looks like he’d prefer to be anywhere else.

That’s why it was so strange to see Kessel show up on Friday and happily spend 25 minutes holding court. And this wasn’t contractual-obligation Phil — he was engaging and entertaining on subjects ranging from the struggling Leafs (he thinks they can still turn it around) to trade rumors (he wants to stay) to college football (he’s a big fan) to Canadian TV shows (they’re awful).

Maybe the best moment came when he was discussing the Leafs’ recent road trips and made an offhand mention of how he’d watched every movie the hotels had to offer. Then he caught himself, quickly adding, “But not the bad ones. Stay away from those!”

It was like watching Neo figure out how to dodge bullets. I’m not sure the world is ready for a media-savvy Phil Kessel.

Moment I can’t mention because I’m trying to only say nice things: Younger players typically get asked for their favorite All-Star memory from their youth. Flames rookie Johnny Gaudreau’s answer: Kane’s superman routine during the skills competition breakaway event … way back in 2012.

We are all so, so old.

Friday Night: The Draft

This relatively new addition to the weekend, being held for just the third time, sees the players draft their own teams during a made-for-TV event.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, January 23, 2015

Grab bag: An objective debate about the incredibly stupid Young Guns concept

In this week's grab bag:
- The trolls come out for the comedy stars
- When is it OK to high-five the bench?
- An obscure all-star participant
- Debating the World Cup's new Young Guns team
- And a breakdown of the most Magnificent all-star performances ever (featuring Marv Albert, Al Iafrate, and a Joe Thornton joke I kind of assumed my editors would take out)

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The "everything wrong with the all-star game" fantasy draft

The NHL kicks off its annual (usually) All-Star Weekend tomorrow, as the league’s best players (sort of) head to Columbus for three days of events that will show off the best the sport has to offer (not really).

But while Saturday’s skills competition and Sunday’s All-Star Game will have their moments, the highlight of the weekend will probably be tomorrow’s fantasy draft. That’s the relatively new concept, introduced in 2011, that sees the players themselves draft the teams. It’s a great idea, since stolen by other leagues, and it’s almost guaranteed to provide some fun.

Does the fantasy draft include a bunch of unnecessary rules about when certain positions can be picked that just makes the whole thing overly complicated? Sure. Is there a history of the players ruining half the fun by giving away the top picks in advance? Of course. Look, we never said that the draft was perfect. But it’s still the best thing that NHL All-Star Weekend has going for it.

And that’s why we’re going to steal the concept. Just like All-Star Weekend has become a tradition, columns complaining about All-Star Weekend have too. The fantasy draft helped breathe new life into the All-Star concept; maybe it can do the same for this post. It’s worth a shot.

So please welcome our two participants for today’s event: Team Apathy and Team Absurdity. They’ll alternate picks as they draft their way through the myriad ways that the NHL has screwed up the All-Star Game over the years.

We flipped a coin before the event, but before it could hit the ground Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr started fighting over it. So we’ll just let Team Absurdity have the first pick, because Team Apathy shrugged and said it didn’t really care.

Let’s go to the podium for the first pick.

With the first overall pick, Team Absurdity selects: The one-player-per-team rule, which screws up the rosters

For most of its history, the All-Star Game has specified that each team must be represented by at least one player. That rule occasionally resulted in picks that were outright ridiculous, but it made sense in a big-picture way. If you want fans from around the league to tune in, you make sure there’s a player from the home team to cheer for.

So the rule mostly worked … back when there were 21 teams. With 40 (and later 42) roster spots up for grabs, that still left plenty of room to make sure all the top players had a spot and allowed the top teams to be well represented. You didn’t have to be a die-hard fan to scan down the All-Star rosters and think, Wow, the Oilers are a powerhouse, or, Yikes, the Penguins must be stacked.

These days, we’ve got 30 teams, which doesn’t leave much room to work with once all the mandatory slots have been filled. In theory, you’d still have a dozen spots to play with, which should be workable. But these days, one team is going to stuff the ballot boxes and elect too many guys, and the team that’s hosting always ends up with way too many players selected (more on both of those problems in a bit). This year, the league ended up having just six extra roster spots to cover the entire league. That’s ridiculous.

Inevitably, that leads to players who absolutely should be part of the event getting passed over. We won’t rehash the whole list here, since the specific players involved are beside the point. This isn’t some sort of fluke of the 2015 game. It’s going to happen every year, because the system makes it inevitable.

The reality is that not every team has a player who deserves to be an All-Star. Sometimes that’s due to injury. Sometimes a team is especially well balanced and doesn’t have one guy who stands out. And some teams are just plain bad. It doesn’t do us any good to pretend that teams like this year’s Hurricanes and Oilers have legitimate All-Stars. They don’t.

Here’s what the league should do: Try really hard to cover as many teams as possible, while keeping the focus on making sure that the game’s biggest stars are included. And surprisingly, that’s exactly that it did … for a while. In 2011 and 2012, the league dropped the requirement that every team be represented in the All-Star Game, wisely using the skills-competition rookie teams to cover any teams that were snubbed. But this year, the league went back to the old rules. It was the wrong call.

And yes, the whole thing gets back to marketing and wanting to make sure that fans of, say, Carolina have somebody to root for. But the league has lost sight of the big picture. If your marketing strategy involves showcasing Justin Faulk over P.K. Subban, your marketing strategy is broken.

With the second pick, Team Apathy is proud to select: Players who don’t want to be there

In theory, being picked to play in an NHL All-Star Game should be considered an honor, one a player would view as a boost to his legacy and a confirmation of his status as one of the game’s top names. That’s the idealized version of how this should play out, and there was probably a time when that was true, but those days are long gone.

Today, many players treat an All-Star nod as a bothersome inconvenience, one that ruins a midseason weekend off. After all, everyone is banged up by this time of year, and given how little the modern-day All-Star Game means, players probably would prefer a few days on a beach to participating in a tedious corporate shill-fest.

So it wasn’t a surprise when players started skipping the game in recent years, usually citing minor injuries. The situation came to a head in 2009, when the league announced that it would suspend players for skipping the All-Star Game unless they had also missed regular-season time. Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom were forced to sit out a game as a result.

But extra rest isn’t the only reason that star players have tried to skip the event. Sidney Crosby once reportedly threatened to skip the game in protest of the league’s refusal to crack down on dangerous hits. Alexander Ovechkin pulled out because he was mad about being suspended.

Other players have opted for a subtler approach, with respected veterans using behind-the-scenes channels to suggest to the league that they’d prefer not to be picked. Teemu Selanne went that route in 2012, as did Lidstrom, and there are rumors that Jaromir Jagr may have done the same for this year’s game (a charge he halfheartedly denied).

Everyone likes to get a little time off, so it’s hard to blame the players too much here. But fans who are expected to buy into the All-Star Game as some sort of prestigious event might find it hard not to notice that the actual players seem to view it as a mere annoyance.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

10 Facts About a Fun Team: The 1988-89 Sabres

10 Facts About a Fun Team is a new feature in which we’ll take a look back at a notable team and season from NHL history. That team may have been good. It may been bad. But it was definitely interesting, and as such it deserves to be remembered.

Being a Sabres fan is a fairly miserable existence these days. The team is stuck in the midst of an 11-game losing streak, it’s mired in last place overall, and local media are writing stories with headlines that feature phrases like “taint on the sport.”

So yeah, the Buffalo Sabres are pretty bad. That’s largely by design, and it’s all in the service of a larger goal, so someday their fans might look back on the 2014-15 season and smile. But right now, it can’t be very fun.

Let’s try to cheer up those fans with memories of a better time. Not an especially good time, mind you, because these are still the Sabres and franchise history is relatively thin on those. But a better time, featuring a team that may not have been all that great, but was at least interesting. Let’s use this edition of 10 Facts About a Fun Team to travel back 26 seasons and relive the magical weirdness of the 1988-89 Buffalo Sabres.

1. The 1988-89 Sabres were … OK.

From a standings standpoint, the Sabres were a fairly unremarkable team. They weren’t great, but they certainly weren’t awful. They finished 38-35-7 for 83 points, slightly above .500 in an era when .500 actually meant something. They finished third in the Adams Division, like they did most years.

Under normal circumstances, that sort of record would render the ’88-89 Sabres largely forgettable, just one of the many mediocre teams in any given season that nobody ever thinks about again. And indeed, the Sabres have been largely forgotten. But they shouldn’t be, because once you get past the record, this was one odd team.

We’ll get to all of that in a second. But first, let’s set the mood by enjoying this long-distance Handycam footage of the Sabres beating Mario Lemieux and the Penguins.

2. The roster didn’t feature a single future Hall of Famer.

That may not sound all that surprising, considering we’re dealing with a mediocre team. But back then, it was actually fairly unusual to ice a roster without even one future Hall of Famer. For example, the worst team in the league in 1988-89, the Quebec Nordiques, had three Hall of Famers, and would go on to draft another and sign one more the following offseason. Even other awful teams, like the 61-point Islanders and the 62-point Maple Leafs, had one.

But not the Sabres. They were a decent enough team, but despite that, not one of the 42 players who suited up for them that season would go on to earn hockey’s highest honor.

That’s not to say that nobody came close, though, which is where things get fun. The ’88-89 Sabres may be the greatest team hockey has ever seen when it comes to assembling a collection of near-miss Hall of Famers.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, January 19, 2015

Weekend wrap: Is this the year a goalie or defenseman wins the Hart?

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

Theme of the Week: Is This the Year a Goalie or Defenseman Wins MVP?

The midseason mark typically presents an opportunity to start narrowing down the various awards races, picking out the front-runners and shrinking the fields down to a handful of realistic contenders who voters can focus on for the rest of the season. But when it comes to the biggest award of them all — the Hart Memorial Trophy for league MVP — the first half hasn’t provided much clarity.

While a player’s value can be measured in many ways, the Hart Trophy often just ends up going to the league’s leading scorer — the Art Ross winner has also been named MVP in eight of the last 11 seasons. But this year’s tight scoring race clouds the picture, with 16 players within 10 points of Jakub Voracek’s league-leading 53. A look down the top 10 further complicates things. Alexander Ovechkin, who’s earned three of the last seven Harts, is nowhere to be found. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who’ve combined to win three more, are both near the league lead, but two players from the same team posting similar totals could end up canceling each other out.

Meanwhile, two of the season’s breakout stars, Philadelphia’s Voracek and Dallas’s Tyler Seguin, play for teams that look likely to miss the playoffs, which still stands as a deal-breaker for many voters. And other top scorers like Vladimir Tarasenko and Tyler Johnson are relative newcomers who might find it difficult to garner much leaguewide support this early in their career.

All of this may open the door for a rare sight: a non-forward taking home the league’s top individual award. The Hart Trophy has evolved into the near-exclusive domain of centers and wingers, who’ve won 37 of the last 41 awards. Only six goaltenders have won the award in its 90-year history, and only two have done so since 1962 — Dominik Hasek, who became the only goalie to win the award twice when he took it home in 1997 and 1998, and Jose Theodore, who won a tiebreaker over Jarome Iginla in 2002.1

Defensemen have had an even tougher time in the post–Original Six era. Since Bobby Orr’s three straight Hart Trophies from 1970 to 1972, only one defenseman has been named MVP. That was Chris Pronger in 2000, when he edged Jaromir Jagr by a single vote. Since then, a blueliner hasn’t so much as been a finalist for the award.

It’s an odd phenomenon. It’s not as if there’s some sort of belief that defenseman and goalies can’t be valuable — the Conn Smythe, awarded to the playoff MVP, has gone to a non-forward 10 times in the last 20 seasons. Perhaps goalies and defensemen just fall into the same trap that pitchers do in baseball, with enough voters figuring “they’ve got their own award” that non-forwards can’t win without a season for the ages.

In either case, there’s a growing consensus that this could be the year to avoid the forward logjam. Plenty of voters seemed willing to throw their support behind Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne before his recent injury. Some of that support now seems to be drifting toward Carey Price, and Roberto Luongo has earned some consideration. There hasn’t been quite the same level of support for defensemen, although Calgary’s Mark Giordano gets an occasional mention.

Only time will tell whether the current mood among Hart voters continues, or whether they retreat back to the more comfortable forward ranks as the season wears on. Of course, any of the top-scoring forwards could make the whole discussion moot with one long hot streak (and Crosby, with seven points in his last three games, may already be doing just that).

But for now, at least, there’s some momentum to mix things up. That alone could be enough to make this year’s voting a little less predictable.

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. New York Islanders (30-14-1, plus-19 goals differential): They edge out the Lightning for the fifth spot after earning big wins over the Penguins and Rangers by a combined score of 9-3. (We’ll just pretend we didn’t see Saturday’s letdown game against the Canadiens.)

4. Chicago Blackhawks (28-15-2, plus-34): We’ve had them ranked no. 1 for six weeks, but there’s no denying that the Hawks just haven’t looked like themselves in the new year, going 3-5-0 against a schedule devoid of any top teams.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, January 16, 2015

Grab bag: That time Gary Bettman made Wayne Gretzky a scrapbook

In this week's grab bag:
- Comedy stars
- All-star snubs
- A Selanne-inspired obscure player
- Stop telling me which scout are at which games
- And that time that Gary Bettman made the Canucks stand around and watch him give Wayne Gretzky a scrapbook.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A look at the Pacific, which may or may not be any good

The Pacific Division had a weird 2013-14 season. The three California teams were excellent. The two Alberta teams were awful. The Coyotes and Canucks were stuck in the middle. By the end of things, the division featured the eventual Stanley Cup winner, plus a team that missed winning the Presidents’ Trophy by a single point. But it also had two of the league’s four worst teams and was the only division to send just three teams to the postseason.

That made it hard to get a consensus heading into this year. The general thinking seemed to be that the California teams would still be good, of course, unless the Sharks imploded. The Alberta teams would still be bad, obviously, unless the Oilers finally improved. The Canucks and/or Coyotes were on the way up, or maybe heading for a crash-and-burn, and it was all somehow Radim Vrbata’s fault.

Halfway through the season, the picture isn’t all that much clearer. So let’s take a deeper look into a division that may (or may not) be among the NHL’s best.

Let’s start at the top: Are the Anaheim Ducks the NHL’s best team?

The standings say they might be. They’ve spent most of the season holding down first place overall and currently sit tied for first. So if you’re one of the “you are what your record says you are” crowd, you know all you need to know and can pretty much skip down to the next section.

Of course, sometimes a win-loss record can deceive, and there’s plenty of reason to think that’s the case with the Ducks. You’re probably familiar with the case by now: They’re not an especially good possession team, their plus-7 goals differential suggests they’re closer to .500 than to the league’s elite, and their ridiculous 21-0-6 record in one-goal games — that’s right, zero regulation losses in 27 one-goal contests — is the sort of thing that can’t possibly be sustainable.1

Or can it? There’s an argument out there that the Ducks keep coming out on top of tight games because they just know how to win. It’s an old-school narrative, and stats guys will roll their eyes, but it’s hard to watch this team and not start to wonder if there must be something going on beyond mere coincidence. Coaching? Veteran savvy? Big-game experience? Blessings of good fortune from Saint Teemu?

You may not believe it, but the Ducks themselves sure seem to. And at some point, that alone might start to make a difference.

The Canucks looked good early; can they still catch Anaheim?

No, they can’t. That probably sounds too definitive, but it reflects the reality that the Canucks are already 11 points back, which is a lot to make up unless the Ducks suddenly collapse. And while that scenario isn’t impossible, it seems unlikely that the Canucks would be the team to take advantage.

A better angle might be whether the Canucks can even make the playoffs. That question would have seemed silly even a month ago, after Vancouver’s hot start had them in the running for first place in the conference. But they’ve been fading lately, and their fall has revealed some significant flaws. They’re not a great possession team. Their goaltending, led by high-priced free agent Ryan Miller, has been mildly disappointing. Their two franchise players, the Sedin twins, are well on the wrong side of 30 and don’t put up the sort of numbers they used to.

Add it all up and lately the team has been inspiring articles in the local media with headlines like “Are the Canucks bad?” That’s not exactly what you want to see from a division title contender.

The good news is that the answer is probably no, the Canucks aren’t bad; they’re just not as good as they looked early on. And while that hot start may have been a mirage, it still banked enough points that they’re in decent shape to at least hold on to a wild card. After all, the teams they need to beat out aren’t exactly scary; we’re basically talking about shaky Central teams like the Stars, Avalanche, and Wild, plus one Pacific team we’ll get to right now.

Speaking of fading Canadian teams, is there hope for the Flames?

The Flames were the league’s best story over the first few months, going from being a consensus preseason pick to being among the league’s worst teams to fighting for first place in the division. They made that happen, the narrative went, with a big dose of hard work, grit, and heart.

They also made it happen with plenty of luck, and that good fortune has mostly deserted them lately. Stats fans were waiting patiently for the Flames to sputter, and they have, dropping out of a playoff spot and down to fifth in the division.

All that said, the Flames haven’t dropped all that far — they’re just two points back of a wild card. They’d probably only need to catch the Canucks to claw back into the playoffs, and with almost 40 games to go that’s far from impossible.

Can they do it? Probably not. Their underlying numbers are still poor, and on paper there’s just not enough talent here to make a real push. They could always go out and try to add pieces at the deadline, but the organization wants to build patiently, and sacrificing the future to make a run today seems unwise. That leaves them needing another dose of good luck, or the second-half collapse of a rival, or maybe both.

The Flames were a great story. It would be nice to see it continue, but don’t get your hopes up.

And what about the San Jose Sharks?


I’m pretty sure that’s not an option.

Fine, but don’t expect much insight. To this day, I have no idea what the Sharks are. On paper, they should be a very good team. And on many nights, that’s exactly what they look like. They’ve already beaten the Ducks three times, and they won nine of 10 in late November and early December. But as soon as you start to get onboard with the Sharks, something embarrassing inevitably happens. They lost to the Blues by a final of 7-2 twice in the last few weeks. They’ve lost to the Sabres twice, and to the Coyotes, and even to the Oilers.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A history of ridiculous NHL all-star selections

The NHL All-Star rosters were announced on Saturday, and everyone is mad because that’s the whole point.

Some guys were undeserving, several more were snubbed, and at the end of the day none of it really mattered because All-Star games are kind of pointless when you think about it. But it’s all in good fun, and considering the entire Blackhawks roster had already been voted in, the league did the best it could with the few spots it had to work with.

Besides, if you think some of this year’s choices were odd, none of them come close to matching some of history’s strangest All-Star choices. After all, the league has been doing this for decades. The odds say that every once in a while, things are going to get truly weird.

So today, let’s take a look back at some of the oddest All-Star picks from over the years. Maybe by the end of this post, Justin Faulk won’t seem so bad.

John Garrett and the Case of the Disappearing Car

If John Garrett’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because he went on to a very successful broadcasting career after his playing days were over. He’s been in that business for more than 25 years, working for properties like Hockey Night in Canada and Sportsnet. He’s a really good TV guy.

What he never was, though, was an especially good NHL goaltender. He spent six years in the league, mostly backing up, while posting a career goals-against well north of 4.00 and never winning more than 16 games in a season. Given all that, it sounds strange to describe Garrett as a former All-Star. But the story of how he got there is even stranger, and there’s a good case to be made that he’s the most unlikely NHL All-Star pick of all time.

Here’s how it happened. In February 1983, Vancouver’s starting goalie was Richard Brodeur, a pretty good player who’d just been chosen as the Canucks’ lone representative at the All-Star Game. The team traded for Garrett on February 4 to add a veteran backup. The next night, Brodeur suffered a serious ear injury that took him out of the lineup just days before the All-Star Game would be held.

That left the league with a problem. Brodeur was the Canucks’ only All-Star selection, and the rules said that each team had to be represented. And since he was a goalie, his replacement would need to be one too. That left Garrett as the only possible choice, even though he’d won only six games all year. At the time, the whole thing was viewed as “kind of a mockery of the sport,” according to, uh, John Garrett himself.

Old-time fans may remember what happened next. Garrett came in midway through the All-Star Game and stood on his head, making several spectacular saves. He played so well that when MVP voting was done during the third period, he was chosen as the winner of the award, and the new car that went with it.

Then Wayne Gretzky scored four goals, all in the third period. There was a hasty revote, Gretzky won, and Garrett presumably had to hitch a ride home. He still earned the win, though.

The Senators Double Down

You might assume that Garrett’s six wins would be an unbreakable record for the fewest by an All-Star goaltender. And if the NHL All-Star Game were really about honoring the best of the best, you’d be right.

But here comes that tricky “at least one player per team” rule again. In a normal year, that can result in some odd picks. But when you enforce that rule during an era of historically awful expansion teams, things can get downright silly.

It’s how we wound up with forgettable early-’90s All-Stars like Bob Kudelski, Brian Bradley, and Kelly Kisio. And it’s how we ended up with the owner of perhaps the worst stat line to ever be honored with a selection: Ottawa Senators goaltender Peter Sidorkiewicz.

Sidorkiewicz was a decent goalie who’d had some success in Hartford before heading to Ottawa in the 1992 expansion draft. That Senators team would turn out to be awful, and poor Sidorkiewicz had to bear the brunt of it. He played 64 games and led the league in losses and goals against.

That didn’t prevent him from being named to the 1993 All-Star team, even though he headed into the game with an almost unthinkable 4-32-3 record. Maybe it was pity. Maybe the Senators just didn’t have anyone else. Either way, Sidorkiewicz got the call.

Ironically, he didn’t end up being the lone Senators pick after all. This was back in the days when the league would honor players with a “commissioner’s selection,” allowing veteran players at the tail end of their career to get into the game. In 1993, one such pick went to Ottawa’s Brad Marsh, the journeyman defensive defenseman who’d plodded his way through a 15-year career with five different teams.

So the Senators actually sent two players to the All-Star Game that year: a goalie with four wins and a veteran with 23 career goals in more than 1,000 games. If there’s ever been a worse All-Star pairing from a single team, I’m glad I wasn’t around to see it.

Needless to say, Marsh scored a goal and Sidorkiewicz earned the win.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, January 12, 2015

Weekend wrap: What should the Maple Leafs do now?

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

Theme of the Week: Decision Day Looming for Maple Leafs

We saw our fourth coaching casualty of the year last week, and it was the one everyone had been expecting for seven months. The Maple Leafs finally fired Randy Carlyle, replacing him on an interim basis with Peter Horachek.

It was a move everyone assumed was coming last offseason, when newly appointed Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan made the surprising decision to extend the beleaguered Carlyle instead. The move was widely panned at the time, and in the months since, I’d yet to find a single person in the hockey world who thought Carlyle would last past this season.

So yes, you can criticize the timing here. But Carlyle’s firing had become inevitable, and doing it now was a far better option than waiting until the offseason. That’s because Shanahan’s most important task over the next 40 games — more important than finding a new coach, more important even than making the playoffs — is to thoroughly evaluate the core of his roster. Can these players, properly supplemented with future acquisitions, form the foundation of a championship contender?

It’s a question that needs to be answered with clear eyes and none of the silly wishful thinking that’s pervaded the organization over the years. And it’s one that simply couldn’t be answered with Carlyle behind the bench, because there’s plenty of evidence the coach was a big part of the problem. In Carlyle’s nearly three years in Toronto, the phenomenon repeated itself over and over: players would arrive in Toronto and their performance would drop; they’d leave and their performance would improve. Maybe that was Carlyle’s fault, or maybe there’s some other factor at play. But Shanahan couldn’t move forward without knowing, and now he has half a season to find out.1

Over the next three months, the Maple Leafs might discover that their core, led by Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, really can grow into a winner — there have been encouraging sign over the first few games under Horachek, during which the team’s well-documented defensive woes haven’t been nearly as apparent. That would be good news for Toronto, considering that there’s little in the way of reinforcements coming from the team’s meager farm system and most of the roster’s top players (and a few beyond that) are locked into long-term contracts that have the Leafs straining the upper limits of the salary cap.

Of course, we’ve seen plenty of evidence over the years that the answer may be no; maybe it turns out that the core this franchise has spent several years and millions of dollars assembling just isn’t good enough and never will be. If that’s the case, then Shanahan has no choice but to tear it all down and start over. He’s preached patience since arriving in Toronto, and in some sense that’s been an admirable approach, but you can’t be patient with a wrecking ball. While it’s long been argued that Toronto fans would never accept a full-scale rebuild, Shanahan may have the résumé and the charisma to sell one. After a full decade without a playoff series win, he may not have much choice.

In either case, the good news is that this organization has finally given itself the chance to find out what it’s working with. The bad news is that it may not like the answer or what will have to come next.

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. Anaheim Ducks (27-10-6, plus-3 goals differential): For weeks we’ve been saying “The Ducks’ numbers aren’t all that great,” while always having to add “but they’re still all alone in first place overall.” Now they’re merely tied for first place, so screw ’em.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (27-12-4, plus-29): They return to our list after a three-week absence, thanks to winning seven of eight and moving into first in the East.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, January 9, 2015

Grab bag: I have no idea what the Spengler Cup is

In this week's grab bag:
- The three comedy stars, which just ends up being an excuse to make terrible Buffalo Sabres rap puns;
- An obscure player whose name was fun to say;
- I admit that I have no idea what the Spengler Cup is;
- The most depressing CapGeek page possible;
- And a YouTube breakdown of the Punch-up in Piestany.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A midway mark look back at my preseason predictions

The NHL season hits the midway point this week, with most teams crossing the 41-game mark. The season’s first half has provided the usual mix of predictable outcomes, mild surprises, and outright shockers.

I wrote a series of season previews in September, and because of my editors’ unfortunate refusal to delete everything the day after the season started like I asked them to, all my predictions are still there. If you’re in a hurry, feel free to trust me when I tell you that I got everything right. You can go ahead and stop reading now.

If you’re not in a hurry, or you’re not in an especially trusting mood, then a more thorough review might be in order. So let’s take a look back at those preseason predictions and see if we can figure out, halfway into the season, how well I did.

The Bottom-Feeder Division

We led off with this group with seven teams that had virtually no chance of winning anything beyond the first overall pick. Sure, a few would probably get lucky and overachieve, but it’s not like one of them would suddenly become one of the best teams in the league, right?

Teams I was mostly right about: Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Arizona Coyotes

I thought the Sabres and Hurricanes would be terrible, and they have been. Here’s the list of other experts who got that call right: everyone. Literally everyone knew Buffalo and Carolina would be awful. I award myself zero points.

The Coyotes pick was a little more controversial. They were coming off an 89-point season in which they’d missed the playoffs by just two points, and more than a few fans had them pegged for a wild-card spot. The two big concerns were (1) whether they could score, having lost Mike Ribeiro and Radim Vrbata off a team that was already below-average offensively, and (2) whether goaltender Mike Smith could steal enough games to keep them in the race.

So far, it’s been a resounding “no” to both questions. The Coyotes have scored fewer goals than any Western team besides Edmonton, and Smith has been absolutely awful. That’s added up to the Coyotes sporting one of the worst goal differentials in the league, dropping them completely out of the playoff hunt by midseason.

Teams I was maybe wrong about: Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers

All three teams are hovering around the wild-card race, so each has overachieved based on expectations. It’s unlikely they’ll all stay there, though. The Flames were a great feel-good story in the first quarter, but their underlying numbers are terrible and they’ve already started dropping down the standings after competing for the division lead early on. They’ve banked enough points to stay out of the race for last place, but they should finish the year closer to the bottom five than to a playoff spot.

On the other hand, the Jets and Panthers could be for real. Winnipeg has weathered a series of injuries that should have torpedoed its season, and the emergence of Michael Hutchinson has bought it insurance against the inevitable Ondrej Pavelec slide. And then there are the Panthers, who can’t score but are riding a strong season from Roberto Luongo and sneaky good possession numbers to stay in the Eastern Conference race.

Team I was super-wrong about: Nashville Predators

All the signs were there. The Predators hadn’t exactly been awful in 2013-14, putting up a respectable 88 points. They’d spent the offseason adding offense, like former 40-goal man James Neal. They still had Shea Weber. And they were getting back a healthy Pekka Rinne after missing him for most of the season. As long as Rinne could get back to his old ways, a playoff spot seemed like a possibility.

I wasn’t sold on Rinne’s hip holding up, but he’s been fantastic. And while Neal has been just OK, rookie Filip Forsberg’s emergence has helped boost the offense. It’s all been enough for the Predators to challenge for the Central title, and while we’ve all been waiting for some sort of regression — they lead the league in PDO it just hasn’t happened yet.

Quote that makes me look smart: “The Panthers are better than most expect, hanging tough in the playoff race right up until the 75-game mark, at which point they’re considerate enough to step aside and let the good teams duke it out.” The second half of the prediction hasn’t happened yet, but at least I kind of saw Florida’s strong first half coming.

Quote I would like to have back: “Once again, the Flames battle a fellow Canadian team for last place in the West. But this time it’s not the Oilers. It’s these next guys.” (That would be the Jets. Ouch. And yes, we’ll get to my thoughts on the Oilers further down.)

Three predictions for the rest of the way: The Predators slip to third in the Central, but still challenge the 100-point mark. The Flames and Jets miss the playoffs. The Panthers sneak into the East’s final wild-card spot.

The Middle-of-the-Pack Division

Next up were the teams that figured to end up stuck in the middle — not quite good enough to contend, but not quite bad enough to bottom out for a high pick.

Teams I was mostly right about: Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals, Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders

“Middle of the pack” can mean a lot of things, but if we’re looking at teams that fall into the 4 to 6 range in their conference, these teams all qualify. The Canucks looked like a legitimate contender earlier in the year before falling back, and the Wings could still make a push for the top of the Atlantic. I’m not sold on the Capitals hanging on to their playoff spot, but they’ve been better than last year and should at least stay in the mix.

And then there are the Islanders. I liked them a lot, figuring they had fixed their goaltending and had the offensive talent to make up for a weak blue line. I thought I was in danger of pushing the optimism angle too far, but in hindsight I may actually have sold the Isles short. They’ve been neck-and-neck with the Penguins for the top spot in the Metro, and the underlying numbers say it’s no fluke. This is a good team that’s absolutely capable of a deep playoff run.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Five thoughts on the WJC

I realize many sports fans don’t understand hockey’s World Junior Championship. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of most of the players. Depending on your level of fandom, it’s possible you’ve never heard of any of the players. It’s a single-elimination tournament in a sport that really needs long series to get any kind of fair outcome, so the odds of the whole thing being won by the legitimately best team are marginal. The very best players in the age group, the ones you’d really want to see in this kind of event, are almost all missing because they’re already in the big leagues. And, of course, these are just kids, so the level of play isn’t exactly pro level, and there are some brutal mismatches.

You know what that sounds a lot like to me? March Madness! You like March Madness, right? Good. Think of the WJC as hockey’s version of March Madness, except instead of everyone’s rooting interests being driven by some tenuous former ties to some school and/or gambling, it’s based on strident nationalism.

You’re onboard with that, right, America? I knew you would be. Here’s the bad news: Team USA went home early, and we’ll get to that in a few sections. But we still wound up with a pretty decent matchup for last night’s gold-medal game, so let’s start there as we run down five key thoughts from the last two weeks of teenage spirit.

1. We got a big rivalry game for the gold …

Canada vs. Russia was international hockey’s original rivalry — the two nations were trying to pulverize each other years before the Miracle on Ice — and it has provided some of the sport’s most memorable moments in the decades since. That’s especially true at the WJC, where Canada and Russia have met for the gold eight times since 1999 (not to mention this infamous debacle back in the Soviet Union days.)

So last night’s gold-medal matchup between Canada and Russia was a worthy one. And it delivered on what we’ve come to expect between the two teams: bad blood, plenty of skill, and an almost unbearably dramatic game.

That last bit seemed like it would get the night off midway through the second period. After Canada jumped out to an early 2-0 lead just a few minutes into the game, Russia fought back to even the flow of play and closed the gap to 2-1 by the end of the first. But Canada took a 5-1 lead on second-period goals by Sam Reinhart, Connor McDavid — more on him in a moment — and Max Domi, shifting the game firmly into blowout territory.

Apparently somebody forgot to translate that memo into Russian, because the visitors stormed back with three goals in a four-minute span to close the gap to 5-4 by the end of the second. It was an admirable comeback from the Russians, and the first real adversity Canada had faced in the tournament. It also brought back memories of the 2011 gold-medal game in Buffalo, played exactly four years ago. That was the final that saw Russia storm back from a 3-0 third-period deficit with five unanswered goals, a loss that still stings Canadian hockey fans.

There’d be no third-period collapse this year, or any third-period goals for that matter. The teams played a furious period with plenty of chances, but Canada held on for the 5-4 win to take home the gold, the country’s first in six years. It was an enormously entertaining game, if you can ignore that anyone with a rooting interest hated every second of it, and put a nice exclamation point on a fun tournament.

2. … but we didn’t get the big rivalry game

While Canada and Russia will always be the old favorite, there’s no better international hockey rivalry right now than Canada vs. Team USA. And that’s especially true at the junior level, where the American program has very nearly caught up with its northern neighbors, winning gold in 2010 and 2013. Games between the two countries tend to be emotional affairs, as the two sides don’t seem to like each other very much.

We did get a Canada/USA matchup to close out the round-robin, with Team Canada earning an entertaining 5-3 win on New Year’s Eve. But there would be no rematch in the elimination round, with the Americans dropping a 3-2 decision to the Russians after drawing a tough matchup in the quarterfinals. That loss sent Team USA home without a medal for the second straight year.

So has the American development program taken a step back? Hardly. While it’s always disappointing to go home empty-handed, the WJC format basically ensures that at least one top team will be out early. That American loss to Canada dropped them down to second place in their group and led to a tough matchup with the Russians, and an undisciplined effort combined with running into a hot goaltender spelled doom.

The loss hurts, but in the big picture the Americans are on the right track. They came into this year’s tournament as one of the favorites and will head into next year’s event the same way. Other than Canada, no nation is producing as much high-end offensive talent as the Americans are these days. Assuming they don’t panic based on a few years of tough matchups and bad luck, they’ll be just fine.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, January 5, 2015

Weekend wrap: It's getting ugly for two Western contenders

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

Theme of the Week: Western Blowouts Could Signal Change

Three teams have fired their coaches this season: Ottawa, Edmonton, and last week’s bizarre mess in New Jersey. With a pair of struggling Western teams suffering embarrassing blowout losses over the weekend, that number could be on the verge of rising.

In San Jose, Todd McLellan didn’t sound like a guy with any answers after Saturday’s 7-2 loss to the Blues. The Sharks coach is probably used to this by now, since he’s been on the hot seat for years, and everyone assumes he’ll be fired if the team can’t make a deep playoff run. But right now that may not be an issue, because the team is struggling just to earn a playoff berth, sitting tied with the Flames for the last wild-card spot. All signs point to the Flames falling out of contention, but the suddenly surging Stars are just three points back and probably pose the bigger threat.

And then there’s the team right behind the Stars, the Minnesota Wild. They took a 7-1 beating from Dallas on Saturday in a game in which Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper was pulled yet again. That’s a tough loss for a team that seemed to be rounding back into shape following a five-game December losing streak, and it left the Wild five back of a playoff spot with three teams to pass. That’s just not good enough for an organization that’s spent heavily in hopes of building a Stanley Cup contender, and at some point somebody will likely have to take the fall.

That could end up being coach Mike Yeo, even though it’s hard to put too much blame on him. The Wild are one of the league’s better possession teams, but they’ve been let down by their goaltending. Niklas Backstrom has struggled, and Kuemper’s play has plummeted after a hot start. That’s hardly Yeo’s fault, although coaches’ reputations tend to live and die with the goaltenders. It’s also worth remembering that Yeo was very much on the hot seat this time last year before eventually guiding the team to a playoff spot and a first-round upset of the top-seeded Avalanche. But the Wild are one more bad stretch away from being eliminated from playoff contention, so fair or not, Yeo will be under a microscope for the rest of the year.

If there’s one piece of good news for the Sharks and Wild, it’s that at least one of them will be getting back into the win column soon. The two teams face each other tomorrow night in Minnesota.

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. St. Louis Blues (23-13-3, plus-19 goals differential): After spanking San Jose, they look well-positioned to bank some points this week. Their next four games are against the Coyotes, Sharks again, Hurricanes, and Oilers.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (24-10-5, plus-24): At this point, I still like them just a bit better than the Islanders, even though New York has temporarily snuck back into a tie for first place in the Metro.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, January 2, 2015

Grab bag: The Doug Gilmour trade

In this week's grab bag:
- Three comedy stars, plus one who'll live in your nightmares forever
- Everyone's mad at the NHL for screwing up the new puck-hits-netting review rule. But everyone is wrong.
- An obscure player who was the league's first outdoor hero
- Checking in on Don Cherry, who is under a lot of pressure
- And a YouTube breakdown of a time long ago when NHL GMs actually made real blockbuster trades...

>> Read the full post on Grantland