Friday, February 27, 2015

Grab bag: When deadline deals go bad

In this week's grab bag:
- Gary Bettman doesn't think the fans liked CapGeek
- A tough anniversary for Canadian hockey fans
- The week's three comedy stars
- An obscure player who was once traded for Jaromir Jagr
- And let's watch a bunch of sad Hartford Whaler fans deal with the Ron Francis trade

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Trade Deadline Preview

The NHL trade deadline arrives on Monday. As always, hockey fans are salivating at the idea of a busy day of blockbusters. As always, the reality will probably be underwhelming.

This year doesn’t even feature as many big names in play as we saw last season, when players like Martin St. Louis, Marian Gaborik, and Thomas Vanek were moved. Unless something unexpected happens, Monday’s deadline isn’t shaping up to have much star power. Even the NBA’s deadline will probably end up being more fun. Stupid NBA.

But history tells us that we’ll still see plenty of deals, and maybe even a surprise or two, between now and Monday afternoon. So here are 10 key questions as we count down the final days to the 2015 NHL trade deadline.

1. Will the Coyotes steal the show?

The Coyotes could be this year’s team to watch. They’re clearly sellers, having fallen out of the Western race early and never really threatening to climb back in. They’re ice-cold right now, having lost seven straight, so they’ve got a real shot at dropping into Jack Eichel territory. But they’re also apparently looking to add players with time left on their deals, which opens them up to doing more than just the typical rental-for-prospect trade.

And maybe most important of all, they’ve got several attractive pieces that could move. Unlike a team like Buffalo, which has largely already finished stripping down to a bare-bones roster, the Coyotes still have most of their cards left to play.

Let’s start with the names who will probably move. Defenseman Zbynek Michalek and center Antoine Vermette are both pending UFAs, and Scott Burnside says they “might be the top straight-up rentals that are available.” Michalek doesn’t put up big offensive numbers, but he’s defensively responsible and can eat minutes. Plus he’s right-handed, which these days is just about the single most important trait a defenseman can have. As for Vermette, he’s a versatile two-way center and a great candidate to be this year’s guy who gets $30 million on July 1 for reasons nobody can remember by July 2.

And then we get to the Coyotes’ bigger bait. They’ve shot down the Shane Doan rumors so often that we might as well write that idea off, but that still leaves some big names on the blue line. Keith Yandle is the guy to watch, a top-tier defenseman with another year left on a very reasonable deal. The Coyotes don’t have to trade him, but he’s the best defenseman who’s likely to be available. In fact, there’s a good chance he’s the target of so many teams that he clogs up the trade market, and that once he’s dealt, we get a rush of secondary deals as teams switch over to their backup plans.

And if the Coyotes really want to get crazy, there’s also Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a 23-year-old stud the team kinda-sorta dangled out there last month. Normally, a guy like Ekman-Larsson is exactly the sort of player a team like Arizona looks to build its future around, so a trade seems exceedingly unlikely. But every deadline needs a few wild cards, and this is a fun one.

2. Will the Maple Leafs finally blow it all up?

Much has been made of Maple Leafs ownership giving the green light to a full-scale rebuild, which occurred after team president Brendan Shanahan ventured into the bowels of MLSE headquarters to the foul lair of the Faceless Beast of Many Pockets, performed the sacred ritual of supplication, and was granted permission to actually go ahead and do the job he was hired to do.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

California Dreaming: The NHL Takes It Back Outside

On Saturday, they played a hockey game outdoors in California, and it says something about the evolution of the NHL that the whole thing didn’t seem all that remarkable.

That’s not supposed to be the case with these outdoor games, and it certainly wasn’t the case last year when the league set up shop at Dodger Stadium. That game felt like something wholly unique, with beach volleyball and a marching band and a performance by Kiss, as hockey fans across the continent tuned in to find out whether the ice would melt. It didn’t. In the end, it all came together perfectly.

This year’s game, played in front of just more than 70,000 fans at Levi’s Stadium, didn’t carry that same first-time curiosity factor, and that may help explain why there seemed to be so little buzz about it. Heading into Saturday, there was as much focus on the standings as on the setting. This was perhaps the league’s first outdoor game where the emphasis was firmly on the “game” part of the equation.

In the last decade, the state of California has won three Stanley Cups, one Presidents’ Trophy, and two MVPs, all while serving up the best three-way rivalry in the sport. The state’s teams have been so good for so long that fans around the league now warily eye their favorite team’s schedule for the dreaded California Road Trip of Doom.

So when it comes to California hockey, there’s an overwhelming temptation to ignore the past, because the present is just so much better. But you’d be missing out if you did, because the history of the NHL in California is rich and deep and completely ridiculous. And it was hard not to think about that on a Saturday night at a football stadium.


The L.A. Kings arrived in 1967 as part of the NHL’s first wave of expansion, and they weren’t very good. In the ’70s, they were best known for helping to build the Canadiens’ dynasty by continually giving their top draft picks to Sam Pollock. In the ’80s, their main job was to be just competitive enough to occasionally make the powerhouse Oilers (and later Flames) break a sweat. And they looked ridiculous, wearing awful yellow and purple uniforms. If you squinted just right, it looked like Wayne Gretzky and friends were skating circles around a bunch of bruised bananas.

That Gretzky guy turned out to be pretty important a few years later, when he was traded to the Kings in 1988. That move put the Kings on the map. They switched to modern-looking black and silver uniforms, and suddenly, almost overnight, the Los Angeles Kings were cool. But it was an L.A. cool, and in hockey, that’s not a compliment. After all, you still had the B-list celebrities and Barry Melrose’s mullet and that blue bandanna thing that Kelly Hrudey wore.

For most of their first four decades, the Kings were one big punch line. Two Stanley Cups later, nobody’s laughing anymore.


The San Jose Sharks entered the league in 1991 as a quasi expansion team, part of a complicated split from the Minnesota North Stars that nobody really seemed to fully understand. They played in something called the Cow Palace, took to the ice by skating through a giant shark’s head, and introduced the word “teal” to the hockey world’s vocabulary.

They were also terrible. They finished dead last in each of their first two years, establishing a league record for most losses in a season in 1992-93. But they made the playoffs in 1994 and even won a round thanks to Chris Osgood’s brain cramp. That would start a run of 17 playoff appearances in 20 years. They’ve won six division titles and had seven 100-point seasons.

They’ve also never lost a Stanley Cup final game, which sounds nice except that they’ve never won one either. That’s the reputation the Sharks have forged over two decades: Year after year, they’re good in the regular season and then find a way to fall apart in the playoffs.

And that brings us back to the Los Angeles Kings.


Until very recently, the Kings had spent the entire season desperately trying to look like a bad team and not fooling anyone.

When the matchup between the Sharks and Kings was announced last summer, it was projected as a grudge match between two of the league’s elite teams. The Kings are the defending champions. The Sharks have been one of the league’s top regular-season teams for more than a decade but just can’t get over the hump in the playoffs, and in each of the last two years that hump has been the Kings. These were two very good teams that didn’t like each other very much. That was the plan.

The first part of that plan hasn’t really worked out. Both teams have struggled, and instead of Saturday’s game being a showdown for top spot in the Pacific, it was a battle for the conference’s final wild-card spot. Despite a six-game winning streak, the Kings went into the weekend having lost more games than they’d won. They’ve been chasing a playoff spot for most of the last few months. And yet nobody seems to want to count them out, because they’ve been down this road before in 2012 and 2014, and we know how that turned out. A few Stanley Cup rings will buy you some benefit of the doubt.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, February 23, 2015

Weekend wrap: The NHL unveils its new stats platform

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

Theme of the Week: The NHL Gets Enhanced

It was a bit of an odd weekend in the NHL, in that two of the league’s most interesting stories didn’t come from inside an arena. There was Saturday night’s marquee game between the Sharks and Kings, played outdoors at Levi’s Stadium. And then there was another event, also held at Levi’s Stadium, one day earlier: the unveiling of the league’s long-anticipated project to modernize the presentation of stats on the league website.

OK, so your mileage may vary when it comes to that last one falling into the “interesting” category. There’s still a large segment of fans who tune out immediately when they hear the term “advanced stats” (or, as we’re apparently calling them now, enhanced stats). But for those who’ve followed the game’s winding path toward better numbers, one that began in small corners of the online world and eventually invaded front offices around the league, the announcement was big news.

It’s fair to say that the reviews have been mixed. The league’s plans, as detailed here, are ambitious and long-term. Over the weekend, they rolled out the first phase, which sees a redesign of the league website’s existing stats section and the addition of new categories and tools. Over time, the plan is to have updated stats that cover the league’s history. That’s been a labor-intensive project, with old game sheets being entered by hand by a small team over five years, but it could pay off in some fascinating insights. (And if you think people get angry about this stuff now, wait until the numbers try to tell us that some beloved hockey legend from a previous generation wasn’t as good as we remember him.)

There have been objections to the way the NHL has handled all this, with some feeling as if the league is whitewashing the online world’s contributions while pretending it came up with all this stuff on its own. (The project’s head told me that it didn’t consult with any of the top names in the stats world, although the group was familiar with their work.) Some aren’t happy that the league is renaming a few key stats. And others just don’t trust the league to do right here, assuming it will eventually try to turn all of this into a proprietary moneymaker.

There’s some validity to those concerns. But the bottom line is that the league is pushing forward with something that lots of fans have been asking for. If they can get to where they say they want to go, we’ll have better stats in one easy-to-use spot. They’re not there yet, but even seeing them try feels like a big step, one that would have been hard to imagine even a year ago.

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 (39-20-2, plus-18 goals differential): The top four teams in the Metro are now separated by four points, but I’m going with the Islanders here because I like it when Rangers fans yell about games in hand.

4. Montreal Canadiens (38-16-5, plus-22): It’s time to start having the Carey Price–for-Norris discussion in earnest. Hell, maybe the Calder too.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, February 20, 2015

Infographic: Where do GMs come from?

So we’re a few days away from the trade deadline and you say you don’t think your favorite team’s GM is up to the task. What, you think you can do better? You could be an NHL GM? Well, let me ask you this, smart guy: Did you ever play the game?

No, really, did you? Because according to this handy infographic from friend of Grantland Dan Gustafson of 16 Wins, it’s pretty much a prerequisite for the job.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Grab bag: I hear they want a plickspect

In this week's grab bag:
- Should the NHL have renamed the top advanced stats?
- An obscure player who gets pepper-sprayed
- Comedy stars
- Introducing the "plickspect", for all your trade rumors needs
- And the 1991 San Jose Sharks make a very... odd... NHL debut.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The NHL's greatest almost-happened blockbusters

With less than two weeks to go until the trade deadline and one blockbuster already in the books, hockey fans will spend the days until March 2 dreaming of monster deals that will shake teams to their foundation.

We probably won’t get any, but we can still hope. Trades are great fun, even though they’re largely a dying art in today’s NHL. And maybe even more fun than the completed deals are the near misses, the blockbusters that almost happened and then, for whatever reason, fell apart. We don’t always hear about those, but when we do, it can be great entertainment to look back at them years later and shake our heads at what could have been.

One big caveat: Since none of these deals were actually consummated, and NHL front-office types aren’t exactly in the habit of going on the record about this stuff, we’ll never know for sure how close any of these moves actually came to happening. All the deals below are rumors — well-reported rumors several steps above the usual message-board nonsense — but rumors nonetheless. Please have a large grain of salt or two handy before reading further.

With that out of the way, here are five huge trades1 from NHL history that (allegedly) almost happened, but didn’t.

Detroit trades Steve Yzerman to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin

Today, Steve Yzerman is a Red Wings legend, and the idea of him ever taking the ice in any other team’s uniform seems unimaginable. But as we’ve covered before, there was a time when Yzerman seemed to have worn out his welcome in Detroit. He was a great player, but he just wasn’t a winner, the thinking went, and it was time for the franchise to turn the page and move on. In 1995, the Red Wings almost did just that.

They found a willing trade partner in Yzerman’s hometown team, the Ottawa Senators. The deal would have reportedly centered around young center Alexei Yashin, and while they’d no doubt deny it now, plenty of Red Wing fans thought it sounded like a fantastic idea. One rumor at the time said the deal was actually agreed to, and fell apart only when Detroit ownership stepped in at the last minute and nixed it.

Yzerman went on to captain the Red Wings to three Stanley Cups, while Yashin’s endless holdouts eventually made him one of the most hated players in Senators history. (Luckily for Ottawa, they eventually found a sucker to take him off their hands.) Today, the idea that a team would want to address a of a winning culture by trading Steve Yzerman for Alexei Yashin seems almost too ridiculous to comprehend. But at one point, Detroit came very close to doing exactly that.

Come on, Red Wings. If you have a choice between the Russian embroiled in a contract dispute and the good North American boy, you’d be crazy to choose the Russian!

Detroit trades Pavel Datsyuk to New Jersey for Scott Gomez

Hm. OK, scratch that last thought.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, February 16, 2015

Weekend wrap: The trade market heats up

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

Theme of the Week: The Trade Market Wakes Up

We’re now two weeks away from the NHL’s trade deadline, and last week brought us the season’s first major deal. While we’re unlikely to see any moves over the next two weeks that rival that Jets/Sabres blockbuster in terms of size and scope, it stood to reason that the transaction page would start getting busy any day now.

“Any day” turned out to be yesterday, when we got our second major deal of the week: the Predators loading up for their playoff run by adding veterans Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli from the Maple Leafs. Both players will be unrestricted free agents in a few months, although either or both could re-sign with Nashville before the offseason. Franson is the main prize, a big right-handed defenseman with decent offensive numbers, while Santorelli is a depth forward enjoying a nice comeback season on a cheap deal.

In return, the Leafs got the Predators’ first-round pick, along with prospect Brendan Leipsic. Neither represents a sure thing, but they’re two decent future assets for a team that doesn’t have many to work with. The deal also signals that the Leafs are serious about finally starting a full-scale rebuild.

Who wins? That’s the beauty of these sorts of short-term rental deals. We get to hem and haw about it now, wait until we see how the season turns out, and then retroactively revise our opinions. If the Predators win the Cup, or at least come close, then they win big. If the Leafs … well, nothing good will ever happen to the Leafs, so we don’t have to worry about that.

We’ll do a more in-depth deadline preview in the days leading up to March 2, but this week, let’s spend a little time sorting out the buyers from the sellers.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

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

5. Chicago Blackhawks (35-18-4, plus-41 goals differential) The Hawks return to our list, largely based on the horrible things they did to Marc-Andre Fleury in yesterday’s shootout. That stuff will help them in the playoffs, right?

4. New York Islanders (37-18-1, plus-23) Tonight’s game against the Rangers is a first-round preview, because we’ve all agreed to make these teams play in the first round whether or not the standings say they should.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, February 13, 2015

Grab bag: More like his wee knee

In this week's grab bag:
- Celebrate Friday the 13th with quite possibly the oddest NHL player of all-time
- Don Cherry under fire for making fun of a seal burger
- Comedy stars
- Stop saying "untouchable"
- And we break down the immortal "wee knee" clip.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ten years after the NHL cancelled a season: Was it worth it?

Ten years ago this week, the NHL was a league in crisis, on the verge of a self-inflicted disaster that was literally unprecedented in major pro sports history.

On February 10, 2005, with a lockout already dragging into its sixth month, the NHL and NHLPA walked away from the table, ending talks on a new collective bargaining agreement. On February 14, the league announced that the season would be canceled in two days. On February 15, the two sides traded offers, but remained far apart on a possible salary cap.

And so, on February 16, commissioner Gary Bettman made it official: The NHL would become the first major pro sports league to cancel its entire season.1

Your feelings about that week would have had a lot to do with your feelings about the state of the NHL in 2005. Maybe you saw it as a sacrilege, the ultimate triumph of naked greed over whatever idealism was left in professional sports. Or maybe you simply viewed it as a painful but necessary moment, like a limb being amputated to save a dying patient.

But in either case, it was a miserable time to be a hockey fan, and there were legitimate concerns over what it would all mean for the long-term health of the league and the sport itself. A new CBA was eventually reached on July 13, 2005, and the league resumed play in October. That brought the onset of the salary-cap era, a host of new rules, no small amount of concern for the future, and at least some degree of hope that a suffering league could right itself.

Ten years later, some of that hope has been realized; some of it looks almost pathetically optimistic in hindsight. Here’s a look back at 10 of the key changes that emerged from the wreckage of that miserable week in 2005, and where we find ourselves a decade later.

The Salary Cap

The hope: A new salary cap was the lockout’s central issue, and the owners made it clear that they wouldn’t play another game until they got one. By implementing a cap — or “cost certainty,” as Bettman annoyingly insisted on calling it — the league promised to level the playing field. Big-market teams like the Rangers, Red Wings, and Maple Leafs would no longer be able to spend with impunity, driving up salaries while pricing out their competition. Smaller markets would be able to retain their star players, and even have a shot at competing with the big boys for marquee free agents.

The reality: By any reasonable measure, the system has worked as designed. Yes, the cap has risen more quickly than anyone expected, thanks to surging revenues (more on that in a bit), but that would fall into the category of nice problems to have. Yes, we’ve all been forced to learn what the word “escrow” means. And sure, some teams eventually found and exploited loopholes, forcing the league into the messy business of patching the rules after the fact.

But in the big picture, the cap has worked. The owners have their cost certainty, and the big markets can no longer dominate. There’s an argument to be had about whether that’s really a good thing — having your best markets do as well as possible drives more revenue for everyone — but it’s what the league said it wanted, and it got it.

Franchise Stability

The hope: When the lockout ended, Bettman addressed hockey fans and offered three key promises for the future. The first: “an era of economic stability for our franchises.”

Four franchises had relocated during the ’90s, and others had come close enough to seem like a done deal. The NHL is notoriously reluctant to open the books on its teams, and the state of any individual franchise often depends on what particular PR story is being spun — teams that were doing great yesterday are suddenly struggling for their lives when a new arena deal is on the table today. But there’s little doubt that many teams were hurting badly in 2004, including several in Canada. A salary cap and a bigger slice of revenues would give those teams a chance to stabilize.

The reality: Again, the hopes here have largely been realized. One franchise, the Atlanta Thrashers, did relocate in 2011, but that situation was likely unsalvageable under any system. Others continue to be question marks, with ongoing whispers about teams being candidates for relocation. But so far, problem teams like the Panthers and Coyotes have survived, and once-struggling Canadian teams have thrived.2 We don’t live in the world of prosperity that Bettman promised, but the situation has unquestionably improved.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Thoughts on the Jets/Sabres blockbuster

We have a trade to announce.

NHL fans don’t get to hear those words very often, but they did this morning, and they were probably followed by several other words, such as “Seriously?” “What the hell?” and “Wait, there’s even more?” In a league where simple player-for-player trades are becoming a rarity, the Jets and Sabres pulled off a monster seven-player deal that shakes up the core of both teams.

There’s a lot to figure out with a move of this size. Let’s sort through the big questions.

What happened?

The Jets sent Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, and a prospect to the Sabres for Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, two prospects, and a first-round pick.

The big piece here is Kane, a 23-year-old power forward who scored 30 goals three years ago. His production has fallen since then, and he’s earned a reputation as a trouble-maker thanks to various legal problems, social media silliness, and, most recently, a tracksuit that wound up in a shower. That last incident led to him leaving the team and then electing to have season-ending surgery, effectively ending any chances he’d ever play for the Jets again. But he’s still considered a top-tier young talent, and plenty of teams were lining up for a chance to acquire him.

Wait, so the main piece in this trade is out for the season?

Yes. Which is fine, because the team acquiring him has already written the year off. The Sabres are pretty much tanking in order to finish last and earn the right to select either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, the two sure-thing franchise players available in this year’s draft. So they’re fine with Kane being out now, given that he’s expected to be healthy in time for opening night next year.

The Jets are in a different situation. They weren’t expected to be good this year, but they’ve played well enough to stay in the playoff hunt and are currently holding down a wild-card spot. Kane wasn’t exactly lighting it up, but his absence was going to hurt, and it made some sense for them to move him now for immediate help instead of waiting for the offseason.

So seeing a Kane trade happen now wasn’t a surprise, and a Myers-for-Kane framework had been rumored for days. But the sheer size of the deal and the inclusion of Bogosian was a shock, moving it beyond a simple “get better right now” move.

Bogosian and Myers are both young defenseman, but who is better?

That depends on who you ask, and the long-term answer will probably decide how we end up feeling about this deal years down the road.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A brief history of bad NHL breakups

What would Valentine’s Day be without an ugly breakup?

OK, so Evander Kane and the Jets were a week early. And technically, they haven’t officially broken up yet — that will come when Kane is traded, either in the next few weeks or during the summer. But it’s over. In any relationship, there are some moments you can still recover from. A player walking out on his team because players threw his tracksuit in the shower is not one of them.

So Kane and the Jets are done. But as they sob into their pillows over what might have been, it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t the first nasty breakup the NHL has ever seen. In fact, Kane and the Jets barely rate a mention when you consider some of the superstars who’ve seen things end badly with the team they were supposed to be meant for.

Today, let’s look back at 10 of the worst breakups in NHL history. Some of these relationships were in trouble for years. Some fell apart over the course of a few hours. And a few even eventually ended with everyone agreeing to stay friends.

(And don’t worry if I somehow left your favorite player off the list and you’re not sure you can ever forgive me. It’s not you, it’s me.)

1. Dany Heatley and the Senators, 2009

Happier times: Heatley had played four seasons in Ottawa, scoring 50 goals twice and establishing himself as one of the most productive wingers in the game. But the team was struggling, having missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, and Heatley didn’t get along with new coach Cory Clouston.

He said: Heatley wanted out because … well, we’re not quite sure, although the most likely explanation seems to be the simplest one: He just didn’t like Clouston. Either way, he was adamant that he’d played his last game in Ottawa. Oh, and he also intended to use his no-trade clause to force a deal to a team he liked.

They said: The Senators chafed at Heatley’s insistence on picking his destination. They struck a deal with the Oilers, only to have Heatley use his no-trade clause to kill the transaction. To make matters even worse, the situation dragged on long enough that the team ended up having to pay Heatley a $4 million roster bonus.

How it ended: The Senators eventually gave Heatley his wish, sending him to San Jose in a deal for Milan Michalek and others that most agreed was a lopsided win for the Sharks. They later went to court to try to get that bonus money back, in a case that wasn’t resolved until 2013.

Who won? The Senators. Heatley had one decent season in San Jose but has bounced around the league with several teams since then and is currently in the minors. Meanwhile, Michalek remains a relatively useful piece for the Senators.

2. Patrick Roy and the Canadiens, 1995

Happier times: Roy had almost single-handedly won two Cups in Montreal to go along with three Vezinas and the consensus “best goalie in hockey” title, making him the latest in the franchise’s long line of French Canadian superstars. Then, one December night in 1995, the Red Wings came to town …

He said: Roy didn’t get along with newly appointed Habs coach Mario Tremblay, and there’d even been unconfirmed rumors of physical altercations. In that infamous Red Wings game, the Canadiens were blown out 11-1, and Tremblay left Roy in for nine goals before finally pulling him. Feeling as if he’d been intentionally humiliated, Roy arrived at the bench, pushed past Tremblay, and told team president Ronald Corey that he’d never play another game for Montreal.

They said: “If there’s any problem, we’re going to solve it tomorrow,” Tremblay said. Spoiler alert: Nope.

How it ended: The team suspended Roy, and four days later it traded him to the Colorado Avalanche.

Who won? Roy, who led the Avalanche to their first Stanley Cup that year and won another in 2001. The Canadiens were roasted for not getting much of anything back for a future Hall of Famer, and they haven’t been back to the Stanley Cup final in the nearly two decades since.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, February 9, 2015

Weekend wrap: Where do the Kings go from here?

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

Theme of the Week: So What Do the Kings Do Now?

Hockey fans, some of them at least, have been thinking it for weeks, maybe even months. But it’s only been in the past few days that some have finally started saying it out loud: The L.A. Kings don’t look like they’re going to make the playoffs.

Even as the Kings sputtered along through most of a season spent on the outside looking in, most of us just assumed that they’d flip the switch, make a late push, and get in with room to spare. As recently as last week, this space all but brushed off the possibility that they wouldn’t make it. After all, they’re the defending Stanley Cup champions. And more importantly, they’ve done this before, sleepwalking through large chunks of the season in both 2011-12 and 2013-14, only to slip into position late and go on to win it all.

But by Saturday morning, they were sitting in 12th in the West, needing to pass four teams to earn a spot. An impressive win over the Lightning bumped them up to a three-way tie for ninth, but they’re still five points back of the wild card with 30 games to play. That’s not an impossible task, but it would take a hot streak or two coupled with a dose of good luck. And if we’re being honest, this team just hasn’t looked like a contender in any meaningful sense — at 22-18-12, they’ve lost more games than the sad-sack Blue Jackets.

So what should they do? In both 2012 and 2014, the Kings made a major midseason trade that helped turn their season around.1 With this year’s trade deadline now less than a month away, does that mean it’s time for GM Dean Lombardi to pull the trigger on another big deal in an attempt to push them over the top?

A few days ago, I threw that question out on Twitter, along with my argument that the team’s front office all but has to go out and make an aggressive move. Giving up future assets for a short-term boost is just about always the wrong move for a bubble team — they usually don’t end up helping the team make the playoffs, and even when they do, sneaking in as an eighth seed is typically just a ticket to an early exit. But the Kings aren’t a typical bubble team. They know they can win a Stanley Cup with this roster, my argument went, and that’s a window that rarely stays open very long. The Kings should be doing everything in their power to get into the playoffs this year, even it means sacrificing some of the future.

I was surprised by how many Kings fans pushed back on that idea. This year’s team is done, they told me. After a 2013-14 season that included a long playoff run coupled with several players participating in the Olympics, this year’s team can’t overcome the fatigue factor. The blue line hasn’t recovered from the loss of Willie Mitchell and the ongoing suspension of Slava Voynov. And besides, they don’t have the cap room to make a big move. Better for the team to fold their cards, maybe trade a depth veteran or two, rest up over the offseason, and then bring the core of the team back next season for a real run at another title. (Several even mentioned Connor McDavid, because in today’s NHL, everyone wants to tank.)

All of that adds up to a pretty strong argument. And yet … this is the Stanley Cup. You get only so many shots. Taking a knee on one of them, pragmatic as it may be, just seems wrong.

At this point, there’s little indication as to which way Lombardi and the Kings are leaning. But there’s a good chance we’ll find out soon. This week, the Kings will play three winnable games, against the Blue Jackets, Flames, and Capitals. If they’re ever going to gain some ground, this may be the week.

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. Tampa Bay Lightning (34-16-5, plus-36) Yesterday’s 5-3 win over Anaheim was impressive, although they really should have let the Ducks score one more late to mess up their one-goal-game mojo.

4. Detroit Red Wings (31-12-9, plus-30) The Wings make their second appearance of the year in the top five, powered by going 9-1-0 in their last 10.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, February 6, 2015

Grab bag: Referee screw-up edition

In this week's grab bag:
- The Tim Peel controversy
- A look back at the worst goalie ever
- Comedy stars, plus Eddie Lack's mom.
- Nobody cares about your draft lottery simulator results
- And the most ridiculous overtime goal ever scored.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, February 5, 2015

In praise of the Negative Value Guy

In the NHL’s salary cap era, a good player with a bad contract is not a good player.

Or at least, he’s not a good asset, which these days is essentially the same thing. It’s no longer enough to judge players based on what they can do on the ice while letting the front-office accountants worry about who makes what and for how long. In a league that features a hard cap and guaranteed deals, a player’s value is inescapably tied to his contract.

None of what I just wrote is remotely controversial. On its own, it’s probably not even all that interesting. Every NHL fan understands this sort of thing on some level, and talk of contracts and cap hits permeates the discussion of any player. It’s why we all lost our minds when CapGeek went away — smart fans need this stuff to function. And it’s why we can have those fun arguments over whether you’d rather have Jonathan Toews and his monster contract or John Tavares and his bargain one.

But a funny thing happens when you start working your way down the list and follow this kind of thinking as far as it can go. As sports fans, we’re used to valuing players on a sliding scale from “really valuable” to “not valuable at all.” We’ll argue over who gets what label, of course, but the basic rules remain the same. A good player is worth a lot; a bad player is worth next to nothing; a truly terrible player may even be worth nothing at all.

Once a hard cap comes into play, things can get unintuitive. You start to realize that “no value” isn’t really the bottom of the scale after all. A player with an especially bad contract can’t really be said to be worth nothing, because that’s being too kind. He might actually be worth less than nothing. We’ve hit the floor and kept on digging, and down there we meet a relatively new specimen in the hockey world: the Negative Value Guy.

Again, this isn’t some sort of new concept — in other sports, fancy stats based on concepts like VORP (value over replacement player) and WAR (wins above replacement) have flagged players with negative value for years. But that’s based on what happens on the field, and those players tend to be rare, a type of outlier you rarely see sticking around for long. Hockey doesn’t have a widely accepted all-in-one value stat like that yet, but if it did we’d no doubt see the same thing: a handful of players kicking around the league who probably didn’t really belong based on their production.

I’d argue that once you start factoring in contracts and cap hits, we’re no longer talking about a handful of fringe players who dip ever so slightly into negative territory. There are lots of negative value guys, and you’ll find them on just about every NHL team. That’s because we’re no longer talking about a player’s value to his team in between whistles during a given game, but his value to his franchise as an asset.

Here’s one way to think of it: An NHL player is a negative value guy if he can be made available on the open market, at no cost, and nobody would want him. If that happened, we’d know that even “free” was too high a price to pay to acquire someone. That’s negative value.

And of course, that exact scenario plays out all the time. It’s called waivers, and it’s the way that NHL teams can make a player available to any other team in the league. Here he is, they say. If you want him, he’s all yours. You just have to assume his full contract.

Sure enough, on most days during the season, a player or two hits the waiver wire. And in the vast majority of cases, the player clears. Those guys, at least temporarily, have negative value in the eyes of the free market. Around the league, 29 other teams take a look at a potential asset being offered up for free and say, “No thanks, you go ahead and keep him.”

A lot of those players are fringe NHLers whom fans have barely heard of. But bigger names occasionally go through the process, and we saw one example just two weeks ago, when the Los Angeles Kings waived center Mike Richards.

Richards is a reliable two-way player, one who’s won gold on the Canadian Olympic team and two Stanley Cups. He’s certainly not the player he once was — he scored 80 points as a 23-year-old in 2008-09, but his offensive numbers have been dropping steadily for five seasons. This year, he’d spent time on the Kings fourth line and was even a healthy scratch on some nights, so his days of making all-star teams appear over. But on the verge of turning 30 and in his 10th NHL season, Richards is exactly the sort of battle-tested veteran with a winning pedigree over whom teams used to get into bidding wars. Even if his game isn’t what it once was, you’d think he belongs on an NHL roster.

And yet he cleared waivers. Richards may not be a bad player, but he comes with a terrible contract, one that carries a $5.75 million cap hit through 2020. That’s too much money and way too many years for a guy who contributes what Richards does. And in today’s NHL, that makes him a negative value guy.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

In celebration of the truly terrible goal

Jonathan Bernier had an interesting night last week. On Thursday, his Toronto Maple Leafs were hosting the Arizona Coyotes, and they weren’t playing especially well. Through two periods they’d been badly outplayed, surrendering 32 shots on goal. But Bernier had been flawless and was almost single-handedly responsible for his team clinging to a 1-0 lead as the third period began.

And then, this happened …

This isn’t the first time Bernier has been caught napping, and it might not even be the worst goal he’s ever given up. And if they’re being honest, most goalies have been there. Hockey is a funny game, and sometimes even the best goaltender has a momentary lapse, or a brain cramp, or just plain bad luck.

And so today we’re going to take some time to celebrate the terrible goal. And by celebrate, of course, I mean rate, using an arbitrary scale I made up just now. We’re going to look at 10 of the worst goals from hockey history and rate them based on the following criteria:

Ugliness: Pretty self-explanatory. How bad did it look? And more importantly, how hard did you laugh?

Importance: When it comes to bad goals, the “when” can be every bit as important as the “how.” A bad goal in the second period of a meaningless game isn’t the same as one that happens in overtime or a Game 7.

Notoriety: For whatever reason, some awful goals are largely forgiven, while others stick to a goalie forever, like a bad rash.

We’ll rate the goals in each category before assigning a final overall score, which won’t be an actual average, because this is a nonscientific exercise and I’m basically pulling these numbers out of the air.

By the way, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list — I’m sure fans of every NHL team can remember a few stinkers that don’t appear below. I’ve also limited the list to goals that are available on YouTube,1 since having access to the visual evidence is most of the fun here.

Vesa Toskala’s 197-footer

Ugliness: 8.8/10. It would be just about impossible to give up a goal from any farther away than this masterpiece. You could argue that it’s a tougher play than it looks like — note the way announcer Joe Bowen’s voice betrays a rising sense of panic as the puck starts bouncing and the last hop really is a crazy one when you see it from the behind-the-net angle. But in real time, this was unbelievably bad, and that’s how everyone remembers it.

Importance: 2.6/10. This was from an Islanders-Leafs regular-season game in March that the Leafs still ended up winning. It didn’t really matter.

Notoriety: 9.9/10. This has become the gold standard for awful goals, so much so that “Toskala” was trending across Canada immediately after Bernier’s gaffe Thursday. Toskala was awful in Toronto, and while you could argue that this goal isn’t even his worst — at least he didn’t direct it into his own net it’s the one that will always come to mind when his name is mentioned.

Overall: 8.3/10. Like we said, this one has become the gold standard. But should it be? Let’s run through some other candidates.

Sebastien Caron Goes Full Toskala

Ugliness: 8.7/10. This is basically a carbon copy of Toskala’s effort (although if you want to get technical, this one actually came first). That bounce at the end is brutal — you can almost imagine Caron’s slow-motion “Noooo” as he slides helplessly in the wrong direction.

Importance: 2.3/10. This is a March game between the two worst teams in the conference. I’m pretty sure I’ve scored more important goals in NHL ’94.

Notoriety: 4.2/10. Maybe it’s just me, but I had no recollection of this happening until I started researching this post. Sorry to blow your cover, Sebastien.

Overall: 6.3/10. A fun side note: Caron was also on the ice for another awful goal that season; he was in the Penguins’ net when Maxime Talbot scored this monstrosity against Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki. It was the first goal of Talbot’s career.

Tim Thomas Whiffs

Ugliness: 8.9/10. This is pretty comical — there’s no bad bounce, no equipment problem, no fluke distraction. Thomas just tries to sweep the puck, whiffs completely, and watches it trickle in through his legs.

Importance: 5.3/10. This was another regular-season game in March, and it didn’t mean much to the last-place Bruins. But the Devils were in a battle for the top spot in a tight Atlantic, and this win ended up making the difference between them finishing first and third.

Notoriety: 4.5/10. Thomas would do this every now and then — this 80-foot overtime winner against the Caps results in one of the great Losing Goalie Sprints of all time. But on the list of things Tim Thomas is notorious for, I’m not sure this goal cracks the top 10.

Overall: 6.8/10. Apparently, NHL goalies on bad teams have a real problem staying focused during games in March. Doesn’t anyone give up terrible goals on opening night anymore? Oh, wait …

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, February 2, 2015

Weekend wrap: When playoff bubbles deflate

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

Theme of the Week: When the Playoff Bubble Pops Early

We’re into the first week of February, which would typically be the time of year to start talking about how tight the playoff races in each conference are looking, and how many teams are still on the bubble. But there’s a problem this year: That bubble is looking awfully deflated, and it’s possible we could be headed toward one of the weakest stretch runs we’ve seen in the cap era.

In the West, the outlook largely depends on how you feel about the Kings. They sit in ninth place, trailing both Calgary and Vancouver by three points and needing to catch only one of them. With all due respect to those Canadian underdog stories, everyone seems to assume the Kings will eventually wake up in time to claim a spot (since struggling through the regular season before roaring into the playoffs has basically become their trademark).

If the Kings miss out, things open up considerably. But if you feel confident about penciling in L.A., that probably leaves only one Western spot available, unless the Jets or Sharks stumble badly. You’d have the Flames and the Canucks battling for that last spot, along with the Stars and the Avalanche, who’ve clawed back into the race. The Wild nearly did, too, although they’re probably just too far back to make a run.1

The East is looking even worse. The top eight are dangerously close to being locked in already, with eighth-place Washington holding an eight-point edge on the Panthers. There’s still some hope for Florida — the Panthers have games in hand, and it’s easier to make up big ground when there aren’t a bunch of other teams between you and your target — but it’s a long shot. After the Panthers, you’re looking at teams like the Flyers, Senators, and Leafs, all of whom seem just about hopeless at this point, even if some of them don’t seem to know it yet.

A lack of down-to-the-wire playoff races wouldn’t be the end of the world; we could focus on seedings, and have extra time to get excited about specific matchups (cough). But it would be odd to go a year without the usual March and April bubble-team hype.

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. Montreal Canadiens (32-14-3, +19 goals differential) At this point, we all know what the Habs are: a good-but-not-great team being dragged into contention by Hart-caliber goaltending from Carey Price. Is that enough to make them one of the five best teams in the league right now? I kind of think it might be.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (32-15-4, +33) They play the Blues, Kings, and Ducks this week, followed by a game against the Predators. So, yeah, we’ll know a lot more about this team in roughly nine days.

>> Read the full post on Grantland