Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Season preview, part two: Stuck-in-the-Middle

Yesterday, we kicked off NHL season preview week with a look at the Bottom-Feeder Division, the seven teams that aren’t likely to contend for anything beyond a high draft pick. Today, we move on to the Middle-of-the-Pack Division, featuring eight teams that should be good but aren’t likely to be much more than that.

The mushy middle is the NHL’s equivalent of a sketchy neighborhood — you can pass through on your way to where you’re going, but you don’t want to linger. Some of the teams below are headed in the wrong direction, perhaps on their way to bottoming out. Others may crack the league’s elite and become true contenders in the near future. But the ones that get stuck here — never really contending, but never earning the chance to draft a game-changer — are the ones that deserve our deepest sympathies. Time will tell whether any of these teams meet that fate.

On to today’s list …

Florida Panthers

Last season: 38-29-15, 91 points, sixth in the Atlantic, 20th overall.

Offseason report: The Panthers didn’t do much over the summer, which would normally be a bad sign for a team that missed the playoffs by seven points. But with a young core in place that should improve through experience, it may not be the worst approach.

Outlook: The Panthers are a fascinating mix of young and old. The back end is anchored by defensemen Brian Campbell, who’s 36, and Aaron Ekblad, who’s 19, in front of goaltender Roberto Luongo, who’s 36. The top line could feature Jonathan Huberdeau (22), Aleksander Barkov (20), and Jaromir Jagr (84). It’s so crazy, it just might work. But it hasn’t yet — the Panthers haven’t made the playoffs since 2012, and that was their first appearance since 2000.

Key number: 41 — Points by Bobby Orr in 1966-67, the most ever by an NHL defenseman who was 18 on opening night. Ekblad had 39 last season. He’s good.

Watchability index: 6/10. You saw the part about them having Jaromir Jagr, right?

Best case: Other than Jagr regrowing the mullet — which we’re not ruling out — Panthers fans will be looking for progress from the team’s young players. If it happens, it may be enough to get them back into the playoffs in a weak Atlantic.

Worst case: While few teams could withstand a long-term injury to a starting goaltender, it would probably be more devastating to the Panthers than most. Luongo has stayed mostly healthy over the course of his career, but most goalies eventually find at least one stray puck or rut in the ice.

Suggested slogan: Come see the superstar with the awesome hair who plays like he’s been in the league for 25 years! Oh, and when you’re done watching Ekblad, we have Jagr too.

Bold prediction: The Panthers surge all the way up to fourth in the Atlantic but still miss the playoffs when the Metro grabs both wild cards.

Winnipeg Jets

Last season: 43-26-13, 99 points, fifth in the Central and 14th overall, lost in the first round.

Offseason report: It was a quiet offseason in Winnipeg, which wasn’t much of a surprise — with the exception of last season’s Evander Kane trade with the Sabres, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has preferred to stay conservative. Winnipeg lost free agent Michael Frolik to the Flames but did bring back intriguing talent Alexander Burmistrov from the KHL.

The bigger story was what the Jets haven’t done, at least not yet: sign Andrew Ladd or Dustin Byfuglien to extensions. There’s still time — neither hits free agency until after this season — but it’s tough to predict the Jets’ future without knowing whether it includes their captain and best player.

Outlook: Everyone spent last season waiting for the Jets’ feel-good story to run out of gas, and it never did — at least until they ran into the Ducks in the playoffs. But with a stacked farm system, there’s every reason to count last season as a moral victory that could serve as a stepping-stone on the way to bigger things. Now they just have to build on it, which admittedly is easier said than done in the Central.

Key number: 521:46 — Minutes spent on the penalty kill by the Jets last season, the worst mark in the league; only one team was even within 50 minutes. It’s fair to say discipline was an issue.

Watchability index: 5/10. Unless it’s a playoff game, in which case they become a must-watch (because all other senses will be rendered useless by the noise).

Best case: They build on last season thanks to the continuing development of their young players. Byfuglien and Ladd sign reasonable deals. The goaltending is good enough, which probably means it features somebody other than Ondrej Pavelec. Jets fans get to cheer another playoff appearance, and this time it even includes some wins.

Worst case: It wouldn’t take much of a step back for the Jets to miss the postseason. It might not even take a step back at all — it’s not hard to see them making modest improvement while still getting passed by a team like the Stars or someone in the Pacific.

Suggested slogan: Uh, any chance we could go back to the Southeast Division?

Bold prediction: The Jets miss the playoffs in a tough Central. Given how many times I predicted that last season, Winnipeg fans should be high-fiving right now.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Season preview, part one: The Bottom Feeders

With NHL training camps winding down and the regular season opening a week from tomorrow, it’s season preview time in the hockey world. Over the rest of the week, we’ll be breaking the league’s 30 teams into four divisions. We’ll look at the Contenders Division, featuring the teams that have the best shot at the Stanley Cup. We’ll cover the Middle-of-the-Pack Division, which in today’s NHL may be the worst possible place to be. And, of course, we’ll need a No Clue Division, one that covers that handful of teams that seem to defy easy categorization while offering the widest range of possible outcomes.

But we start off today with the Bottom-Feeder Division. These are the seven teams that figure to be much closer to contending for the first overall pick in next summer’s draft than for a playoff spot.

Of course, a lot can change over an 82-game season. Last year, this section contained the two worst teams in the league, as the Sabres and Coyotes were every bit as bad as expected, perhaps even intentionally. But it also contained three teams that made the playoffs, including one, the Nashville Predators, that very nearly won the league’s best division. Chalk it up as further proof that I’m an idiot and that the NHL is harder to predict than ever in the age of salary-cap-induced parity.

Much like the NHL, we want to keep the divisions balanced, which means seven or eight teams in each one. Last year, with Connor McDavid waiting at the entry draft, that meant narrowing down the list of plausibly bad teams. But this year, with a few of those long-term also-rans moving up, we’re left with a shortage of truly terrible outlooks.

So is there a Predators on this year’s list? Quite possibly — while a few of these teams are just about sure things to be awful, some could surprise if enough factors break just right. Let’s dive in.

Arizona Coyotes

Last season: 24-50-8, 56 points, last in the Pacific and 29th overall.

Offseason report: The Coyotes’ offseason looked a lot like a typical rebuilding team’s. They drafted a stud with a high pick, in this case Dylan Strome at no. 3 overall. They shuffled a few veterans out and added a few more, none of whom are likely to have a major impact. And, in an added twist, they re-signed two free agents they’d dealt at the deadline, Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek. That’s a nice trick if you can pull it off.

Oh, and they traded for Chris Pronger. So there’s that.

Outlook: The Coyotes have amassed a decent haul of prospects to go with some good young NHL talent like defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. They’re going to be good someday. That day is not today.

Key number: Minus-68 — Even-strength goal differential for the Coyotes last year, the worst in the league. (Yes, even worse than Buffalo.)

Watchability index: 3/10. Watching a team in clear rebuilding mode always sounds like more fun that it really is. You think, Cool, a bunch of young guys, let’s see how they’re doing. Then five minutes later, you go I want to watch a good team now and reach for the remote.

Best case: Auston Matthews. I mean, it’s almost too perfect, right? An honest-to-goodness future superstar, born and raised in Arizona, and he comes along right as the Coyotes are hitting rock bottom. Even the most die-hard anti-tanking zealot would be OK with the Coyotes punting the season to build their franchise around Matthews, right?

Worst case: The NHL changes the draft lottery rules to make it much harder for teams to tank for the top pick. Oh, wait, it already did.

Suggested slogan: Auston .316* says you just whupped our ass. (*That’s our projected win percentage.)

Bold prediction: The Coyotes finish last, win the lottery, and the Earth is jolted off its axis by the strength of every hockey fan yelling “Conspiracy!” in Gary Bettman’s direction all at once.

New Jersey Devils

Last season: 32-36-14, 78 points, seventh in the Metro and 25th overall.

Offseason report: Remember the end of Cocoon when all the old people pile onto a boat and sail off so they can be picked up by a friendly alien spaceship? That was pretty much the Devils’ offseason, as a long list of veterans either retired, went unsigned, or were bought out. All of that added up to the Devils now being merely “too old,” instead of “depressingly old.”

Outlook: The Devils are quite possibly in the worst shape of any team; last week, we gave them the longest odds of winning a championship in the next five years. They’re not expected to be good, either this year or in the near future, but they don’t have the sort of prospect pipeline that eases the pain of losing. That said, there is some youth here, specifically on a decent blue line built around Adam Larsson. The Devils may be starting over, but they’re not quite starting from scratch.

Key number: First — Ranking of Cory Schneider’s save percentage and goals-against average among goaltenders with at least 100 games played since 2010. Better than Henrik Lundqvist, better than Carey Price, better than Tuukka Rask. They say you build from the crease out; in at least this one area, consider the Devils built.

Watchability index: 2/10. A bad team with a goaltender good enough to keep it from getting embarrassed? Pass.

Best case: Schneider is good enough to keep them competitive, rookie coach John Hynes looks like he belongs, and new GM Ray Shero flips enough veterans for future assets that this time next year, Devils fans can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Worst case: Schneider is good enough to keep them from adding a desperately needed top prospect at the draft, but they still miss the playoffs by a mile.

Suggested slogan: Smile, Devils fans! (Since for the first time since 1987, it will not immediately result in being stabbed by our GM.)

Bold prediction: With the remaining veterans in decline and the youngsters still finding their game, the Devils finish last in goals scored.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, September 25, 2015

Which teams have the odds for a Cup in the next five years? Part three.

And then there were 10 …

This is Part 3 of our attempt to rank all 30 NHL teams based on their odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years. Part 1, which covered the bottom 10 (and contains a more detailed explanation of the ground rules), can be found here. Part 2, featuring the league’s mushy middle, is here.

The 10 teams on yesterday’s list didn’t provoke all that much in the way of howling outrage, although I heard from fans of teams like the Stars (no. 13), Flames (no. 15), and even Blue Jackets (no. 18) who felt they deserved a spot in the top 10. And nobody agreed with the Kings at no. 11 — they’re either an active dynasty that should be way higher or a washed-up shell of themselves who should be far lower. But the biggest pushback came for a few of the teams that didn’t make yesterday’s post at all, or the one before that, meaning they’ve found a spot somewhere on today’s. Hey, no point doing a list like this without taking a few big swings, right?

And that brings us to the top 10. A reminder: We’re trying to rank teams based on their chances of winning a Cup at any point in our five-year window, which means that this is not a list of the teams with the best chance at winning during the 2015-16 season. In fact, a few of the teams on this list will probably miss the playoffs entirely this year. The future is hazy and hard to predict, but for our purposes it counts every bit as much as what happens this season.

The 10 teams on today’s list won’t be a surprise, at least to anyone who understands the process of elimination, but the order in which they appear probably will be. Yesterday’s middle-of-the-pack rankings were noticeably tight, with only a few percentage points separating the teams. That’s life in the age of parity, and it continues through the first half of today’s list. But we’ll see a little more separation as we get near the top, as current powerhouses try to defend their turf from teams on the verge of joining the elite, not to mention a pair of rebuilding teams looking toward the future.

No. 10 — Montreal Canadiens

Led by an MVP goaltender and one of the league’s best defensemen, both still in their prime, the Habs just slip into the top 10. The current roster is very good, their cap has been reasonably well managed, and the farm system is solid if not spectacular. Even assuming Carey Price regresses a bit back to mere mortal status, they should be contenders for years to come.

Can that translate to the franchise’s first trip to the final in 23 years? They’ve been close in recent years, and may have been there in 2014 if Price hadn’t gotten hurt in the conference final. And while they’re not what you’d call a young team, they have enough youth at the NHL level or close to it that you could see them getting better with time — if Alex Galchenyuk can be the player he’s shown flashes of becoming, the Habs could have a future star just entering his prime.

As odd as it seems to suggest it, the one major hurdle to Montreal’s return to glory may be behind the bench. There may not be a coach in the league who’s combined for more on-ice success and off-ice criticism than Michel Therrien, and there are plenty of Montreal fans who don’t think the team can take the next step until he’s gone. That may be true, but it’s far from a fatal flaw — it’s a lot easier to change coaches than it is to find a franchise goaltender or build up a blue line.

There’s no sign that a change behind the bench is imminent in Montreal, but it’s worth remembering that the last team to fire Therrien was the 2008-09 Penguins, who did so midway through a disappointing regular season. They went on to win the Stanley Cup a few months later. Hmm …

Odds of a Cup in five years: 20 percent

No. 9 — New York Rangers

Here’s the good news if you’re a Rangers fan: They have plenty of talent, they can always spend to the cap, they have arguably the best goaltender in the world, they play in a division that’s very much up for grabs, and they’re bringing back largely the same core that’s been to at least the conference final three times in four seasons. They’ve spent years knocking on the door. There’s no good reason to think this won’t be the year they finally kick it down.

Here’s the bad news: If it’s not this year, then when? This is a veteran team — not old, but veteran, in the sense that most of these guys are what they are by now — with lots of cap space tied up in long-term deals, many of which are questionable. The prospect pipeline is mostly barren thanks to a recent series of trades that have sent picks and young players elsewhere. And that all-world goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, is now 33, right around the age when goalies often start to see a sharp decline in performance.

Maybe new GM Jeff Gorton will work some magic, some unexpected prospects will burst through, and Lundqvist will turn out to be another Martin Brodeur or Dominik Hasek and have five more years of All-Star magic ahead of him. But much like the next team on our list, it sure seems like the Rangers’ window may be closed after another season or two. Two years of realistic contention is still two more than most teams in this league have, though.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 21 percent

No. 8 — Pittsburgh Penguins

All the warning signs on the dashboard are flashing in Pittsburgh. The farm system is bare, quite possibly the worst in the NHL. The salary cap is jammed with big-dollar, long-term contracts, including four that last until 2022 or longer and carry a combined annual average cap hit of more than $32 million. The roster isn’t old, but it’s not young either, and again, there’s little in the way of help on the horizon.

The bottom line: This team better win now, because it’s going to get ugly real soon.

So, can they win now? It sure looks like it, thanks to a stacked top six highlighted by the arrival of Phil Kessel. The Penguins are going to be an awfully tough team to keep off the scoreboard. They’ll need to be, because the blue line isn’t good and Marc-Andre Fleury is always a question mark in goal. But for all the hockey world’s talk about grit and heart and character, this is increasingly a league where elite talent carries the day, and the Penguins have tons of it — maybe more than anyone else.

If it’s not enough to win this year or next, it will be fascinating to see what their next move looks like. You can’t really go into a full-scale, multi-season rebuild when you’re riding the last years of Sidney Crosby’s prime, but something would have to give. Would it be the long-rumored Evgeni Malkin trade? That’s a possibility, but it’s one for another day. The Penguins’ calendar is squarely focused on right now. And for now, they’re a very good team that has as good a shot as just about anyone. For now.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 21 percent

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Which teams have the odds for a Cup in the next five years? Part two.

In Part 2 of a three-part series, we continue attempting to answer the seemingly simple question: Which NHL teams have the best odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years?

In Part 1, we counted down from nos. 30 to 21, covering the 10 teams with the worst odds of getting their hands on a Cup in the foreseeable future. If you missed that article, you can find the basic ground rules of what we’re trying to do there.

The reaction to Tuesday’s article was interesting. I don’t think I heard from a single Devils fan who had any problem with them being ranked no. 30, and for the most part, fans of the Canucks (no. 28), Leafs (no. 26), and Senators (no. 24) kept the outrage to a minimum. On the other hand, some felt like the Panthers (no. 27) and Coyotes (no. 25) deserved better, and that I had too much faith in the Flyers, even down at no. 23.

The most controversial team listed was the Predators, at no. 21. I see a team that needs to take another step but will have to do it with an aging franchise goaltender, an underwhelming group of forwards, and a good but not great prospect pipeline. Others see a strong, young blue line and more than enough upside to catch the league’s elite. Either way, if there’s a team in the bottom 10 that could prove me wrong with a Cup win this season, the Preds are probably it.

Today, we’re onto the mushy middle — 10 teams that each have a realistic chance at glory but wouldn’t necessarily be considered the favorites. There’s not much to choose from among this group, as the narrow gap in their odds shows. If you want a catchy subtitle to go with today’s article, I’d suggest “parity.”

No. 20 — Boston Bruins

Does Don Sweeney have a plan? That’s the big question in Boston, and nobody’s figured out the answer yet. Sweeney took over the GM’s chair from Peter Chiarelli this summer, and he went on to guide the Bruins to one of the most confusing offseasons of any NHL team. His moves ranged from “this guy is incompetent” to “he might be a misunderstood genius,” without many stops in between.

The end result is that the Bruins are old and expensive, and the farm system is merely OK. But they still have one of the game’s best two-way players in Patrice Bergeron and one of the best goaltenders in Tuukka Rask, which makes for a pretty solid foundation. They’ve also got Zdeno Chara, who may not have much gas left in the tank but isn’t ready to move into the “washed-up” column quite yet. They had three first-round picks this year and still have Malcolm Subban as a future starter/trade bait. And they’ve still got most of the core that formed a championship team just a few years ago. And we haven’t even mentioned future Norris winner Dougie Hamilton, who can be the team’s franchise player once …

Oh, right. We’re back to that oddball summer again. Maybe all of those changes will help a team that was reportedly divided last year, but the bottom line is that the Bruins seem to be headed in the wrong direction. They’re no sure thing to make the playoffs this season. But if they do make it, at least for now, I’m not sure I’d want to play them.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 12 percent

No. 19 — Colorado Avalanche

There may not be a more polarizing team on today’s list than the Avalanche, who are absolutely stacked with young talent after spending a few years racking up top-five picks. Their farm system dried up after that haul, but they replenished some of it with this summer’s Ryan O’Reilly trade. And they’re still just one season removed from a 112-point season.

Of course, that 2013-14 year had every analytics guy screaming “fraud.” and nobody who paid attention to the numbers was remotely surprised when the Avs plummeted all the way out of the playoffs last season. And there’s a bigger issue hanging over the club’s future: the nagging feeling that team management might not know what it’s doing. Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic know a thing or two about winning Cups in Colorado, but in an era in which every team seems to be moving toward a more modern approach to thinking about the game, the Avs are still defiantly old school. If the analytics movement is wrong, the Avalanche will be in great shape. But the analytics movement isn’t wrong, so … yeah.

And yet, in a league where strength down the middle is key, it’s not hard to imagine a team led by Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon doing some damage. There’s enough talent here to make a run or two. And if and when they eventually smarten up, maybe even more than that.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 13 percent

No. 18 — Columbus Blue Jackets

OK, maybe we spoke too soon when handing the Avalanche today’s “most polarizing” crown. On the one hand, the Blue Jackets weren’t very good last year, finishing 11th in the East. On the other, they had atrocious luck, and almost everyone agrees they were probably a better team than their record indicated. On the one hand, any talk of a Stanley Cup seems awfully ambitious for a franchise that has still never won so much as a playoff round. On the other, this is a look at the next five years, not the previous 15. On the one hand, there’s a solid case being made that they’ve screwed up their long-term cap by overpaying mediocre players. On the other, there’s a solid case that their young stars and strong prospect pipeline could make them one of the very best teams in the league within three years.

All of this is to say that plenty of readers won’t think the Jackets belong on today’s list at all. They should obviously have been on yesterday’s, with the other also-rans. Or maybe they should obviously be on tomorrow’s, with the other elites.

I still think they’re closer to the former than the latter, as their ranking indicates. But after years of being cannon fodder for the rest of the league, the Blue Jackets have a chance to start making some noise of their own very soon.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 15 percent

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Which teams have the odds for a Cup in the next five years? Part one.

In the NHL, it is all about the Stanley Cup. Yes, building a champion takes time, and there can be moral victories along the way. Yes, sometimes a great team just never gets over the hump. Yes, there’s a ton of luck involved, way more than any of us want to admit. And yes, because of all that, smart teams (and fans) will learn to trust the big-picture process over one focused on short-term results.

That’s all well and good. But eventually, all anybody wants to know is: Did you win the big one?

So as we gear up for the 2015-16 season, let’s take a shot at answering a simple question: Which NHL teams have the best odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years?

On the surface, that sounds like it should be an easy enough exercise. We just take all 30 teams and look at both their current roster and their prospect pipeline. That should tell us just about all we need to know about if and when they’ll be ready to contend. Well, unless they have cap issues. Or financial problems. Or complications in the front office or behind the bench or in the owner’s box or … you know, maybe our simple question turns out not to be so simple after all.

But that’s no reason not to try, so here we go. Why five years? It seems like a reasonable window to work with — long enough that today’s rebuilding teams have a shot, but not so long that what’s already an exercise in crystal-ball gazing turns into an outright guessing game. But remember, we’re not exclusively focused on the future here; a Stanley Cup won next season counts every bit as much as one won years down the road, so you’ll see a mix of young and old teams at the top of the list. In fact, as we’ll see, it’s probably true that the absolute worst place to be in the NHL is stuck in the middle — not elite today, but not pushing aggressively enough toward tomorrow.

Finally, a little warning before we get started: As we make our way down from no. 30 to no. 1, you’re going to find yourself thinking that the odds for many of these teams seem way too low. But do the math — with five years to cover, we’ve only got a pool of 500 percentage points to work with and 30 teams to spread them out across. If you want to yell at me that Team X is 10 percent too low, make sure you also tell me which team is 10 percent too high.

This will be a three-part series. Today, we start from the bottom, with the 10 teams facing the longest odds to capture a Cup. Today’s list features some predictable entries, along with a few that I suspect will be met with objections from the fan bases involved. Let’s start the countdown with no. 30.

No. 30 — New Jersey Devils

Inevitably, the fan base of whichever team gets stuck in the 30 spot will scream loudly that they can’t possibly be the worst of the worst. So let’s pause to concede that there’s not all that much separating the bottom half-dozen or so teams that rank in the low single digits. If it would make you feel better to nudge the Devils up a percentage point or two and into a better slot, go right ahead.

But the result remains the same: This team is old and not very good, and there’s little in the way of encouraging prospects on the way beyond Pavel Zacha. The Devils have also just begun the transition from the Lou Lamoriello era to whatever it is that comes next. They’ve got a very good GM in Ray Shero driving that, which is good news, because the job ahead is massive.

Teams can be rebuilt; it happens all the time. And the Devils do appear to have an elite goaltender, which makes ranking them here a bit risky — if they somehow managed to squeeze into the playoffs, who knows how far a hot Cory Schneider could carry them. But right now, even squeezing into the playoffs seems like a dream for down the road. Today, the team is bad and the cupboard is bare, and there’s no quick fix for that. The Devils are a smart organization that will get back on track, but it will probably take most of our five years for that happen.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 1 percent

No. 29 — Carolina Hurricanes

Are the Hurricanes rebuilding? They finish toward the bottom of the league every season, and they’re amassing young talent, so that would point to a “yes.” But they haven’t moved veteran stars like Eric Staal or Cam Ward yet, so maybe not. New GM Ron Francis has sent mixed signals about where the team is headed, and how much (if any) focus on short-term success that strategy includes.

In either case, the Hurricanes have been bad for years (they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2009), and there’s little hope that that will change this season. The future is somewhat brighter, with a solid prospect pipeline that’s heavy on defensemen although short on blue-chip stars. That cupboard will get a boost if the team does move Staal or Ward, both of whom are on the final year of their deals; but remember that Ward may not have any value left and Staal has a no-trade clause.

Forget about championships; a path back to the playoffs seems murky at this point. This franchise certainly knows how to make the most of its playoff berths — they’ve missed the postseason in 10 of the past 13 seasons, but won nine rounds in the three years they did make it — so we can’t rule them out entirely. But it’s close.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 2 percent

No. 28 — Vancouver Canucks

On the surface, this rating seems low for a team coming off a 101-point season. The Canucks are led by two first-ballot Hall of Famers in the Sedin brothers, and they have a star goaltender in Ryan Miller, at least based on name value if not actual performance. You could do worse than trying to chase a Cup with that sort of foundation.

But the Canucks aren’t like most 101-point teams. The core is old — in addition to the Sedins and Miller being 35 on opening night, Alexandre Burrows and Radim Vrbata are both 34. After an offseason that could charitably be described as puzzling, the roster seems worse than last season’s, with Kevin Bieksa and Eddie Lack exiting without the team bringing in any immediate help in return. And there’s plenty of evidence that last season’s team just wasn’t as good as its point total would suggest.

Add it all up and it’s hard not to look at the current-day Canucks as a team that needs a rebuild but doesn’t know it yet — just about the worst place to be in a salary-cap league. The Canucks’ prospect pipeline isn’t strong, and the work of GM Jim Benning on moves like the Lack trade and the Brandon Sutter acquisition and subsequent signing has been widely panned. And to make matters worse, the Canucks could find it uniquely challenging to embark on a rebuild even if they wanted to, since their two best veterans happen to be twin brothers who’ve always insisted on playing together. Getting good future assets for a player who’s about to turn 35 and carries a $7 million cap hit through 2018 in today’s league is tough; trading two as a package deal might be near impossible.

It’s certainly conceivable that this season’s Canucks could come close to a repeat of last season, overachieving on their way to a spot in the playoffs, where anything can happen. But it seems far more likely that they’ll be also-rans this season, the cracks in the foundation will soon become impossible to ignore, and the team will finally decide to hit the reset button and start a multiyear rebuilding project. If so, that doesn’t leave much time in our five-year window.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 2 percent

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, September 18, 2015

New season's resolutions for 2015

Training camps open this week across the NHL, with the exhibition schedule getting started over the weekend. And you know what that means: Every player in the league has never worked harder in the offseason, is in the best shape of his life, and is primed for the greatest season of his career. Yes, literally every player. Once this guy starts doing crunches, it’s officially unanimous.

And since everyone in the league has apparently spent the summer becoming the very best versions of themselves, that means it’s our turn now. With just three weeks until opening night, now is the time for hockey fans to make some new season’s resolutions, in an annual rite of passage in which some idiot sportswriter tells you what to think a nice man shares some helpful ideas for self-improvement.

As always, your personal list of resolutions is up to you. But we do have a few suggestions to get you started.

Let’s Just Accept That Gary Bettman Doesn’t Always Tell the Truth

As NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman is the face of the league, and quite likely the most important person in the sport today. He is also somebody who bends the truth when speaking to the league’s fans with stunning regularity. And honestly, that really shouldn’t bother you.

Like him or not, Bettman has a tough job. He has to serve many masters. He has to juggle multiple competing priorities. And he has to do it all while pretending that he really, deeply, sincerely cares about making the NHL’s fans happy.

But here’s the thing: Gary Bettman doesn’t work for you. You are his customer, but you are not his employer, and telling you the truth is not in his job description. Oh, he’d certainly prefer you to be happy. It makes his life much easier, and it makes the lives of his bosses — the team owners — much easier, so all things being equal, he likes you and wants you to be a satisfied customer. But he has a job to do, and telling you the truth is not part of it. Sometimes, a little bit of spin, PR-speak, or even flat-out dishonesty is in the league’s best interest. And once you accept that, you’ll find yourself a lot less aggravated by Bettman’s existence.

So this year, don’t get angry when Bettman swears that all 30 markets are in great shape. Don’t be offended when he pretends that Las Vegas expansion hasn’t been a sure thing for the better part of a year. Don’t keep holding a grudge over all the times that he tried to act like his latest lockout had anything to do with ticket prices. And if the media reports that a team is about to move and he accuses them of “making it up” and that team does indeed move just a few days later … you know, again … just roll with it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t hold him to some sort of standard. It’s OK for him to lie, but he’s supposed to do it while maintaining some small grasp on reality, so if he drops a truly ridiculous eye-roller like last year’s bit about fans not caring about player salaries, go ahead and mock him for it. But for the rest of it, don’t expect the whole truth and nothing but the truth from Bettman and you won’t be disappointed.

Remember, he’s not lying because he’s a bad guy, or because he doesn’t care about you as a fan. He’s just doing his job. Don’t take it personally.

Let’s Stop Calling the Puck-Over-Glass Rule ‘Black-and-White’

The NHL’s puck-over-glass rule is divisive. Many think it’s a dumb rule, one that almost always ends up being called on plays that everyone knows were purely accidental. Others like it, arguing that it prevents intentional delays and boosts offense by adding an element of risk to clearing the defensive zone. You’re probably already firmly entrenched on one side or the other, and I’m not going to try to change your mind today.

But there’s one thing we should all be able to agree on: We need to stop referring to the rule as “black-and-white.” That’s a term that always comes up whenever the rule is discussed, usually offered as a defense. We already rely on the referees’ discretion for almost everything else in the rulebook, the thinking goes, and we all seem to think that they blow those calls way too often. Whatever flaws it may have, at least the puck-over-glass is the one rule that gets called consistently across the board, with no room for interpretation or judgment calls. Which would be a decent argument, if there were any truth to it.

Here’s what happens when a referee calls a hooking penalty: His arm goes up, the player complains a bit and then goes to the box, and we line up for the faceoff. Here’s what happens when a referee calls a tripping penalty: His arm goes up, the player complains a bit and then goes to the box, and we line up for the faceoff. Here’s what happens when a referee calls a cross-checking penalty: His arm goes up, the player … well, you get the idea.

Here’s what happens when a puck gets shot over the glass: Everyone on one teams start wildly pointing and waving, as if the officials somehow didn’t notice what just happened. Then everyone on the other team starts slapping their hands together in the universal sign for “It was deflected.” Then all the officials, referees and linesmen both, huddle up for an extended discussion, in which they attempt to triangulate the puck’s exact exit point to determine if it went over the end glass or the bench, since the rule treats those areas differently. Then they make a decision, skate over to each bench, and explain the verdict to the coaches. Then we watch a series of replays, none of which is remotely conclusive. Then everyone gives up, shrugs, and tries to remember what the score was back when this whole mess started.

That whole scenario is a lot of things, and if you want to argue that it all adds up to a net positive for the sport, then go ahead. But it’s sure not “black-and-white,” because black-and-white rules don’t require an all-hands-on-deck meeting of the minds every time they’re called. The puck-over-glass rule may have some things going for it, but simplicity and clarity aren’t on that list.

If anything, it’s just about the least black-and-white rule in the rulebook. Defend it if you must, but at least do it using words that make sense.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

It made sense at the time: A brief history of jerseying

Hockey history is a rich tapestry of traditions, trends, and innovations. Many stuck around to become part of the game’s enduring fabric. Others … not so much. Today we will look back at one of the odder things that used to be part of the NHL’s culture and wonder how exactly it made sense at the time and that everyone was OK with it.

Have you ever been in a fight with a Canadian? Probably not, since we’re generally a friendly and non-threatening bunch. But there are certain lines that you just cannot cross, like disparaging socialized medicine or saying you thought Shawn Michaels was better than Bret Hart, and crossing those lines can lead to the nearest Canadian setting aside the Margaret Atwood novel they’ve been pretending to read and throwing down.

And when that happens, you’ll notice that while fighting a Canadian is a lot like fighting anyone else, there are certain key differences. We apologize after every punch. We pause every few seconds to take a sip of our double-double. And, at some point in the fight, we are going to try to yank your shirt up over your head.

That last one may seem a little odd, but don’t worry; we’re just instinctively reverting to what we grew up with. That’s because every Canadian is raised on a steady diet of watching hockey, and for several decades, that shirt-yank move was standard operating procedure in any hockey fight. It even had a name: “jersey,” used as a verb. As in “I was losing the fight, but then I jerseyed him and went to town.”

Jerseying is rarely seen these days thanks to the introduction of the tie-down, a small strap that connects the back of a player’s jersey to the top of his or her hockey pants. Today, the NHL has a rule that makes tie-downs mandatory for any player who fights, so with only rare exceptions, you don’t see a player’s sweater come off during fights anymore.

And that’s probably good news, because man, the whole “jersey over the head” thing really did get progressively weirder over the years.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Training camp story lines to watch

NHL training camps open this week, with the exhibition schedule starting Sunday. That means we all get to spend the next few weeks speculating about goaltending battles, line combinations, special teams time, and which scrappy underdogs will claim which roster spots.

We’ll do all of that while ignoring that, in the salary-cap era, 90 percent of each team’s roster is set in stone before camp ever starts. We’re getting pretty good at that, because as little as most of this will end up mattering, training camp is fun. It’s a chance to ease back into the NHL for a few weeks with your fellow fans, before opening night arrives and we all start stabbing each other with screwdrivers over a faceoff violation.

But until stabbing time arrives, here are a half-dozen story lines to keep an eye on as the preseason unfolds.

How Will All of Those PTOs Shake Out?

The NHL’s summer of fiscal sanity has shifted directly into the autumn of the PTO — i.e. the professional tryout, an offer to an established player to come to training camp as, essentially, a walk-on. The deals come with no strings attached; teams are under no obligation to sign the player to an actual contract, and players can pick up and take their services to any team willing to offer full-time employment.

PTOs are far from an ideal scenario for the veterans who end up taking them; most have solid NHL résumés and were hoping to land multiyear deals in free agency. But in a perfect world, the player turns some heads in camp, earns a one-year contract, puts together a strong season, and then cashes in on a better deal the following summer. Call it the Mason Raymond model — after a decent career with the Canucks, Raymond took a PTO with the Maple Leafs in 2013, earned a roster spot, played well, and then parlayed that into a three-year deal with the Flames that totaled almost $10 million.

Of course, that’s the best-case scenario, and most PTOs end with the veteran being sent packing, often spelling the end of an NHL career. But it’s a shot worth taking, and plenty of veterans have done just that in recent weeks.

Some of the more recognizable names include Scott Gomez (St. Louis), Devin Setoguchi (Toronto), Tomas Fleischmann (Montreal), Sergei Kostitsyn (Calgary), Patrick Kaleta (Buffalo), Brad Boyes (Toronto), Derek Roy (Washington), Martin Havlat (Florida), and Curtis Glencross (Toronto). None of those guys sounds like a future All-Star, but most could help the right team for a year, and at this point they should come cheap.

History tells us that a few will make it; most won’t. But it’s hard not to root for them at least a little bit.

What About Those Still Unsigned?

Most years, we’d still have a star player or two sitting at home waiting for a new contract, which everyone would call a holdout even though it was no such thing. There’s no P.K. Subban or Ryan Johansen this year, but there are a couple of good young RFAs who are still waiting for deals.

Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau is a tricky player to evaluate. He was the third overall pick in the 2011 draft but didn’t make the team as an 18-year-old. He put up a solid rookie year in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, then struggled as a sophomore before posting an impressive 54-point campaign last year. That kind of inconsistency probably translates to a bridge deal, one that sounds like it should be signed soon.

In Brooklyn, the Islanders need to figure out what to do with Brock Nelson. The 23-year-old is coming off a 20-goal campaign in his second NHL season and would presumably be looking at a short-term deal. But there’s a complicating factor here: The Islanders have a team policy that prohibits negotiations with players once camp starts. It’s a weird stance, and one that means Nelson needs to sign by Thursday or sit out the whole season. It’s hard to imagine that happening, and since Nelson has little leverage here, the deal probably gets done.

As for unsigned UFAs, there’s not much left out there. Sean Bergenheim could probably help someone, and Jiri Tlusty is reportedly turning down PTO offers and eying the KHL if he can’t find an NHL deal. With the great Cody Franson Watch finally behind us and just about everyone else with a pulse signing PTOs, that’s pretty much it.

Of course, when you mention signing contracts, there’s one more group of players we need to talk about …

Will Any Big Extensions Get Done?

While this year’s free-agency ranks are getting dangerously thin, next year’s remain tantalizingly stacked. And that’s unusual. For the better part of a decade, it’s been accepted wisdom in the NHL that star players in their prime just don’t make it to unrestricted free agency — they always sign extensions well before their deals run out.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Lessons from the NHL's summer on fiscal sanity

With September here and training camp on the horizon, it’s time for an end-of-summer NHL tradition: looking back on the past few months and slapping a broad theme on them. Every year around this time, we pick through the summer’s headlines and arrive at a pithy title to summarize an entire offseason. Last year was the Summer of Analytics. The year before that was the Summer of LOL Maple Leafs. In 2012, it was the Summer of Lockout Preparation. (OK, technically that one was the Summer of Lockout Preparation Part III, Snider’s Revenge — but we all agreed that felt a little wordy.)

As for this year, it looks like it will go into the books as the Summer of … Fiscal Sanity?

Granted, that doesn’t have much of a ring to it. But looking back on the past few months, it’s hard to arrive at a different conclusion. After a decade of increasingly disastrous offseasons in the salary-cap era — filled with awful free-agency signings, panicked extensions, and other nonsensical spending sprees — this was the year when the league’s general managers got conservative.

Now, it would be wrong to treat this as a phenomenon that appeared without warning, as if all 30 NHL GMs bolted upright in bed one night with the realization that the game’s economics needed to change. But it would be just as wrong to act as if this summer’s market correction was somehow inevitable and predictable. Many of the contracts handed out to pending free agents during the regular season showed no indication that it was anything other than business as usual; remember, it was only April when Canucks fans were rationalizing the ridiculous deals given to bit players Derek Dorsett and Luca Sbisa under the logic that surely someone would have given them more on the open market. And in any other year, they’d have been right.

But by the end of June, even before the champagne had stopped flowing in Chicago, the league’s teams were busy tightening their belts. Let’s look back at how it all played out.

Montreal Canadiens v Boston Bruins

RFAs on the Move

The first signs that the winds were changing came before free agency even opened, with the trading of two young stars who were about to hit restricted free agency.

For years, the reality of top young RFAs had been this: They didn’t move. Oh, they’d inspire all sorts of rumors. They’d posture, and their teams would posture right back. Occasionally, they’d pretend to be considering an offer sheet, and in rare cases, they might even hold out. But young RFAs almost never actually went anywhere, because young players are the most valuable asset in today’s league, and teams were ultimately willing to hold on to them at just about any cost.

That changed this year, as both Chicago’s Brandon Saad and Boston’s Dougie Hamilton were unexpectedly traded in the days around the entry draft. Both are already very good players, and both could have superstar-potential ceilings. And yet both were dealt, at least partly due to fears of an incoming offer sheet. Those kinds of threats have rarely scared teams in the past — every single one has been matched since 2007 — but this year it was enough to spook two teams into moving on from future stars.

The two deals were received very differently; the Hawks were generally seen as having made the best of a bad situation, while the Bruins were widely criticized for getting too little in return. But both pointed to the possibility that the ground was shifting in advance of free agency. When the markets opened, that seemed to be confirmed.

The Free-Agent Frenzy That Wasn’t

Brian Burke used to say that NHL GMs made more mistakes on trade deadline day than in the rest of the year combined. But over the past decade, the undisputed title for the league’s dumbest 24 hours had clearly shifted to July 1, when the league calendar rolls over, free agency opens, and teams with newfound cap space throw those dollars at anyone with a pulse. Agents salivate, fans cringe, and sportswriters get ready to write their annual roundup of all the worst deals.

>> Read the full post on Grantland