Friday, October 30, 2015

Grab bag: In The Penalty Box

In this special Halloween edition of the grab bag:
- The one problem with the coach's challenge, and its simple fix
- In praise of the Avalanche's brilliant sound effects
- The closest thing the NHL has ever had to a Jack O-Lantern
- Comedy stars (and costumes)
- And the world's most terrifying man is here to sing you an awkward love song.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 29, 2015

NHL stock watch - October edition

It’s the end of October, which means two things for NHL fans: Your Twitter feed is being overtaken by awkward photos of your favorite players in horrible Halloween costumes, and it’s time to take stock of the first month of regular-season action.

We’ve already covered most of the big trends — Canadiens good! Blue Jackets bad! Ducks maybe even worse! — so we won’t rehash those here. Instead, let’s drill down a bit to some of the league’s other moving parts. Here are some of the first month’s more interesting stories and the direction they’re headed.

Stock Rising: Max Pacioretty

It feels like it shouldn’t be possible for a player in the ravenous Montreal market to be underrated, and that’s especially true when that player is the captain. But I think there’s a good case to be made that Pacioretty has spent most of his career in that category. He probably won’t be there much longer.

Pacioretty sits tied for sixth in the NHL in scoring with 11 points through Montreal’s first 10 games. He’s unlikely to keep up that pace; he’s never topped 70 points or been a point-per-game scorer in his career. But he has been one of the league’s most consistent wingers, good for 30-plus goals and 60-plus points year after year. Since his breakout year in 2011, Pacioretty has more goals than any pure winger other than Alex Ovechkin — more than Patrick Kane, or Corey Perry, or Phil Kessel.

And yet you rarely hear him mentioned with those sorts of guys, despite playing in arguably the most rabid media market in the league. If anything, he’s often been underappreciated. Maybe that’s because the low-key Pacioretty can’t compete with the star power of a Carey Price or P.K. Subban. Maybe it’s a style thing; Pacioretty is more likely to score based on opportunism and his quick release than on highlight-friendly end-to-end rushes. Or maybe a city that’s used to cheering on legends like Rocket Richard and Guy Lafleur has trouble getting excited for a player who’s merely very good.

But in any case, Pacioretty deserves more credit than he gets. Of course, once he’s led the 81-1-0 Habs to a Stanley Cup, that should change.

Stock Falling: Goalies We Thought Were Good

Among goaltenders with at least five starts heading into last night’s action, just four had posted save percentages under .875. One of those is Jonas Hiller. The other three were expected to be good.

Nobody has had a strong start in Columbus, but no one there has been worse than Sergei Bobrovsky. He ranks last in save percentage and goals-against average and has already been quoted as having “zero confidence.” That’s not what you want to hear from a goaltender, especially one who’s just three years removed from a Vezina Trophy. His numbers have been trending in the wrong direction since then, but they were still solid enough last season that you’d assume this is just an early-season blip. The Blue Jackets better hope so; Bobrovsky is signed through 2019 on a deal that carries the second-biggest cap hit of any goaltender.

In Colorado, Semyon Varlamov has been nipping at Bobrovsky’s heels at the bottom of the stats page. Yet he’s just two years removed from finishing a close second in the 2014 Vezina race. And the guy who beat him out for that award, Boston’s Tuukka Rask, has been almost as bad. Rask posted a shutout Tuesday, and it still left him with the league’s third-worst goals-against average.

History tells us that all three guys will be fine — always rely more on the big sample size of a career’s worth of work than on a few shaky weeks, especially with goalies. But the position is a funny one, and a rough enough start really can torpedo a season if it burrows far enough into a guy’s head. Goaltending is voodoo, and right now the Blue Jackets, Avalanche, and Bruins are hoping it won’t end up being the evil kind.

Stock Rising: Jamie Benn

Benn was one of the league’s best stories last season, winning the Art Ross as the league’s top scorer with a four-point game on the season’s final night, including the clinching point with just 10 seconds left.

It was a cool moment, one that capped off a breakout season for the 26-year-old winger. But it wasn’t one that anyone expected him to have much chance of repeating. After all, his 87 points last season was the lowest total to lead the league in over 50 years, helped by some second-half injuries to Sidney Crosby. Benn had earned the title, but his reign was assumed to be a Jarome Iginla–style one-and-out, a case of a player having the good timing to enjoy a career year in a season when everyone else went cold.

But as the season’s first month draws to a close, there’s a familiar name right back on top of the league scoring race. After Tuesday’s three-point performance, Benn has 15 points through nine games, good for the league lead. He remains a key part of the high-flying Stars offense, one that’s made Dallas the most entertaining team in the league.

If he stays healthy, there’s no reason to think he can’t challenge for yet another Art Ross. And this time, nobody will be able to call it a fluke.

Stock Falling: The Islanders’ New Home

The Islanders finally moved out of Nassau Coliseum, generally considered the worst arena in the NHL, at the end of last season. Their new home is the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It’s fair to say reviews have been mixed.

The Barclays Center isn’t anyone’s idea of a classic hockey arena; in fact, it’s barely a hockey arena at all, depending on where you get stuck sitting. It also seats just 15,700 for hockey, the second-lowest capacity in the league. And so far, the Islanders are having trouble filling even that many seats, as many of their fans don’t seem to like the new building. Plus there’s that weird SUV parked in the corner that makes you think you accidentally tuned into a Spengler Cup game.

The good news is this doesn’t seem to be affecting the Islanders, who are icing one of the best teams in the league. And it’s not like the franchise had a ton of options. The Islanders desperately needed to get out of the Coliseum before it completely fell apart, and when they couldn’t make a deal to stay in Uniondale, they took what was available. The Barclays Center may be far from ideal, but it was almost certainly the best option.

As with most NHL problems, winning will fix some of this. If the Islanders keep playing like they have been, attendance should get a boost, and maybe some of those fans will realize they don’t mind the new rink so much after all. The flip side is that the seats stay empty and an Islanders team that could be a Cup contender finds itself heading down the stretch without any discernible home-ice advantage. We’ll see how it works out, but the early returns aren’t encouraging.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Once more unto the abyss: A game-by-game breakdown of the Blue Jackets' horrible start

It’s over. With Saturday night’s 4-3 decision over the Avalanche, the Blue Jackets finally snapped an eight-game losing streak and got into the win column for the first time on the season. The streak is dead.

It’s hard to overstate just how awful the Blue Jackets’ 0-8-0 start had been. The NHL has a long and glorious history of teams getting off to season-crushingly terrible starts, but none quite like this. No team in the past seven decades has managed to start a season without earning so much as a single point through its first eight games. None of the modern era’s biggest losers — not the 1974-75 Capitals, or the 1992-93 Senators or Sharks, or even the 2009-2010 Maple Leafs — had ever face-planted out of the gate quite that badly.

You have to go all the way back to the 1940s to find a start as bad as the one the Blue Jackets just suffered through. That would be the 1943-44 Rangers, who lost their first 11 and didn’t win a game until mid-December. And while the Blue Jackets didn’t quite reach that level of futility, when you factor in the weight of expectations (not to mention the presence of the loser point), I think there’s a pretty reasonable case to be made that the Blue Jackets’ start was the worst the NHL has ever seen, from anyone, at any time.

Remember, it was only three weeks ago that the Blue Jackets were itching to drop the puck on a regular season that was teeming with optimism. After a strong finish to 2014-15, a big trade in the offseason, and a strong performance over the preseason schedule, the Blue Jackets were ready to storm out of the gate and claim a place among the Metro’s contenders. Some well-known experts were even picking them to go to the conference finals.

And then came 0-8-0. And while it’s over now, like all wonderful things, we shouldn’t let The Streak fade into the fringes of our memories. No, we need to cherish it, to hold it close, to press it tightly against our cold little hockey fan hearts. And so today, we’re going to say goodbye to the Blue Jackets’ losing streak in the best way we know how: By reliving it, one game at a time. For Blue Jackets fans, it will be cathartic. For the rest of us, well, it might make us feel better about our own lousy teams.

So travel back with me to a time long past, in a long-ago era when the city of Columbus was happy and the Blue Jackets were going to be good. Eighteen whole days ago, to be precise.

0-1-0 — October 9, Rangers at Blue Jackets

The opponent: The Blue Jackets don’t get any early favors from the schedule-maker, as they start the season with a home-and-home against the team that won the Metro last season.

Reason for optimism: Sure, it’s a tough opponent, but that’s what you want, right? This is going to be the year that the Blue Jackets establish themselves as contenders in the Metro, and there’s no better way to send a message than by beating the defending champs.

Columbus fans are thinking: The Rangers, huh? Good. It’s like your first day in prison — you go over to the biggest guy in the yard and pop him in the mouth, right?

Bad omen: Less than a minute in, the Blue Jackets are storming the Rangers’ crease when a loose puck squirts out to Ryan Murray, who has an open net. He fans on the shot.

What happened: With the game tied at 1 with less than four minutes to go in the third, big offseason acquisition Brandon Saad scores on the power play to give the Blue Jackets the lead. But then they collapse, giving up two Rangers goals in 17 seconds, then one more a minute after that. The Rangers win, 4-2.

Highlight: The Blue Jackets look great early on, taking the game to New York in front of a raucous home crowd. When Saad snaps home what looks like it will be the winner, the place comes unglued. This season is going to be fun!

Lowlight: Kevin Hayes’ game winner is awful, coming on a nearly impossible angle from deep in the corner.

Depressing postgame quote: “It’s early in the season. I’m not going to read too much into it after one game,” says team captain Nick Foligno, while wondering where all that foreshadowing thunder and lightning is coming from.

Sadness rating: 2/10. OK, that hurts, but nobody was expecting them to go 82-0-0. And hey, at least they get a quick rematch, right?

0-2-0 — October 10, Blue Jackets at Rangers

The opponent: The Rangers. You may remember them from their recent work in “Three goals in 77 seconds.”

Reason for optimism: Despite the loss, the Blue Jackets had been the better team for 57 minutes the night before. They just need to put together a full game this time.

Columbus fans are thinking: You know, a split here won’t be the worst thing in the world.

Bad omen: Just 80 seconds in, a brutal giveaway by Fedor Tyutin results in a Rangers 2-on-0 in front of Sergei Bobrovsky that Oscar Lindberg buries.

What happened: Lindberg adds another, followed by Dominic Moore, and the Blue Jackets are down 3-0 before the game is six minutes old. They go on to lose, 5-2.

Highlight: Late in the first, Bobrovsky stops Rangers sniper Rick Nash on a penalty shot, because it’s becoming apparent than no Blue Jackets draft pick will ever score a big goal again.

Lowlight: When Moore finds the net, the Blue Jackets have surrendered six goals in less than nine minutes of action against the Rangers over two nights.

Depressing postgame quote: “We aren’t going to win games by giving up five goals,” predicts head coach Todd Richards. Accurately, as it turns out.

Sadness rating: 4/10. OK, tough start. But luckily, the schedule serves up a cupcake next...

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, October 26, 2015

Weekend wrap: Lame Ducks

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

Theme of the Week: Lame Ducks

Three weeks into the season, the bottom of the league standings is starting to feel familiar. We’ve covered the stunning collapse of the Blue Jackets, but most of the other teams are the ones we’re used to seeing. The Sabres are there. So are the Maple Leafs and the Hurricanes, and the Oilers aren’t far off.

But mixed in with those bottom-feeders is one team that wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near this territory, and it’s the team that has the league buzzing right now. That would be the Anaheim Ducks, the preseason Pacific Division favorites and Stanley Cup contenders who’ve stumbled out of the gate; at 1-5-1, they’re looking up at everyone other than the Jackets.

A bad start is a concern for any team, but the Ducks’ problems go well beyond wins and losses. Somehow, a team built around Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry can’t score. Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Wild marked the fourth time in seven games the Ducks have been shut out. They’ve managed just six goals this season, with four coming in their only win. Other than that one game, the offense has been all but nonexistent.

When you see numbers that extreme, you’re almost always going to be dealing with some crazy percentages, and that’s exactly what we see in Anaheim. A team that has shot over 8 percent at even strength in each of the last four seasons (including a league-leading 9.6 percent in 2013-14) currently sits at just 2.5 percent. That’s not just unsustainable, it’s borderline ridiculous. With all the talent the Ducks have up front, the goals are going to come. Probably a lot of them, and probably soon. The wins will follow.

The question now is whether they’ll come soon enough to save Bruce Boudreau. Last week, we figured Boudreau’s seat was feeling decidedly warm; two more low-scoring losses later, it’s downright sizzling. I still think a coaching change would be a mistake, an overreaction to a slump that’s been largely driven by a big dose of short-term bad luck. But the Ducks are a team built to win now, and that’s not a scenario that typically results in a patient approach. If Boudreau does go, the Ducks won’t be lacking in experienced candidates to replace him. They could turn the reins over to assistant Paul MacLean, AHL coach Dallas Eakins, or even the man Boudreau replaced in 2011, Randy Carlyle.

That’s looking ahead, but maybe not all that far ahead. Things don’t get any easier this week: The Ducks are in Chicago tonight and follow that with trips to Dallas and St. Louis before returning home to face Nashville.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

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

5. Winnipeg Jets (5-2-1, plus-7 goals differential) A tough call, but they slip into the final spot on the strength of last night’s big win over the Wild.

4. Dallas Stars (6-2-0, plus-6) An impressive five-game winning streak ended with a thud against the Panthers on Saturday.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 23, 2015

Grab bag: The original replay controversy

In this week's grab bag:
- The broken compensation system for fired coach's is working perfectly
- Stop saying "it's early"
- Comedy stars: Um, everything OK out there in Vancouver?
- An obscure player that somehow turns into a poem
- And the NHL's original instant replay controversy, featuring a real live interview with the man who made the call.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Coaches on the hot seat

It took less than three weeks for the NHL season to claim its first coaching casualty. Yesterday, the Blue Jackets announced they’d fired Todd Richards after a disastrous 0-7-0 start, one that threatens to all but eliminate Columbus from the playoff race before the calendar has even flipped to November.

Richards will be replaced by John Tortorella, which is … interesting. Tortorella has a Cup ring, although you have to go back to the pre-cap era to find it, and he had some success with the Rangers. But he wore out his welcome in New York, and his one-year stint with the Canucks was a disaster. At the very least, his temperamental style could be a tough fit for a dressing room that was already miserable.

So now that the Richards watch is over, who’s next? The reality of life as an NHL coach is that you always seem to be just one bad slump away from hearing whispers about a pink slip with your name on it. It’s not a fun part of the business, but it’s part of the job that these guys sign up for. Here are a half-dozen other coaches whose seats are getting warm.

Claude Julien, Boston Bruins

Why he’s in trouble: The Bruins went into the year as a tough team to figure out. They’re still icing essentially the same core that went to a Cup final just three years ago, so the talent is there for at least a playoff run, if not more. But after a disappointing playoff miss in 2014-15 was followed by a confusing offseason under new GM Don Sweeney, this felt like a team headed in the wrong direction.

So far, the results have been mixed. An 0-3-0 start had the makings of a disaster, but they’ve clawed back to 2-3-1. That’s at least respectable, if not playoff-worthy.

But Julien has bigger problems than the Bruins’ record. He was very nearly fired in the offseason, as the team fired Peter Chiarelli and left the coach’s fate up to the new GM amid rumors that Bruins president Cam Neely wanted him gone. And while Sweeney ultimately spared Julien, it was a decidedly lukewarm vote of confidence, and Julien is still the dreaded “holdover that the new GM didn’t hire.” It may be only a matter of time before Sweeney decides to bring in his own guy, and a skeptic might even suggest that the rookie GM is only keeping Julien around to give himself an extra card to play if the season goes bad.

What could save him: The obvious answer is winning, and that will be the case for every coach on this list. But while Julien will continue to buy time if he keeps the Bruins in the playoff race, it’s possible that even that won’t be enough. If he’s going to be the long-term answer in Boston, Julien will need to make sure he’s on the same page as Neely and Sweeney as far as their vision for the team’s future. Failing that, he’d better take the Bruins on a deep playoff run — and he probably hasn’t been given a good enough roster to make that happen.

How hot is it? 9/10. Sweeney and Neely have said all the right things, but it’s not hard to read between the lines.

Who could replace him: The usual suspects will be mentioned, but here’s a long shot to consider: former Devils coach Adam Oates. He’s a former Bruin and ex-teammate of both Sweeney and Neely (the latter scored 50 goals playing on a line with him). He even thanked both guys in his Hall of Fame speech. Being old pals with someone doesn’t necessarily make you the best candidate for the job, but it’s funny how often it works out that way in the hockey world.

Prediction: Julien hangs on longer than expected, but he gets the pink slip late in the year as the Bruins fall out of the race. Sweeney names an interim coach to close out the season, then chases a big name in the spring.

Bruce Boudreau, Anaheim Ducks

Why he’s in trouble: The Ducks are firmly in win-now mode, and they came into the season looking like they’d do just that, with many of the so-called experts (including me) picking them as Western Conference champs.

But while there was plenty of optimism around the Ducks, it always came with a “but” attached — as in, “but wait until we see what they do in the playoffs.” The Ducks have won three straight division titles, but they have seen each of those years end in a disappointing Game 7 loss. That includes last year’s conference final loss to the Hawks, one in which they blew a 3-2 series lead with a pair of bad losses.

Fair or not, a lot of that disappointment has come to rest at the feet of Boudreau, who had some similarly dominant regular-season teams in Washington that never got over the hump in the playoffs. He’s now firmly saddled with the reputation of a guy who can’t win the big one. Those raps are almost always arbitrary and unfair, and it only takes one successful run to erase them forever. But Boudreau hasn’t had that run yet, and with so many chips already in the middle of the table, the Ducks could be running out of patience.

To make matters worse, the Ducks stumbled out of the gate with an 0-3-1 record, managing just a single goal in the process. That switched the narrative from “Boudreau needs to win in the playoffs” to “Boudreau might not even make it that far.” An impressive win over the Wild on Sunday relieved some pressure, but now the Ducks have a brutal five-game road trip against Central heavyweights.

What could save him: In the short term, a few wins would do the trick. Long-term, Boudreau may need at least a trip to the final to keep his job.

How hot is it? 6/10. Let’s all take a breath. Boudreau has the best regular-season points percentage of any coach with at least 500 games — better than Bowman, Arbour, Quenneville, anyone. Firing him because he’s had some bad luck in Game 7s would be questionable; doing it after a few tough games in October would be madness.

Who could replace him: Speaking of madness, the rumor mill churned out a fun name this week: Randy Carlyle. That would be the same Carlyle the Ducks fired in 2011 to bring in Boudreau. He was last seen presiding over several disastrous Maple Leafs seasons, so he’d seem to be an odd choice for a second stint in Anaheim. And if you’re an analytics fan, replacing Boudreau with Carlyle would seem like utter insanity. But Carlyle is apparently still very well respected around the league, and it’s worth remembering that former Leafs GM Dave Nonis is now a consultant in Anaheim. Could it happen? It would be mind-boggling.

Prediction: If the Ducks fire Boudreau and bring in Carlyle, it ends in disaster. But I think Bob Murray is too smart for that, and that Boudreau gets at least one more playoff run behind the Anaheim bench.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

When goaltenders attack

The Montreal Canadiens are off to a great start. They’re the league’s only undefeated team at 7-0-0, just about everyone on the roster is playing well, and they’re on top of any set of power rankings you can find.

But all of that pales in comparison to the undisputed highlight of the season: Carey Price doing this to Chris Kreider.

It’s worth remembering that there’s some history here. Two seasons ago, Kreider ended Price’s season in an ugly collision during the conference final. So was this payback? Price denied it, but nobody believes him. It’s just more fun to assume it was on purpose, because goalies attacking players never fails to be awesome.

So today, we’re going to flip through the pages of history and offer up some advice for those goalies out there who might want to exact a little revenge of their own. We won’t include any goalie-on-goalie violence, partly because it doesn’t fit the theme, and partly because goalie fights deserve a post of their own someday. No, today is about goalies lashing out at everyone else — especially those big shots in their fancy skates and comfortable pads, always scoring goals and sucking up glory and getting hats thrown at them. They could use a stiff trapper upside the head.

And luckily, history has provided us with plenty of examples of just how a jilted goalie could go about it. There are a dozen distinct ways for a goaltender to go on the attack, and we’re going to review them all.

The “Accidental” Bodycheck

The move: Skate behind your net. Wait for an incoming opponent to try to cut by, knowing he’s not allowed to touch you. Then drop your shoulder into his chest and send him flying.

The master: Carey Price, apparently. Who knew?

Let’s watch it again, this time in GIF form:

So good. But you have to wonder: Wherever did an upstanding young Montreal goaltender learn this sort of anti-Ranger behavior? Oh. Oh, right.

Pro tip: The hit itself is nice, but I think we can all agree that it’s the stare-down afterward that really makes it.

The Retaliatory Punch After a Collision

The move: It’s one of those unwritten rules of goaltending: If a player collides with you, even accidentally, you’re legally allowed to do pretty much anything you want to them for a period of five seconds.

The master: Literally everyone. I don’t care who the goaltender is — as soon as he’s knocked over, all bets are off. Anytime a player goes hard to the net and you hear a whistle, there’s a good chance the next thing you see will be an enraged goaltender awkwardly crawling on top of him with arms flailing. It appears to be an instinctive territorial thing. If you strapped a set of pads on Mother Teresa and somebody accidentally slid into her and nudged her legs, she’d be all “%&#*@#$% needs to eat some blocker!”

This rule applies outside the crease as well, by the way. I’ve always been partial to Don Beaupre’s swinging backhand.

Pro tip: Don’t feel like you have to aim for the face. Remember, this is a free shot; it’s OK to get creative.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, October 19, 2015

Weekend wrap: Where's Sid?

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

Theme of the Week: Where’s Sid?

The Penguins have been one of the season’s biggest early disappointments, following up an aggressive offseason with an uninspiring 0-3-0 start. They’ve followed that with a pair of wins, so we can at least suspend their teamwide emergency status. But while the wins are coming, the goals aren’t — as a team, they’ve managed just seven on the year. And nobody’s been a more glaring omission from the scoresheet than Sidney Crosby.

Five games into the season, Crosby has yet to record a point. That matches the longest pointless streak of his career, and it comes despite skating with the Penguins’ shiny new toy, winger Phil Kessel. And it’s not purely a case of poor luck — Crosby was held without a shot in each of the season’s first two games, and had only one against the Maple Leafs on Saturday. And his slump is affecting his teammates; the Penguins’ power-play unit is 0-for-17, making them one of only two teams in the league without a man advantage goal on the season.

It goes without saying that Crosby will snap out of his funk, and likely sooner than later. He went into the season as the odds-on choice to win the Art Ross as the league’s top scorer, and would probably still be the favorite today. Nobody in Pittsburgh is panicking, and with nobody running away with the Metro — it’s the only division without a four-win team — the Penguins and their fans can afford to have some patience.

For his part, Crosby is talking about the importance of trusting the process over results, which is both the right approach and something you rarely hear from hockey players. And there is some element of bad luck in play here; Crosby has historically been one of the league’s best at driving on-ice shooting percentage, and while he has posted career lows in that category in each of the last two years, even those numbers are miles ahead of his current 2.6 percent. That’s the kind of bad luck you can see without a spreadsheet; Kessel missed an open net on Saturday on a nice setup by Crosby, costing him an assist.

So the luck will turn around, the puck will start going in, and Crosby will be back among the league leaders soon. And when that happens, the Penguins might finally start to look like the team we all thought we’d see back in the offseason.

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. Nashville Predators (4-1-0, +4 goals differential) They’ve looked good, although it’s mostly come against bad teams. The schedule gets tough starting now, with the Lightning, Ducks, Penguins, and Sharks up next.

4. Dallas Stars (4-1-0, +6) Five games in, they’ve been pretty much exactly what we were expecting. No team is averaging more than their 3.8 goals per game, and the goaltending has been, well, good enough.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 16, 2015

Grab bag: It's electric

In this week's Friday Grab Bag:
- It turns out coach's challenges aren't perfect after all
- Stop pretending to be confused about broken sticks
- The Backstreet Habs, for some reason
- An obscure player chosen for no reason other than making a trade pun
- And two adorable Oilers roommates struggle through a tour of their apartment.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A dozen developments from a weird week one

It was only last Wednesday that the NHL was getting ready to drop the puck on a new season. Hockey fans settled in for the long haul, ready for the ups and downs that inevitably visit every team over a six-month season. We would enjoy the games, yes. But we would not panic.

Seven days later, as the final horns sounded on last night’s games, hockey fans collectively stood up and shouted “Screw that.” Because right now, the standings are a mess. It seems like every team in the league is either a steaming tire fire or an unstoppable monster. No, you shouldn’t overreact to one week’s worth of action. But surely some of these teams are trying to tell us something. The key is figuring out which ones.

So what’s going on? Great question. Let’s see if we can sort this out with a look at a dozen developments from the NHL’s first week.

The Sharks Are Looking Sharp

If you wanted to get a handle on where the Sharks stood in the Pacific, you couldn’t ask the schedule maker for a much better indicator than opening-week matchups against the Kings and Ducks. Those are the two teams expected to represent the toughest hurdle on the Sharks’ way back to the playoffs, if not the division title, so they made for a good early-season test. It’s fair to say the test was passed.

The Sharks opened the season by going into L.A. and thumping the Kings 5-1, following that with a tidy 2-0 win over the Ducks in their home opener. Those were two big wins, and they came behind some strong goaltending by new starter Martin Jones. And, as Craig Custance points out, the Sharks were able to generate much of that offense at even strength, which has been a focus of new coach Peter DeBoer.

But if those first two games were a statement, Tuesday’s 5-0 stomping of a very good Caps team felt like an exclamation point. Jones has now allowed just one goal in three games, good for a .987 save percentage, and looks every bit like the bona fide starter the Sharks were hoping they’d acquired.

Will it continue? It’s worth remembering that not everyone was writing the Sharks off this season, with some pundits being quite high on them. That said, while the Sharks are a good team, let’s give it a few more weeks before we officially welcome them back to the league’s elite. After all, this sort of hot start isn’t exactly new in San Jose, and it hasn’t ended well in the past.

The Kings Have Been Awful

Hey, remember how last season was just a perfect storm of fatigue, slumps, and plain old bad luck, and the Kings were going to storm back into the league’s top tier this season? Maybe hold that thought.

Today, the Kings sit last in the Western Conference, at 0-3-0 with a stunning minus-10 goal differential. They can’t score, Jonathan Quick can’t make a save, and now there’s talk that Darryl Sutter could be on the hot seat.

And this all comes after what was supposed to be an easy schedule to start the season, one that featured home games against San Jose, Arizona, and Vancouver — two teams that missed the playoffs last season and a third that most thought would miss them this season. Not only did the Kings lose all three, but they weren’t close in any of them. This team is a mess.

Will it continue? It feels like “no” should be the easy answer; the Kings have plenty of talent, with essentially the same core as the one that won the Cup in 2014 except with Milan Lucic added into the mix. But this has the feel of a team about to implode, with everyone from the players to the coaches to (especially) GM Dean Lombardi looking awful right now. The Kings have earned some benefit of the doubt. But only some. They need to show some signs of life, and soon.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A brief history of the waiver draft

This time last week, NHL teams were preparing for the start of the regular season in all the usual ways. Final cuts were being made. Last-minute contracts were being signed. Opening-night starting goalies were being named.

And, in what’s become an annual tradition, we got one last flurry of moves on the waiver wire. Since the collective bargaining agreement dictates that some players can’t be sent to the minors without passing through waivers, the final days before the regular season always sees a bunch of last-minute attempts to sneak guys through. This year was no different, with a handful of players switching teams and many more passing through unclaimed.

And that’s all well and good. But there used to be a better way. It ran from 1977 to 2003, and it was called the waiver draft. And it was great, because anything involving a draft is by definition going to be fun. The entry draft is fun; your fantasy hockey draft is fun; expansion drafts are just about the most fun thing ever. And the waiver draft was fun, too, which is presumably why it had to die.

But for 27 years, hockey fans could look forward to an (almost) annual leaguewide draft of has-beens and never-weres, all held just a few days before the start of the regular season. And it was magic — a world of wasted picks, shady backroom deals, and “I didn’t know that guy was still playing” wonder. Let’s take a look back at some of the highlights.

(Much of the research for this piece comes from a wonderful blog called Historical Hockey Stats & Trivia, which appears to no longer be active but is a great site to visit if you’re a hockey fan looking to have your productivity for the day shot to hell.)

The 1970s: An Origin Story

From the mid-’50s until 1975, the NHL had what it called the intra-league draft. It typically took place in June and was meant to promote competitive balance by forcing the league’s better teams to make some of their talent available to the bottom-feeders. Each team could protect a set number of players, with the rest being available to the rest of the league in a draft format, with picks going in reverse order of the standings.

The intra-league draft was occasionally busy, but by the mid-’70s it had become an afterthought, largely due to a financial crisis brought on by the advent of the rival WHA. The draft was finally scrapped in 1976. But the need for something similar lingered, as the league’s competitive-balance issues only got worse. That was bad for the NHL, because nobody wants to buy tickets to watch cannon fodder, and bad for certain players, because depth guys on the top teams couldn’t get ice time.

And so, in 1977, the waiver draft was born. Teams could protect 18 skaters and two goalies, with first-year pros exempted. Teams would draft in reverse order of the previous year’s standings, and would pay a fee for each player they took.

The new draft didn’t exactly get off to a hot start; only three players were taken in 1977, none especially notable. The 1978 draft wasn’t much better, with only five selections, although the day was notable for a series of controversies surrounding the Canadiens. The reigning champs, in the middle of a four-year Cup streak, were accused of using loopholes to protect players, and also tried to work a sneaky trade-back deal involving the draft’s top pick, Pierre Bouchard, that was overruled by the league.

The WHA merger wiped out the 1979 draft, but everyone agreed to give the whole thing another try in the ’80s, so long as the Habs would promise to stop screwing around.

The 1980s: Demise of the Dynasties

Over the course of the 1980s, the waiver draft went from a novelty that had been tried only a couple of times to a standard part of the hockey calendar, and NHL GMs got more comfortable with the format as the decade wore on. This was the era when we started to see some recognizable names showing up on the drafted list, although it was rarely because of what the player was accomplishing on the ice.

For example, future Rangers coach and (after that) controversial head disciplinarian Colin Campbell was plucked in the 1980 draft, going from the Oilers to the Canucks, which made him a member of the presumably exclusive club of players to be picked in four different types of drafts: the NHL entry draft, the WHA amateur draft, an expansion draft, and a waiver draft.

Boston’s John Wensink and Quebec’s Curt Brackenbury were taken that year, too, establishing what would eventually become a theme: teams using the waiver draft to replenish their enforcer ranks. Wensink was taken again in 1981, along with another future NHL head coach: Terry Murray, who went from one team he’d someday coach, the Flyers, to another, the Capitals. (Murray famously got the job in Washington in 1989-90 as a replacement for his fired brother, Bryan.) But the biggest names taken that year were two members of the Canadiens dynasty. Yvon Lambert was picked by the Sabres, while future Hall of Famer Serge Savard had his 15-year career in Montreal ended by a waiver-wire selection by the Jets; he’d play two years in Winnipeg before retiring.

While those guys were all key picks in their own right, the undisputed MVP of the early-’80s waiver draft was winger Jeff Brubaker, who was taken four times in four drafts between 1981 and 1984, part of a nine-year NHL career that saw him play for seven teams, presumably because chanting “BRRRUUUUU” was so much fun. The 1984 draft also saw the Penguins use the first overall pick on former 50-goal scorer — and charter member of the NHL’s Brady Andersons club — Wayne Babych; needless to say, that would not end up being the most successful first overall draft pick the Pens used that year.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 9, 2015

Grab bag: Return of the Mullet

It's the return of the grab bag. This week:
- The three comedy stars of the offseason
- A simple change to fix the PIM stat
- Don Cherry switches sport
- An obscure player with a great name, and two cool connections to this offseason
- And grab a curtain rod as the Senators' make an awkward debut...

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Seven opening night story lines to overreact to

The NHL drops the puck on its regular season tonight with four games, followed by seven more tomorrow. By Sunday, every team will have played at least once, which means we’ll be in a position to draw firm conclusions about how the rest of the season will turn out.

Oh, we’ll be told not to. We’ll be admonished and scolded and constantly reminded not to overreact to one or two games. But where’s the fun in that? We’re hockey fans. Overreacting to every little thing is what we do.

But it’s important to be prepared. So here are seven story lines to keep an eye on this week, along with prepackaged overreaction you should have ready to go, just in case.

Did this happen? Connor McDavid fails to register a hat trick in his NHL debut tomorrow in St. Louis.

Then that can only mean … : BUST!

Or maybe not: McDavid is the most heavily hyped prospect to enter the league since Sidney Crosby, and when you factor in the explosion of media coverage over the last 10 years, he may be the most hyped ever. He’ll be under a microscope every time he takes the ice, with fans looking for signs that he can somehow live up to it all.

And he almost certainly will … eventually. But this seems like a good time to remember that teenage rookies rarely take the league by storm. In fact, in the two decades since the onset of the dead puck era, only one such player has managed a better season that Patrick Kane’s 72 points in 2007-08.

That would be Crosby, who totaled an impressive 102 in 2005-06, and that’s where some will want to peg the McDavid comparisons. But that was the first year after the season-long lockout, and scoring was way up thanks to a leaguewide mandate to make sure the entire game was spent on the power play. Scoring is down more than 10 percent from that peak, and there’s far less power-play time for the stars to divvy up, so Crosby’s total is almost certainly out of reach.

Since Crosby and Kane, no teenage rookie has had more than 63 points. McDavid isn’t your average rookie, but it’s not hard to see him topping out around that mark. And if he does, lots of fans will call it a disappointment. We shouldn’t. McDavid will be challenging Crosby for the Art Ross within three or four years; there’s no need to crank up the comparisons in Year 1.

Did this happen? One of the teams in tomorrow’s Dallas-Pittsburgh game ends up losing.

Then that can only mean … : The fancy-pants winger you traded for might score a lot of goals, but you can’t win in this league with a bunch of All-Star forwards if they’re supported by an average blue line and questionable goaltending!

Or maybe not: Before we go any further, let’s offer up some thanks to the league for providing this fantastic matchup on opening night. The Stars and Penguins may well be the two most entertaining teams in the league, and both spent the offseason loading up on even more offense. Seeing them pair off is a gift from the NHL, and I’m so grateful that I’m going to go an entire paragraph without criticizing the league for anything.

Yep. Sure will.

With that out of the way, I’m pretty sure one of these teams will indeed lose, since the league hasn’t quite reached its ultimate goal of giving everyone two points for every game played and hoping we won’t notice. That will give a head start to all the naysayers who’ll be lining up to criticize a team for daring to build around offense. And that will be especially true if we get blessed with the sort of 6-5 barn burner we’re all hoping for.

Look on the bright side, Stars or Penguins fans: You’re going to hear this stuff all year long. Might as well get used to it early.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

NHL awards favorites and longshots

These days, the NHL loves Las Vegas. The league has spent the past year openly flirting with giving the city its first major pro sports team, with everyone expecting a team to begin play there by 2017. And that’s in addition to the league holding its annual awards show in Vegas, which it has already been doing for years.

If it’s good enough for the league, it should be good enough for us, so let’s use those same awards to get a taste of some Vegas action. With the preseason schedule mercifully wrapped up and real hockey just days away, it’s time to hit the sportsbook for our annual attempt to predict the coming season’s award winners. And since anyone can pick the obvious candidates, we’re going to take it a step further. For each award, we’ll pick one favorite, one long shot (defined as 10-1 or longer), and one off-the-board pick. We’ll be using the latest odds from Bovada as of Tuesday morning.

A look back at last season’s award winners reveals a mix of preseason favorites (Erik Karlsson was the top pick for the Norris, Alexander Ovechkin was listed second for the Rocket Richard, and Carey Price was third for the Vezina), one quasi-long shot (Aaron Ekblad was 7-1 for the Calder), and two big long shots (Price was listed at 50-1 for the Hart, and Jamie Benn was at 50-1 for the Art Ross).

If this season follows suit, there should be a chance to hit on at least a few surprises. Will I be able to find them? Looking back on past history, it’s fair to say I don’t love my odds. But if the NHL is willing to gamble on sticking another team in the desert, I can stick my neck out on a few underdogs. Hey, I’m probably due, right?

Art Ross Trophy (most points)

The favorite: Sidney Crosby sits alone at 7-4, ahead of Ovechkin at 6-1. But I’ll take the 5-1 choice: Islanders captain John Tavares, who narrowly missed out last season and seems like a guy who’ll win one or two of these over the course of his career. Might as well be this season.

The long shot: Defending champ Benn is listed at 15-1, and teammate Tyler Seguin is at 6-1. Former winner Evgeni Malkin is available at 20-1, and last season’s fourth-place finisher, Jakub Voracek, looks like a bargain all the way down at 50-1. But my favorite two picks here are a pair of guys who’ve had recent near misses. Ryan Getzlaf (25-1) was the runner-up in 2013-14, and Claude Giroux (30-1) was third in both 2011-12 and 2013-14. I’ll take Giroux, and hope he continues that every-second-year magic.

Off the board: Neither Sedin brother is listed here even though both have won the award since 2010, but given my pessimism on the Canucks, I’ll pass. Besides, another missing name jumps out here: Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom, who’s finished in the top 10 four times and led the league in assists last season. He’ll need to keep being an elite playmaker while nudging his goal scoring back up over the 20 mark to have a shot, but with an improved Caps team around him, that’s a decent bet to happen. He’s the pick.

Hart Trophy (MVP)

The favorite: It’s Crosby again, which makes sense — more often than not, the Hart goes to whoever wins the scoring title. Of course, 2014-15 was one of the “not” years, so we’ll have to keep our eye on the goalies here. There aren’t any at the top end of the list, though, with Crosby joined by Ovechkin (6-1) and Tavares (17-2). I’m already in on Tavares for the Art Ross, so I’ll stick with him here.

The long shot: We’ve got a big list to work with, with 18 players left on the board, including reigning champ Price at 10-1. The only other two goalies are Henrik Lundqvist (28-1) and Jonathan Quick (40-1), and Lundqvist is tempting.

But if we’re going to go out on a limb with our last pick, let’s go all the way out — down to the very bottom of the list, where we find Erik Karlsson at 50-1. The Ottawa defenseman has already won two Norris Trophies; maybe voters are getting tired of handing him that award and want to think a little bigger. True, defensemen almost never win the Hart — Chris Pronger in 1999-2000 was the last to pull it off — but we could have said something similar about goalies this time last season. I’m not high on the Senators this season, but if they surprise, it will be because of the player who’s far and away their best. At 50-1, I’ll roll those dice.

Off the board: Jakub Voracek is a notable omission here, and I could make a case for P.K. Subban under the same logic as Karlsson. There are also some decent goalie options, including Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask, and you know I’m fighting the urge to go with Phil Kessel, because trading a guy the year before he’s the MVP would be the most Leafs thing ever. But in the end we’ll go with Backstrom again; if he does come through and win the Art Ross, history says he’s the Hart favorite.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 2, 2015

Season preview, part four: The Contenders

Today marks the end of the last week without regular-season hockey until the playoffs arrive in April. It also marks the end of Grantland’s season preview week. On Tuesday, we shook our heads sadly at the Bottom-Feeder Division. On Wednesday, we shrugged our shoulders at the Middle-of-the-Pack Division. And yesterday, we threw our hands in the air over the confounding No-Clue Division.

That leaves only one group left to go: the Contenders Division. The seven teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Other teams will spend the year talking about progress and moral victories and finding something positive to take out of that loss. Not these guys. It’s Cup or bust, right out of the gate. And the odds are good one of them will get it.

If you’ve been checking off the teams throughout the week, you may have noticed something interesting about today’s list: It’s going to be heavily tilted to the East, with five of the seven teams coming from the Eastern Conference. What’s up with that? Has the historically weaker conference finally caught up?

Maybe, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. A more likely explanation is that this year’s East is up for grabs, with up to a half-dozen teams that could realistically take the top spot without it being considered a surprise. Meanwhile, the West is somewhat more top-heavy, with the Hawks and the Ducks and (maybe) the Kings settling in as the consensus picks. It’s tough to be a Cup favorite if there’s a team in your conference that’s a solid step or two ahead of you, so the West ends up with fewer top-tier teams even though it may well be the better conference yet again.

With that out of the way, on to the contenders …

Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 48-28-6, 102 points, third in the Central and seventh overall, won the Stanley Cup.

Offseason report: Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman got back from the parade, finished off his beer, and then blew the dust off the “How to retool after a Cup win” manual he’s spent the past few years writing. Once again, cap pressure forced the Hawks to part with some valued pieces, including Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya (both of whom ended up in Dallas), Brad Richards (Detroit), and Brandon Saad (Columbus). Most teams would have a tough time withstanding that sort of exodus. Most teams aren’t the Blackhawks.

Outlook: Losing Sharp, Saad, and others will hurt. But the core is still in place, and as long as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith are playing at their peak, the Blackhawks will be contenders. That’s not a sure thing — Kane’s sexual assault investigation is ongoing and could still result in charges that could take him out of the lineup — and every team eventually runs into bad luck with injuries or off years. But as long as those three are in the lineup and playing well, the Hawks are close to playoff locks.

Key number: 65 — Number of playoff games the Blackhawks have played over the last three years. That’s one more than the 64 the Kings played from 2012 to 2014, a number everyone latched on to as the prime culprit in their disappointing 2014-15 season. That’s not to say the Hawks will miss the playoffs, but at some point fatigue has to be a concern.

Watchability index: 9/10. If you don’t like watching Keith play hockey, there’s either something seriously wrong with you or you’re cheering for Chicago’s opponents.

Best case: There hasn’t been a repeat Cup winner in the salary-cap era, and nobody’s even made it back to the final since the 2009 Penguins–Red Wings rematch. But the Hawks could absolutely pull it off, and with so much of the Central in flux, their first division title in three years is there for the taking too.

Worst case: Kane’s situation drags on, Keith and Marian Hossa occasionally look like guys in their thirties instead of cyborgs, the top six misses Sharp more than expected, and the accumulated weight of the last three postseasons drags everyone down into an off year. They still make the playoffs but bow out early.

Suggested slogan: We almost made it through an entire preview without anyone mentioning that Corey Crawford might be overrated.

Bold prediction: The Hawks have a typical Hawks year, cruising through the regular season before slamming on the gas once the playoffs arrive. But this time, there’s not enough left in the tank for a full trip; they don’t make it out of Round 2.

New York Rangers

Last season: 53-22-7, 113 points, first in the Metro and first overall, lost in the conference finals.

Offseason report: The Rangers dealt backup goalie Cam Talbot to the Oilers and lost Martin St. Louis to retirement. They also swapped Carl Hagelin for Emerson Etem in a cap-inspired move. But the biggest change came in the front office, where longtime GM Glen Sather stepped aside. Jeff Gorton replaces him.

Outlook: The Rangers are one of only two teams (joining the Hawks) to have been to the final four in each of the last two seasons. They’ve been knocking on the door; the question is how much time they have left to step through.

The Rangers aren’t exactly an old team, but they’ve got several key players on the wrong side of 30, including Dan Boyle (39), Rick Nash (31), Dan Girardi (31), and, most importantly, Henrik Lundqvist (33). There’s also some cap pressure on the way, with Chris Kreider needing a new deal next year and Keith Yandle likely to depart as a free agent next summer.

There’s no sense of panic in New York, nor should there be. But a sense of urgency? Probably, yeah.

Key number: 2 — Consecutive years in which Rick Nash has led the league in shots taken during the postseason. The actual production hasn’t quite been there, although last year’s 14 points in 19 games was reasonable. And sure, he’s paid big bucks to score, so results matter. But when a guy is generating that many chances, it’s time to drop the “Nash disappears in the playoffs” narrative.

Watchability index: 7/10. Just don’t gaze too long into Lundqvist’s eyes. Uh, no reason.

Best case: While everyone’s waiting to anoint the Caps or Islanders as the Metro’s Next Big Thing, the Rangers just keep winning, all the way back to the final.

Worst case: The worst possible scenario is that Lundqvist starts to slow down; at 33, he’s reached the age when that typically happens to most goalies. He’s not most goalies, and some guys continue to excel for years into their mid- or even late thirties. But this guy is the franchise, and if he does start to falter, the Rangers’ short-term Cup chances will plummet.

Suggested slogan: Your 2014-15 Presidents’ Trophy champions! We think. Wait, didn’t the Ducks end up catching us? You know what, even we don’t care.

Bold prediction: The Rangers’ streak of Metro dominance ends thanks to a seven-game upset at the hands of the Islanders.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Season preview, part three: The No-Clue Division

We’re now six sleeps away from the start of the NHL season, not to mention halfway through our preview week. On Tuesday we looked at the league’s bottom-feeders; yesterday it was the middle of the pack.

That leaves us with the best of the best, the league’s true contenders. So if your favorite team wasn’t mentioned in either of the last two articles, congratulations! You guys are in for a great … oh, wait. The Contenders Division doesn’t come until tomorrow. We’ve got one more division to go before we get there, and it’s the group that’s usually the most fun: the No-Clue Division.

These are the eight teams that are the hardest to figure out and have the widest range of possible outcomes. Out of the playoffs by Christmas? Sure. Stanley Cup contenders? Why not. Traded to the KHL for future considerations? Highly unlikely and technically illegal, but nobody’s entirely ruling it out.

This is always my favorite article to write, because it’s the only one where I can’t end up being embarrassingly wrong. Lower those expectations far enough and you won’t be disappointed. Gosh, this must be how the Oilers feel every year. Speaking of whom …

Edmonton Oilers

Last season: 24-44-14, 62 points, sixth in the Pacific and 28th overall.

Offseason report: They traded for Cam Talbot, the latest in a long line of candidates who’ll try to provide passable goaltending behind the Oilers’ leaky blue line. They tried to address that blue line by signing Andrej Sekera to a big free-agent deal. They said goodbye to Martin Marincin and Viktor Fasth.

What else, what else … oh, right, they won the draft lottery and picked the best player to enter the NHL in a decade. Connor McDavid changed everything in Edmonton, so much so that the team quickly cleaned house and brought in Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan.

Outlook: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but it really does feel like a new era in Edmonton. McDavid is as close to a sure thing as any prospect could be, the sort of franchise player that usually results in a Stanley Cup or two down the road. That road may be a long one for the Oilers, who still have plenty of the same holes that plagued last year’s team, but McDavid, Sekera, and Talbot alone should be enough to move the team out of the league’s basement district. And if McDavid stars right away and Talbot is a legit starter, a playoff hunt isn’t entirely out of the question.

Key number: 5-14-6-1 — Recognize this? No? Oilers fans do.

Watchability index: 8/10. McDavid will be must-see TV as a rookie, but there’s other talent on display here. This could be the year Taylor Hall finally breaks through into the “best wingers in the league” conversation, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also seems poised for a big year. With that blue line and a question mark in goal, the Oilers should produce plenty of highlights at both ends of the ice.

Best case: McDavid has a rookie year like Sidney Crosby’s in 2005-06, Hall cracks the 30-goal mark for the first time and then pushes for 40, Talbot is the real deal, and Sekera stabilizes the defense. The Oilers grab the last playoff spot and host a postseason game for the first time in a decade.

Worst case: McDavid has a 50-point season that’s perfectly reasonable but feels like a letdown, Talbot is this year’s Dubnyk/Scrivens/Fasth-style goaltending disappointment, and the rest of the roster reminds us all why they were terrible last year. The Oilers are a bottom-five team yet again, as their fans rock back and forth in the fetal position on the floor.

Suggested slogan: Hey, what’s the worst that could happen? Don’t answer that.

Bold prediction: The Oilers are better, but the playoffs have to wait. They post their best point total since 2006, but that tops out at a whopping 89.

Nashville Predators

Last season: 47-25-10, 104 points, second in the Central and sixth overall, lost in the first round.

Offseason report: The Predators made a series of minor moves, but the roster won’t look all that much different than last year’s. Centers Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro both re-signed, and free agents Barret Jackman and Cody Hodgson were added.

Outlook: The Predators were last season’s biggest surprise, making the leap from also-ran to Presidents’ Trophy contender seemingly overnight. Maybe we should have seen that coming; good goaltending can fix just about anything, and Pekka Rinne returned to full health after missing most of 2013-14. Rinne’s return, the addition of James Neal, a breakout season from rookie Filip Forsberg, and a very good young blue line propelled the Preds to one of the league’s best season-long stories.

So can they do it again? A lot of that will ride on Rinne, and there are some concerning signs the big Finn could be wearing down. He missed three weeks with a knee injury suffered in January, and his numbers were down substantially after he returned — he posted save percentages of .927, .938, and .935 in the first three months of the season, but he went .910, .919, .914, and .863 in the four months after that. At 32, he’s not what you would call an old goalie, but he’s at that age where guys tend to start their decline.

If Rinne falters, the Predators could find it tough to produce enough offense to make up the difference. Their reputation as a low-scoring team isn’t exactly fair — they were 13th in goals last year — but there’s not much in way of star power up front. You’d have to think Neal will do better than his 37-point campaign, and Forsberg and Roman Josi are young enough to expect improvement. But when you’re counting on a 35-year-old Ribeiro as your no. 1 center, you’re not exactly working with a huge margin for error.

Key number: 28 — Home wins by the Predators, the second-highest total in the league. They’ll get an extra chance to play host this season, as the All-Star Game comes to Nashville in January.

Watchability index: 7/10. We haven’t mentioned Shea Weber yet, but the captain is often worth the price of admission on his own. Mix in a little Seth Jones, and you’re golden. Or mustard-colored, or whatever that’s supposed to be.

Best case: The offense gets a little better, Rinne is back to his usual self (and healthy), Forsberg picks up where he left off, and the Predators challenge for the division title again. And this time, they don’t cough it up in the final week.

Worst case: Rinne declines, the kids are inconsistent, and the offense just can’t produce enough to keep up. The Predators don’t plummet, but they follow in the footsteps of last year’s Avalanche as Central Division one-year wonders.

Suggested slogan: We apologize in advance for subjecting our fans to an NHL All-Star Game.

Bold prediction: The Predators produce a Norris finalist yet again, but this time it’s Josi, not Weber.

>> Read the full post on Grantland