Friday, December 18, 2015

Grab Bag: Preemptive Stamkos outrage edition

In this week's grab bag:
- The Steven Stamkos decision is going to be insufferable
- An Christmas-themed obscure player trips up a legend
- An unwritten rule for hockey announcers following a fight
- The week's three comedy star
- And the 1984 Flyers would like to read you a Christmas poem

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

The NHL GM trade power rankings (part two)

15. Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks

Current standings: 15-14-1, second place in the Pacific

Estimated cap room: $1 million (assuming Ben Smith is on the LTIR)

Remember when a Patrick Marleau deal felt like a sure thing? That was only a few weeks ago, but the buzz around that move has quieted down significantly. The wide-open Pacific says Wilson should be looking to deal; the cap says he might not be able to. Either way, he tends to do most of his trading in the offseason or at the trade deadline. And history says we shouldn't expect anything over the next few weeks; he hasn't made a deal in December since 2006.

14. Don Sweeney, Boston Bruins

Current standings: 17-9-4, second place in the Atlantic

Estimated cap room: $600,000

You have to hand it to Sweeney -- the rookie GM certainly wasn't shy about pulling the trigger after being promoted in the offseason. He made several big trades, including those involving Dougie Hamilton, Milan Lucic and Martin Jones (twice). Granted, those deals got mixed reviews, but the key point is that Sweeney doesn't seem to have gotten the memo in his orientation package about being timid on the trade front. The only thing keeping him from ranking higher is the Bruins' tight cap and their place in the standings -- not bad enough to rebuild, not quite good enough to go try to load up.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The NHL GM trade power rankings (part one)

Confusion reigned Monday night, as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks announced that Trevor Daley and Rob Scuderi would switch teams. Thanks to the handful of remaining fans who are old enough to remember such things, it was eventually explained that this was an obscure type of player transaction known as a "midseason trade."

OK, that's laying it on a little thick, but fans could be forgiven for needing a refresher on how these deals work, given that we'd had only one all season, and that one didn't involve any actual NHL players. But now that general managers Stan Bowman and Jim Rutherford have broken the seal for the rest of the league, why stop at one? We got a minor deal between the Habs and Coyotes Tuesday night. Maybe Scuderi-for-Daley can be the domino that finally, mercifully gets the trade market moving.

That's probably a pipe dream, but just in case: Who's up for an old-fashioned ranking post? Let's take all 30 teams and try to figure out which ones are the most likely to make a trade or two (or more) between today and the week leading up to the trade deadline, when everyone tends to wake up and start dealing.

I'll be looking at each team's position in the standings and how much cap room it has available. More importantly, we'll be looking at the track record of each of the 30 GMs, which ones tend to be the most risk-adverse, and which ones are willing to get aggressive.

Remember, this isn't a ranking of the best GMs -- it's a ranking of the ones who are most like to make a deal over the next six to eight weeks or so. And sure, sometimes the best trade is the one you don't make, as the cliché goes, but for this exercise we're looking for quantity over quality.

Is this all an exercise in guesswork? Mostly. Does it virtually guarantee that two GMs I've ranked low will hook up on a blockbuster by the end of the week? Almost certainly. Will I attempt to take credit for that by claiming the whole thing was an elaborate reverse jinx? Cannot confirm or deny.

30. Ken Holland, Detroit Red Wings

Current standings: 16-9-6, second place in the Atlantic

Estimated cap room: $5.2 million

As the longest tenured GM in the league, nobody gives us more of a track record to look at than Holland. And that track record is fairly clear: Don't expect the Red Wings to do much until the deadline nears. That's when Holland typically does all of his trading work; he hasn't made an offseason deal involving players since 2012, and hasn't made one between opening night and the end of January since 2002. (That was the big "Jason Woolley from Buffalo for future considerations" blockbuster, in case you were wondering.) History says he'll probably do something around the deadline, but if he makes a deal before then, it will be the first time in the history of the cap era.

29. Brian MacLellan, Washington Capitals

Current standings: 21-6-2, first place in the Metro

Estimated cap room: $40,000

MacLellan has only been on the job since last offseason. Last season, he didn't make any midseason deals until the deadline, and his only move that approaches "big deal" status was last summer's T.J. Oshie trade. That doesn't give us much to work with, but we might not need it. As currently constructed, the Caps are already very good and very close to being capped out, so we're unlikely to see much action in Washington until closer to the deadline.

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Let's all openly root for a Rangers/Islanders playoff matchup

Last night's NHL schedule featured a pair of games within the New York city limits, with both the New York Rangers and New York Islanders playing host. The results were mixed, featuring a win and a loss for the home teams. This was good news, and we'll get to that in a minute.

At Madison Square Garden, the Rangers snapped the Edmonton Oilers' six-game win streak, taking the lead on a Rick Nash goal late in the second and then holding on through the third before icing the win with an empty netter in the final minute. The victory avenged last week's shootout loss in Edmonton.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the Islanders were dropping a 5-1 decision to the Florida Panthers. The result wasn't necessarily surprising -- the Isles were at the end of the dreaded three-games-in-four-nights stretch -- but still had to feel like a missed opportunity to gain some ground on the idle Washington Capitals. The loss snapped a three-game Islanders win streak, and allowed the Rangers to leapfrog them into second place in the Metro.

In other words, if you're a hockey fan, the night went just about perfectly. Stay with me, Islanders fans, because you know I've always had your back.

Here's the deal: We want the Islanders and Rangers to spend the rest of the season fighting back and forth for second and third place in the Metro. No, scratch that: We need that to happen. There's no room here for either team to get red hot and surge into first, nor can either slump badly and plummet down to fourth. No, they need to keep doing what they did last night: play a nice game of leapfrog with second and third spots, and leave the rest of the division alone.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

When NHL compensation rules go bad (or: How Mark Messier became a Shark)

Hockey history is a rich tapestry of traditions, trends and innovations. Many stuck around to become part of the game's enduring fabric. Others, not so much. "It made sense at the time" is an ongoing feature in which we'll look back at one of the odder things that used to be part of the NHL's culture and wonder how exactly it made sense at the time and that everyone was OK with it.

At least week's board of governors' meeting, the NHL surprised no one by doing away with its much-maligned compensation plan for hiring coaches and GMs. The system had been meant to standardize compensation for teams that hired away personnel who were still under contract to other teams, but was doomed by confusion over whether it should apply to those who'd already been fired.

In other words, it was a nice idea in theory that turned into an embarrassing mess once it saw the light of day. It will probably not shock you to learn that this is not the first time this has happened to the NHL.

In the years leading up to the 2004 lockout, the NHL featured an ever-increasing disparity between franchises in terms of revenue and spending power. This led many to yearn for a hard salary cap, while others proposed milder solutions like a luxury tax or increased revenue sharing, but virtually everyone agreed that it was a problem. And this was especially true when it came to free agency, as small-market teams found it difficult to hold on to star players who knew that a big-market payday was looming on the horizon.

The NHL's higher-ups, to its credit, took action. They couldn't solve the problem -- that was what the coming lockout would be for -- but they could do the next best thing and even the playing field.

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Monday, December 14, 2015

The Vancouver Canucks are bad

So ... the Vancouver Canucks are bad. We all agree on that, right?

That feels like a question we shouldn't even have to ask about a team that lost its 20th game of the season Sunday night. The Canucks have lost more times than the Toronto Maple Leafs, or the Buffalo Sabres, or the Carolina Hurricanes. They've lost more than the Calgary Flames or the Edmonton Oilers. They've lost as many games as the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that was losing so much that they went out and hired John Tortorella, and what kind of franchise does that?

So yes, the Canucks are bad, just as all of the hockey world's most handsome experts predicted. But someone had better tell the standings page, which has Vancouver sitting in a tie for second place in their division. That's partly because they play in the Pacific, and you and your buddies from your beer league could make the playoffs in this season's Pacific. And it's partly because the team has had the good sense to do a big chunk of its losing in overtime and the shootout, allowing them to rack up a league-leading eight loser points.

(Yes, some fans would insist that there's no such thing as a "loser point," and that the Canucks are really just earning a whole bunch of regulation ties and then merely failing to earn a bonus point for winning once the gimmicks kick in. These people are delusional, and if you encounter one you should simply ask them why the extra point column on the standings page has the word "loss" right in it and then run away while they're staring at it in confusion and trying to remember what words mean.)

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Grab Bag: There is such a thing as too much scoring

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- All these Steven Stamkos to Toronto rumors are stupid. Or are they?
- Should referees target known divers?
- An obscure player drops the gloves with a legendary pacifist
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the highest scoring game in the history of the NHL, which happened 30 years ago today.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

The NHL's talent dilution myth

The hockey world has spent the past few weeks discussing the NHL's scoring rates, and what (if anything) the league should be doing about them. I've covered the topic from a few different angles, and each time I do I get a big dose of feedback from readers. Some are pining for the high-scoring days of the 1980s and '90s. Others aren't sure there's really much of a problem at all. And almost everyone has an idea about what's behind the league's two-decade drop in scoring.

The usual suspects show up often: The goalies are too big and too good; their equipment is out of control; defensive systems are too well-coached; the rulebook isn't enforced properly; the rinks are too small; and the loser point has left everyone playing for the tie.

But there's another culprit that comes up surprisingly often, so much so that it's easily one of the most common I hear from fans: talent dilution. There are too many teams and not enough players.

The argument goes something like this: If you want to know why scoring rates started to plunge in the early '90s, look at what else changed in the game around the same time. In 1991, when scoring was high, the NHL had 21 teams. It added five more over the next three years, and another four more by 2000. That's a 42 percent increase in teams, and roster spots, in less than a decade.

All that expansion, the thinking goes, might well have added new fans and increased the league's reach, not to mention its revenue. But it also watered down the talent level, to the point that hundreds of players who wouldn't have made the cut in a 21-team NHL were suddenly holding down big-league jobs. Those guys weren't as skilled, so of course we saw a drop in goals. Each team had fewer guys who could score them. And further expansion will only make things worse -- if anything, we could use a good round of contraction.

It's a convincing argument. And it's a timely one, as the NHL continues to tiptoe down the path to adding new teams. If the talent dilution theory is true, the scoring situation might be about to get even worse.

Luckily for us, it's not true. Talent dilution isn't behind the scoring drop. And here's why.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

NHL playoffs shaping up for some "common sense" chaos

You're not supposed to think about playoff matchups in December. You're not supposed to think about them at all, in fact, at least until they're set in stone. If you're a player, you're "looking ahead," which one of hockey's great sins. And if you're a fan, you know not to bother because the hockey gods will take away any matchup they catch you getting too excited about.

And yet, it was awfully hard not to start thinking ahead Tuesday night, as the NHL rolled out a busy nine-game schedule. All nine featured at least one team that went into the night holding down a playoff spot, with 11 such teams in action in total. We were facing the possibility of some great matchups, including great rivalries Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues-Chicago Blackhawks and New York Islanders-New York Rangers.

But we have the potential for something even more entertaining: chaos. Maximum chaos. It's going to happen one of these years, and this just might be the one.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Five high-flying, exciting NHL teams of the past (that didn't end well)

Last week, I wrote about the high-powered Dallas Stars, and how hockey fans everywhere should be cheering them on. Many of you agreed, and I’m pleased to confirm that the Stars’ bandwagon is now standing-room only.

But not everyone was on board, and there were two main objections that kept coming up. The first could be summarized as “Tell me to cheer for the Dallas Star one more time and I will and burn your house to the ground,” which came pretty much exclusively from Sabres fans. Come to think of it, I can’t really argue there. That one’s on me, Buffalo.

The second objection was something along the lines of: Why bother? Offense-first teams like the Stars may be fun, the argument went, but they never win in the modern NHL. Dallas will put up gaudy numbers, sure, but when the playoffs come along they’ll eventually run into some boring defense-first team that will shut them down. That’s how it always happens.

And while that’s not entirely true – we have seen some high-skill teams win it all over the years – it does have a familiar ring to it. So today, let’s take a look back at five teams from the past two decades who tried some variation of what the Stars are doing this year, only to see it all end in heartbreak.

It will be painful, but we need to do it. We’re all Dallas Stars fans now. We might as well prepare ourselves for what’s coming.

It’s a trap: The 1994-95 Red Wings

Why they were great: The early 90’s Red Wings were one of the best offensive teams of their generation, and by 1995 they’d led the Western Conference in scoring for four straight years. But they couldn’t seem to break through in the playoffs, and were coming off two straight first round exits.

The 1995 squad was stacked with offensive talent, including future Hall-of-Famers Sergei Fedorov, Paul Coffey and Dino Ciccarelli, a young Nicklas Lidstrom, and captain Steve Yzerman, who missed half the season with an injury but returned for the playoffs. When they hit the postseason, they looked unstoppable through the first three rounds, losing just two games as they rolled into the final as a heavy favorite.

But then they ran into: The New Jersey Devils, a low-scoring collection of pluggers under the guidance of defensive mastermind Jacques Lemaire. They played the neutral zone trap and relied on blatant clutch-and-grab tactics to slow down more offensively skilled teams and the goaltending of Martin Brodeur to shut the door on the few scoring chances they did allow. The high-powered Red Wings never had a chance, held to two goals or less in every contest of a four-game sweep. The rest of the NHL realized that the trap could trump skill, and the dark cloud of the Dead Puck Era settled over the league, never to be dispelled.

Or at least, that’s the story we all seem to have agreed on over the years. The reality is a little bit more complicated. For example, those defense-first Devils actually allowed more goals during the 94-95 season than the high-flying Red Wings did. And while they didn’t score much in that year’s lockout-shortened season, they’d led the Eastern Conference in goals scored in the previous year, so it’s not like they didn’t have a few guys who could put the puck in the net.

For the most part, hockey fans haven’t let any of that get in the way of a good narrative. And it’s certainly true that the 1995 final was an example of defense beating offense. But this upset probably gets too much credit for ushering in the defensive era; it’s not like it was some sort of unstoppable juggernaut getting derailed by an expansion team.

No, that came next year…

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Monday, December 7, 2015

Are the Carolina Hurricanes secretly good?

Are the Carolina Hurricanes any good?

That's the question that popped into my head as I was watching their comeback win over the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday night. It was an up-and-down game, one in which the Hurricanes were up 3-2 after two periods, blew that lead and trailed midway through the third, and then stormed back with two late goals for a regulation win. And that's a fitting outcome for an up-and-down team that has had its moments despite the fact that they're probably not very good. Unless they are. Which they're not. We think.

On the surface, it seems like an easy question, one that can be answered with one glance at the standings. So let's start there: The Hurricanes' win over the Coyotes vaulted them from a share of dead-last in the league all the way up to 25th overall. And while it's no doubt a source of pride to pass teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets, that still leaves them far closer to the first overall pick than the playoff race.

So, yeah, they're bad. End of post, and sorry for wasting your time.

Except ...

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Friday, December 4, 2015

Grab bag: All-stars, punching, and all-stars punching

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Thoughts on the John Scott all-star campaign
- What GMs like Tim Murray get wrong about trading
- A look back at the only fights in all-star game history
- Adding a new term to the hockey lexicon
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the days when a coach attacking a player didn't mean him names

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Goalie controversy roundup: The Western Conference

On Wednesday, we looked at a half dozen Eastern Conference teams with unsettled goaltending situations. Some were old-fashioned controversies, whereas others were short-term situations caused by slumps or injuries.

We move on to the West, where we'll start with a team that seems to have a permanent spot on this list over the years.

Edmonton Oilers: Cam Talbot vs. Anders Nilsson

In this corner: Coming off a surprisingly good season with the New York Rangers, Talbot was the Oilers' offseason trade target. They got him, at the cost of three draft picks. Would he finally stabilize years of shaky goaltending? Spoiler alert: These are the Oilers we're talking about.

And in this corner: Nilsson was another trade piece, although one that received far less attention. He came over from the Chicago Blackhawks to provide the organization with some depth, and perhaps push Ben Scrivens for the backup job.

The results so far: Nilsson pushed Scrivens all the way to the AHL, and he didn't stop there. He's earned a share of the starter's job with Talbot, who hasn't played well at all.

Prediction: The Oilers have a decision to make on Talbot, and soon; he'll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and with Edmonton looking like it will be well out of the playoff race, you'd expect the team to either sign him long term or try to flip him at the deadline to recover some of the assets it gave up to get him. That still gives Talbot a few months to find his game and reclaim the starter's job, and there's good reason to think that he can.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Goalie controversy roundup: The Eastern Conference

Ah, the good old-fashioned goaltending controversy. Nothing makes a coach or general manager's job easier than seeing one guy grab the job and run with it. But with more league-wide depth at the position than ever, it's inevitable that several teams end up splitting duties, at least temporarily. Sometimes it works. Often, it does not.

By my count, there are a dozen cases around the league where teams are facing some degree of uncertainty over just who owns the crease. Some are developing into classic goalie controversies, the kind where two (or more) guys get their hands on the job and tug it back and forth over the course of a season. Others are situations caused by slumps or injuries, the kind teams hope will be only temporary.

We'll start with the East today; the West will get its turn tomorrow. Here are six Eastern Conference teams with goaltending situations currently up for grabs.

Detroit Red Wings: Jimmy Howard vs. Petr Mrazek

In this corner: Howard is a former All-Star who had been Detroit's starter for six years before being overtaken by Mrazek in time for last season's playoffs.

And in this corner: Mrazek is a 23-year-old who would make spot appearances in Detroit for two years before earning the backup job last season. He got the start in all seven playoff games against the Lightning, and he played well.

The results so far: It was a mild surprise when the Wings went to Mrazek last spring, and some suspected that the departure of coach Mike Babcock would mean Howard getting the job back. But new boss Jeff Blashill has treated it as an open competition, and so far Mrazek has been better, posting a .928 save percentage to Howard's .914 and earning 15 of the team's 26 starts.

Prediction: Mrazek's grip on the job is getting firmer. Howard hasn't been bad by any stretch, but he's being outplayed by a younger, cheaper option. If that continues, what happens next could get tricky; Howard remains signed through 2018-19 on a contract that carries a $5.3 million cap hit, and he would become yet another questionable long-term contract in Detroit. Mrazek is earning $738,000 this season, after which he'll be a restricted free agent.

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We are all Dallas Stars fans now

As leaguewide scoring rates continue to drop and the NHL mulls yet another round of rule changes to boost offense, many fans are no doubt wondering: What can I do? What kind of steps could a typical fan take to help the league get back to the sort of exciting action it used to showcase a generation ago, before defense and goaltending took over?

The answer has always been: not much. Fans can complain all they want, but the issue is a complicated one and the league has shown precious little resolve to make the sort of drastic changes that might address it. You can vote with your eyeballs or your wallet, but that’s about it. There’s nothing you can do to help the league save itself.

Until now. This season, there really is a simple action we all could take that could make a difference.

This season, we all need to cheer for the Dallas Stars to win the Stanley Cup.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The NHL's Kobes: Ten legends who held on too long

The big sports story of the weekend: Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant announced that this will be his final season. He made the announcement Sunday, then went out and had the chance to tie the game on a dramatic, last-second shot. It did not go well.

That has led to plenty of talk about how Bryant has held on too long. You never want to say a player should have retired before he or she was ready -- after all, their job is to play. And if someone is still willing to pay them to do it, they're under no obligation to go out on our terms. But it's probably fair to see that some players' final years end up being, um, slightly below peak productivity. Yes, let's go with that.

That's true for the NHL, too, of course. Sometimes, a legendary player ends his career with an exclamation point. And sometimes, the end comes as more of an ellipsis, trailing off into an awkward silence, followed by a shrug and a "never mind."

So, in an effort to make Kobe feel better about how things are ending, here are 10 examples of NHL legends whose final seasons didn't quite meet the high standards they'd established over the rest of their careers.

Brett Hull

It's fun to remember him as: Perhaps the greatest pure goal scorer the league has ever seen.

So let's forget the part where: ... he tried to hang on for one more post-lockout year with the Arizona Coyotes.

In his prime, Hull was the answer to the question "What would happen if a guy with the goal-scoring skills and instincts of Alexander Ovechkin played in an era where you could actually score goals?" That answer involved three straight seasons with 70-plus goals and a grand total of 741 career goals.

But none of those goals came with the Coyotes. Hull signed a two-year contract with the team as a free agent in 2004, then saw the first year of the deal wiped out by the lockout. When play resumed in 2005, a 41-year-old Hull didn't exactly look like a great fit for the new, faster NHL, and he lasted just five games before calling it quits.

Hull was all sorts of fun to watch for the better part of two decades. But when your retirement headline includes the words "effective immediately," you've probably held on too long.

Martin Brodeur

It's fun to remember him as: One of the most decorated goaltenders of all time, a three-time champion and the league's ultimate "can't-picture-him-in-any-other-uniform" guy.

So let's forget the part where: ... he tried a seven-game comeback with the St. Louis Blues.

Brodeur spent 21 years with the New Jersey Devils, winning three Cups, earning a trophy case full or hardware and firmly establishing himself as a Devils legend. When he and the franchise parted ways after the 2014 season and he made it through the offseason without signing elsewhere, hockey fans celebrated a terrific career while breathing a sigh of relief that we wouldn't have to see the NHL's "Willie Mays-as-a-Met" moment.

But then came December and a call from the Blues. St. Louis already had Jake Allen, and Brian Elliott was on his way back from a knee injury, but they wanted another experienced goalie because, well, nobody was quite sure, but that's a story for another time.

Brodeur came in, started five games, and played fine. He wasn't good, but he didn't embarrass himself. But when Elliott returned a month later, Brodeur dropped to third on the depth chart and never played again. He retired midseason and took a front-office job in St. Louis.

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