Thursday, March 31, 2016

What if we voted for the Hart Trophy the way we do the Jack Adams?

On the surface, the Jack Adams Award is straightforward enough. Voted on by broadcasters, the honour goes to the league’s best coach, or more specifically the one “adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success”. Pretty simple, right?

But over the years, it’s become clear that the Jack Adams is given out based on a very different set of standards than the ones applied to virtually every other league award.

Voters rarely honour guys like Mike Babcock or Joel Quenneville who are consistently good year in and year out, instead preferring candidates who’ve seen their teams make unexpected jumps in the standings. While other award voters tend to like to see winners who’ve “paid their dues” before being honoured, the Jack Adams often goes to coaches who have just stepped into new jobs, even including rookies making their NHL debuts.

And while other awards can be dominated by the same guys year in and year out (see Wayne Gretzky, Nicklas Lidstrom or Martin Brodeur), the Jack Adams almost never goes to a repeat winner – just one coach has won multiple times for the same team, and only one has won more than twice overall.

None of that is to say that the criteria used to select the Jack Adams is wrong. It's just very different. Which leads to a fun thought experiment: What if we voted for the other awards the way the broadcasters vote for the Jack Adams?

Let's find out. We're going to go back over the last 25 years of Hart Trophy winners as league MVP and re-award them based on that weird Jack Adams criteria. That means:

- We'll give a strong preference to guys who have recently joined teams (including rookies)

- We'll almost always insist on rewarding candidates whose team made a major leap in the standings

- We'll try really hard to avoid repeat winners, especially for the same team

Will this tell us anything useful? Honestly, no, not a thing. But will it give us something to argue about for a day or two? Only one way to find out. Going back 25 seasons takes us to 1990-91, so let's start there.


Real winner: Brett Hull, who scored 86 goals for the Blues.

Our winner: Hull's a strong candidate, pushing the Blues to a 22-point jump in the standings in his third full season with the club. But in our Jack Adams-inspired universe, he loses out in a close vote to a newcomer: rookie Eddie Belfour, whose first season in Chicago sees the Blackhawks make a big jump of their own.


Real winner: Mark Messier, winning his second Hart in three years.

Our winner: In real life, Messier won handily. But our Jack Adams-inspired voters probably would have made him even more of a landslide, after he joined the Rangers days into the season and immediately helped turn them into a Presidents' Trophy winner. Even with one previous win under his belt (for the Oilers in 1990), voters would make him a shoo-in.


Real winner: Mario Lemieux, who ran away with the scoring title despite missing a chunk of the season battling cancer.

Our winner: Man, it's awfully tough to take the trophy from Lemieux, whose comeback was one of the most inspiring stories in sports history. But he'd already won the award, and his Penguins were back-to-back Cup champions at this point, so our voters are going to look elsewhere. It's a tough vote, with Boston's Adam Oates and Winnipeg super-rookie Teemu Selanne making for a stacked field. But our winner is Doug Gilmour, who turned the Leafs from utter laughingstock to Cup contender in his first full season in Toronto.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When first overall busts are traded

News broke this week that Nail Yakupov has asked the Oilers to trade him. That’s probably not devastating news for Edmonton fans, most of whom have soured on the unproductive winger. Four years after being taken with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, there’s little question that Yakupov is dangerously close to settling into bust territory.

But there’s good news for the Oilers. Trading a disappointing first overall pick is far from unprecedented. And in fact, history tells us that it’s even possible to extract some value from the deal. So let’s look back on five times in NHL history that a first overall bust was dealt a few years into their career, how those trades worked out, and what lessons the Oilers might be able to learn from them.

Brian Lawton, Minnesota North Stars

The bust: In 1983, the North Stars made Lawton the first ever American to be taken with the top pick. Among the players they passed on were another American, Pat LaFontaine, as well as a pair of decent Canadians in Steve Yzerman and Cam Neely. Lawton managed just one 20-goal season with the Stars, and never topped 50 points.

The trade: Days into the 1988-89 season, the Stars sent Lawton, Igor Liba and prospect Rick Bennett to the Rangers for Mark Tinordi, Paul Jerrard, Mike Sullivan, Bret Barnett and a third round choice.

The aftermath: Lawton didn’t last long in New York, appearing in just 30 games before he was on the move again, although in fairness that was five games more than Liba and Bennett would have in New York combined. In December, the Rangers packaged him with Don Maloney and Norm MacIver and sent him to the Whalers for Carey Wilson and a draft pick. (Ironically, the Whalers had owned the second pick in that 1983 draft, and had also passed on those future Hall of Famers, opting for a quasi-bust of their own in Sylvain Turgeon.)

Lawton bounced around with four more teams before his NHL career ended in 1993; he’d go on to become a player agent, and also had a stint as the Lightning GM.

While the pick was a painful miss for the North Stars, the Lawton trade worked out fairly well. Jerrard, Sullivan and Barnett combined for just five games in Minnesota, but Tinordi filled a regular role on the blueline until the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993. He went on to have a son who was so good that Maloney himself would trade away an all-star captain just to acquire him.

Lesson for the Oilers: While missing on a first overall pick is never fun, it is possible to salvage at least some value out of the eventual trade – assuming you move fast enough.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Monday, March 28, 2016

Weekend report: The Pacific's big three

Faceoff: Pumping the Shark

Last week, I wrote about the top to (almost) bottom dominance of the Central Division, with a focus on the division's Big Three of Chicago, St. Louis and Dallas. Among the responses to that post came a pushback that would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago: Hey, what about the Pacific?

Now to be clear, nobody is arguing that the Pacific has any sort of claim on the "best division" status—it may even be the worst, given how awful its bottom four teams are. But some readers wanted to know if its top three of the Kings, Ducks and Sharks are right up there with the Central's—and maybe even better?

The short answer: Huh. Yeah, they just might be.

The long answer starts over the Christmas holidays, when the division looked like a trainwreck. The Kings were good—so good, in fact, that they'd all but been handed the division crown. The second-place Sharks were fine, but were just one point up on Colorado, the Central's sixth-best team. The Canucks, Flames, Coyotes and Oilers were all scraping along, each losing more than they'd won. And all the way at the bottom of the conference sat the Ducks, the unmitigated disaster of the season's first half.

We already know what happened with Anaheim, whose refusal to panic and serve up the head of coach Bruce Boudreau paid off with a second-half surge back into the league's top tier. That changed the tone of the division, even as the four bad teams continued to plummet. By early March, the Ducks had pulled even with Los Angeles atop the division, and that seemed to light a fire under the Kings, who spent most of March heating up enough to regain the lead.

So sure, the Kings look great, as they almost always have during the Darryl Sutter era. And for the past few months, the Ducks have been just as good or better. We know all that. But the interesting team here is San Jose.

By now, the Sharks' narrative is well-established. They were a great team for a long time, but just couldn't get it done in the playoffs. Everyone has their theories as to why that was. Character? Heart? Joe Thornton, somehow, even though he's their best player? Or maybe just a good team whose only real flaw was that it didn't get the bounces at the right time. Whatever it was, everyone could agree that the Sharks' window had slammed shut with their 2014 collapse against the Kings followed by last year's playoff miss.

Well, almost everyone—GM Doug Wilson never seemed quite sure whether or not he was rebuilding. The team wanted to trade Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but didn't. Wilson said the rebuild was on, then kept bringing in veterans. You never really knew what to expect from these new-but-old Sharks, except that their days among the league's elite were done.

As the Sharks are proving, the Thornton/Marleau era isn't done just yet. –Photo by Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

But so far this year, they're... well, we're still not quite sure what they are. They've lost three straight, leaving them sitting third in the Pacific at 41-28-6, four points back of the Ducks and seven behind the Kings. That's still good enough to have them hovering right around the league's top ten overall, in a log jam with other good-but-not-great teams like the Islanders and Bruins. But if you prefer your numbers to come in the fancy stats variety, the Sharks start to look very good. And the rest of the league seems to be warming up to their chances; there's been a decided increase in "don't sleep on the Sharks" chatter lately.

But the biggest question still looms: Can they beat one of their California rivals in round one? And can they do it with enough left in the tank to beat the other one in round two? They'll probably have to in order to reach the conference final. And this is where all those past playoff ghosts start to haunt the conversation again, because the Sharks have never been the team you want to pick to exceed postseason expectations.

But maybe that's the whole point. We've always expected too much of the Sharks. What better way for the Thornton/Marleau era to end than to go into the playoffs as a clear underdog for the first time in over a decade, and shock the world?

Or maybe not. Either way, the top three in the Pacific can look scary good. And yes, maybe even Central-scary good.

Race to the Cup

The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

5. Chicago Blackhawks (44-25-7, +25 true goals differential)Every time I say nice things about the Blackhawks, smart hockey people want to whisper in my ear that this year's team isn't as good as we all think it is. Just thought I'd get that on the record. And while we're at it, Corey Crawford is no sure thing to be back in time for the playoffs.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, March 25, 2016

Grab bag: The Norris debate

In the Friday grab bag:
- The Doughty vs. Karlsson debate
- Great moments in obscure NHL players randomly showing up in rap videos
- Don Cherry gets political
- The week's three comedy stars
- and we go way, way back for a look at the moment Jaromir Jagr became an NHLer

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Let's shake up the expansion draft

Last week’s GM meetings brought plenty of talk about expansion, with the league presenting an early plan for what an expansion draft might look like. If and when we do get a draft, it will be the first one the league has held since 2000, and the NHL’s new plan looks an awful lot like what we had back then.

Let’s take a moment to remember what the NHL was like in 2000. There was no salary cap. Games could end in a tie, but not a shootout, and the standings had four columns. Gary Bettman only had one lockout under his belt. The Thrashers were in Atlanta, the Jets were on hiatus, and the Anaheim Ducks were still Mighty. The Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks were all suffering through long Stanley Cup droughts, as was Ray Bourque. Sidney Crosby was weeks away from becoming a teenager, Connor McDavid hadn’t started kindergarten yet, and Jaromir Jagr was merely old.

All of which is to say that the NHL of 2000 has little to do with the today’s league. So why should our next expansion draft be based on what was done back then? Many of today’s fans don’t even remember how teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild or Nashville Predators came into existence, so there’s no reason to feel bound by tradition.

No, it's time for the NHL to get creative. And we've got some idea to help them out. Here are three big new wrinkles the NHL should throw into their expansion draft plans.

Retained salary for exposed players

This will be the first expansion draft in the salary cap era, which will no doubt cause a major shift in strategy. The league is already looking at the possibility of forcing teams to expose a certain percentage of their salary cap, and there's been talk of changing the cap and floor requirements for the new teams in their inaugural seasons.

But the reality is that it's not hard to see what's going to happen here: The established teams are going to be exposing a ton of players with terrible contracts. And they'll be praying that those players will get picked, clearing the bad deals off the books. That's fine. It will probably even spur some fun trades, with teams sending assets to expansion newcomers in exchange for a promise to take a terrible contract off their hands.

But what if we went a step further? We already allow teams to retain salary in trades. Let's do the same for the expansion draft.

Here's how it would work. As each team submits their protected list, they'd have the option of also offering to retain salary on any player made available. You list the player, then you list the salary you're offering him at – knowing that you'd be responsible making up for the difference, in both cap hit and real dollars. And to really make it fun, we're not even going to the limit retained salary to 50 per cent. Sky's the limit, gentlemen.

You'd be adding a whole new element of strategy, for both the old and new teams. We know that nobody in their right mind is taking David Clarkson's $5.25 million albatross of a contract off of the Blue Jackets' hands, at least not without a first round pick or two attached to it. But what if he was on the list at $2 million? Wouldn't the Las Vegas Aces be awfully tempted to take a 32-year-old Dion Phaneuf at, say, $4.5 million, with the Senators paying the rest? Wouldn't they have to think about making Dustin Brown their first captain if the Kings were offering to eat half of his deal?

width="100%" Would a team be interested in taking David Clarkson at a reduced salary? (Jamie Sabau/Getty)

This isn't all that much different than what we have now in terms of trades, but the wrinkle is that teams aren't hammering out the retained salary as part of a specific negotiation with another team. Instead, everyone would have to come up with their numbers in advance. So how far do you go? How much it too much? How big of a discount sticker are you willing to slap on your worst deals to try to tempt an expansion team to take the bait?

There's only one way to find out. Many of these GMs signed those awful deals, so let's see how far they'll go to unload them.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

When playoff streaks end

The Red Wings’ playoff streak is in serious danger. At 24 consecutive seasons and counting, the Wings’ stretch of post-season appearances is the longest active streak in the big four North American pro sports leagues. But for the third year in a row, the Red Wings will have to go down to the wire to keep it alive, fending off a late challenge by the Philadelphia Flyers that threatens to finally snap the streak.

There’s an argument to be made that the Wings’ streak is the most impressive in NHL history, given the size of the league and the relentless push toward parity. But it’s not the only such streak the league has seen, or even the longest. Five other NHL teams have had playoff streaks longer than 20 consecutive seasons.

Let’s take a look back at those five teams, and how their streaks eventually ended.

1969-70 Montreal Canadiens

The streak: From 1949 to 1969, a 21-year span that included ten Stanley Cup championships.

How it ended: After winning four Cups in five years, including the 1969 title, the Habs finished the 1969-70 season with a 38-22-16 record. That left them tied with the Rangers for the final spot, leading to a wild and controversial final day of the season in which New York passed the Canadiens amid accusations of the Red Wings tanking to knock out Montreal.

What went wrong: The NHL couldn’t figure out how divisions should work in a post-expansion world.

That seems glib, but it’s hard to argue. The 1969-70 Canadiens finished the season with 92 points in 76 games. That was the fifth best record in the 12-team NHL. But it was also the fifth best record in the East Division, the one the league had put all the established Original Six teams into while giving the six expansion teams their own division. Because each division sent four teams to the playoffs, that left the 92-point Canadiens watching from home as teams like the 64-point Penguins, 60-point North Stars and 58-point Seals punched their tickets to the post-season.

The good news: The league finally began moving away from the ridiculous all-expansion division format after adding two more teams in 1970. The Canadiens immediately returned to the playoffs, won the Stanley Cup, and started a new streak.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Does the NHL have a tanking problem?

It’s been an ongoing debate in the league for years, one that peaked last season and is resurfacing now as the regular season winds down. The logic is fairly simple: If a team has already been eliminated from playoff contention, then tanking – losing as many games as possible in hopes of landing a better draft pick – starts to look like an attractive strategy. And it’s one that several teams around the league sure seem to be embracing, often with the full support of their fans.

To be clear, players don’t tank. We’re not talking about teams shooting the puck into their own net, or otherwise intentionally making a mockery of things; hockey players are a proud bunch who don’t take being embarrassed kindly. And besides, no grizzled veteran is going to go out and lose on purpose just so some hotshot kid can come in next year and take his job. No, tanking comes from up above – from the front office that assembles the roster, and who have the ability to ensure that the players who do take the ice have as little chance as possible.

There are various ways that a GM could embrace the tank. They can keep top young talent stashed in the minors. They can shut down any productive player who suffers a minor injury. The most obvious step is to trade away as much veteran talent as possible, especially in the days leading up to the league’s trade deadline. That’s become an annual tradition, as the league’s worst teams open up the storefronts, offering reinforcements to the league’s better teams in exchange for draft picks or prospects. It’s a smart move, a struggling team’s best chance to stockpile assets for the future. But if done right it has the added benefit of weakening the current roster for the stretch run. And it can be taken to extremes – last year, the Sabres traded away both their goaltenders.

>> Read the full post at The Guardian

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Why do Norris voters keep snubbing Drew Doughty?

We’re closing in on awards voting season, which means we’re already well into awards arguing season. And this year, the biggest argument so far has centered on the Norris Trophy for the league’s best defenceman. Despite Erik Karlsson‘s gaudy offensive totals, there’s a strong sense that this could finally be the year that Drew Doughty earns his first nod.

We can save the Doughty vs. Karlsson debate for another day. But there’s an interesting undercurrent to this year’s Norris talk, and it goes something like this: Doughty is just due. The guy has been one of the best defencemen in the league for the better part of a decade, and it’s somewhat shocking that he hasn’t won a Norris or two already. If the race is close, the thinking goes, he might deserve the trophy as a sort of make-good on all those previous snubs.

Putting aside the idea that it seems odd to be giving out lifetime achievement awards to a guy who’s only 26 years old, the argument makes a certain type of sense. But only if you buy the central premise – that Doughty has been narrowly missing out on the Norris for years. Fair is fair, and maybe you really do nudge a guy up your list if he’s continually posted Norris-worthy seasons, only to fall just short when the ballots are counted.

But has he? Let’s take a look back through all seven previous seasons of Doughty’s career and find out.

(All award voting data in this post comes from


Norris winner: Zdeno Chara, who narrowly edged out Mike Green’s 31-goal season in a minor upset to earn his only Norris.

Doughty’s finish: No votes.

The case for Doughty: There wasn’t one, which is what you’d expect – Doughty was a teenaged rookie, so the fact that he was even able to handle a regular shift at the NHL level was impressive enough. He finished fifth in the Calder voting, well back of winner Steve Mason, and was named to the all-rookie first team.

Bottom line: No Norris case here. But Doughty would get to that level quickly.


Norris winner: Duncan Keith, winning his first of two so far. Green finished second again.

Doughty’s finish: Doughty finished third in the voting, a stunning performance for a guy who was still 19 years old on opening night. He didn’t come all that close to winning – he had 15 first place votes to Keith’s 76 – but it was clear the Kings had something special.

The case for Doughty: It’s tough to argue with the Keith pick in what would stand as his breakout season. He posted 69 points while averaging 26:36 ice time and posting excellent possession numbers, topping Doughty in each of those categories. The gap in voting reflects that, although you have to figure that at least a few voters also figured that Doughty’s performance at such a young age meant that future Norris honours were inevitable.

Bottom line: Nobody would argue that Doughty had already peaked, although it’s interesting to note that he’s yet to come close to matching this season’s 59 points. That’s largely due to the Kings’ transition into the league’s top defensive team, one that’s paid off with two Stanley Cups, but could be hurting Doughty’s offensive numbers.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, March 21, 2016

Weekend report: In praise of the Central

Faceoff: Central Division

The phrase "best division in hockey" gets thrown around a lot. It's faint praise, in a way—there are only four divisions, so by definition each one has a 25 percent chance of earning the honour. At any given time, someone has to be the best.

And so we probably need a better term to describe what's happening in the Central Division these days. It's not just the best division in hockey, it may well be the best division in sports, period. It's also a bar fight, one that's taking place on a Tilt-A-Whirl during a tornado. It's beautiful.

This isn't new. Last year's Central made its way into the best division ever discussion, then went on to produce the season's Stanley Cup champion. This year's edition doesn't have the same top-to-bottom excellence, but it's even more impressive in a way because it's so top heavy. For much of the past few weeks, the Central has featured three of the league's top four teams in terms of overall points.

That would be the Hawks, Stars and Blues. Or maybe the Stars, Blues and Hawks. Or the Blues, Hawks and Stars. The order shifts around pretty much every day, which is a big part of the fun. Nobody has been able to pull away for the lead. And that's important because this isn't some battle to see who'll get to fly a meaningless "division champ" banner next year. The two teams that don't finish first will have to play each other in the first round, a prospect that's as cruel to the teams and fans involved as it is amazing for the rest of us.

Imagine being, say, the Stars, storming through the regular season on your way to one of the best year's in franchise history only to start the playoffs on the road against the Blackhawks. That's the kind of outcome waiting for one of these teams based on how the last nine games play out.

And it may well be the Stars who end up falling to the dreaded third spot, even though they own the top seed today. They've got a tough schedule, one that features teams like the Sharks, Kings and Ducks, and they've now lost Tyler Seguin to a gruesome Achilles injury that you definitely shouldn't click on. The Blues won't have much sympathy, given the injury problems they've suffered through all year. But they're starting to get healthy just in time for the stretch drive, with Brian Elliot the latest name to resurface. They've got an ugly schedule of their own, one that features a pair of meetings with the Capitals (although it's possible that Washington could have wrapped up the top seed and be resting stars by that point).

Vladimir Tarasenko has the Blues within striking distance of their second straight division title. —Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

And then there's Chicago, the team we'll all be picking no matter where it winds up. The Blackhawks haven't dominated the Central's regular-season standings over the years the way you might assume they have—they've started the playoffs on the road in four of the last five seasons, including last year. They've got the easiest schedule of the three by far, with patsies like the Flames, Canucks, Jets and Blue Jackets showing up. They're also stumbling somewhat down the stretch, losing five of their last six including Sunday's shootout decision to Minnesota.

The Stars sit at 95 points, with the Blues at 93 and the Hawks at 91. All three teams have played 73 games, and while it's still too early to go too far down the tie-breaking rabbit hole, it's worth noting that the Blues are well behind in the ROW column, which could turn out to be big. It's not as if the division winner will get a bye—they'll face a wild-card team, and we'll get to them in a minute—but in a league where the playoffs are a war of attrition and a short series or two can go a long way toward a championship run, it's not hard to see which matchup looks preferable.

But for now, the race to the top of the Central should be fantastic fun for the rest of the season. And for two unfortunate teams, the bar fight will spill over into the opening round.

Race to the Cup

The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

5. St. Louis Blues (42-22-9, +8 true goals differential)Elliott posted a shutout in his return, which stopped a disturbing mini-slide; they'd lost to Calgary and Edmonton earlier in the week, giving up 13 goals in the process.

4. Chicago Blackhawks (42-24-7, +25)—They lost to the Wild? Man, someone's not in playoff form yet.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, March 18, 2016

Grab bag: The legendary gaffe that sent Patrick Kane to Chicago

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Why everyone should want new draft lottery rules (yes, even Oiler fans)
- An obscure Patrick who wasn't a star but somehow played for Team Canada in 1987
- Enough with the useless rule changes, NHL GMs
- Comedy stars
- And one of the most requested YouTube clips ever... one that also managed to cost the Oilers Patrick Kane.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Five forgotten games that changed the course of draft lottery history

Alex Ovechkin. (The Hockey News/Getty Images)

As the season winds down, more and more teams are seeing their playoff chances fade. And as they do, their fans will turn their attention to the draft lottery, rooting for better odds in hopes that their team will be the lucky one that wins the first overall pick.

But in a sense, that’s not quite the right way to think of things. Teams themselves don’t win the lottery; a spot in the standings does. After all, the ping pong balls have no idea what team finished where. They just cough up a combination that matches a particular slot, and whichever team happens to have landed there is the winner. And that adds an intriguing wrinkle to things, because it means that the loss you’re rooting for your team to take tonight could be the one that drops it out of what ultimately turns out to be the winning spot.

We don’t know that at the time, of course. But in hindsight, it means that a single win or loss can change everything, and we can torture ourselves with what might have been. And that’s what we’re going to do today.

You can’t do it for every lottery. For example, last year’s Oilers finished with a six-point cushion on either side, so no single game would have kept them out of the 28th overall spot that ended up turning into Connor McDavid. But for some seasons, you can pinpoint one game – sometimes even one moment – that changed who was holding the winning ticket. And that can open up a world of “what if” for the team that just missed.

Here are five times that one forgotten game flipped the lottery results and (maybe) changed the destination for a superstar player.

1998: Vincent Lecavalier as a Vancouver Canuck

What actually happened: The 1998 lottery was a weird one. In one of the most confusing sets of transactions in NHL history, the Sharks ended up owning the Panthers pick and won the lottery, leapfrogging the Lightning. But thanks to a previous trade, the Lightning held the right to flip picks with the Sharks, so they leapfrogged right back into the top spot. In hindsight, it was one of the most successful insurance policies in recent memory, one that landed Lecavalier in Tampa Bay for the next 14 seasons.

But change just one game: The 1997-98 Canucks were a disaster. It was the first year of the Mark Messier/Mike Keenan era, one that soon saw fan favorites like Trevor Linden shipped out of town. An early 10-game losing streak dropped them out of playoff contention before mid-November, GM Pat Quinn was fired, and Pavel Bure would never play another game for the team. And the only consolation prize for a lost year was the fourth overall pick, one they used on the underwhelming Bryan Allen.

One of the season’s few highlight came at the very beginning, when the Canucks travelled to Tokyo to open the season with a pair of games against the Ducks. The games were the first regular season matchups ever played outside North America, and the Canucks took the historic opener by a 3-2 final, with Bure scoring the winner. It was October 3, 1997.

That date is already a dark one in Canucks history, remembered as the fateful day that Linden handed over the captaincy to Messier. But in hindsight it may have been even more costly. Take away that win, and the Canucks drop to 62 points for the season, one back of the Panthers and into the second last overall spot that turned out to be holding draft lottery gold.

Vincent Lecavalier in Vancouver? Gosh, Canucks fans, just think how much he could have learned about leadership from playing with Messier.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Is the NHL's "extraordinary" competitive balance really a good thing?

During his appearance at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday, Gary Bettman took the opportunity to trot out one of his favorite talking points: praising the league’s competitive balance. The commissioner pointed to tight playoff races and turnover among post-season teams as factors that make the league’s competitive balance, in his words, “so extraordinary“.

This is hardly new ground for Bettman, or for the NHL. Last summer, he banged the drum during an appearance on Prime Time Sports, and the league’s PR department is constantly finding opportunities to reinforce that message. From standings logjams to frequent overtime and shootouts to playoff upsets, it really does feel like we’re living in the age of NHL parity.

Maybe you could nitpick Bettman’s point; this is still a league in which just two teams account for five of the last six championships, and this year’s playoff race is looking like a potential bust. But let’s put that argument aside and accept Bettman’s premise: that the NHL really has become a league where any team can win on any given night, where the race for playoff spots and seeding will always come down to the final weekend, and where nobody can truly know who the best team is until the final horn sounds.

Let's ask a bigger question: Is that really a good thing?

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, March 14, 2016

Weekend report: The Dennis Wideman debacle will not die

Faceoff: The Dennis Wideman debacle comes to an end... maybe

Every great farce needs a fitting ending. The NHL may have finally found theirs when it comes to the Dennis Wideman case.

On Friday, neutral arbitrator James C. Oldham finally delivered his ruling on Wideman's appeal, cutting the 20-game ban that Gary Bettman had slapped on the Flames' defenceman in half. The decision marked the apparent (we'll get to that) end of an ongoing saga that started when Wideman launched himself at linesman Don Henderson, and had already included an initial suspension and an appeal to Bettman, both of which were considered overkill by many.

Of course, this being the NHL, nothing can ever be that simple. There was the small matter of timing—Oldham took two weeks to deliver his ruling, by which point Wideman had already missed 19 games. The reduced suspension will return a good chunk of money to Wideman's pocket, but he can't get those games back.

There's also the ongoing issue of the concussion that Wideman and the Flames say he suffered in the moments before the incident, one that Oldham agreed had rendered him unable to fully form intent. We've yet to learn what consequences, if any, the Flames will face for ignoring the league-mandated spotter's call for Wideman to leave the game. And we don't yet know whether the Wideman case will establish a precedent for players who lash out after taking a big hit. That sort of play happens more often than you think—Bobby Farnham's four-game suspension was a recent example, as was the $5,000 fine levied at Brad Marchand—and you can bet that we'll start hearing more of the "I had my bell rung" defence in the future.

It gets worse. Over the weekend, we also learned that Henderson will miss the remainder of the season after reportedly suffering a concussion of his own on the play. The Flames were widely ripped for allowing Wideman to finish the game, as they should have been. But shouldn't we be directing the same criticism to the NHL? Officials aren't players; they don't go the bench between shifts, and they don't have trainers on hand to monitor their health during games. But surely there needs to be some sort of protocol in place to prevent a referee or linesman from finishing a game despite being concussed badly enough to cause them to miss the rest of the season.

We haven't even mentioned the confusion around Wideman's text messages, which now somehow involves Gregory Campbell. That would be the same Campbell whose father, Colin, is the league official who delivered the initial 20-game ruling. The two aren't teammates and never have been, so it certainly seems odd that Wideman was reaching out to Campbell in the incident's aftermath.

This situation is getting even weirder. —Photo by Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody is happy here. The league looks awful. The officials are furious. Wideman can't get those nine games back. And the NHLPA still says there shouldn't have been any discipline at all.

But at least the whole thing is mercifully over. Unless, of course, it isn't. While Oldham's decision marks the end of the appeals process, the NHL could potentially try to continue the case in court, and has already announced that it will review its options to "determine what next steps may be appropriate."

It's hard to imagine what the league could hope to gain by dragging this whole mess on even further. Then again, anything approaching logic or common sense seems to have gone out the window the moment Wideman started his fateful skate toward Henderson. With a story this ridiculous, a bonus chapter or two of silliness would hardly feel out of place.

Race to the Cup

The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

5. Los Angeles Kings (40-22-5, +26 true goals differential)—With the Ducks losing three straight, the Kings narrowly regain first place in the Pacific and a spot in our top five.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, March 11, 2016

Grab bag: The greatest overtime ever played

In the Friday grab bag:
- Debating the offside review
- What the NHL needs to do about expansion, right now
- Our obscure player is a good Kingston lad
- Comedy stars, which are basically all children this week because no NHL players did anything funny
- And a classic YouTube clip to remind us of how great the Rangers/Islanders rivalry used to be

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, March 10, 2016

From tank job to contender: Five teams that flipped the switch

The losing is the easy part.

That’s the conventional wisdom when it comes to the traditional NHL rebuild plan. You know the one: Strip away any and all veteran talent, clear out payroll, and lose big for a few years while racking up high picks that will turn into future stars.

Some would call it thinking long-term, or executing a strategic vision, or a five-year plan. Others might go with “tanking”. But it’s a popular strategy, one that can be seen in action in various cities around the league in any given year. The Buffalo Sabres have been on it for years. The Toronto Maple Leafs are doing it right now. Many Canucks fans are hoping their team is next.

But, we’re warned ominously whenever the topic comes up, there’s one big catch: the losing is the easy part. Anyone can do the teardown – it doesn’t take much vision to build a loser. But when it’s time to flip the switch and win again, that’s where it gets tricky. Sometimes, when it’s time to finally hit the gas, you find that the wheels won’t catch.

Ask any Oilers fan, after a full decade of watching their team rack up high picks and last-place finishes. Or anyone who rooted for the New York Islanders a decade ago, or the Florida Panthers, or the Atlanta Thrashers.

Or ask a Sabres fan today, as they watch a well-constructed young team work its way through growing pains, showing flashes of a promising future while still struggling to climb out of the basement.

All serve as cautionary examples: losing is easy, but flipping the switch is where it gets hard. It’s a slow and gradual climb back to respectability, one that can take several years of small steps before you can finally hope to re-emerge as a contender.

There’s one problem: lots of teams have flipped that switch just fine. Recent history shows us that it really is possible to go from last place to elite status remarkably quickly. There are no guarantees, and lots of opportunity to fail along the way. But it can be done, and has been, plenty of times.

Here are five teams that went from laughing stock to legitimate Cup contender in a very short amount of time – and some lessons that future tankers might be able to learn from them.

Chicago Blackhawks

The teardown: The Hawks are a classic example of a team that spent years stuck in the dreaded mushy middle before finally biting the bullet and embracing the bad. From 1998 through 2001, the Blackhawks finished with a point total in the 70s for four straight years, never picking higher than eighth in the draft. (The one year they had a top five pick, in 1999, they traded it to the Canucks.)

They made the playoffs in 2002, but bowed out in the first round and then dropped back down to 79 points in 2003. With attendance dropping and fans turning on owner Bill Wirtz, the Blackhawks were named ESPN’s worst franchise in pro sports in 2004.

Rock bottom: Beginning in 2003-04, the Blackhawks suffered through three straight seasons of bottom-five finishes. Combined with winning the seventh-overall pick in the draft lottery for the wiped out 2004-05 season, that gave them a solid foundation of high picks to work from. But they whiffed on the first two, taking Cam Barker third overall in 2004 and Jack Skille seventh in 2005.

The turnaround: The team turned the GM reigns over to Dale Tallon in June 2005 and saw him hit a pair of home runs at the next two drafts, landing Jonathan Toews with the third pick in 2006 and Patrick Kane first overall in 2007. Both players debuted in the 2007-08 season, one which began with Wirtz passing away and his son Rocky taking over. The Hawks missed the playoffs but improved to 88 points, then replaced coach Denis Savard with Joel Quenneville days into the following season. They made the conference final in 2009, won the Stanley Cup in 2010, and have been the league’s model franchise for on-ice success ever since.

The lesson: Winning starts at the top. Ownership matters, management matters, and coaching matters. If you don’t get those right, you’re not going anywhere. The Hawks are also a good example of something teams like the Oilers have missed: hitting on draft picks outside the first round, where they’ve found guys like Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Dustin Byfuglien.

And while Hawks fans may not want to hear it, there’s one more key lesson here: be really lucky. Both Toews and Kane wound up in Chicago largely due to some good fortune. In 2006, Toews dropped when the Blues (Erik Johnson) and Penguins (Jordan Staal) made picks they’d regret in hindsight.

And in 2007, the Hawks won the lottery and moved up from fourth to first in a draft that turned out to have only one elite player in the top five. Hey, you have to be lucky to be good.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Five others ways that a goalie can get a referee's attention

Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist remains out of the lineup with a neck injury, telling reporters on Monday that he’s hoping he can return by the weekend. He suffered the injury in a collision with teammate Ryan McDonagh during a game against the Penguins last week.

But while the collision caused the injury, what happened next grabbed the headlines. Frustrated at the lack of a whistle, Lundqvist took matters into his own hands by flipping the net to cause a stoppage.

It was a controversial move, one that fellow goalie Marc-Andre Fleury referred to as “baby stuff”. And while Lundqvist is standing by his actions, we’d bet that deep down he’s probably second-guessing himself, wondering if there wasn’t a more productive way to get the official’s attention.

Luckily, we’re here to help. There’s a long history of goaltenders trying to get their point across to the men in stripes. Some of the methods have worked, and others have been less successful. But it’s important for Lundqvist and his brethren to know that they always have options. Here are five other ways they could get a referee’s attention.

Wailing away on the goal posts

If we’re being honest, Lundqvist’s net got off easy last week. It just got shoved over. The traditional angry goaltender move is to hack it death with your goal stick.

This move is such a classic that there’s no shortage of examples to pick from. Mike Smith is probably the modern day master, and Patrick Roy could do a number. But with all due respect to those guys, nobody ever did it better than Ed Belfour.

That goal knocked the Blackhawks out of the 1993 playoffs, completing a shocking sweep at the hands of the underdog Blues. Belfour didn’t appreciate being bumped on his way back to the crease, and he let referee Rob Shick know about it.

After destroying his stick and tossing it in Shick’s direction, Belfour then reportedly “destroyed everything in his path on the way to the dressing room”, including an unfortunate coffee maker. According to this article, the meltdown left behind a “mangled fan sticking out of the top of a garbage can.” I assume that meant a cooling device and not an actual spectator at the game, although with Belfour you could never quite be sure.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Five storylines to watch down the stretch

With the trade deadline now behind us and just under five weeks left in the regular season, this is the time of year when we’d normally be focused on the playoff bubble.

Typically, we’d have something like a half-dozen teams in each conference fighting it out for a limited number of playoff spots that were still up for grabs. It’s great drama, and lots of fun.

Unfortunately, this year’s bubble is shaping up to be a bust, with only one team in each conference sitting within five points of a playoff spot. That would be the Philadelphia Flyers and Colorado Avalanche; according to Sports Club Stats, nobody else in the league has even a five per cent chance of making the post-season.

And it’s not just the bubble that’s lacking late-season drama. The Washington Capitals are running away with the Presidents’ Trophy. Patrick Kane is doing the same with the Art Ross race, and probably the Hart Trophy too. Kane’s the only one who looks to have any shot at catching Alex Ovechkin for the lead in goals. And the rookie scoring race is a rout, with Artemi Panarin leading by 16 points and not enough time left for even the ridiculous Connor McDavid to make that up (probably).

So what’s a hockey fan looking for a little drama to do? We’re going to have to dig a little deeper, skipping the usual suspects and focusing our attention elsewhere. Luckily, there are still a few candidates for late-season intrigue. Here are five storylines to watch as the regular season schedule winds down.

The Capitals chase history

The NHL record for most wins in a season is held by the Detroit Red Wings, who had 62 during the 1995-96 season. The 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens are the only other team in the 60-win club.

As of Tuesday, the Capitals have 49 wins through 66 games, putting them on pace for 61 if we round up. That’s pretty impressive, and you’d think it would be a bigger deal. Sure, it’s tough to compare eras when today’s teams get a boost from the shootout and three-point games. But in an era with more league-wide parity than we’ve ever seen, having a shot at the all-time wins record is a major accomplishment.

So you could forgive fans in Washington if they were shouting from the rooftops about a team that has a chance to join that ultra-exclusive 60-win club. But it’s hard to shout too loud when you’re curled up in the fetal position, which is where many Caps fans seem to be these days as they wait for the playoffs to start. It’s hard to blame them, given the history here, and it’s true that the regular season doesn’t matter much if you don’t win the Cup – just ask those ’96 Red Wings, who were knocked out in the conference final by their soon-to-be arch rivals in Colorado. If the Capitals’ story ends with yet another playoff heart-breaker, their regular season win total won’t be much consolation.

But that’s a worry for down the road. As far as the rest of the regular season goes, the Caps are having one of the best years we’ve ever seen. That’s worth celebrating, no matter how it ends.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Why are Canada's NHL teams so terrible?

Last week, to great fanfare, preliminary rosters for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey were unveiled. And as usual, Team Canada stood out as being ridiculously stacked, boasting so much talent that the biggest story were the perennial All-Stars who wouldn’t make the cut.

It was a nice moment for Canadian fans, one where they could feel good about the nation’s hockey prowess. Then the NHL regular season resumed, and those feelings immediately vanished. Because as a glance at this year’s standings will confirm, Canada’s NHL teams are terrible.

Canada has seven of the NHL’s 30 teams, and barring a miracle, all seven will miss the playoffs this year – according to Sports Club Stats, the country’s best hope for a postseason appearance rests with the Ottawa Senators, who have just a 1.7% chance of making it. It would be the first time that no Canadian team has made the playoffs since 1970, and back then there were only three.

So what’s going on? How can all seven teams from a hockey mad nation be so bad at the same time? There are a handful of theories, some better than others.

>> Read the full post at The Guardian

Monday, March 7, 2016

Weekend report: About that playoff bubble...

Faceoff: The disappearing playoff bubble

With five weeks to go in the regular season, this is supposed to be playoff bubble time. The trade deadline has come and gone, and all the contenders have finished shopping for the final pieces to put them over the top. Now it's time to shift our focus to the group of teams fighting it out for the remaining playoff spots, watching them jostle their way up and down the standings with each night of action. That's the bubble, and it's usually the single biggest story for the rest of the season.

There's just one problem: We may not have much of one this year.

In a typical year, we'd see plenty of teams fighting for plenty of spots. And we seemed headed that way again this year; just a few weeks ago, this year's field looked wide open. But today, there's not much drama to be found.

The West is already all but down to two teams and one spot, as the Wild and Avalanche battle for the final wild card. The top three in both divisions are largely locked in, and it would take a major collapse to knock the surging Predators out of the other wild-card spot. So it's the Wild and Avs and that's pretty much it.

The East is a little bit more interesting, with both wild cards still in play. The Penguins and Red Wings currently hold those, and both teams still have a chance to climb the standings and catch teams like the Islanders or Bruins. But as of today, only one team on the outside is within five points. That would be the Flyers, who sit four back of the Wings and have a game in hand. The Hurricanes, Senators and Devils are each barely sticking around at six points back, although Carolina just traded its best player and New Jersey is missing its starting goaltender.

It's still possible that the races could tighten up, or that some new team could take a late run to at least make things interesting. If anything, last year's furious hamburger-fueled charge by the Senators should remind us to never say never.

But it's also possible that we could head into the season's final month with the 16 playoff teams all but settled, and nothing left to play for besides seeding and lottery odds. In a season that was already lacking any drama around the Presidents' Trophy or the scoring race, we might all be in for a rough few weeks of trying to come up with things to talk about.

Race to the Cup

The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

5. Dallas Stars (40-20-7, +23 true goals differential)Sunday's 2-1 win in Ottawa was their second straight victory after an ugly stretch of six losses in seven games, and narrowly pushes the Stars past the Blues for a top five spot.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (39-22-4, +28)—Make it nine straight wins, and sole possession of first place in the Atlantic.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, March 4, 2016

Grab bag: Kill the World Cup trophy with fire

In the Friday grab bag:
- The NHL's unforgivable World Cup mistake
- How to save the trade deadline
- The week's three comedy stars
- A classic Canada Cup clip
- and more...

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

When Team Canada gets weird

Team Canada will unveil the first 16 selections for its World Cup roster Wednesday evening. The announcement is expected to generate controversy because, well, this is Canada, and complaining about international rosters is just a thing that we do up here. Somebody will be a surprise, somebody else will be snubbed, and we’ll all take a few days to yell at each other about it.

And none of it will be especially new, since there’s a long history here. Canadians have always sent a powerhouse to the World Cup and its predecessor, the Canada Cup. They’re the sort of teams that can send you down a rabbit hole of watching old highlights and marveling at the collection of talent assembled onto one roster. And when you do, you can bet that you’ll eventually notice at least one player that will make you go “Wait, that guy was on the team too?”

So while we get set to spend the rest of the week arguing over whether Marc-Edouard Vlasic is better than P.K. Subban, let’s look back at five of the more surprising Canadian selections from past Word/Canada Cup entries.

1981 – Barry Beck

One thing you can count on whenever a roomful of hockey executives get together to nail down a Team Canada roster: they love their hard-nosed defensemen. In 1981, that role went to Beck, the big-hitting Rangers captain who was coming off a 231 PIM season.

To be clear, Beck was no goon, posting 65 points in 1979-80 and playing in two NHL All-Star Games. But he wasn’t quite in the same class as 1981 teammates like Denis Potvin, Ray Bourque and Larry Robinson. Instead, he and fellow Team Canada blueliner Brian Engblom were there to keep order in the defensive zone. And it worked… at least until the final.

(Also, Beck may have once been traded because of a run-in with Don Cherry’s dog. I just wanted to mention that story.)

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News