Tuesday, May 31, 2016

2016 Heartbreak Index

Hockey fans around the world tuned in for last night’s game one of the Stanley Cup Final. Also tuning in: The 14 teams who came into the playoffs hoping to be there, but didn’t make the cut.

Of course, not all losses are created equal. Every playoff loss hurts, but some are far more crushing than others. So today, let’s take a look back at those 14 teams and try to answer the question: Who suffered through the most heart-breaking playoff exit?

We’ll look at three factors for each team. First, the expectations they were facing heading into the playoffs; obviously, the higher the hopes, the more drastic the drop when they’re not met. We’ll also factor in when and how the end actually came, with more dramatic losses adding to the pain. And we’ll consider what the future looks like, since a team with better days ahead won’t feel as devastated as one whose window is slamming shut.

We’ll count our way down from the least to most heartbreak, meaning we’ll start with the fan base that should be the least miserable with how things turned out. Let’s just say they may not be used to that.

No. 14: Philadelphia Flyers

Playoff expectations: 2/10. The Flyers came in as the East's eighth seed, drawing a matchup with the powerhouse Capitals. Some of the more analytically inclined made the case that they had a shot at the upset, but for the most part nobody really expected them to win.

How it ended: 4/10. After dropping the first three games by a combined score of 12-2, the Flyers switched to Michal Neuvirth in goal and stole Games 4 and 5. With their sense of hope springing back to life and visions of a historic comeback starting to percolate, their season ended with a 1-0 game six loss on home ice.

n Hextall, one that's being carried out with uncharacteristic patience. Just making the playoffs this year was an accomplishment.

Bottom line: 7/30. Bracelet-tossing aside, this was about as painless as an early exit can be.

No. 13: Nashville Predators

Playoff expectations: 1/10. Heading into the Pacific Division as a crossover wildcard team, the Predators were given little hope by the experts. After all, everyone knew this division was coming down to an inevitable second round showdown between the Ducks and Kings.

How it ended: 6/10. After upsetting Anaheim, the Predators dropped a seventh game against the Sharks. Losing in seven is always tough, although at least this one was over quickly.

Window status: 3/10. The Predators are relatively young and still viewed as a team on the rise, although they're well into the diminishing returns section of Shea Weber's mega-deal.

Bottom line: 10/30. They were one win away from the conference final, so it certainly wasn't a pain-free experience. But they won a round, and you could make a good case that they were the only team in the playoffs that unquestionably exceeded expectations.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, May 30, 2016

Weekend report: The calm before the storm

We're just hours away from the puck dropping on the Stanley Cup Final. We've made it through the long offseason, and the useless preseason, and the only slightly less useless regular season. We've made it past three rounds of the postseason, most of which were hard-fought and entertaining. We've run through all the storylines, made our predictions and clichéd our way through media day. Now it's time to settle this thing on the ice.

The matchup between the Penguins and Sharks (which we broke down in detail in yesterday's preview) is a good one. It doesn't bring much in the way of history, and after a few years of the league lucking into having at least one giant TV market in every final, this one may not draw the sort of numbers it deserves. But it will be fun. And if you're a neutral fan, one whose team is already long gone, that's all you can ask for.

I mean, if you can't get excited for a final that pits Joe Thornton against Phil Kessel, then I don't know what to tell you. Over the years, those two have become the poster boys for hockey's growing obsession with the "just can't win with him" narrative, constantly hammered for being the sort of player that wilts in the big moment no matter what the numbers actually say. Now they're both here, both playing great, and one of them is a few days away from a skate with the Stanley Cup. Will that be the moment that finally kills the narrative off? Of course not. But it will shut up it up, if only for a moment or two, and we'll all be thankful for it.

Get ready for hot takes if the next trophy Crosby raises isn't the Cup. –Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This is also a matchup between two captains who couldn't have taken more different paths to this moment. Sidney Crosby has been the chosen one since his early teens in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia—the kid who was tagged as the next Gretzky or Lemieux before he could get a driver's license. And for the most part he's lived up to it, establishing himself as the best player of a generation. But he'll be facing the playoffs' leading goal-scorer in Joe Pavelski, a seventh-round pick who was too small and couldn't skate.

It's a matchup between two goaltenders who'd never started a playoff game before this year. San Jose's Martin Jones is in his third NHL season, the first two spent as a little-used backup. And he's the experienced one in this series, facing a kid named Matt Murray who's trying to turn his Steve Penney story into a Ken Dryden one.

It's the blessed franchise that always seems to have the next big thing fall into its lap vs. the cursed one with the history of heartbreak. It's two coaches who've both been on the job for less than a year. It's Malkin vs Marleau, Letang vs. Burns, and Metallica vs. D-Generation X.

And maybe most importantly of all, it's a matchup between two teams that aren't afraid to show off a bit of speed and skill and personality and yes, even fun. It really is still possible to win that way in today's game, even in an era where scoring stagnates and everyone seems to want to look and play the same. We're constantly told that the NHL is a copycat league; with these two teams in the final, we should probably hope it's true.

It's going to be fun. If we're lucky, it will be fun for seven games. As a fan, that's just about all you can ask for.

Top Five

Celebrating those who've had the best week.

5. World Cup rosters—Friday was the deadline for the eight World Cup teams to fill out their rosters for this September's tournament. And, of course, that means that hockey fans get to play our favorite game: Find The Snub. There were plenty to choose from.

Team USA didn't pick Phil Kessel or Kevin Shattenkirk. Team Sweden made some perplexing blueline choices, including leaving John Klingberg off the roster. Team North America (i.e. The Young Guns) didn't invite Alexander Galchenyuk. And as always, Team Canada left the most talent at home, as you'd expect given that it had the most to choose from. But some of those names are still surprises, including Corey Perry, Taylor Hall, Kris Letang and P.K. Subban.

The stacked Canadians will always have snubs, but it was still surprising to see this guy left off the roster. –Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Those last two are especially perplexing, since Team Canada found room for Jake Muzzin, a reasonably good defenseman who's certainly never been considered a Norris contender. But there's a reason for that, as we'll see in the next section.

4. Handedness—Which side did Bobby Orr play? Paul Coffey? Ray Bourque? There's a good chance you're not sure, or at least had to think about it for a minute. Because for a long time, hockey fans never worried about which side a defenseman played, or which hand he shot with. They were just defensemen, two on the ice at a time, and dividing them up any further seemed unnecessary.

But in recent years, the distinction between left-handed defensemen and right-handed defensemen has become almost as important as that between left and right wingers. And at some point, Team Canada decided that splitting the blueline between left and right shots was absolutely crucial. It's why it found a spot for Muzzin, who shoots left, but not Subban or Letang, who shoot right. Team Canada is not alone; any roster discussions around NHL teams these days always seems to touch on who shoots from where.

If you feel like a defenseman's handedness was something we went from never mentioning to obsessing over, well, you're not wrong. One study indicates that this has only really been a concern for NHL teams over the last few years. Many trace its rise to Mike Babcock, who makes it a point of emphasis for any roster he fills out, including in his gold medal-winning stints with Team Canada. Chalk it up as just one more evolution of the game.

Still, it seems odd to think that a balance between lefties and righties would be enough to make up for the gap in talent between Muzzin and Letang or Subban, especially since defensemen used to be expected to be able to switch sides as easily as centers switch over to the wing for these tournaments. Team Canada has smart people running the show, and if it wins gold, then none of this will matter. But if not, Muzzin will join the club with guys like Rob Zamuner and Lyle Odelein as odd picks on teams that didn't get it done.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Sunday, May 29, 2016

2016 Stanley Cup Final preview

The Stanley Cup Final begins tomorrow night, with the Pittsburgh Penguins hosting the San Jose Sharks. It's an unlikely matchup, but a very good one, and the series has the potential to showcase some great hockey featuring some of the league's biggest stars. Here's how it all breaks down.

In this corner: The Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins (48-26-8, +42 true goals differential). The Pens finished second in both the conference and the Metro Division, behind only the Presidents' Trophy winning Washington Capitals.

The road so far: They had a relatively easy time with the Rangers in round one, then knocked off those same Capitals in a tough second-round series. On Thursday, they finished off the Lightning in seven to win a series they'd trailed through five games.

The history books: The Penguins are making their fifth appearance in the final and gunning for their fourth Cup. The first two of those came in 1991 and 1992, when Mario Lemieux and a teenaged Jaromir Jagr led a ridiculously stacked team of future Hall of Famers. It's the third appearance in the finals for the Crosby-era team, which made back-to-back trips in 2008 and 2009 against the Red Wings, losing the first and winning the second. Back then, it seemed inconceivable that it would take that team seven years to get back.

Injury report: They're relatively healthy, with the only major piece missing being Trevor Daley, who broke his ankle against the Lightning. Daley doesn't carry the star power of some of the team's bigger names, but he was eating some tough minutes on the blueline, ranking second on the team in average ice time.

One player to watch: Kris Letang. Blueline depth was never the Penguins' strong point; unlike other teams (including San Jose), they don't have the luxury of a No. 2 guy who could be a No. 1 somewhere else. That's left Letang to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and he's done it well, looking like a Norris candidate this year. But with Daley out, he may end up playing 30-plus minutes some nights during this series. He's battled injuries over the years, and he's already earned one suspension this postseason with another near miss. With apologies to Crosby and his high-scoring friends, the Penguins could afford to lose any other player more than Letang.

Key number: 0—Number of times Bryan Rust had scored goals in back-to-back games over the course of his NHL career before doing it in Games 6 and 7 to help the Penguins come back to beat the Lightning. That seventh game was also his second two-goal game of the playoffs, something else he'd never done before this spring. Every Cup champion needs a few unexpected guys to overachieve at the right times, and Rust has been doing it for the Penguins.

Dominant narrative: Sidney Crosby's legacy. The hockey world loves to separate its stars into winners and losers; the guys who Rise To The Occasion versus the ones who Just Can't Get It Done. There's no bigger star than Crosby, and over the last few weeks there's been some questions over which group he belongs in. That was especially true after the Penguins fell behind the Lightning with Crosby slumping by his standards, going 11 games without a multi-point night.

A lot of that analysis was, well, not good, and it seems ridiculous to question the winning pedigree of a 28-year-old who's already captained a Cup winner and two Olympic gold medalists. But being ridiculous never stopped this stuff in the past, so expect to hear plenty about whether Crosby is displaying enough winner-heart-grit-compete over the next two weeks. If the Penguins lose, expect more heat on Crosby, regardless of whether he actually deserves it. If they win, he gets Certified Winner status, and becomes impervious to any further criticism. (At least for a few more years.)

The big question: Matt Murray is the guy, right? He took over the starting duties due to Marc-Andre Fleury's concussion, and held it until Game 5 of the Lightning series, when Mike Sullivan went back to his veteran. It was widely viewed as a mistake (although maybe not as dumb as it seemed); Fleury looked rusty, the Penguins lost the game, and Murray was back in net for Game 6. We all assume that's going to be a permanent state of affairs in this series, but Sullivan has planted just enough doubt that you wonder what it would take for him to make another switch.

OGWAC factor: The OGWAC, or "Old Guy Without A Cup," is a cherished playoff tradition. Most teams have at least one older player, maybe even a guy in the last season of his career, who's never won a Stanley Cup. It's impossible not to root for that guy; if his team wins, he's often the first one to have the Cup handed to him, and you can count on lots of postgame photos of him hugging it and crying. Hockey fans eat this stuff up.

So who's the best OGWAC left on the Penguins? Well... there really isn't one. There isn't a single guy on the roster who remotely qualifies as "old" and hasn't already won. Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz already have rings. The oldest guy on the team without his name on the Cup is Ben Lovejoy, but he's only 32 (and had a small role on the Penguins' 2009 team). Eric Fehr is only 30. The team's best OGWAC may not even be a player at all; assistant coach Jacques Martin is making his first trip to the final in a 30-year NHL career.

Then again, maybe Phil Kessel should count. He's technically only 28, but playing in Toronto ages a guy 10 years.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, May 27, 2016

Grab Bag: The lonely end of the rink

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- I propose an important new rule for playoff guarantees
- Let's spice up the gameday skate goalie guessing game
- An obscure player who made NHL history, and not just by playing for insane coaches
- The three comedy stars of the week, including Gary Bettman's face on someone's butt
- And our YouTube clip sends us to the lonely end of the rink with The Tragically Hip.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, May 26, 2016

With the San Jose Sharks eliminating the St. Louis Blues Wednesday night and the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins headed to a seventh game Thursday, we’re just hours away from having our Stanley Cup Final matchup set. We’ll be down to the best of the best, going head-to-head with the greatest trophy in sports on the line.

And so today, let’s do what any true hockey fan does when confronted with greatness. Let’s ignore it, and pick on the guys who weren’t quite good enough instead.

We’re going to assemble a full lineup of the biggest disappointments from the 2016 playoffs – four centres, eight wingers, six defencemen, two goalies, and even a coach and GM. And we won’t shy away from including some big names. In fact, the bigger the name the better, since high expectations bring more disappointment when they’re not met.

When you look at it that way, finding someone from your favourite team on this list could be considered a compliment, which you should definitely keep in mind before immediately heading into the comments section to call me an idiot. (You still will.)

So here we go, starting up front. (All stats are from hockey-reference.com and war-on-ice-com.)


Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

Let's get this out of the way first: No, Alex Ovechkin, the Caps' leading playoff scorer, did not make this team.

True, as Ovechkin's critics love to point out, maybe he didn't elevate his game – by which they presumably mean he should float around three feet over the ice by sheer force of will. But he wasn't a bust, or anything close to it.

Kuznetsov, on the other hand… ouch. After leading the Capitals with 77 points in a breakout regular season, Kuznetsov was limited to just two points in two rounds of the playoffs, which works out to an average of — *tries to do math in head* — not enough.

As with many guys on our list, a lot of that was bad luck – he went from 11.4 per cent on-ice shooting across all situations during the regular season to an almost comically awful 0.9 per cent in the playoffs. That's not a player (and all of his teammates) forgetting how to play, it's random chance striking at the worst possible time. Still, for a team that was desperate to go deep, having their leading scorer go cold at exactly the wrong time stings badly.

Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings

Yeah, I know, I don't like this any more than you do.

Heading into what was likely to be his last NHL post-season, Datsyuk had the makings of a feel-good playoff story.

Instead, the 37-year-old was held pointless as the Wings bowed out to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five. We're still not sure if he's heading home, although recent reports sure make it sound that way. If this really is the end, it wasn't the one his magnificent career deserves.

Eric Staal, New York Rangers

When the Rangers acquired Staal at the deadline, everyone cautioned that expectations should be reasonable. This wasn't the 2006 version of Staal, after all. New York was getting a guy on the wrong side of 30 who was having a tough season. And the relatively cheap price they paid reflected that – for once, they didn't even give up a first round pick.

But even given all that, they had to be hoping that a change of scenery and chance to play on a potential Cup contender would give Staal some sort of boost. Instead, they got six points in 20 regular season games and none at all in their first round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The bar was low; Staal sailed well under it.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

Typically, a one-point post-season from one of the league's best offensive players would be enough to earn a spot at the very top of the list. But given the injuries Giroux was battling, we'll bump him down to fourth-line duties. That will keep Flyers fans happy, right?

[Gets pelted with souvenir bracelets.]

Thought so.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Ranking the best conference finals ever

NHL fans are starting to get a little bit spoiled when it comes to the conference finals. This year’s two matchups have featured plenty of star power, several close games, and more than a little drama. And for the third consecutive year, both series are going at least six games.

That might not sound all that impressive, but it’s actually a relatively rare situation in the modern era. Until 2014, it hadn’t happened at all in the salary cap era. And it wasn’t much more common before that. For example, it happened only once during the dynasty-packed 80s, as teams like the Islanders and Oilers (or both) could often be found cruising through a weaker opponent on their way to the final.

So today, let’s look back at some of the best conference finals, dating back to the introduction of the 16-team format in 1980. Remember, we’re looking for the best combination of two series, meaning some all-time classic series (like Leafs/Kings in 1993 and Devils/Rangers in 1994) won’t show up here because the other conference served up a dud.

Here are my picks for the five best years for the NHL’s final four:

#5: 2015

In the East: Lightning over Rangers in seven. The Rangers were the defending conference champs and looked dominant in blowout wins in Games 4 and 6, but the Lightning went into MSG and shut them out in Games 5 and 7 to advance to the final.

And in the West: Blackhawks over Ducks in seven. Through five games, this was one of the best series in recent memory, including six extra periods of overtime hockey. Then the Hawks pulled away with dominant wins in Games 6 and 7, cementing yet another Ducks late-series collapse.

Add it all up: This is one of only two times in the history of the modern format that both conference finals went seven games, so it pretty much has to be on the list. Neither series will be remembered as an all-time classic a decade down the line, but both were very good despite somewhat anti-climactic endings.

#4: 2002

In the East: Hurricanes over Maple Leafs in six. This was the Leafs’ fourth trip to the conference finals in a decade (and, in hindsight, their last for a very long time). The two teams combined for three overtime games, and all but one game in the series was decided by one goal. In the deciding Game 6, the Leafs tied the game on a dramatic goalmouth scramble in the dying seconds, only to lose the series on a Martin Gelinas OT winner.

And in the West: Red Wings over Avalanche in seven. The series was everything you’d expect, featuring three overtime games and a dramatic Game 6 win by the Red Wings that featured the infamous Statue of Liberty goal. That set the stage for a dramatic Game 7, the only one played between the two teams over the course of their storied rivalry. And that game was an epic dud – a 7-0 Wings win that stands as one of the worst Game 7s ever.

Add it all up: Both series provided plenty of drama, and while the Wings/Avalanche Game 7 was a bust, it was certainly memorable.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

RIP John Brophy

If you’re a hockey fan, you know John Brophy.

Even if you’re too young to remember him, or you’re too new to the sport, or you’re not especially well-versed on your minor league record books, you still know John Brophy. The longtime coach, who passed away on Monday at the age of 83, left a lasting mark on every hockey fan, even those who may not know him by name.

That’s because, according to show business legend, Brophy was the inspiration for the most famous depiction of pro hockey in pop culture history: Paul Newman’s Reggie Dunlop from the classic film “Slap Shot.” That movie, with its over-the-top violence and “old-time hockey” ethos, set the template for how the sport would be perceived for generations. Brophy was where it all began.

But it should go without saying that a well-scripted Hollywood creation didn’t quite measure up to the reality. The real John Brophy wasn’t Reg Dunlop. No, the real guy had a far crazier story than any movie script could ever do justice.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, May 23, 2016

Weekend report: Phil Kessel vs. Shawn Michaels, and other less important thoughts

Faceoff: The backup plan

Easily the weirdest story to emerge from this year's conference final is the rise of the backup goaltender. All four teams have turned to their backup at some point during the round, including three that have switched starters. It's the first time since 1980 that we've seen all eight goalies pressed into action in the conference finals.

Of course, not all backup promotions are created equal. Martin Jones and the Sharks just had a rough night on Saturday, and he was pulled in favor of James Reimer largely to give him a chance to rest up for Game 5; after posting back-to-back shutouts earlier in the series, he's in no immediate danger of losing his grip on the starter's job. And the Lightning haven't had much choice in the matter, with Ben Bishop's injury in Game 1 forcing Andrei Vasilevskiy into action. Bishop will resume the starter's duties once he's ready to play, although at this point we're still not sure when that will be.

But things haven't been quite so clear cut in St. Louis or Pittsburgh, where we've seen controversial mid-series switches that were coach's decisions. The first of those calls was made by Ken Hitchcock, who benched Brian Elliott in favor of Jake Allen because... well, nobody's quite sure. Elliott didn't do anything to lose his job; he's been fantastic all season long. But the Blues needed some sort of jolt after failing to score in Games 2 or 3, and Hitchcock apparently felt that a goaltending switch was one way of achieving it. The Blues won Game 4 on Saturday, breaking out of their offensive slump en route to a 6-3 win, so we're all obligated to say that Hitchcock's move worked brilliantly. As for where that leaves Elliott, well, we'll get to that down below.

A similar situation is playing out in Pittsburgh, although there's a twist. Instead of a veteran being sat down for his younger backup, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan's goalie switch saw the veteran regain his net. Marc-Andre Fleury was the Penguins' starter all year and never really lost the job on merit. He got hurt late in the season, and Matt Murray's strong play left Fleury on the bench even after he was healthy enough to play. One rough game by Murray on Friday was enough to open the door for Fleury's return on Sunday, and the results were decidedly mixed. Midway through the game, the Penguins were up 2-0 and Sullivan looked like a genius. But a Lightning comeback ended with a 4-3 OT win, and now it looks like the coach has overplayed his hand.

Between the Blues and the Penguins, we've seen both sides of the goalie switch coin. And with a pair of Games 6s to come, and maybe a Game 7 or two after that, there's still time to see a few more switches.

Top Five

Celebrating those who've had the best week.

5. Eric Fehr—Is it? Could it be? An actual hockey hit that's hard but clean and absolutely nobody is complaining about? Do they still make those?

I think it just might be. But just to be on the safe side, let's all agree to complain twice as much about the next one, OK?

4. Peter DeBoer—Yeah, I'm getting the sense that he doesn't really want to help pump Ken Hitchcock's tires right now.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Lessons from this year's final four

The NHL is a copycat league. We hear that a lot around this time of year, as the field narrows and the number of teams watching sadly from the sidelines grows. All of those teams will have to get better if they want to win a Cup, and some have more work cut out for them than others.

But how do they do it? By cribbing notes from the teams that are winning, of course.

Luckily, this year’s conference final teams will make that a relatively easy job. While every team is different, this year’s final four share some significant similarities. So if you’re a GM facing pressure to improve and you’re looking for a successful formula to borrow, we’ve got you covered. Here are eight lessons we can learn from the teams that are still alive in this year’s Cup hunt.

Lesson #1: Playoff-tested goaltending is overrated

We all know the old clichés: You build a winner from the net out. Goaltending is what wins in the playoffs. And when push comes to shove, you want a goalie who’s been there before, because those are the guys who know how to win, whatever that means.

But recent history has shown that that none of that is necessarily true, as teams have managed deep playoff runs without a veteran star in the crease. This year, there were five goalies in the league with 70 or more playoff starts on their resume, all of whom led their team to a playoff spot. But four of them went out in the first round, and the fifth, Marc-Andre Fleury, is watching the Penguins’ run from the bench.

Heading into this year’s final four, the most experienced starting goaltender left standing in terms of post-season action was Ben Bishop – and he’d never even started a playoff game until last season. Brian Elliott had lost his starting job in each of the last two post-seasons in St. Louis, Martin Jones had never started a playoff game before this season, and Matt Murray was a rookie who didn’t even debut until December.

Lesson #2: Have a young backup you can trust

So you don’t necessarily need to go all-in on a veteran star, at least based on this year’s final four. But there’s a corollary to this rule: Having a capable young backup as an insurance policy sure seems to help.

We’ve already seen that come into play in Pittsburgh as well as in Tampa, where Andrei Vasilevskiy has once again been pressed into action for an injured Bishop. The Blues haven’t had to start Jake Allen yet, but he’s good enough to give them that option. And in San Jose, Jones was the capable young backup until the team went out and made him the starter this summer. And the Sharks still made sure to go out and get James Reimer at the deadline, just in case Jones faltered.

Add it all up, and heading into the playoffs with two solid options – even if one of them is young and cheap – may be just as good if not better than having one veteran star. (Or maybe not. Goaltending is voodoo.)

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Five legends who had long waits for their first Stanley Cup

Alex Ovechkin has been under the spotlight for the past week, following the premature end to the Washington Capitals’ dominant season at the hands of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s been criticized for a lack of production at key moments and an inability to lead the Capitals to a deep playoff run, and took further heat for his decision to head to Russia right away for the World Championship.

Not everyone agrees, with plenty of voices defending Ovechkin’s track record. But the fact remains: 11 years into his NHL career, Ovechkin has racked up record-breaking numbers and plenty of individual awards, but no Stanley Cup.

So it may be worth remembering that still leaves him in pretty good company. Plenty of legendary NHLers never won it all, with names like Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perrault and Darryl Sittler failing to earn a ring. But there have also been plenty of superstars who did get their Cup, but had to wait for it. And in some cases, they waited a lot longer than Ovechkin has.

So today, let’s offer up some hope to Ovechkin (not to mention guys like Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo, Joe Thornton and the Sedins) by remembering five legendary players who took until at least their 12th season to finally get their hands on a Stanley Cup.

Ray Bourque

The long wait: Probably the first name that came to your mind when you saw this list, Bourque’s drought lasted a stunning 21 years, during which he captured the Norris Trophy five times and was a first-team all-star 12 times. Despite being the generation’s best defenseman, he debuted in the 1970s and made it to the turn of the century without earning a ring.

Worst near-miss: The Bruins made the final twice during Bourque’s career, in 1988 and 1990. But both times, they ran into the Edmonton Oilers, and they only managed to win one game between the two series. (They also managed to become the only team in final history to be swept in five games, thanks to a Boston Garden power failure that forced the suspension of a game in 1988.)

How it finally ended: The good news for Ovechkin is that Bourque finally did get his Cup. The bad news for Caps fans is that it took a trade for it to happen. The Bruins dealt Bourque (at his request), sending him to Colorado at the trade deadline in 2000. The Avs didn’t win it all that year, but Bourque returned for one final run, and finally got his Cup in 2001, becoming the most iconic OGWAC story of all-time and leading to this moment that still makes you cry a little bit.

Dominik Hasek

The long wait: Hasek’s career was all about waiting. He didn’t make the NHL until he was 25, and didn’t become a fulltime starter until he was 28. But from there he quickly established himself as the league’s very best, winning the Vezina six times in eight years. But with the Sabres declining and a big option year payday looming, Hasek’s time in Buffalo came to an end in 2001 without a title.

Worst near-miss: Well, there was this

How it finally ended: It’s easy to forget now, but the trade that sent Hasek to Detroit was an odd one at the time. The Red Wings already had Chris Osgood, who’d won two Cups for them. But Hasek represented a clear upgrade, so they made the move, and it paid off. They won the Cup, Hasek got his ring, and then retired. It was a storybook ending.

(Then he came back a year later, shivving Curtis Joseph and eventually teaming with a returning Osgood to win a second Cup in 2008. Look, it was Dominik Hasek, the storybook was always going to be a weird one.)

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

What went wrong for the playoff losers (and can they fix it)?

With the conference finals underway, we’re down to the NHL’s final four. The eyes of the hockey world are focused on the Sharks, Blues, Lightning and Penguins, and rightly so. One of those four teams will be our next Stanley Cup champion.

But four teams in the conference final also means 12 playoff teams sitting at home, wondering where it all went wrong. So let’s help those teams out and look at each of the dozen franchises that didn’t make the cut, and try to pinpoint the key flaw that sent them packing. And, more importantly, let’s ask the question: Can they fix it?

Dallas Stars

What went wrong? Goaltending. Hey, we might as well start off with the easy one, right?

The Stars were one of the league’s best stories, roaring back from a playoff miss to finish as the West’s top seed while leading the league in goals scored. They were also one of the most entertaining teams we’ve seen in years. But they went through the season with a massive question mark, and we all saw it: the goaltending duo was weak. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi were good enough to get them to the second round, but a Game 7 meltdown against the Blues ended their season and drew a big red circle around the sport’s most important position.

Can they fix it? It won’t be easy. Before they can add anyone, the Stars will presumably need to subtract, and that’s no simple task. Their two incumbents carried a combined cap hit of $10.4 million, and both are locked in for two more years. Neither will have much trade value at that price. That doesn’t mean they can’t be traded – a willingness to retain salary and/or taking back an equally bad deal can open doors – but it’s possible that a buyout ends up being Jim Nill’s best option.

Even assuming that Nill can clear a spot on the roster, who does he go out and get? There are always goalies available in the off-season, but the tough part is finding the right one. The reality is that this is a league with about a half dozen sure-thing goalies, and a whole lot of question marks after that. Those sure-things aren’t going to be available, so Nill and the Stars will have to roll the dice.

History has shown that you don’t need a future Hall-of-Famer in net to win in this league. This year’s final four has shown it too. But you do need a guy you can trust, and the Stars just reminded us that finding that guy is no simple task. They’ll try again this summer, but it’s no sure thing that they’ll do any better.

Detroit Red Wings

What went wrong? The offence couldn’t finish. The Red Wings produced plenty of pressure against the Lightning, averaging 32 shots per game. But they never managed to score more than two goals in any game of the series, and ended up with just eight goals total. That included just one on the power play despite 25 attempts.

Can they fix it? We’ll cut the Wings some slack here. They were facing a strong defensive team with a hot goaltender, and their power play was decent over the regular season, ranking 13th. But the lack of offence wasn’t strictly a post-season problem. Detroit only scored 209 goals on the season, ranking just 23rd overall, and didn’t have a single player finish with more than 50 points.

So how do they get better? Losing Pavel Datsyuk won’t help, and if he heads home for Russia, as expected, he’ll leave a huge void. Henrik Zetterberg is 35-years-old, and his production has dropped sharply in each of the last two years. On the other hand, guys like Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist should improve with age and expanded roles, and Dylan Larkin is only just getting started.

Add it all up, and the Red Wings probably need help from outside the organization, either via free agency or trade. And to do that, they’ll likely need to find a home for Datsyuk’s cap hit first. That won’t be impossible, but Ken Holland has got some work cut out for him this summer.

Minnesota Wild

What went wrong? After splashing out on big-money franchise players in Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, the Wild have failed to surround them with enough talent to truly compete in a very tough Central Division.

The Wild spent big to build a team that could contend, but they could never beat the Blackhawks, and this year they were eliminated by what turned out to be a very flawed Stars team. Now they’re left with a core that’s old and expensive, most of whom are well into the stage of their careers where we should start expecting to see a decline.

Can they fix it? They’ve already made a big improvement, upgrading to Bruce Boudreau behind the bench. Adding one of the best coaches in the league could go a long way.

It may have to, because upgrading the roster is going to be a massive challenge for GM Chuck Fletcher. He’s largely locked into this core – they have nearly $50 million tied up in just nine players through 2017-18, and six of those guys are already over 30 today. Finding takers for any of those players in trades will be tough, and buyouts just kick the cap pain down the road.

Maybe Boudreau can work his magic and turn this group into contenders. The Wild had better hope so, because if there’s another realistic path to improvement here, it’s a tough one to find.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, May 16, 2016

Weekend Report: Ovechkin, Crosby, and a missed opportunity for the DOPS

Heading into Friday night's opening game between the Lighting and Penguins, here are a few of the things we were pretty sure we knew. Pittsburgh were the favorites, not just to win the series but, according to oddsmakers, to win the Stanley Cup. Matt Murray was firmly established as the starter. With Anton Stralman and Steven Stamkos reportedly nearing returns, the two teams were remarkably healthy for a third-round series. And with little history to draw on, there wasn't much in the way of bad blood.

By the time the final horn sounded, all of that was out of the window, thanks to a bizarre Game 1 that was punctuated by several questionable hits and apparent injuries. That included Ryan Callahan's dangerous hit from behind on Kris Letang, one that drove the Penguin defenseman's head into the glass and left him lying on the ice.

Callahan was given five minutes (but oddly, not ejected), and Letang eventually returned. Later in the game, Chris Kunitz went knee-on-knee with Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat hit Brian Dumoulin from behind.

Despite all that, the game's most serious injury appeared to come on a harmless looking play. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop twisted his knee on his way back to the crease and went down in agony; he was eventually stretchered off of the ice.

By the time we went to sleep on Friday night, we figured that Bishop would be out for a while and Callahan would be suspended. By Saturday, we found out the Bishop was merely day-to-day and Callahan had been given the all-clear by the department of player safety. It was as if even the writers decided they'd gone a bit overboard on the pilot episode, and retconned a few of the weirder plot points out of existence in hopes we wouldn't notice.

(Oh, and the Lightning won the game, 3-1. It was easy to forget that detail with everything else that was going on, but it's possible that it turns out to be important.)

Thankfully, last night's Blues/Sharks opener was polite enough to mostly follow expectations. The two teams played a close game, one that was ultimately won by the Blues by a 2-1 final but could have gone either way, with the Sharks coming close to tying the game in the dying minutes.

It was a classic playoff contest between two relatively evenly matched teams. And more importantly, after Friday's chaos, it didn't feature anything especially weird, beyond an unfortunate early whistle that could have cost the Sharks the tying goal. Sure, Ken Hitchcock's awful decision to challenge an obvious goalie interference call early in the first was a little odd, but it didn't end up mattering. If that had happened during the Penguins/Lightning game, it would have guaranteed at least three disputed offside goals in the third period, and somebody would have speared the referee in the groin during the review.

So thank you, Blues and Sharks, for sticking to the script. We look forward to seeing what madness you're no doubt saving up for later in the series.

Top Five

Celebrating those who've had the best week.

5. Colin Wilson—He's out now, eliminated along with the rest of the Predators in Game 7. But let's take a moment to recognize Wilson's 13 points in 14 games, a total that made him this year's official "Guy who gets picked in the last round of the office playoff pool and screws up the standings for everyone." Way to go, Colin!

4. The schedule—Typically, this is the time of year when the schedule goes off the rails. With just four teams left, the combined pressures of TV partners, arena availability and the league's weird insistence on just taking a few random days off every now and then means we get a schedule with lots of gaps and inconsistency.

But somehow, they got it right this year. Not perfect—the lack of a Saturday game over the weekend was disappointing. But from here on out, the schedule is pretty much ideal. There's a game every night, with the two conferences alternating days the rest of the way. No weird gaps, and no back-to-back games that everyone will complain about. Just a game every second night in both series, the way the hockey gods intended. And the NHL didn't even make us wait around for things to get started, with the Eastern final kicking off the day after the second round wrapped up.

The NHL has finally figured out how to schedule the playoffs. Either that, or its getting ready to really screw things up during the Stanley Cup final and is just getting us to let our guard down. Either way, we should enjoy it while we can.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, May 13, 2016

Conference finals preview

The second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs wrapped up last night in San Jose, with the Sharks demolishing the Predators, 5-0, to advance to the Western Conference finals. And unlike recent years, the NHL isn't going to kill the momentum by taking a few days off. We're right back at it tonight, with the Eastern Conference finals kicking off in Pittsburgh.

We've got an interesting final four this year, one that doesn't include any division winners, Canadian entries or Original Six teams. Let's see if we can sort it all out.

Eastern Conference

With the Presidents' Trophy winning Capitals knocked out, we're left with a pair of No. 2 seeds squaring off in a conference final that has no shortage of star power.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

In this corner: The Lightning (46-31-5, +26) are looking to return to the Stanley Cup final for the second straight year.

The road so far: They've had by far the easiest path to the conference final, facing Detroit and the Islanders, who finished 15th and 10th overall, respectively. But you can only beat the teams that the brackets serve up, and the Lightning have done it with ease, needing just ten games to finish off the two series.

Injury report: Two key contributors, Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, have both missed the entire playoffs but could be back at some point. Stralman broke his leg in March and seems like he's on the verge of returning. Stamkos is trickier; he needed surgery after being diagnosed with a blood clot, and can't return until he's off blood thinners. That might happen any day now; it also might not happen before the playoffs are over.

One player to watch: Victor Hedman. When a team is rolling as well as the Lightning, there are plenty of players you could shine a spotlight on. Nikita Kucherov is filling the net, Tyler Johnson has been fantastic, Ben Bishop looks great and Jonathan Drouin is writing a nice little comeback story. But Hedman may be the key to the series. When he's at his best, he belongs in the top tier of NHL defensemen, right next to guys like Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith. And he was at this best against the Islanders, racking up four goals and eight points in five games while helping to keep John Tavares off the scoresheet after the opener. He'll have his work cut out against Sidney Crosby and friends, but if he's up to the job, he can change the course of a series on his own.

Key number: 57.3—Percentage of scoring chances that the Lightning owned this year when Stralman was on the ice, making him one of just six defensemen with over 1,000 even-strength minutes to be over 57 percent. That's a better mark than Kris Letang (56.8), Brent Burns (55.3), Shea Weber (54.1) or Keith (52.8). Again, Tampa has gone 8-2 in the first two rounds without him in the lineup. If and when he comes back, the Lightning blueline gets downright scary.

Even without Stamkos and Stralman, the Lightning aren't short on star power. –Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dominant narrative: Redemption. The Lightning have been here before, going to last year's Cup final before losing the Blackhawks in six. Now they're back, and with the offense clicking and Stralman and Stamkos on the way back, they may be even better than last year's team. Still, they'll go into this series as underdogs, and with the lingering whispers that they haven't really beaten anyone to get here. They're not quite a "nobody believed in us" story, but they're not getting as much respect as a reigning conference champion typically would.

And in this corner: The Pittsburgh Penguins (46-26-8, +42), the league's hottest team over the second half.

The road so far: The Penguins had a relatively easy time with the Rangers in round one, knocking them off in five games. The powerhouse Capitals proved tougher, but Tuesday's Game 6 overtime winner by Nick Bonino sent them home, too.

Injury report: Olli Maatta returned to action Tuesday, so all the key players are available. That includes Marc-Andre Fleury, who's recovered from a concussion and is cleared to play, but has (so far) stayed in a backup role to rookie Matt Murray.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Grab Bag: The greatest shot in NHL history

In a special Thursday edition of the Grab Bag:
- Alexander heads to the World Championships, and gets ripped for it
- A look at the puck-over-glass rule
- Three comedy stars
- A Washington Capitals obscure OT hero
- And a classic clip we can only do today, because Blues fans are so happy we can't possibly ruin their day...

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

When games sevens go bad

You know what they say: There’s nothing is better than a Game 7.

Well… usually. After six games of back-and-forth action, a deciding seventh game is almost always worth watching. The stakes are high, the teams are evenly matched, and the drama can be off the charts. It’s where reputations can be forged and championship dreams can be crushed, and many of the greatest moments in hockey history have come in Game 7.

But every now and then, a Game 7 serves up a dud. That was the case Wednesday night, when the Blues went into Dallas and smoked the Stars 6-1. Hopefully we’ll get something a little more entertaining in Thursday’s Sharks-Predators showdown. But it’s always wise to prepare for the worst. So today, let’s take a look at five games that will join the Stars and Blues as the worst Game 7 of the last 25 years.

1992: Devils vs. Rangers

The dramatic build: The Rangers had won the Presidents’ Trophy, but were facing heavy pressure under the weight of years of playoff disappointment. They added key pieces like Mark Messier and Adam Graves at the start of the season and were boasting a massive payroll in an attempt to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1940. But they were facing an underdog Devils team that was putting up a fight – literally, in some case, including a wild bench-clearing brawl at the end of Game 6.

The dud: Despite the high stakes and bad blood, Game 7 was never competitive. Messier, Graves and Darren Turcotte all scored twice, and the Rangers were up 6-1 midway through the second period. They’d end up taking an 8-4 decision in what went on to be ranked the worst Game 7 (in any sport) in Madison Square Garden history.

Of course, two years later the two teams would get another shot at Game 7, this time in the conference final. That one ended up being just a little more memorable.

1993: Blues vs. Maple Leafs

The dramatic build: Both teams had scored first round upsets, with the Leafs knocking off the Red Wings in seven while the Blues shocked the Blackhawks in four. Their series started with a pair of double-overtime classics, and a dominant storyline quickly emerged: It was the high-powered offense of Doug Gilmour and the Maple Leafs vs. the spectacular goaltending of Blues’ first-year starter Curtis Joseph. After Joseph stood on his head to win a tight 2-1 decision in Game 6, the two teams headed back to Toronto for a series-deciding showdown.

The dud: Joseph picked the wrong time to unveil his Hardy Astrom impression, surrendering four goals in the opening period to decide the game before the first intermission had arrived.

The lead had grown to 6-0 by midway through the second, and that held up as the final in a game that’s probably best remembered for one of the only shots Joseph did stop – with his face.

For what it’s worth, this may not even have been the most miserable Game 7 for the early-90s Blues, with the other just missing the 25-year cutoff. Things were arguably even worse for St. Louis in 1990, when they dropped an 8-2 loss to the Blackhawks. But at least nobody took a slapshot between the eyes in that one.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

A history of San Jose Sharks playoff misery

It really did seem like it was going to be the San Jose Sharks‘ year.

Just a few weeks ago, they were resting up after dispatching the favoured Los Angeles Kings in a surprisingly swift five games. When the Nashville Predators knocked off the Anaheim Ducks in seven, that set San Jose up with an unexpected home ice advantage, and they used it to jump out to a 2-0 series lead. After years of playoff disappointment, it looked like everything was falling into place for the Sharks to finally exceed expectations, and maybe even win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

Things change quickly in the post-season. After failing to close out the series in Nashville on Monday, the Sharks now face a Game 7 tonight — one that most didn’t think they’d need against the wildcard Predators.

The Sharks still head into tonight as the favourite; they’ve got home ice, and have won all three games played at the SAP Center in the series. They’re the better team on paper. And a win would send them to a Conference Final matchup against the St. Louis Blues that they’d have a good chance to win.

But a loss… a loss, and we’re right back to where we always seems to be with this team. So today, let’s take a look back over the Sharks’ history of playoff disappointment.

1991 – 1999: THE EARLY YEARS

The team: We’ll lump the first eight years of franchise history into one entry, since they really didn’t have anything to do with the Sharks’ current reputation. After two years of record-breaking expansion futility, the Sharks broke through with their first decent season in 1993-94, making the playoffs and then shocking the Detroit Red Wings in the opening round.

They’d win another round in 1995, this time against the Calgary Flames in a Game 7 OT, before suffering through two more miserable years followed by two years of first round exits.

The disappointment: Any playoff loss hurts, but it would be hard to call any of these post-season performances a disappointment. The Sharks were never favoured, and in fact were never even a .500 team. And looking back, only their second round matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1994, in which they were one Johan Garpenlov crossbar away from advancing, feels like a series that got away.

Heartbreak rating: 2/10. Sure, the first few years of incompetence were rough. But those upsets against the Red Wings and Flames were fun, and the rest of it pretty much played out according to script.


The team: The Sharks crack the .500 mark for the first time in franchise history. That’s enough to sneak them into the playoffs as an eight seed, where they draw the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Blues. Nobody gives them much of a chance, but they jump out to a 3-1 series lead before pulling off a Game 7 upset that’s punctuated with Owen Nolan’s long-distance dagger.

The disappointment: Coming off the high of that win, the Sharks sputter out of the gate against the Dallas Stars in Round 2. They’re shut out in each of the first two games and lose the series in five.

Heartbreak rating: 1/10. Maybe it didn’t end up being a Cinderella run, but that Blues upset was one of the highlights of franchise history.


The team: The Sharks record a franchise-best 95 points, and finish second in the Pacific. This version of the team was led by Nolan and a 21-year-old Patrick Marleau, supported by a cast of “Wait, that guy played for the Sharks?” veterans like Gary Suter, Mike Ricci and Vincent Damphousse. Teemu Selanne arrives late in the season, and Evgeni Nabokov earns the Calder Trophy for his work in goal.

The disappointment: In a Round 1 rematch with the Blues, the Sharks drop a six-game series that could have gone either way. The turning point comes in Game 5, in which the Sharks take a 2-1 lead into the third but end up dropping a 3-2 decision on overtime on Bryce Salvador’s winner.

Heartbreak rating: 3/10. Expectations are slowly but surely increasing, and simply making an appearance in the post-season no longer feels like mission accomplished. Still, if you have to lose to someone, it was kind of nice to see it be the Blues. Those guys are stuck with a reputation for never winning anything in the playoffs.


The team: The Sharks record 99 points to lead their division for the first time. It’s a veteran group – Adam Graves even makes an appearance – and it leans heavily on its goaltending duo of Nabokov and rookie Miikka Kiprusoff. They make it out of the First Round, beating the then-Phoenix Coyotes in six games and setting up a Second Round meeting with the Colorado Avalanche.

The disappointment: The Sharks lead the series three separate times, but can’t close. They hold a 3-2 series lead heading into Game 6 at home, but lose in overtime on a Peter Forsberg goal in a game marked by a third period earthquake. Then they drop a 1-0 decision in the seventh game, with Selanne missing an open net early on that could have changed the course of the game.

Heartbreak rating: 5/10. The loss to the Avalanche may not have been an upset, but the way it played out left a mark.


The team: After what seemed like a breakout season, the Sharks unravel in 2002-03 and miss the playoffs. They fire coach Darryl Sutter in December, and GM Dean Lombardi follows a few months later. Spoiler alert: Those two guys show up again later.

The disappointment: The Sharks don’t even come close to the post-season, finishing 19 points back. They do wind up with two first round picks in the ridiculously stacked 2003 draft, but can only turn them into Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier. The two players taken right after the Sharks’ picks: Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.

Heartbreak rating: 2/10. Disappointment? Definitely. Frustration? Sure. But this can’t really qualify as heartbreak.


The team: The Sharks roar back into the playoff picture with a 104-point season. They’re not exactly stacked – Nils Ekman is their second leading scorer – but they’re well-balanced and tough to score on. They beat the Blues and the Avalanche in the opening two rounds to advance to the Conference Final for the first time in franchise history. (That Avs series gets a little dicey – the Sharks take a 3-0 series lead, then lose back-to-back overtime games before winning game six – but otherwise it’s a fairly smooth ride.)

The disappointment: They end up facing the Flames, who are led by a couple of familiar faces: Sutter behind the bench and Kiprusoff in goal. The Sharks are the favorites, and a trip to the Cup final seems in sight. But they drop the first two games of the series at home, and end up losing in six.

Heartbreak rating: 4/10. On the one hand, the franchise is headed in the right direction again. On the other, they let a golden chance at a Final appearance slip through their fingers. They probably can’t wait to get back out there. Sure hope the league doesn’t cancel the next season.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The 12 controversies you meet in every postseason

The 2016 NHL playoffs have been nothing if not controversial. We’ve had blown calls, suspensions, non-suspensions and bad blood. There have been unfortunate soundbites and inappropriate gestures. And everyone from the players to the fans to the media have been involved.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. We go through this same list every year. The NHL playoffs are a breeding ground for controversy, thanks to high emotions, an ever intensifying spotlight and razor-thin margins separating victory from defeat. On any given night, you can count on something happening somewhere that will have fans at each other’s throats. And there’s plenty more to come. After all, we’re only halfway through this year’s playoffs.

So this seems like a good time to regroup and remind ourselves that we’ve been here before and we’ll be here again. Here are the dozen controversies you’re likely to meet in any given post-season, including this one, and a refresher on how best to handle them.

The Crucial Missed Call

What happens: The play itself isn't flagrantly dirty – we'll get to those ones down below. But it's clearly a penalty, one you've seen called virtually every other time it happens. But this time, for whatever reason, there's no call. And inevitably, a game-changing play follows right behind.

Examples from history: Wayne Gretzky's high stick; the Blackhawks score with too many men on the ice; Daniel Alfredsson on Darcy Tucker; Travis Green's slash on Alexei Kovalev, which we were all fine with because it led to a best actor nomination.

Examples from this year: The missed tripping calls right before the tying goal in the final game of the opening round series between the Islanders and Panthers; depending on your perspective, maybe also Brian Boyle's late hit on Thomas Hickey that led to an overtime winner.

How to handle it: We all complain about referees putting their whistles away in the playoffs and insist that we want them to call the game by the rulebook – right up until one of them actually does, at which point we howl about officials thinking anyone paid to see them decide the game.

The Dirty Play (without a suspension)

What happens: Maybe it's a hit, maybe it's stick work, or maybe it's something else entirely. But somebody steps over the line, and fans and media everywhere demand a suspension that never comes.

Examples from history: Shea Weber on Henrik Zetterberg; Pavel Bure on Shane Churla; Ulf Samuelsson on Cam Neely; P.K. Subban on Mark Stone; no, seriously, go back and watch that Bure/Churla hit again, it was insane.

Examples from this year: Kris Letang on Viktor Stalberg; Jason Chimera on Jakub Voracek; Evgeni Malkin on Daniel Winnik; literally anything that was done to any player on your favourite team, if we're being honest.

How to handle it: We all spend a few days complaining about the Department of Player Safety never suspending anyone during the playoffs. Seriously, don't they realize that if they'd just give the guy something, even if it were only a few games, we'd all be happy?

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, May 9, 2016

Weekend report: Boudreau, Ovechkin, and flipping coins

Before we get to the power rankings, let's talk about the only four-letter word you're not allowed to say at a hockey rink: Luck. Everyone stay cool, we can do this.

In a Friday blog post titled "If you get emotionally invested in a playoff hockey team, you're a masochist," Washington Post columnist Dan Steinberg railed against the playoffs. Not this year's playoffs, or a particular series, but the entire concept as it exists in the modern NHL. It's all become a crapshoot, Steinberg argues, one where the actual performance of the teams involved has little to do with the outcomes. We're just watching two teams skate around for 60 minutes (or more) and waiting for a handful of lucky bounces to determine the winner, at which point we all get to work filling in narratives about grit and heart to convince ourselves that the right team won.

Steinberg's argument is controversial, one that suggests that maybe we're all just wasting our time here. It's also absolutely and indisputably correct.

It might be tempting to accuse Steinberg of sour grapes here. After all, he's a Capitals writer, and they're down 3-2 in their series with the Penguins. But he shows his work, and the numbers are hard to argue with. By almost any reasonable measure, the Caps outplayed the Penguins for most of Games 3 and 4. But they lost anyway. And this happens all the time in the NHL. It's not, as Steinberg makes clear, a case of a good team having a bad night, or failing to execute a game plan, or being outworked by an opponent who just wants it more. It's about one side going out and being the better team and then losing, anyway.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the NHL's era of unprecedented parity. In that post, I ended up hitting on the same metaphor that Steinberg did: It's starting to feel like we're just flipping coins here. Maybe not during the regular season, when bigger sample sizes and a wider disparity between teams result in a standings page that feels like at least a rough approximation of overall quality. But in the playoffs, with two roughly even teams facing off in a short series of low-scoring games, well... heads or tails?

Let's be clear: Hockey fans, in general, hate this sort of argument. Many have a visceral reaction to the entire concept of results being anything other than earned. We've spent years being conditioned to believe that hockey is a morality play where the best man always wins, and that if a team like the Capitals keeps failing when it seems like the odds should be in their favor, it must be because they're suffering from some sort of fatal flaw. Luck? Good teams make their own luck, as the old saying goes. Of course, that old saying makes zero sense if you think about it for even a moment. So we don't.

And this isn't just something that fans tell themselves—everyone from team owners to GMs to coaches buy in, and spend the offseason trying desperately to find the right mix of character and leadership that will finally make them a deserving team in the eyes of the hockey gods. The players themselves aren't even allowed to acknowledge the luck factor. And the media beat the character drum constantly, because we have to. It's our job to tell you why a team won, and these days, as often as not, we really don't have a good answer for you. So we either talk about heart and compete level, or we're left with this.

It's not even a homer thing. Two years ago, while covering the Kings/Rangers final, I wrote that the Rangers were trailing the series 3-0 largely due to bad luck. That seemed like an obvious point to make—the Kings had won the first two games without holding the lead for a single second of playing time, and the Rangers had suffered a series of bad bounces that cost them critical goals. But as soon as I mentioned the L-word, the pushback from fans was immediate. And not just Kings fans—you'd expect that—but Rangers fans, too, who refused to believe their team was losing because of random chance. It was something more. It had to be.

But most of the time, it just isn't. And as Steinberg writes, that leaves a hockey fan with a handful of unpalatable choices. You could stop caring, which seems logical but, let's face it, isn't going to happen. You can sit back and enjoy the show, accepting it for great entertainment even if it's all largely random; that might make you, as Steinberg concludes, a "masochist" but at least you'd occasionally be a happy one. Or you can decide that it's easier to just keep up the act, focusing on the small handful of lucky moments that seem to swing each series and convincing yourself that they really are the meaningful result of... something.

Let's stick with that last option. On to the week's five best and worst, all of whom earned their way on to the list based on sheer force of will.

Top Five

Celebrating those who've had the best week.

5. Bruce Boudreau—Speaking of playoff narratives...

Boudreau was fired last week after yet another Game 7 loss, but his reputation for losing the big one didn't seem to dissuade teams from lining up to hire him. The Wild and Senators both interviewed him, with Ottawa flying him into town late in the week. Boudreau has family in Ottawa and was giving odd media interviews that all but screamed "Hire me." Even with a somewhat unexpected vacancy in Calgary opening up, by the time the weekend arrived this sure looked like the Senators' contest to lose.

And then, on Saturday, they did. Boudreau chose the Wild, agreeing to a four-year contract that will pay him nearly $3 million a season. The Senators responded by hiring Guy Boucher on Sunday, which is a reasonably decent Plan B. That leaves Calgary to pick through the next tier of candidates, one that features names like Marc Crawford, Mike Yeo and even, believe it or not, Randy Carlyle. Those are (almost) all solid candidates, but none are in Boudreau's class.

As for the Wild, they've still got a steep road ahead—the core is old, expensive and locked up on very long deals that may be unmovable. But with Boudreau behind the bench, they'll at least have a puncher's chance in a very tough Central.

4. Gustav Nyquist—Hey look, a Red Wing finally won something during the second round.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

On Dwyane Wade, American disrespect, and Canadian payback

Oh, you’ve done it now, America.

Specifically, Dwyane Wayne has done it. On Saturday, Wade made international headlines before Game 3 of the NBA playoff series between his Miami Heat and the Toronto Raptors when he continued to take warm-up shots during the playing of the Canadian national anthem. And now, America, all of you will pay. By standing idly by as one of your own blatantly disrespected our anthem, you have left an entire nation feeling mildly vexed.

Wait, no, not mildly vexed. That’s not strong enough. Maybe exasperated? Irked? Slightly put-out? No, no, none of those will do. What’s the word I’m looking for? You know, the one you Americans seem to feel all the time these days, aimed in every direction, informing your every decision and interaction with the outside world?

Anger. That’s the one. Canadians are angry!

Was that OK? I feel like maybe the exclamation point was too strong. Sorry about that if it was. We’re not all that good at this.

>> Read the full post at The Guardian

Friday, May 6, 2016

I am so old, and other thoughts on the Coyotes' new GM

The late 80s were a fun time to be a hockey fan. Wayne Gretzky won the final Stanley Cup of his career, was traded, and then watched the Calgary Flames win their very first. Mario Lemieux won his first MVP, a Hall-of-Famer made a stunning return to the league, and the first wave of Russian stars arrived in the NHL. We saw the first ever goalie to shoot and score, then saw the same guy appoint himself team enforcer. There was a lights-out brawl at the World Juniors and a donut-related referees strike in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was pretty wild.

If all of that is bringing back fond memories for you, then you may want to stop reading now, because you’re about to feel very old: on Thursday, the Arizona Coyotes appointed a general manager who wasn’t alive for any of those things.

>> Read the full post at The Guardian

Grab Bag: Late hits, lottery conspiracies, and the birth of Wendelmania

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The big lie of "just finishing my check"
- Weird draft lottery conspiracies
- An obscure player that Matt Murray probably doesn't want to read about
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the last time the Maple Leafs picked first overall. Spoiler alert: It worked out OK.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The 2016 OGWAC rankings

The Old Guy Without A Cup is one of playoff hockey’s best traditions. Every season, right around this time, fans start hearing about the grizzled veterans on the remaining teams that are chasing the very first championship of their NHL careers. Some have had agonizing near-misses in the past; others have never even come close. In many cases, the drama is unmistakable because we know that this is probably their last chance.

The Old Guy Without A Cup, or OGWAC for short, makes for a great story. They’re easy for fans to root for, and can serve as inspiration for their teammates. Over the years, it’s even become tradition for the winning captain to seek out his team’s OGWAC for the honour of receiving the first handoff.

Ray Bourque is probably the best OGWAC story of all-time; back in 2001, it was almost impossible not to cheer him on as the then 40-year-old defenceman chased his first title in what would be the final season of his 22-year career. When he finally got it, hockey fans were treated to one of the era’s most emotional moments.

Other memorable OGWACs include Lanny MacDonald in 1989 and Teemu Selanne in 2007. Last year, it was Kimmo Timonen, the 39-year-old veteran who’d never won a thing over the course of his long career, right up until Jonathan Toews handed him the Cup.

This year, as always, there are a handful of candidates in the running to be this year’s feel-good story. We’re obviously looking for guys that are old, which we’ll define as 33 and up. They also need to playing an active role in their team’s Cup hunt; you’ll occasionally see a scratch earn OGWAC status (like Denis Savard in 1993), but it’s rare. And bonus points will be awarded for near misses and adversity faced along the way.

With all that in mind, here are the ten best OGWAC candidates left standing in this year’s playoffs.

Steve Ott, St. Louis Blues

The notorious pest is in his 13th NHL season, almost all of them spent doing the thankless work of a third or fourth-liner. He’s also a divisive player, one who proudly plays the agitator role, has been suspended multiple times and once thought it would be a good idea to do this.

Near misses: Ott’s longest run came as part of the Stars team that made the conference final back in 2008.

Adversity tracker: It’s probably fair to say that Ott is one of the most hated players in the league. Does that count as adversity? I’m not sure it does.

Bottom line: A big part of any OGWAC story is the player being fun to root for, which will disqualify Ott in the eyes of many fans. But if you can talk yourself into the whole “guy you love to hate” thing, you might be able to get on board.

Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars

Spezza hasn’t hit our 33-years-old cutoff yet, but he likely will by the time the Stanley Cup is won, so he qualifies. Still, it’s almost impossible to think of him as “old”. This guy was a K-Mart model as a kid, and he still looks exactly the same today.

Near misses: Spezza was a key part of the Senators run to the final in 2007, and was a rookie on the 2003 team that lost a heart-breaking conference final to the Devils.

Adversity tracker: He’s battled injuries for much of his career, including back problems that cost him most of his 2012-13 season.

Bottom line: Spezza checks most of the OGWAC boxes, but as long as his back holds up he seems like a guy who has lots of hockey ahead of him. He makes the list, but we can’t rank him that highly.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet