Friday, July 29, 2016

Grab Bag: Habs Habs Baby

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The three stars of comedy return
- When are we allowed to start evaluating trades?
- An obscure player who's only goal almost changed a franchise
- Chris Chelios and the Malibu Mob
- and the 1991 Habs' response to last week's awful “Moog” video is somehow even worse.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Five more blockbusters that apparently almost happened

Mark Messier and Brett Hull. (Getty Images)

The 2016 offseason began with a bang, as two of the biggest trades in recent NHL history went down within minutes of each other on June 29. But since then, apart from the occasional move, the trade talk around the league has gone largely quiet.

Or has it? After all, just because blockbuster deals aren’t being made doesn’t mean they’re not being discussed. Hockey history is filled with monster trades that almost happened and that we only find out about after the fact. We covered five of the biggest near-misses a year ago, with names like Steve Yzerman, Corey Perry, Pavel Datsyuk, and even P.K. Subban and Carey Price (in the same deal). Today, let’s look back at a few more.

But first, the obvious disclaimer. While all of these deals were reported by reasonably trustworthy sources, we’ll never know how close they actually came to happening. When it comes to the “near” in near-miss, mileage may vary.

But with that out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff. Here are five NHL blockbusters that apparently really did almost happen.

Steven Stamkos to the Rangers

Until the one-for-one trades started flying, Stamkos had been the focus of the 2016 off-season. His stay-or-go decision with the Lightning had dragged on all season, and he was reportedly the top target for several teams if he’d made it to free agency. He’s widely considered one of the best players in hockey. So it’s easy to forget that, at one point early on in his career, Stamkos was viewed as a bit of a bust.

The top pick in the 2008 draft, Stamkos arrived in Tampa with plenty of hype. But he got off to a slow start, scoring just twice in his first 21 games. He struggled under Lightning coach Barry Melrose, at one point seeing as little as six minutes of ice time. He just didn’t look ready for NHL action. And within weeks, according to Larry Brooks of the NY Post, the Lightning had decided to trade him.

The deal was struck with Glen Sather and the Rangers, and according to Brooks would have seen the future all-star sent to New York in exchange for “two or three from a wish list that featured Michael Del Zotto, Evgeny Grachev, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Dan Girardi.”

According to Sather, the deal was done and sealed with a handshake. The problem: That handshake was with Lightning co-owner Len Barrie. When general manager Brian Lawton found out about the discussion, he wanted no part of the deal. Barrie still wanted to go forward, according to the report, but co-owner Oren Koules refused, and the deal died.

Melrose was fired, Stamkos was a 50-goal scorer by his second year in the league, and the rest is history.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Why Canadians don't get all that excited for the Summer Olympics

After four years of waiting, the big moment is almost here. The eyes of the world will be focused on Rio next week, as the planet’s greatest athletes gather and the ceremonial torch is lit for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Do the Games start next week? I’m not actually sure. Look, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t sound as excited as I should be. Please understand that I have a pre-existing condition: I’m Canadian. And to be clear, we like the Summer Olympics just fine. We watch them. We’ve even been known to win a gold medal or two. But they’re not really our thing, you know? At least not in quite the same way that they seem to be for a lot of you.

So I thought I’d take a shot at explaining why that is. Here are eight key reasons why any Canadians you know probably aren’t quite as hyped for the Summer Games as you might expect.

1) It’s not the Winter Olympics

Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first, if only because it’s not as big a factor as you might think. Yes, Canada tends to get far more into the Winter Olympics. That makes sense; we’re a country of snow and ice, so we do better in events that take place in the environment we’re used to. We dominate hockey, we’re pretty good at speedskating, and we’ve had our moments in figure skating and skiing. None of those events, you may have noticed, work all that well in August.

But winter sports aren’t all we can do. Despite what your stereotypes may have taught you, we do have summer here in Canada. It lasts for three weeks, and ends with 30% of the population having been carried off by mosquitos, but it does happen. And over the years, Canadians have had Olympic success at traditional summer sports like track and field, swimming, diving and rowing. We may not be an international powerhouse, but we have our moments.

So no, it’s not just a winter/summer thing. There’s a bit more going on here.

2) We’re just not all that good

Look, let’s call it like it is. People like to watch their country win, and Canada doesn’t win all that much in the Summer Games. When they show you the medal table, you typically have to scroll a few pages to find us. There’s a few reasons for that, including a relatively small population and a culture that would rather spend money on things like healthcare than making sure everyone can jump really high. But the bottom line is that we try hard and have fun, and sometimes that’s about it.

And again, we do win sometimes. And when that happens, it’s a big deal. We break out into a little national party whenever somebody medals, especially if it’s an unexpected upset, which it probably is. But that all adds up to a steady stream of occasional nice moments, not a flood of non-stop glory. And we’re fine with that. It’s just kind of tough to get too worked up over finishing 36th.

3) Even when we are the best, we get screwed in weird ways

One of my earliest childhood memories involved staying up late to watch Shawn O’Sullivan and Willie DeWitt win boxing gold at the 1984 Games. But neither did, because they got screwed by the judges. And that tends to happen kind of a lot, in both the Summer and Winter events. Sometimes it’s on purpose, because shadowy forces conspire against us. Sometimes it’s by accident, because somebody pressed the wrong button. Sometimes we even lose based on rules everyone knows, and sometimes it’s based on ones that nobody has even heard of.

The point is that Canada having success at the Olympics is often viewed as some sort of weird glitch, and the world has a tendency to respond by taking the cartridge out and blowing on it until everything works again. That kind of thing wears on you after a while.

>> Read the full post at The Guardian

Friday, July 22, 2016

Grab Bag: Let your body go with the flow

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL should celebrate it's 100th birthday by bring back celebrity captains
- One key point to remember when fighting the analytics war, which will never end.
- An obscure player who was creatively nicknamed Bussey, and the weird story of why.
- No, signing bonuses won't cause the next lockout. Nothing will.
- And a classic youtube breakdown of the Moog video. You know the one.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Five expected offseason moves we're still waiting for

The dog days of the NHL offseason got a nice jolt on Monday when the Senators and Rangers hooked up on a decent-sized trade. The deal sends Derick Brassard and a seventh to Ottawa in exchange for Mika Zibanejad and a second, improving the Senators’ top six while adding some youth to the Rangers and giving them some additional cap room to work with.

The trade also answered one of the offseason’s lingering questions, which was: When are the Rangers going to get around to doing something? We were all told to expect a busy offseason in New York, as GM Jeff Gorton would look to shake up his aging and expensive core. But until this week, not much had happened aside from a few minor free agency signings. Trading Brassard isn’t exactly a blockbuster, but at least now the Rangers are on the board.

But that still leaves a few more stories lingering in the “still waiting” file. Here are five moves everyone went into the offseason expecting to see that still haven’t happened yet.

The move: The Kevin Shattenkirk trade.

Heading into the offseason, it seemed as if Shattenkirk was the most likely blueliner to be on the move. With UFA status a year away, it just didn’t seem as if he was part of the Blues long-term plans. And with holes in the lineup created by other departures and several teams on the market in the hunt for defensive help, trading Shattenkirk seemed like the most obvious move for Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong.

Why hasn’t it happened yet?: The short answer is that Armstrong hasn’t found the right deal yet. But that just leads to the next question: Why not? It’s not like the market for defensemen suddenly dried up this summer; between P.K. Subban, Shea Weber and Adam Larsson, there’s been as much talent on the move as ever, and maybe more. But in Shattenkirk’s case, the move might get complicated. He’s one year away from free agency, so teams may be reluctant to acquire him without a firm sense of how much they’ll have to pay to keep him.

Odds that it still will: High. It just seems like this one has gone too far down the road to be pulled back now, with Shattenkirk’s agent going as far as calling a deal “inevitable” a few weeks ago. Maybe Armstrong has to lower his asking price, and maybe that brings teams like Edmonton back into the mix.

What if it doesn’t?: It’s going to seem awkward if training camp arrives and Shattenkirk is still a Blue. Still, having him in the lineup wouldn’t be the worst thing in the word for a legitimate Cup contender. Conventional wisdom says that you just can’t let a player like that reach free agency without trading him first, but as the Lightning showed with Steven Stamkos last year, sometimes it’s better to stay the course. Still, that’s risky territory for the Blues, and it’s hard to see how this gets that far.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ranking the NHL's weird celebrity captains of 1991

The next year will be a big one for NHL milestones. For starters, we’ll see the 100th anniversary of the league itself, dating back to its official formation in 1917. The coming season is also the Maple Leafs’ centennial — one the franchise is celebrating with new uniforms, an outdoor game and a special Hall of Fame exhibit.

If that wasn’t enough, the 1967 expansions teams, including the Kings, Penguins, Flyers and Blues, will all mark their 50th anniversaries. We’ll no doubt see plenty of marketing initiatives in the coming months as the league marks the various occasions.

Here’s hoping they’ve got something good in mind, because the bar has been set high. Twenty-five years ago this summer, in advance of what would be its 75th season, the NHL decided to celebrate the occasion in the very best way it knew how: With a parade of B-list celebrities.

During the 1991 off-season, the league asked all 22 of its teams to name one celebrity captain for the coming season. Some teams rose to the challenge and found a candidate who captured just the right blend of local ties and hockey fandom. Other teams… well, not so much. So today, let’s look back on all 22 of those celebrity captains, as we count them down from worst to best.

No. 22: Montreal Canadiens – Maurice “Rocket” Richard

No. Just… no.

Let’s be clear: Rocket Richard is a legend, one of the greatest wingers of all time, and a defining player of a generation. He inspired children’s books, songs and even the occasional riot. In the world of pro sports, there are superstars, there are Hall-of-Famers, and then there’s that very small group of players who transcend it all to become something even more. Richard is in the group, no question. Rocket Richard ruled.

But asking a franchise to pick a celebrity captain from the entire world of arts, sports and pop culture and then having them come back with one of their own players is the most Montreal Canadiens thing ever. This franchise is so obsessed with its own history that they literally couldn’t think of any other options here. Sorry, Montreal, but that’s too much. Pick a marginally famous folk singer like all the other teams in the country ended up doing.

No. 21: New York Rangers – Marv Albert

This was six years before Albert’s assault trial, so we won’t penalize the Rangers for failing to see into the future. But we will penalize them for a lack of creativity in selecting a “celebrity” from within the sports media world. Albert was best known for his work on NBA games, but he’d worked Rangers games over the years, so this all felt a little too insider-y.

This is New York, after all, home of the world’s biggest stars. With all due respect to Albert, there were probably more famous people wandering by on the street at any given moment. But that would have required the Rangers to actually make it to the street, instead of just wandering down the pressbox hallway and grabbing the first person they recognized.

No. 20: Philadelphia Flyers – Bobby Rydell

Of all 22 captains, this was the toughest one to track down. Most teams were proud of their choices; some had press releases or formal announcements, and everyone else would at least show up in a newspaper article or two. But not the Flyers. Most news coverage just made vague reference to them not getting around to making a pick yet.

As best I can tell, that pick ended up being Rydell, the teen idol pop singer best known for the 1960 hit, Wild One. At least, that’s according to the one line slipped into the end of this article on the Flyers’ opening-night loss to the Capitals. That’s pretty much all the evidence I could find of the Flyers participating in this campaign at all. They just didn’t seem all that in to the whole celebrity captain thing. Which is weird, considering the franchise’s proud history with pop music.

No. 19: Hartford Whalers – Susan Saint James

Saint James might seem like an odd pick, but she was chosen because she’d once attended college in Connecticut. That’s it. The fact that she was married to the president of the NHL’s TV partner was no doubt purely a coincidence.

As a side note, the Whalers appear to have been the only team to name a co-captain, as they snuck in an additional mention of Gordie Howe. Normally, that would fall under the same category as the Habs choosing Richard. But I’m going to give the Whalers a pass, on the assumption that they picked Howe just to troll the Red Wings in hopes of getting them to lose their minds when it came time for their pick.

Spoiler alert: It worked.

No. 18: Calgary Flames – Ian Tyson

When the NHL said “celebrity captain,” half the league’s Canadian teams immediately went “local folk rock singer” and called it a day. Maybe the biggest upset of all here was that, somehow, Stompin’ Tom Connors didn’t get picked by anyone. How is that even possible? I’m assuming he was removed from consideration to make it fair for everyone else, like when you were in a hockey pool in 1984 and nobody was allowed to draft Wayne Gretzky.

Anyway, Calgary’s honour went to Tyson. Personally, I would have gone with then-current WWF intercontinental champion Bret Hart, but let’s be honest, it was the early 90s. The Flames weren’t exactly making great personnel decisions.

No. 17: Toronto Maple Leafs – Gordon Lightfoot

Have I mentioned that the Canadian teams liked singers? They liked singers.

Side note: How much do you think it killed Mike Myers not to get the nod here? He was already a big star on Saturday Night Live by this point, but the Wayne’s World movie hadn’t come out yet so he didn’t quite have that crossover appeal. Then again, given how things turned out when he finally did get to work with the Leafs, that’s probably a good thing.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, July 15, 2016

Grab Bag: Pointless secrecy, Vegas puns, and defending Marc Bergevin

In this week's Friday Grab Bag:
- Enough with the Vegas puns
- More pointless NHL secrecy
- An obscure player who scored a very famous goal without being on the ice
- Defending Marc Bergevin
- Making fun of Marc Bergevin

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The five types of goalie-for-goalie trades

The Maple Leafs traded Jonathan Bernier to the Ducks last week. Toronto moving on from Bernier wasn’t a surprise, but the timing and destination was odd, coming just days after the Leafs and Ducks had hooked up on the Frederik Andersen deal. That’s led to speculation that Bernier was part of the original trade all along, but remained on the Leafs roster long enough for MLSE to pay his signing bonus on July 1.

If so, that would kind of make Bernier-for-Andersen the latest in a long line of goalie-for-goalie trades, albeit it one with some valuable draft picks heading Anaheim’s way. The NHL has a deep history of this sort of deal, and that makes sense; there are only so many goaltenders out there, so it’s understandable that a team trading one away would want to acquire one in return. And as it turns out, those goalie-for-goalie trades often end up falling into some familiar categories.

Today, let’s look back at some of those moves. Note that we’re not looking for trades that simply featured goalies on either side, which will come as a relief to Habs fans dreading another rehashing of the Patrick Roy trade. Instead, we’ll focus on trades in which the goaltenders were either traded for each other straight up, or at least were clearly the primary pieces in the deal.

Here are some of history’s best goalie-for-goalie trades, and the categories they fell into.

The category: The change-of-scenery trade that comes back to haunt one of the teams.

Recent example: Five years ago, the Avalanche and Senators hooked up on a trade that saw Ottawa acquire Craig Anderson in exchange for Brian Elliott. Anderson was just one year removed from a great season, but was struggling badly and seemed headed to unrestricted free agency. So the Avs flipped him for Elliott, who’d yet to impress in limited duty as Ottawa’s starter.

The deal worked out wonderfully for the Senators; Anderson regained his form, signed a new contract, and is still the team’s starter to this day. The Avalanche didn’t fare quite as well; Elliott didn’t do much in Colorado, and was allowed to hit free agency that summer. He signed with the Blues, won the Jennings the very next year, and has been one of the league’s most dependable goaltenders ever since.

(A near-miss in this category: The Capitals trading Michal Neuvirth for Jaroslav Halak in 2014, then almost seeing Neuvirth lead the Flyers to a miracle comeback against them in this year’s playoffs.)

Other examples: Sometimes, a team has no choice but to move on from a goaltender. That was the case in 1988, when Edmonton goalie Andy Moog held out from the team all season. The Oilers finally moved him at the deadline, sending the veteran to Boston for youngster Bill Ranford.

Months later, the two teams faced each other in the Stanley Cup final, with Moog seeing part-time duty while Ranford watched from the bench in an Oilers win. Two years later the teams met again, and this time it was Ranford and Moog going head-to-head. Ranford won the matchup and the Conn Smythe, avenging what he’d seen as poor treatment at the hands of the Bruins.

The lesson: If you’re going to make a goalie-for-goalie trade, make sure it’s with a team that isn’t going to show up in the Cup final any time soon. So, good work there, Ducks.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Friday, July 8, 2016

Grab Bag: Missing insiders, defensieve defensemen, and disappearing NTCs

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- All the hockey insiders are on vacation now and that's not OK
- PK Subban kind of got screwed on his NTC
- An obscure player who is also a movie star
- Introducing the defensieve defenseman, who will save us all from another old-school-vs-analytics fight
- And the Leafs and Habs got head-to-head to determine hockey's best defenseman in an old school NHL Showdown

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The five biggest UFA signings of the salary cap era

Thursday marks the end of the first week of NHL free agency. It’s a nerve-racking time for players still looking for a home, since conventional wisdom says that if you don’t have a deal in place by the end of Week One, you’re pretty much out of luck. You could end up having to wait all summer, like Cody Franson did last year. You may not get a contract anywhere at all.

But the good news is that that’s not quite true, at least not all the time. A look back through the history books shows us that there have been a handful of major signings in the second week of free agency. It’s a small handful, to be sure, but you take your hope where you can get it.

Here are the five biggest names who found new homes in Week Two of unrestricted free agency during the salary cap era.

2006: Brendan Shanahan, Rangers

The signing: After nine years and three Stanley Cups in Detroit, Shanahan headed for New York with a one-year, $4 million deal on July 10, 2006.

How big was it? Fairly big. Shanahan’s departure came on the heels of Steve Yzerman’s retirement, putting an exclamation point on the fact that an era was ending in Detroit. And he was coming off of a 41-goal, 81-point season, so even at 37 years old he looked like a guy with some hockey left in him.

Did it work out? Pretty much. Shanahan put up 29 goals and 62 points, and provided the sort of leadership that quickly won over the Rangers faithful. He re-signed for another year in New York, scored 23 more goals, and then finished his career with a return to the Devils. All-in-all you’d have to call this signing a success, which it goes without saying was a flagrant violation of established Rangers team policy.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Six names in the offseason spotlight

The NHL off-season has barely started. It’s also almost over. That’s the way things tend to go in the modern era – we get the draft, some big trades, and the opening of free agency all crammed into a week, and then everything starts to get quiet. And this summer hasn’t disappointed, with some days being crazier than others.

Some of those moves will work out. Others won’t. A few will be utter disasters. And like every off-season, some of the action has resulted in certain names being thrust directly into the hockey world’s spotlight.

Here are a half dozen names that will be getting some extra attention based on what’s happened over the off-season’s opening days.

Milan Lucic

It’s a little too easy to point to big-money free agent signings as names in the spotlight; that goes with the job. Andrew Ladd, David Backes, Kyle Okposo and every other player who signed a big deal last week will be watched closely next year and beyond, at least until the buyouts start rolling in.

So we’ll limit ourselves to one, and we’ll make it Milan Lucic, if only as an example of how spotlights aren’t always a bad thing. Put simply, nobody was a bigger winner in last week’s bidding wars than Lucic. Not only did he sign one of the largest contracts in recent free agency history, but he landed in a near-perfect situation.

We’re already seeing the narrative built up: Lucic isn’t just going to be a dangerous addition to the Oilers’ top six, he’s going to transform the team’s very identity. He’ll teach them how to win. He’ll scare them straight.

When it’s time to meet his new teammates, he’ll be threatening to crack skulls before he’s even done shaking hands. Hey, he’s been there before.

It’s an irresistible storyline, and it’s one that means that Lucic will get the credit for any improvement the Oilers can show over the next few years. And that’s a great spot to be in, because the Oilers almost certainly will show improvement, and maybe a whole lot of it.

Connor McDavid‘s emergence as the best player in the league will all but guarantee that, and the continued improvement of the team’s other best young players will add support.

Nobody who’s been paying attention over the last decade would ever say that an Oilers playoff push is a sure thing. But it’s close. And whether he plays well or not, Lucic is going to get a big chunk of the credit. Even if he struggles on the ice, the whole intangibles storyline will be too much to refrain from. And if he puts up the type of numbers he’s capable of, he may own the city within a year or two.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, July 4, 2016

Weekend report: Free agency winners and losers

The NHL's annual free agent frenzy opened on Friday at noon. Within hours, most of the big names were gone. By the end of the first day, only a handful of major names were left. And by the end of days two and three... well, actually, pretty much nothing happened on days two and three. Seriously, the weekend was weird. I think everyone already went on vacation. Am I the only one left? Because I don't know how to work the coffee machine.

Anyway, the slow weekend was bad news for a handful of decent players who are still available, most notably Kris Russell, Shane Doan, Matt Cullen and James Wisniewski (a latecomer to the part after being bought out the day before bidding opened). History tells us that those guys better hope they find a home soon, because as the summer wears on and cap dollars become scarce, the market dries up quickly. Maybe it already has.

Let's skip the preamble and get right to what you came for: Instantaneous declarations of winners and losers, most of which will be proven wrong by midway through training camp. Here are the five best and five worst from a busy start to the NHL's new year, along with one signing that fits both categories.

Top Five

The biggest winners of the market's early days.

5. Montreal signs Alexander RadulovWhat does the art of comedy have in common with infuriating the Montreal Canadiens fan base? As GM Marc Bergevin could tell you after this week, the secret is in the timing.

At any other time, signing recent KHL star and former NHL castoff Alexander Radulov to a one-year, $5.75 million deal would seem like a reasonable move, albeit a risky one. Radulov has tons of talent; he also has a history of immaturity, most famously when he was benched for a playoff game after missing curfew with the Predators in 2012. He hasn't been seen in the NHL since, heading to the KHL where he put up four solid seasons. Now he's back, and the Habs hope he's smartened up.

And maybe he has. But again, there's that issue of timing. The signing came just two days after the Canadiens shocked everyone by trading P.K. Subban, taking back an inferior, older player with a worse contract in the process. The reason, the whispers went, was character. And then the team goes out and signs the poster boy for lack of it? It's all very confusing, and Bergevin didn't do much to explain himself on Friday. You could forgive Habs fans for throwing their hands in the air and concluding that this franchise doesn't have the first clue what it actually wants.

When you search your own name on Twitter after trading PK Subban. Photo by Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

But all of that overshadows an important point: This is a great deal for Montreal. Radulov is a wild card, and even if he has his head on straight, we really have no idea what he'll be in the NHL after four years away. He might not work out. But he could also be a star, the sort of first-line talent that's virtually impossible to add during an NHL offseason. And Montreal got him on a very reasonable one-year deal.

Best case, he's a monster and the Canadiens have a massive bargain to help lead them back to the playoffs. Worst case, he's a bust and you can write him off as a failed experiment that you cut your losses with without any future exposure. That looks a lot like the sort of medium-risk, high-reward deal that any team should jump on. Bergevin deserves credit, even if his timing was awful.

4. The David Backes fake out—The Bruins signed David Backes to a five-year, $30 million deal that wasn't especially remarkable. It was a little too much money and way too much term for a 32-year-old coming off his worst season in years, but it addressed a need and looked like a good fit between player and team. For a July 1 signing, it was fine.

But for a moment, it seemed like it was much more than that. When the signing first broke, it was widely but incorrectly reported as a one-year deal. Both Canadian networks covering the day's news—why yes, just like trade deadline day, NHL free agency gets covered by two full networks up here, thanks for asking—ran with the bad info, with both panels praising the Bruins for their restraint and common sense in not overcommitting to an aging player. Finally, they all agreed, some sanity. Don Sweeney is figuring this stuff out. Hey, at least it wasn't five years, right?

And then, minutes later, we found out that it was five years, and everyone just kind of looked at each other sheepishly and then changed the subject. And I laughed for about eight solid minutes.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, July 1, 2016

Grab Bag: In Canada (there aren't any good hockey players anymore)

In a special Canada Day edition of the Friday Grab Bag:
- Steven Stamkos snubs your favorite team
- Jim Benning gets caught tampering
- An obscure player who was traded straight up for a Hall of Famer in his prime
- The week's three comedy stars
- And we all sing along proudly with the new Canadian national anthem

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports