Saturday, October 21, 2017

Saturday storylines: Battle of Ontario edition

Welcome to the season’s third Saturday of NHL hockey. We’ve got another big Atlantic Division battle between Canadian teams, a crucial afternoon game for a coach on the hot seat, and two teams battling pre-season expectations. Also, a brief history of water bottles. It’s an eclectic mix. Here we go…

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Senators

Let’s be honest — the Battle of Ontario hasn’t really been a thing for a decade or so.

Not in the way it used to be. It’s still a rivalry, one based on geography and a shared division, and those things don’t tend to change. So sure, a matchup between the Senators and Maple Leafs still matters more than your typical game.

But it’s not like it once was. Nobody’s making guarantees, or fake-throwing sticks, or diving onto benches. It’s been a while since a goalie tackled a referee or a defenceman got rag-dolled, and we haven’t heard a “boo hoo” or an overtime “PING” in a while now.

That’s largely because the two teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 2004. And it’s not hard to figure out where the blame lies for that streak — the Maple Leafs have been terrible for most of the last decade.

But as you may have noticed, they’re not terrible right now. At 6-1-0, the Leafs are off to one of the best starts in the league, not to mention one of the best in franchise history. According to the oddsmakers, they’re now the Stanley Cup favourites. They’re young and skilled and fun, and you either love watching them or you’re already sick of hearing about them. Either way, you’re well aware that the Maple Leafs are rivalry-worthy again.

And sure, the Senators may need to get in line behind the Habs or Bruins or Blackhawks or whoever else. But they have a well-earned place in that line. And tonight, they get their first crack at this year’s Maple Leafs. No doubt, Senators fans would love nothing more than to see their team hit the pause button on the runaway Leafs’ hype train.

To do it, the Sens will need to show a better game than they have so far in a disappointing week. They’ve lost two straight since welcoming back Erik Karlsson, dropping home games against two of last season’s weaker teams on the Canucks and Devils. That comes on the heels of last week’s dominant road trip, so it’s fair to say we’re still trying to figure out what exactly the Senators are going to be this year.

The same could be said for the Leafs, who have had their ups and downs early on, occasionally looking like the same flawed team that kept blowing crucial leads last year. But so far this season, those leads are mostly staying in tact, often because the Leafs just keep scoring. Coaches always talk about wanting to see a 60-minute effort, and no doubt Mike Babcock has mentioned it to his players once or twice. But the Leafs are looking like a team that can hit the snooze button every now and then, only to wake up and pump home two or three goals to flip a game on its head.

This is the first of four meetings between the two rivals. They don’t meet again until January 10, at which point they play three times in a month. And that will be it… at least for the regular season. As for renewing that playoff rivalry, there’s always a chance. But you know, no guarantees.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, October 20, 2017

Grab bag: Stop crying about the Maple Leafs

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Do the Maple Leafs get too much attention from a biased media?
- Ken Dryden's new book reignites the concussion debate
- The Less Successful Younger Brother Travelling All-Stars add a member
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at a classic interview with Floyd Smith, the beleaguered Leafs GM who has had it with your criticism

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Coaches on the cold seat: Who are the NHL's unfireable five?

Hearing about the hot seat is a fact of life for NHL coaches. From pretty much the moment you’re hired, somebody somewhere is already trying to figure out how close you are to getting fired. We already got a head start on this season’s hot-seat watch over the weekend, based on what the oddsmakers were forecasting.

It always feels a little bit awkward to dig into those kinds of discussions. Sure, hiring and firing is a part of the game, but you’re still dealing with people’s livelihoods. Speculating over who might be next to lose their job isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time.

So today, let’s stay positive by coming at the question from the other side: Who are the five NHL coaches who come into the season with the coldest seat? In other words, who are the five guys who are the least likely to get fired this year?

It’s a tougher task than you might think, especially since we’re going to tack on one important caveat that none of the people who are already complaining in the comment section will bother to read: Anyone who was hired in the 2017 off-season doesn’t count. After all, that would be too easy. Aside from the occasional Barry Melrose or John Maclean situation, virtually nobody gets fired during their very first season with a team. So the seven guys who were hired over the summer are off the board.

That still leaves 24 coaches with at least a little bit of tenure. Surely we can find five of them that are stone-cold locks to keep their jobs until next season, right? I think we can. And if not, at least it should be fun for all of you to send me the link to this post in a few months when one of these guys gets a pink slip. Either way, here we go.

Mike Babcock, Maple Leafs

Why he’s completely safe: Babcock is one of the most respected coaches in the league, and he worked a near-miracle by taking the Maple Leafs from a dead-last laughingstock into a playoff team in one season. This year, he’s got the team playing well enough to look like an early contender for the Atlantic Division title.

But as impressive as all that may be, it’s not why Babcock is one of the easiest cold-seat picks. That has more to do with his contract, which makes him the highest-paid coach in hockey and runs until just after the Sun explodes. Granted, the Maple Leafs have all the money, and Babcock wouldn’t be the first Leafs coach to walk the plank with time left on his deal. But Brendan Shanahan didn’t sign Babcock to this sort of deal because he was thinking of firing him three years in. Even if the Leafs wobble off the playoff path, Babcock’s not going anywhere, at least not any time soon.

Well, unless…: I mean, this is a Lou Lamoriello team, so we can’t completely rule out a day when Babcock shows up at practice with sideburns and gets fired just on principle. But other than that, or some sort of major off-ice scandal, Babcock is as safe as they come, even in a market where weird stuff seems to happen to coaches.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, October 16, 2017

Weekend wrap: Senator six-packs

So that was a pretty decent road trip for the Senators.

Facing back-to-back weekend games in Alberta, Ottawa put an even dozen goals on the board against the Flames and Oilers. Combined with Tuesday’s shootout win over the Canucks, that earned Ottawa the first sweep of a three-game Western road trip in franchise history.

In the process, they gave both of their opponents plenty to think about. Friday’s 6–0 win over the Flames saw them light up Mike Smith, putting the first serious dent in his Calgary resume. The good news is that the schedule served up a quick chance to bounce back, and the Flames eschewed conventional wisdom by sending Smith right back out there on Saturday to face the Canucks. It paid off with a 5–2 win, one that should wipe away at least a little of the bad taste from Friday’s beatdown.

The Oilers weren’t so lucky; they get to dwell on their loss until tomorrow night. And there will be plenty of tough questions for the team in the meantime, especially given how last week played out. The team hadn’t played since Monday, and had spent most of the time in between vowing to be better after a pair of losses. Coach Todd McLellan was publicly scolding his team — “There wasn’t a lot of hugging going on,” he’d explained, “there was a lot of kicking” – and even raised some eyebrows by taking aim at the team’s stars. They were at home and well-rested against a team that had played the night before. And then they laid an egg, leaving them at a disappointing 1-3-0 on the year. It’s not good enough.

Meanwhile, the Senators are heading home at 3-0-2 on the year, making them one of only two teams in the league (along with the Kings) without a regulation loss. Their eight points leaves them in a four-way logjam on top of the Atlantic, and at +11, they’ve got the Eastern Conference’s best goals differential. The penalty kill remains perfect on the year. And the power play is finally clicking, connecting five times in Alberta after shooting blanks for the season’s first three games.

Oh, and they did it all without Erik Karlsson, whose absence was supposed to be a deal-breaker. He could be back as soon as tomorrow, by the way. Not bad at all for a team that just about everyone was ready to write off as a playoff contender, even after last year’s deep run.

Is it enough to get them into our weekly top five? Let’s find out.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (4-1-0, +7 true goals differential*): They barely hold onto a spot after a tough loss to the surprising Devils, but Saturday’s OT win in Montreal offered some redemption.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (4-1-0, +5): They’re in Winnipeg tomorrow, and then get four straight at home. That sets up the possibility of a rare hot start for a franchise that usually specializes in the opposite.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Saturday storylines: Leafs vs. Habs

Welcome to our weekly look ahead to the Saturday slate of games. Last week, we told you all about how unstoppable Connor McDavid was. Since then, he’s had no goals, one assist and is a minus-three and the Oilers haven’t won a game.

Whose career will we curse this week? Read on to find out.

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Canadiens

Not exactly a tough call here. Any time the Leafs and Habs meet, it’s something special, especially if it’s on a Saturday night. And if the matchup comes at a time when the two teams can offer up some particularly interesting storylines to chew on, all the better.

That’s the case tonight, as we’ll have plenty of subplots to work with. For example: Offence. The Canadiens can’t score, and the Leafs can’t stop scoring. Not counting the shootout, the Canadiens have scored just four goals all year. Through four games, they’ve yet to manage a multi-goal period.

Meanwhile, the Leafs have already scored three or more in a period four times. The Canadiens got shut out by Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers on Sunday; the night before, the Leafs scored more goals against Lundqvist in the first period than the Habs have in their entire season.

So yes, that would seem to tilt things in Toronto’s favour. But then there’s a second subplot: Goaltending. The Canadiens have the best goalie in the world, while the Maple Leafs still aren’t quite sure what they have. Frederik Andersen looked sharp against the Jets in the opener, but he’s been iffy ever since. He’s not getting a ton of help from a young team that still struggles in its own end, but his .871 save percentage has to have Leaf fans worried (and checking up on Calvin Pickard scouting reports).

Carey Price hasn’t exactly been on fire either – he’s clocking in at .899 – but his track record is just slightly better than Andersen’s, and he’s been the least of Montreal’s concerns so far.

These games have always been fun over the years, even when one team (or both) wasn’t very good. We’ve seen bad blood, sudden death and unfortunate singalongs. Mix in the fact that this year’s meeting could be a first-round playoff preview – no it’s not too early to talk about that; we’re just one good Lightning season away from it finally happening – along with what’s sure to be a vocal Montreal crowd, 14 straight wins for the Habs in the rivalry, the ongoing Alex Galchenyuk drama, and all the Maple Leafs’ best players calling Jonathan Drouin “grandpa,” and you’ve got a matchup that should be all sorts of fun.

It’s the first of four Leafs/Habs meetings this year, and all of them come on Saturday night. We’ll try not to put each and every one in the feature spot of this column, but no promises.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, October 13, 2017

Grab bag: What the hell was going on in 1917?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- What's the deal with all these NHL scoring records that were set in 1917?
- Thoughts on the Golden Knights' home opener
- Paraguay's all-time greatest NHLer takes home obscure player honors
- The three comedy stars feature a player describing his butt to a world leader
- And we celebrate Friday the 13th by watching a maniac in a goalie mask hack and slash innocent people

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

10 things we've learned from the NHL's first week

The NHL regular season is now one week old, and I think it’s fair to say that we’ve got everything figured out.

I mean, it’s been a week. That’s plenty of time. The next 80 games or so shouldn’t bring many surprises, so we can pretty much pencil in the final standings, ride out the last few months and start looking forward to the playoffs.

Or maybe not. On the off chance that we don’t quite have it all sorted out quite yet, it might be worth a moment to take stock of where we are after week one. Here are 10 things we’ve learned so far, and how likely they are to continue to be true.

What we learned: The Golden Knights don’t look like an expansion team at all.

Nobody expected the Knights to be all that competitive this year, especially when they unveiled their expansion-draft strategy of “take all the defencemen and then figure it out later.” But through their first week of meaningful action, they’re a perfect 3-0-0, and have even shown up near the top of some power rankings.

Sure, those three wins have included one against a beleaguered backup goalie and two against the Coyotes, who are the beleaguered backup goalie of NHL teams. Still, wins are wins.

Will it continue? That depends what the “it” is here. Can they continue to exceed expectations? Sure. They’re the first expansion team of the parity-infested salary-cap era, so it shouldn’t shock anyone if they’re more competitive than we thought.

But do they make the playoffs? Sorry, Vegas. Some long shots are just too far-fetched, and this might be one of them. It still seems as if the most likely outcome here is that the Knights will be selling by mid-season, and will be better in the long-term for having done so.

What we learned: The Canadiens can’t score.

Through four games, they’ve scored four goals, which ties them with Alex Ovechkin for most goals scored in games involving the Canadiens. Not surprisingly, it’s added up to just one win, and that one came in a shootout against the Sabres.

Will it continue? It might. They’ll average more than a goal per game, of course, and they’re not going to shoot 2.6 per cent forever. But we knew heading into the season that scoring would be a concern for this team. They had just 226 goals last year, ranking ahead of only Ottawa among Eastern playoff teams. That was before losing Alexander Radulov to Dallas, not to mention Andrei Markov to the KHL.

Marc Bergevin didn’t sit back, trading for Jonathan Drouin and signing Ales Hemsky, so there was room for optimism. But so far, it’s not clicking.

The question here may be how long the Habs get to find their firepower before Bergevin feels the need to do it for them. He took a lot of heat during the summer for not finding experienced help down the middle, and at some point he might have to just go out and pay the price for Matt Duchene, or somebody who looks like him.

We’re not quite there yet, but patience isn’t exactly a virtue Montreal fans are known for.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, October 9, 2017

Weekend wrap: This is offensive

Welcome to another season of the Weekend Wrap. Every Monday morning, we’ll take a look at some of the trends and stories emerging from the last few days of NHL action. And we’ll feature top-five and bottom-five power rankings of the league’s best and worst teams, which is always popular except for when your favourite team isn’t in exactly the right place, which is to say that it’s never popular.

Opening weekend certainly gave us plenty of goals to talk about. The Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers shot the lights out in an 8-5 Toronto win, and we got at least nine goals in four other games. In all, 10 teams scored at least five times in a weekend game, and overall scoring rates are about a goal per game higher than they were last season.

It’s not unusual for scoring rates to be up early in the year, as players shake off the rust and learn new systems. We went down this same road last season, when scoring was up early before settling back to normal rates within a few weeks. That will almost certainly happen again here, so we may as well enjoy all the goals while we can.

With apologies to the Chicago Blackhawks and Leafs, nobody’s enjoying the early offence more than Alex Ovechkin. He lit up the Ottawa Senators for a season-opening hat trick on Thursday, then followed that with four more against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday. Back-to-back hat tricks to start a season is a feat the league hasn’t seen in a century, ever since it was done back in 1917 by … well, by pretty much everyone. The league was weird back then.

It’s going to be weird now too, if Ovechkin keeps this up. He’s obviously not going to finish the season with 280 goals, and we’re only a few quiet games away from a week’s worth of “What’s gone wrong with Ovechkin?” think pieces. But it’s hard to deny that he looks like a player on a mission this year, and a big rebound from last year’s dip to 33 goals seems likely. If he puts up another week or two like this first one, the “Rocket” Richard race might even be over early.

But was it enough to get the Capitals into top spot in our first power rankings? Let’s head to the next section to find out.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.

5. Edmonton Oilers (1-1-0, +2 true goal differential*) – Turns out you can stop Connor McDavid after all. Or at least the lowly Vancouver Canucks can. Still, we’ll leave the Oilers teetering on the edge of the top five based on their impressive opening-night win over the Calgary Flames (and the lack of other clear-cut candidates).

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Saturday storylines: The McDavid Factor

Welcome to the first Saturday of the NHL season. And welcome to a new weekly feature. Every Saturday this year we’ll take a look around the league at some of the best games, storylines and head-to-head matchups that we’ll be seeing that night. We’ll also dip into the archives for a quick history lesson, and make a prediction that (spoiler alert) will end up being wrong. It should be fun.

Hockey is a team game, fans are constantly reminded. The word is basically inscribed directly into the brains of anyone who sets foot in an NHL arena. You win as a team and lose as a team. There’s no “I” in team. And without question, no single player can ever be bigger than the team.

Great. With that out of the way, let’s spend the next few paragraphs talking about Connor McDavid.

Last year, he won the Art Ross and the Hart Trophy as a 20-year-old. This year, virtually everyone is picking him to do it again. These days he’s in every ad, on every poster and just went first overall in your office hockey pool. The hype train hasn’t just left the station; it’s sprouted wings, gone airborne and is skywriting “MCDAVID IS AWESOME” over every rink in the league.

And after watching him in Wednesday’s season opener, it feels like we may have undersold the kid.

It took him about 30 seconds to get his first breakaway of the season. He had his first goal by the 11-minute mark, coming on a play in which he demonstrated a Wayne Gretzky-like ability to drift into an empty spot where the puck was about to arrive. And then midway through the third period, with the game on the line, came this:

I mean, what do you do against a player who can do that? Really, what are your options? Tackle him? Leave two guys back in your own zone at all times, just in case? Pray? Players aren’t supposed to get faster with the puck on their stick, but McDavid has shown up and broken the NHL’s physics engine. What’s the plan here?

The Flames sure don’t know. They got the schedule at the same time we all did. They spent the last few months knowing that their first game of the regular season would come against McDavid and the Oilers. They have a new goaltender and arguably the best blue line in the league, and they know that the path out of the Pacific probably goes through Edmonton.

They had all the time in the world to come up with a game plan to stop, or at least contain, Connor McDavid.

And we saw what happened.

Tonight’s opponent is the Canucks, finally making their season debut. Like the Flames, they’ve also had plenty of time to think about how to stop McDavid. Unlike the Flames, they do not have one of the best blue lines in the league, although they will have last change. Maybe that helps. It probably won’t.

This season is shaping up to be the Connor McDavid show. Oilers fans are already delirious. The rest of us might as well enjoy the ride… at least on the nights that it’s not our team’s turn to step into the thresher.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, October 6, 2017

Grab bag: What your Stanley Cup pick says about you

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- What your pick to win the Stanley Cup says about you
- An appreciation of the Muzzin Spot
- An obscure player who did what Connor McDavid and Alexander Ovechkin did this week
- The week's three comedy stars teach us that math is hard
- And our YouTube clip helps us get caught up on all the big offseason moves... from 1986.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Where to find me this season

With the season having started, I figured I should post a quick update as far as what my schedule will look like for the next little while. As always, this is subject to change, but for now it should look something like this:

- The Weekend Wrap returns on Monday mornings, on Sportsnet
- A mid-week Sportsnet post that will usually run on Tuesday or Wednesday
- The Friday Grab Bag, which continues over at Vice Sports
- A brand new Saturday column on Sportsnet that previews that night's NHL action

As for the Biscuits podcast, which many of you have being asking about … well, unfortunately that one is still TBD. Dave and I want to do it. We've been told that Vice still wants to do it. But as of now, we're still waiting for official confirmation. We're very aware that having a hockey podcast that's still on the sidelines as the season starts isn't a great look, and we're pushing to get things moving, but some things just take time. One way or another, you'll know as soon as we do.

As always, thanks for your continued support, which allows me to do this for a living instead of working. It's very much appreciated, especially in today's shrinking sports media world. Please remember to share, like, RT and link to anything I make that you think others would enjoy – it's the single best way to get the word out and make sure I can keep doing this.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Your guide to overreacting to opening night

The NHL regular season opens tonight, and fans around the hockey world will be glued to their screens watching the action unfold. We’ve got four games to look forward to today, eight more tomorrow, and by the end of the weekend we’ll have seen every team at least once.

And through it all, you’ll be constantly reminded: Don’t panic. Don’t overreact. It’s early, it’s a long season, and you can’t go leaping to conclusions based on a game or two. Just enjoy the games, but don’t put too much stock in every shift.

Well, forget all of that. We’re hockey fans. Overreacting is what we do. We’ve got all season to settle into big-picture mode, but right now we’ve been starved for meaningful hockey for months, and we’re not about to let stuff like “common sense” get in the way of freaking out over every little thing that happens.

That said, it’s always best to have a plan. So here are a half-dozen stories that may or may not unfold over the first few games of the NHL season, and your guide to overreacting to them as much as possible.

What could happen: Auston Matthews and/or Patrik Laine are held off the board tonight in Winnipeg.

What it would mean: The dreaded sophomore slump has claimed another victim.

Laine and Matthews are both pretty good — that’s the sort of high-level analysis you won’t get anywhere else. But the question here isn’t “Are they good?” It’s “How good can they be in their second year in the league?”

Both players are facing high expectations — Laine’s been listed as a possible 50-goal scorer, and Matthews is showing up on some early-season Hart Trophy–contender lists. While that’s a lot to expect from a second-year player, it doesn’t seem completely unreasonable for a pair of guys who look like they’ll be special talents. But the old sports cliché about second-year players taking a step back looms large here, especially among Toronto and Winnipeg fans who aren’t exactly used to all this optimism.

Or maybe not: The sophomore slump actually doesn’t show up all that much through hockey history, at least as far as truly elite talent goes. There’s Teemu Selanne’s 51-goal drop, but that’s an obvious outlier. Generally speaking, a forward who’s good enough to light it up as a rookie almost always put up even better numbers in year two.

So relax, Toronto and Winnipeg fans. Even if last year’s two best rookies put up a goose egg tonight, they’ll almost certainly be fine. (Just as long as they score a hat trick in game two.)

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

2017-18 season preview, part two: Your-Guess-Is-As-Good-As-Mine and the Contenders (plus league-wide predictions)

Yesterday, we covered half the league with a look at the bottom-feeders and the middle-of-the-pack. Today, we wrap up the season preview with a look at the very best teams the league has to offer, plus a full set of predictions and a Cup winner. Spoiler alert: It's a little anti-climactic.

But first, let's work on our exasperated shrugs as we tackle the league's misfits and question marks.

The Your-Guess-Is-As-Good-As-Mine Division

This is always my favorite division, for two reasons. First, by definition I can't actually be wrong about any of the teams here. And second, it's fun to watch fans read through the first half of the preview, not see their team listed, and get all excited about them being considered contenders. Not so fast...

Buffalo Sabres

Last season: 33-37-12, 78 points, last in the Atlantic, missed playoffs

Offseason report: They fired the coach and GM. As far as the roster, the emphasis was on the blueline, which looks better with Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu added.

Outlook: This year feels like a crucial one, where you'd want to see big progress to justify all the misery that came before. There's enough young talent here that you could certainly imagine it all coming together. Sounds encouraging, right? The problem is I cut-and-pasted those two sentences from last year's preview, and then the team went backwards. It can't happen again... can it?

In the spotlight: Jack Eichel, and not just because he's the team's best player. Fair or not, Eichel was viewed as having a hand in those firings, and some Sabres fans joke that he's become the team's de facto GM. It's fair to say there's a lot riding on this year.

Oddly specific prediction: I really want to find a way to get them higher than sixth in the Atlantic. I'm not sure I can. I cut-and-pasted that part, too.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Last season: 50-24-8, 108 points, third in the Metro, out in the first round

Offseason report: Other than that Brandon Saad/Artemi Panarin deal and dumping David Clarkson's contract on the Knights, nothing big.

Outlook: A year ago, everyone had them pegged for last in the Metro and John Tortorella was going to be the first coach fired. Then they won 50 games. Was it a fluke? Not necessarily, but it's fair to say that the hockey world wants to see it again before they're convinced.

In the spotlight: Zach Werenski. Other than goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, nobody was a bigger piece of last year's rise than the rookie blueliner. He's on track for full-blown stardom, but he also just turned 20 and some guys struggle in their second season. The Jackets may not be able to afford that.

Oddly specific prediction: They break through with the most successful playoff run in franchise history. Which is to say they lose in the first round in seven games.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Monday, October 2, 2017

2017-18 season preview, part one: Bottom Feeders and Middle-of-the-Pack

The start of the NHL regular season is just two days away. And there's no better way to welcome the league back than with the biggest NHL VICE Sports season preview ever*!

(*In the sense that this preview has 31 teams. Every preview you read this year will technically be the biggest ever. But let's not let reality get in the way of some good marketing. Biggest ever!)

As always, we'll go division-by-division, but with a twist. Rather than use the NHL's boring geography-based format, we'll make up a few divisions of our own. Today, we'll start with the Bottom Feeder Division and the Middle of the Pack Division. Tomorrow, we work our way up to the Contender Division, with a detour through the always-popular Your-Guess-Is-As-Good-As-Mine Division.

The Bottom Feeder Division

As a wise Canadian poet once said, you started from the bottom, now the whole team is…well, still at the bottom, if these predictions hold true. It's hopeless, is what we're saying.

Colorado Avalanche

Last season: 22-56-4, 48 points, dead last, quite possibly the worst season of the salary cap era.
Offseason report: Pretty quiet. Which, given how much work there is to do, was kind of strange.
Outlook: Last year was a perfect storm—a bad roster full of players having bad seasons while getting pelted with bad luck. They have to be better. But yeah, they'll still be bad.
In the spotlight: Matt Duchene. Obvious choice is obvious, but Duchene is the story in Colorado right now. He clearly doesn't want to be there, and there was even talk that he might hold out to force a trade. That didn't happen, but at some point Joe Sakic has to stop kicking the can down the road and get this figured out. Duchene was awful after last year's trade deadline; his play early this season will go a long way to determining whether Sakic can somehow pull a solid trade out of a miserable situation.
Oddly specific prediction: Duchene is traded to the Blue Jackets, the return is underwhelming, and then we do this all over again with Gabriel Landeskog.

Arizona Coyotes

Last season: 30-42-10, 70 points, sixth in the Pacific, missed playoffs
Offseason report: They were busy adding legitimate NHL talent, like Derek Stepan and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Longtime captain Shane Doan retired, and goalie Mike Smith was traded. They also have a new coach, replacing Dave Tippett with Rick Tocchet.
Outlook: Some teams in this division are starting rebuilds; the Coyotes appear to be almost finished theirs. There's lots of young talent in place, and if any Bottom Feeder team is going to have a Maple Leafs-like leap directly from laughingstock to playoff contention, it's the Coyotes.
In the spotlight: Dylan Strome. The third overall pick in the 2015 draft has yet to have an NHL impact, playing just seven games, even as guys picked after him like Mitch Marner, Noah Hanifin, and Zach Werenski establish themselves. Nobody's calling him a bust yet, but the clock is ticking. Some guys just take longer, and if Strome breaks out then the Coyotes go from being flush with young talent to absolutely stacked with it. But if not, he'll face some tough questions.
Oddly specific prediction: Strome is fine, but Clayton Keller is the Coyote who captures the Calder.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, September 29, 2017

Grab bag: The Penguins' White House mistake

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Thoughts on the Penguins' White House controversy
- The NHL just made an update to its web site that changes hockey history
- An obscure player whose trophy case got weird
- The week's three comedy stars
- And we cheer up Avalanche fans with some shirtless lip-synching

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Five (rare) times that NHL players got political

"Stick to sports." For years, it's been the go-to plea for a certain breed of fan, the type who want their viewing experience kept free of any sort of politicizing – or at least from the kind with which they don't personally agree.

In the Donald Trump era, it seems like it could also become the NHL's motto.

While the NFL and NBA are at the forefront of the battle over recent player protests (with the MLB chiming in, too), the NHL seems to be desperately trying to sit this one out. League commissioner Gary Bettman had already scolded the players about keeping politics away from the rink, and the very nature of the league itself seems to preclude the sort of activism we're seeing elsewhere. Blake Wheeler and some of his Winnipeg Jets teammates had thoughtful remarks on the situation and the San Jose Sharks' Joel Ward is weighing his options, but they've been the exception as other teams struggle with how to handle things.

And so on Sunday, as the rest of the sports world was rising up against the U.S. president's weekend remarks, the Pittsburgh Penguins were quick to confirm that they'd still be visiting the White House as usual. The statement seemed poorly timed, and was disappointing to many fans, but it hardly caught anyone by surprise. Hockey people just don't do politics.

Except that they do, at least sometimes. The league certainly does – just a few weeks ago, they inserted themselves directly into Calgary's mayoral election. And while it's relatively rare, the league's players will occasionally weigh in on a topic with bigger ramifications than just playing the game and getting pucks in deep.

So today, while the league's current players wrestle with what, if anything, they should say or do to make their voices heard, here's a look back at five times that the hockey and political worlds have crossed paths.

Tim Thomas

It was impossible to watch the reaction to the Penguins' decision unfold without thinking of Thomas, the Boston Bruins goalie who made headlines in 2012 when he refused to join his teammates for their White House visit. Thomas made it clear that his decision was based on his personal politics and view that "the federal government has grown out of control."

Thomas was widely criticized for the decision (including, no doubt, by some of the same voices attacking the Penguins for doing the opposite this time around). Some fans even mocked him with Barack Obama photos in that year's playoffs. Thomas didn't back off on his politics, though, posting occasional opinions on his personal Facebook page.

Thomas sat out the 2012-13 season, and a comeback bid the following year didn't amount to much. He's been out of the league since, and has kept a relatively low profile. To this day, many fans remember him as much for his White House snub as for his two Vezina Trophies or his Conn Smythe Trophy-winning performance during Boston's run to the 2011 Stanley Cup.

Sean Avery

It probably wouldn't even be accurate to call Avery a divisive player. By the end of his career, nobody seemed to like the guy, and to this day he tends to top most lists of the most hated pests in hockey history. And for the most part, he earned it.

But that makes it easy to forget that Avery was also one of the first voices in the NHL to speak up in favor of gay rights, lending his voice to ads championing New York's marriage equality act in 2011. While it was only six years ago, this was before the sports world had heard stories like those of Jason Collins or Michael Sam, and championing gay rights was a rare stance for a pro athlete. And unlike many athletes who speak out, Avery didn't stop at just voicing his personal opinion – he made it clear that he hoped the rest of the league (and its leadership) would follow his example.

While it's true that the NHL almost never gets involved in political or social issues, the push for equal treatment of gay athletes has been a notable exception. Names like Brian and Patrick Burke have pushed the sport to be more inclusive, and many prominent players have lent their support. It's been a rare and welcome example of the league leading on an issue, rather than trailing behind or sitting out altogether. And like him or not, Avery played an early part in that.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Friday, September 22, 2017

Grab bag: Slash and burn

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL is calling a million slashing penalties. Good.
- We must save the noble emergency backup goalie.
- An obscure player who somehow wound up starting on an all-time dream team.
- The week's three comedy stars.
- And a look back at once of the dumbest moments in preseason history. Phil Kessel is involved.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

New Season's Resolutions for 2017-18

The NHL pre-season schedule is now four days old, which means two things. One, you’re already sick of pre-season hockey. And two, it’s a good time to make some New Season’s Resolutions.

These days, everyone in the hockey world is all about being the best version of themselves. The players are in the best shape of their lives, the coaches are convinced that they’ve got it all figured out, and even the team Twitter accounts haven’t burned through all their GIFs quite yet. As fans, we might as well join in. And that means a little self-improvement in the form of some old-fashioned resolutions.

As always, feel free to come up with your own. But if you’re looking for inspiration, here are a few suggestions that I think many of us could find some value in.

Let’s all wait a bit before we freak out over the faceoff-violation rule

The new rule — or more specifically, the new emphasis on calling the existing rule — is already getting decidedly mixed reviews from fans. Monday night’s Senators/Leafs game in Ottawa featured three early faceoff violations, accompanied by plenty of puzzled looks from players and coaches.

It sure seems like the league has done it again, where “it” is coming up with a solution to something nobody really thought was a problem. The crackdown on slashing makes sense; guys were getting hurt, and it was impacting the quality of play. But not one fan has ever watched an NHL game and come away thinking, “That was OK, but I really wish the linesman took longer to drop the puck.” And yet somehow, here we are.

That said, let’s wait until we see the rule actually called in the regular season before we overreact. Sure, they’ll call it a ton in the pre-season because that’s what the pre-season is for. But maybe the players will adjust by opening night. Or, more likely, maybe the officials will ease way up once the games actually matter.

After all, do you think some linesman – not the referee, remember, but a linesman – really wants to be calling multiple power plays every night? Pulling the occasional look-at-me act before a draw is one thing, but here’s betting that most of these guys would rather eat their whistle than make a borderline penalty call that decides a game.

True, there have been other “one toe in the wrong place” rules before, like the old skate-in-crease debacle or the current offside challenges, and they stuck around. But there’s a key difference – those were subject to video review, meaning there really wasn’t room for an official to use their judgment to overlook a minor violation. That won’t apply to faceoff calls, so common sense can kick in and officials can let a few things slide.

Or maybe not. Maybe we’ll get into the season and still be seeing these things called all the time. If so, we can complain then. But until then, let’s try to stay calm.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, September 15, 2017

Grab bag: Changing the rules

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Gary Bettman and the Flames try to bluff their way to a sweetheart arena deal
- ESPN asked 30 players to suggest new rules changes, so I made a power ranking of their answers
- An obscure player from a doomed franchise
- It's the week's three comedy stars, and Matt Duchene is not laughing
- And in the classic YouTube breakdown, we remember that everyone complained about suspensions 30 years ago too.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Five one-team stars who went down with the ship

The Sedins made news this week with an article in The Players' Tribune that seemed to all but rule out the possibility of the twins finishing their career anywhere but Vancouver. With the Canucks expected to finish near the bottom of the standings this year, there had been talk the team could make a Ray Bourque-style trade to send its franchise players to a Stanley Cup contender. That door seems closed now.

That means the Sedins will join players like Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and Jean Beliveau in the fairly exclusive club of star players who spent their entire career with the same franchise. Of course, those situations were a little different – those players stuck around to play their final seasons for a contender. The Sedins know that likely won't be the case for them.

It's far less common for a star to go down with the ship, playing out their final seasons with the only team they've ever known even though they realize they don't have a shot at finishing with a Cup or even a playoff run. But it's not unheard of – Shane Doan's recent retirement was one example. Here are five more.

Thomas Steen, Winnipeg Jets

Steen is a reasonably direct comparable to the Sedins – a Swedish forward on a Canadian team who had never won a Cup and clearly wasn't going to if he stayed put. Steen broke in with the Jets in 1981, but by 1994 he was nearing the end of the road with no title in sight.

Of course, the mid-'90s Jets were in even worse shape than today's Canucks. Not only were they a bad team, having finished no higher than fourth in their division since 1990 and failing to win a playoff round since 1987, but they were on the verge of packing up and moving to Arizona. 

So it was no surprise when Steen's name showed up in trade rumors as the 1993-94 deadline approached. The Toronto Maple Leafs were mentioned as a potential destination, and would've made sense – they were a borderline Cup contender that was shopping for veteran help up front. But the deal never happened (the Leafs landed Mike Gartner instead), and Steen returned for one last partial season after the 1994 lockout, during which the Jets finished last in the Central Division for the second straight year.

At the time, that was assumed to be the last season for the Jets in Winnipeg. When a goodbye rally was held after the season, Steen's number was retired to a loud ovation. That made him the first Swedish player to be honored by an NHL team, not to mention a rare case of a player having his number retired when he was still technically active. While the team ended up making a surprise return for one more season in Winnipeg in 1995-96, Steen did not.

So take solace, Canucks fans. Barring a miracle run, the Sedins may be headed towards a Steen-like finish to their careers. But at least you'll still have a team to cheer on after they're gone.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Friday, September 8, 2017

Grab Bag: Was Wayne Gretzky overpaid?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The new offside review rule isn't perfect, but it's a good step
- Thoughts on the NHL's Declaration of Principles
- A Duchesne trade... in the obscure player section
- The week's three comedy stars feature bread shoes
- And an old (old, old, old) school debate over Wayne Gretzky's million-dollar salary.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The 2017 offseason bizarre-o-meter

It’s September and training camp is just a few weeks away, meaning for all intents and purposes the NHL off-season is over. The key decisions have been made, the big moves have gone down, and we have more than enough information to separate the winners from the losers, and the good off-seasons from the bad ones.

But there’s another way to look at it, and it’s with a question we like to break out every year around this time: Who had the most bizarre off-season?

To be clear, bizarre doesn’t necessarily have to mean bad. In today’s ultra-conservative NHL, taking the most predictable approach is often the worst possible strategy, with more than a few teams over the years playing it safe and coming to regret it. And sometimes a little bit of creativity can work out just fine, even if it leaves us scratching our heads at the time.

But there’s still something fun about watching a team make its way through the off-season and wondering: Wait, what are they doing?

So today, let’s dust off the Bizarre-o-meter and hook it up to all 31 NHL teams division-by-division to see which ones did the best of job of keeping us on our toes and giving us something to talk about over the summer.

Central Division

Nashville Predators

The off-season so far: They said goodbye to Colin Wilson in a trade, James Neal in expansion and captain Mike Fisher via retirement. They did lock up Ryan Johansen, albeit at a pricey $8-million cap hit for the next eight years.

But their strangest move was: Giving Nick Bonino more than $4 million a season on a four-year deal seemed like an overpayment for a veteran middle-sixer in an otherwise stingy free agent market.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.6/10. Nothing all that strange here, in an off-season that turned out to be marginally less exciting than last year’s.

Minnesota Wild

The off-season so far: Chuck Fletcher pulled off a four-player deal with the Sabres that saw him add Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. He also signed UFA Matt Cullen, and got Mikael Granlund locked up on a three-year bridge deal.

But their strangest move was: Wriggling out of a tricky expansion-draft dilemma for the relatively cheap price of Erik Haula and prospect Alex Tuch. Given that they stood to lose a guy like Mathew Dumba or Eric Staal, that was a win.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.8/10. The Wild did well to avoid an expansion disaster. Now the question is whether they’re actually any better.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, September 1, 2017

Grab Bag: The NHL needs a Jagr Draft

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Jaromir Jagr is still unsigned. Here's how we fix this.
- Introducing a new name for overrating one-team players
- An obscure player whose name is fun to say
- The week's three comedy stars
- And as the Flyers prepare to retire his jersey, we look back on Eric Lindros's all-time career highlight: Appearing on Arsenio Hall

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Predicting the predictions

The dog days of hockey's off-season are nearly over. Soon, the weather will cool, the leaves will start to change color, and training camps will open up around the league.

And that means it's officially prediction season.

Making predictions is tough. In today's parity-stricken NHL, the gap between the best and worst has never been smaller, and nothing ever feels like a sure thing. Simply coming up with an accurate forecast of which teams will be good and which ones will be bad is hard enough.

But of course, that's not really what making predictions is all about. When you sit down to list your picks for the playoffs, the draft lottery and the Stanley Cup, you're not just trying to guess the future. You're also trying to stand out from the crowd by hitting on a few long shots and underdogs along the way. Anyone can predict that the Pittsburgh Penguins will be good or that the Vegas Golden Knights will struggle. You want to aim a little higher.

It all adds up to some interesting psychology. So today, instead of making our own picks – those will come later – let's try something else. Let's predict the predictions, using some basic rules to help us figure out what the coming wave of forecasts might have in common.

Rule 1: Find a team that looks like an underdog but really isn't.

Picking a few playoff teams that missed out last year is just common sense – we typically see a turnover of about a half-dozen teams each season, so just picking the same 16 teams from last year would doom you to failure.

But just picking a handful of non-playoff teams to sneak into the postseason isn’t enough – you have to have at least one of those teams as a real threat to make some noise once they get there. And if you really want to raise some eyebrows, you'll pick a non-playoff team to make it all the way to the final.

Most years, that's a tough pick to make. But not this year. Which is why we can start with a reasonably safe prediction: everyone is going to love the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It's not hard to see why. On paper, the Lightning look like one of the league's better teams, and have for the past few seasons. Nobody saw last year's playoff miss coming, and plenty of us picked them as Cup champs. Then everything fell apart, and the team ended up being the most stunning postseason miss in recent history.

Normally, that might give us all pause, wondering if the Lightning are a team that missed its window and is on the way down. But the laws of hockey predictions say you need to get solidly behind at least one non-playoff team each season, and the Lightning are this year's easiest choice. The Dallas Stars are certainly in play here, too, and will get most of the Western Conference love, and don't sleep on the Los Angeles Kings or Florida Panthers. But the Lightning will be just about everyone's sweetheart comeback story.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Friday, August 25, 2017

Grab Bag: Back when Wayne Gretzky was young (and restless)

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Henrik Zetterberg gives the game away when it comes to cap-circumventing contracts
- A celebration of the dreaded Horn Of Doom
- An obscure player with one of my favorite career stat lines
- The Kings bring in expert help in the week's three comedy stars
- And move over '89 Devils, a young Wayne Gretzky shows us how the soap opera game is played

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Which jersey number could produce the best starting lineup in NHL history?

What’s the greatest number in NHL history?

Most fans would call that an easy one. It has to be the No. 9 – that gets you Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, Bobby Hull, Ted Kennedy and Johnny Bucyk, and we’re not even out of the Original Six era. Mix in modern names like Mike Modano and Paul Kariya, and it’s no contest. Sure, maybe you give some love to No. 4 (Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau and Red Kelly), perhaps No. 7 (Phil Esposito, Howie Morenz, Ted Lindsay and a bit of Ray Bourque) or more recently No. 91 (Sergei Fedorov, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos). But in hockey, the No. 9 is iconic. It stands alone.

So since the basic version of the question is too easy, let’s up the difficulty level: Which single number in hockey history would give you the best possible starting lineup? In other words, which number would yield the best group of a goaltender, two defencemen and three forwards?

Now things get a little more complicated, because hockey numbers aren’t distributed evenly. For years, goalies wore No. 1, defencemen took most of the rest of the single digits, and everything starting around seven or eight went to the forwards. As time went on, other numbers – 30 and 31 especially – were carved out for goalies, meaning few position players wore them. These days, goalies are getting more creative and there’s more overlap between the positions than there used to be, but still not all that much. And that makes finding the best single lineup a challenge.

For example, now No. 9 doesn’t even get out of the gate – the league has never had a goaltender who wore the number. Teams No. 4, No. 7 and No. 91 are similarly out of luck when it comes to icing a full team. And Team No. 1 has the opposite problem: A ton of legendary goalies, but pretty much nothing else.

A few more ground rules before we get started:

• We’ll be looking for a line of three forwards, but we won’t worry too much about whether they played wing or centre.

• We’ll only be able to go as far back as 1950, since that’s where the jersey database that we’ll be relying on cuts off. That actually works out well, since information from before then gets spotty and players (especially goalies) often swapped numbers, so we’ll stick with modern times.

• This one’s important: A player needs to have worn the number in more than one season, and you only get credit for what a player did when he was wearing it. You can’t try to sneak Gordie Howe onto Team No. 17 or Rocket Richard onto Team No. 15 and expect to claim their whole careers.

With that settled, let the debate begin. Here are the best combinations I could come up with, beginning with the honourable mentions.

Team No. 72

Forwards: Patric Hornqvist, Erik Cole, Luke Adam

Defence:Mathieu Schneider, Alex Petrovic

Goalie: Sergei Bobrovsky

This one certainly isn’t a great team, but it’s a decent proof of concept for what we’re going for here. These guys just barely scrape together a roster than can make our multi-season rule — even though Petrovic bailed on No. 72 once he became a regular a few seasons ago. As it is, we’re left with a Vezina-winning goaltender and one all-star defenceman, but not much else.

That’s not the worst way to start a team – build from the back end, and all that – but it would have been nice if Alexei Kovalev had stuck with the number for more than that one season in Pittsburgh. Ah well… here’s hoping Thomas Chabot shows some loyalty once he’s a full-time NHLer this year.

Team No. 41

Forwards: Jason Allison, Brent Gilchrist, Nikolai Kulemin

Defence: Andrej Meszaros, Martin Skoula

Goalie: Craig Anderson

This is one of those numbers that’s morphed over the years from being exclusively for depth skaters to an acceptable goalie’s choice. We went with Anderson in net, but you also could have had Jaroslav Halak or Jocelyn Thibault. And while the five skaters in front of him don’t seem like much to get excited about, they’re probably at least a little bit better than you think – Kulemin had a 30-goal season, and Allison had some legitimately big years in the late ’90s.

Team No. 34

Forwards: Fernando Pisani, Daniel Winnik, Darrin Shannon

Defence: Bryan Berard, Jamie Macoun

Goalie: Miikka Kiprusoff

That’s not a bad back end. Kiprusoff was one of the league’s best goalies for years (and could be backed up by John Vanbiesbrouck), while Berard and Macoun form a nice offence-first/stay-at-home pairing. There are plenty of other workmanlike blueliners to choose from, too, as No. 34 turns out to be a reasonably popular number for defencemen in the Gord Donnelly/Kurt Sauer mold.

Unfortunately, that plugger mentality extends to the forwards, so this group is downright weak up front. If they somehow made it to the playoff round, Pisani might light it up, but that seems like a longshot. So for now, the lack of talent at forward means this group aren’t really contenders. Give it another season, though, and we’ll see.

Team No. 32

Forwards: Dale Hunter, Claude Lemieux, Steve Thomas

Defence: Don Sweeney, Mark Streit

Goalie: Jonathan Quick

Well that certainly ends up being an interesting forward group – watch your back in the playoffs against those first two guys. (And we didn’t even give them Rob Ray or Stu Grimson.)

As for the rest, the blue-line isn’t great, especially since we miss out on Streit’s Islander years. Quick will have his work cut out for him in goal, so here’s hoping he’s as good as Kings fans are always saying he is.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, August 18, 2017

Grab Bag: Hot dogs and soap operas

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Leon Draisaitl's new deal is bad. Unless it's good. We're not really sure yet.
- Should the NHL follow USA Hockey's lead on a rule change?
- The week's three comedy stars are really no contest
- An obscure player who could really nurse an injury
- And the 1989 New Jersey Devils show up on General Hospital, and it's every bit as awkward as you'd expect...

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Five more surprising players who haven't had their numbers retired

Last time around, we covered five somewhat surprising players who've yet to have their numbers retired by the team (or teams) they'd starred with. That led to plenty of debate over who was deserving and who wasn't, and what sort of standards teams should use to determine who gets to see their number go up to the rafters.

But I also heard from plenty of fans who wanted to make the case for players that their own teams hadn't honored yet. For a few of those. I was stunned to find out that a particular franchise hadn't honored a star player years ago. I had to go and double-check that, yes, these guys are still waiting.

So today, let's go back to the well for a look at five more players whose numbers haven't been raised yet, but maybe should have been.

Peter Bondra – Washington Capitals

Bondra was the name that came up most often from readers reacting to the original post, and I'll be honest: I'd always assumed his number had already been honored. After all, surely a member of the 500-goal club who scored almost all of those with Washington would be an obvious choice.

But apparently not, because Bondra is still waiting. He certainly has the qualifications, trailing only Alex Ovechkin in franchise history in both goals and points, while also ranking second in games played. No, he never won a Stanley Cup, but neither has anyone else in Capitals history, so we won't hold that against him.

The Capitals have only retired four numbers in their 43 seasons, and it's a weird mix. There's Mike Gartner, which you'd expect given he had 700 goals in his career (although Bondra has better numbers as a Capital). There's Rod Langway, a Hall of Famer and two-time Norris winner, and that makes sense, too. There's Dale Hunter, a very good player who fans loved.

And then there's Yvon Labre, who you may not even have ever heard of. He was a defenseman who played seven seasons for the Capitals back in the bad old days when the team was awful, including two as team captain. By all accounts he's a great guy in the community and he's remained with the team in various roles over the years, but in hindsight the decision to retire his #7 back in 1981 seems like an odd one.

Clearly, the bar here has to be a little higher than just being better than Yvon Labre, but the Capitals' recent reluctance – they haven't honored anyone at all since 2008 – seems like an over-correction. There's a good case to be made for Olaf Kolzig, too, but Bondra's been waiting for years and seems like the guy who should be first in line.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Friday, August 11, 2017

Grab Bag: It's OK to be honest about the 2018 Olympics

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The Olympics aren't going to anywhere near as much fun without the NHL and it's OK to say that out loud
- Debating that NHL Network goalie list everyone is mad about
- An obscure backup goalie who had super cool pads
- The week's three comedy stars
- And Team Sweden would like to sing you a song about the 1989 World Championships

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Who could be this year's Avalanche?

The Colorado Avalanche are suffering through one of the worst 12-month stretches in modern NHL history. Short of a team moving or some sort of off-ice tragedy, it’s hard to imagine how a year could go much worse for a team.

Their coach walked out on them. The maneuvered themselves into pretty much having to trade one of their best young players, then failed to make a deal happen. They sure seemed to make a clumsy pass at a future GM, only to came up empty. And worst of all, they suffered through what was probably the worst season of the cap era, then became the first last-place team to lose the same draft lottery three times.

And that’s why it’s somewhat jarring to remember that one year ago today, nobody thought the Avalanche would be all that bad. We weren’t exactly calling them a Cup contender, but they were coming off an 82-point season in 2015–16, good enough to finish ahead of eight teams and to tie them with the Montreal Canadiens. Oddsmakers were expecting them to finish a few points over .500, and had them ranked ahead of eventual playoff teams like the Blue Jackets, Senators and Maple Leafs.

And then it all went horribly wrong. But not many of us saw it coming until it was too late. So today, let’s ask the question: Could any of the current middle-of-the-pack teams be this year’s Avalanche?

To be clear, it’s exceedingly unlikely that any team implodes quite like Colorado did – that was a perfect storm of bad luck, poor timing and utter ineptitude. But could any teams that finished last season in roughly the same not-great-but-not-awful ballpark as the 2015–16 Avs be in danger of a major collapse of their own?

We’ll exclude the four teams that finished last year with 70 points or fewer – that’s the Canucks, Coyotes, Devils and (of course) the Avalanche – as well as the expansion Golden Knights, since all of those teams are expected to be bad. That still leaves us with 10 non-playoff teams that finished the year roughly in the 2015–16 Avalanche’s range. Of those, here are five teams who could be at risk of seeing a Colorado-style plummet down the standings.

New York Islanders

2016-17 finish: 41-29-12, 94 points, 17th overall

Warning signs on the dashboard: John Tavares. I mean, this should be done by now, shouldn’t it? Heading into the off-season, we were assured that the Islanders were going to either extend their franchise player for as long as possible or, failing that, explore moving him. Instead, nothing seems to be happening, and it’s starting to feel possible that no news is bad news.

We tend to talk way too much about distractions in the sports world, but this year’s Islanders feel like a team where it could actually apply. If Tavares heads into the season without a deal and suddenly every minor thing that happens starts turning into a referendum on the team’s long-term future, things could get ugly.

That seems unlikely – Tavares still sounds like a guy who wants to stay, and there’s a good chance this whole thing gets wrapped up and then Islander fans point and laugh at anyone who suggested it wouldn’t. But as Avalanche fans could tell you, sometimes the unlikely worst-case scenario is the one that ends up happening.

Why they should be OK: They’re the best team on our list in terms of last year’s standings; remember, they finished with as many points as the Cup-finalist Predators. They were also a downright impressive 24-12-8 under interim coach Doug Weight, who now holds the full-time job. And that was before they added Jordan Eberle.

Maybe more importantly, failure doesn’t seem to be an option right now. With Tavares looming over everything, new ownership looking for a new arena, and Garth Snow’s job potentially on the line, the Islanders don’t seem like a team that can afford to be bad this year. That’s a dangerous situation, because it can lead a team into some bad long-term decisions. But it should mean that a total collapse would be unlikely, if only because Snow would do everything in his power to prevent it.

But all bets are off if…: Tavares decides he wants out, and Snow has to go into scramble mode to salvage something of the situation. Again, that’s unlikely. But among more realistic scenarios, recall that the goaltending is still a question mark, and the blue line just lost Travis Hamonic. The Metro was brutal last year, and with the Flyers and Hurricanes on the way up there won’t be much room for error here.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, August 4, 2017

Grab Bag: Hrudey on Duty

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- There are four NHL penalties that don't have official signals. Until now.
- That time Don Cherry was voted the seventh greatest Canadian ever.
- An obscure player joins the Less Successful Brother All-Stars
- No comedy stars because I'm on vacation
- And a YouTube breakdown of the epic 1990s rap-rock stylings of "Hrudey on Duty"

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Five surprising players who haven't had their numbers retired

Retired numbers can be a funny thing. Some are slam dunks, with guys like Teemu Selanne and Martin Brodeur seeing their numbers go up to the rafters almost immediately. Other times, a closer call like Adam Graves or Bob Plager will wait years before a team decides that they're worthy of the honor. Some teams like to wait, others like to move quickly. And every once in a while, a team will even retire 17 numbers in one shot.

And then there are the cases where a player who seems to have a strong case to be honored ends up going years without getting the call, to the point where it starts to look like it may not come at all. So today, let's look at five players who've been out of the league for a while now, but have yet to see their numbers retired by the team they made their names with.

Kevin Lowe, Oilers

For most franchises, winning five Stanley Cups would be more than enough to get a player's number into the rafters. But the Oilers aren't just any team, and when you dominate most of a decade like they did in the 1980s, you might have higher standards.

Still, even without his five Edmonton Cup rings (plus one more with the Rangers), Lowe has a solid case. He was a pretty darn good player; while he never won a Norris, he did play in seven All-Star Games. And he's the franchise's all-time leader in games played, and ranks behind only Paul Coffey in points by a defenseman. On the other hand, he's not in the Hockey Hall of Fame yet, and every member of that Oilers dynasty to have their number retired is in the Hall.

Lowe is still a member of the Oilers' organization, having been the team's GM for years and serving as president now, and that could complicate things; nobody wants to see a ceremony that feels like a team executive is honoring themselves. But there seems to be a growing sense that Lowe deserves his moment. Remember, no Oiler wore Lowe's No. 4 until first overall pick Taylor Hall arrived in 2010 (which was controversial at the time).

Paul Kariya, Ducks

We could go back and forth on the qualifications of some of the players on this list. But Kariya isn't in that category. He's quite possibly the greatest player in Ducks history, and was the face of the franchise for its first decade or so. With his recent (and overdue) selection to Hall of Fame, he should be a sure thing.

But in this case, there's more to the decision than stats and individual honors. Kariya's time in Anaheim ended abruptly, with the star winger bolting in free agency after leading the team to the 2003 Cup final. That led to some bad feelings on both sides, and Kariya has had a rocky relationship with the league in general since his early retirement due to concussions.

These days, it sounds like the Ducks are ready to make peace, but Kariya remains (in the words of close friend Teemu Selanne) "very bitter about hockey". Maybe his HHOF induction presents an opportunity to mend some fences, and Kariya and the Ducks can eventually get back on good enough terms that the star is willing to participate in a number retirement ceremony. Until that day comes, his No. 9 will be conspicuous by its absence in Anaheim.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Friday, July 28, 2017

Grab Bag: The offer sheet that won't happen, but should

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Offer sheets are usually a waste of time. But this year, one specific one wouldn't be.
- Something that's been bugging me for years about how penalties are announced
- An obscure player who made played in three Olympics for Team Canada
- The week's three comedy stars, featuring an NHL vs NFL matchup that goes about as well as you would expect
- And we travel back to 1990 for some blooper tape fun in the weekly YouTube breakdown

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Seven abandoned plot points from the NHL offseason

The writers in charge of the NHL’s off-season script are struggling.

They spent the last year opening up all sorts of interesting storylines and plot holes, with lots of fun ways they could go. But now the summer is here, the credits are about to roll, and there are still all sorts of loose ends to tie up.

They’ve wrapped up a few. The Dallas Stars finally got that goalie they’ve been hunting for years, the touching Kevin Shattenkirk homecoming played out pretty much like we all expected, and the Connor McDavid contract plotline came together nicely. Some of it feels kind of derivative – haven’t we seen this Blackhawks roster already? – but for the most part it’s been fine.

But as the off-season wears on and things start getting quiet, it’s hard not to notice that several key subplots seem to have been quietly dropped by the league’s writing staff. So today, let’s look at seven NHL offseason storylines that we’re still waiting on.

The Matt Duchene trade

The Duchene trade watch has been on in Colorado ever since his coach, Patrick Roy, ripped him at the end of the 2015–16 season for celebrating wrong. Roy’s surprise August resignation may have bought some time, but as last season wore on a trade started to feel inevitable, with even Duchene himself acknowledging he was open to a fresh start.

The only question was when it would happen. With the Avalanche flatlining, there was plenty of pressure on Joe Sakic to get the best possible deal for the former third-overall pick, and timing was important. The rumoured asking price was high, and as the season wore on, some began to wonder if it might not make more sense to wait until the off-season. When the deadline passed without the Avs doing much of anything at all, the focus shifted to what Sakic could do at the draft.

Well, the draft has come and gone. So has most of free agency. So has almost all of July. And not only is Duchene somehow still in Colorado, but the rumour mill seems to be falling silent.

Maybe that’s a good thing — the calm before the storm, and all that. But with August approaching and the number of teams that could plausibly put together a deal getting smaller, it’s starting to look like not getting a trade done during the season could end up as a costly miscalculation by Sakic and the Avs. Duchene finished the season ice cold, and with cap space disappearing around the league after nearly four weeks of free agency, it’s possible that there just isn’t anyone left out there willing to pay a fair price.

Could Duchene start the season in Colorado? It’s starting to look that way. And since early-season trades have become all but extinct, that would mean yet another year of Sakic waiting for the trade deadline. Or maybe the draft. Or maybe July. Or maybe… well, to be continued, apparently.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, July 21, 2017

Grab Bag: The Bettman Sentence fixes everything

In the latest (and last?) Friday Grab Bag:
- One simple trick for enjoying Gary Bettman sound bites
- The NBA offseason is just way more fun that's the NHL's, and that's OK
- An obscure player with a two-pack-a-day habit who confused Bob McKenzie
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a week after basking in how wonderful Alexei Kovalev could be, we take a look at the other side of the coin.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

In other news: As you may have heard, Vice Sports is apparently shutting down and/or pivoting to video and/or something. Right now, I don't know what this means for the future of the Grab Bag, the Biscuits podcast, the Lozo mailbags or anything else I was doing with Vice (although I think we can probably guess). All I can say right now is that you'll know when I do.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Five stars whose bad timing cost them a Cup

You have to feel for NHL stars who never win a Stanley Cup. In most cases, their lack of a championship is hardly their fault. Hockey is a team game, and one player can only carry you so far. But that's probably little comfort to players who finish their career without ever skating a lap with the trophy. And that's especially true for the guys who just missed.

For example, Marcel Dionne is often mentioned as the greatest player to never win a Cup, and he may well be. But he also never came especially close. His team never made it out of the second round, and the three franchises he played for over his 18-year career – the Wings, Kings and Rangers – never won any Cups at all over that span.

Other players have come close in a given year. Gilbert Perrault helped get the Sabres to the final in 1975, and Roberto Luongo was one win away from a ring in 2011 with the Canucks. Brian Propp may have had the toughest luck of anyone -- he went to the Cup final on five separate occasions, but had the misfortune of running into an Islanders, Oilers or Penguins dynasty each time.

But then there's the group of star players who came close in a very different way: the guys who just had bad timing. They were great players, and they played for great teams. But they managed to be just a little too early or a little too late to be part of a Cup team, and ended up retiring without a ring despite most of their teammates getting one.

So today, let's look back at five players who had long and successful NHL careers that didn't include Stanley Cups, but who just missed being in the right place at the right time to win one.

Mike Gartner

Gartner hadn't come especially close to a Cup over the first decade-plus of his career with the Capitals, North Stars or Rangers. But in 1994, he finally found himself on a Cup favorite. By March, the Rangers were on their way to their second Presidents' Trophy in three years. With Mark Messier leading the way, Brian Leetch on the blueline and Mike Keenan behind the bench, the Rangers seemed set to finally break the franchise's 54-year Cup drought.

And as it turns out, they did. But Gartner didn't get to be a part of it. In yet another deadline deal, the 33-year-old veteran was sent to the Maple Leafs in exchange for Glenn Anderson.

Gartner and the Leafs nearly made it to the final themselves, before falling to the Canucks in the Western final. Meanwhile, the Rangers went on to win it all at Madison Square Garden (despite not getting all that much production out of Anderson along the way).

For Anderson, it was his sixth Cup ring. Gartner played until 1998, but never made it out of the first round again. He retired without a championship; in hindsight, he may have only missed by a few months.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Friday, July 14, 2017

Grab Bag: Come on down

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Since everyone liked last week's Cliff Hanger idea, let's assign some Price is Right games to more NHL announcements
- I have an incredibly trivial complaint about the Sedins
- An obscure player who once made Patrick Roy very angry
- The week's three comedy stars
- And we travel back to 1994 for a story about Mike Keenan and the greatest shift in hockey history

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Which NHL stars will end their careers as members of the one-franchise club?

You hear the term “franchise player” thrown around a lot these days, typically as a slightly fancier way of saying a player is very good. But actually playing out your entire career with one NHL franchise isn’t easy. Mario Lemieux managed to do it, but Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe didn’t. Nicklas Lidstrom did, but not Bobby Orr or Ray Bourque. Rocket Richard, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman made it, but not Mark Messier, Phil Esposito or Marcel Dionne.

And so far, it’s been an especially rough summer for modern-day players looking to join the club. Among the active leaders in games played with one team, as many as four players could have new homes in October. Patrick Marleau has already said goodbye to San Jose after 20 years. Shane Doan has been told that his services won’t be required in Arizona after 22 years with the organization, while Chris Neil got the same message from the Senators after 16. And as of right now, Andrei Markov’s 17-year tenure with the Canadiens appears to be in serious jeopardy.

Some of those players might still get to claim one-franchise status — Markov could re-sign in Montreal, and Doan and Neil could retire rather than sign elsewhere. But this summer has made it clear that playing out a decade or more with one organization doesn’t guarantee anything, and you never know when a player or team will decide that it’s time to sever a long-term relationship.

So today, let’s take a look at the 10 players with the most games played for a single team that they’re still on the roster of, and try to figure out which ones have the best odds of ending their career as a member of the one-franchise club.

Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Canucks

The tenure: 1,248 games for Henrik and 1,225 for Daniel, dating back to 2000

Why they’ll make it: Both sides in this one have been clear: The Sedins will finish their career in Vancouver. The twins have gone on the record to say they don’t want to leave. And the Canucks seem happy to hold onto them, resisting calls to think about moving their two veteran stars to help kickstart a rebuild.

On top of that, there’s another issue in play here: It’s just not easy to take on a pair of high salaries in the same deal. Assuming the twins will want to stay together wherever they play, there just aren’t many teams out there that could add that sort of cap hit. Sticking it out in Vancouver and then retiring as Canucks isn’t just the sentimental choice, it’s the practical one.

Why they won’t: The brothers have just one year left on their contracts, and the Canucks are expected to be a bad team this year and probably a few after that. Trading them today would be all but impossible, but getting a retained-salary deal done at the deadline might be realistic. And even assuming they finish the season as Canucks, the Sedins could head into unrestricted free agency next summer. Maybe they’d want to take a swing at a Stanley Cup somewhere before calling it quits.

Chance of making the one-franchise club: 75%. This will seem low to Canucks fans, many of whom seem to assume that the Sedins playing out their career in Vancouver is a sure thing. Maybe it is. But if Doan and the Coyotes taught us anything, it’s that loyalty has its limits, especially when a rebuilding team wants to go young. Is it really that hard to imagine the twins at least thinking about a discount deal with a contender next summer?

Henrik Zetterberg, Red Wings

The tenure: 1,000 games on the nose, dating back to 2002

Why they’ll make it: A lot of what we just wrote about the Sedins would apply here, too. It’s a veteran player on a rebuilding team that probably won’t have a shot at a Stanley Cup anytime soon.

But there are two key differences. First, Zetterberg already has a Cup ring. And second (and more importantly), he’s signed for four more years at a cap hit north of $6 million. Free agency isn’t on the radar, and even if the Red Wings wanted to trade him, they’d have trouble finding anyone willing to take on that deal.

On top of that, this is the Red Wings; no team holds onto its stars like Detroit. They made sure to do it for everyone from Yzerman to Lidstrom to Alex Delvecchio to Pavel Datsyuk. Well, kind of.

Why they won’t: Datsyuk never played anywhere else, but the Red Wings did trade his rights. That was a unique situation, of course, but it shows that Ken Holland is willing to get creative when it comes to dumping bad contracts. Zetterberg’s deal isn’t awful yet, but it’s headed there fast, and dumping it on a floor team down the line could be the sort of painful decision the rebuilding Wings have no choice but to make.

Chance of making the one-franchise club: 90%. In today’s NHL, I’m not sure you ever go higher than 90 until the player is actually making their way to the podium to announce their retirement. But of everyone on our list, Zetterberg is the most likely to retire with his team.

Dustin Brown, Kings

The tenure: 964 games dating back to 2003

Why they’ll make it: He’s been a warrior for the franchise, lifting two Stanley Cups as their captain. But let’s face it, the real reason Brown will retire as a King is his contract. With five years left at a nearly $6-million cap hit, and given Brown’s recent performance, it’s one of the worst contracts in the league. Even if the Kings wanted to trade him, no other team is going anywhere near that deal.

Why they won’t: The contract may be untradeable, but that doesn’t mean the Kings are stuck with it. Brown’s deal isn’t weighted down with bonuses, making it relatively straightforward to buy out. New management will no doubt give him a chance to find his game again before going that route, but this team already stripped him of his captaincy. The writing is on the wall here.

Chance of making the one-franchise club: 30%. Brown is a buyout waiting to happen.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet