Friday, March 31, 2017

Grab bag: April Fools

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL eventually gets it right on the expansion draft
- The one hockey prank we can all stop pretending is funny
- An obscure player who once ended a season with a crazy hot streak
- The weeks three comedy stars
- And an uncomfortably shirtless Patrick Sharp repeatedly pranks an uncomfortably shirtless Jonathan Toews

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Five franchises with unlikely first 50s

There hasn't been a lot of good news for the Colorado Avalanche this year, so here's something to cheer up Avs fans: Today marks an important milestone in franchise history. Yes, it's been exactly 36 years since Jacques Richard scored his 50th goal of the 1980-81 season, becoming the first player in franchise history to join that exclusive club.

Wait, who?

Modern fans could be forgiven for not being all that familiar with Richard; he doesn't quite carry the name value of other Nordique/Avalanche 50-goal scorers like Michel Goulet and Joe Sakic. Richard was a journeyman who'd bounced around for most of the 70s, topping the 20-goal mark only once. But in his first full season in Quebec, he ended up getting put on a line with Peter and Anton Stastny, and the trio clicked. Richard scored 52 goals that year, and then only 24 more over the rest of his NHL career, making him one of the great one-hit wonders in league history.

The Nordiques/Avalanche aren't alone here. When you look back at the list of players to be the first in a franchise's history to hit the 50-goal mark, you run into a lot of names that are exactly the ones you'd expect to see. For the Canadiens, of course, it was Rocket Richard. For the Blackhawks, Bobby Hull. You get legends like Mike Bossy for the Islanders, Marcel Dionne for the Kings, and Johnny Bucyk and Phil Esposito (in the same year) for the Bruins. 

But you also run into a handful of unexpected names, guys you wouldn't expect to see in a particular franchise's history books. Today, in honor of Richard's milestone night, let's look at five other unlikely players who were the very first in franchise history to hit the 50-goal plateau

Philadelphia Flyers

A half-dozen Flyers have scored 50 in a season, including well-known names like John LeClair, Mark Recchi, Bill Barber, Tim Kerr and Reggie Leach. But the sixth member of that group is a bit of a surprise. It's not Eric Lindros or Bobby Clarke, or even Jeff Carter. It's the guy who was the first to join the club, Rick MacLeish.

MacLeish's feat was maybe even more surprising given that it came in his first full NHL season, in 1972-73. The former first overall pick had played 43 games over two seasons and scored just three goals heading into the season, but caught fire to finish with 50 goals on the nose. He also had 50 assists, tying him with Clarke as the first Flyers to have a 100-point season.

MacLeish never hit those heights again, although he did have 49 goals in 1976-77. Those were his only two 40-goal seasons, and he finished his career with a respectable 349 over the course of 14 seasons, as well as the Cup-winning goal in 1974.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The 12 matchups you meet in the first round

With just over two weeks left until the start of the playoffs, there’s still plenty of time for the matchups to change. But you’re probably checking them anyway, at least if you root for a team that has a good chance at a spot. You can’t help it. Every fan wants to know who their favourite team will end up facing in the first round.

We can’t tell you which specific team you might end up with. But chances are, it’s going to be one of these dozen classic matchups that a hockey fan tends to meet in the first round.

No. 1: The good team that everyone’s picking

The team: They’re really, really good. They’ve got a great record, home-ice advantage, and a roster full of guys with Cup rings. This year, everyone seems to assume that they’ll win it all yet again.

This year's examples: The Blackhawks and Penguins.

How you feel about it: This is pretty close to the worst possible matchup you can draw in the opening round, since it offers little in the way of hope. If these guys show up to face your favourite team, you can go ahead and start penciling in other plans for late April, because your playoff run is probably ending early.

That said, if you work hard enough you can probably talk yourself into some vague sense of optimism. Hey, you'd have to go through these guys eventually if you want to win a Cup, so you might as well get it out of the way early, right? Maybe they'll take your team too lightly, or get caught looking ahead to tougher matchups down the line. Or maybe this is just the start of one of those epic underdog runs. This could happen. Why not us? Why not now?

Later, you'll deny ever believing any of those things when your team loses in five games.

No. 2: The good team nobody's picking

The team: They're good. At least, that's what their record says. They have lots of points and finished near the top of the standings. In theory, they should be right up there with the Stanley Cup favourites.

And yet...

Maybe it's because they weren't expected to be this good, or maybe it's because they haven't had any big playoff runs lately. But for whatever reason, nobody's really feeling it.

This year's examples: The Blue Jackets, for sure. Probably also the Wild and Senators, and maybe even the Canadiens.

How you feel about it: Great, at first. If you're a fan of a lower seed and you have to go up against a top team, this is the one you want. You get a decent shot at winning, plus all that fun underdog credibility.

But then the predictions start coming out, and everyone is taking your team as their mandatory upset pick. Suddenly, you don't feel like underdogs anymore. Wait, now the other team is rallying around the whole "nobody believes in us" thing. Are they allowed to do that? They finished ahead of us in the standings and have home ice, why is all the pressure on us all of a sudden?

Next thing you know, your team has lost the first two games on the road and you're wishing you'd drawn anyone else.

No. 3: The good team with a history of choking

The team: They had a great season and finished high in the standings. But they do that every year, and it always ends badly.

This year's examples: The Capitals are the obvious pick. The Blues. The Ducks. The Sharks are still there, too, although they shook some of that reputation with last season's run to the final.

How you feel about it: You understand that, in theory, the past shouldn't matter. Something that happened to Peter Bondra or Roman Turek a generation ago shouldn't have any impact on today. But we all know that's not quite true – hockey ghosts have a way of haunting teams for decades, and they tend to show up right when they can do the most damage to a fanbase's psyche.

That doesn't mean it will happen in the first round, and in fact there's something to be said for lulling everyone into a false sense of security. So you're not thrilled to see these guys in the opener. But you'll take it, because you know you'll always have a chance, even if you fall behind in the series. Maybe even especially if you fall behind.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, March 27, 2017

Weekend wrap: Planting seeds

With two weeks left in the regular season, there’s good news and bad news for anyone hoping for a frantic sprint to the finish line.

The bad news: This year’s playoff bubble has been kind of a bust. In the East, we’ve got four teams fighting for two spots, and one of those teams, the Maple Leafs, was starting to look like a lock before Frederik Andersen got hurt on Saturday. That puts the Leafs back in the mix with the Bruins, Lightning and Islanders; that race should be fun, and we’ll look at it in more detail a few sections down, but right now isn’t exactly a high-drama free-for-all. And in the West, we’re basically done; only the Kings are still in the chase, and their odds are on life support.

Add it all up, and 13 of the 16 playoff spots are already spoken for, and that number could be 14 or even 15 within another few days. So much for the season of parity.

But here's the good news: The battle to figure out which playoff teams will slot in where is still wide open. The Rangers have been locked into the East's first wild-card spot for a while now, and it seems safe to pencil the Blackhawks in as the top seed out West. Beyond that, it's chaos.

That chaos may not make or break anyone's chances – being the home team in a playoff matchup is less important in today's NHL than in just about any other pro sport. Still, seeding does matter, and all else being equal teams will want to finish in the best spot they can.

Nowhere is that fact more important than at the top of the Metro, where three of the league's best teams are fighting for first place. The stakes really couldn't be any higher; take the top seed, and you get to play a wild-card team you'll have finished about 25 points ahead of during the season. But the teams that finish second and third are stuck playing each other, guaranteeing that one of the league's very best teams will be out in the first round. The Capitals would seem to have the edge here, holding a lead and facing a schedule that includes the sad-sack Coyotes and Avalanche. But there's also a matchup in there with the Blue Jackets, who also face the Penguins, so this one isn't over yet.

The Atlantic got some clarity on Saturday, with the Canadiens beating the Senators for the third time in eight nights. That put Montreal up by three, and while Ottawa still holds a game in hand, the Habs will probably own the ROW tie-breaker. Of course, we're not sure whether finishing first in the Atlantic is a good thing, with the Rangers waiting for the winner. For most of the last few months, it's seemed like it might be better to drop down to second and face someone like Toronto or Boston. But with New York suddenly stumbling, that matchup (and guaranteed home ice through at least the first two rounds) suddenly doesn't seem so bad.

Then there's the Pacific, where the Sharks have seen a lead that had grown as large as nine points on March 14 shrink to nothing/a deficit after six straight losses, with the Ducks, Oilers and even the Flames all in the mix to take the top seed. Top spot in the Western divisions isn't looming quite as large as in the East because the wild cards aren't all that far behind, but home ice will help.

Then there are those potential rivalry matchups, like Ottawa/Toronto, Calgary/Edmonton, Anaheim/San Jose or Montreal/Boston. We flagged that possibility a few weeks back, and they've grown more likely since. You've also got a good battle for third in the Central between the Predators and Blues, one that seems even more important as the second-place Wild continue to freefall.

Add it all up, and there's still an awful lot at stake over the next few weeks. You just have to look above the bubble to find it.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Montreal Canadiens (42-24-9, +16 true goals differential*): They return to the top five after a two-month absence. Do I feel good about this pick? Not remotely, as we'll discuss down below.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (48-19-7, +61): Sergei Bobrovsky has given up three goals in his last four starts. This week brings the Sabres and Hurricanes, but then comes three straight against the top three teams in our rankings.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 24, 2017

Podcast: L.A. Story

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I try to fix the Kings, but can't, because they may not be fixable
- The Rangers can't win at home
- The Olympics debates drags on, and on, and on...
- Fond memories of the Avalanche/Red Wings brawl
- And Dave tries to get me to admit that the Maple Leafs are going to the playoffs
- Plus lots more...

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Grab bag: This will all end in tears

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Debating the NHL's Olympics participation
- Why the "teams should pick their playoff opponents" idea would never work
- Celebrating the Avs/Wings rivalry with an obscure player pick
- The week's three stars of comedy
- The week's one star of existential dread
- And a classic YouTube breakdown of the most depressing playoff highlight reel ever created...

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Questioning the NHL's playoff format

With less than a month before the start of the postseason, the NHL has a bit of a mess on its hands. The league’s playoff format has come under fire; one player flat out called the format “stupid”, and plenty of others are criticizing it in only slightly softer terms.

So what exactly is the problem? How did we get here? And do the critics have a point? Let’s break out our handy Q&A format to get to the bottom of this.

So what’s the hockey world complaining about now?

Who says we’re complaining? We’re all busy enjoying the very best time of year for hockey fans, as the race to the regular season finish line gives way to the frantic first round of the … OK, fine, we’re complaining. But for once, we have a good reason: the playoff format being completely and irrevocably screwed up.

That sounds bad. What’s the issue?

The current format is a little complicated, probably more so than it needs to be. But basically, the top three teams in each of the league’s four divisions earn a playoff spot. That leaves four slots open, and those are filled by the two best remaining teams in each conference. Those are the wildcards, and they can come from any division.

Once they’re in, those wildcards get the bottom two seeds and face the two division winners; the best division winner gets the worst wildcard team, while the other division winner gets the other wildcard. Meanwhile, the second and third place teams in each division play each other.

That seems… fine?

For the most part, it is. You can get into weird situations where wildcard teams crossover to the wrong division, which is kind of confusing. But generally, the current system works well enough.

Um, just as long as one division in a conference isn’t way better than the other one. Then everything goes to hell.

>> Read the full post at The Guardian

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Red Wings/Avalanche brawl: The definitive insanity rankings

March 26, 2017 marks the 20-year anniversary of one of the most beloved moments in recent hockey history, which is kind of awkward because that moment involves a lot of people punching each other.

Today’s fans aren’t supposed to like brawls, especially ones that involve blood, sucker punches and flying goaltenders. We’re supposed to be above that these days, with fighting on the decline and the days of true bad-blood rivalries all but over. The game has evolved, we’re told. This is a good thing, we’re expected to reply.

So you may experience some cognitive dissonance when your caveman brain tells you that this was just about the greatest thing ever:

Yes, Sunday will mark two full decades since the infamous Red Wings/Avalanche brawl at Joe Louis Arena. The fight served as payback for Claude Lemieux’s hit from behind on Kris Draper the year before, and was the catalyst for what would go on to become quite possibly the greatest rivalry in hockey history.

We'll save the philosophical debate about whether everything that happened on March 26, 1997, was good or bad or somewhere in between. Instead, let's agree on this: It was crazy. Madness. Flat-out hockey insanity, the likes of which we'll almost certainly never see again.

So today, let's celebrate shake our heads disapprovingly at the events of nearly 20 years ago in a manner befitting the moment: By assigning insanity rankings to anyone and everyone who was involved in the Red Wings/Avalanche brawl.

Peter Forsberg and Igor Larionov

Their role: They started it.

Well, I mean, they didn't really start it. Lemieux did, back in the 1996 playoffs, and there had already been some fallout between the two teams in their previous matchups during the 1996–97 season. That included this game itself, which had already featured a pair of fights and several scrums.

But still, out of everyone who you'd expect to light the fuse that eventually blew the whole rivalry sky-high, two guys who'd get plenty of Lady Byng votes over the course of their careers were an odd choice. Forsberg and Larionov's wrestling match barely involves any punches, but it's enough to draw the full attention of the crowd, most of the players and all four officials. As we'd find out a few seconds later, that last part turned out to be kind of important.

Insanity index: 4/10. Jut for the sheer weirdness of these two being the undercard for everything that was to come. (Although, for the record, when it came to the Red Wings rivalry Forsberg was never exactly a saint.)

Claude Lemieux

His role: Innocent bystander minding his own business and/or notorious cheap-shot artist who was about to finally get what was coming to him, depending on your perspective.

His hit on Draper and everything that followed came to be the defining incident of Lemieux's career, but it's worth remembering that his reputation among hockey fans was already a divisive one well before any of this happened. He was a good player who'd won a Conn Smythe, and was seen as a guy you could tolerate just as long as he was on your team. Fair or not, he was also known as an occasionally dirty player, not to mention a diver and a faker, and more than a few fans already had him on their "most hated" list

Despite a starring role in this brawl, Lemieux doesn't actually do all that much. He gets suckered by Darren McCarty and then immediately covers up. He was widely mocked for turtling, but later explained that McCarty's first punched had concussed him.

Insanity index: 1/10. You can think what you want about Lemieux, and maybe he should have been ready for whatever was to come on this night. But once McCarty drills him, covering up seems like a pretty reasonable choice.

(For what it's worth, Lemieux answered the bell for a more-even tilt with McCarty the following season.)

Darren McCarty

His role: The classic enforcer who's doing his job.

This is where things get a little dicey, and we're going to run into a generation gap between fans. Anyone who did what McCarty did in a game today would face a major suspension, not to mention generating dozens of reputation-stomping think pieces in the process. Just ask Shawn Thornton.

But right or wrong, things were different in 1997. Enforcers were still expected to police the game, and that meant extracting payback. McCarty saw an opportunity and he took it. And to be clear, he's absolutely trying to hurt Lemieux here – in his book, he admits to trying to slam his head onto the ice, and claims he intentionally dragged him over to the benches so the players could see the blood. At one point, he even seems to be trying to knee Lemieux in the face.

Through the lens of today, it all looks brutal. Back then, most of us agreed that it was just a guy fulfilling his job description.

Insanity index: 10/10 by today's standards, but more like 5/10 at the time.

Nicklas Lidstrom, Vladimir Konstantinov, Alexei Gusarov, Valeri Kamensky

Their role: Innocent bystanders.

We'll get to the main event in a bit, but first, let's take a moment to recognize the supporting cast. They don't do much other than stand around and stare, but every great battle scene needs a few extras. It's a talented group – it's not like the coaches had sent out the goon squad for this shift – and we thank them for their contribution.

Insanity index: 2/10. In case you're wondering, five of the 12 players on the ice for this massive and brutal line brawl ended up as Hall of Famers. And yes, that includes the guy we have to get to next...

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Five teams that ended long playoff droughts with a bang

The Edmonton Oilers are heading back to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.

OK, sure, they haven't clinched a spot quite yet. But the math will work itself out. Barring some sort of epic late collapse, they're going to be back in the playoffs after a long absence. And they'll have some company. While nobody has an active playoff drought as long as Edmonton's, we're also going to see teams like the Blue Jackets, Bruins and maybe even the Maple Leafs return to the postseason after a few years away.

That's the good news, as far as those teams are concerned. The bad news is that when teams get back to the playoffs after several seasons on the sidelines, they typically make quick exits. That's just the nature of a league where we're constantly told that teams need to learn how to win. That first loss is a necessary step. You show up, you get your behind handed to you, and you regroup for a longer run next year. That's just how it works.

Well, most of the time. But every now and then, a team will skip the whole "just happy to be here" phase and returns to the playoffs with guns blazing. Maybe it's an all-time classic series, or maybe it's a deep playoff run. Maybe it's even both.

That's what Oiler fans will be hoping for. So today, as we get ready for Edmonton's long-awaited return to the post-season, let's look back at five teams that ended an extended playoff absence with a bang.

Edmonton Oilers, 1997

If we're going to pump the tires of Oilers fans, we may as well start with one of the most entertaining first-round series ever.

The 1996-97 edition of the Oilers made the playoffs for the first time since 1992, although they didn't exactly kick the door down to get there. They managed 81 points, good for the seventh seed in the West and a first round matchup with the Dallas Stars. The Oilers went in as heavy underdogs – the Stars had finished with 104 points and were on the verge of ascending into the league's elite tier of teams, including a Stanley Cup win in 1999.

But once the series arrived… well, even if you're not an Oiler fan, you probably remember this one. Curtis Joseph stood on his head while posting a pair of shutouts, and the series went to a deciding seventh game in Dallas. That's where Joseph made one of the most famous saves of a generation, diving across to rob Joe Nieuwendyk (and eliciting a classic "OH MY GOODNESS" from Bob Cole). Seconds later, Todd Marchant blew by Grant Ledyard to score the winner and complete the upset.

That's pretty much where the good news ends for the Oilers; they lost in the next round and then were knocked out by the Stars in five of the next six seasons. But you could argue it was all worth it, in exchange for what remains to this day one of the most famous sequences in sudden death history.

Calgary Flames, 2004

Sticking in Alberta, we can't talk about ending a playoff drought with an exclamation point without mentioning the 2003-04 Flames. Calgary hadn't made the playoffs since 1996, and they hadn't won a round since the 1989 final. But after new GM Darryl Sutter remade the roster, they finished with 94 points, good enough for third in the Northwest and a sixth seed in the Western Conference.

That drew a matchup with the Vancouver Canucks. And for the third straight time, that particular pairing produced a Game 7 overtime. This one came after Vancouver tied the deciding game with a dramatic goal in the dying seconds, and ended with Martin Gelinas scoring the winner to send the Flames into the second round.

The run didn't end there, as Gelinas scoring series winners became a bit of a thing. He knocked out the top-seeded Red Wings with another overtime goal, then had the winner against the Sharks in the conference final. Calgary fans would argue that he had the winner in the Cup final too, but the officials had other ideas, and the Flames' miracle run ended one game short of a championship.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Which non-playoff team was this year's biggest disappointment?

We’ve got just over three weeks left in the regular season, which means this is the time of year when we should be focused on all the teams fighting it out for the final playoff spots.

But this year, that playoff race has been a bit of a dud – realistically, there are 19 teams still alive for the 16 post-season invitations. The Kings are the only team on the outside of the Western race with any sort of shot, and even that’s feeling like a real stretch after last night’s loss. Meanwhile, the East is basically down to the Leafs, Islanders and Lightning fighting for one spot, maybe two if the Bruins fade.

That leaves us with 11 teams that are basically done. Sure, you could still make a case that teams like the Flyers or Hurricanes aren’t quite dead yet. But according to the various sites that run these sorts of numbers, those teams both have less than a three–per cent shot at pulling off the comeback. And everyone else is way behind that.

So we’ve got 11 teams that are already dealing with the disappointment of a playoff miss. But not all disappointment is created equal. So today, let’s turn the focus to that group of 11 with a question: Based on expectations coming into the season, whose season has been the biggest disappointment?

We'll count them down, starting with the least disappointing team and getting more depressing as we go.

#11: Vancouver Canucks

The expectations: Rock bottom. The Canucks were picked to finish dead last by many, a fact that didn't go unnoticed in Vancouver. In fact, the only ones who didn't seem to think this season would be a disaster were Trevor Linden, Jim Benning and friends in the front office. That had some fans worried that the Canucks would become the absolute worst-case scenario for a modern NHL franchise – a bad team that doesn't realize it's bad, and keeps grinding away year after year with no hope of real progress.

But then: Can you be well out of the playoffs in early March and still feel like the season was a success? The Canucks were still bad, but they didn't finish dead last, or even come all that close. And they had a couple of stretches, notably a 4-0-0 start and a six-game win streak in January, that made them look like a real team. Those stretches didn't last, and the second half has been ugly, but the beauty of rock-bottom expectations is that they're not all that hard to exceed.

Maybe next year: The Canucks have to happy with Bo Horvat's season, and the decision to sell at the deadline with some solid moves brought in help for down the line. They'll probably be bad again next year, but at least they seem headed in the right direction.

#10: New Jersey Devils

The expectations: Low. The Devils haven't done a full-scale rebuild, but they're clearly in a transition phase. This year was about seeing the kids develop, making sure Taylor Hall settled in, and hoping that a 30-year-old Cory Schneider would remain a top-tier option in goal.

But the playoffs? Even the most optimistic Devils' fan would have had trouble buying that. Sportsnet's analytics-based view had them dead last in the Eastern Conference, and just about everyone had them lumped in with the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets at the bottom of the Metro.

But then: Those Metro predictions turned out to be dead wrong about one of those three teams, but it wasn't New Jersey. They hung around respectability a bit longer than most probably expected, but were a non-factor by the second half and are headed towards that last-place spot in the East.

Maybe next year: The youth has been OK; Pavel Zacha hasn't blown anyone away but he hasn't looked out of place as a teenager. Hall fought through injuries and saw his scoring rates take a slight dip, while Schneider had an off year. Overall, this season felt like a step back New Jersey. But that's what we expected.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, March 20, 2017

Weekend wrap: The Habs serve notice

The playoffs are still three weeks away, but we got a preview this weekend courtesy of the Canadiens, the Senators and the NHL’s schedule-maker.

The latter served up an old-fashioned home-and-home series between the Atlantic’s two top teams, one that didn’t even drop in the now-traditional extra day off. The result was back-to-back games that had a distinctly post-season feel. We had sellout crowds in both cities. We had a scrap or two. We got two goalies being allowed to play on consecutive nights, in defiance of regular-season wisdom. And we even got some mind games during the warm-up.

What we didn't get were a pair of decisive results; Montreal's win in the opener came in a shootout, which kind of mutes the whole playoff-feel thing. But last night's rematch delivered a more conclusive outcome — another Canadiens win, this time in regulation by a 4–1 final.

It all added up to a demoralizing weekend for the Senators, who went in with a chance to take control of the Atlantic and left facing a four-point gap. That's not insurmountable – Ottawa still holds a game in hand – but it's certainly not where they wanted to be. And while both games were close for the most part, the Canadiens looked like the better team as last night's third period wore on, scoring two unanswered and having a third waved off after an offside review.

The win was the Habs' ninth in their last 11 games, and the two losses came against a pair of the league's hottest teams in Calgary and Chicago. They're finally starting to get scoring from both the top and bottom of the lineup, and with Carey Price up to his old tricks, they're firmly back in the Atlantic driver's seat.

The two teams face each other yet again on Saturday in Montreal. The Canadiens will have the easier week leading up to that clash, facing two Eastern Conference also-rans in Detroit and Carolina. The Senators get much tougher matchups with the Bruins and Penguins, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that the race could be all but over by this time next week. Then again, given all the ebbs and flows the division has seen this year, we're probably in for at least a few more twists before the season ends.

(And yes, we're choosing to temporarily ignore the fact that winning this division may not actually be much of a victory, leading to a much tougher first-round matchup with the crossover Rangers. Let's not let the reality of the NHL's weird playoff format get in the way of what should be a good division race.)

So, were two tough wins in a playoff atmosphere enough to get the Canadiens back into our weekly top five? Well, no. But they're inching their way back into consideration, and with a few top-five teams looking vulnerable, we might see Montreal back on the list at some point before the season ends. Just not this week.

Road to the Cup

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

5. San Jose Sharks (42-22-7, +30 true goals differential*): They had a chance to all but put away the Pacific on Saturday against the Ducks, but lost 2–1. The Sharks are still the favourites, but the door is open.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (47-18-6, +63): Well, look who's back. With four straight wins, the Blue Jackets knock the slumping Wild out of the top five for the first time since Christmas, and leave us facing that problem of having too many Metro teams once again.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 17, 2017

Podcast: Fleeting happiness

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I are briefly happy but don't worry, it doesn't last
- How to fix the standings and playoff system
- Did Steve Yzerman jedi mind-trick the deadline, or just get lucky?
- Dave compares the Kings to Eli Manning and the New York Giants
- That stupid Leafs fishing trip controversy
- And lots, lots more...

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Grab bag: The next step in killing the loser point

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Your favorite team raised ticket prices. Is that bad?
- A potentially controversial take on the loser point.
- An obscure player who enjoyed what may be the shortest decade-long career in history.
- The week's three comedy stars.
- And a classic YouTube clip of Don Cherry explaining how a hockey net works while trying really hard not to murder his co-host.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ten players to watch as the season winds down

With less than four weeks left in the regular season, which players are under the spotlight as we head down the home stretch?

Well, all of them. That’s kind of how the last few weeks of the season works, after all. If you’re an NHL player and nobody is paying any attention to what you’re doing these days, something has gone horribly wrong somewhere along the way.

But it’s also true that some players get more attention than others. So today, let’s take a look at 10 players from around the league who’ll be under an even brighter spotlight than usual over the season’s final weeks.

Brad Marchand

Marchand has always been a favourite in Boston. But his recent leap from "guy everyone else kind of just wants to see get punched" to legitimate NHL star has been an interesting development. And this year, he seems set on taking another step, joining the discussion as one of the league's best forwards, period.

I'm sure there are some Boston fans who'll claim to have seen this coming. But for the rest of us, Marchand's transformation from talented pest to dominant force has been a surprise. Last year's breakthrough 37-goal season felt like he'd reached his best-case. Then came the World Cup, when he looked every bit like an elite player and scored the winner. But hey, he had Sidney Crosby on his line, right? Let's see him do it for a full season.

Well, here we are. And with Marchand scoring at better than a point-per-game, he's somehow right in the mix for what would have to go down as one of history's most unexpected Art Ross wins. Heck, he might get the Rocket Richard, too. And that even has some especially feisty Bruins fans wanting to know if he's now in the Hart picture.

For now, let's worry about him getting the Bruins to the playoffs. But if he can lead them to home ice or maybe even the division title, who knows what comes next. We might be one strong finish away from seeing a very punchable face show up all over the annual NHL awards show.

Devan Dubnyk

We could fill this entire list to starting goaltenders, since no position comes under more scrutiny down the stretch. But we'll resist that urge, and limit ourselves to just Dubnyk, because he's shaping up to be an especially interesting case.

Call this one the tragedy of high expectations. Through the first half of the season, the Wild goaltender was running away with the Vezina, posting a .941 save percentage through the end of December. That put him on pace to challenge Tim Thomas's all-time record for goalies with at least 40 starts, which was set in 2010–11 and stands at .938.

But since then, Dubnyk has looked human. The Wild have lost each of his last four starts, and when we last saw him, he was getting pulled after allowing two goals on two shots in a key showdown against the Blackhawks.

To be clear, it's not like Dubnyk's numbers have plummeted. He's posted a .914 save percentage so far in March, which is only slightly down from the .917 he had in both January and February. Numbers like that, over the course of a full season, would be good enough to rank in the league's top dozen or so goaltenders. It would be above-average work.

But "above average" feels like a slump when you've set the bar as high as Dubnyk did in the season's first three months. And it changes the look of a team like the Wild, who'd emerged as the favourite in the Western Conference based largely on having some of the league's very best goaltending.

Maybe they still do. But if Dubnyk continues to look like he's merely very good instead of historically excellent, that changes the mix in the West, where the Blackhawks have already pulled ahead of the Wild for the top seed and the Sharks are right behind. That's a lot to put on one guy; probably too much, if we're being realistic. But since when have hockey fans ever been that?

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Are the 2016-17 Avalanche the worst team of the cap era?

The Colorado Avalanche are the worst.

That's not a controversial statement. It's not even an insult, really. It's just a statement of fact. This year's Avalanche wrapped up the title of the league's worst team sometime around December, and they cemented that status over the weekend by being the first team eliminated from the playoffs. On Monday, they faced the league's other worst team, and lost to the Coyotes 1-0 in what may have been the saddest game of the season.

But just how bad are the Avalanche? They're not really in the "worst team ever" discussion; in this age of parity, we'll almost certainly never see a team anywhere near as bad as the 1974-75 Capitals, 1991-92 Sharks or 1992-93 Senators.

But what about the salary cap era, dating back to the end of the 2005 lockout? That's a tougher call. You could make a case on either side of that one, so let's break it down five ways to see where we end up.

1. The wins and losses

That's what matters, right? The NHL is all about whether you win or lose. Well, that and how often you lose but it's close so you still get credit for half a win for reasons nobody fully understands. But yeah… wins and losses.

Right now, the Avalanche are sitting at 19-46-3 for 41 points through 68 games. That's good for a points percentage of just .301, which ranks dead last among all teams in the cap era. It's not even all that close; the next worse team is the 2013-14 Sabres, at .317, followed by the 2014-15 Sabres (.329) that same year's Coyotes (.341), and the 2006-07 Flyers (also .341).

That's bad.

In fact, it may be even worse than it looks. Generally speaking, bad teams tend to get worse as the season goes on. That's partly because they have nothing to play for, and partly because they typically ship veterans out at the deadline and ice a weaker lineup down the stretch. The Avalanche didn't do much of that for some reason, but it would seem optimistic to expect them to suddenly hit their stride now that they're already the laughingstock of the league.

What's worse, the schedule won't do them any favors. They face the Red Wings in back-to-back games this week – remember when that was a rivalry? – then close the season with 11 of 12 against playoff teams. They'll see a lot of backup goalies over that stretch, and it would only take a handful of unexpected wins to nudge them out of 360th spot in the cap era standings, but right now it isn't looking good.

Verdict: Score this one solidly in the "Avalanche are the worst" column.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

NHL stock watch: March

With one month to go in the regular schedule, it’s time for another portfolio check as we take a look around the league to see which stocks are rising and which are falling.

We’ve been doing this every month since the season started, and it’s helped us identify some trends along the way. Some of those have stuck around, like the league-wide youth movement and the rise of Canadian teams. Others faded quickly, like when it seemed like a safe year to be an NHL coach. The markets are volatile; invest at your own risk.

Here’s who things are looking as we head down the home stretch.

Stock falling: The Western Conference playoff race

So, uh, about all that parity...

You remember that, right? This time last month, we were living in a world where 28 out of 30 NHL teams had at least some shot at a playoff spot. There were even some worries that all that parity would torpedo the trade deadline, since nobody other than Avalanche and Coyotes would be selling. Everyone else was still right in the thick of it.

And that wasn't all hyperbole – as late as the second week of February, everyone outside of Arizona and Colorado was no more than eight points out of a playoff spot, with enough time left to make up some distance with a hot streak or two.

Fast forward to today, though, and the season of parity turned into the season of reality real quick. Heading into action tonight, only two teams in the East are within five points of that last spot. And that's a traffic jam compared to the West, where only two teams are fighting over the final spot, and that fight may already be over.

Those two are the Blues and Kings, a pair of teams that both came into the season as Stanley Cup hopefuls. So there will be some drama watching them duke it out for one spot, knowing that missing the playoffs will spell disaster for the loser. But after last night's Blues win in Los Angeles, the Kings are five points back and in big trouble.

Unless somebody like the Flyers or Panthers can make a late push, we're left with 19 teams still in the mix with a month to go. And in both conferences, plenty of teams don't have anything to worry about beyond matchups.

Luckily, some of those matchups might be pretty good...

Stock rising: Rivalry matchups

It's too early to think about first-round matchups. Every year, we get excited about two teams that seem to be on a collision course, only to have it all fall apart on the final weekend.

So we won't go too far down this particular path when there's still a month to go. (Check back in a few weeks for a full roundup.) That said, there are some potential matchups in play that we haven't seen in a long time, and it's hard not to get at least a little bit excited about the possibilities.

Take the Atlantic, where the Senators, Canadiens and Bruins are holding down the top three spots. That means two of those teams would face each other, giving us a good shot at something like a classic Montreal/Boston matchup or a more recent rivalry like Montreal/Ottawa. We could also get the Sens and Bruins, which has never happened before and would give us our first look at Zdeno Chara facing his old team in the post-season.

But as interesting as those matchups could be, things get a lot more fun if the Maple Leafs can make up some ground and crash the party. The Leafs and Bruins have some recent playoff history, as you may have heard. But we haven't had a Battle of Ontario matchup since 2004, the last of four meetings in five years. And while the Leafs and Habs have met 13 times over their history, we somehow haven't seen them pair off since 1979.

There's a similar – and maybe even better – situation shaping up out west. The Flames' recent win steak moved them out of the wild-card bubble and into second spot in the Pacific. That means they could end up facing the Oilers, reigniting a Battle of Alberta that's been dormant for 26 years, at least as far as the post-season is concerned. The Flames and Oilers faced each other five times in nine years beginning in 1983, with the winner going to the Cup final in four of those. But after 1991, nothing. This could be the year that changes, and don't think fans in Alberta haven't already noticed.

Mix in a shot at some classic old-school rivalries like Blues/Blackhawks and Islanders/Capitals along with some relatively recent ones like Ducks/Sharks, and this year's playoffs could be shaping up as a rivalry showcase. Let's enjoy that possibility now, before some random Predators or Lightning game on the final weekend ruins everything.

>> Read the full post at Sportnet

Monday, March 13, 2017

Weekend wrap: You can't touch a Flame when it's red hot

Welcome to the home stretch.

We’re officially four weeks away from the NHL regular season being over. Four weeks from now, we’ll be spending Monday morning digesting an unusually busy weekend featuring 24 games packed into Saturday and Sunday. We’ll know who’s in and who’s out, and who’ll be playing who. A season’s worth of speculation, second-guessing and (in some cases) self-delusion will be over with, and 14 teams will be clearing out their lockers.

Now, we just have to get there. There's still a lot to sort out between now and then.

One welcomed factor: The Games Played column has finally evened out. With the exception of the Hurricanes, who are a non-factor at this point, every team is within two games played of everyone else. We're all done with bye weeks too, so those days of "they're six points back but have five games in hand" are mercifully over.

The race for the final playoff spots in either conference will get most of the attention, although it's not shaping up to be quite as wide a field as we thought we'd be getting. There are currently only three teams sitting outside of a playoff spot by five points or fewer; the West is especially sparse, with only the Kings so much as within eight. That could still give us some decent races down to the wire, but it's an odd sight given that it was only a few weeks ago that almost everyone was still in it, or at least close enough to pretend they were.

It looks like we will get some decent battles for the division crowns; first and second spot in three of the four divisions are separated by one point or less. The race for the Presidents' Trophy will be a good one as well, with the faltering Capitals still leading the way but a half-dozen teams within range to chase them down. And we all know how much NHL teams care about the Presidents' Trophy, right?

Mix in tight races for the Art Ross and Rocket Richard, add the usual jockeying for Hart, Norris and Calder votes, and factor in battles for seeding and home ice, and there's plenty left to play for at the top of the league. And at the bottom, draft-lottery watchers will be focused on... [double-checks how far back the Avalanche are]... well, there's plenty left to play for at the top of the league.

We've got four weeks to figure it all out. For today, it's on to the power rankings.

Road to the Cup

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

5. San Jose Sharks (41-20-7, +31 true goals differential*): Three wins in four for the second straight week has them pulling away as the only division leader with any margin for error.

4. Minnesota Wild (43-18-6, +59): They dropped three of four on the week, and have now three times in their last seven after not having done so all season.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 10, 2017

Grab Bag: But the expansion draft

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Debating the expansion draft, i.e. the excuse for everything you team does
- Josh Ho-Sang's controversial number has everyone preemptively angry about... something.
- An obscure player who did not host a late night talk show
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube section tribute to legendary Kings' broadcast Bob Miller

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Podcast: This stupid league

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- The NHL find an exciting new way to screw up the expansion draft and show its contempt for its customers
- Seriously, they hate you.
- This league, man.
- Also, Dave tries to make Sean mad about Valtteri Filppula snubbing the Leafs
- The Olli Jokinen retirement thing was weird, right?
- Lots of exasperated sighing.
- And more...

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The NHL's expansion list debacle, and what it can tells us about a league gone wrong

The NHL did something this week, so it goes without saying that they found a way to make their fans angry.

In this case, the “something” was the annual GM’s meetings. This is the time of year when all of the league’s general managers, fresh off of not doing all that much at the trade deadline, get together to talk about the state of the game. The meetings started off as usual – with lots of interesting ideas being offered as to how things could be improved. Then they ended off as usual – with the decision to change virtually nothing.

But it was something that happened in between that got the most attention, at least among fans who still pay attention to this stuff. And you get the feeling that the league didn’t intend for it to be that big of a deal. On Wednesday, word got out that during a discussion on expansion, the league had asked the GMs whether each team’s protected list should be made public. No, the GMs replied, they’d “prefer” to keep everything secret.

That’s right. For the first time since 2000, the league will be holding an expansion draft. And the league’s GMs want you to know as little as possible about the whole thing.

This would be, to put it mildly, idiotic.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Revenge scenarios to watch as the season winds down

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. “They,” of course, are hockey players who have a chance to knock their old teams out of the playoffs.

Or maybe not. I didn’t really research the origin of that quote. But with just over a month left in the regular season and the playoff picture getting clearer, we can start thinking ahead to some revenge scenarios that could be in play.

After all, while helping your own team into the playoffs is always the top goal, doing it at the expense of somebody who gave up on you can make it even sweeter. Here are five situations where that could be exactly what happens.

Brian Elliott vs. the Blues

We may as well start with what's probably the most obvious case: the struggling St. Louis Blues vs. the goaltender they jettisoned in the off-season for a draft pick. At the time, the Flames thought they were getting an undisputed starter and the Blues figured they were in good hands with Jake Allen. It hasn't exactly worked out that way for either team.

Up until a week or two ago, it looked like the last playoff spot in the West could come down to the Flames and Blues directly. That seems less likely now, thanks to Calgary's recent hot streak. Elliott has been a big part of that, shaking off his early-season struggles to post a strong February that's continued into March.

Elliott's play has helped the Flames earn some breathing room, and today they're closer to challenging the Ducks and Oilers for home ice than falling out of a post-season spot altogether.

Meanwhile, the Blues can't seem to figure out what they are, following up a six-game win streak with five straight losses before two more wins. That losing streak overlapped with a trade deadline that saw Doug Armstrong seem to fold his hand, shipping out Kevin Shattenkirk without bringing in any reinforcements. But despite all of that, the Blues are still holding down the West's final spot, three points up on a Kings team that can't seem to get going.

However Elliot and the Flames finish, they'll have an impact on the Blues' chances. With a strong final push, they'll guarantee that the Pacific grabs one of the wild-card spots for the first time since the new format came into play, leaving one less spot available for St. Louis. And if they slump, they may end up having to battle the Blues for a spot directly.

Either way, Elliott will have a chance to earn some payback on the team that dumped him in favor of a younger model. And yes, the two teams face each other once more this season, on March 25 in Calgary.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Five teams that played it cautious at the deadline, and paid for it

So the trade deadline has come and gone, and it was a relatively quiet one. There were plenty of deals, but not much you'd try to call a blockbuster. Several of the bigger names on the block didn't go anywhere, and most teams decided to tinker, at most.

So while chances are your favorite team did something – well, assuming you're not an Islanders fan – you might have been left wishing they'd done more. But then you probably reminded yourself that plenty of teams have had quiet deadlines and then gone on to successful playoff runs, or even Stanley Cup wins. Teams like the 2007 Ducks and 2008 Red Wings didn't do much at the deadline, and they won it all. Your team could, too.

And that's all true. But there's another side to that coin: Sometimes, teams follow up a quiet deadline with the sort of playoff run that leaves them wishing they'd been more aggressive. Maybe it's an early exit, or maybe they come agonizingly close to a Stanley Cup. Either way, they're left wondering: What if we'd done just a little more?

Here are five teams form the salary cap era who may wish they could have a deadline do-over.

2011 Canucks

At the deadline: On the morning of February 28, the Canucks woke up in first place overall and sitting with a 14-point lead in their division. They led the league in goals scored, and only two teams had given up fewer. It seemed like a classic case of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" that called for nothing more than minor tinkering.

What they did: They added a little bit of depth up front, bringing in Maxim Lapierre and Christopher Higgins in exchange for picks. At the time, most of us figured that was just fine.

But then… : We all know how this one ended. The Canucks drew a first round matchup with their long-time rivals, the Blackhawks, and nearly blew a 3-0 series lead before Alex Burrows' Game 7 OT winner salvaged the series. Wins over the Predators and Sharks sent them to the Cup final, where they took a 3-2 series lead over the Bruins before collapsing in the last two games, coming up one win shy of their first ever championship.

Would a more aggressive deadline have paid off? We'll never know for sure, and it's worth pointing out that many of the bigger names moved at the 2011 deadline didn't exactly pan out – think Dustin Penner and Bryan McCabe. But it's also true that the Bruins were the far more aggressive team leading up to the deadline, making five trades and adding names like Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly and Tomas Kaberle. Did that make the difference? It might have.

2009 Sharks

At the deadline: The Sharks went into deadline day tied with the Bruins for first place overall, and sitting a ridiculous 25 points ahead of the Ducks for first place in the Pacific. They were gunning for their fourth division title in seven years and were on pace to finish well over the 100-point mark for the third straight season. The Sharks had been aggressive at the last two deadlines, trading first round picks for Bill Guerin in 2007 and Bryan Campbell in 2008. But with a growing reputation as playoff disappointments, some wondered if this was the year Doug Wilson went all-in.

What they did: They ended up making just one deal, adding veterans Kent Huskins and Travis Moen from Anaheim for a pick and two prospects, including a young Nick Bonino. (A second deal that sent Kyle McLaren to Philadelphia was later reversed when McLaren failed his physical.)

But then… : After finishing with a league-leading 117 points to win their first Presidents' Trophy, the Sharks imploded in the first round, losing in six games in what stands as one of the bigger upsets in recent NHL history. To make matters worse, that loss came against the same Ducks team that had served as the sellers in their only deadline deal.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Who has the league's best (and worst) long-term outlook in goal?

“Goaltending is 75 per cent of your hockey team, unless you don’t have it. Then it’s 100 per cent.”

Like most great hockey quotes, that old classic came from former coach and broadcast legend Harry Neale. And as we’ve already seen this season, it still holds true for the modern game. A lack of goaltending cost Ken Hitchcock his job in St. Louis, torpedoed a Stanley Cup contender in Dallas, and is threatening to derail promising young teams in Calgary, Philadelphia and Winnipeg. Even a few bad games from a backup can leave a coach ranting and raving, as we found out a few days ago.

Goaltending is critical. It can also be frustratingly hard to find, let alone to lock up for the long term. If you’ve got a good one, you’d better find a way to hold onto him, because stability at the position can make or break a franchise’s Stanley Cup dreams.

So today, let’s go through all 30 NHL teams and ask a simple question: From worst to best, how good should everyone feel about their goaltending situation, not just right now but for the next five years?

30. Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes have had the worst goaltending in the league this year apart from Dallas, and their coach just finished throwing Eddie Lack under the bus and backing it over him a few times. When Cam Ward, who hasn't had a season north of .910 in five years, is your bright spot, you've got goaltending problems.

There is a decent prospect in the system in 2014 second-rounder Alex Nedeljkovic; in a perfect world, maybe he's ready to take over after Ward and Lack's deals both expire in 2018. But this looks like an area where GM Ron Francis is going to need to roll up his sleeves and get to work.

29. Calgary Flames

Goaltending situations don't come with many more question marks than the Flames'. They have a solid prospect coming in Jon Gillies, although he's battled injury and inconsistency. But both of their goalies are scheduled to hit the UFA market this summer, and it's quite possible that neither is re-signed before then.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, given how inconsistent play at the position has haunted the team all season. Chad Johnson was excellent at the start of the year and Brian Elliott has been better lately, but the Flames were rumoured to be in the market for names like Ben Bishop and Marc-Andre Fleury at the deadline, so a fresh start here seems likely.

28. Colorado Avalanche

Most teams on the low end of this list are here because they don't have a starting goaltender locked up for the long term. The Avalanche are here because they do.

Like just about everything related to this year's team, the Avalanche goaltending has been a disaster. Semyon Varlamov struggled and then got hurt, and was eventually shut down for the year. It marked the third straight year of declining play for the one-time Vezina runner-up, but he's locked up through 2019 on a big-ticket deal so the Avalanche might be stuck with him.

Maybe the expansion draft bails them out here, and Colorado can start fresh with Calvin Pickard or someone else. If not, they'd better hope Varlamov can get healthy and back to his 2014 form, because a $5.9-million backup would be one more problem for a team that already has plenty.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, March 6, 2017

Weekend wrap: Here come the Blackhawks

This time last week, we figured we were counting down to something, even if we weren’t quite sure what. Well, the deadline has come and gone, and we were right. That was… something.

A week ago, it looked like we could be in for a deadline that would shake things up as far as the top contenders were concerned. Instead, while we saw plenty of deals over the course of a busy 72 hours or so, it’s fair to say that the Earth didn’t exactly shift beneath the road to the Stanley Cup.

The biggest-impact players on the block didn't go anywhere, as Joe Sakic and the Avalanche decided to wait until the summer to break up their flailing core. Other big names, like Patrick Sharp, Shane Doan and Radim Vrbata, also stayed put for various reasons. Most of the top contenders chose to tinker rather than bring in major reinforcements. And the two best players who did move ended up going to the teams that were already sitting at one and two in our power rankings.

So was it all just a big waste of time? Not quite. For one, the Capitals' grip on overall-favourite status got a lot tighter, and barring some sort of late-season slump we can pretty much pencil them into the top spot for the rest of the year. The Wild made it clear that they're all-in to emerge from the Western Conference. And even the Senators signaled that they're serious about emerging from the Atlantic, recognizing that there may never be a clearer path through the division than the one in front of them right now.

But we didn't get the sort of seismic change we might have seen if, say, the Rangers had landed Kevin Shattenkirk or a team like the Canadiens had pulled the trigger on Matt Duchene. Time will tell if those teams end up regretting their cautious approach, although history tells us that big deadline moves can backfire at least as often as they work.

So sure, the balance of power shifted, even if only slightly and mostly in the direction of the teams who already had it. Now we find out how much any of it ends up mattering.

Meanwhile, a contender that's been in and out of the top five all season has caught fire and shot up the rankings. That could end up being more important than any of the deals that did or didn’t get made last week. More on that in the next section.

Road to the Cup

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

5. San Jose Sharks (38-19-7, +26 true goals differential*): They came out of last night's showdown in Minnesota with a regulation loss, the first time in eight games they haven't managed a point.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (40-16-8, +43): When they're healthy, the Penguins still seem like they have as good a shot as anyone to win it all. But right now, Kris Letang is hurt, and this didn't sound good.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 3, 2017

Podcast: Evaluating all 30 teams' deadlines

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast, Dave and Sean go through the entire league and evaluate every team's trade deadline, including questions like:
- What were Joe Sakic and the Avalanche doing?
- Will the Rangers regret letting Kevin Shattenkirk go to the Caps?
- What was up with Shane Doan?
- Did Steve Yzerman misplay his Ben Bishop hand?
- Seriously, Sakic knew the deadline was this week, right?
- Did Jim Benning really win the deadline?
- Minnesota overpaid for Martin Hanzal, but was that OK?
- Did Garth Snow just prove Dave's "secret 10-year contract" theory?
- Like, do calendars work differently in Colorado maybe?
- And much, much more...

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Grab bag: In which Garth Snow actually does something

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- It's OK to like that trade your team just made
- Conditional draft picks (or why the NHL hates you, part 847)
- An obscure player who was involved in two important trades
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at the night that Matthew Barnaby tragically died on the ice, only to be brought back to life by Garth Snow...

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Trade deadline winners and losers

The NHL Trade Deadline was today. You may have heard about it. We posted a few articles about the topic over the last month, and there was even some TV coverage.

In all, we had 19 deals today and 35 in total over the last week. Now that the 3:00 ET deadline has come and gone and any trade-call stragglers have been wrapped up, we can get to the good part: Immediately slapping “winner” and “loser” labels on everything, even though we have no idea how any of it will turn out.

Let’s get started. We’ll lead off with the biggest deal of the week.

Winner: Washington Capitals

The league's best team landed the deadline's biggest addition. And they did it without giving up quite as much as we thought they might. That's a pretty clear win.

No, Kevin Shattenkirk didn't exactly come cheap, costing the Capitals this year's first, a decent young player in Zach Sanford and maybe a second. That's not nothing.

But it's also not an unbearable price for a Stanley Cup favourite. And that's especially true if, as rumoured, Metro rivals like the Penguins and Rangers had interest. Brian MacLellan has sent a clear signal that his team is all-in on a Cup this year.

That might feel like an uncomfortable position for nervous Caps fans who've been burned by hope before. But for a franchise that's still seeking their first title, swinging for the fences seems like the right play. And MacLellan didn’t even have to overpay to do it.

Loser: St. Louis Blues

The flip side of the Shattenkirk deal is the team that gave him up.

Armstrong has since hinted that the market for Shattenkirk just didn't materialize the way he hoped it would, and the fact that the deal went down two days before the deadline suggests that was the case. That's partly on him – this is where a GM needs to be actively shopping, not just listening – but at a certain point there's only so much you can do. If everyone knows a guy is available and only one team was willing to pay up, you take what you can get, right?

Well, maybe. The other option is to keep the player and hope you can go on a playoff run of your own. Instead, Armstrong basically folded his hand, making it clear that he doesn't view the Blues as real contenders (a stance that was backed up by the Blues not making any other moves). That's a tough call for a GM to make, and sometimes accepting reality is the smart play. But in this case, you'd like to think that any sort of concession-style trade of a star would have also included a bidding war somewhere along the line.

But before we close the book on Shattenkirk, let's look at one more angle.

Loser: Henrik Lundqvist's window

The Rangers had been linked to Shattenkirk, but ended up watching him head to a division rival while getting a cheaper blueliner in Brendan Smith. In the long term, that makes perfect sense. It's still widely assumed that Shattenkirk lands in New York as a free agent, so the Rangers will probably wind up with the player they want and hold onto their first-round pick in the process. Solid work.

And yet...

In 2005, the Rangers got a gift from the hockey gods when a sixth-round pick from five years earlier arrived and almost immediately established himself as one of the best goaltenders in the world. That's Lundqvist, of course, and he's done everything the Rangers could have asked over the last decade-plus. But he turns 35 tomorrow, last season was the first time in his career he finished outside the top six in Vezina voting, and he struggled through much of this year's first half.

He's been better since, posting a .928 save percentage in February to help the Rangers to a 9-4 month, one that firmly reestablished them as legitimate Cup contenders. Still, when the dust cleared, it was the Capitals who walked away with the deadline's biggest prize. We don't know if the Rangers were even bidding — to hear Armstrong tell it, not many teams were — but they had the picks and cap space to make the move. They chose not to, and a team that the Rangers may have to go through to get back to the Cup final stepped up instead.

And again, that probably makes sense, especially if they sign Shattenkirk in July. But Lundqvist only has so many playoff runs left him as an elite goaltender, and one more of them is likely to slip by while the Rangers refocus on the long game.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Requiem for a hockey trade

Today is trade deadline day, which means you can expect to hear certain words repeated over and over. "Buyers." "Sellers." "Rentals." Those are the key terms on a day filled with bad teams flipping players to good teams in return for future assets.

But back in the old days, there used to be a different term that showed up occasionally on days like today: "Hockey trades."

To be honest, back then we pretty much just called them "trades," and they went something like this: Two teams exchanged players in a deal where both sides were trying to get better. Nobody was throwing in the towel and rebuilding, and nobody was sacrificing future assets for a short-term boost. Just two teams, both trying to improve their rosters right now, and using a trade to do it.

I know. Crazy stuff.

But it did happen. And we even sort of got one Tuesday night -- the Brandon Davidson/David Desharnais deal, while not anyone's idea of a blockbuster, was at least kind of hockey-ish. So today, while we wait for the rental market to heat up, let's look back at five true hockey trades from deadline history where there were no clear buyers and no sellers, just two teams trying to get the best end of a deal.

1989 – Mike Gartner and Larry Murphy for Dino Ciccarelli and Bob Rouse

Let's start back in 1989 with a classic hockey deal. No picks, no prospects, just a forward and a defenseman on each side of the trade.

Oh, and 75% of the deal ended up in the Hall of Fame. That's not bad for a day's work.

The deal saw Capitals GM David Poile trade away Gartner, at the time the franchise's all-time leading scorer, and Murphy, who'd been a Norris finalist less than two years ago. In exchange, the North Stars gave up their top goal-scorer in Ciccarelli and a hard-nosed blueliner in Rouse.

As it turned out, none of the players stuck around in their new homes all that long. Gartner was traded again at the 1990 deadline, and by the time Ciccarelli was dealt to Detroit in 1992, all four players had moved on. Still, at the time this was an impressive blockbuster, and in hindsight it's probably the most star-studded four-player deal in league history.

My favorite part of the lore of this trade: According to reports at the time, it was finalized exactly one minute before the deadline.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News