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