Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ten scary starts to the NHL season

It’s Halloween, which means most of us will want to shut off the lights tonight and settle in with a scary movie or two. There’s just something about Oct. 31 that makes you want to shudder in fear while waiting for some hapless character to get hacked to bits.

Then again, you could save yourself some time and skip the movie. If you want a good scare at this time of year, all you need to do is check out the NHL stats page, where some players are off to truly frightening starts.

So today, let’s take a look at 10 of the scariest starts we’re seeing around the league, and whether there’s any hope of ending of their stories ending happily.

Frederik Andersen, Maple Leafs

Through 11 starts, he’s sporting some ugly numbers, including an .896 save percentage and 3.46 goals against. And it’s not like those stats are being thrown off by one or two bad performances. If anything, it’s the opposite, as Andersen has had only five games with a save percentage over .870. And lately, Leafs fans are getting used to seeing him beaten clean on high shots, often barely moving as the puck blows by him.

For a quasi-Cup contender that doesn’t seem to have much confidence in its backups, that’s worrying. Last night’s strong effort in San Jose was a good sign, but there hasn’t been much consistency yet on the year.

If the season were a horror movie, he’d be: The big guy with the goalie mask who makes you feel really nervous every time he’s on the screen.

Odds of a happy ending: We’ve been down this road before with Andersen, who started slowly last year, too. He eventually got back on track, and was one of the league’s better goalies from November on. That was a good reminder that goaltending is voodoo, and that everyone has a bad stretch or two over the course of a season. There’s a good chance that’s the case here, too.

And as rough as Andersen’s start has been, he still has six wins, so it’s not like he’s sinking his team. Still, Leaf fans wouldn’t mind seeing him string together a few solid starts to ease the tension.

Kris Letang, Penguins

After missing last year’s entire post-season run due to a neck injury that required surgery, Letang’s return to the Penguins’ lineup was supposed to provide a big boost to a team that had lost several depth pieces. He’s put up eight points through 13 games, which isn’t bad. But he’s also a -14 on the year, ranking him dead last in the league. We all know that +/- is a flawed stat that has as much to do with circumstance as actual performance. But an extreme number can still tell you something, and in Letang’s case it’s not anything good.

If the season were a horror movie, he’d be: The good guy who seems to have done something to accidentally trigger an ancient curse.

Odds of a happy ending: In addition to missing a Stanley Cup run due to last year’s neck injury, Letang has also had to battle through multiple concussions, groin problems, various upper- and lower-body injuries, and even a stroke. Now he’s getting pummelled by a stat that’s largely luck-based. Chances are his numbers even out over time, and here’s hoping he can stay healthy this year. But just in case, maybe don’t let him pick your lotto numbers.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, October 30, 2017

Weekend wrap: Ranger things

Well, that was the scariest thing any of us watched over the weekend.

On Saturday, we geared up for the Rangers/Canadiens matchup by trying to figure out if it was too early for a must-win game. Both teams were struggling badly, and both were taking plenty of heat for it. And one of them was going to walk out of Montreal with yet another tough loss.

One entertaining 5–4 final later, the Canadiens left with those two desperately needed points. They’re still sitting in last place in the East, and still have a long way to go to claw back into the Atlantic race. But for a few days, at least, we can stop working on our Montreal Canadiens obituaries.

The Rangers, on the other hand… yikes.

As a rule of thumb, you know your season isn’t going according to plan when you find yourself saying “This feels like a crucial game, so let’s bench the future Hall of Famer and give Ondrej Pavelec another start.” But with Henrik Lundqvist struggling and Pavelec coming off a win over the Coyotes, the Rangers went with the hot hand. It didn’t work.

That’s not to say Pavelec was to blame for New York’s loss. The Rangers were outshot 43-26, including 19-2 in the first period, and found themselves trailing 3-0 before the game was 14 minutes old. That continued a season-long trend of the Rangers falling behind early, often by multiple goals before the game is more than a few minutes old. They say all the right things about being ready to play, but never seem to back it up.

That’s the sort of thing that can end up costing a coach his job, and we seem to be getting dangerously close to that scenario playing out in New York. Yesterday, Larry Brooks reported that Alain Vigneault could be fired if the Rangers lose to the Golden Knight tomorrow night. If that’s true and management is ready to pull the trigger, then you have to figure Vigneault is already as good as gone at some point no matter what happens against Vegas.

If so, there’s an experienced replacement already in place – the Rangers hired former Sabres and Stars coach Lindy Ruff as an assistant this summer. Only three men have coached more NHL games, so Ruff would be a straightforward choice to run the show for at least the rest of the season, and he’s a guy who could come in and crack the whip if management thinks the players are getting complacent.

Then again, there’s little indication that a coaching change would fix much for this team. If Lundqvist is starting to show his age (and not just battling through a cold streak), a shaky blue line is going to keep giving up more goals than the patchwork forward unit can match. And since we’re constantly told that major roster changes are next to impossible during the season, that doesn’t leave much in the way of hope for a major turnaround.

And so, as usually happens, the focus goes behind the bench. For now, all eyes will be on tomorrow night’s Rangers/Golden Knights matchup, as we find out whether it’s a make-or-break night for a coach. And if the rumour mill is to be believed, we may not have to wait very long.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (7-5-1, -14 true goals differential*): Yes, I’m still forcing the defending champs into the top five even though they get completely destroyed once a week. I’m aware I have a problem. Maybe I’ll be able to let this go next week.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (7-4-0, +6): The Jackets have an interesting split in their results. Only two of their wins have come against last year’s playoff teams, and one of those was the Rangers. And their four losses have come against the Blackhawks and the top three teams on our list.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Saturday storylines: Is it too early for a must-win?

It’s another busy Saturday night on the NHL schedule, one highlighted by some big stars out west and some big-time desperation in the east. We’ll also take an early look ahead to the deadline and draft lottery, and a look back to a time in the distant past when the Penguins had the best player in the world and won two straight Cups. The more things change…

HNIC Game of the Night: Capitals at Oilers

It’s been a week of marquee matchups for the slumping Oilers. After visiting Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Tuesday and beating Jamie Benn and the Stars on Thursday, they welcome the Capitals tonight in what will be the fourth head-to-head matchup between Connor McDavid and Alexander Ovechkin.

(I mean, it’s a centre and a winger, so it’s not really a head-to-head matchup. But the NHL has enough trouble with the whole marketing-its-stars thing, and McDavid vs. Backstrom doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, so let’s go with it.)

Seeing Crosby and Ovechkin in the same week is an interesting glimpse into what the future could hold for McDavid. On the one hand, you have Crosby, the can’t-miss prospect who went out and won just about everything a player could possibly win, including three Stanley Cups (and counting). That might not be McDavid’s best-case scenario, since he’s one of the few players who seems like he has a shot at actually surpassing Crosby’s accomplishments, but it’s close.

Then there’s Ovechkin, the can’t-miss prospect who went out and won just about everything a player could possibly win… except for those Stanley Cups. That’s hardly his fault alone, and it’s hard to blame a guy who may go down in history as the greatest era-adjusted goal scorer ever. But if you’re an Oilers fan, seeing Ovechkin and the Capitals show up can serve as an uneasy reminder that lucking into a generational star – even one who lives up to all the hype – doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a championship.

When the schedule first came out, we may have also circled this matchup as a possible Stanley Cup preview, although it doesn’t look much like one right now. The Capitals have just two regulation wins on the year, and one of those came against the Canadiens so it barely counts. The Oilers have been about as bad; Thursday’s win was their first in regulation since opening night. The two teams have come at their slow start from opposite angles; the Caps can score but can’t keep the puck out of their net, while the Oilers have had decent goaltending from Cam Talbot but are shooting under six per cent as a team.

There is good news buried in those numbers for both teams. The Oilers have too much offensive talent to keep struggling like this for long, so the puck should start going in soon enough. And even with a depleted blue line, the Caps aren’t likely to go from the Jennings Trophy to a 3.00+ goals-against in one year. Braden Holtby had been fine until the Canucks game; it’s backup Philipp Grubauer who’s dragging down the numbers, so one way or another this is unlikely to be a long-term problem. Both teams should be OK. It’s just a question of when, and how much ground they’ll have to make up.

Maybe the rebound comes tonight for one of them. Either way, it should be a fun game between two teams with plenty of talent, lousy penalty killing, and just enough notches in the early-season loss column to create a sense of urgency.

Speaking of which…

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, October 27, 2017

Grab bag: Don't panic

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Breaking down that whole mess with Jonathan Quick and the phantom concussion
- A word to NHL GMs about making panic moves
- A novel approach to the obscure player of the week
- The three comedy stars
- And a look back at the NHL's earliest efforts to introduce a coherent replay review policy

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Ten possible replacements for the NHL all-star game

A few weeks ago, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston broke some interesting news on Hockey Night in Canada: The NHL and NHLPA have discussed someday scrapping the all-star game, possibly to make room for an overseas event.

The news was no doubt devastating to all the hockey fans out there who love the modern NHL All-Star Game. But other than those three people, the rest of us were intrigued. The league has spent years playing with the all-star format in an attempt to inject some life into the proceedings, with decidedly mixed results. But the basics have always been the same: Take the best players from around the league, preferably with at least one representative from each team, have them face off in head-to-head competition, and hope they at least pretend to try.

We’ve kind of assumed it would always be like that. But what if we could replace the existing all-star game, either with a radically different format, or something completely new? That gives us some room to get creative.

So let’s do that. Here are 10 options — some realistic, some not so much — that the league and its players could consider if they ever did decide to scrap the current version of the all-star game.

The idea: A Ryder Cup-style international tournament

We’ll start here, since this is reportedly one of the ideas the league has been kicking around. A full Ryder Cup series – perhaps one pitting North America against the rest of the world – would work best as a longer series, and has been rumoured as an every-few-years event that could supplement the World Cup on the international calendar. But a scaled-down version, especially one played in Europe, could be a lot of fun, too.

Pros: Like the current all-star game, you’d get the best players in the world. Unlike the current all-star game, those players might be motivated to actually look interested, since they’d kind of be playing for national pride. And if you played the game outside of North America, you’d be seeding some of those international markets that are so important to the league’s future growth.

Cons: We tried the “North America vs. The World” thing already; that was the all-star format from 1998 through 2002. Once the novelty factor wore off, it wasn’t all that good. The international component, mixed with the one-player-per-team requirement, generated some truly odd picks. And the players didn’t seem any more interested than they did for conference-based play.

Bottom line: A Ryder Cup for hockey is a cool idea that could be a lot of fun. But if we’re going to do it, let’s make sure we set aside the time to do it right rather than trying to squeeze in an abbreviated version over a weekend.

The idea: An outdoor all-star game

This could take various forms. Maybe you go with a standard East-vs.-West game, or the current division-based format, but you play the whole thing outdoors. Or you could combine it with other ideas on this list – maybe an outdoor all-star game in Europe?

Pros: Outdoor games are just cool, especially when the league picks a prime venue. The standard all-star games generally aren’t much to look at, so some inspiring background visuals would compensate for that. Players seem to like playing outdoors, too, so you might get fewer guys declining their invitations. And outdoor venues mean more seats to sell, and more room for corporate bigwigs, so everyone makes more money.

Cons: The outdoor concept has been overdone in recent years, so some of the novelty has worn off. You’d also be all but ruling out certain markets for ever hosting an all-star weekend. And of course, there’s always the risk of uncooperative weather delaying or even cancelling the game.

Bottom line: It’s not hard to imagine the league trying this out at some point down the road. They could frame it as a one-off experiment, see how it goes, and then make the change permanent if it worked.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, October 23, 2017

Weekend wrap: Are the Maple Leafs really the Cup favorites?

You may have seen the news spread as we headed into the weekend: A gambling site had revised its Stanley Cup odds, and the Toronto Maple Leafs were now the favourites to win it all. They were slight favourites, granted, and still listed at just 8-to-1, but that was enough to put them ahead of the pack.

We all know about the Maple Leafs’ 50 years-and-counting Cup drought. But what’s perhaps even more amazing about the last half-century – and depressing, if you’re a Leafs fan – is how rarely they’ve even been in the serious conversation. The Leafs have had good teams before, in the Sittler ’70s and Gilmour/Clark ’90s and the Sundin ’00s, and they have been to the final four on five occasions since their drought began. But even in those seasons, they were never the favourites. There was always at least one other team with better chances.

In fact, you could make a strong case that there’s only been one time in the last half-century when the Maple Leafs would have actually deserved a spot at the very top of a league-wide power rankings. That would have been at the beginning of the 1993-94 season, when the Leafs roared out of the gates with a 10-0-0 record, setting an NHL record for best start to a season. They were basically a .500 team after that, but for one month at least they really were on top of the NHL.

That’s it. One example out of 50 years. And now, if we’re to believe the oddsmakers, a second. The Leafs are back on top.

But are they? It’s worth pointing out that those odds are influenced by bets coming in, so some of this is a result of all those Leafs fans rushing to get in a wager on their favourite team. And the odds came out on Friday, which was before we watched the Leafs deliver their worst game of the season, getting largely shut down by a far better Senators team.

But one bad game shouldn’t shift our expectations all that much, even this early in the season. So do the Maple Leafs belong on top of a list of Cup favourites? As it happens, our power rankings try to measure exactly that. So let’s head down to the next section and see if our list is on the same page as the oddsmakers.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (6-2-0, +9 true goals differential*): Three impressive wins, then a letdown game. If that’s the pattern for the entire season, Leafs fans will probably take it.

4. Los Angeles Kings (6-0-1, +13): We’ve been slow to climb aboard the bandwagon, and this spot feels like it could be kind of high. But they’re looking good, and just as importantly, the rest of the Pacific is decidedly not.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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