Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- A look at a bus week of suspensions
- Fallout from the Wings/Flames fight
- Remembering back to what old school hockey brawls were like
- Dave and I fix the DoPS
- How worried should the Habs be?
- A fun hypothetical about Carey Price's contract
- And lots more...

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Handing out some awards at the NHL's quarter pole

We’re almost at the quarter-mark of the NHL schedule, which means it’s time to do a few things. First, and most importantly: Start wildly panicking if your team isn’t doing as well as they should be. You guys on that, Montreal and Edmonton? You are? Great, nice work as always.

For the rest of us, we may as well hand out some quarter-season awards. Sure, most of these will turn out to be regrettable in hindsight by the end of the year, and some of them will look bad within weeks. But that’s part of the fun.

So let’s do it. You can vote for your own picks right here with results revealed this week on Wednesday Night Hockey. In the meantime, here’s who we’d be handing out the tiny quarter-sized trophies to, based on the season’s first six weeks.

Most valuable player

Every sport that features an MVP award has the same debate over how exactly we should define “valuable.” Some see it as simply a fancy way of saying the best player, while others look for some deeper meaning related to a player’s relative importance to his teammates in terms of his team’s playoff chances.

Some years, one player emerges as the favourite under either definition and we can skip the semantic debate. This year, we may not be so lucky. Because based on the first quarter of the season, Hart Trophy voters could end up facing a dilemma: What do you do when the season’s two best performers are on the same team?

With Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos racking up big numbers while helping the Lightning to top spot in the standings, some will try to argue that they can’t be considered more valuable than someone like Connor McDavid or Johnny Gaudreau, who are the clear offensive leaders on their team. Others would point out that points aren’t everything, and that a two-way force like Anze Kopitar should get some consideration.

Of course, if we’re not going to just look at the top of the scoring race (like Hart voters usually do), we could make the case for a goalie or defenceman. That would bring guys like Sergei Bobrovsky, Alex Pietrangelo and Corey Crawford into the conversation. And then you’ve got guys who’ve missed time to injury, but are clearly their team’s most valuable players when healthy — that group would include Erik Karlsson and Auston Matthews.

Luckily, we fall into the category of voters who keep it simple. The league’s most valuable player is the one that’s having the best season, period. That means Kucherov gets the nod, edging out Stamkos. And we’ll toss Bobrovsky a third-place vote, if only because non-forwards rarely get enough Hart love.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, November 20, 2017

Weekend wrap: Which teams were we wrong about?

Well, that didn’t go well for the Canadiens.

Fresh off the embarrassment of becoming the first team in the league to lose to the Coyotes in regulation, the Habs had a chance at instant redemption in a home matchup against the Maple Leafs. Instead, they suffered through a third-period implosion on the way to a 6–0 loss that may have somehow been even more embarrassing.

So now what? The Canadiens are 21 games into their season, and it already feels like the drama around this team is exhausting. They started slow, including a stretch where nobody could score. But they seemed to have turned things around, winning six of eight while scoring five or more four times. They still had ground to make up, but the percentages were evening out and it felt like it was OK to sound the all-clear on any talk of disaster.

Maybe not. The Habs have now lost four of five, sinking back down to five points out of a playoff spot. GM Marc Bergevin is taking all sorts of heat. Max Pacioretty is getting his usual share of the blame. And now there’s even talk that the team could be doing some “soul searching” while considering starting all over with a rebuild. That’s a long-term decision and any problems with this roster didn’t just appear overnight, but it’s amazing how much one rotten week can change the perception of a team.

The Canadiens aren’t the only team being reevaluated right now. Half the teams in the league have now hit the 20-game mark, which means it’s time to do a few important things. First, we can spend the next few days referring to this point in the season as the “quarter pole” just so that the sort of people who enjoy giving lectures on proper horse-racing etymology will have something to do. And second, we can start in with some serious re-evaluation of the teams we may have been wrong about.

Every year, a few teams we thought would be good stumble through the season’s first month while a few teams we’d already written off look like playoff contenders. Those are interesting stories, and we’ve covered plenty of them in this space over the last few weeks. But as we’re constantly reminded, it’s still early, and a small handful of games can’t tell us all that much.

But 20 games is… well, it’s still a relatively small sample, and it’s not unheard of for a team to have a good or bad stretch for a quarter of a season that still turns out to be an outlier. But we’re reaching the point where it’s time to start taking the standings seriously, if only because teams may have built up a cushion or deficit big enough to survive a correction down the line.

So this week, let’s pick three teams that most of us thought would be good and three teams we all assumed would be bad but who aren’t following the script, and ask: Were we wrong? And if so, what does that mean going forward? We’ll tackle the disappointing teams in our Cup section and the surprising teams in our lottery section. For some of them, based on the first 20 games, it may be the last time they get mentioned in those sections this year.

And of course, we’ll also dive into the teams that have been truly good and truly awful in our weekly power rankings. Speaking of which, you’ll never guess who’s sitting in the No. 1 spot in our top five.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Winnipeg Jets (12-4-3, +12 true goals differential*): The Jets make their debut on the strength of a four-game win streak. They’ll be tested this week as they head to Nashville tonight and then onto a three-game California road trip.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Saturday storylines: Leafs vs Habs, chapter two

Welcome to the NHL’s “Centennial Birthday Weekend,” in which the league celebrates its 100th birthday. It’s not the anniversary of the first ever games, since that’s in December, or of the league officially forming, since that’s next week. It’s just … uh … a centennial birthday. Stop asking questions. Look, do you want some cake or not?

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Canadiens

This is the second time this season that we’ve featured a Leafs-Habs game in this spot, and it probably won’t be the last. There’s just something special about a Saturday night matchup between the two long-time rivals. And since the league is using the meeting as an opportunity to douse us with history, all the better.

It’s worth revisiting what we wrote about these two teams the last time they played, if only to serve as a reminder of how many twists and turns can be packed into five weeks. Back on the season’s second weekend, we were wondering if the Maple Leafs could snap Montreal’s 14-game win streak in head-to-head matchups. They did, earning a 4-3 overtime win on an Auston Matthews goal.

We were also wondering if Montreal was ever going to get the offence going. That happened too, although it took a little longer. The Habs’ inability to score went from a curiosity to problem to an outright crisis over the course of the season’s first few weeks, before the floodgates finally opened and all those stats guys were proven right about percentages and regression and sample sizes. The Canadiens aren’t exactly lighting up scoreboards – they still rank just 24th in total goals – and Thursday’s loss to the Coyotes was the first time they’ve scored more than three in a game since Nov. 4. But at least nobody’s panicking about the offence anymore in Montreal. They’ve got other things to worry about.

Instead, we’re all wondering what’s up with Carey Price, who’s “minor” injury has kept him out for two weeks now. He still says it’s no big deal, assuring fans that they “don’t have to be concerned” and that this isn’t a repeat of 2015. That’s reassuring, and with rookie Charlie Lindgren looking fantastic, the Canadiens haven’t missed their superstar all that much yet. But seeing Price try to play through a second pre-game injury raises some fair questions about the relationship between the team and its expensive star. And you can forgive Montreal fans for being a little nervous about the situation, especially when Antti Niemi suddenly shows up via waivers? If Niemi is ever the answer, the question probably isn’t anything good.

As for the Maple Leafs, the last time they were in Montreal they were riding high and scoring a ton. Since then, we’ve seen them boost their record to 6-1-0, be declared Cup favourites, cool off, hit an outright slump, and then reel off five straight wins even though they were missing Matthews for most of that stretch. It’s been quite a journey. And these days, the Maple Leafs are winning thanks to solid goaltending and team defence instead of by just blowing the doors off whoever’s in the opposing net. They even managed a 1-0 overtime win their last time out. That’s not quite as much fun, but it probably makes Mike Babcock a lot less cranky, and that’s worth something.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, November 17, 2017

Grab Bag: When Teemu sings

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- That Wings/Flames brawl was crazy, but man times have changed
- Your guide to the GoalDNA project
- An obscure player who likes ice hockey, ice hockey
- The week's three comedy stars
- And new Hall-of-Famer Teemu Selanne has a song for you

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Biscuits podcast: Fixing the Hockey Hall of Fame

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:

- Gary Bettman was allowed to speak in public again, so Dave and I are annoyed
- Brian Burke did too, and he didn't disappoint
- We introduce a new feature called Dave and Sean Fix The NHL. This week's project: the Hockey Hall of Fame
- Is Martin St. Louis a HHOFer? Dave isn't sure.
- Should Daniel Alfredsson be a sure thing? I'm not sure.
- We both suggest a longshot defenseman we think should be in.
- Reader questions, and lots more...

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or subscribe on iTunes.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Weekend wrap: Are the Penguins broken?

Almost a quarter of a way into the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have lost more games than they’ve won. They have the league’s third-worst goals differential, having given up 17 more than they’ve scored. They’ve lost six of their last eight. And Sidney Crosby is struggling through an extended slump, one that sees him with a bigger number on the wrong side of his plus/minus (-14) than in the points column (13).

Should we be concerned here?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say no, of course not. It’s early, there are still five months to go and these are the Penguins we’re talking about. Most good teams go through a cold spell or two over the course of a season, and we shouldn’t overreact just because the Penguins’ stretch is coming in October and November instead of being buried in February when nobody would even notice.

That’s pretty much the stance we’ve been taking around these parts, where we spent October stubbornly slotting the Penguins into our top-five list even when they were losing games 10-1. That seemed fair – two straight titles should buy you some benefit of the doubt. But as the season wears on and the Penguins continue to look like a decidedly mediocre team, it may be time to start wondering.

After all, this is a team that lost a lot of last year’s roster. They were depth pieces, sure, and in theory the core was even better because Kris Letang is back. But Letang is off to a terrible start, and the team seems to miss guys like Nick Bonino, Ron Hainsey and Chris Kunitz. They’ve missed Marc-Andre Fleury too, as Matt Murray is off to a slow start and the backup spot has been a mess.

They’ve also had issues with back-to-back games. They’ve played two games in two nights six times so far this year, and they’ve lost the second game all six times. That includes three embarrassing blowouts by scores of 10-1 (against the Blackhawks), 7-1 (Lightning) and 7-1 again (Jets). No team likes to play back-to-backs, but seeing the Penguins struggle like this has to be a concern. This team has played a ton of hockey over the last two years, and you have to wonder about fatigue. Seeing them constantly look like their tank is empty in back-to-backs is a worrying sign.

Let’s circle back to those three ugly blowouts. In a weird sort of way, maybe they’re good news. The Penguins were outscored 24-3 in those three games, which accounts for that terrible goals differential. You can’t just hand-wave away a team’s worst games, but it’s not like the Penguins have been as consistently bad as a first glance at the numbers might suggest.

But there’s a flip side to that coin, and it’s that it’s extremely rare for good teams to get blown out this badly this often. Only three teams have ever lost three games by six goals or more and gone on to win the Stanley Cup that year: the 1917-18 Toronto Arenas, 1979-80 Islanders and 1983-84 Oilers. All three of those teams played in high-scoring eras. Since the year 2000, there have been only four other times where an eventual champ was blown out by six or more. On the other hand, two of those included last year’s Penguins, so maybe this is just a thing this team does.

It’s also worth noting that the Pens have been very good at home but lousy away from Pittsburgh. That’s important, because they’ve played 13 of their 19 games on the road. That’s part of a bigger issue, which is that their early schedule has been a tough one. They’ve played the Lightning, Predators and Capitals twice each, as well as the Blues, Jets and Blackhawks. That’s a tough start, especially when you’re on the road for most of it.

The bottom line is that it’s certainly too early to write off the Penguins – as bad as things have been, they’re still sitting in second spot in their division. But they don’t look much like the team that’s rolled through so much of the league since Mike Sullivan arrived on the scene. Maybe it’s fatigue, maybe it’s a lack of depth, or maybe it’s just one of those cold streaks that happens sometimes. We don’t know yet, and there’s still plenty of time to find out. But even if it’s not panic time, at least a little bit of concern seems reasonable.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (12-7-0, +8 true goals differential*): The Leafs sneak back onto the list after winning four straight this week, despite not actually playing all that well and missing Auston Matthews. Good teams have to find ways to win when they’re not at their best.

4. San Jose Sharks (10-6-0, +7): Honestly, there’s like a half-dozen teams we could slot into the No. 4 and 5 spots. But we’ll give this spot to the Sharks even though they may not deserve it. You know, kind of like it’s a penalty shot.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Saturday storylines: Duchene vs. Turris

We’ve got a dozen games on the schedule Saturday, including a pair of afternoon games, one of which is being played in Sweden. Let’s dive in.

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Bruins

We’re going with the Leafs and Bruins as Saturday night’s featured game, for a couple of reasons. First, by using it here we don’t have to worry about having it show up in the “From the Archives” section, meaning we don’t have to revisit this or this. Honestly, that’s kind of the main one. Whoever said “time heals all wounds” was never a Maple Leafs fan.

But even putting all that unpleasantness aside, Saturday night’s game looms as an intriguing one. It’s the back half of an old school home-and-home series played over consecutive nights. Last night, the Leafs beat the Bruins in overtime. Now the Bruins get their chance at revenge.

Both teams have steered through an up-and-down first month of the schedule. The Leafs have more to show for it, thanks to a hot start and a solid last week that balance out a rocky two-week stretch in late October. They’re sitting at 11-7-0, and while even their wins tend to feature uneven performances, holding down second spot in the Atlantic behind only the powerhouse Lightning seems like a reasonable result.

The Bruins are off to a slower start, having lost more games than they’ve won. At 6-5-4, they look like a playoff bubble team, which is essentially what they were last year. But given their injury troubles so far, they’ll probably take it. They’ve been without David Krejci, Tuukka Rask and David Backes among others; Brad Marchand returned Friday night after missing two games with an upper-body injury.

(The Maple Leafs are dealing with an injury issue of their own, of course, with Auston Matthews missing time this week. He’s not expected to play Saturday.)

So it’s the beaten-up Bruins against the still-figuring-it-out Maple Leafs in a matchup between longtime rivals fighting for the same playoff spot. And that fight may have gotten tougher over the last week, since one of their fellow Atlantic contenders just made a few headlines of their own…

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, November 10, 2017

Grab bag: We have a trade to announce

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Holy crap the NHL actually had a major trade
- Canada is torn apart by a political controversy involving a Bob Probert fight
- An obscure player from the biggest three-way trade ever
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a classic YouTube clip of the time David Poile turned down the Maple Leafs GM job

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Biscuits podcast: We're back

Good news... after a long offseason that stretched through October, the Vice Sports Biscuits podcast is back. Dave and I will be doing the show weekly through to the end of the season, with new episodes appearing late Tuesday/early Wednesday most weeks.

In this week's episode:
- We break down the Matt Duchene trade
- Were we wrong about Joe Sakic?
- Why Pierre Dorion should get some credit for making this move
- We play "real or fake" with the first month's biggest surprises
- Which two teams would you combine to make each conference's best dream team?
- They kick us out early because somebody else needs the studio, because some things never change

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Subscribe on iTunes. (Or find us and subscribe on your other favorite podcast platforms.)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Revisiting the golden era of the three-way blockbuster

NHL fans had plenty to talk about over the weekend thanks to a major trade involving the Senators, Predators and Avalanche. The deal finally ended the long-running Matt Duchene saga, sent pending UFA Kyle Turris to Nashville with an extension in hand, and signaled a major change in direction for all three teams involved.

While it’s rare to see a trade of this significance go down so early in the season, the deal was notable for another reason. It resurrected a concept that’s all but disappeared from the NHL over the years: the blockbuster three-way trade.

Fans love the concept of the three-way deal. In theory, they should be more common in the modern NHL, where we’re constantly told that good fits and cap space are tough to find. Adding another team to the mix seems like an ideal way to address those issues, and it’s not surprising that so many hot-stove rumours inevitably see speculation about a third team getting involved.

But it rarely happens, at least on any sort of significant scale. We’ve seen a few in recent years, like last year’s Mark Streit deal and the whole John Scott thing, but those were relatively minor moves. The Kyle Quincey deal from 2012 was bigger, but hardly earth-shattering.

(And yes, we’ll pause to acknowledge that technically, three-way NHL trades don’t exist. A trade can only involve two teams, so a three-way deal is actually a series of discrete two-team trades. Settle down, comment-section pedants — you know what we mean.)

So what happened? Where did the three-way blockbuster go?

Maybe modern-day GMs are right when they tell us that trading is just too hard. Maybe today’s front offices, clogged with assistants and analytics experts and consultants and a dozen other voices, just aren’t built for creativity. Maybe three-way deals are meant to be a relic of the past, when a table full of impatient GMs could order a few pints and then swing a deal or two.

Or maybe — now that the Senators, Predators and Avalanche have reminded us how it’s done — we can hold out hope that the concept will come back into style.

So today, let’s head back to the 1990s and revisit the golden age of the three-way blockbuster. Here are five significant three-way NHL trades from a decade when NHL GMs often found that three heads were better than two.

1) Nov. 2, 1993: Acquiring an iron man

The background: By the time the 1993-94 campaign arrived, Steve Larmer had spent 11 full seasons with the Blackhawks. And they had been full – Larmer had never missed a game over that time, playing 884 straight to get within range of Doug Jarvis’s all-time iron-man record. But Larmer’s streak ended on opening night, not due to an injury or a benching, but because he was holding out to force a trade.

One month into his holdout, with Larmer holding firm on his demand for a change of scenery, the veteran winger got his wish.

The deal: The Blackhawks sent Larmer and Bryan Marchment to Hartford for Patrick Poulin and Eric Weinrich. The Whalers then flipped Larmer along with Nick Kypreos, minor-league defenceman Barry Richter and a draft pick to the Rangers for James Patrick and Darren Turcotte.

The move was part of the Rangers’ push to build a contender around Mark Messier, one that would see them add veterans from around the league as the season went on. It was also part of the mid-’90s Whalers’ apparent attempt to have every star player of the era show up on their roster and then immediately leave.

The winner: Larmer. He’d play only two years in New York, retiring after the lockout-shortened 1995 season, but he’d arrive just in time to be reunited with Mike Keenan and help the Ranges win the 1994 Stanley Cup. Weinrich and Poulin were fine for Chicago, but didn’t exactly represent a windfall, while Marchment, Turcotte and Patrick all lasted less than two years in Hartford.

(Kypreos ended up doing OK for himself, too.)

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, November 6, 2017

Weekend wrap: The Duchene trade finally lands

The big NHL news from the weekend came off the ice, when the Senators, Predators and Avalanche combined to make a blockbuster three-way trade that finally ends our long national Matt Duchene sweepstakes nightmare.

Well, the news came off the ice for the Senators and Predators. The Avalanche were actually in the middle of a game when the news broke, which lead to the somewhat-bizarre scene of Duchene sneaking away from the action. You don’t see that often in the NHL, but given how long he’s had to wait for this move to go down, it’s amazing Duchene didn’t cartwheel off the bench and down the hallway as soon as it was announced.

The trade sees Duchene head to the Senators, Kyle Turris go to the Predators, and a haul of seven picks and players go to the Avalanche. Nashville then signed Turris to a six-year, $36-million extension, which will keep him from his scheduled date with free agency next summer.

The trade itself was hardly a surprise, given that the key details being discussed had leaked out on Friday. At the time, we were told the deal was dead, and maybe it was. But it’s one thing for there to be rumours about a deal, and another for actual names to spill out. Once that happened, it felt inevitable that the teams would come back to the table. As it turns out, it didn’t take long.

So who wins? From the Avalanche perspective, there has to be a certain relief at finally getting something done at all. The situation had been dragging for over a year, and GM Joe Sakic had received plenty of criticism over that time for his lack of action. According to reports, his asking price had been high – maybe too high – and he didn’t get any established NHL help in this move. That seems like a disappointment, especially with the Avs off to a strong start. But it may also buy the beleaguered GM some time before anyone can really declare him a winner or loser here.

As for the Predators, this ends up being fairly straightforward: They get better right now. After last year’s near-miss, Nashville is clearly looking to win it all, and are willing to sacrifice a bit of the future to do it (including giving up the best young player in the deal, Samuel Girard). The Turris extension wasn’t cheap, but was a reasonable cap hit that they didn’t have to go to seven or eight years to get. Like most contenders, the Predators are focused on getting better today and will worry about the rest of it down the road.

That brings us to Ottawa — and here’s where things get interesting. On one level, your thoughts about this deal from a Senators’ perspective will come down to whether you see Duchene as a significant upgrade over Turris. Clearly, the Ottawa organization does, since they gave up a decent premium to swap the two players, including a first-round pick (albeit one with top-10 protection). The hockey world would seem to agree; remember, Duchene was viewed as good enough to play for Team Canada at the Olympics just a few years ago. Then again, the numbers suggest the two players are closer than you might think.

The other factor here is financial. The Senators apparently didn’t like their odds of getting a deal done with Turris, for whatever reason. But Duchene will be in the same situation a year from now, and if he really is a better player then he should cost them even more. An extra year of team control is certainly worth something, especially to a budget team like Ottawa. But you wonder if they won’t be right back here this time next year, looking to move a guy they don’t want to pay.

That’s for down the road, though. In the meantime, Duchene and the Senators head to Sweden to face the Avalanche on the weekend, which makes that whole expedition a lot more interesting. The Predators should have Turris in the lineup tomorrow in Columbus. And seeing Duchene go off the market could put extra pressure on teams like the Hurricanes, Islanders and Canadiens who were rumoured to be in on him.

For now, these three teams have given the whole league plenty to chew on. 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 (8-5-0, +5 true goals differential*): They’ve won four straight and haven’t allowed more than two goals in six. Next up: a showdown with the Lightning on Wednesday.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (9-4-1, +10): John Tortorella finding out what his Lightning players were up to in 2004 may be the highlight of the weekend.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, November 3, 2017

Grab bag: The Nuclear Option

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Introducing the Nuclear Option, a new idea to bring hope to the league's worst teams
- Why it was kind of a rough week to be a hockey fan
- An obscure player who frightened small children
- The week's three comedy stars, featuring Halloween fun and the "Good one, Del" girl
- And a Classic YouTube clip of the time the Sabres and Senators turned the goalie sliders all the way down to easy.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports