Monday, September 24, 2018

2018-19 season preview

For​ the last few​ years,​ I’ve​ done​ in-depth​ season​ previews for​ various sites, in​ which I would​ divide​ the NHL into​​ four divisions. But not the four divisions that the NHL itself used. Instead, I would use my own versions that seemed to capture the spirit of the thing a little better: The Bottom-Feeder Division, The Middle-of-the-Pack Division, The Contenders Division, and my personal favorite, the Your-Guess-Is-As-Good-As-Mine Division.

A full preview isn’t really necessary this year. If you’re a subscriber, you’ve already seen plenty of in-depth preview work from The Athletic’s various writers, including Dom Luszczyszyn’s epic team-by-team series. So I’m off the hook.

But I’m not sure I want to be. I think anyone who covers the NHL should have to make a few predictions, if only to keep us honest once the season starts and things inevitably go sideways. One of the most frustrating subplots of last year’s miracle Vegas Golden Knights season was the eventual emergence of voices who swore the whole thing was rigged and they knew it was coming all along. No they didn’t. None of us did. But if you don’t put your thoughts in writing before the season, you can convince yourself you’re a lot smarter than you really are.

When it comes to predicting the NHL, I’m not smart and never have been. But the least I can do is be honest about it. So for this year’s preview, we’ll strip away the key stats and storylines and players to watch and all the other pieces that others can do better. But we’ll keep the four divisions, if only so we can all look back and laugh when I’m proven wrong in eight months. Fine, two weeks.

Within each division, the teams aren’t listed in any particular order. Let’s start from the basement and work our way up.

The Bottom-Feeder Division

These teams are all sure-things to be terrible next year. You know, like the Avalanche, Devils and Golden Knights last year.

Ottawa Senators

Last season: 28-43-11, 67 points, missed playoffs.

Offseason report: They’d rather not talk about it.

Why they’re here: Because just about everyone thinks it’s a lock that they’ll be the worst team in the league. Even Avalanche fans, who know a thing or two about unexpected turnarounds, seem to already be debating who to take with next year’s top-four pick.

Is there any reason to think that everyone is wrong and the Senators might actually be passable? Not really, at least based on a roster that’s already underwhelming and figures to get even worse as the rebuild sees veterans shipped out for futures. If anything, it’s all starting to feel like a little too much of a sure-thing and we know how those typically end up in today’s NHL. If the Senators do pull off a miracle and make a run at the postseason, or at least to .500, remember that I was the only one who thought there was any chance of it happening. Just not enough of one to move them out of this section.

Montreal Canadiens

Last season: 29-40-13, 71 points, missed playoffs.

Offseason report: They finally acquired that #1 NHL center they’ve been chasing for years. No, just kidding. They did trade away Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk though, so there’s that.

Why they’re here: The Canadiens seem like such a mess that it’s easy enough to forget that they were the Atlantic champs as recently as 2017. But with a rebuild underway and Shea Weber missing at least the first two months, there doesn’t seem to be a path to the playoffs that doesn’t involve Carey Price morphing back into MVP mode.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, September 21, 2018

Grab Bag: Disco Lafleurno

In the return of the Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL refuses to use its own cap recapture rule. Good, because it's terrible.
- I have a solution for the NHL's Fortnite problem
- An obscure NHL bust you've seen a million times without knowing it
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at a time when Montreal stars were the coolest guys in the world

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Thursday, September 20, 2018

When teams trade away top-five picks

The​ Ottawa Senators are coming​ off​ one​ of​ the​ worst​ stretches in​ recent pro sports​ memory, including an​ offseason​ that brought one​​ negative story after another. At this point, you’d like to think that they’ve hit rock bottom. But that might not be true, because there’s a nightmare scenario looming.

It goes something like this: The Senators have the kind of season everyone seems to think they will, finishing at or near the bottom of the league. That earns them one of the top picks in the Jack Hughes draft. But they’ve already traded that pick to Colorado in last year’s Matt Duchene deal, so they get to cap off their season by watching the Avalanche draft a potential franchise player instead.

It would be an undeniably awful way to end a miserable season, and it makes a rebuild a much tougher sell to an exhausted fan base. After all, how do you squeeze any optimism out of a losing season if you don’t even have your own first-round pick to look forward to?

If it’s any comfort, the situation the Senators could be facing isn’t unheard of in recent NHL history, although it is relatively rare. In the last 35 years, eight teams have traded away a future first-round pick, only to suffer through a season that placed that choice in the top five of the draft. (To be clear, we’re not counting teams that traded away a pick they already knew would be a top-five; no trade deadline moves or draft floor wheeling and dealing here. We’re looking for teams that traded their pick in the previous calendar year or earlier, meaning that like Ottawa, they didn’t know their pick would be so high when they moved it.)

The Senators will be hoping not to expand that club to nine. But if they do, a look back at those previous cases might give us a sense of what to expect.

A word about arbitrary endpoints

But first: Wait, why are we going back 35 years?

It’s admittedly a bit of a weird place for a cutoff. But when it comes to teams trading away top five picks, there’s actually an interesting reason to draw the line right around 1983.

In the 35 years since, the scenario plays out just those eight times (one of which probably shouldn’t even count, as we’ll see). But from 1980 through 1983, it happened ten times in just four years. That’s kind of crazy, and the list includes the picks used on future Hall of Famers like Denis Savard, Larry Murphy and Pat LaFontaine, not to mention three out of four first overall picks.

What happened? That’s probably a topic for a bigger piece, but we can call it the Sam Pollock influence. Pollock, the legendary Canadiens GM who built the last great Habs dynasty in the 70s, was constantly trading veterans for future draft picks that he turned into stars like Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson. It was his signature move, and it worked so well that you wondered why other GMs weren’t catching on. They eventually did, and you can pretty much divide the history of trading for future draft picks into three distinct eras: The Pollock era, spanning the late 60s to late 70s, in which he was the undisputed king of the move; 1980 through 1983, in which a few other GMs caught on and started pulling off that kind of deal; and 1984 through to today, in which everyone smartened up and realized that trading a future first-round pick is a dangerous move and the deals became an endangered species.

Endangered, but not extinct, as Senator fans are well aware. So today, let’s draw that line at 1983 and look back at the eight times since then that a team has traded away what turned out to be a top-five pick in advance. It’s a club that Ottawa’s front office is really hoping it isn’t about to join, although as we’ll see, sometimes the results are more disastrous than others.

Pierre Larouche (L). (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)

1984 – Montreal and Hartford

The circumstances: We have to go way back to December of 1981 for the actual trade here. Back then, the Habs and Whalers had only been division rivals for a few months. Hartford had failed to win a playoff game in two seasons since arriving in the WHA merger, and on December 20, they lost 8-2 to the Sabres to fall to 7-16-9 on the year, dead last in the division. New Whalers’ GM Larry Pleau figured they could use some help.

The trade: The Whalers and Canadiens hooked up on a Pollock-style trade that saw Pierre Larouche head to Hartford. Larouche had just turned 26, was a year removed from a 91-point season, and had 21 points through 22 games that season, so he was a decent pickup. He did fine in Hartford for a few years before leaving as a free agent.

But the rest of the deal was unusual, with the teams swapping a total of five picks – all of them coming in 1984 and 1985.

The pick: The two teams exchanged first-rounders in 1984, three years down the line. By then, the Canadiens weren’t very good, finishing with just 75 points. But the Whalers were even worse, and their pick ended up being fifth overall. The Canadiens used it to take defenceman Petr Svoboda.

The aftermath: Svoboda was a decent player. But the Whalers used Montreal’s pick to take Sylvain Cote, who was basically the same guy, so we can call this one even. If you’re a Senators fan looking for assurance that these deals can work out OK, this one helps.

That said, the deal could have been a history-altering debacle for Hartford. The top prospect in that 1984 draft was a French kid who turned out to be pretty good, and it’s safe to assume Montreal had him in mind when they made the deal way back in 1981. If the Whalers had been even worse than they were, this could have been the trade that put Mario Lemieux in Montreal.

1987 – Bruins and Canucks

The circumstances: By the 1986 offseason, the Canucks hadn’t won a playoff round since their surprise trip to the 1982 final, and were getting tired of being also-rans to Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers. So they decided to trade their 1987 first to the Bruins for somebody who could make an impact right away.

The trade: In June 1986, the Canucks landed two-time 100-point center Barry Pederson from Boston in exchange for their 1987 first rounder, plus a young winger who’d been kind of a disappointment through three seasons.

The pick: Thanks in parts to Pederson, the Canucks actually improved in 1986-87. But so did a few of the league’s other bottom-feeders, and Vancouver’s pick ended up being third overall. The Bruins used it to take defenseman Glen Wesley.

The aftermath: Wesley was a good player, and played in the 1989 all-star game. He’d spend seven years in Boston, many of them alongside Ray Bourque, and was eventually traded to Hartford for a stunning haul of three first-round picks, all of which ended up in the top ten.

Still, it could have been worse. The Canucks finished the season with three straight wins; take a few of those away, and the Bruins could have been using a top-two pick on Pierre Turgeon or Brendan Shanahan.

So even though Pederson didn’t stick around very long in Vancouver, trading away the pick to get him wasn’t a total disaster. Well, not on its own. As every Canuck and Bruin fan well knows, that disappointing young winger was a kid named Cam Neely. He exploded in Boston, quickly turning the Wesley pick into an afterthought and making this one of the worst trades of all time.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Bizarro-meter 2018: Eastern Conference edition

On​ Monday, we dusted​ off​ the​ Bizarro-meter​ to​ begin​ our annual​ look at which​ NHL team had​ the​ weirdest offseason. We​​ covered the west, going through the Central (not all that weird) and the Pacific (significantly more weird). Today, it’s on to the Eastern Conference.

Before we begin, we’ll repeat the reminder: “Bizarre” is not a synonym for “bad.” Sometimes, a quiet and predictable offseason is the last thing a team needs, and sometimes getting creative or even outright strange is just what the doctor orders. At the very least, weird offseasons are entertaining, and there’s usually value in that.

One more quick note: I’ve been doing this feature for five years now, adding up to over 150 team rankings. In all that time, I’ve never handed out a perfect 10/10 rating. I’ve never come especially close – only four teams have ever so much as reached 9/10.

Why do I bring this up? Uh, no reason. Onto the east.

Metro Division

New York Rangers

The offseason so far: Did they even have one? The Rangers may have been as quiet as anyone in the league, with most of their focus spent on re-signing a handful of pieces. Hiring David Quinn as coach was obviously a big move, but roster-wise he’ll inherit pretty much the same group that finished last year.

But their strangest story was: The ongoing debate over whether or not they’re really rebuilding. Recent signs pointed pretty conclusively to yes – you don’t trade Ryan McDonagh for futures if you want to win now, nor do you write letters to your fans about how you’re “building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.” But then they go and trade picks for Adam McQuaid, and you see something like Henrik Lundqvist insisting that “next year has to be about winning and nothing else,” and you wonder. That’s just a case of a veteran saying the right thing, right? The Rangers still know they’re rebuilding, yes?

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.5/10. Yeah, I’m pretty sure they know – and Lundqvist does too.

Philadelphia Flyers

The offseason so far: They didn’t do a ton, although they made a big splash on July 1 by landing James van Riemsdyk on an expensive (yet reasonable) deal. They also parted ways with Valtteri Filppula, which may or may not be a loss.

But their strangest story was: Heading into camp without an extension in place for Wayne Simmonds. Most GMs see a star player head into the last year of his deal and rush to hand over whatever he wants for eight more years. So far, Ron Hextall is playing it cool.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.8/10. I remain completely and utterly frustrated that this guy refuses to do anything crazy.

New Jersey Devils

The offseason so far: They lost a handful of free agents, although nobody you’d consider a major difference-maker.

But their strangest story was: Not really adding anybody. When your big acquisition is Drew Stafford on a PTO, it’s been a quiet summer.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.1/10. On the one hand, you can see what the Devils are thinking. They’re rebuilding, and last year was already a big step forward, so they’re staying the course. Still, most playoff teams add… someone.

Washington Capitals

The offseason so far: Not surprisingly, their focus was on keeping as much of the roster together as possible. They paid big to keep John Carlson away from the UFA market and figured out a way to have Brooks Orpik bought out and still return. Other than backup goalie Philipp Grubauer and depth forward Jay Beagle, they’re bringing everyone back.

But their strangest story was: The departure of Barry Trotz, who exercised a contract clause none of us knew he had to hit free agency and eventually make his way to the Islanders. You have to figure that didn’t exactly break Brian MacLellan’s heart, given that he’s had Todd Reirden pencilled into the job forever. But it was still pretty weird.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 5.8/10. What do Capitals players think about Trotz leaving? Honestly, given how most of them spent their summer, I doubt any of them know about it yet.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, September 17, 2018

Bizarro-meter 2018: Western Conference edition

The​ offseason is over.​ Let’s​ get​ weird.

Or​ more​ specifically,​ let’s remember​ all the various​ ways that NHL​ teams​ got weird over​​ the last few months. It’s time to fire up the Bizarro-meter, a feature I debuted back in 2013 in an attempt to understand whatever it was the Maple Leafs thought they were doing, and have been using since 2014 to round up every team in the league. It’s a high-tech system which evaluates each team’s offseason oddity index by, uh, giving it a score out of ten. Look, we never said this was complicated.

Before we get started, an important annual reminder: “bizarre” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” In last season’s list, some of the highest rankings went to the Capitals and Golden Knights, who ended up meeting in the final, as well as to the Avalanche, who shocked everyone by going from dead last to the playoffs. Sometimes, a little bit of chaos can work out well for a team. And maybe more importantly, sometimes a conservative, uninspired, paint-by-numbers offseason is the absolute last thing a team needs.

So with that caveat in mind, let’s dig in. As always, a team’s offseason begins the moment its season ends and stretches until last weekend. We’ll start today with the 15 Western Conference teams; we’ll be back to finish up with the Eastern Conference Tuesday.

Central Division

Nashville Predators

The offseason so far: They locked down Ryan Ellis on a long-term deal, and got future starter Juuse Saros signed at a very manageable number. Mike Fisher retired again, Dan Hamhuis will slot in for Alexei Emelin, and Auston Watson will miss a third of the season pending an appeal of his suspension for domestic assault. But otherwise, last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners will bring back mostly the same roster.

But their strangest story was: Signing Zac Rinaldo always raises a few eyebrows, even when it’s a two-way deal. But the strangest moment of their offseason probably came when Ryan Johansen and Ryan Kesler appeared to arrange a street fight over Twitter.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 2.2/10. At this point, not being a jerk on Twitter is basically a terms of service violation, so even the Kesler/Johansen spat doesn’t earn many points. We’re not used to seeing a whole offseason go by without a major trade or two from David Poile, but for now it probably makes sense to stay the course with a top Cup contender.

Minnesota Wild

The offseason so far: It started early, with the firing of GM Chuck Fletcher in April. But other than that, it’s been strangely quiet; the biggest headlines were the signing of Matt Dumba to a $30-million extension and a buyout for Tyler Ennis.

But their strangest story was: Not making many moves. The Wild have been spinning their wheels for years now, always good enough to make the playoffs but never quite good enough to feel like a real contender. At some point, they’re going to need to move forward or take a step back. For now, they seem content to plod ahead with the status quo.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.7/10. New GM Paul Fenton appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach. Sometimes that works out well. Sometimes it just means another lost season.

Winnipeg Jets

Blake Wheeler. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

The offseason so far: It’s been largely a case of maintaining the status quo, which makes sense given the season they’re coming off. The only major departure was deadline rental Paul Stastny, and they didn’t add anything major. Instead, the big headlines were around extension for existing players, including an intriguingly long one for Connor Hellebuyck, a disappointingly short one for Jacob Trouba, and an impressively cheap one for Josh Morrissey.

But their strangest story was: Signing captain Blake Wheeler to an extension that will carry an $8.25 million cap hit until he’s 37. That deal was mostly well-received in Winnipeg, although other reviews haven’t been as kind.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.2/10. The Wheeler deal may well turn out to be a mistake. But bizarre? Not really. Wheeler is enormously popular in Winnipeg, is coming off a career year, and is the team’s captain. NHL teams almost never play hardball with those sort of guys, even if there’s some evidence that they should.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

That Eugene Melnyk video: The top-secret transcript

It’s​ almost 24​ hours later, and​ hockey​ fans around​ the league are still talking​​ about The Video.

You know the one. Late Monday night, the Ottawa Senators unveiled a video featuring owner Eugene Melnyk being interviewed by defenceman Mark Borowiecki. It was meant as an opportunity for Melnyk to finally lay out a long-term vision for the team’s future. But not everyone was impressed, partly due to Melnyk’s message and partly because the video struck many as, in the words of colleague James Gordon, “deeply weird”.

One element that’s come in for some criticism is the choice to have Borowiecki handle the interview duties. But while it may surprise some of the team’s more cynical fans, the Senators actually put a lot of thought into that decision. In fact, we’ve been told that the club even held auditions to make sure they nailed the best choice possible for the role. And as luck would have, DGB spies were there to record the top-secret transcript.

Director: And… CUT!

Mark Borowiecki: Whew. Was that OK?

Director: That was great, Mark. You did fantastic. But Eugene and I were talking, and we’d like to bring in a few other folks from around the hockey world to audition for the interviewer’s role.

Eugene Melnyk: Yeah, we’re just not sure that having an actual Senator do the interview is going to look good. Might seem a little softball-y, you know?

Borowiecki: Sure, I guess that makes sense.

Director: Thanks for understanding. Feel free to stick around while we run through a few more auditions. OK, first up is, let’s see … Henrik Zetterberg.

Zetterberg: Hi everyone.

Melnyk: Wow, thanks for coming out Henrik.

Zetterberg: Hey, my pleasure. I always wanted to try out this whole interviewing thing. Gives me something to do in retirement, you know.

Melnyk: You’re retired?

Zetterberg: Uh…

[Ken Holland appears in the window, making a throat-slash gesture.]

Zetterberg: Something to do while I’m injured. You know, as I work my way back from injury so that I can resume my playing duties under my contract without triggering any cap penalties. Which is totally what I’m doing.

[Holland does the eye-point move.]

Zetterberg [under his breath]: Yzerman’s totally replacing you.

Melnyk: What was that?

Zetterberg: Nothing. You know what, this may have been a bad idea.

Marc Bergevin: Did I hear somebody say “bad idea”?

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Why I'm Joining The Athletic

I​ realized something​ a few months ago​ that​ simultaneously made​ me feel very old and​​ also kind of proud: I’m now into my second decade of sportswriting.

That’s not all that much in the grand scheme of things, and you don’t get a trophy or collectible pin for it, but it’s still kind of neat. And it feels like the sort of milestone that goes well with a major career change. Today, I can share that I’ve reached that point, too. Earlier this summer, I agreed to join The Athletic on a full-time basis.

And now, I’m writing a post about it, because they are making me do that.

It’s kind of a thing around here.

I’m guessing you know the drill. Computer scientists estimate that the internet produces roughly 1,200 petabytes of data per month, and at this point, I think roughly half of that is sportswriters explaining why they’ve joined The Athletic. By now, you’re familiar with the basics – the industry is going through a tough time, new business models are needed, and it no longer feels unreasonable to ask readers to pay for a product that has value, just like they do in almost every other type of business. Not having to fight through ads or auto-playing videos to get to the content is a nice bonus.

All of that is true. I’m just not sure how much I can add to it. But I’ve always believed in a “when in Rome” type of philosophy. When you move to a new neighborhood, you learn the local customs. When you’re in a stadium and everyone else starts doing the wave, you roll your eyes and join in. When you’re traded to the Senators, you immediately demand a trade away from the Senators. And when you join The Athletic, you write a post about why you’re joining The Athletic.

So that’s what I’m doing.

But how? What’s the angle? How do you make something like this feel fresh? I briefly considered posting an adorable childhood photo of myself sleeping under The Athletic bed sheets, but apparently, somebody else already beat me to that idea. So instead, I’m going to stick with the story of how I got here. Because it’s not one that many of my peers can tell.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, August 17, 2018

Grab Bag: Crazy like a Fox

In the final Friday Grab Bag of the season:
- MLB's "players' weekend" concept could never work in the NHL... unless we made this one simple change.
- Thoughts on NBC's new schedule, and how it disrespects your favorite team
- An obscure player who may or may not be Tommy Salo
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at that time that Michael J. Fox made a hockey movie for David Letterman and it got weird

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Friday, August 10, 2018

Grab bag: Wayne's World

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- RIP Stan Mikita
- Somebody made a ranked list and you're angry about it, which is fine
- Should the Hurricanes use Brass Bonanza as their goal song?
- The week's three comedy stars
- An obscure player from a line with a cool nickname
- And a look back at how The Trade impacted those who matter most: Hollywood celebrities

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Five ways the Senators' season could go

So things aren’t going great for the Ottawa Senators these days.

Last week, they re-signed one of their best players, getting Mark Stone under contract prior to arbitration. That might seem like good news, but the deal was only for one year, meaning Stone will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he doesn’t agree to a long-term extension by then, he could walk away for nothing. So could Matt Duchene, another pending UFA with a recent history of bailing on struggling teams; if there’s been any progress on an extension for him, it’s been kept quiet.

And then there’s the ongoing Erik Karlsson saga, which these days has no end in sight. Maybe that’s a good thing — until he’s traded, there’s always a chance he could stay. But that still seems unlikely, and given the poor reviews from the Mike Hoffman deal and the general lack of confidence in the Senators’ front office, you could forgive their fans for expecting the worst.

They might get it. But they might not, because predicting anything in today’s NHL is tricky business. So today, let’s look at five ways the Senators’ season could play out. We’ll rank them from best to worst, although as you’ll see that doesn’t necessarily mean that more wins are better.

Let’s start with the best possible outcome: The one where we’re all worrying over nothing, because the Senators are actually good.

Scenario #1: The feel-good story

What happens: We won’t get crazy and predict a scenario where the Senators roll over the league and win the Stanley Cup. Even as a best case, that seems far-fetched. So instead, let’s imagine a 2018–19 season that looks a lot like 2016–17 did. In other words, the Senators play well enough to make the playoffs with room to spare, and once they get there they’re good enough to at least have a puncher’s chance against any team they run up against.

If you strip away all the off-ice drama, this kind of season doesn’t seem impossible. If they make it to opening night with Karlsson still on the team, the roster would at least bear a passing resemblance to the 2017 squad that came within one goal of the Final. Stone and Duchene will both have plenty to play for in contract years, so if the goaltending turns around, Bobby Ryan rediscovers his game and a few of the key youngsters make big leaps, well, who knows, right?

What doesn’t happen: Like any team, the Sens won’t go anywhere without decent goaltending, which means a big rebound year from Craig Anderson or Mike Condon or maybe someone else — remember, Anderson also reportedly wants out. If they get a full season of sub-.900 goaltending like they did last year, nothing any of the other players do is going to matter.

But beyond that, it feels like any kind of success on the ice would be tied to a lack of drama off of it. That includes any kind of panic moves around Karlsson, Stone or Duchene. It also probably means that Eugene Melnyk is locked in a storage closet somewhere deep in the bowels of the arena and isn’t allowed to talk to the media or anyone else.

Our first sign it might be happening: The schedule-maker didn’t do the Senators any favours, with a tough October that features seven playoff teams, plus teams like Chicago and Dallas that should be better. But if the Senators can come out of the month with something like a 6-3-2 record, November opens with a home-and-home against the Sabres. Win those, and the “Hey, this team might be better than we thought” vibe will flicker to life.

The odds that it happens: 10%. Is this too high? It’s probably too high. By this point, even the most diehard Sens fans seem to have accepted that the coming season will be a disaster, and are just waiting to find out how bad the damage gets. The idea that the year might actually turn out to be a success seems hopelessly optimistic.

But this is the NHL. If an expansion team can shock the world, and another team can go from dead last to the playoffs, and yet another team can go from last in its conference back to the playoffs all in the same year… well, like we said, who knows? We’re living in the NHL’s age of hyper-parity, and anyone who tries to tell you that anything is a sure thing hasn’t been paying attention.

“Who knows?” isn’t exactly an optimistic slogan heading into a season, but these days Ottawa will probably take it.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, August 3, 2018

Grab bag: Iggy gets trippy

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Arbitration is weird and slightly broken so let's not worry about the weird numbers it generates
- The NHL needs a Dubious Goals Committee
- An obscure player who was Tom Wilson without the money
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at Jarome Iginla enjoying a nice trip

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Eight traded NHL stars who didn't want to go

With the hockey off-season staying quiet and the Toronto Blue Jays flatlining, the biggest news in Canadian pro sports continues to be the Toronto Raptors‘ recent blockbuster. By adding Kawhi Leonard, the team may have improved their chances of winning the Eastern Conference next year. But the deal came at a cost, with the popular DeMar DeRozan heading to San Antonio in the deal.

That’s a tough spot for an organization, because DeRozan didn’t want to be traded. He made that clear before the trade, and especially so in the days immediately after. Sports is a business, as we’re constantly reminded, but it’s difficult for a fan to see a popular player leave town against his will.

Every now and then, we see something similar in the NHL. Most big hockey deals are pulled off with at least some cooperation from the player, and some are outright forced by a star who wants to be elsewhere. But occasionally, a star is traded against his will. Here are eight times it happened, and how it worked out for everyone involved.

1. Wayne Gretzky, 1988

The player: Wayne Gretzky. You may have heard of him.

We may as well start with the obvious example of a player’s grief at being dealt. Gretzky’s press-conference breakdown, complete with his quip about how he’d “promised Mess I wouldn’t do this,” is burned into the memories of a generation of hockey fans.

The trade: The Oilers — or more specifically, owner Peter Pocklington — sent Gretzky to Los Angeles along with Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley in exchange for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round picks and a truckload of cash.

How unhappy was he? That’s a matter of at least some debate; Pocklington would later infamously accuse Gretzky of shedding “crocodile tears” at the press conference. It’s true that by the time the deal was officially made, Gretzky wanted to go to L.A. — according to one version of the story, he was given the chance to back out of the move that morning and chose to go through with it. But all of that came after it had been made clear that Pocklington had been working on a trade for a while, and it’s hard to blame Gretzky for eventually going along with the inevitable.

How’d that work out for them? On the one hand, the trade was a disaster for the Oilers. Carson was good but lasted only one full season in Edmonton, Gelinas was just OK, and none of the three firsts turned into franchise players. Meanwhile, Gretzky won the Hart in his first year in L.A. and added three scoring titles.

On the other hand, the Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1990, while Gretzky and the Kings never did combine for a championship. So who really won the trade? [Checks notes.] Right, the Kings won by a mile.

We’ll be back in Edmonton a little later in this piece, but for now let’s skip ahead a few decades to a different Canadian team…

2. P.K. Subban, 2016

The player: Subban had won the Norris in 2013 and been a finalist in 2015. But he was also carrying a $9-million cap hit, the highest of any defenceman in the league at the time, and had a no-trade clause that was days away from kicking in.

The trade: As part of the craziest 23 minutes in NHL off-season history, the Canadiens shocked everyone by swapping Subban straight up for Nashville’s Shea Weber.

How unhappy was he? He certainly didn’t want to be moved — that’s why he’d negotiated that NTC. And he’d put down roots in Montreal, including making a $10-million donation to a local children’s hospital. He seemed to take the move personally, and earlier this week, he empathized with DeRozan’s situation.

How’d that work out for them? Habs fans will claim that it’s too soon to tell, and maybe it is. But in the two years since the deal, the Predators have been to a Stanley Cup final and won a Presidents’ Trophy, while the Canadiens haven’t won a round and are coming off a miserable season that has some calling for them to blow it up and start all over. Meanwhile, Subban just posted yet another Norris-caliber season, while Weber missed most of last year and will be out for the first half of this coming season.

We’ll just mark that down as “Advantage: Nashville” so far. But the good news for Montreal is that Weber still has eight years left on his deal, so there’s plenty of time to turn things around.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Podcast: The final curtain

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- I try to make the case for the Tom Wilson contract
- Dave and I look at Jarome Iginla's Hall-of-Fame case
- The Canucks part ways with Trevor Linden
- Cody Ceci wants $6 million, and other arbitration absurdities
- We try to guess what Mark Stone and William Karlsson will ask for
- Reader questions
- And we close things out with the long-awaited Sedin twins interview

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Grab bag: MLB enters its dead puck era

In this week's Friday Grab Bag:
- MLB is in the middle of a crisis that may seem familiar to hockey fans, although the way they're dealing with it won't
- Should fans be bothered by cap circumvention?
- We say goodbye to Trevor Linden with an obscure player who was once traded for him
- The week's three comedy stars
- And we mark Jarome Iginla's retirement with a YouTube look back at The Shift

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Podcast: Arbitration situations

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Does the NHL's arbitration process actually work?
- Does his one-year deal spell the end for Jacob Trouba in Winnipeg?
- Thoughts on the Matt Dumba contract
- Dave helps me figure out six confusing NHL teams
- An update on my daughter's softball team
- Reader questions and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Six teams I can't figure out

We’re roughly a month into the off-season, and by now there a few teams we can feel pretty confident about projecting. The Lightning will be good, especially if they get Erik Karlsson. The Capitals, Predators, Jets and Leafs should also be contenders. At the other end of the standings, we’re all pretty sure that teams like the Senators, Canucks and Sabres will struggle. There are even a few teams we can comfortably predict will be just OK – we could call that the Minnesota Wild zone.

There’s nothing especially controversial in any of those calls; just about every set of pre-season predictions will say pretty much the same thing when it comes to those teams.

And, of course, we’ll almost certainly be wrong about at least a few of them. Like, super wrong. As in not even close.

Look at last year, when obvious bottom-feeders like the Devils and Avalanche and Golden Knights all made the playoffs, while legitimate Cup contenders like the Blackhawks and Oilers crashed and burned. Few of us saw any of those stories coming. None of us saw them all. Everybody was dead wrong about something, just like we’ll be wrong this year too.

And here’s the thing: That’s just the teams we feel confident about. If we already know we’re going to screw a few of those up, imagine what’s going to happen with the teams we can’t figure out.

So today, let’s look through a half-dozen teams that I’m still not sure about. I’ve gone back and forth on all six, and I’m not any closer to feeling confident about where they’ll wind up. Maybe you’re on steadier ground when it comes to these teams, and if so please let me know why. Seriously, I could use the help.

We’ll start with one of those 2017-18 surprises…

Edmonton Oilers

They’ll be good because: They have Connor McDavid, and if he isn’t already the unanimous choice for “best player on the planet” honours, he will be soon. The NHL isn’t the NBA, where one superstar can singlehandedly drag a team to the playoffs. But it’s still a league that runs on elite talent, and there isn’t any more elite than what the Oilers can toss out there for 22 minutes a night.

They’ll be bad because: McDavid was great last year, and it didn’t get the Oilers anything other than weaker lottery odds. And as you’ve probably noticed, they’ve barely done anything this off-season. They haven’t made any major trades or signed any top-tier free agents. Right now, it looks like they might be content to roll out pretty much the same lineup that they featured last year. You know, the one that missed the playoffs by 17 points.

But they’ll probably be fine because: A big part of last season’s disaster was due to a rough year from Cam Talbot. No team leans on its starter as heavily as the Oilers, and in 2016-17 it paid off. Last year, it didn’t. But Talbot has played five NHL seasons and over 250 games, and the bulk of his resume tells us that he’s a very good goaltender, maybe even a great one.

Goaltending is voodoo, but when your starter has a bad year it’s almost always going to torpedo your chances. Let’s not overthink it with Edmonton – if Talbot is better, they’ll be fine. And history tells us he’ll be better.

Unless they’re not because: Most nights, a goaltender is only as good as the defence in front of him. The Oilers blue line continues to be a weak point, and according to the rumour mill their plan for fixing it is to trade their best defenceman. That’s not how this works.

The verdict: The Pacific was the league’s weakest division last year, and could be again. With the three California teams getting older and the Knights presumably coming back to reality, it won’t take a monster season to make the playoffs. The Oilers should manage it fairly easily. I think.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, July 20, 2018

Grab Bag: That's one hot Russian Jet

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Introducing a new feature: Things I can say because it's summer and nobody is paying attention
- Should the NBA make us rethink complaints about NHL parity?
- An obscure player celebrating a birthday
- The week's three comedy stars features another drunk Capital
- And a YouTube look back at a very weird Winnipeg Jets album

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Podcast: Extending credit

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I discuss the Marc-Andre Fleury extension
- And also the Connor Hellebuyck extension
- Honestly it's like 90% extensions, nothing else is happening
- Marian Hossa's cap hit goes to Arizona; should we be mad?
- A few words about Ray Emery
- And we spend way too much time trying to cast Ocean's 11 with NHL players

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Six teams that were forced into trading a star, but still won the deal

We’re still waiting on an Erik Karlsson deal. We’re still told that the Lightning and Stars are the frontrunners, but the rumour mill has largely gone cold and a deal no longer seems imminent. Some reports now suggest that Pierre Dorion could even end up holding on to Karlsson until training camp, if not beyond.

As far as the Senators and their fans go, no news may feel like good news. After all, conventional wisdom says that this is a trade they just can’t win.

For one, there’s the old adage about the team that gets the best player winning the deal, and that will be Karlsson. But more importantly, it’s always been clear that the Senators are dealing from a position of weakness. They don’t want to trade their captain, but they might have no choice. And as the old saying goes, when the league knows you’re drowning, other teams start throwing anchors instead of lifejackets.

We’ve seen it plenty of times in NHL history, and the team that’s forced into dealing a star typically gets taken to the cleaners. Think of Montreal trading Patrick Roy to Colorado, or the Oilers sending Mark Messier to New York, or the Flames all but giving Doug Gilmour to Toronto. Those ended up being some of the most lopsided deals in NHL history, but the teams making them didn’t have much choice. That’s the sort of situation the Senators may be headed towards, and it always ends in misery.

Well, almost always. Because while it’s rare, there have been some cases in NHL history where a team was forced into trading away a superstar and actually ended up doing well on the deal. So today, let’s offer up some optimism for Ottawa fans by looking back at six times that a team was backed into a corner and still found a way to come out even, or even ahead – and what the Senators could learn from them.

Eric Lindros to Philadelphia, 1992

The setup: We’ll start with the most obvious example, and a blockbuster that reminds us that sometimes the best player in a trade doesn’t end up being who you might think.

When the Nordiques drafted Lindros in 1991, they thought they’d landed their franchise player. Lindros was the most hyped prospect to enter the league since Mario Lemieux, and was viewed as a sure-thing superstar. But he didn’t want to play in Quebec and went back to junior rather than sign a contract with the Nordiques. The team tried to play hardball, but after a full year had passed it became evident they’d have to make a trade.

The trade: This gets a little complicated, since the Nordiques actually ended up trading Lindros twice. They agreed to separate deals with both the Rangers and the Flyers, and it took a hearing in front of an NHL arbitrator to figure out which deal would stand. After five days and 11 witnesses, the ruling came down: Lindros was headed to Philadelphia, in exchange for Ron Hextall, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, the rights to Peter Forsberg, two first-round picks and cash.

The result: While he wasn’t the next Lemieux, Lindros came reasonably close to living up to the hype. He won a Hart Trophy in his third season, and eventually made the Hall of Fame despite an injury-riddled career. But the Nordiques may have got the best player in the deal in Forsberg, and the rest of the haul helped them make a quick transition from laughingstock to Cup contender.

(For what it’s worth, the Flyers would end up being backed into an unwanted trade of their own in 2001, when Lindros sat out an entire season to force his way out of town. That deal ended up being a bust.)

The lesson: With all due respect to Karlsson, it’s hard to imagine a player ever having as much trade value as the 19-year-old Lindros did, so the Sens won’t be getting anywhere close to that sort of windfall. But they do seem to be following one key page from the Nordiques’ playbook by working to create a bidding war between two teams. If Dorion can maneuver the Stars and Lightning into an auction, he may be able to extract enough value to make the move work out. Just, uh, don’t pull the trigger on both deals at the same time.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, July 13, 2018

Grab Bag: Sign-and-trade on the dotted line

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Seriously, stop talking about sign-and-trades
- An offseason idea we can steal from Marc Bergevin and the Habs
- An obscure player who Canucks fans don't hate, unlike some people we could mention
- The week's three comedy stars get NSFW and involve Alexander Ovechkin's mom
- And a YouTube look back at a Bobby Ryan trade that worked out great.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What happens when one team has two elite defensemen?

The Erik Karlsson watch continues. After rumours swirled all weekend that a deal to send Karlsson to Tampa was imminent, we’ve made it into the week without a trade. The Lightning still seem like the frontrunner, but for now, nothing is official.

That’s good news for everyone who isn’t a Lightning fan, because it means there’s still a chance that the two-time Norris winner won’t end up playing on the same team as this year’s recipient – Victor Hedman — and maybe even on the same pairing. That’s vaguely terrifying for the rest of the league, since we’re told that defence wins championships and the Lightning would have two of the very best in the league.

That kind of star power sharing the same blue line is rare, but not unheard of. So today, let’s run through some of the times over the past 30 years or so that one team could run out a pair of Hall of Fame defencemen. Note that we’re talking about a pair here, not necessarily a pairing – in most cases, these players weren’t used on the same unit, and we don’t know whether Karlsson and Hedman would be. But even if they’re deployed separately, having two Norris-caliber defencemen gives a coach all sorts of opportunity to dominate matchups.

It also virtually guarantees a Stanley Cup… most of the time. As we’ll see, there are no sure things in the NHL, although having an all-star blue line comes awfully close.

Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim Ducks

There’s a good chance that when you saw the subject for this post, this is the first pair that came to mind. They land right in that sweet spot where they’re recent enough that everyone remembers them, but long enough ago that we can start to build a mythology around them.

In the case of the Ducks, the mythology goes something like this: Anaheim was a good team coming out of the lockout, and they became a very good one when they signed Niedermayer as a free agent in 2005. But it was the acquisition of Pronger in 2006, thanks to some aggressive maneuvering by GM Brian Burke, that gave Anaheim one of the greatest pair of blueliners in modern NHL history, and they rolled to the Stanley Cup the very next year.

Most of that mythology is pretty much true, although it leaves out a few details, like Pronger forcing his way out of Edmonton and Niedermayer choosing the Ducks at least partly because he could play with his brother.

Those minor details aside, it’s hard to deny how overpowering the pair were. Randy Carlyle often used them on the same unit; other times he’d split them up and basically play the entire game with a Norris winner on the ice. During Anaheim’s Cup run, both players averaged roughly 30 minutes a game, miles ahead of any other Ducks.

When you think of a potential Karlsson/Hedman combo, this is the scenario you’re dreaming of if you’re a Lightning fan and dreading if you’re anyone else. But the story ending with a Cup parade isn’t quite inevitable, as Pronger himself can remind us…

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Podcast: Nik of time

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I react to breaking news about Nikita Kucherov
- The Erik Karlsson watch continues
- Shea Weber was hurt and the Habs didn't tell anyone
- Artemi Panarin sounds like he wants out of Columbus
- Reader questions and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Grab Bag: Islander anger

In this week's Friday Grab Bag:
- Are Islander fans being unreasonable about John Tavares?
- Stop blaming your bad free agent signings on "the market"
- An obscure player who was the 1 in 1-9-1
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at a certain 14-year-old phenom...

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Podcast: The Tavares Betrayal

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- John Tavares comes home
- What these means for the Leafs, the Islanders, and fans of other teams
- How should Islander fans react to all of this?
- Our thoughts on the rest of free agency
- Where will Erik Karlsson be traded?
- Will the deal go down before we can post this podcast?
- The Ryan O'Reilly trade, John Tortorella is made, and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The five stages of finding out your team just singed John Tavares

You've probably heard of the five stages of grief. More formally known as the Kubler-Ross model, the concept was first introduced almost 50 years ago, and posits that people will respond to difficult life events by moving through feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The five stages have basically become the standard way to think about how people will react when something terrible happens.

Maple Leaf fans are very familiar with the five stages of grief.

You kind of have to be. Being a Leafs fan over the last few decades has basically meant cycling through the five stages almost constantly. From Harold Ballard to Kerry Fraser to Draft Schmaft to JFJ to Burke/Nonis to "It was 4-1," Leaf fans were always miserable about something. They could basically use the five stages as a greeting when meeting other Leaf fans. "How are you?" "I'm bargaining right now, thanks for asking. Go Leafs go."

But while it came as a surprise to Leafs Nation, recent evidence suggests that not everything that happens has to make you sad. There's this weird new realm that Leaf fans are just getting used to, where life sometimes makes you happy. First came the Mike Babcock sweepstakes, and then the Auston Matthews lottery. It's been weird.

And now this. John Tavares is coming home to play for the Maple Leafs. He even took a bit of a discount to do it. And now the Leafs look like they're going to be really good.

We're not quite sure how to process this.

I want to help. So today, let's walk through the Five Stages of Realizing the Leafs Signed John Tavares. Everything will make more sense if we can all get on the same page.

(One important note: This is the Five Stages of Realizing the Leafs Signed John Tavares if you're a Leafs fan. If you're a fan of some other team, your five stages probably went something like: making a 1967 joke, making a "plan the parade" joke, desperately trying to argue that Tavares somehow isn't worth it, making a slightly different variation of the same 1967 joke, and then realizing the Leaf fan you're trying to annoy isn't even pretending to care what you're saying. Sorry about that. If it's any consolation, I'm sure your parade joke was devastating.)

Stage 1: Denial

Weirdly, the Five Stages of Tavares starts off just like the five stages of grief: With a whole lot of standing around, shaking your head, and muttering "no freaking way."

Among the rest of the hockey world, Maple Leaf fans have a reputation for always thinking that every Canadian-born superstar will inevitably want to play in Toronto. Obviously, that's not true. It's only almost every Canadian-born star. And we only think that because they keep telling us about it.

But the reality is that deep down. most Leaf fans didn't think Tavares was actually going to happen. We'd been burned once by Steven Stamkos, back in 2016, so we knew not to get our hopes up. Sure, maybe if Tavares actually left the Islanders, Toronto might be his first choice. But he wouldn't leave the Islanders, because no NHL star ever leaves his team, at least not as a free agent. At best, they pretend to be thinking about it, and then they sign an eight-year extension. That's what happened with Stamkos, and he actually did seem like a guy who wanted to be in Toronto. He even liked a tweet! But in the end, he stayed put without even having to think about it too hard. Tavares would do the same. Hell, the Leafs had even gift-wrapped the Islanders with a new GM to close the sale. Tavares probably wouldn't even make it to the negotiation window.

Then he did make it. And then the Leafs were one of the five teams he invited to make their case. And then he made it past June 29—i.e. the Stamkos Line—without announcing anything. And then the Saturday deadline for an eight-year extension in New York came and went. And suddenly it was July 1, and the league's official free agent list came out with Tavares on it, and you started to hear rumblings that Islander players were being told that their captain was headed to Toronto.

And every Leaf fan who saw that tweet went right back to where we started: "No freaking way."

But there was a way. And Kyle Dubas and the Leafs had found it.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Winners and losers from day one of free agency

Another July 1 has come and gone in the NHL, meaning we’re now a day into the free-agency market. And for once, we had some Canada Day fireworks to enjoy. An actual, honest-to-goodness NHL star in his prime actually made it to the market. Not only that, he changed teams. You probably heard about it.

John Tavares wasn’t the only name on the move. But he’s the one we have to start with, because this is a winners and losers column. And for one of the only times in the last half-decade or so, the big winners in the NHL were the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s confusing, and a little scary, but here we are. So while we’re all trying to sort through this strange new world we’re living in, let’s start our July 1 rundown in the only place we can.

Winner: The Maple Leafs

They actually pulled it off. They lured a local hero back home, and even got a bit of discount in the process. For all the fun you can have with Leafs fans and their constant belief that every superstar secretly wants to come to Toronto, this time it really happened. As Tavares himself put it, the Leafs won this sweepstakes because they could offer a chance to live a childhood dream.

So now what? This is where the contrarian reflex is supposed to kick in. But at least in the short term, it’s honestly hard to find any kind of downside here for the Leafs. They’ll pay Tavares the league max this year, almost all of it in bonuses, but they have more than enough cash flow and cap room to afford it. Things will get trickier in 2019-20, once the Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner extensions kick in, but even that crunch could be manageable. (And seeing Tavares leave a little money on the table could encourage the younger players to do the same.)

For now, the Leafs are as strong down the middle as pretty much anyone, and the idea of either Tavares or Matthews getting easy matchups is scary. The blue line still needs work Frederik Andersen isn’t a sure thing, and the Leafs still have to get through Tampa and Boston to get out of the Atlantic, so there’s work left to do. But even for a lifelong Maple Leafs cynic, there’s really no way to spin this: It’s a huge win for Toronto.

Loser: Islander fans

Honestly, we don’t even have a joke here. This is a brutal, brutal moment for Islanders fans.

For some teams, watching your franchise player walk away for nothing would be a wakeup call. Not for Islanders fans. They’re already wide awake. They’ve had plenty of time to worry that the team was adrift; that Charles Wang and Garth Snow and the arena mess and one playoff series win in 25 years had dug a hole so deep that even new ownership and Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz couldn’t dig out of it. They’ve had years to think the worst. They’re used to it.

But it’s one thing to think the worst. It’s another to have a once-in-a-generation player look you dead in the eye and tell you that you’re right. Tavares can soften this with talk of childhood dreams and coming home, and there’s no doubt something to that. But the brutal truth remains: In a league where star players always choose to stay put, the Islanders were the one team who couldn’t convince theirs to stay.

That stings. And it has some Islanders supporters lashing out, with the predictable stream of YouTube clips of outraged fans and burning jerseys. But once the initial bitterness clears, the question will be where this team goes next. It’s upgraded the front office and behind the bench, even if it turned out not to be enough for Tavares. A goalie is needed, and now a top-line forward. There’s plenty of cap space, which is good news if it’s used wisely and bad news if there’s a knee-jerk panic move. So far, the early indications aren’t good.

That’s… I mean… yikes.

Whichever way the Islanders go next, there are going to be a lot of tough questions for a team that chose not to trade Tavares for a windfall at the deadline. Eventually, there will be answers, and in the long term some of them may even be positive ones. Just not right now. Right now, it’s nothing but brutal.

Another July 1 has come and gone in the NHL, meaning we’re now a day into the free-agency market. And for once, we had some Canada Day fireworks to enjoy. An actual, honest-to-goodness NHL star in his prime actually made it to the market. Not only that, he changed teams. You probably heard about it.

John Tavares wasn’t the only name on the move. But he’s the one we have to start with, because this is a winners and losers column. And for one of the only times in the last half-decade or so, the big winners in the NHL were the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s confusing, and a little scary, but here we are. So while we’re all trying to sort through this strange new world we’re living in, let’s start our July 1 rundown in the only place we can.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, June 29, 2018

Rating UFA signings on the fit/hit/term scale

We’re days away from the official opening of the NHL free-agency market. On Sunday at noon, the league’s UFAs will be free to start signing with any team they’d like.

Well, they won’t be free. Many of them will be quite expensive. In some cases, ridiculously expensive. And most of them won’t end up being worth it.

That’s kind of how it goes at this time of year, as NHL GMs compete to see who can make the biggest UFA mistake. The occasional big signing works out, and some come and go with only minor pangs of regret. But others will be disasters that will leave us wondering what anyone was thinking.

The days ahead may feel like chaos. But the sort of deals we see actually fall into some predictable categories. In fact, with the benefit of a little hindsight, we can evaluate most UFA signings by asking three questions.

Was the player a good fit? In other words, did it make sense for the team to sign this player in the first place, given their roster and their needs in other areas? Was he even any good?

Did the deal carry a reasonable annual cap hit? Self-explanatory, and probably the first question we wonder about when we hear about a new signing.

Did the team commit to a reasonable term? How many years did a team have to cough up to get a deal done? This tends to take a back seat to cap hit in most of the immediate evaluations, although it probably shouldn’t.

Combine those three categories and you’re left with what we could call the Fit-Hit-Term scale. By answering yes or no to each question, we can figure out which of eight different categories a deal might fall into. And we can look back through the cap era to find the UFA signings that best represent each one.

Category #1: Good fit, good hit, good term (aka “The Chara”)

We’ll start with the best possible kind of signing. These are the deals where everything makes sense. The player is a star who fills a need. The cap hit may sting a little but isn’t unreasonable. And the length of the deal means a team won’t spend most of it paying star money to a player who’s well past his prime.

Here’s the bad news: Man, there aren’t many significant signings that fall into this category.

In fact, you could make the case that the two best UFA signings of the cap era both came well over a decade ago. Scott Niedermayer’s four-year deal with the Ducks back in 2005 worked out beautifully, as Anaheim nabbed the reigning Norris winner and were celebrating a Stanley Cup within two years. That was followed by Zdeno Chara signing a five-year deal with Boston in 2006 that carried a $7.5-million cap hit through his early 30s. By the end of that deal, he’d won a Norris and a Stanley Cup.

Both deals made sense at the time, and look even better in hindsight. They also both came before teams decided to start agreeing to contracts that carried massive term. That trend started around 2009, give or take a year, and since then it’s been hard to find a major UFA deal that checks all three boxes.

You could probably pick out a few other candidates from recent years, depending on how willing you are to stretch the concept of a “major” deal – if you want to count guys like Anton Stralman in Tampa or Alexander Radulov in Montreal, your list gets a bit longer. But if you’re looking at the big names, it’s slim pickings. The best a GM can really hope for these days is to go two-for-three, which will make up our next few categories.

Category #2: Good fit, good hit, bad term (aka “The Hossa”)

You still see these deals crop up from time to time. But the golden era for this sort of signing came in the years leading up to the 2013 lockout, as teams (and agents) figured out that going long on term could result in a reduced cap hit. Back then, going long meant really long, often well into the double-digits in terms of years. When those deals didn’t work out, they were disasters, because you were locked in forever. When they did work, you got The Hossa.

Back in 2010, Marian Hossa was on the open market for the second straight year. The previous summer, he’d signed a one-year deal to chase a Cup with the Wings, which didn’t really work out. This time, the 31-year-old was looking to sign a deal that would be his last in the NHL. And that’s what he got, as the Blackhawks gave him an eye-popping 12 years in exchange for a discount cap hit of just $5.275 million. Hossa was a perfect fit in Chicago, and helped them win three of the next six Cups. And due to a rare skin condition, his playing days ended well before the contract turned into a cap albatross.

The NHL changed the rules around long-term deals in 2013, so Hossa-like bargains are harder to find these days. But every year, teams still convince themselves that they can add the final piece of a championship puzzle at a reasonable cost by going as long as possible on term. Hey, if it doesn’t work out, it will probably be the next GM’s problem, right?

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Grab bag: Hall of lame

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Everyone's talking about Gary Bettman's Hall of Fame induction, but we shouldn't be and we don't have to
- A neat idea that the NHL should steal from the international sports world
- An obscure player who was drafted just before Martin Brodeur
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at the moment John Tavares became a New York Islander

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Podcast: The Tavares sweepstakes

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I handicap the Tavares sweepstakes
- What I think the Leafs did at their presentation, and why it might work
- Dougie Hamilton gets traded for liking museums
- I have to break some bad news to Dave about the Calgary/Carolina trade
- John Carlson gets a massive new deal
- Wrapping up the rest of a quiet draft weekend
- Was it OK for Dallas to boo Gary Bettman before a tribute ceremony?
- We make our HHOF picks
- And lots more...

>> Stream it now:

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Six offseason headlines I'd love to see (but won't)

After a relatively quiet draft weekend, it feels like we’re on the verge of some serious fireworks in the NHL off-season. There are plenty of big names still on the trade block, lots of teams with roster holes to fill, and the free-agency window for teams to talk to players is open.

We’re going to see some major headlines over the next few days. But which ones? That’s the multimillion-dollar question.

But if history is any indication, we can safely predict that whatever happens, it won’t be what you were hoping for. It never is. That’s just how the NHL works. So we might as well take some time now to get excited over what could happen, before we’re inevitably let down by what actually does.

In that spirit, here are a half-dozen headlines that I’d like to see over the next few days (but almost certainly won’t).

1) John Tavares signs a one-year max deal

The idea works something like this: Instead of signing a contract for the maximum length (eight years with the Islanders, seven years with anyone else), John Tavares should sign a one-year deal for the maximum dollar value. That would come in just under $16 million, and would make Tavares the highest-paid player in the history of the league in terms of full-season cap hit.

This one is hardly a new concept. In fact, in recent weeks it’s bubbled up from the fringes of hockey thinking to become a fairly regular talking point in Tavares speculation. And let’s be honest, at least part of that is because it’s a scenario that would favour the big-market Maple Leafs.

But there’s another good reason: It kind of makes sense.

That sort of contract would be essentially unheard of in the NHL. We occasionally see short-term deals signed by young RFAs, or by veteran UFAs nearing the end of their career. But an established star in his prime? Those guys almost always go for the longest deal they can get.

But look beyond the hockey world, and the idea starts to feel a little more familiar. NBA players have been willing to sign short contracts; LeBron James set the trend of stars signing one-year deals, and he’s made a fortune doing it. James seems like a pretty smart guy, so if the tactic is good enough for him, you’d think other athletes might at least want to consider it.

Would it be the right move for Tavares? From a purely financial perspective, sure. He’d almost certainly come out ahead on total dollars in the long run, perhaps significantly so. And he’d have control over his future, with the ability to leave a situation that wasn’t working and seek greener pastures elsewhere. That could give him a chance to try out a new home like Toronto, San Jose or Dallas. But it could also mean giving the Islanders one more year to get their act together and sell him on finishing his career there.

There would be downsides. For one, there’s the small but non-zero risk of an injury that torpedoes his long-term value. More importantly, it’s quite possible that Tavares isn’t enjoying his UFA journey, and isn’t eager to sign up to do it all over again a year from now. There’s something to be said for settling into a sense of permanence, even if it ultimately costs you a few dollars down the line.

But from a fan’s perspective, it would be fun to see Tavares blow up some long-held assumptions over how free agency is supposed to work. It feels inevitable that some NHL star will eventually go this route, and when it happens it will scramble our expectations of what an offseason looks like. It might even encourage more players to go to the market, and breathe new life into a UFA process that’s been getting dull over the years.

Tavares is in the perfect position to be that guy. He probably won’t, and if he chooses security and stability nobody will be able to blame him. But a little bit of short-term thinking would make things very interesting over the next few days.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, June 25, 2018

Draft weekend surprises

Well, that didn’t turn out the way we expected.

Of course, draft weekend never does. Every year, the hockey world churns out weeks of speculation over who’ll go where and what kind of deals will be struck. And every year we end up having at least a few curves thrown our way.

But not all surprises are created equal. So today, let’s sort through the weekend that was by breaking out the Surprise Scale. We’ll start with the key moments that played out exactly the way we all figured they would, and work our way down to the ones that left us scratching our heads.

The Sabres take Rasmus Dahlin: 0/100

Some drafts have all sorts of suspense and intrigue around the first-overall pick. This was not one of those drafts.

With only one sure-fire franchise player on the board, the Sabres weren’t facing an especially difficult choice. We didn’t even get the usual round of “The pick might be in play” rumours. Just a simple, straightforward choice of the best player available.

Sometimes simple and straightforward is the way to go, and after years of misery and instability in Buffalo, boring probably suits this organization just fine. Dahlin should be great, and him feeding long breakout passes to Jack Eichel for the next decade or so should be all sorts of fun.

The only surprise here was that nobody from the league ran up to the podium to interrupt Jason Botterill, explain that they’d just discovered that there had been a mistake during the lottery, and award the first-overall pick to someone else. You had to figure Sabres fans were at least half-expecting it.

The Hurricanes take Andrei Svechnikov: 3/100

The other pick that we all pretty much knew in advance. The only reason we’ll bump this up a few points on the surprise scale is that you never know when Tom Dundon is going to do something unusual. He did, but it was just having his daughter announce the pick, which was fine.

Now we find out if this is one of those drafts where nobody remembers No. 2. Fans of the franchise are probably hoping so.

Not ranked: Gary Bettman gets booed

Occasionally, we see something that doesn’t even register on the surprise scale at all. That’s the case with the reception Bettman got on Friday from the fans in Dallas, who pretty much booed him all night long. It’s a scene that’s played out plenty of times before. The commissioner arrives, makes the same old “I do appreciate your enthusiastic welcome” joke he makes every time, a handful of fans and media fawn over how he’s having fun with the vitriol, and then Bettman gets so flustered he can barely make it through the rest of whatever he’s supposed to be doing.

This year, the reception came with some controversy, as Bettman’s initial appearance was part of a tribute to the Humboldt Broncos and the presentation of the E.J. McGuire Award. That led Bettman to make the reasonable request that fans hold off on the boos, which they mostly did.

All in all, the situation was handled about as well as possible, and the Humboldt tribute was beautifully done. Could it have been introduced just as well by someone that hockey fans haven’t spent decades being trained to have a visceral reaction to? Probably, but the league made its choice, and the results were predictable.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, June 22, 2018

Grab bag: You just made the list

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL Awards were exactly what you wanted them to be
- It's time to bring back uniform #0
- An obscure Sabres draft pick with a great name
- The week's three comedy stars, featuring more political reporters than usual
- And a look back at an NHL Awards moment that you'll never... EEE-ver.... forget.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

When coaches quit

The NHL off-season got a jolt Monday with a surprise out of Washington: Head coach Barry Trotz will be heading elsewhere after handing in his resignation.

That’s surprising on several fronts, not least of which is that we didn’t know Trotz could resign in the first place – we’d been led to believe that his contract was about to expire. As it turns out, his old deal included an automatic extension that kicked in when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup. That new deal wasn’t to Trotz’s liking, and attempts to negotiate a new deal were unsuccessful, so Trotz walked away.

That’s a relatively rare occurrence in a league where coaches are far more likely to be relieved of their duties, often with a footprint on their behind. But it’s been a bit of a theme this off-season, as Trotz becomes the third NHL head coach to voluntarily leave his job. In April, Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock announced his retirement. And a week later, Bill Peters resigned as coach of the Hurricanes.

Peters landed on his feet, taking the Calgary job within days. It seems safe to assume that Trotz will also find new work quickly. If so, he’ll become the first coach in 24 years to leave a team he just won the Stanley Cup and take a job somewhere else.

Making the choice to quit an NHL job is rare. But it’s not completely unheard of. So today, let’s look back on 10 other head coaches who walked away from a job, and how that worked out for them. We’ll start with that last Cup winner to do it, since it involves one of the great off-season soap operas in modern NHL history.

Mike Keenan, 1994

Imagine you’d just led an Original Six team to its first championship in 54 years. You’re the toast of the town. What’s your next move?

If you said “Find a loophole in your contract, declare yourself a free agent and announce you’ve just signed a five-year contract with a different team,” then you and Mike Keenan would probably get along great.

The whole mess started in July 1994, just days after Keenan had led the Rangers to a Game 7 victory over the Canucks to finally put an end the “1940” chants once and for all. Rather than rest on his laurels, Keenan got to work checking the fine print on his contract. When he realized the Rangers had been a day late on a bonus payment, he publicly declared that his contract was null and void. Two days later, he’d signed a five-year deal to become the coach and GM in St. Louis.

Needless to say, the Rangers weren’t thrilled. GM Neil Smith acknowledged the late payment, but called it a “clerical error” and the team went to court to try to prevent Keenan’s jump. (The court filing referred to Keenan as a “faithless employee,” and you have to admit they kind of had a point.) Gary Bettman became involved, in what was viewed as the first major crisis of his relatively young stint as commissioner.

Eventually, the Blues and Rangers agreed to a trade that sent Petr Nedved to New York in exchange for Esa Tikkanen, Doug Lidster and the rights to Keenan. Bettman approved the deal, but fined just about everyone (including the Red Wings, who’d also been negotiating with Keenan). He also suspended Keenan for 60 days.

Keenan got to work in St. Louis, assembling one of the most interesting teams in modern history. He also traded for Wayne Gretzky. Hey, speaking of which…

Wayne Gretzky, 2009

It would be hard to call Gretzky’s resignation as Coyotes coach a major surprise, since there had been subtle signs that he was unhappy in Phoenix. Like, for example, the fact the Coyotes were weeks into training camp and Gretzky hadn’t shown up yet.

The backstory here isn’t all that complicated. The Coyotes had filed for bankruptcy earlier in the year, and an ownership battle was being waged in court between the league and Jim Balsillie. With Gretzky making a reported league-high $8.5 million as the team’s coach (among other roles), the numbers didn’t add up – especially given that he’d missed the playoffs in all four years behind the bench. When it became apparent that neither Balsillie or the league intended to retain his services, Gretzky stayed home and eventually announced his decision to walk away.

The Coyotes announced the hiring of Dave Tippett and moved on. Gretzky ended up in an extended battle with the league over money he was owed that dragged on for years. He never coached again, and at this point everyone has politely agreed to forget all this ever happened.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet