Monday, December 31, 2018

Happy 2019

In a good year, you might get the chance to do something new and maybe a little scary. In 2018, I got to do that twice – first with the book coming out, and then with my jump over to The Athletic. For extra fun, both happened at roughly the same time. Mix in the end of Biscuits and the arrival of Puck Soup, and it was… well, it was something.

It was an experience, one I'm still sorting my way through. But as with just about all of the other interesting things I've had a chance to do over the years, I'm very aware that I only had the opportunity because of people like you who read my stuff. Some of you found me recently. Others have been here since there were a few dozen of us making jokes about JFJ a decade ago. But you're the only reason I get to do any of this, and I'll always be grateful.

To those who've followed me behind the paywall (or were already there), a sincere thank you for making it possible for people like me to do this for a living. For those who are still on the fence, I'll work hard to win you over one day. If I lost you this year, here's holding out hope that our paths will cross again down the line.

But whichever group you're in, I want to wish you a very happy 2019. May you get the opportunity to do some interesting things. And may your hockey team win it all, or at least be worth making fun of when they lose.


DGB weekend power rankings: The Oilers retool, the Predators fade, and the Stars do whatever the #### that was

The​ rankings took last​ week​ off,​ so​ with​ two​ weeks of​ action to account​ for we should​ expect​ to see a higher-than-usual​​ level of turnover in both the top and bottom five to the extent that blah blah blah let’s talk about how the Dallas Stars have gone looney tunes.

Seriously, I realize that this is a power rankings piece and I should stay focused on which teams go where. But I have a few rules in life, and one of them is that if a team’s CEO kicks off the weekend by going on an expletive-laden rant that would make the corpse of Harold Ballard blush, it gets to be the lead story.

If you haven’t read the rundown in Sean Shapiro’s piece yet, you must do so immediately. And if you have read it, you need to read it again to convince yourself that you didn’t dream it. Go do that now, then come back.

Done? Cool. Now that you’ve read the story, learned some new curse words, and your screen is covered with the singed hair that used to be your eyebrows, let’s figure out what all of this means.

Point one: I don’t think Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites is super-happy with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, you guys. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Is he right? Well, no, not really – Seguin and Benn don’t seem to be the problem in Dallas. But that hardly matters now, since it’s not like these are the sort of comments you can walk back.

Point two: Man, the timing is weird here. The rant came the night after the Stars went into Nashville and shut out the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners. That win was their third in five games, and moved them back into a wild-card spot. You’d think you might want to build on that, not use it as a starting point to go scorched earth on your two franchise players.

And finally, the biggest point of all: It’s hard to imagine any way in which this helps the Stars, either now or in the future. Benn and Seguin didn’t sound happy on Saturday, as you’d expect, and while neither poured any additional gas on the fire the NHLPA is now getting involved. Both players are signed to long-term deals, and even if the Stars wanted to trade them – ownership denies that they do – it would be hard to pull it off in a way that made the team better. And which players are going to be lining up to replace them at the top of the lineup, now that the entire league knows that the Stars are an organization that will publicly humiliate its top players when things are going well?

And it wasn’t just about Benn and Seguin. Lites’ comments didn’t just bury his two stars; they sure seemed to imply that GM Jim Nill could be under the gun too. He probably should be, given the teams’ recent record, but having management advertise the fact publicly can’t make his job any easier.

Maybe the biggest problem with Friday’s meltdown is that it wasn’t spontaneous or off-the-cuff, meaning it appears to reflect the agreed-upon thinking of the organization from the top down. And when you strip away the profanity and the hyperbole, that thinking seems to boil down to: We’re already good enough – “too good”, in fact – and we just need to try harder. Not scoring enough goals? Just “get a little bit closer to the action”, as Lites put it, and the problem is solved.

It sure sounds easy when you put it that way. Unfortunately, that’s not the sort of thing that a struggling team comes up with after any sort of serious self-reflection. It’s wishful thinking, the sort of feel-good story you tell yourself when you don’t have the guts to admit that there are bigger flaws in play.

Maybe it works, and Lites’ tirade ends up inspiring the team. Maybe it doesn’t but ends up coinciding with a win streak and we all decide to pretend it somehow helped. Or maybe the boss just torpedoed a season, or even more than that. We’ll find out. At the very least, we can say the Stars are interesting again. For three years they’ve been that team you forget about when you’re going through the Central in your head and get stuck at six teams. Not anymore.

On to the power rankings. We have two weeks to work with, which should shake up our rankings. Let’s find out just how much.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed toward a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Saturday was the rare case of the league breaking out the maximum 15-game schedule. Then they went and played just one game last night. That’s a bit weird for fans, but as someone who writes most of a weekend wrap column on Sunday afternoon, I’m all for it.

5. Winnipeg Jets (24-12-2, +22 true goals differential*) – They’re opening up some space on top of the Central. But the loss of Dustin Byfuglien will hurt, and the offence has only managed multiple goals in one of their last five games. This week’s schedule is a fun one, with the Oilers, Penguins and Stars on tap.

4. Calgary Flames (23-12-4, +28) – Flames or Sharks? That’s the tough call in the Pacific these days. The Flames hold a slight lead, but the Sharks are the hotter team right now. Some models like Calgary. Others prefer San Jose. We’ll get to see them head-to-head tonight, but for now I’m leaning toward the Flames. (Now they just need to avoid any unnecessary distractions…)

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, December 28, 2018

Grab bag: Three stars of comedy HOF, Seattle GM power rankings, the Vegas outdoor game and more

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The Three Stars of Comedy hall of fame class of 2019 is here, and it needs your vote
- A power ranking of the ten most entertaining choices for Seattle's new GM
- The NHL really needs to stop putting one player from every team in the all-star game
- An obscure player who's basically just there so I could make a bad Christmas pun
- And a YouTube look back at the modern NHL's original outdoor classic

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

How I’d fix the NHL’s playoff format

Last​ week, we had​ some​ fun​ with​ the​ NHL’s​ playoff format.​ Since everyone likes​ to complain about​ today’s​ system, I pointed​​ out that the league has never been able to get this right. For over 100 years now, through dozens of different systems, there’s always been something wrong.

Lots of people told me they enjoyed the post. They learned something or at least had a good laugh. But then, inevitably, came the follow-up: OK then, smart guy, can you come up with something better?

Yes. Yes, I can.

When Gary Bettman retires and I’m named his replacement, I already know what the new playoff format will look like. If you want to be surprised when that day comes, stop reading now. But I took my shots at the league’s century of playoff format failure, so it’s only fair that I make the case for what I believe would be the correct answer.

It’s an idea I first floated over five years ago, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to come up with it. And in a few minutes, you’re going to be on board too.

The setup

The first step in building our new format is that we’re going back to using conference-based seeding for the first round. The top eight teams in each conference will make the playoffs, regardless of division, and they’ll be seeded one-through-eight based on standings.

I’ll stop here to acknowledge that we’ve already got a problem, because conference seeding means we’re going to reduce the chances of seeing those divisional rivalries the league loves so much. It’s one of the main reasons we have the current division-based format – because the league wants to see matchups like Boston/Montreal or Los Angeles/San Jose as often as possible. Those pairings are still possible in a conference-based system, but they become less likely. Some fans won’t care, but I happen to love those rivalry matchups. I think they’re part of what makes playoff hockey great. If you do too, and you’re disappointed that my format will feature fewer rivalry matchups, I’m going to ask you to hold that thought for a few more paragraphs.

So yeah, we’re back to conference-based seeding. This is basically how the system worked from 1994 through to 2013, although we’re throwing in a new wrinkle: We won’t be automatically giving the top seeds to the division winners. In fact, the division winners won’t matter at all. If the best three teams in the East are all in the Atlantic, then they’ll be the top three seeds. If the Central has six of the eight best teams in the West, then all six make the playoffs, in whatever order they’ve earned based on their regular season records. No automatic seeding for division winners.

That will strike fans as odd, since we’re used to the league always rewarding division winners with a top seed. But there’s really no need to. I’m not going to get into whether or not we’d use a balanced schedule for this format because it really doesn’t matter. But if the schedule is balanced, with all the teams in a conference playing each other an equal number of times, then the divisions don’t really matter. And if its unbalanced (like it is now), then a team that wins a weak division has played an easier schedule and already had an advantage. There’s no reason to reward them with another one once the playoffs start.

So we’re seeding each conference one through eight, without regard to division winners. And yes, that detail turns out to be important in a moment.

The first round has each conference playing the typical matchups: 1-vs-8, 2-vs-7 and so on. In Round 2 we re-seed, so the highest-ranked team left plays the lowest. This ruins the concept of filling out a bracket, which some fans enjoy, but it’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make. All of this means that the two best teams in the conference or even the league can’t end up playing in the second round, like happened last year with the Jets and Predators, and could happen this year with the Lightning and Leafs.

So far, so good. We’re two rounds into the playoffs, and there are four teams left, two from each conference. A few minor wrinkles aside, this isn’t all that different from what fans were used to a few years ago.

And then, something very simple yet beautiful will happen.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, December 21, 2018

Grab Bag: The pros and cons of Joel Quenneville, a crazy playoff format idea, and Whalermania

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Should Joel Quenneville go to Philadelphia? I list out some pros and cons.
- A playoff format idea that's so crazy it just might work
- An obscure player who was a savage bust
- The week's three comedy stars are all adorable children
- And we celebrate the return of the Whalers by breaking down the 1980s beauty of Whalermania.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Podcast: I've joined the Puck Soup team

Hey everyone... some big news to share. I've joined the team over at the Puck Soup podcast, and will be part of the hosting team with old pals Greg Wyshynski and Ryan Lambert.

I'm very excited to be back in the podcasting arena, and to have found a new home where I can sigh wearily about the NHL. I've missed doing Biscuits, and while this show won't be quite the same I think it's going to be a ton of fun. You can hear the three of us run down the biggest stories in hockey each week, then listen to me go awkwardly silent when the discussion shifts to pop culture and I have no idea what Greg and Ryan are talking about. It should be great.

The show runs every week, and I'll be part of most of the episodes going forward. They also have a Patreon which entitled supporters to bonus episodes, including one each month where Greg and I will cover NHL history and/or make fun of Gary Bettman's haircut; you can find out more about that here.

In this week's episode, we cover the Flyers coaching situation, the Hurricanes becoming the Whalers for a night, Tom Wilson's latest impact and lots more.

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A look back at over 100 years of the NHL’s playoff format never making one damn bit of sense

It’s​ the most wonderful​ time​ of​ the​ year.​ Specifically,​ the time​ of year for​ everyone to start​ complaining​ about the playoff​​ format.

It’s pretty much an annual tradition. By this point we’re far enough into the season that the standings are starting to firm up and we can look ahead to potential matchups. But some of those matchups don’t seem to make sense. In the East, three of the four best teams are all in the same division, meaning two of Tampa, Toronto and Buffalo would face each other in the first round. That’s not fair! And it’s also not fair that you could conceivably have teams like the Lightning and Leafs finish with the two best records in the conference, or even the entire league, and still end up playing in the second round. That scenario played out last year in the West with Winnipeg and Nashville and we could see the exact same thing with those two teams this year. It could end up like 2017, when the Blue Jackets had the fourth-best record in all of hockey, and had hit the road in Round 1 to face the No. 2 Penguins and everyone was furious.

There has to be a better way, right?

Well, probably. The current format has some advantages, including an emphasis on divisional matchups that create the sort of rivalries that make the sport so much fun. Maybe that’s an acceptable tradeoff in your book and maybe it isn’t. You might prefer to see the league go back to conference-based seeding. Or maybe you have some other idea.

But whatever your view, you’ve probably expressed frustration at the NHL’s ever-changing format. After all, how hard can it be to get this right?

Well, hold that thought. Because as it turns out, the NHL’s playoff format has never made sense. Like, ever.

When you look back at 100+ years of NHL history, you realize that having an unintuitive playoff format that confuses everyone and leads to weird matchups is just one of those hockey traditions that we all may as well get used to. Because it’s much pretty much always been this way.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a closer look back at the various formats the league has used over the years and see if we can find one that made everyone happy. Spoiler alert: We will not.

The first decade: Deadly flus, arena fires, player strikes and miscellaneous chaos

We can give the NHL a bit of a pass for being all over the map in its formative years. The league was brand new, with teams coming and going, arenas burning down and occasional influenza outbreaks derailing everything. It was a different time.

But even with that in mind, the league did some things that would strike us as odd today. For the first few seasons, it divided the season into two halves (which were “halves” in name only because they usually didn’t contain the same number of games) and had the team with the best record from each half play each other for the league title. And if the same team won both halves, as the Ottawa Senators did in 1920? Then there weren’t any playoffs. They just skipped them altogether.

After a few years of that, the league dropped the halved-season format and had the top two teams in the standings play for the title. But instead of playing a best-of-something, the teams played a two-game total goals series. That format was then expanded to three teams in 1925 … or at least it was supposed to. But the first-place Hamilton Tigers went on strike and were suspended, meaning the league title was determined by a meeting between the second and third-ranked teams without the best team even taking the ice.

Mix in the fact that none of those championships even determined the Stanley Cup winner – in those days, the NHL champ still had to face a team from another league for that honor – and it was a bit of a mess. But again, the league was new. Surely they’d figure it out in the second decade.

The second decade: They did not figure it out

By 1926-27, the league had ten teams divided into two five-team divisions called the American and the Canadian, which seems pretty straightforward until you remember that one of the teams in the Canadian division was the New York Americans, at which point you’ll need to go lie down for a while.

But by 1928-29, the NHL had come up with a format that would last for the next decade. Three teams in each division would make the playoffs, with the second and third seeds facing each other in a two-game series. So far so good. But try to guess who the two division winners played in the opening round.

If you said: “Nobody, because they got a bye,” then you understand how playoffs should work and can go watch some other sport, because this is the NHL and nothing has ever made sense.

No, the two division winners played each other. In the first round. In a best-of-five. That was their reward for finishing first. One of them would be eliminated right away, while the other would survive to face whichever team emerged from the non-division-winner bracket.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, December 17, 2018

Weekend rankings: Is Ovechkin the best ever? What the hell just happened in Philadelphia?

Nobody​ was surprised when​ reports​ emerged​ yesterday​ afternoon​ that​ Dave Hakstol​ had been fired.​ We’d all kind​ of​ figured it was​​ imminent, and when the Flyers closed out a brutal road trip with an ugly 5-1 loss in Vancouver, well, that was that. You never want to see anybody lose their job, but at some point you have to put a guy out of his misery, right?

So sure, Hakstol getting fired yesterday was no big surprise. But his replacement was, with Joel Quenneville reportedly getting the job. That was, needless to say, a great hire. It’s a franchise-changer. If you were a Flyers fan, you were thrilled and maybe even feeling some optimism for the first time all year.

And then, things got weird.

It started with a more careful reading of the initial reports. The Flyers hadn’t actually fired Hakstol or hired Quenneville; rather, they’d made the decision to do that. That seemed like a distinction without a difference, but as the afternoon wore on, the situation got murky. The Flyers didn’t announce anything, although that was probably just because they were still in the air on the way back to Philadelphia. But then they landed, and still nothing. At one point, there was a lost pair of shoes. It became apparent that if Hakstol had been fired, he didn’t seem to know it.

Then came the denials. First from Quenneville, and eventually from the Flyers themselves. Hakstol was still the coach. And at least as of first thing this morning, he still is. It was, as they say, a fluid situation. Then again, so is a bad stomach flu.

So what the hell just happened?

There are a few possible explanations. The first, and most straightforward, is that the whole story was just wrong. Somebody got bad information. It happens. The Flyers were never going to make a coaching change, at least not yesterday. But that ignores all the other signs that a change was imminent, which doesn’t make the simple explanation feel like the right one.

It’s also possible that the story was right, and that the Flyers had decided to replace Hakstol with Quenneville, only to have something go wrong. Maybe the “something” was the story leaking out early, or maybe it was something else. Or maybe the story was half-right; the Flyers were going to make a coaching change, but Quenneville wasn’t the guy. If so, the story coming out the way it did screws everything up, because anyone they hire now will seem like a step down from a three-time champion. Or maybe they’re just going to make the move today.

Whatever happened, it’s hard to see a way forward for the Flyers that looks good. Even if they hire Quenneville this morning, fans will wonder what happened over the weekend. If they hire anyone else, he’s not Quenneville. And if they stick with Hakstol now, well, good luck to the poor guy.

We’re officially onto the first, full-blown crisis of the Chuck Fletcher era, and he needs to pick a path forward and communicate it clearly. And then we’ll wait and see if this time, it sticks.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

There are at least six teams who seem like slam-dunk picks for the top five, so somebody’s going to be left out. Let’s find out who …

5. Washington Capitals (20-9-3, +20 true goals differential*) – They needed a shootout to do it, but the Caps picked up their fifth straight win on Saturday, and now hold a six-point lead on top of the Metro. They were a pedestrian 8-7-3 in mid-November but have won 12 of 14 since, giving us an answer to the question “How long does a Stanley Cup hangover last?” It’s “roughly five weeks.”

Meanwhile, this seems to have been the week where some real buzz started building over the ridiculous season that Alexander Ovechkin is having. The 33-year-old is up to 29 goals in 32 games, including two hat tricks this week and another goal on Saturday, and is leading the race for what would be his eighth Rocket Richard Trophy.

That’s led to a couple of water-cooler debates. The first is whether Ovechkin can realistically catch Wayne Gretzky for the all-time goal-scoring lead. He’d need almost 260 more goals to get there, which seems impossible. Then again, what he’s doing right now seems impossible, we can’t rule anything out with this guy. And even if he doesn’t catch Gretzky, there’s a good chance he can get past Jaromir Jagr for third spot, and maybe catch Gordie Howe for second. For a guy who played his entire career in the Dead Puck Era, that’s amazing.

That leads to the next question: Even if he doesn’t catch Gretzky, is Ovechkin still the greatest goal scorer of all-time? On an era-adjusted basis, he’s already passed Gretzky, although he’s still well back of Jagr and especially Howe, who gets a boost based on having done most of his scoring in the conservative 50s and 60s. We’d also have to include guys like Maurice Richard, Phil Esposito and both Hulls in the discussion. But none of them won eight goal-scoring titles.

That “greatest ever” argument is one that people have been making for years now, and the answer has always seemed to come out to a hedge along the lines of, “He might be, especially if he keeps it up.” Well, he isn’t just keeping it up, he’s getting better. Can we just drop the qualifiers and say he’s already the best ever, right now? If he hangs up his skates tomorrow, has Ovechkin already done enough to be considered the best goal-scorer in hockey history?

I kind of think he has. I grew up in awe of Gretzky, and I’ll still occasionally go back and watch old clips of him cutting into the zone and teeing up one of those patented slapshots where the puck seemed to turn on its side in the air and blow past a helpless goalie. But that’s exactly it – Gretzky played in an era where forwards were allowed to cut into the zone with enough time and space to wind up a slapshot and the goalies really were helpless. Even the good ones. Ovechkin is doing it in the era where every goalie is 6’6″ and plays every angle perfectly, and gap control and shot-blocking are basically religion. It’s amazing.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, December 14, 2018

Grab Bag: Expanded playoffs, personal goal songs, and a visit from Adorable Hockey Grandpa

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Should the NHL expand the playoffs? I'm not sure, so I looked at both sides of the debate.
- A word about players getting their own individual goal songs
- An obscure player who bounced around the NHL for a decade but did 77% of his scoring in one season
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a classic YouTube video in which young American players are visited by an adorable old man who wants to teach them about hockey while insulting them and yelling about taxes

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Thursday, December 13, 2018

A brief history of players being told that they wouldn’t be traded and then being traded

It’s​ been almost two​ weeks​ since​ the​ end​ of​ the William​ Nylander contract saga,​ with its twists​ and​ turns and last-minute​​ buzzer-beater resolution. As the round-the-clock coverage fades into more reasonable daily updates, we’re trying to sort through the various details that are emerging on how this deal was put together.

One of those details is Nylander’s apparent belief that Kyle Dubas has promised not to trade him.

Because of the way the CBA works, the personal word of his GM is the only sort of trade protection Nylander can get; players aren’t eligible for no-trade or no-movement clauses until the reach their UFA-eligibility seasons. So Nylander has to rely on Dubas to hold up his end of the bargain here.

And Dubas probably will – after all, trading Nylander wouldn’t make much sense for the Leafs, and this is a rookie GM who’d no doubt prefer to establish a reputation as a straight-shooter. Assuming Nylander’s version of the conversation is accurate and Dubas really did give his word, there’s no reason to think that the young winger has anything to worry about here.

But just to be safe, he might want to stop reading right about now.

Because as it turns out, NHL history is filled with players who’ve believed they’d been given the same sort of assurance that Nylander says he got from the Maple Leafs. And more than a few times, those promises turned out to not be quite as ironclad as the player would have hoped.

So today, let’s look back at a few of the (many) trade scenarios in hockey history that started with a firm handshake or at least a perceived wink and nudge and ended with a player angrily mumbling about loyalty while packing a suitcase.

1975: The Bruins trade Phil Esposito to the Rangers

We’ll start with what may stand as the most famous example of the genre: the 1975 blockbuster that saw the Bruins trade Esposito and Carol Vadnais to the Rangers for Brad Park, Jean Ratelle and a minor-leaguer. It was a monster deal, one that saw New York acquire the player who’d led the league in goals in each of the last six seasons. And it didn’t make Esposito very happy.

That was because he’d signed a new contract that summer that he assumed would let him finish his career in Boston. He’d reportedly been offered $2.5 million on a five-year deal to join the WHA’s Vancouver Blazers, but took roughly half that to stay with the Bruins. According to Esposito’s version of events, Harry Sinden promised him that he wouldn’t be traded, and even offered to write a no-trade clause into the deal, which at the time was rare. Esposito says he told the GM not to bother, and that his word was enough. Weeks later, he was gone.

The trade, of course, ended up being a steal for the Bruins. Esposito played well in New York, but Park became the best player in the deal. And it got even more lopsided when the Rangers decided to reunite Esposito with center Ken Hodge, and sent a young Rick Middleton to the Bruins to get him. Park and Middleton became key parts of the late-70s Bruins teams that nearly won the Cup.

At the time of the trade, Esposito told reporters that he was “crushed” and that “I thought I had a home in Boston.” But he said he had “no regrets” toward Sinden or the Bruins. That tone would change over the years, as Esposito carried the grudge well past retirement. In 2013, almost 38 years after the trade went down, he was asked about the Bruins facing the Blackhawks in the Cup final and responded that “This series doesn’t mean shit to me.”

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The star-studded UFA class of 2019 aren't signing extensions. That's rare, and history suggests it's bad news for their teams.

One​ of the biggest​ stories​ of​ the​ NHL​ season​ is what’s​ happening with the​ star-studded free agent​ class​ of 2019. And​​ what’s happening is: not much.

That’s a big deal. Every summer, we look ahead to the following year’s potential free agents and get excited over all the big names. And every year, almost all of those big names end up signing extensions long before they get anywhere near free agency. By the time July 1 rolls around, there’s rarely much star power left.

But so far, that hasn’t happened for most of the class of 2019. A few big names have signed, including Max Pacioretty, Pekka Rinne, Blake Wheeler and Ryan Ellis. But that’s left several top stars who still need extensions, and who are now less than seven months away from hitting unrestricted free agency.

We can start with Erik Karlsson in San Jose, who could end up being one of the offseason’s biggest stories for the second straight year. The Blue Jackets have both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner is having a career year. And the Senators have both Matt Duchene and Mark Stone.

Those six players would all figure to hit the jackpot if they made it to the open market. But the list goes on, with names like Wayne Simmonds, Jake Gardiner, Joe Pavelski, Jordan Eberle and Cam Talbot all on expiring deals. And then there’s Anders Lee and Eric Staal and Tyler Myers and Mats Zuccarello and Semyon Varlamov and … you get the picture. The list is stacked.

Karlsson is expected to use Drew Doughty’s $11-million cap hit as a starting point. Bobrovsky and Panarin could both be looking at deals that would carry cap hits north of $9 or even $10 million. Skinner won’t be far behind, and Duchene was on track to get there too before his groin injury sidetracked a career year. Stone is in the same ballpark, although he can’t officially sign an extension until Jan. 1. And many of those other names figure to be looking at cap hits that would at least start with a six or seven on a multi-year deal. That’s a ton of talent, and a ton of potential money.

Hockey fans might be wondering whether it’s unusual for this many big-name pending UFAs to make it this far into the season without an extension. The short answer: Yes, it’s extremely unusual. For the longer answer, and what it might mean for 2019, let’s dive into the recent history.

Playing the waiting game

Most star players sign extensions relatively early. Some do it right on July 1, the first day they’re eligible; we saw that this year with Doughty and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Others take a few weeks, like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in 2014, or even make it past opening night, like Brent Burns last year. But by the time the calendar flips over to December, most of the big names are already locked down.

When a pending UFA does make it this far into the season without an extension, there are basically three ways the situation can play out. The first is that they eventually sign during the season and stay with their team. If you’re a fan of a team that has one of those big names above, that’s the scenario you’re looking for.

The second possibility is that the player doesn’t sign during the season, but avoids free agency by agreeing to an extension during the offseason. In theory, that’s just as good. But these cases often involve the player being traded first, either as a deadline rental or in one of those June deals that sees his rights dealt in exchange for a middling draft pick. It doesn’t always work that way; as we’ll see, there are players who’ve made it through the season without an extension and then re-upped with their team weeks before free agency, and if you’re a contending team like the Sharks or Blue Jackets, maybe you’re willing to roll the dice while you chase a Cup right now. But if you’re the Senators or Flyers, can you take that chance?

And then there’s the third option: The player doesn’t sign during the season, they don’t sign during the offseason and they make it to the free agency period. At that point they’re free to shop their services to any team and the odds of them coming back are slim.

So how common is it for a star player to make it to December without an extension? And when it happens, how often do each of those three situations above play out?

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, December 10, 2018

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

Spoiler​ alert: Even though​ they​ lost​ last​ night​ in​ Edmonton, the​ Flames are going​ to be back​ in​ this week’s top​​ five.

That probably isn’t going to shock you. Calgary remains one of the hottest teams in the league, having won nine of their last twelve to take over top spot in the Pacific. Until last night they’d been filling up the net, raking fourth in goals scored league-wide. But lately they’ve been keeping the puck out too, with David Rittich playing well and Mike Smith suddenly looking like a viable NHL starter again.

That’s a tough combo to beat, as most of the Flames’ recent opponents could tell you. They’d won four straight heading into the weekend, which set up a marquee matchup with the Predators that featured the West’s two top teams facing off with top spot in the conference on the line. It was the sort of game that feels like a test for a surging young team, and the Flames passed it by pouring in three third-period goals, turning a tight game into a 5-2 win.

After that kind of a season-defining win, maybe it was inevitable that last night’s renewal of the Battle of Alberta would be a bit of a dud. The last time these two teams met, it had us giddy for a potential playoff matchup. Last night looked more like a tired team coming off an emotional win travelling to play a rested rival in a tough building. The Flames fell behind early, had a goal waved off for interference and then spent much of the third killing penalties instead of pushing for the comeback. The Oilers earned their 1-0 win and are working their way back into the Pacific title discussion themselves. But it didn’t feel like they got the Flames best last night.

Still, it was a good week for Calgary, especially given that they were missing two players to suspension, including captain Mark Giordano. So yeah, the Flames are going to be in our top five this week. The question is how high they go and which teams they pass along the way. Let’s find out …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Hey, remember when I made a big deal out of finally putting the Sabres in the top five, then they won the next night and haven’t won again since? I think that may have been my fault. Sorry, Buffalo, won’t happen again.

5. Washington Capitals (17-9-3, +16 true goals differential*) – This week brought a three-game road trip and four of a possible six points. Not bad, although not necessarily the sort of performance that guarantees a spot in the top five. Still, seeing them face down the Blue Jackets in a battle for top spot in the Metro and come away with a 4-0 road win was impressive. Next weekend brings an intriguing matchup against the Sabres and a chance for the champs to continue to defend their turf against the next wave of contenders.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs (20-9-1, +25) – They’re still sitting second overall. But their last two games have been ugly and Saturday’s loss in a nasty game in Boston had to bring back at least a few memories of playoffs past. It will also cost them Zach Hyman, who earned two games for his late hit on Charlie McAvoy.

There’s no need to panic, but for now we’ll nudge the Leafs down a spot or two until William Nylander finds his legs and the team reminds us that they can show up before the third period starts.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, December 7, 2018

Grab Bag: Want to be the NHL's next commissioner? Apply now!

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- I got a hold of the NHL's job posting for the next commissioner
- The Hurricanes and Ducks are doing something very cool tonight
- An obscure player who beat Ron Hextall to history by three days
- The week's three comedy stars feature the Habs being very mean to the Senators
- And we welcome Seattle to the NHL by looking back at how the league did expansion 20 years ago in a wild YouTube breakdown

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Which teams have the best (and worst) odds of winning a Stanley Cup in the next five years?

It’s​ Future Week here​ on​ The​ Athletic’s​ NHL​ pages.​ So today,​ let’s head into​ that future. How​ does​ five years sound?

If​​ you said “way too far to predict with any accuracy, you idiot”, then you’re right. But we’re going to do it anyway, by trying to figure out which NHL teams have the best odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup at any point in the next five years.

It’s a deceivingly tough question, one that touches on everything from current rosters to prospect pipelines to coaching to cap management. I tried to tackle it three years ago at Grantland, with mixed results (more on that in a bit). Today I’m going to try again, because I do not learn from my mistakes.

But first: You may have seen Monday’s Future Power Rankings, a piece that ranked the 31 existing teams in terms of where they’ll be in three years. It was basically an attempt to project what the league will look like in 2020-21.

So is this the same thing? Not really, although there will be some obvious overlap. If you’re well set up to be among the league’s best teams in three years, you’re basically hitting the sweet spot of a five-year window. And if you’re headed toward being a mess in a few years, you’re probably not in great shape on either end of that. We’ll be referring back to the Future Power Rankings several times as we go.

But today’s ranking isn’t necessarily about the future, and it’s not meant as a ranking of which teams will be in the best shape a certain number of years from now. We just want to win Cups here, and for our purposes, a win in 2019 counts just as much as one in 2023. That means that an old team without many prospects can still rank well if their window remains open right now. And a team that’s an utter mess today still has time to turn things around. Five years is a long time.

So with that in mind, let’s move on to figuring out which teams are the most likely to win the next five Stanley Cups. As with any attempt at projecting the future, some of these rankings will turn out to be wrong; it’s hard enough to predict what’s going to happen in the NHL tonight, let alone half a decade from now. If you’re the sort of person who gets irrationally upset over that, feel free to track me down and scream at me about it. Just remember that you have to wait five years first.

Grab a cup of coffee and settle in. We’ll start at the bottom, and with what should be the only sure thing in this post. Maybe.

32. Seattle Something-or-Others

If the Golden Knight taught us one thing, it’s that anything can happen in the NHL. If they taught us a second and more important thing, it’s that having a clean slate of cap room turns out to be far more valuable than we may have realized.

So why don’t I think Seattle has much of a chance to match the Knights’ success? Partly because I view that Vegas season as a perfect storm that’s unlikely to be duplicated. And partly because I suspect that the other teams are going to smarten up in terms of how they handle expansion. They may even over-correct, hurting themselves in the process. But either way, Seattle is going to have a tougher time fleecing teams right out of the gate.

But mostly, I feel good about this pick because Seattle won’t join the league until 2021. That eats up three of our five years, which means their odds have to be the longest of anyone in the league.

At least I’m pretty sure they should. And I’m never wrong about an expansion team, as long as you ignore literally everything I’ve written since 2017.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 3%

31. Los Angeles Kings

I suspect that Kings fans won’t be overly surprised to see their team bringing up the rear among the 31 established franchises. The Kings’ rebuild hasn’t even started yet; we’re not even sure they realize how badly they need one. There’s talent coming through the system, but with an uninspiring NHL roster and a long-term cap situation clogged with big deals for declining veterans, there’s a ton of work to do in Los Angeles. They might get there, but by the time they do, most of our five-year window should be gone.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 4%

30. Chicago Blackhawks

On the one hand, this feels like an easy one. The ‘Hawks were bad last year. They’re worse this year. And with a cap situation dominated by long-term contracts to aging stars who, for the most part, just aren’t ever going to be the players they once were, there’s little reason to think that things will get any better. The prospect pipeline is OK but not much more than that, and among the young players on the roster, only Alex DeBrincat really looks like a potential star. They’re basically the Kings, in just slightly better shape.

So it’s an easy call. Almost too easy. These are still the Blackhawks, just three years removed from a mini-dynasty, and the rush to bury them feels at least a little like wishful thinking. I’m still going to do it, because I have to bury a few teams for this to work. But if Stan Bowman rediscovers his magic, the Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews duo ages gracefully, and Artemi Panarin shows up at their front door on July 1 holding a sign that says ADOPT ME, I’ll be muttering “I knew it” while Blackhawks fans gleefully shove me out onto an ice floe.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 6%

29. Ottawa Senators

Here’s where things get tricky. On the one hand, the Senators’ young players have looked good this year, and there’s reason to be optimistic that Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk can both be difference makers. Mix in some decent prospects on the way and a handful of core pieces still left over from the conference final run two years ago, and on paper I should probably be more optimistic, even without that 2019 first-round pick to build around and Mark Stone and Matt Duchene still unsigned.

The big question is whether they can really win a Cup with Eugene Melnyk as owner, given his financial constraints and non-stop parade of distractions and controversies. I’m just not convinced that they can, with the recent implosion of their arena plans reinforcing that. Melnyk continues to insist he’ll never sell. But if and when new ownership arrives, feel free to move the Senators up at least a few slots, and maybe more.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 7%

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, December 3, 2018

Weekend power rankings: Nylander and Wilson both come in late and maybe a little high

Well,​ you have to​ give​ William​ Nylander​ and​ Kyle​ Dubas some​ credit. They know​ how to build​ to​ a dramatic finish.

The weekend’s​​ biggest story came off the ice, as contract negotiations between the Maple Leafs and their talented young winger went down to the wire. With Saturday’s 5:00 p.m. ET deadline looming, we made it well into the afternoon without any kind of indication of where things were headed. As the timer ticked down and it became clear that there wouldn’t be a trade, it started to look like we could actually see the deadline come and go without any kind of deal in place.

And then, with just minutes to go, the word came down: They had a deal.

The details, in case you missed them: Nylander gets a six-year deal that will pay him just under $42-million, and carries a cap hit north of $10-million for this season, before settling in at $6.9-million the rest of the way. He’s expected to play this week, either tomorrow in Buffalo or on Thursday against Detroit.

Let’s make a few observations here, starting with an obvious one: If this really went down the way it’s been described, and the two sides didn’t actually strike a deal until there were just minutes left before the deadline, that is insane. Like, it’s completely nuts.

Maybe we’re just seeing a little dramatic license come into play here. But according to reports, there was no deal until Nylander himself called Dubas just 30 minutes before the deadline, and the actual contract wasn’t signed until there were just eight minutes to spare. If that’s true, or even all that close, it means that what could turn out to be a career-defining decision for both the player and the GM came down to the same sort of last-minute scramble as your high-school history essays. It’s madness.

In the bigger picture, the deal seems to work well enough for both sides. Nylander ultimately got what he was looking for – maybe not the Leon Draisaitl money he was rumored to be using as a starting point, but something north of what David Pastrnak accepted a year ago. That comparison always rankled some fans, since Pastrnak is the better player. But in hindsight he signed for less than he deserved and that’s hardly Nylander’s fault. The young Leaf played hardball, even insisting that his deal contain enough bonuses to make him whole for the time he missed. And in the end, he got just about exactly what he wanted.

As for Dubas and the Leafs, they weren’t able to push Nylander down to the number they were hoping for, and if you insist on a narrative of either side blinking, then that’s the Maple Leafs. But in terms of the long-term cap hit – this year really doesn’t matter – Dubas kept the number under $7-million, if only barely.

Is that too much? It might be. But it’s not, despite the way some are trying to spin it, the sort of deal that forces a GM to break up a team. The Leafs are probably paying Nylander about a half-million more a year than they’d like to. That’s not ideal and a hard cap means you need to squeeze value wherever you can. But it’s the sort of problem that eventually forces you into a move on your fourth line or bottom pair, not with your stars. The Leafs have said all along that they can keep their big four forwards and nothing that happened with Nylander should force them to change that approach.

James Mirtle breaks down the impact in more detail right here. But the big winner here is all of us, who can finally move on to another story. If you’re a Leafs fan, the Nylander drama was looming over everything that the team was doing on the ice. If you’re not, you’re probably wondering how a 60-point winger managed to take over the NHL’s news cycle. Either way, we’re done, and we can all move on to something more important. Like obsessing over contracts for Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews for most of the next year.

I’m kidding. Kind of.

In what can only be described as an inexcusable decision, the NHL still went ahead and played some actual games on the weekend, even as everyone in the hockey world was 100 percent focused on the Nylander drama. Some of those games even shifted our weekly power rankings around. We’ll get to that in a bit. But first, hey, speaking of Cap hits that might be too high …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Tom Wilson was at it again on the weekend. The Capitals winger, fresh off a 14-game suspension for throwing a dumb hit, figured it was time to get back to throwing dumb hits.

Wilson’s hit on Brett Seney resulted in a match penalty, but no further discipline. It wasn’t a hit to head, despite the call on the ice. But it was late and it was from behind on a vulnerable player. As far as suspensions go, it was borderline.

That put the Department of Player Safety in a tough spot. A player’s history comes into play for discipline decisions, but only in the “how many games” phase. In theory, at least, a player’s reputation has nothing to do with whether a hit is suspension-worthy or not. The DoPS basically had two choices: Decide that the hit didn’t rise to the level of a suspension and give Wilson nothing, or decide that it did and then, given his record, sit him down for a long time.

In the end, they decided to go with the former. It may have been the right call; had any player other than Wilson thrown the same hit, maybe most people just shrug it off. The hit wasn’t clean – you’re not allowed to skate through the back of a player who doesn’t have the puck, and never have been – but there’s still such a thing as bad hits that don’t merit suspensions. The DoPS felt that Wilson’s hit was one of them.

But even if the hit wasn’t worth another 20 games, it was dumb. It was unnecessary. Wilson wasn’t breaking up a play or creating a chance or doing anything to help his team. He just saw a guy he could paste and he couldn’t help himself. Or maybe he could – viewed generously, he seems to reconsider at the last second and try to bail on the hit, but it’s too late. Either way, Wilson isn’t even picking his spots. He took his massive suspension for a hit in a meaningless preseason game and now this. The problem is that there just doesn’t seem to be an off switch. He just hits whoever he can, however he can and then apologizes later if he needs to.

It increasingly feels like this can only end one of two ways. Either very, very badly, with somebody getting seriously hurt and Wilson sitting out most of a season. Or with Wilson changing his game so radically that he’s not Tom Wilson anymore. The ideal situation – the one where he still gets to be the dominant physical force the Capitals paid $31-million for but doesn’t throw dumb hits that hurt his team and risk massive suspensions for no benefit – just doesn’t seem to be an option for this guy.

5. Washington Capitals (15-8-3, +12 true goals differential*) – In related news, the defending champs are back in the top five, despite yesterday’s collapse against the Ducks that snapped a seven-game win streak. And yes, Wilson is part of that, because when he’s in the lineup he helps them win.

You could say that the Capitals are running over everyone, but I’ve been assured that it’s more like they’re just gliding around innocently and everyone else keeps backing into them.

4. Colorado Avalanche (15-6-5, +25) – I’ve never fully bought into the Avalanche. I still don’t, if I’m being honest. But at some point the results have to count for more than the gut instinct or whatever else and the Avs are at that point. They haven’t lost in regulation since Nov. 9 and have passed the Jets and Wild in the Central, with the Predators in sight. They’ve earned a spot.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, November 30, 2018

Grab Bag: Debating your favorite player's next contract, a family trip idea, and better days for Ron Hextall

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Your favorite player is good, but just how good is he?
- Those annual Dad and Mon trips are great, but they could be better
- A obscure player who could protect all these Finnish stars
- The week's three comedy stars, plus one
- And a look back at Ron Hextall's history-making playoff goal

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Finding (and fixing) every team’s most painful draft regrets

If​ you’ve been on​ Twitter​ for​ a decade​ or​ so​ like I​ have, you’ve seen​ roughly five or​ maybe​ even six good​​ tweets. The all-time best hockey tweet, we can all agree, is this one. But not far behind is this beauty from the 2015 entry draft, which still resurfaces from time to time:

The Bruins held three straight picks in the first round that year, and they could indeed have used those picks to nab Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor. (And, uh, Oliver Kylington, but let’s skip that part.) Instead, they picked Jakub Zboril, Jake Debrusk and Zachary Senyshyn. Let’s be charitable and say they went 1-for-3.

If you’re a Boston fan, you may be haunted by visions of Barzal and Connor slotted into today’s Bruins lineup, and thoughts of what might have been. But that’s hardly unusual. In fact, every team has had a draft like the 2015 Bruins, where you wish you could go back and will your team to make different picks.

So today, let’s do that. We’re all scouting geniuses with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, so let’s pretend we’re time traveling hockey fans from the year 2018 who can go back and visit the draft table of each NHL team for one year and convince the GM to change three picks. Which year would you go back to for your favorite team? Or put differently, how painful was your team’s worst missed opportunity?

Two important ground rules here, and I’m even going to break out the bolded text to make sure everyone sees them before they go yell at me in the comments. (They will not.)

– We can only convince teams to take guys who are going to be chosen relatively close to that team’s actual pick. Otherwise, there’s not much fun here – every team wishes they’d taken Dominik Hasek in 1983 or Pavel Datsyuk in 1998, but reading that 30 times wouldn’t be all that interesting. So let’s pretend that no GM is going to listen to a time traveler telling him to reach too far, which we’ll define as more than five picks in the top 10, or more than 10 picks anywhere else.

– In a further attempt to avoid going overboard on the Datsyuk-type picks, only one team can change their pick to any given player. In other worse, no player can be redrafted more than once. And to ratchet up the pain, we’ll give first dibs to whichever team was closest to where that guy was ultimately picked.

With those caveats in mind, let’s find the most painful draft possible for all 30 teams that have been around long enough to know they screwed up. (Sorry, Vegas, you’ll have to sit this one out. Check back in a few years.) For teams that have relocated, we’ll count the previous version too, since some of those players would have made the move to the new market.

This is going to get long, so we recommend CTRL+F’ing your favorite team, crying for a little bit, and then circling back to point and laugh at everyone else. Let’s do this.

Anaheim Ducks: 2007

They could have had: #22 Max Pacioretty, #43 P.K. Subban and #129 Jamie Benn

Instead they picked: #19 Logan MacMillan, #42 Eric Tangradi and #121 Mattias Modig

The Ducks are a nice place to start – thank you, alphabetical order! – because they do a good job of demonstrating the concept we’re going for here. Three all-stars, including an Art Ross and a Norris winner, there for the taking. Instead, the Ducks grabbed two forwards who combined for a total of five NHL goals and a goaltender who never made the NHL. Was the entire Ducks’ front office drunk in 2007? [Remembers how that year’s playoffs went.] Yeah, they were probably drunk.

Arizona Coyotes: 2015

They could have had: #4 Mitch Marner, #35 Sebastian Aho and #37 Brandon Carlo

Instead they picked: #3 Dylan Strome, #30 Nick Merkley and #32 Christian Fischer

It’s a little ironic that it only takes us two teams to get to the 2015 draft that inspired this post. And for extra fun, we’re even stealing one of Boston’s picks in the process.

It’s admittedly a little risky to go back just three years, since 2015 is recent enough that we can’t say for sure how the draft will turn out. Maybe Strome reaches his potential in Chicago, Merkley still makes it and Fischer goes from solid young depth to difference maker. But for right now, the Coyotes with Aho, Carlo and Marner – or Ivan Provorov or Zach Werenski for that matter – would look pretty scary.

Boston Bruins: 1981

They could have had: #15 Al MacInnis, #40 Chris Chelios and #107 Gerard Gallant

Instead they picked: #14 Normand Leveille, #35 Luc Dufour and #98 Joe Mantione

It’s tempting to stay true to the source material and just go with 2015 for the Bruins, maybe swapping in somebody like Thomas Chabot or Brock Boeser for Kylington. But while Barzal and friends are very good young players, they’ve got a long way to go to be first-ballot Hall of Famers like Chelios and MacInnis.

Gallant is the third wheel here, and you could go with somebody like Tom Kurvers or Greg Stefan instead if you wanted, but the key point is that the Bruins could have built their 1980s blueline around Chelios, MacInnis and Ray Bourque. (And if you want to argue that already having Bourque means they wouldn’t have bothered drafting defensemen, remember that they spent the first overall pick in 1982 on Gord Kluzak.)

Buffalo Sabres: 1977

They could have had: #15 Mike Bossy, #33 John Tonelli and #73 Jim Korn

Instead they picked: #14 Ric Seiling, #32 Ron Areshenkoff and #68 Bill Stewart

It’s the context that makes this one sting. Back in 1977, the Sabres and Islanders were both recent expansion teams that had already built contenders. The Sabres had put up three straight 100-point seasons, while the Islanders had just had their second. Both teams felt like they were on the verge of a breakthrough, as if they were just a player or two away from something special. Then the Sabres let Bossy and Tonelli slip through their fingers in favor of two guys who played the same positions, and the final pieces of an eventual Islanders dynasty fell into place.

Korn’s basically an afterthought here; the real question is whether flipping these picks means the Sabres and Islanders flip 1980s destinies too.

Calgary Flames: 1990

They could have had: #19 Keith Tkachuk, #34 Doug Weight and #85 Sergei Zubov

Instead they picked: #11 Trevor Kidd, #32 Vesa Viitakoski and #83 Paul Kruse

For reasons I can’t quite figure out, the Flames are one of the hardest team to find a really regrettable draft for. It’s not that they don’t make bad picks – everyone does – but they seem to spread them out, or at least let a team or two get in between them and their worst misses.

So we’ll cheat just a little by going with 1990 here. The three players they miss are all top-tier stars, and despite having a dozen picks the only real NHLers they found were Kruse and Kidd. But as Flames fans know, this draft lives in infamy because the Flames traded up with New Jersey from #20 to #11 to get Kidd, only to see the Devils use that #20 pick on the draft’s second highest-rated goaltender … Martin Brodeur. Whoops. Even on the draft floor, sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make.

Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers: 1989

They could have had: #53 Nicklas Lidstrom, #74 Sergei Fedorov and #221 Vladimir Konstantinov

Instead they picked: #52 Blair Atcheynum, #73 Jim McKenzie and #220 John Battice

This one almost feels unfair, as the Red Wings have quite possibly the greatest draft in the history of the NHL with the Whalers picking right in front of them the whole way along. Hartford even misses out on a 1,000-game man in #116 Dallas Drake in favor of #115 Jerome Bechard. But at least #136 Scott Daniels ended up being a marginally better pick than #137 Scott Zygulski. Eat that, Detroit!

Chicago Blackhawks: 2004

They could have had: #5 Blake Wheeler, #63 David Krejci and #258 Pekka Rinne

Instead they picked: #3 Cam Barker, #54 Jakub Sindel and #256 Matthew Ford

Chicago fans probably aren’t surprised to see the Cam Barker pick show up here in some form. Missing on Krejci and Rinne hurts too, as does passing up guys like Ryan Callahan and Andrej Sekera. The good news is that the Hawks did find some important depth pieces for their future dynasty in Dave Bolland and Bryan Bickell. But as for the franchise-defining draft finds, those would have to wait a couple of years.

Colorado Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques: 1988

They could have had: #8 Jeremy Roenick, #10 Teemu Selanne and either #67 Mark Recchi or #70 Rob Blake

Instead they picked: #3 Curtis Leschyshyn, #5 Daniel Dore and #66 Darren Kimble

The Nordiques whiffed so badly that I have to put Alexander Mogilny in the honorable mentions. He went with the 89th pick, two spots after the Nordiques took Stephane Venne.

The league felt so sorry for Quebec after this draft that they let them have the first overall pick in each of the next three years.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, November 26, 2018

A brief history of midseason GM changes (and how they’ve worked out)

The​ Philadelphia Flyers dropped a bomb​ on​ Monday,​ announcing​ that​ GM​ Ron Hextall​ had been fired​ midway through his​ fifth​ season on the​​ job. The move comes as a shock, partly because of Hextall’s long history with the franchise and partly because many figured that coach Dave Hakstol would be the first to go.

But there’s another reason the Hextall firing caught so many of us off guard: It’s extremely rare to see a team change its GM midway through a season. Putting a roster together is a big job, one that’s even harder to do when you don’t start until late November. Teams almost always prefer to let a new GM come in early in the offseason, with time to organize the front office, run the draft, and come up with a strategy for free agency and the salary cap. Changing coaches midway through a season often works out well, as we broke down last week. But GMs? That’s a whole different scenario.

Still, it does happen, including last season’s demotion of Ron Francis in Carolina. As we work through the fallout of the Hextall news, let’s take a look back at ten times in modern NHL history that a team has changed GMs during the regular season. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but we’ll try to pick out examples that demonstrate both the good and the bad of this sort of move.

2012-13 Columbus Blue Jackets

The old GM: One month into the lockout-shortened 2013 season, with the Blue Jackets having lost eight of their last ten, Columbus fired GM Scott Howson. The move came just months after he’d pulled off the biggest trade in franchise history, sending an unhappy Rick Nash to the Rangers.

The new GM: The team turned to Jarmo Kekalainen, making him the first European GM in NHL history.

How it worked out: Reasonably well, even as some observers thought Howson got a raw deal. (He memorably received two votes in GM of the Year balloting despite being unemployed.) Kekalainen remains on the job to this day – along with Bob Murray of the Ducks*, he’s the only current GM who was a midseason hire – and has built the Blue Jackets into Cup contenders.

2000-01 Boston Bruins

The old GM: We may never see another GM like Harry Sinden, who’d been on the job for 28 years when he finally stepped down in November 2000. He remained on as president, a role he’d hold until 2006, but the Bruins would have a new GM for the first time since the days of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.

The new GM: Mike O’Connell took on the dubious job of replacing a franchise icon.

How it worked out: The Bruins were well into rebuilding mode – this move came a few months after they’d traded Ray Bourque to the Avalanche – but O’Connell got them back to the playoffs by 2002, winning the Northeast Division in the process. But he never won a playoff round and was fired at the end of the 2005-06 season. Fairly or not, he’s probably best remembered for being the only GM in North American pro sports history to trade a player in the middle of a season in which he won MVP.

2013-14 Buffalo Sabres

The old GM: Darcy Regier, who’d been on the job since 1997 and had led the team to the Stanley Cup final in 1999. But after a 4-15-1 start and with Buffalo fans chanting “Fire Darcy” at home games, a move seemed inevitable. It was.

The new GM: This is where things get a bit weird. The Sabres didn’t immediately name a new GM, but did appoint Pat LaFontaine as the president of hockey operations and Regier’s de facto replacement. LaFontaine eventually hired Tim Murray away from the Senators in January, in a move that was widely applauded. But by March LaFontaine was gone too, resigning amid reports of an “ugly” conflict with Murray over player personnel decisions.

How it worked out: Murray initially seemed like a great hire; he did well on the Ryan Miller trade, and did the dirty work to prepare the Sabres for the 2014-15 tank job that landed them Jack Eichel. But he couldn’t turn the team around once they’d hit rock bottom and was fired as part of yet another Sabres housecleaning in 2017.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Weekend power rankings: Welcome to the Patrik Laine show

Man,​ how fun was​ that?

Patrik​ Laine​ went​ old​ school​ on Saturday​ night, lighting up​ the Blues for​ five​ goals, in the Jets​​ to an 8-4 win. It was a million-dollar performance – both figuratively, because it was amazing, and literally, because it won a lucky Jets fan $1-million as part of a sponsored sweepstakes. Never let it be said that NHL players don’t give back to the community.

It was only the third time this century that a player has hit the five-goal mark in a single game (Johan Franzen in 2011 and Marian Gaborik in 2007). Furthermore, Laine got his five-spot with enough time left to create some genuine suspense over whether he could become the first player to score a sixth goal in a game since Darryl Sittler in 1976.

(On a side note, how crazy it is that neither Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux ever scored six goals in a game during the high-flying 1980s and early 90s? Given all the records those two shattered along the way, you’d think they’d have managed to put up a half-dozen in one game at least once between them.)

Saturday’s explosion left the red-hot Laine with 11 goals in his last four games, moving him ahead of Jeff Skinner for top spot in the Rocket Richard race that certain wise forecasters picked him to win. It made him, as our Murat Ates points out, the first player to score a hat trick in three countries in the same year. And it left him with a 19-3 stat line on the year that has to make him a favorite in the Cy Young race. The kid can do it all.

It was only a few weeks ago that Laine was front and center among the league’ most disappointing starts. Even then, it was clear that he was falling victim to some bad luck and would get back on track. Similarly, he’s obviously not going to stay anywhere near this hot the rest of the way. And that’s fine – every great sniper is streaky and the hot stretches just balance out the cold ones. For now, let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

And speaking of fun hot streaks that can’t last, let’s get to the top five and a certain perennial bottom-feeder that’s suddenly making a push towards the top of the league …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

I’ll skip the preamble this week, because I know everyone just wants to get straight to the rankings and answer the week’s one burning question: Are the Buffalo Sabres actually in the top five?

5. Buffalo Sabres (16-6-2, +7) – Screw it. As the classic Hockey Night in Canada anthem reminds us, the chance may never come again.

Nine straight wins has to buy you something, right? Sure, the streak has been fueled by a ridiculous 6-0 record after regulation, including three shootouts. That’s a big flashing sign that this stretch doesn’t tell us as much about the team as we might think it does. And they still have a goals differential of just +7, meaning if you take away that 9-2 win over the Senators they’ve only been even on the year.

These are all good reasons to nudge the Sabres out of the top five. We could list others. The Sabres’ top-five case is far from iron-clad.

But I’ve been doing these rankings since 2014, and the Sabres have been the running punchline for just about that entire time. They had to be. They were awful, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. If they snuck out of the bottom five for a week here or there, it was a victory.

And now here we are, with our first and, let’s face it, probably only chance to slide them into the top five. The next week brings games against the Sharks, Lightning and Predators. The conservative approach would be to give the Sabres one more week, and treat that stretch of games as their season’s big “prove it” moment.

And we will. But in the meantime, we’re giving them a top five spot anyway. The goaltending is finally solid, the Skinner trade looks like the best acquisition of the offseason and the kids are all coming along. Will it last? Maybe not, but Sabres fans have paid enough dues over the years to earn a top-five moment. So here it is. Stand among the giants.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, November 23, 2018

Friday Grab Bag: An important word about the 2020 lockout (plus 50% off The Athletic)

In the Grab Bag:
- Gary Bettman says he doesn't want a lockout this time. Should we believe him?
- None of the Americans are around this week so lets talk trash about their hockey teams
- An obscure player with a long name and short career
- The week's three comedy stars include an insane mascot and a crotch grab
- And a look back at the poor reporter who had to pretend that the 1985 Calder Trophy race was a tough call

And today, you can get the Grab Bag plus everything else on The Athletic for a pretty ridiculous price. They're running a one-day Black Friday sale that gets you everything on the site for just $2.49 USD or $2.99 CAD per month, and you get a free t-shirt. It's the best offer of the year, so if you've been on the fence today's a good day to make the jump. You'll find the offer at the bottom of today's post.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The 10 types of mid-season coaching changes (and how they usually work out)

It’s​ been a rough few​ weeks​ for​ NHL​ coaches.​ After​ going all​ of 2017-18 without​ a single coach losing​ their​ job until the​​ final day of the season, we’ve already seen four pink slips this year, including two this week. And we’re only a quarter of the way through the schedule.

Typically, NHL teams don’t want to make coaching changes while the season is going on. It’s virtually always a sign that something has gone horribly wrong, and a major change is needed to try to salvage the season. But at the same time, plenty of GMs around the league are under pressure to do exactly that. And that pressure will only mount as other teams make changes and potential candidates get snapped up.

So today, let’s look at 10 types of midseason coach firings, and some examples of each from the last 25 years of NHL history. Maybe they can teach us something about this year’s firings – from the four we’ve already seen and the ones that might still be to come.

And we’ll start with what is, unfortunately, probably the most common kind of midseason coaching change…

The Deck-Chair Reshuffling

The scenario: The season isn’t going well. The team fires its coach and hires a replacement. The season continues to not go well. Maybe it wasn’t the coach, you guys.

Recent examples: The Leafs go from Ron Wilson to Randy Carlyle in 2012. The Senators trying to stop a tailspin by replacing John Paddock with GM Bryan Murray in 2008. The Canadiens firing Alain Vigneault for Michel Therrien in 2000. The Canucks going from Tom Renney to Mike Keenan in 1998, and then again from Keenan to Marc Crawford the year after. The Wild replace Mike Yeo with John Torchetti in 2016. Panthers’ coach/GM Rick Dudley stepping aside for John Torchetti in 2004. The Kings replace Andy Murray with John Torchetti in 2006. Uh, maybe we should just call this one “The John Torchetti”.

Does it work?: Nope. Although in most of these cases, you get the feeling that nothing would have.

Potential 2018-19 cases: We’ll have to wait and see what the new guys can do. But the Kings are already giving off that vibe.

The Too-Little-Too-Late

The scenario: The old coach was bad. The new coach is good, at least for a while, and the team starts playing up to expectations. But the GM waits too long to make the switch, so they miss the playoffs anyway.

Recent examples: The Blues firing Andy Murray for Davis Payne in 2010. The Senators going from Craig Hartsburg to Cory Clouston in 2009. The Islanders making the switch from Jack Capuano to Doug Weight in 2017.

Does it work?: Yes and no. In a way, this has to almost feel like the worst-case scenario for a GM. It’s one thing to make the wrong move. It’s another to make the right one, but realize you pulled the trigger too late for it to make a difference.

Potential 2018-19 cases: None of the firings we’ve seen so far will fall into this category, because at least the four teams acted with enough time left to right the ship. But will we look back at some other team that hasn’t made a move yet and wonder if they should have joined the early-season crowd? Maybe not, but every Flyers fan is angrily clenching their fists right now just in case.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Weighing the pros and cons of various William Nylander trade destinations

The​ Maple Leafs’ standoff​ with​ winger​ William​ Nylander​ continues​ this week,​ with less than​ two weeks to​ go​ until the Dec.​​ 1 deadline to strike a deal. And with the two sides still reportedly far apart on terms and dollars, talk has increasingly turned to the possibility of a trade.

If the Leafs decided to swing a deal, there’d be no shortage of potential landing spots for the talented winger. Our Pierre LeBrun recently looked at nine of the most likely destinations. But that list was only a starting point, and this sort of scenario often results in a mystery team or two lurking in the background. There’s no doubt that plenty of teams around the league are wondering if they’d be the right fit.

So today, let’s look around the league and see if we can help. This is a brainstorming session, so nothing’s off the table. We’ll look at a variety of teams, covering the spectrum from likely destinations for Nylander to teams which seem like much longer shots. And we’ll help everyone involved weigh the pros and cons of pulling off a Nylander blockbuster.

Buffalo Sabres

Pro: Joining the organization would mean that Nylander is reunited with his brother Alexander, which would be great because it would give his dad someone else to go bother for a while.

Con: Dubas once absented-mindedly mentioned that the winger could probably develop into a decent quarterback for the Sabres’ second power-play unit, and as soon as he said “decent quarterback” Buffalo bylaws kicked in and barred Nylander from the city limits.

Anaheim Ducks

Pro: Nylander hasn’t played a single minute of competitive hockey all season long, so he’d immediately fit right in with all of their defensemen.

Con: As with any trade they make this year, departing Ducks players would be slowed down at the airport while trying to drag equipment bags that are unusually heavy and vaguely sound like John Gibson whispering “Take me with you.”

Edmonton Oilers

Pro: As a dynamic offensive winger with a proven track record of producing next to an elite center, Nylander would fill a longstanding team need for a guy they could trade for a mediocre defenseman.

Con: NHL trades are complicated and can take weeks or even months to put together, which probably doesn’t leave enough time for whoever the Oilers’ GM is going to be by the weekend.

Carolina Hurricanes

Pro: Wouldn’t have to send their best player to Toronto in the deal since the entire city is already overflowing with Ahos, according to everyone else in Canada if I’m hearing them correctly.

Con: Nylander would be joining the team with only four months left in the season which isn’t really enough time to get up to speed on detailed positioning and responsibilities outlined in the playbook, which is what Justin Williams insists on calling the postgame choreography.

Vancouver Canucks

Pro: Checks every box on the Canucks’ list of criteria for acquiring a star player, although in fairness for the last 20 years those boxes have just been “Not Mark Messier” and “No seriously, make damn sure he’s not Mark Messier.”

Con: The roster already includes Elias Petterson, so they don’t actually need any other NHL players.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, November 19, 2018

Weekend power rankings: The Leafs move up, the Sabres make their case and the Battle of Alberta rages on

I’m​ still not quite​ sure​ what​ to​ make​ of​ Alberta.

Their hockey​ teams, I mean.​ The province seems​ nice,​ although I admit​​ to still being confused by the whole “no rats” thing. But let’s focus on the hockey teams, who just delivered the game of the weekend with Saturday’s slugfest in Calgary. Are either of them any good?

I’m not sure. The Oilers’ record suggests that they’re not; they’ve lost six of seven and dropped back under .500 after looking good in late October. They’re not great at home, slightly worse on the road, and have a negative goals differential. They got lit up by Vegas last night and at some point you figure that big changes have to be on the way.

But their underlying numbers aren’t awful, and they’ve played the toughest schedule in the league according to’s SOS metric. And the reason their schedule has been so hard is that, until Saturday, they weren’t playing the Pacific Division, which is terrible. It’s also the division they need to climb to make the playoffs, so maybe they’ll somehow be OK after all. But again … I’m not sure.

The Flames’ picture isn’t all that much clearer, even though their record is better. They’re two points back of the Sharks for top spot in the division and they’ve already made an appearance in our top five a few weeks back. That didn’t last, and aside from a four-game win streak at the start of the month, they’ve basically been win-a-few, lose-a-few all season long.

The goaltending has been the issue, with veteran Mike Smith struggling and unproven backup David Rittich making a case for the starter’s job. Do you trust your season to a guy who came into the year with 22 career appearances? Hope that Smith can rebound even though he’s 36? Start looking for a trade? Once more, I’m not sure.

One thing I am sure about: We need to get these two teams into a playoff series somehow. There’s still a chance of it happening, given the weird way that the Pacific is playing out, although it doesn’t seem likely. But if Saturday’s matchup was any indication, the first postseason Battle of Alberta since 1991 would be ridiculous. Please, hockey gods, make it happen.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Let’s start with a spoiler: This week’s top five features the same teams as last week, albeit in a different order. That’s the first time that’s happened all season and might signal that we’re finally settling into a bit of stability near the top of the league. I might also mean that I’m being too conservative. Time will tell, but for now let’s figure out who goes where.

5. Winnipeg Jets (11-5-2, +11) – With points in four straight, I’m going to keep the Jets in the top five for at least one more week, even though they still don’t look like they’re firing on all cylinders and it maintains our ongoing “too many Central teams” problem.

Is it the right call? There’s a case to be made to slot the Sharks back in, or to give a new team like the Blue Jackets a shot. And there’s one more quasi-contender that we’ll get to down below. But for now, inertia wins out and the Jets keep their spot for another week.

4. Minnesota Wild (12-7-2, +9) – Here’s my question about the Wild’s early-season success: How does Chuck Fletcher feel about all this?

On the one hand, this is basically Fletcher’s team – he built pretty much the entire roster, and watched it grow into one he believed could be a contender. And now, he’s being proven right.

On the other hand, it’s not actually his team, because of that whole “getting fired” thing. So now Fletcher gets to watch Paul Fenton carry the baton, even though Fenton didn’t do much of anything to change the roster over the summer and is mostly getting credit for not messing up what Fletcher built.

Fletcher’s presumably a little busy these days helping his new team, the Devils, figure out how to salvage the season. But you know he’s at least checking in on the Wild every now and then and there has to be some serious mixed feelings over what he sees.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, November 16, 2018

Grab bag: A moment in time

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL were the big winners in the concussion settlement. So why does it feel like we all lost?
- A new rule we need to see for penalty shot calls
- An obscure player with a knack for finding terrible teams
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a classic YouTube look back at the legitimately amazing 1987 Edmonton Oilers "Moment in Time" video

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book excerpt: How the Broadway Bullies kept Gordie Howe from becoming a Ranger

Gordie Howe played an astounding 25 years for the Detroit Red Wings, easily the longest tenure by any player with a single team. He retired in 1971, having just turned forty-three, and then made a comeback two years later with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. That match made sense — it gave the fledgling WHA a big name to sell while also giving Howe a chance to play with his sons Marty and Mark — but it was jarring for hockey fans. Gordie Howe in anything other than a Red Wings jersey? It seemed plain wrong.

Well, if you think the sight of a silver-haired Howe in Aeros blue (or, later, Whalers green) must’ve been odd, try to imagine him in his prime, wearing the red, white and blue of the New York Rangers. It nearly happened.

The Rangers were the first NHL team to see something in Howe. Specifically, it was scout Fred McCorry who spotted a fifteen-year-old Howe in Saskatoon back in 1943 and convinced him to come to the Rangers’ training camp. In those days, it wasn’t unheard of for teams to sign players that young, locking in their rights well before they would ever skate in the NHL. The invitation represented a fantastic opportunity for Howe, but it made for a different experience. While we remember Howe as one of the most fearsome players ever to take the ice, he was shy and introverted as a teenager, and he struggled with being away from home. To make matters worse, the Rangers’ veterans decided to give the new kid a hard time. They made fun of him for not knowing how to put his equipment on properly (he’d never owned a full set) and stole his food when it was mealtime. Howe was miserable, and eventually he decided he’d had enough. The future Mr. Hockey walked away from camp and headed back home to Saskatoon.

Later that winter, Red Wings scout Fred Pinckney got a look at Howe and invited him to Detroit’s off-season camp in Windsor, Ontario. This time, the veterans left the kid well enough alone, and Detroit coach Jack Adams liked what he saw. The Red Wings offered Howe a contract and he agreed.

How does hockey history change if those 1943 Rangers ease up on a nervous teenager? It makes for another one of those great “what if?” arguments — although in this case, it’s probably one that Red Wings fans would rather not think about.

Ironically, Howe’s younger brother Vic had a brief NHL career of his own in the 1950s, scoring three goals in thirty-three games spread across three seasons … all of them with the New York Rangers.

Excerpted from “The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL”; by Sean McIndoe. Copyright © 2018 Sean McIndoe. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

>> This excerpt originally appeared at The Athletic