Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Podcast: All-star edition

In this week's Biscuits hockey podcast:
- Dave and I react to all-star weekend
- The end(?) of Jaromir Jagr
- Is tweaking interference replay enough?
- Gary Bettman's 25th anniversary arrives
- The Rangers consider becoming deadline sellers
- Reader questions and lots more...

Listen here:

... or subscribe on iTunes.

Ranking the expansion draft screw-ups

So the Vegas Golden Knights are having themselves a bit of a season.

With everyone assuming they’d struggle to stay in sight of the playoff race, if not finish dead last, they came out of the gates 8-1-0. Soon they’d established themselves as legitimate contenders for the Pacific crown. Then the Western Conference. Then the Presidents’ Trophy. They climbed all the way to first place overall. They’ve already been crowned the greatest expansion team ever in any sport. At this rate, we may be days away from the rest of the NHL just conceding the next few Stanley Cups and begging for mercy.

So how did we get here?

Wait, let’s rephrase that: So what the hell was the rest of the league thinking?

Sure, the Knights were gifted with friendlier expansion-draft rules than previous newcomers. For $500 million, they’d better have. But they were still left choosing from players who were each, at best, considered their team’s 10-most-valuable asset. (And that’s not even counting all the prospects and younger players who were ineligible.) You shouldn’t be able to build a contender out of those kinds of spare parts.

Well, unless some of the other teams screw up.

So today, with Vegas riding high and Seattle kicking down the door to get in on this action, let’s look back at the expansion draft and the trades that came around it with the benefit of a half-season’s worth of hindsight. We’ll do this in tiers, starting with the teams that came out OK and working our way up to the worst of the regrets.

Tier 1: Teams that somehow improved

As it turns out, an expansion draft doesn’t represent an opportunity for only one team.

Carolina Hurricanes

Their trades: They traded a fifth-round pick to Vegas to get them to lay off veterans like Cam Ward and Lee Stempniak. Then they traded a second for Trevor van Riemsdyk, who the Knights had plucked from the Blackhawks, and later added Marcus Kruger for a fifth.

They lost: Connor Brickley

No team apart from the Knights themselves did more wheeling and dealing. Kruger hasn’t done much, but the Hurricanes managed to avoid losing anyone of consequence – Brickley was a pending UFA who ended up signing in Florida – and added yet another good young defenceman to an already strong blue line.

Colorado Avalanche

Their trades: None

They lost: Calvin Pickard

At the time, this seemed like yet another misplay by Joe Sakic, who let a reasonably well-regarded young goalie slip away despite Semyon Varlamov‘s struggles. Instead, the move freed up a roster spot for Jonathan Bernier, who’s been fantastic, and Pickard was on waivers (and eventually traded) by week one.

Tier 2: No harm, no foul

Oh, was there some sort of draft? We already forgot.

Winnipeg Jets

Their trades: Flipped first-round picks with Vegas, dropping from 13th to 24th, and threw in a 2019 third-round pick to steer the Knights away from everyone they wanted to keep.

They lost: Chris Thorburn

Dropping 11 spots in the draft isn’t nothing, but given the prices some other teams paid, the Jets seemed to get off easy. The Knights didn’t even bother to sign Thorburn.

Calgary Flames

Their trades: None

They lost: Deryk Engelland

Engelland’s a Vegas local who’s been a nice fit, but he probably wasn’t coming back to Calgary, meaning the Flames basically escaped untouched.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Is Olympic hockey still worth watching without the NHL?

I make my living as a hockey writer. I’m also as big a fan of the sport as there is, and I love Olympic hockey.

But now that N.H.L. players won’t represent their countries in the Pyeongchang Games, will I even watch?

For hockey fans, the N.H.L.’s decision to send its players to the Winter Olympics beginning in 1998 was a dream come true. There had been major international tournaments, but never with these sorts of stakes on this big a stage. Finally, fans would get a true best-on-best Olympic tournament played in front of a worldwide audience, with dream rosters and genuine suspense over who would win the gold.

Through five Olympics, fans witnessed some of hockey’s most memorable moments, from Dominik Hasek’s brilliance in Nagano, Japan, to Sidney Crosby’s golden goal in Vancouver.

When the N.H.L. said it would not send players to the 2018 Games, many of us assumed it was a bluff. Surely some sort of last-minute deal would surely be found?

But it wasn’t a bluff. Fans were furious; players were furious. After the anger, the question: Is it worth watching?

>> Read the full post at the New York Times

Friday, January 26, 2018

Grab bag: Naming names

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- I reveal my ballot for the PHWA's new midseason awards
- Seattle is narrowing down its list of expansion team names, and they're missing a top candidate
- An obscure player who scored a memorable Canucks goal
- The week's three stars, including a crotch goal
- And we celebrate Wayne Gretzky's birthday with a look back at his 1970's collar game, which may have been better than his hockey skills

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Podcast: A particular set of skills

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Thoughts on Kid Rock, and what I really hope the NHL isn't doing here
- The revamped skills competition might actually work
- Did the NHL rig the expansion draft to build a Vegas powerhouse?
- A story about a mind-blowing coincidence in Edmonton
- Dave pitches a fantastic idea for a movie starring Peter Chiarelli
- Reader questions and lots more.

>> Stream it now

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Eight high-risk trade deadline targets

With five weeks to go until the trade deadline, we’re well into the part of the season where teams need to ask themselves some tough questions. Are we really contenders? How much of the future are we willing to part with? Should we throw in the towel and be sellers? How highly do we value stability in our room? And when is the right time to make our move?

And maybe most importantly: Just how comfortable are we with risk?

We don’t talk about that one much, but it’s a key factor. We already know that most NHL GMs are risk-averse and many would rather not make any trades at all if they thought they could get away with it. But once you’ve decided to make a deal, you’ve got to figure out just how much uncertainty you’re willing to accept.

For some of the players on the market, the risk factor is minimal. If the Leafs decide to move pending UFA James van Riemsdyk, any team acquiring him will know what they’re getting — a guy who’s going to score at a 25- to 35-goal pace, just like he has for the last half-dozen years or so, this one included. Same with someone like Mike Hoffman in Ottawa. Meanwhile, a guy like Mark Letestu may not be as consistent, but he’d come relatively cheap and his contract is easy to swallow, so the risk factor isn’t high there either.

So if you want to play it safe, those are going to be the sort of players you’re calling about. But if you want to swing for the fences, you’re going to have to accept a higher degree of uncertainty. So today, let’s take a look at eight trade targets at this year’s deadline that represent high-risk opportunities.

These are the sort of trades that could earn a GM a Stanley Cup ring — or a pink slip. Who’s feeling lucky?

Max Pacioretty, Canadiens

Best case: Since the start of the 2011–12 season, only three wingers have scored more than 200 goals. Alexander Ovechkin leads the way with 286, while Patrick Kane has 202. And then in between those two there’s Pacioretty, whose 204 ranks him ahead of guys like Jamie Benn, Phil Kessel and Corey Perry.

Players like that don’t hit the trade market very often. That’s especially true when they still have another year left on an extremely team-friendly deal. But with the Canadiens struggling through another disastrous season and Pacioretty slumping for most of the first half, his name is all over the rumour mill. Marc Bergevin’s recent trade record isn’t especially intimidating, and this feels like the perfect opportunity to step in and take advantage of a team that’s in a bad place and might feel forced into selling a prime asset at a discount.

Worst case: Pacioretty’s had a rough season on and off the ice, and the stress of wearing the C in Montreal seems to be wearing on him. It’s been widely assumed that a change of scenery would see him snap back to the consistent 30-goal threat we’re used to seeing. But there’s no guarantee that happens, and it’s possible that whichever team lands him may be getting a guy who needs some time to rediscover his footing. His recent hot streak is reassuring, but it probably also moves up a price tag that should already be high.

Even if he was a bit of a bust this year, you’d still have him under contract for next season. But after that, you figure he’s going to want to get paid after years of representing one of the league’s best values, so this could still be a short-term move with a long-term price tag.

Bottom line: It’s an intriguing opportunity to land a player with a very solid track record. But are you willing to run the risk of being the GM who lost a blockbuster trade to Marc Bergevin?

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, January 22, 2018

Weekend wrap: Crossing the Atlantic

Hey, remember how the Atlantic Division race was all sewn up, the Lightning were walking away with the top seed, and we could all get to work on our Bruins/Maple Leafs round one previews?

Yeah, hold that thought.

For maybe the first time all season, the Lightning are starting to look mortal. They’ve lost three straight by a combined score of 14–4, including Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Wild that kicked off a brutal eight-game road trip. They’re already missing Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos hasn’t scored in eight straight, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is struggling badly, giving up at least four goals in five straight starts. Their coach says they’re “out of synch,” and while you can blame the bye week for some of that, their best players aren’t leading the way anymore. At some point, it’s going to be fair to start wondering if this team deserves the dreaded “peaked too early” label, and had things a little too easy during a first half where everything seemed to be clicking every night.

That mini-slump has opened the door for the Bruins, and they’re making a hard run at it. They’ve won three in a row and have points in 16 straight. When they last lost a game in regulation, way back on Dec. 14, they were 14 points back of the Lightning. Now the gap is down to just three, and the Bruins hold a game in hand.

That’s not bad for a race some of us had written off just a few weeks ago. (Yes, guilty as charged.) And it creates a fascinating stretch run. The two teams have met only once all season, a 3-2 Bruins win in November. But they play three times in the season’s final dozen games, and now those look a lot like the ones that could decide the division.

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs are hanging around as the division’s awkward third wheel. They’d been fading out of contention thanks to eight straight without a regulation win, but snapped that streak with Saturday’s third-period comeback in Ottawa, a result that felt like it could be bigger than two points for a young team that was starting to turn on itself.

The Leafs didn’t lose any ground to the teams chasing them during their slump; in fact, they gained some on them thanks to some shootout luck and the loser point. But they certainly haven’t looked anything like a Cup contender, and it’s led to the first real wave of criticism Mike Babcock has faced since arriving in Toronto. Being on the right end of a third-period collapse for once will quell that for at least a few days, but things don’t get any easier with the red-hot Avalanche in town tonight.

For now, the Leafs seem more locked into third spot in the division than ever. But now it’s an open question as to who they’ll play. And maybe more importantly, who they should want to face.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Winnipeg Jets (28-13-7, +27 true goals differential*): Last night’s 1-0 win over the Canucks wasn’t pretty, but it moves the Jets back into top spot in the Central.

4. Nashville Predators (28-11-6, +20): Make it five straight wins, all by one goal. Next up is what should be a fun matchup with the Lightning tomorrow night.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Saturday storylines: A Western Conference final preview

Welcome to another NHL Saturday, you’ll want to get comfy, because we’re going to be here a while. With the bye weeks over with, we’re back to a nearly full schedule for the first time in a few weeks. We’ve got 13 games on tap including three all-Canadian matchups as part of the Hockey Day in Canada festivities, and we’ll start with the best one.

HNIC Game of the Night: Jets at Flames

Man, this is going to be a great conference final.

OK, sure, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, but the Jets are already a point out of first place in the league’s toughest division, and the Flames are one of the hottest teams in the NHL with seven straight wins — and neither team’s path to the third round looks all that foreboding.

Based on the standings, the Flames will have the conference’s best team to get past in the Pacific, but that team is an expansion squad. Granted, it’s the best expansion team in the history of sports, but do we really think they’re going to roll through their first ever post-season? (Thinking.) Yeah, they might.

However, with the Kings fading, the Sharks looking ordinary, the Ducks struggling to even make the playoffs, and the Oilers and Coyotes all but done, the Flames’ road out of the Pacific goes through an expansion team. You’ll take that every time.

The Jets are facing a tougher path, but the Predators had been inconsistent before their recent win streak and are fighting through various injuries. And after last year’s run to the final there’s a risk of fatigue setting in at some point.

The Blues haven’t looked like the same dominant team they were in the first half, and while the traffic jam for a wild card means that whichever teams grab those spots will probably have closed off the season hot, if the Blackhawks lose Corey Crawford for the season then we can probably write off the division’s most experienced playoff team.

And remember, the Jets are already arguably the division’s best team even with Mark Scheifele injured and Dustin Byfuglien only now waking up. Give them a healthy Scheifele, a hot Byfuglien, and a trade deadline rental or two, and who’s beating them?

Well, maybe the Flames.

One way or another, it would be a hell of a matchup, one that would bring back memories of Smythe Division battles long past, only without Wayne Gretzky and friends waiting to crush the winner in Round 2.

It might be the second-most fun you can have in a plausible Western Conference Final (trailing only the obvious Vegas-Nashville dream matchup). Plus, it would carry the added bonus of guaranteeing Canada a spot in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 2011.

On Saturday, the two teams face off for the first time since the second game of the season (a 6-3 Flames win). With both teams coming off their bye, we can probably expect a sloppy game as they work the rust off. We’ll have to wait until April to see them again, as they meet in their second-last game of the season.

And after that, we’ll just have to wait for the main event May.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, January 19, 2018

Grab bag: You can look for answers but that ain't fun

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Thoughts on the NHL hiring Kid Rock to perform at the all-star game
- Debating the HHOF care of Willie O'Ree
- An obscure tough guy with a fantastic nickname
- The week's three comedy stars
- And the legendary Chico Resch has one of history's greatest meltdowns over a phantom goal

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Podcast: Put your skates in the air like you just don't care

In the Vice Biscuits podcast:
- On Andrew Cogliano's suspended streak
- Making the case for Nathan MacKinnon as MVP
- These offside reviews are so stupid that even the NHL has to do something
- Why isn't Willie O'Ree in the Hall of Fame?
- Dave and I agree to move in together
- Plus the reader questions get R-rated and lots more

>> Stream it now

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Assembling the NHL's all-time snub team

With the all-star rosters announced last week, everyone has spent the last few days compiling their lists of snubs. That’s pretty much an annual tradition at this point, and it’s all in good fun, even though a lot of the “snubs” are players who probably didn’t want to go in the first place.

But what if we aimed a little higher? What’s the best all-time roster you could assemble out of players who went their entire career without ever being recognized with a significant NHL honour?

We’re not talking midseason all-star picks here – with the one-player-per-team rule, those don’t really tell us much about who deserved what. Instead, let’s go with the big stuff. We’re looking for players who went their entire NHL career without ever:

1) Being a finalist for one of the major awards: Hart, Norris, Vezina or Calder; or

2) Being voted a first- or second-team all-star at the end of the season

You can call them the all-snub squad if you want to. Personally, I’m going to go with the Flying Federkos, in honour of the player who pretty much epitomizes the concept. Longtime Blues centre Bernie Federko scored 1,130 points over a 14-year career, which was good enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. But he never finished higher than fourth in all-star voting, and a 10th-place finish in 1986 was his best Hart Trophy showing.

So Federko’s our captain. But without getting ahead of ourselves, he’s not our best player, or even our first-line centre. And he’s far from the only Hall of Famer who’s going to make our squad. Let’s start up front, where there’s plenty of firepower to go around.

(All award-voting data comes from the invaluable Hockey Reference site.)


Centre: Ron Francis

Yes, despite a 22-season career that left him holding down spots in the all-time top five for points, assists and games played, Francis qualifies for our team. He did win some secondary honours, such as a Selke and three Lady Byngs. But he was never a post-season all-star, and never even finished in the top five in Hart voting.

How is that possible for a guy widely regarded as an all-time legend? For one, Francis was a two-way player, and they often don’t get the respect they deserve. But the bigger problem here can be summed up in two words: Gretzky and Lemieux. The two greatest centres of all time dominated the ’80s and early ’90s, leaving players like Francis and Federko — whose career overlapped theirs — with a tough path to recognition.

Winger: Mike Gartner

Despite finishing as one of only seven members of the 700-goal club, Gartner never earned so much as a single Hart Trophy vote during an 18-season career. And his best finish in all-star voting was fourth, which he managed twice.

Winger: Glenn Anderson

We’ll finish off our first line with another Hall of Fame winger who never received a Hart vote. It’s not hard to see why — during the Oilers glory years, Anderson was typically only the fourth-best forward on his own team. He came close to earning an all-star spot in 1986, but finished just behind Mats Naslund for second-team honours. It was one of five top-five finishes in Anderson’s career.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, January 15, 2018

Weekend wrap: You can't touch a flame when it's red hot

It’s been a rough season for the two Alberta teams. The Oilers are responsible for most of that, as we may have mentioned once or twice. But while they haven’t been a disaster on anywhere near the same level, the Flames have at least been a disappointment, the kind of underachieving team that can give a coach fits. Literally.

So when an opportunity presents itself to go a few paragraphs saying almost entirely positive things about these two teams, let’s jump on it. The weekend was a very good one for the province, with each picking up a pair of road wins as they head into their bye-week break.

For Calgary, the wins continued a recent streak that now stands at seven games. The weekend visits to Florida and Carolina spelled the end of a four-game road trip, and make the Flames the hottest team in the league right now. At this point the Flames would probably rather skip their mandated bye and just keep playing, but since that’s not an option, they’ll have to settle for at least temporarily passing the Kings for second place in the Pacific. That’s probably going to be temporary – the Kings have two games in hand – but it’s still a pretty stunning achievement given the Flames were 11 points back of L.A. on Jan. 4.

It’s too early to start worrying about playoff scenarios, so we’ll just say this: With the Kings fading, the Knights still at least somewhat of a question mark and the rest of the division looking underwhelming, the Pacific is looking very winnable right now if a team wanted to hit the gas in the second half. Right now, the Flames are that team.

The Oilers haven’t been quite as hot, and they’re still well out of the playoff race. But if the season ends up being the write-off it looks like it will be, this weekend may stand out as the high point. The Oilers went into their bye week on a high note, earning road wins in Arizona and Las Vegas to string together their first win streak since they briefly showed signs of a turnaround before Christmas.

The weekend didn’t start off well, with the Coyotes scoring twice in the game’s first few minutes to chase Cam Talbot and take an early 2–0 lead on Friday. But Al Montoya closed the door the rest of the way and Edmonton fought back to earn a 4–2 win, with Darnell Nurse getting the winner in the third period. The Saturday-night game was even more fun, as the Oilers seemed to figure out a counter to the growing legend of the Golden Knights’ home-ice advantage: Just have your fans show up and take over the whole building.

The invasion served as a celebration of Connor McDavid’s 21st birthday, one that even included a first-period serenade. And the fans were rewarded with a third-period comeback capped off by an overtime win, with Nurse playing the hero once again.

It’s not all good news. The Oilers lost Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to injury and came within inches of losing Milan Lucic, too. Meanwhile, the Flames were missing Sean Monahan for the first time all season, and captain Mark Giordano was ejected from last night’s win and could face further discipline for this hit on Sebastian Aho. But for two teams that have already handled their share of negativity, we’ll skip over that and let Alberta’s fans enjoy a productive weekend, and a quick break to gear up for whatever comes next.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Winnipeg Jets (26-13-7, +26 true goals differential*): They head into the break with two straight losses, but still hold first place in the Central.

4. Washington Capitals (28-14-3, +11): A Jay Beagle buzzer beater in Carolina sent them into their bye on a winning note.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Saturday storylines: Happy birthday Connor

We’ve got nine games on the schedule tonight, including several teams coming off their bye week and a few more about to head out for theirs. We’ll start our roundup with one of those teams, as they get ready for a break under some interesting circumstances.

HNIC Game of the Night: Oilers at Golden Knights

Happy birthday, Connor McDavid.

Well, OK, you’re an Oiler. “Happy” probably isn’t in your vocabulary these days. All the best on your special day? Wait, “best” doesn’t work either. Look, just have some cake and be done with it.

In one of those scheduling quirks that was either a fun coincidence or somebody at league headquarters with a strange sense of humour, McDavid will be spending his 21st birthday in Las Vegas. And to make matters more interesting, this is the last game before the Oilers’ bye week. If things were going well, this would probably be a great time for the players to decide to stick around town and kick off a well-earned vacation by helping their captain celebrate the milestone.

Things are, as you may have noticed, not going well for the Oilers, which will probably put a bit of a damper on the party. You know that classic image of a sad child in a tilted birthday hat, sitting at an empty table because he invited all his friends and nobody came? That’s McDavid these days, except instead of friends it’s competent wingers.

This is the part where we’d normally start running down some facts and figures to paint a picture of how a team’s season has been going, but at this point that’s starting to just feel cruel. The Oilers season is a write-off. “Thanks for pointing that out,” Edmonton fans are no doubt thinking — nobody else had mentioned it except for literally every hockey writer on Earth.

So we’ll skip the autopsy and just head straight to the burial. The Oilers are basically done heading into the second half, and they get to head into their bye against one of the league’s best teams, in the league’s toughest building. The Knights are fun, fast and good, kind of like what we all expected the Oilers to be. At the very least, they might serve as a reminder that there should be brighter days ahead in Edmonton. If you can build a Cup contender out of spare parts you found scattered around in one off-season, surely you can do it with the best player in the world.

Somebody will. Whether it’s Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan or some other combination remains to be seen. How the Oilers perform over the second half will have a lot to do with how that turns out, which makes this game worth watching. Even if it won’t be the sort of going-away party the Oilers were probably expecting when they first saw the schedule.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, January 12, 2018

Grab bag: Cowboy up

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- These skate-in-the-air offsides are a mess, but the fix is so simple even the NHL can't screw it up
- Winnipeg reacts to a rare moment in the spotlight
- An obscure player from the last Jets playoff win
- The week's three comedy stars, featuring a butt goal
- And a YouTube look back at happier times for the Oilers, starring weird card-playing cowboys

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Podcast: Oil spill

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- The Oilers are a mess and Dave and I don't know how to fix them
- A fun fact about Connor McDavid's 21st birthday
- The total lack of coaching changes, which is unprecedented in the modern era
- We try to figure out who'll be the first to go
- On Canada's WJC gold, and Sweden's silver medal toss
- I go full homer to defend Nazem Kadri against charges of beard-yanking
- Lots of reader questions, including who'll screw up the trade deadline, OT rule changes, and what's up with those weird empty ad breaks
- And plenty more...

>> Stream it now

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Who is Canada's most depressing team?

With the NHL season at its midway mark, it’s time for Canadian hockey fans to start getting excited. Stake out your ground, and let the debates begin. Which Canadian team will earn the most coveted title in the land?

No, not the Stanley Cup. We all know that thing never lands north of the border anymore. No, we’re talking about something that fits better with the modern-day Canadian NHL psyche: the title of Most Depressing Team In The Nation.

Put two random Canadian fans in a room together, and it probably won’t be long before they’re arguing over which ones deserves to be the most miserable. Some years, it’s a crowded field — we all remember the entire country missing the playoffs back in 2015–16. Other years, like last season, there are fewer candidates. But it’s always a hotly contested title.

So the first order of business is to figure out who gets to be in the running. Obviously, we don’t need to consider the Jets or the Maple Leafs, two teams that are solidly holding down playoff spots. The Flames are a tougher call, as a recent slide had them drifting out of playoff contention (and their coach having temper tantrums) before their latest win streak. But they’re over .500 and only a point out of a playoff spot, so they’re out of the running.

That still leaves us with four contenders for the title of Canada’s most depressing team. The Canadiens, Senators, Canucks and Oilers are all well out of the playoff race, and all four are under .500 in terms of points percentage. That’s a crowded field, so let’s start sorting this out as we work our way through an unlucky 13 categories.

Expectations vs. reality

It’s one thing to be bad. It’s another entirely to be bad when everyone thought you’d be good. So who came into the season with the highest expectations?

Canadiens: They were the Atlantic’s top seed last year, and while they were far from a sure thing to repeat that title, most expected them to at least make the playoffs.

Senators: They went deeper than any Canadian team last year, but most seemed to expect them to take a step back this season. Some pessimists even had them missing the playoffs. But close to dead last? No way.

Canucks: Nobody thought they’d be all that good. As bad as this year has been, they’re actually on pace to improve on last year’s record.

Oilers: When the Sportsnet crew did our pre-season predictions, seven out of 16 of us had the Oilers winning the West, and two had them winning the Stanley Cup.

Edge: Oilers, and it’s not all that close.

Painful ex-player

When things are going bad, the two most painful words are “What if?” Seeing a former player lighting it up somewhere else only adds to the misery.

Senators: While the current roster struggles, they get to watch one-time Senator building blocks like Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg blossom elsewhere. But the worst has been watching Kyle Turris fit right in as a Predator while Matt Duchene struggles in Ottawa.

Canucks: Luca Sbisa gets to be part of the fun in Vegas, and Ryan Miller‘s been fine in Anaheim. That’s about it.

Oilers: While only one is technically an ex-player, they gave the Islanders both Jordan Eberle and the draft pick that was used on Mathew Barzal. Then they get to watch those two do stuff like this:

Meanwhile, Taylor Hall looks like he’s going to lead the Devils to the playoffs.

Canadiens: Last year, it would have been P.K. Subban, who led his Predators all the way to the Stanley Cup final in his first year away from Montreal. This year, we might have to go with Mikhail Sergachev, who looks like a Calder candidate in Tampa. This time next year, Max Pacioretty.

Edge: It’s a close race, but the Canadiens take the crown on the strength of Subban just being voted an all-star captain.

Salary-cap situation

In today’s NHL, a flexible cap situation can fix a lot of problems. By the same token, making a mess of the cap can doom a team to years of suffering.

Oilers: Tight, thanks to the McDavid/Draisaitl deals, not to mention big commitments to Milan Lucic and Kris Russell. Trading Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would help, and they may be forced to do just that.

Canadiens: Not all that bad, depending on how you feel about the Carey Price deal. But Karl Alzner‘s signing already looks like a mistake, and that Shea Weber contract is going to be nightmare well before it runs out in 2026.

Senators: Believe it or not, they’ve got more cap space tied up for next year than any other Canadian team by over $5 million, thanks in part to ugly deals for Bobby Ryan and Dion Phaneuf. It clears up after 2019, but only because key players like Erik Karlsson and Matt Duchene will need new contracts.

Canucks: Once again, they come out looking solid by comparison. That Loui Eriksson deal was a mistake form the day it was signed, but with both Sedin deals expiring after this season, the cap picture is actually in decent shape.

Edge: Ottawa, in a narrow upset over the Oilers, if only because at least Edmonton’s biggest deals on the books are to their best players. I’m no cap-ologist, but having the worst cap situation when you don’t even have the budget to be a cap team is not good.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, January 8, 2018

Weekend wrap: Central casting

Every now and then, we like to use this space to focus in on one particular division. Last month we went through the Metro and tried to make sense of a traffic jam of teams all separated by a few points. This month’s division features slightly more separation, but no fewer question marks. Let’s take a run through the Central.

For the last few years, the Central has been the league’s standard-bearer as the top division. That perception was largely driven by the Blackhawks and their three Stanley Cups, which made sense. But despite being a mini-dynasty, Chicago didn’t dominate the division during the regular season; last year was actually the first time since the current format came together in 2013–14 that the Hawks finished first, or even had home-ice in the opening round. Teams like the Stars, Blues and even the Avalanche have taken turns having big years, and last year’s playoffs turned into the Predators’ big coming-out party. In three of the last four years, the Central has taken both wild-card spots and sent five teams to the playoffs.

They may be headed in that direction again this year; we’re just not sure which five teams it would be. The Stars and Wild headed into the weekend controlling the two wild-card spots. Both teams were hoping to aim a little higher heading into the season, with the Wild coming off a 106-point season and the Stars loading up in the off-season to get back into the playoffs. So far, neither squad has really clicked, although both are still within range of the division’s top three.

The Stars come out of the weekend holding onto their spot, but the Wild ceded theirs after getting pummeled by the surging Avalanche, winners of five straight. That’s an impressive feat for a Colorado team that was dead last by a mile last year, then traded one of their best players earlier in the year. Joe Sakic and Jared Bednar don’t seem like punchlines anymore, and it’s starting to feel like last year’s disaster may have been more of a worst-case scenario than a real indication of where the franchise was at.

But the real action has been at the top of the division, where the Jets, Blues and Predators have taken turns leading the charge. For most of the first half, it was the Blues who looked like the best of the group, but they wobbled somewhat through December after Jaden Schwartz got hurt. That continued as they dropped a pair on the weekend, although by picking up a point against the Capitals they at least held onto second place.

That’s because the Predators have been losing ground over the last few weeks, winning just three of nine. They’ve got a key injury of their own in Filip Forsberg, who’ll be out at least a month with what we now know is a broken hand. The team has gone cold ever since that Western Canada swing in mid-December that saw them win three straight by a combined score of 13–1, although they did earn a solid win over the Kings on Saturday.

All of which opens the door for the one Central team we haven’t mentioned yet. And they probably deserve a section of their own.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Boston Bruins (23-10-7, +29 true goals differential*): With points in 11 straight, the Bruins make their first appearance in the top five.

4. Winnipeg Jets (25-11-7, +27): There’s that missing Central team. More on them down below.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Saturday storylines: Matthews vs. Boeser

Today’s the day we officially hit the halfway point of the NHL season. We can no longer say “it’s early.” Now, it’s late. For some teams, probably too late. We’ve got nine games on the slate tonight, including one all-Canadian matchup. But we’ll start our roundup out West…

HNIC Game of the Night: Ducks at Flames

Tonight’s top game is a playoff rematch from last year’s opening round. It also may be a battle between two teams fighting for one spot in the tight Western race, as the Calgary Flames host the Anaheim Ducks in a Pacific battle with wild card implications.

The Flames recent struggles may have flown under the radar somewhat outside of Calgary, since they’ve yet to reach the sort of debacle-level depth we’ve seen in places like Edmonton, Montreal and Ottawa. But the Flames aren’t all that far ahead of those teams in the standings, and lately they’ve been spinning their wheels as the Western playoff contenders slowly pull away from them.

Looking back over the team’s last 15 games, it’s not hard to spot the pattern. Beginning in December, the Flames would lose three straight, win two, lose three more, win two again, and then drop another three in a row. Even with a handful of loser points sprinkled in, that’s not good enough to stay in the race, and it’s seen the Flames go from holding down the last wild-card spot to being three points out.

Now we’re back in the win phase of that cycle, with a pair of solid performances this week against the Blackhawks and Kings. That’s encouraging, but now it’s time for the team to break the pattern and keep the win streak going. They haven’t been able to do that in a long while.

So what’s going wrong? Some of the culprits are obvious. Despite two good games this week, the top line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Micheal Ferland has largely cooled off after a strong start, and the rest of the lineup hasn’t been able to step up and compensate. The special teams have been poor, especially a penalty-kill running south of 80 per cent, and the team doesn’t spend enough time playing with a lead.

The Travis Hamonic trade still hasn’t paid off. As much as we hate to say it, neither has the Jaromir Jagr signing, with rumours swirling that he could be shut down or even released in the near future. And fans have been grumbling about coach Glen Gulutzan, particularly his continued commitment to rolling four lines even when trailing.

That’s a long list, but you could come up with a similar one for most teams. The NHL’s mushy middle is a crowded one these days, and the Flames are firmly stuck in it for the second straight year. There are worse places to be, but this isn’t what Calgary fans were hoping for heading into the season.

All of which brings us back to the Ducks. They’re in that middle, too, although lately they’ve looked like a team headed for better things. Getting healthy has helped, as a brutal stretch of first-half injuries have mostly cleared up. It’s probably too late for Anaheim to make a run at a sixth-straight division title, but escaping the playoff bubble seems like a realistic goal right now. They’d won three straight before dropping Thursday’s shootout in Edmonton, so they’re headed in the right direction.

The Flames are probably going to have to pass them to make the playoffs, so there should be plenty of urgency with a chance to gain some ground on home ice. Calgary hits the season’s midway point with tonight’s game, and they’d love to head into the second half with some momentum. To get it, all they’ll need to do is manage something they couldn’t back in last year’s playoffs: Win a game against the Ducks.

Marquee matchup: Auston Matthews Brock Boeser

There’s no point overthinking it this week. Matthews vs. Boeser is going to make for must-see TV.

The narrative writes itself. You’ve got last year’s Calder winner against this year’s mid-season favourite. Two-thirds of America’s top line in international best-on-best competition for the next decade. The big market golden boy who gets wall-to-wall coverage against the West Coast kid who was only discovered last week.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, January 5, 2018

Grab bag: The votes are in

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Once again, the NHL has something it doesn't feel like telling you
- Passing judgment on that list of history's greatest uniforms
- An obscure player with a great name and better fists
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at Mario Lemieux's "five goals five ways" game which is really just an excuse to make fun of Wayne Gretzky's pants.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Podcast: Take it outside

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

- The latest edition of the Winter Classic was hard to watch. Literally.
- The Canadiens are going to trade Max Pacioretty, because of course they are
- I compare Marc Bergevin's trading strategy to a scene from The Simpsons
- The NHL releases its list of the best ever uniforms, and it was... good? It was actually pretty good.
- Are angry players really going to no-shhow the all-star game?
- How I'd fix all-star voting
- Reader questions, in which Dave and I resist the urge to fight over chicken wings and instead unite on the subject of breakfast buffet bacon

>> Stream it now

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Ten times an elite defenceman was traded in his prime

If you’re the sort of fan who enjoys a good trade rumour, these days it’s all about the blue line.

That’s not all that unusual – in today’s NHL, it always feels like just about everyone needs help on defence. But for a change, we’re not just talking about depth pieces or short-term rentals. Instead, it’s some of the biggest names in the sport who are rumoured to potentially be available. In Ottawa, there’s been talk that Erik Karlsson could move at some point before he hits free agency in 2019. Arizona is facing a similar dilemma with Oliver Ekman-Larsson. And the slumping Penguins are now reported to at least be considering a move involving Kris Letang.

That’s not to say that any of those trades will happen, of course. But it’s rare to even see names of this magnitude show up in discussions at all. After all, as we’re so often told, nobody trades elite defencemen in their prime in this league.

Or do they? It turns out, trades involving top defencemen have been more common than you might think.

So today, let’s crack open the history books for a look at some of the times in NHL history that an elite defenceman was traded in his prime. We’re looking for guys who were established stars, which we’ll define as already having at least one post-season all-star pick or multiple top-five Norris finishes in their career. We also want players who were still relatively young, which we’ll say means they were 32 or younger. That rules out guys who were traded later in their career, like Brian Leetch and Ray Bourque, as well as some who blossomed into top-tier stars after they were traded, like Ryan McDonagh and Brent Burns. But it still leaves us with a surprisingly long list of candidates.

Here are 10 times in the last 30 years than an elite defenceman was traded in his prime, and what those deals might teach us about what to expect from today’s rumoured moves.

Paul Coffey

The trade: We have plenty of trades to choose from with Coffey, who was traded seven times. We’ll go with his first, the 1987 deal that saw the Oilers send him along with Dave Hunter and Wayne Van Dorp to Pittsburgh for Craig Simpson, Dave Hannan, Moe Mantha and prospect Chris Joseph.

The reason: Coffey was a two-time Norris winner at the age of 26 and had been a key part of three Edmonton championships, but by the start of the 1987-88 season he was holding out in a contract dispute. The Oilers made him wait until November as they worked to get a top asset back; they found one in Simpson, a 21-year-old who’d been the first-overall pick two years earlier.

The result: This trade allowed Simpson to become the first player to ever score 50 goals in a season split between two teams. But over time, Coffey had the greater impact, including three 90-point seasons, and he helped the Penguins win their first Stanley Cup.

The lesson: Sometimes, your hand is forced and you just have to bite the bullet and do the best you can. Under the circumstances, the Oilers did OK on this deal.

Rob Blake

The trade: In February 2001, the Kings sent Blake and Steve Reinprecht to Colorado for Adam Deadmarsh, Aaron Miller, a player to be named later and two first-round picks.

The reason: Blake was a pending UFA and wanted big money, so Kings ownership decided to move him even though the team was contending for a playoff spot.

The result: The deal worked out great for the Avs, who won the Cup that year and then re-signed Blake for five more seasons. The Kings didn’t get much from the deal – Deadmarsh had his career cut short by injuries and the picks turned into Dave Steckel and Brian Boyle – but did get Blake back for a few years at the end of his career.

The lesson: When a Norris-calibre player becomes available, sometimes going all-in pays off. The Avalanche had already traded for Bourque the year before, so they were firmly in all-or-nothing mode. They ended up with “all”, and have a banner to show for it. Remember that when contenders start to hem and haw about the asking price for Karlsson or Ekman-Larsson being too high.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, January 1, 2018

Weekend wrap: Division by zeroes

This is a weird question to ask before the season has even hit the halfway mark, but we’ll ask it anyway: Is the Atlantic Division playoff race already over?

There’s a case to be made. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the league’s best team, and are holding a 10-point lead for first place in the division. That’s not insurmountable, but it’s pretty darn comfortable, especially when every other division is within three points. We can already pencil the Lightning in for the division’s top seed.

While we’ve got that pencil out, we might as well go ahead and add the Bruins and Leafs in second and third. We don’t know the order there yet, with the two teams tied (although Boston has three games in hand), but the two teams seem locked into those two spots. If so, that gives us our first playoff matchup, although we may not know for a while who’d have home-ice advantage.

That leaves five Atlantic teams to work with, and man, what a mess the rest of the division is.

The Senators just spent the week dropping a pair of crucial games to the Bruins by a combined score of 10-1, leaving them 16 points back of the third spot. We said that the Senators’ performance against Boston would tell us a lot about the team, and it’s fair to say we didn’t learn anything good. And if you’re keeping track, we’re now into the “disgusted fans throw their jerseys on the ice” portion of the meltdown in Ottawa. (See video at the top of this page).

The Canadiens are in slightly better shape in terms of the standings, sitting 12 back of Boston and Toronto, but they might be even more of a mess off the ice. Word emerged over the weekend that the Habs are actively shopping captain Max Pacioretty, whose goal-scoring streak continued in a 2-0 loss on Saturday. Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that Marc Bergevin’s “top priority is moving (Pacioretty) for a top goal-scorer back — preferably a younger one.” Makes sense. Teams are probably lining up to move a young guy who scores goals for an older one who, for now at least, doesn’t.

The Red Wings aren’t good, although they’ve been marginally better than expected. The Sabres remain a mess. And that leaves perhaps the only team with a shot at making things interesting: The Panthers, who’ve won five straight to climb back to within nine points of third in the division. That’s still a long way to go, but compared to the other teams in this turtle derby, at least it’s a shot.

Of course, the top three isn’t necessarily the only route to the playoffs for the Atlantic’s bottom five, who could also get in through a wild-card spot. In theory, that’s a more realistic target, with the last spot currently held by the Islanders with 44 points. But that means passing more teams, including the surging Hurricanes and oh yeah, the two-time defending champion Penguins. If you believe that Pittsburgh will sort things out and get back into the race one way or another, that eats up another spot.

Add it all up, and the odds don’t look good. Three sites that try to project playoff chances – Money Puck, Hockey-reference.com and Sports Club Stats – all think the Panthers are still in the hunt, with odds ranging from 17 to 24 per cent. Montreal and Detroit are in worse shape, the Senators range from 0.7 to 3.5 per cent, and the Sabres are basically off the board. Meanwhile, all three sites see the Lightning and Bruins as virtual locks, and only Money Puck has the Leafs at less than 90%.

And if anything, those projections may be underselling the disparity, since they’re based on the assumption that teams stay the course with the current rosters. With two months until the deadline, at some point the Atlantic’s also-rans will have to throw in the towel and start shipping out veterans for future assets, which will lower their odds even more. And if the Metro’s wild-card teams start loading up – remember, we’re told the Penguins are about to make big changes – then the wild-card door may slam shut too.

All in all, the outlook is bleak for the majority of an entire division. That’s not supposed to happen in a league that pushes hyper-parity above all else, but here we are. Nothing is locked in, and we won’t see any mathematical clinching scenarios for a long time, so for now we can put that pencil away. But the way things are going, it won’t be long before we need some ink.

Road to the Cup

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

5. St. Louis Blues (24-15-2, +15 true goals differential*) – After eight straight weeks in the top three, they’re wobbling. They’ve lost seven of 10, although they did manage a solid win over the Hurricanes on Saturday.

4. Vegas Golden Knights (26-9-2, +26) – I held out as long as I could. More below.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet