Friday, June 29, 2018

Rating UFA signings on the fit/hit/term scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Grab bag: Hall of lame

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

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Podcast: The Tavares sweepstakes

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

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

1) John Tavares signs a one-year max deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, June 25, 2018

Draft weekend surprises

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

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

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

The Sabres take Rasmus Dahlin: 0/100

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

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

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

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

The Hurricanes take Andrei Svechnikov: 3/100

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

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

Not ranked: Gary Bettman gets booed

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

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

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

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, June 22, 2018

Grab bag: You just made the list

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

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

When coaches quit

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Keenan, 1994

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne Gretzky, 2009

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

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

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

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Podcast: Follow the bouncing Hoffman

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I discuss the Mike Hoffman trade
- Dave and I discuss the other Mike Hoffman trade
- Wait, what is going on with Mike Hoffman trades?
- The whole season-long mess in Ottawa
- Is Erik Karlsson next?
- Barry Trotz walks away from the Capitals
- The John Tavares sweepstakes are almost here
- The Galchenyuk/Domi trade
- And lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Revisiting eight closing Cup windows

Their window is closed.

That’s a phrase you hear a lot around the NHL, especially at this time of year. When a team’s window is closed, it means they’re no longer a real threat to win the Stanley Cup. Maybe they won a Cup or two, but now those days are gone for good, and it’s time to figure out what comes next.

It’s the sort of thing we say a lot. Probably too much. Over the last few years, there may not have been a team we said it about more than the Washington Capitals. Even as the team was winning back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2016 and 2017, their constant playoff failures made it clear that something was wrong. After last year’s devastating loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, we wondered what they would do next and struggled to find a good option. There was talk of trading Alexander Ovechkin, and the Caps didn’t exactly deny that they were thinking about it.

Ovechkin was well into his 30s. Nicklas Backstrom was almost there, and Braden Holtby wasn’t far off. The expensive core that had been so dominant in the regular season but always come up small in the playoffs was old enough that we knew what we were getting. They’d tried, they’ve come close, but they failed. And now some fans figured it might be time to burn it all down. The window was well and truly closed.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. As the Caps’ summer-long Stanley Cup celebration wears on, it’s fair to wonder if some of us are a little too eager to declare that a team’s window has slammed shut. Maybe they stay open longer than we thought. Maybe they can even be reopened.

And if that’s true, then what other NHL teams might we be wrong about? Today, let’s look at eight teams around the league that, to at least some extent, have received the “your window is closed” treatment from the hockey world. If we were wrong about the Caps, could we be wrong about these teams too?

Chicago Blackhawks

Why their window seems closed: The Blackhawks may be the best team of the salary cap era, winning three titles in six seasons. But the last of those came in 2015, and they haven’t won a playoff round since. Even worse, the trend in the wrong direction is hard to miss: They dropped a seventh game to the Blues in 2016, were swept in 2017, and didn’t even make the playoffs this year.

What’s worse, the three-year stumble coincides with the matching $10.5-million extensions for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane kicking in.

Combined with Duncan Keith and (especially) Brent Seabrook, that suggests that the Hawks just have too much money tied up in an aging core, and even Stan Bowman won’t be able to find enough cheap depth to get this team back into the title picture. Even getting back to the playoffs seems like a long road right now.

Why it might not be: As bad as this season was, this is still the same core that won three titles. They’re older, sure, and in today’s NHL that can matter a lot. But the veteran talent is there, and younger pieces like Brandon Saad, Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz are on hand to support and maybe even eventually supplant the old-timers.

And remember, the 2017-18 season really went off the rails when two-time Cup winner Corey Crawford was out of the lineup. If he’s back and healthy, this team doesn’t look all that different from the one that finished first in the Central in 2017.

Bottom line: The Blackhawks seem like they’ve got a long way to go, especially now that the Jets and Predators have emerged as Central juggernauts. But would anybody be surprised to see them rebound into the playoffs next year? And if so, are we sure we want to count them out as legitimate contenders?

Los Angeles Kings

Why their window seems closed: A lot of what we just said about the Blackhawks could apply to the Kings too. They won multiple titles, but the last of those came years ago, and they haven’t won a playoff round since. In fact, in four years since their 2014 championship, the Kings have only won a single playoff game. Their core is getting older and more expensive, including a Toews-like extension for Anze Kopitar. Oh, and there’s at least a chance that Drew Doughty could be leaving in 2019.

Why it might not be: Let’s assume that Doughty sticks around, since all signs point in that direction. His new deal will be expensive, and will tighten the screws on the Kings’ cap even more than it already is. But it will keep the core together, and unlike in Chicago, this team is at least coming off a decent season. They made the playoffs, Kopitar played at an MVP level, Dustin Brown rediscovered his game, and Jonathan Quick still looks like a guy who can steal a series or two.

Bottom line: Another advantage the Kings hold over the Blackhawks: the Pacific Division doesn’t seem all that scary, so a return trip to the playoffs seems like a good bet. Once they’re there, some of that old Quick magic could take them a long way. All the way to another Cup? That seems unlikely, but it seemed that way in Washington too.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, June 16, 2018

How to fix the NHL's broken offer sheet system

We’re closing in on the July 1 opening of the NHL free agent market, and while much of the attention is focused on big-name UFAs like John Tavares, Ilya Kovalchuk and John Carlson, there’s also the usual batch of excellent young players hitting RFA status. And that means it’s time for our annual round of “Will this be the year that somebody signs an offer sheet?”

We already know the answer. No, it probably won’t.

It should be. There are plenty of players who could be eligible that any team would love to add, including names like William Karlsson, Mark Stone, Jacob Trouba and William Nylander. In a league in which players (especially forwards) hit their prime in their early 20s, offer sheets remain one of the only ways to acquire a young star who can instantly slot into the top of your lineup. For most teams, short of winning the draft lottery in a year with a sure-thing franchise player or two available, it’s just about the only way.

And yet we never see them. The NHL hasn’t had an offer sheet signed in over five years, going back to Ryan O’Reilly’s two-year deal with the Flames back in 2013. There have been only eight in the salary cap era, five of which had already come by 2008. And only three cap-era offer sheets have been signed by players who could be considered stars at the time – O’Reilly, Shea Weber in 2012 and Thomas Vanek in 2007.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of impact players in the RFA pool for teams to target. In 2015, a GM could have made a play for Vladimir Tarasenko. In 2016, there was a chance to sign Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Scheifele, Johnny Gaudreau or Nikita Kucherov. Last year, the target could have been David Pastrnak, Evgeny Kuznetsov or Leon Draisaitl. These are franchise-altering players, many just entering their most productive years, all of them available to any team that was willing to extend an offer. And yet, nothing.

From a distance, none of this makes any sense. Every GM in the league has a tool in their toolbox that can be used to acquire a superstar in his prime, and virtually none of them ever bother to use it.

When hockey fans complain about the lack of offer sheets, they often settle on one culprit: the GMs. If they actually put winning first, the thinking goes, we’d see offer sheets every year. But if their priority was to stay chummy with their colleagues, and to make sure their status in the hockey management old boys club remained in good standing, then they’d think twice. Wouldn’t want to get uninvited from a round of golf at the next GM meetings.

There’s probably some truth to that. But there’s a bigger issue: offer sheets are broken.

Put differently, the problem here isn’t just the 31 men who don’t seem to want to use the system. It’s the system itself. Given the way the rules are currently set up, a lot of the GMs who keep passing on superstar talent are actually acting rationally.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, June 15, 2018

Grab Bag: Pan the Parade

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- I have a terrible idea for improving Stanley Cup parades
- The important lesson we can learn from the Caps' emotional playoff run
- The week's three stars of Drunk Alexander Ovechkin
- An obscure player from the Capitals' first awful season
- And a musical look back at Washington's first ever (division) title

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Podcast: Capping it off

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I try to adjust to world where the Washington Capitals are champions
- Did Alexander Ovechkin celebrate too hard?
- Our thoughts on the Conn Smythe voting
- We turn to the offseason
- Oliver Ekman-Larsson gets a monster extension
- The return of Ilya Kovalchuk
- Can the Oilers actually trade Milan Lucic?
- Reader mail and lots more

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

The 2018 offseason pressure index

We’re several days into the off-season, and so far it’s been a slow start. That’s to be expected. After all, we’re 10 days away from the draft, which is when business tends to pick up. We’re still waiting on a final number for next year’s salary cap, which is important. Also, and we’re not naming any names here, certain teams are still drunk right now.

So as we wait for the action to start, let’s figure out which teams are facing the toughest decisions as we head into the off-season. Everybody has a lot on their to-do list at this time of year, and some GMs will need a strong showing over the next few weeks to ensure they still have a job this time next year. But some teams are facing more pressure than others, so let’s count down 10 that will be under a spotlight over the coming days.

10. Calgary Flames

Already done: They changed coaches, clearing out Glen Gulutzan to make room for former Hurricanes’ boss Bill Peters. The bench will also feature two new assistants, including Geoff Ward, who’ll be tasked with fixing the anemic power play. And the team parted ways with team president Brian Burke.

The job ahead: The Flames don’t need a massive overhaul. But something clearly isn’t clicking in Calgary, where a talented young roster hasn’t won a playoff game in three years. There have been rumbling that the effort level isn’t where it needs to be, which Peters will have to address. And Brad Treliving will be looking to add offence, ideally a top-line winger to slot in with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.

GM hot-seat factor: Treliving signed an extension last year, so he’s relatively safe for now. But the team is underperforming and he’s just played his coaching card, so another underwhelming season will turn up the temperature. How high? He’d probably rather not find out.

Bottom line: Treliving will have to walk the line of worrying about right now while keeping an eye on the future; the Flames only have four picks in this year’s draft, none of which are in the first three rounds.

9. Washington Capitals

Already done: They drank the alcohol. All of it. It’s gone now; we have no more alcohol.

The job ahead: Once he’s done celebrating, Brian MacLellan is faced with the possibility of losing two of the league’s top free agents. The first is John Carlson, who’ll likely prove too rich for the Caps and land elsewhere. The second is Barry Trotz, which should be a fascinating situation to watch. MacLellan was apparently close to firing Trotz during the season, and it was only a few weeks ago that the coach himself seemed to think he was all but gone. But with a Cup win and an expiring contract, now it’s Trotz who holds the power. He’ll likely be back with a hefty raise, but there’s at least a chance he becomes the first coach since Mike Keenan to leave a Cup winner for work elsewhere. The question is how hard MacLellan wants to work to prevent that.

GM hot-seat factor: None.

Bottom line: Heavy is the head that wears the crown. MacLellan also needs to re-sign Tom Wilson and figure out what to do with Philipp Grubauer. This will be a challenging off-season in Washington, but it will be a lot more fun than the last few.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, June 11, 2018

Eight other eventual Cup champs who survived an early hole

The Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup champions. That still feels weird to write.

Seeing those words today comes as a mild surprise based on what we expected at the start of the season, when the Capitals were listed with the sixth-best Cup odds. They’d be a bigger surprise based on the start of the playoffs, when Washington went into the post-season with just the eighth-best odds.

But they would have been downright shocking, bordering on the unbelievable, if you’d read them on April 15.

That was the night that Matt Calvert’s overtime goal was allowed to stand after an offside review, giving the Blue Jackets the win and a 2–0 series lead in their first-round matchup with Washington. The Caps had blown a two-goal lead on home ice for the second straight game, and found themselves heading to Columbus in a massive hole. There were plenty of reasons to think they wouldn’t make it back home for a Game 5. In the history of the NHL playoffs, no team had ever lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series in overtime and come back to win. As Calvert himself put it: “Two games in overtime — that can really crush a team.”

It can. But this time it didn’t. The Caps blew yet another third-period lead in Game 3, and the two teams headed to sudden death once again. This time, it felt like there was far more than one game hanging in the balance. As a wise man put it at the time:

You know the rest. The Capitals did get the next goal, on a lucky bounce that was credited to Lars Eller. They won the next three to finish off Columbus, slayed the dragon against the Penguins, edged out the Lightning in seven and then handed the Golden Knights their first four-game losing streak in franchise history.

Not bad for a team that was one goal away from a franchise-altering disaster. And yet, this situation isn’t all that rare. Looking back at modern NHL history, we can find several examples of Stanley Cup champions who had to overcome the same sort of near-death experience that this year’s Capitals did. So today, let’s look back at eight other teams from the last 25 years who seemed to be all but done, only to get up off the mat and then go all the way.

1993 Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens’ 1993 run is remembered for plenty of things. There was the unbelievable streak of 10 straight overtime wins, Patrick Roy’s wink, Marty McSorley’s stick, Eric Desjardins’s hat trick and Denis Savard’s joy. It remains the last Cup for both the franchise and the country, and it didn’t even come with all that much suspense — over the last three rounds, the Canadiens never needed more than five games to win a series.

But that first round nearly spelled a quick end to the Habs’ hopes, as they drew a tough Nordiques team that was returning to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Quebec held home-ice advantage thanks to a 104-point season, and they looked like the better team early on. Scott Young’s overtime winner gave the Nordiques Game 1, and they followed that by cruising to a 4–1 win in Game 2.

Here’s where things get crazy. Heading back to Montreal facing a 2–0 deficit, there was talk about whether the Canadiens might try to spark the team with a goaltending switch. That’s right — there were people back then who actually thought it might be a good idea to bench a struggling Roy in favour of Andre “Red Light” Racicot. Maybe not many, but they all had the phone numbers of their local call-in radio shows.

There’s no evidence that Montreal coach Jacques Demers ever actually considered making the switch, and rightly so. But he didn’t shrug off the losses either, delivering emotional post-game sermons to media that included phrases like “We can’t do this to our fans” and “Right now, I’m mad” and “I am very, very, very disappointed.”

Much like this year’s Capitals, the Canadiens found themselves back in overtime in Game 3, knowing that giving up the next goal would almost certainly mean the end of their season. Instead, Vincent Damphousse snuck one by a furious Ron Hextall. We didn’t know it at the time, but Montreal’s unprecedented overtime magic had begun.

Montreal would go 15-2 the rest of the post-season, and Roy would win the Conn Smythe. To this day, nobody who wanted him benched for Racicot has ever admitted it.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Ten big names that could totally be traded this summer (but probably won't)

We’re on to the NHL off-season, which means it’s time to start wildly speculating about which big-name players are about to be traded.

That’s been an annual tradition for hockey fans over the years, even if deep down we always knew that almost all of those blockbusters would never happen. But ever since the NHL off-season went haywire on a June afternoon in 2016, this time of year has felt just a little bit more exciting. If Shea Weber, Taylor Hall and P.K. Subban could all be traded within a few minutes, who’s to say that any big name is really off the table?

So today, let’s run down 10 of the biggest names that could be moved over the next few weeks. Will any of these players actually end up being traded? There’s a chance that at least one or two could be. Will most of them stay with their current teams, at least through opening night? Undoubtedly. Will at least a few these seem so ridiculous in hindsight that the author will feel embarrassed to have even mentioned them? Not if we remember to come back and delete this post, no.

Either way, let’s get to the trade bait. We’ll start with the most likely big name to be moved, and work our way further out from reality as we go.

1) Erik Karlsson, Senators

Why a trade could happen: We’ll start with a player who may be the biggest star on this list, yet also seems like the most likely to move. The Karlsson trade saga was one of the biggest stories of the regular season, springing to life after some eyebrow-raising comments from the Senators’ captain about his impending free agency, blossoming into a full-blown bidding war by the deadline, and then ending without a deal being struck.

That last part sure feels temporary, as we head into an off-season that figures to see plenty of teams finding enough cap space to take a serious run at one of the best defencemen in the league.

Why we shouldn’t assume that it has to: The Senators don’t have to trade their star, and in a perfect world they’d sign him to a reasonable extension and get on with the work of building a contender around him. Back in February, it felt like there was just way too much smoke for there not to be a fire here — remember, Bobby Ryan told reporters that he and Karlsson actually thought a deal was done. But a lot can change in four months, and even if Karlsson doesn’t want to re-sign, the Senators could hold onto him through the summer in hopes of finding a better deal during the season.

And yet…: Players don’t normally make a point of collecting souvenir pucks when they think they’re sticking around. Karlsson seems like a guy who’s made up his mind to be elsewhere by 2019. And if so, it would be in the Senators’ best interest to get a deal done soon rather than let this situation hang over everything the team does for most of the next year.

2) Ryan O’Reilly, Sabres

Why a trade could happen: Few players should be untouchable after a last-place season. And that’s especially true when that player ends the season by suggesting the team has “been OK with losing” and that it’s cost him his love of the game. That’s not really what you want to hear from one of your leaders.

GM Jason Botterill came over last spring and played his let’s-wait-and-see card. That approach works for one year, but after watching his team finish dead last, it’s time for action. Finding a new home for O’Reilly would be the kind of shakeup move that teams occasionally need, if only as a reminder that the status quo isn’t good enough.

Why it doesn’t have to: After what we’ve seen recently in Toronto, New Jersey, Colorado and Vegas, anybody who suggests that a team as bad as the Sabres must be years away from a playoff run hasn’t been paying attention. Turnarounds can happen quickly these days, and O’Reilly is a good-enough player to be a key part of one in Buffalo. Besides, with a $7.5-million cap hit for five more years, it may be tough to get top value for him.

And yet…: After those end-of-season comments, bringing O’Reilly back for another year would almost seem cruel.

3) Phil Kessel, Penguins

Why a trade could happen: He’s been in Pittsburgh for three years now, which is about the maximum length of time Kessel can last anywhere before the trade talk kicks in.

Why there’s a chance it might not: You may recall that the Penguins did pretty well in two of those three years, and Kessel had a lot to do with that. Given his production, his cap hit (which the Leafs are already paying a chunk of) is fairly reasonable. In a league where every team could use at least a little more speed, skill and scoring depth, you’d think a team might want to hold onto a guy who brings as much of all three as Kessel.

And yet…: Those are all good reasons to trade for a guy, too, which means Jim Rutherford should be able to extract a decent return on a deal. Whether the Penguins are tired of Kessel behind the scenes or just see him as an asset that could provide a nice return, Rutherford has never been shy about making big moves.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Grab bag: Should Vegas boo Gary Bettman?

In a special Thursday edition of the Friday Grab Bag:
- Important advice for Caps fans on how to celebrate a Cup win the right way
- The case for and against Las Vegas fans booing Gary Bettman
- An obscure player who once got punched by a recently fired GM
- The week's three comedy stars, in which we find out a superhero reads hockey blogs
- And a look back at Bettman's first Cup hand off, 25 years ago this week...

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The 2018 playoff all-disappointment team

We may be one game away from the end of the Stanley Cup Final. As early as Thursday, the Washington Capitals could end 44 years of misery by finally getting their hands on the Stanley Cup, setting off a wild celebration in Washington and fulfilling the lifelong dreams many of these players have had since childhood.

We’d better get our complaining in while we still can.

So today, before we’re all distracted by that icky positivity, let’s break out the annual playoff-bust team. We’re looking for a full roster of post-season disappointment, which seems like a lot until you realize how many big names we’ll have to cut from well-deserved spots. The NHL playoffs are rough.

Keep in mind, we’re looking for players who were disappointing relative to what their teams had hoped they’d do. This isn’t a collection of the worst players from this year’s playoffs, since there are any number of fourth-liners or depth defencemen who did even less. In a way, appearing on a list like this is almost a compliment, since it implies that expectations were high. Remember that when your favourite player shows up and you want to yell at me.

We’ll start with the position that’s usually the easiest to fill in these sorts of things: those poor goalies. Emphasis on “poor.”


Frederik Andersen, Maple Leafs: To his credit, Andersen helped the Leafs dig out of a 3–1 series hole with a pair of strong games. But they were in that hole largely due to a pair of stinkers early on, and with the series on the line he had a disastrous third period in Game 7. Even when the numbers said he was playing well, Andersen seemed to be fighting the puck for long stretches, and it caught up with him when the Leafs could least afford it.

John Gibson, Ducks: Gibson had a phenomenal season, one that had some observers touting him as a Vezina candidate. But he couldn’t maintain that magic in the playoffs, and it was a big part of the reason why the Ducks went out so meekly against the Sharks. His .889 playoff save percentage was the worst of any goaltender who started the majority of his team’s regular-season games. Granted, that number was skewed by a disastrous Game 3 in which he was shelled for five goals in two periods of what would become an 8–1 blowout, but that was a game the Ducks desperately needed.

Pekka Rinne, Predators: Gibson could have been a Vezina finalist; Rinne will almost certainly win it. But once the playoffs arrived he was inconsistent at best for a team that looked like a Stanley Cup favourite. He had his moments, including a pair of shutouts. But he was also pulled four times, including after giving up two soft goals in the deciding seventh game against the Jets.

Late cuts: Sergei Bobrovsky never came up with the sort of game that would have helped the Blue Jackets finish off the Capitals. Matt Murray and Tuukka Rask both won a round, but neither was at his best.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Podcast: The final countdown

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- It's pretty much all Stanley Cup final talk, as the Caps take a 3-1 lead
- Is this really happening? Is Washington finally going to do this?
- We get into an argument about officials calling the game differently for players and teams that embellish
- The redemption of Alexander Ovechkin
- The healthy(?) scratching of David Perron
- Our current Conn Smythe picks
- Accepting the role of luck in playoff hockey
- What comes next for Barry Trotz
- If you were a Capitals player and were guaranteed a Cup win, would you rather have the clincher happen in Washington or Vegas?
- And lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Your team-by-team rooting guide to the 2018 Stanley Cup final

As we head into Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final tonight, most fans will have already picked a side. Maybe you’re on board with the unprecedented underdog story of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. Or maybe you’re rooting for the long-suffering Washington Capitals as they try to undo 44 years of misery. Or maybe you’re not backing anyone, because if your team can’t win it all then you don’t see why anyone else should get to be happy either. Honestly, it’s probably that last one.

Or maybe you’re just a procrastinator. If so, we’re here to help. Today, let’s run through the other 29 NHL fan bases and see if we can come up with a reason to root for either the Caps or the Knights over the next few nights as the Stanley Cup Final winds its way to a close.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres have spent the better part of the last decade struggling to pull of a traditional rebuild, complete with trades, firings, blatant tanking and (finally) some lottery luck. It hasn’t work yet, but they have a plan and they’re sticking to it. The Capitals had a similar vision back in 2004, and seeing it finally pay off would remind Sabres fans that sometimes, slow and steady wins the race. On the other hand, a Golden Knights championship would suggest that titles can be won by accident and all this long-term planning may have just been an utter waste of time. If I were a Sabres fan, I know which option I’d prefer to believe in.

Pick: Capitals

Tampa Bay Lightning

Some lingering bitterness after the conference final is perfectly acceptable. And Alex Ovechkin finally winning a championship would move Steven Stamkos even further up the list of players under the spotlight for their own lack of playoff success, which Tampa fans would probably prefer to avoid.

Pick: Golden Knights

Winnipeg Jets

Much like the Lightning, we’ll allow Jets fans to still be harbouring a few conference-final grudges — especially after watching the best team in Winnipeg’s NHL history bow out in five games to an expansion team.

Pick: Capitals

New York Rangers

There’s a good case to be made that New York fans should be rooting for their long-time rivals. After all, the Capitals and Rangers have gone toe-to-toe in multiple playoff showdowns over the years, and while some of those have featured bad blood, there should be a certain level of respect between the two teams by now. Respect is a wonderful thing. It also doesn’t have much to do with how hockey fans think, so…

Pick: Golden Knights

New York Islanders

I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is for forgiving Dale Hunter’s cheap shot on Pierre Turgeon, but I’m pretty sure we haven’t reached it yet.

Pick: Golden Knights

Toronto Maple Leafs

Leafs fans will always have a complicated relationship with teams like the Capitals winning a Cup, since it removes one more entry from the list of teams with comparable droughts to Toronto’s. But surely an expansion team winning in year one would be worse, and at least a Caps win would offer up some sort of lesson on the value of perseverance in the face of decades of futility. Also, if the Knights win then the Leafs will finish the playoffs as the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the champions, which is never an honour you want to earn if you’re trying to convince yourself that you’re close to contending.

Pick: Capitals

Pittsburgh Penguins

A Vegas win means Marc-Andre Fleury gets to be happy and Ovechkin gets to be sad, making this just about the easiest call on the entire list.

Pick: Golden Knights

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, June 1, 2018

Who should take Alexander Ovechkin's crown as the NHL star who can't win the big one?

Alex Ovechkin has heard it for just about his entire NHL career: He can’t win the big one.

Sure, he can rack up the stats and personal accolades during the regular season, winning Rocket Richards and Hart Trophies almost at will. But when it’s all on the line, either in the Stanley Cup playoffs or the Olympics, he can’t get it done. Everyone knows it. He’s basically the NHL’s poster child for coming up small when it matters most.

But now, Ovechkin has finally led the Capitals to the final, and he’s three wins away from a championship. He and the Caps will have their work cut out for them against the Golden Knights, but they’ve defied expectations all spring. And if they do pull it off and Ovechkin gets his skate with the Cup, the NHL’s can’t-win-the-big-one squad will need a new leader.

So today, let’s run through the rest of the NHL and figure out which players are in the best position to take over Ovechkin’s role as the star player who just doesn’t have what it takes to earn a ring. As it turns out, there are plenty of candidates. We’ll count down 10 options.

10. Patrick Marleau, Maple Leafs

Marleau’s name doesn’t come up all that often in these discussions, partly because he seems like such a nice guy. But the reality is that he’s now 20 seasons into his career and is still chasing his first championship. Most of that time was spent with the Sharks, a team that’s established a reputation for falling short of expectations in the post-season. This year, Marleau made the jump to the Maple Leafs in what some saw as an attempt to get closer to that elusive ring, only to see San Jose go further into the post-season than Toronto did.

Marleau’s playoff numbers are reasonably good, down only slightly from his regular-season production, and he’s at least played in a final. But with over 1,500 career games played without ever winning the sport’s ultimate prize, he has to be on our list.

9. Pekka Rinne, Predators

There are a couple of goaltenders who’ll rank higher on our list than Rinne, and we’ll get to them in a moment. But the Predators’ star is well worth a mention, even on the heels of what figures to be a Vezina-winning season.

Rinne has had some very good playoff runs in his 10-season career, including last year’s trip to the final that saw him post a .930 save percentage. But others have been decidedly average, and he’s coming off a rough 2018 run that ended in disaster, with him yanked from Game 7 against the Jets after giving up two softies in just over 10 minutes. That’s the kind of performance that creates questions even after an excellent season, and it will be interesting to see how much confidence the Predators still have in their suddenly beleaguered star.

8. Maybe nobody?

Hear me out. Maybe the whole “He can’t win the big one” narrative was fatally flawed from the start, not just for Ovechkin but for everyone it was ever applied to. And maybe instead of looking for an heir apparent for Ovechkin’s crown, we should use his appearance in the final as an excuse to drop the whole concept altogether.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Grab bag: Drop the puck

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Those Vegas pre-game ceremonies are lots of fun but maybe we could eventually start the game?
- A vitally important debate about NHL history that everyone should read
- An obscure player with a Cup-winning goal
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at the NHL's first ever June game, 26 years ago today

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Podcast: Final destination

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

- Reacting to the first two games of the Stanley Cup final, which were honestly pretty great
- Braden Holtby's save
- Tom Wilson's non-suspension
- Evgeny Kuznetsov's injury
- The do's and don'ts of pregame ceremonies
- The NHL's very bad week of concussion news
- Plus Melnyk vs Alfredsson, book talk and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.