Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Celebrating Halloween with the all-scary-start team

It’s​ Halloween, so it’s​ time​ to​ think​ of​ something​ scary. You​ could go with​ zombies or vampires​ or​ werewolves, but that’s​​ amateur hour. Let’s get really frightening. How about some big-name hockey stars who came into the year with high expectations but are off to disappointing starts?

OK, maybe my version of scary is different than yours. And some of these guys shouldn’t worry us too much. After all, there’s still five months to go, and even the scariest horror story usually wraps up with some sort of happy ending. But for now, let’s get into the Halloween spirit by putting together a full roster of scary starts and attempt to figure out which players should have us huddled in genuine fear.

Like a parent rationing out Halloween candy, we’ll limit our picks to one player per team so that nobody hogs all the good stuff. (Looking at you, kid dressed up as a King.) Also, with 21 roster sports available, some teams won’t be represented. If that’s your team, assume they’re either doing really well, or were already expected to be bad enough that failure doesn’t even rank as disappointment. It’s either a mortal insult or a compliment, you get to choose.

On to the house of early-season horrors …


The player: Patrik Laine, Jets

The start: Through 12 games, Laine is stuck at just three goals and five points. He’s been held pointless in his last five, and has only had one multi-point game on the season, which came on opening night. Even more concerning, his assist in that first game remains his only even-strength point all year.

Odds it ends well: Very good. The key thing you look for when a goal-scorer is slumping is his shot volume – if that’s dropping, there’s reason for concern. But Laine is actually outdoing his career average when it comes to getting pucks on net. Consistency is an issue for Laine — like it is for most young players — and this early slump could ultimately cost him the Rocket Richard Trophy we all had him penciled in for. But this still feels like more of a percentage thing that will even out over time.

The player: Steven Stamkos, Lightning

The start: While the Lightning have been winning, Stamkos is out of the gate with just two goals through eleven games.

Odds it ends well: His shots-per-game are steady with last year, although that was down from his career average. Stamkos is 28, and in today’s NHL that might mean his peak is already behind him; he’s looked more like a 30-goal guy over his last few full seasons more than the 50+ sniper we still think of him as.

All that said, let’s not oversell this like we did when we all decided Alexander Ovechkin was done a few years ago just because his coaches were making him play backup goalie. Besides, if the Lightning are already this good without their captain chipping in at his normal rate, maybe the story here is how scary they might be when everyone is rolling.

The player: Anze Kopitar, Kings

The start: Last year’s Hart Trophy finalist has struggled offensively, with just four points in ten games. He’s good enough in his own end that, unlike most of the forwards on this list, he doesn’t have to score to help his team win. But the Kings aren’t winning, and as their captain and highest-paid player, Kopitar has to wear some of that.

Odds it ends well: At 31 years old and with five more years left on a deal that carries a $10-million cap hit, we don’t even want to think about what it would mean if he’s already starting a decline. But Kopitar has been good enough for long enough that he’s earned some benefit of the doubt. Last year’s 92 points already seems out of reach, but the Kings have bigger worries right now.

The player: Sean Couturier, Flyers

The start: After last year’s breakout, this was supposed to be the year that the 25-year-old Couturier locked in his status as an elite, two-way forward. Instead, he’s managed just four points (all goals) while the Flyers can’t keep the puck out of their own net.

Odds it ends well: Couturier himself says it’s “not time to panic here.” But it sure is getting close in Philadelphia, where Couturier is far from the only one off to a slow start.

The player: Casey Mittelstadt, Sabres

The start: The 19-year-old rookie was pegged by some for the Calder Trophy, including myself. But he’s limped out of the gate with just a goal and three points in his first 12 games.

Odds it ends well: The Calder hype may have been asking too much from a teenager who’s never played a full NHL-style schedule. Still, his October was a disappointment, as even he admits. The good news is that the Sabres are off to a decent start, so he’ll get a chance to play out of it without dealing with all the doom and gloom that usually descends on Buffalo by November.

The player: Milan Lucic, Oilers

The start: One scary number: Just a single goal in 11 games. Another scary number: Four more years after this one at a $6-million cap hit.

Odds it ends well: The Lucic free agent deal has been criticized from pretty much the moment it was signed, and no doubt Oiler fans are sick of hearing about it. After seeing his production fall off a cliff in the second half last year, at some point we may have to accept that this is just what Lucic is now – a guy who can contribute physically and as a leader, but whose days as a 30 or even a 20-goal force are over.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, October 29, 2018

Weekend rankings: The Leafs played the Jets and nobody won

This​ week served up​ one​ of​ the​ early​ season’s​ first big​ showdowns, as the​ Maple Leafs and​ Jets​ hosted each other​​ in a two-game miniseries for Canadian bragging rights. The two games came with a big spotlight on both sides of the border, as the teams faced off on national TV in the U.S. on Wednesday before getting the prime Hockey Night in Canada slot on Saturday. We weren’t sure whether we’d get any sort of decisive result, but we figured at least one team would come away from the week feeling good about themselves.

Yeah, maybe not.

Let’s start with the Maple Leafs, who ended up taking both games in regulation. That’s a huge result for a young team that’s still trying to learn how to close out good teams. They carried the play for much of the two games, weathered a dangerous Jets attack, largely shut down Patrik Laine and blitzed the Jets for three quick goals on Saturday to steal two points. All in all, pretty much an ideal outcome.

Except, of course, that nobody’s talking about that today. Instead, the big news is Auston Matthews, who left Saturday’s game early in the second period after absorbing a hit from Jacob Trouba. He’s out with an injured shoulder, which sounds a little too familiar given his history, and initial reports were simply that he wouldn’t play tonight. This morning, we found out that the news was worse, and he’ll miss at least a month.

Is that a reason to panic in Toronto? Well … maybe, yeah, it might be. The Leafs figure to be in a tough race for home ice in the Atlantic all season long. Every point will count and missing their best player for weeks at a time will cost them. More importantly, at some point you wonder if Leaf fans will have to cover their eyes every time Matthews takes a big hit to the shoulder. Our own Justin Bourne has some personal experience with shoulder issues and shared his thoughts here: Toronto fans may not want to read them.

As for the Winnipeg side, we won’t read too much into the sweep, especially since there was a mitigating factor on Saturday. While the Leafs were home and resting up, the Jets had to play in Detroit on Friday, so maybe it wasn’t a shock to see them run out of gas in the late-going the next night. But we’re now a dozen games into the season and it’s fair to say that the Jets have been just OK. They’ve won seven, lost five and have been pretty even in terms of goal differential and possession. They haven’t been bad by any stretch. But they haven’t been great and going pointless against a fellow contender doesn’t help that perception.

So there probably aren’t a lot of smiles in either Winnipeg or Toronto right now. The good news is that both teams remain in our top five. Let’s see who else is joining them …

Road to the Cup

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

Before we get to the rankings, it’s worth taking a moment to mention that former NHL president John Ziegler passed away on Thursday. That’s a name that may not be familiar to some of today’s hockey fans, since he hasn’t been directly involved in the league in over 25 years. But there’s a decent case to be made that even all those years later, Ziegler is in the conversation as the second most important behind-the-scenes figure in the league’s modern history, behind only Gary Bettman.

Ziegler was a somewhat surprising choice to become league president in 1977, an American lawyer replacing a legend in Clarence Campbell. He inherited a league in which several teams were on the brink of financial failure; within a year the Cleveland Barons had folded, becoming the last team in major North American pro sports to do so. The NHL was also in the final stages of its battle with the rival WHA and Ziegler stickhandled the complicated merger that saw four teams absorbed into the NHL.

The 80s saw two franchise moves, the near-death of the Blues, the weird Pat Quinn situation, an emerging drug problem, several headline-grabbing acts of violence, the Alan Eagleson scandal and an influx of European players. There was, of course, the infamous disappearing act on Yellow Sunday that marked the low point of his tenure. But Ziegler also oversaw the early 90s expansion to markets like San Jose, Ottawa and Tampa, and faced the only player strike in league history, a midseason walkout that briefly threatened to wipe out the 1992 playoffs.

It was his handling of that strike that ultimately led him to being pushed out, opening the door that would eventually bring us the Gary Bettman era. Ziegler’s reign was far from perfect and Bettman inherited a league with more than a few fires burning. But given the challenges that were thrown at him over his 15 years on the job, Ziegler probably did about as good a job as we could have asked for. That’s a legacy worth remembering and recognizing.

5. Winnipeg Jets (7-4-1, +3) – Next up are back-to-back games against the Panthers, which of course are being held in Finland and only an idiot would think otherwise.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs (8-3-0, +7) – Let’s see how they look without Matthews before we drop them, but this is a team with three great centers and then not much else down the middle. Those third and fourth lines might be rough.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, October 26, 2018

Grab Bag: The great goalie equipment debate of 2018 (and 1998)

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Goalies don't like the new equipment rules, and think the changes are unsafe. OK. So now what?
- What may be my most petty Trivial Annoyance ever
- An obscure player with a ridiculously fake name
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back on the NHL's 1998 goalie summit, where they can really close to almost kind of doing something about the equipment

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

NHL GMs don’t get second chances anymore. That might change how your favorite team is run.

If​ you had to​ guess,​ how​ many​ current​ NHL​ head coaches​ do you think​ have held that​ job​ for at least​​ one other team during their careers?

You might assume the number would be fairly high. After all, the NHL is often accused of being an old boys’ club, where teams prefer the safety of a familiar name to taking a chance on a fresh face.

If so, you’d be right. The vast majority of current coaches – 21 out of 31 – are on at least their second head coaching job. That includes nine coaches who are on their second chance, eight who are on their third, and four who are on their fourth. John Tortorella is actually on his fifth if you count his brief interim stint with the Rangers in 1999-00.

OK, now let’s move up the org chart and try the same question for the front office. How many of today’s 31 GMs are on at least their second chance at the job? If anything, we might think that the old boys’ club effect would be even more pronounced here. GM jobs don’t open up very often and they typically require plenty of experience, so you might expect to see the same old faces being recycled through the league.

But we don’t. In fact, only 10 of the league’s current GMs are on their second full-time job. (It’s 11 if you count Jeff Gorton’s interim stint with Boston, although that only lasted a few months.) Two-thirds of today’s GMs are on their first shot at the job. And only one GM in the entire league, Lou Lamoriello, has done it for more than two teams.

That seems pretty amazing. It didn’t used to be like this – even a decade or so ago, it wasn’t unusual to see guys like Cliff Fletcher, Bobby Clarke, Brian Burke or Bryan Murray show up for third, fourth and even fifth cracks at a GM’s job. But these days, most teams don’t seem interested in hiring a retread. More often than not, a GM’s career is one-and-done.

The two types of second-chance GMs

The trend gets even more pronounced if you look at the 10 GMs who did manage to get a second chance. Almost all of them fall into one of two categories: Stanley Cup winners, or guys who held their first job forever.

The Cup winner category includes names like Ray Shero and Peter Chiarelli, as well as Dale Tallon, who built pretty much the entire Blackhawks’ 2009-2010 roster before being fired after free agency. The Blackhawks made a point of giving him a ring even though he wasn’t employed by the team anymore, so we’ll defer to their judgment and consider him a Cup winner.

Then there’s the guys who didn’t win a Cup, but held their previous job forever. That would include George McPhee (17 years in Washington before going to Vegas); David Poile (15 years in Washington before Nashville); and Don Waddell (12 years in Atlanta before getting the Carolina job this summer).

Two more guys, Lamoriello and Jim Rutherford, fit into both categories, having held previous jobs for well over a decade while winning Cups in the process.

That leaves us with just two current GMs in the entire league who managed to get a second crack at the job despite not either winning a Cup or sticking around forever in their first.

The first is Doug Armstrong. He does have a Cup ring, earned as an assistant in Dallas, but didn’t have much success in five years as GM there. He still managed to work his way back to the big chair in St. Louis in 2010, and he’s held it ever since.

The second is Anaheim GM Bob Murray. You may not even remember his previous time as a GM, because it came back in the 1990s. He had a quick stint as GM in Chicago from 1997 to 1999, then waited nearly 10 years before getting a second shot with Anaheim in 2008.

That’s it. Two guys in the entire league who didn’t succeed in their first crack at being a GM and still got a second chance. One of them had to wait nearly a decade. And neither was hired within the last eight years.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Ten fun facts about the 1993-94 Maple Leafs' record start

Twenty-five​ years ago tonight,​ the​ streets​ of​ Toronto​ were​ flooded with​ delirious fans celebrating​ one of the​ greatest​ wins in the​​ city’s sports history. It was a truly epic moment, one that stills resonates to this day if you were lucky enough to be in the middle of it.

So today, let’s look back on the game that touched off that city-wide celebration: The Toronto Maple Leafs setting the NHL record for consecutive wins to start a season.

Oh, right, there was also some sort of baseball game that night. That was probably cool too. But since Canadian law dictates that everything has to be about the Maple Leafs at all times, I’m sure that most of those fans were there to celebrate the Leafs’ win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was the team’s ninth straight win to open the season, establishing a new record on the way to what would ultimately become the first 10-0-0 start in league history.

I’ve occasionally been accused of droning on endlessly about the 1992-93 season. But that’s unfair; I’m actually a multi-talented writer who can also drone on endlessly about the 1993-94 season. Let’s do that today, as we relive 10 fun facts about the Maple Leafs’ record-breaking start.

Fact #1: It all began with something strange: Actual optimism

Every Leafs season starts with generic optimism. You know the kind – the team comes out of the gate with one good period and suddenly everyone is making “plan the parade” jokes. But the 1993-94 season was different. For the first time in a generation, there was actually a legitimate reason to believe that the Maple Leafs might be good. And not just “sneak into the playoffs with 65 points because it’s the Norris Division” good. Actually, honestly, legitimately good.

The team headed into the season still riding the high off a 1992-93 playoff run that you’ve no doubt heard all about if you know any Maple Leaf fans, because we bring it up immediately whenever we’re asked a question like “What was your favorite NHL season?” or “How are you?” or “Why are you wearing that tattered Wendel Clark jersey and how did you get into my house?” With the reigning Jack Adams winner behind the bench in Pat Burns, the Hart Trophy runner-up on the top line in Doug Gilmour, and a Calder finalist in goal in Felix Potvin, there was plenty of reason to think the Leafs could build on that momentum and maybe even contend for a Cup.

Opening night featured a visit from the Dallas Stars. This was actually the first road game in Dallas NHL history, coming just a few days after the recently relocated Stars’ home opener (which readers may remember as the space cowboy fiasco). Dallas would turn out to be a decent team, finishing the year with 97 points. But on opening night, the Leafs handled them fairly easily on the way to a 6-3 win over a young Jon Gruden Andy Moog. Dave Andreychuk had two goals, Gilmour added three assists, and the streak had begun.

Fact #2: It was nearly over before it really began

The second and third wins both featured tight games and late winners. Wendel Clark’s goal with 10 minutes left in regulation held up in a 2-1 win over the Blackhawks for win No. 2, while a road trip to Philadelphia featured John Cullen’s tap-in with less than two minutes left.

That left the Leafs at 3-0-0, which was nice, but not especially remarkable; the Devils, Blues and Flames all started the season with three straight wins of their own.

Fact #3: Things got easier in Game No. 4

The streak didn’t feature many blowouts, but the Leafs did enjoy a laugher back at home for Game No. 4. They faced a Washington Capitals team headed into the opposite direction; the Caps would begin the year 0-6-0 as part of a slow start that would eventually cost coach Terry Murray his job.

On Oct. 13, the Leafs earned their fourth straight win by pumping the Capitals by a 7-1 final. Toronto got two goals apiece from Wendel Clark and Rob Pearson. That’s not all that interesting; I just like to remember that Rob Pearson existed. I thoroughly enjoyed the Rob Pearson era.

Speaking of 10-game streaks, this one featured future Leaf Don Beaupre giving way to a third-period relief appearance from a young Olaf Kolzig, who was still four years away from becoming a full-time NHL starter. From 1989 through 1994, he made 10 appearances for the Capitals, often in mop-up duty, and Washington lost every one. Kolzig didn’t get to participate in an actual NHL win until January 1995, almost six years after he’d made his debut.

Fact #4: The main event came in Games No. 5 and 6

With all due respect to the Stars, Hawks, Flyers and Capitals, most Leaf fans were already looking ahead to Oct. 15 and 16. That was when the schedule served up the season’s first rematch with the Red Wings, in an old-fashioned Norris Division home-and-home.

The Wings, of course, had been the team the Leafs had knocked off in the first round of the 1993 playoffs. That was viewed as an upset at the time, especially after Detroit had romped to blowout wins in Games 1 and 2, even though the two teams hadn’t finished all that far apart in the standings. Still, Toronto fans wouldn’t get too excited about their early-season success until the Leafs proved they could measure up against the Wings.

They did. The Leafs took the opener on home ice by a 6-3 final, scoring four times on 12 shots to chase Chris Osgood from his first career start. As with most home-and-homes from that era, the game ended with some message-sending, including an ugly stick-swinging incident between Bob Rouse and Bob Probert. Both players were handed four-game suspensions by Brian Burke.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, October 22, 2018

Weekend rankings: How low should the Kings go?

This​ is the time​ of​ year​ when​ coming​ up​ with power​ rankings starts getting​ fun. Over the​ first​ few weeks, everyone’s​​ screaming at you about not overreacting, so you’re basically just going by the preseason consensus. After a few months go by, the best and worst are pretty much locked in and one game here or there doesn’t change much of anything, making it a challenge to come up with new things to talk about every week.

But right now, we’re headed into the sweet spot. It’s still early, of course, but not so early that we can’t start second-guessing some of those initial assumptions. Maybe the Canucks aren’t going to be terrible after all. Maybe the Blackhawks are back, or close to it. Maybe the Kings are in trouble.

Or maybe not. Experience tells us that we’re still going to be wrong about a lot of this stuff. This time last year, we still thought the Blackhawks were good and the Avalanche were bad. But we’re getting close to the point where we’ve seen enough action to start venturing out of our comfort zone, if only a little bit.

It’s also the time of year where we’re less concerned about the dangers of reading too much into a small sample of games. We can, for example, watch the Penguins and Blues shut down the Maple Leafs in back-to-back outings and start to wonder whether Toronto isn’t quite where some thought they were. Or we can see the Bruins lose three straight up in Canada and realize they haven’t really beaten anybody good. Or maybe we start to wonder if we’ve all misjudged the Canadiens, or even the Senators.

And that’s just one division. See, week three is fun. Nobody knows anything, but we’re feeling more confident about it.

All that said, this week’s rankings don’t look radically different from the first few weeks. We’ve actually only got one brand new team making a debut appearance. That team moves into the bottom five and apparently they were so excited by the news that they held a closed-door meeting about it.

But first, on to the good teams. Or at least the teams that are still tricking us into thinking they’re good.

Road to the Cup

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

The Blackhawks aren’t especially close to making either list; they’ve won four and lost four with a goal differential of -1, so they’re just about as average as a team can be right now. But one of the better stories of the weekend was seeing Corey Crawford back in the win column for the first time since last season’s concussion. It’s only been two games, but so far he’s looked like his old self. If that remains the case, the Blackhawks have a shot at being something more than just average.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (6-3-0, +4) – We’ll leave the suddenly toothless Maple Leafs in the top five, no so much on merit, but because nobody else is really knocking down the door to get in. Even after forgetting how to score in back-to-back losses, they’re still sitting tied for second in the league. But we’ll learn something about them this week as they face the Jets in a home-and-home.

In the meantime, it’s starting to seem like the William Nylander situation is coming to a head, or at least to the point where we can start taking scenarios off the table. We’re still a month away from any actual deadline, but it feels like this will be resolved one way or another well before that.

4. San Jose Sharks (4-3-1, +5) – The record isn’t all that impressive, but the underlying numbers are, and it feels like the Sharks are righting the ship after some early season stumbles. And the fun part is that they’re largely doing it without anything spectacular from shiny new toy Erik Karlsson, who doesn’t have a primary point at even strength, yet. That might worry Sharks fans who were expecting Norris type numbers and it may worry Karlsson’s agent as he looks ahead to a record-breaking contract. But it should also worry the rest of a very mediocre-looking Pacific Division, because the Sharks are already dominating possession, and when Karlsson starts doing Karlsson things, they’re going to be awfully tough to stop.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, October 19, 2018

Grab Bag: McDavid vs. Matthews

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- McDavid vs. Matthews is a stupid debate and that's OK so stop complaining about it
- A word about booing returning players
- An obscure player with some of the worst stats of any goalie ever
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at Wayne Gretzky's 50-in-39 record, before Auston Matthews breaks it in two weeks

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Eight is enough: When star goalies get shelled

The​ Columbus Blue Jackets​ will​ be​ back​ in​ action​ Wednesday for​ the first time​ since Saturday. Given​ how​ that game went​​ – an 8-2 loss at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning – they’re probably anxious to put it behind them.

Surrendering eight goals in a game isn’t a good thing, but it’s not especially unusual. It wasn’t even the only 8-2 decision that day. But the goalie who gave up all those goals was a surprise, as two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky was left in for all eight.

That’s relatively rare – you don’t often see a star goaltender give up that many goals in a single game. That’s partly because star goaltenders are, you know, good. But it’s also because coaches will often respond to an off-night from their meal ticket by getting them out of there quickly rather than risk embarrassing them. For his part, Bobrovsky sounded like he preferred to fight through and finish what he started, and there hasn’t been much suggestion of any kind of fallout beyond some wounded pride.

The good news for Bobrovsky is that he’s not alone. The names of goalies who’ve been shelled for eight goals in a single game over the last few decades is a fairly long one, and it’s mostly filled with the sort of career backups you might expect – names like Andy Chiodo, Geoff Sarjeant and yes, Andre “Red Light” Racicot all make an appearance. But somewhat surprisingly, so do a handful of Vezina-caliber stars.

So, as Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets get set for their return to action, let’s look back on some of the other times in the last 30 years that a star goaltender has been lit up for eight goals or more, and how it worked out for everyone involved.

Ed Belfour

The well-travelled Hall-of-Famer actually gave up eight or more goals on three separate occasions in his career, and did it for three different teams.

The games: Take your pick. Early in the 1993-94 season, then-Blackhawks starter Belfour stuck around to allow all nine goals in a 9-6 loss to the Flyers despite facing just 25 shots. In 2001, he was a Dallas Star and was in net for all eight goals in an 8-0 road loss to the Kings. And in 2005, he gave up eight more as a member of the Maple Leafs in an 8-2 loss in Ottawa.

“I wasn’t even thinking about pulling him out,” Leafs coach Pat Quinn said at the time. “I didn’t want to pull him out, I wanted our team to get better in front of him, and we didn’t get better in front of him.” Fact check: true.

The random fact: Belfour gave up six or more goals 30 times in his career, and was somehow only pulled in three of those games. Needless to say, all three were by Mike Keenan.

The fallout: Belfour may be history’s greatest example of a goalie rebounding well from a massive blowout. In 1993, he followed his loss with six straight wins. In 2001, he went 5-0-1. And in 2005, he again won six straight. His lifetime record in the six games after allowing eight goals or more was 17-0-1. This means something. I have no idea what.

The lesson: The Blue Jackets should hope that Bobrovsky draws some inspiration from Belfour. (Just, uh, not the part about him constantly switching teams in free agency.)

Grant Fuhr

It’s not especially surprising to see Fuhr appear on this list, since he played most of his career in the high-scoring ’80s and early ’90s, and his team’s strategy was often “score a million goals and leave Grant on his own”.

Our list dates back to 1987, so Fuhr only shows up twice as an Oiler. But it’s his last appearance, one that came as a Maple Leaf, that ends up being the most interesting.

The game: On Dec. 26, 1992, the Leafs travelled to Pittsburgh for what would end up being the worst loss in franchise history. Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Paul Coffey and friends pumped the Maple Leafs for a dozen goals in a 12-1 win, and Fuhr was left out there for every single one of them.

As a side note, I have no idea why Fuhr was left in. (Coach Tom Watt’s postgame quote: “I’m too old to cry and it hurts too much to laugh.”) The Leafs were well-rested coming off the Christmas break, didn’t play the next night, and had a competent backup available in Jeff Reese. But Reese didn’t step on the ice. In fact, he’d never play for the Leafs again, as we’ll get to in a minute.

The random fact: This is one of only two games in the last 30 years in which a goalie gave up 12 goals. The only other one to do it: future Islanders’ coach Scott Gordon in 1990.

The fallout: For Fuhr, there wasn’t much of a rebound – he lost his next four starts, including one to the lowly Nordiques, giving up four goals or more in each of them.

But for the Maple Leafs, the disaster in Pittsburgh was franchise-altering. New GM Cliff Fletcher had been working the phones to try to improve his team, but seeing them humiliated by the defending champions was reportedly the last straw. A week later, he’d wrapped up the biggest trade in NHL history to bring Doug Gilmour to Toronto, and the Maple Leafs’ return to relevance was set in motion.

The lesson: Every once in a while, the absolute worst games end up being the best thing that could happen to a team.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Matthews vs. McDavid: Who is the best player in the world? An in-depth comparison.

Auston​ Matthews is off​ to​ one​ of​ the​ best​ starts in​ NHL history, racking​ up goals and​ points​ at a rate rarely​​ seen over the first two weeks of a season. It’s all been part of a fun early-season story in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs are winning games and lighting up scoreboards on their way to first place in the league.

But somewhat predictably, there are those who seem to be taking the hot streak a little too seriously. Lately, some fans and media are starting to wonder if Matthews has passed Connor McDavid as the best player in the league. That kind of thing can make for a fun debate, but treating it like a toss-up based on seven games seems a little overboard.

Or is it? After all, the “best player” debate is about who’s on top right now. And right now, Matthews is unstoppable. So maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to just dismiss the question out of hand. Instead, let’s look a little deeper, with an in-depth comparison of the two players vying for the crown.

McDavid: Is well ahead of Matthews in several key “best player in the world” categories, such as lifetime point totals, playoff rounds won, and individual awards.

Matthews: Is well ahead of McDavid in the most important “best player in the world” categories, such as proximity to Toronto.

Matthews: Has already set several Toronto franchise records, such as most points by a rookie and most goals in a debut game.

McDavid: Has already set several Edmonton franchise records, such as most career points scored as an Oiler without being offered a coaching or front office job.

McDavid: Has always been a peak physical specimen.

Matthews: Has overcome adversity to become an elite player despite suffering from intermittent deafness that occasionally prevents him from being able to hear opposing fans when he scores on the road.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, October 15, 2018

Weekend rankings: Signal vs. noise

Last​ week’s theme was​ “it’s​ way​ too​ early.”​ This​ week’s could​ be something along​ the lines of​ “it’s​ still early, but​​ maybe not as early as you think.”

We’re still less than two weeks into a six-month season, and everyone’s still got 75+ games left to play. There’s lots of time left, and yes, some of the entries in this week’s rankings will look silly at some point down the line.

But as a wise man once said, it gets late awfully early around here. And history tells us that by this point in the schedule, some truths about how the season will play out are starting to reveal themselves. It’s just a question of finding a signal in all of the noise.

Take last year as an example. When we all woke up on October 15, 2017, a look at the standings would have revealed two winless teams: the Sabres and the Coyotes. Both were young teams that had been hoping to make a push into the playoff conversation. Six months later, the Sabres had finished dead last while the Coyotes were 29th. Only five games into a very young season, it turns out that both teams had already shown us what they’d be when they grew up.

They weren’t the only ones. The Canadiens, fresh off a first-place finish in the Atlantic, had stumbled out to a slow start. So had the Rangers, coming off a 102-point season, as well as the 103-point Oilers. All three teams missed the playoffs by a mile. Meanwhile, teams like Colorado, New Jersey and Vegas were all off to strong starts that turned out to be a preview of what was to come.

By this time last year, we’d already learned some important things. Of course, we were also being misled by more than a few teams. The Blackhawks were leading the Central, while the Flames were the top team in the Pacific. And the only two teams without a regulation loss were the Kings, who turned out to be just OK, and the Senators, who were about a month away from driving off a cliff.

So what can we read into today’s standings?

Well, maybe not a tonne. There really aren’t any teams that are off to completely dominant or disastrous starts, and we’ve got a real traffic jam in the middle – 19 out of 31 teams are sitting at either two or three wins on the season. That’s going to make it tough to draw any firm conclusions, let alone put together a power rankings. But we’re all about staring down adversity around here, so let’s give it a shot.

Road to the Cup

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

It was a good weekend for Canadian teams, who went a combined 7-0, including six wins on Saturday. Somewhat amazingly, that appears to be only the second time that’s ever happened. I think we can all agree that weekends like that are way better than winning a Stanley Cup every quarter-century or so.

5. Boston Bruins (4-1-0, +9) – It’s hard to know what to make of the Bruins this year. It’s not easy to be sporting a +9 goals differential a week after losing your opener 7-0, but here we are. They’ve done it by following that opening night disaster with four blowout wins, but it’s hard not to notice that all four of those wins came against teams that weren’t very good last year, while that one big loss came against the defending Cup champs.

So are the Bruins a good team, or just one that kicks sand on the weaklings but gets exposed when they try to pick on someone their own size? We may not find out anytime soon, as they head out on a four-game Canadian road swing that sees them play four more teams that missed the playoffs last year.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs (5-1-0, +7) – Saturday’s showdown with the Capitals didn’t turn into the shootout we were all hoping for but Mike Babcock will probably be just fine with a 4-2 win. Auston Matthews scored and had multiple points yet again, but the bigger story might be Frederik Andersen’s best game of the young season and a rare example of the Leafs’ holding down a third-period lead without wetting themselves.

The win capped off a sweep of a four-game road trip and was the Leafs’ first of the season against a team that made the playoffs last year. They’ll get two more of those matchups this week when they host the Kings and Penguins, before the Blues arrive to close out the homestand on Saturday. And after that, it’s on to a home-and-home with the Jets that should be all sorts of fun.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, October 12, 2018

Grab bag: Banner manners

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A word to the fun police about celebrations
- What do about that Nashville Predators banner situation
- An obscure player who we all thought was going to be so much better
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back to the Dallas Stars making their NHL debut with space cowboys, probably

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Who's the best GM of all time? Just follow the bad trade chain.

Who’s​ the best general​ manager​ in​ the​ history​ of​ the NHL?

On​ the surface, that​ seems like the​ sort​ of question that​​ we can’t really answer. You’ll have your opinion and I’ll have mine, and we can have fun debating it back and forth. But ultimately, it’s all a matter of opinion.

Or is it? When it comes to these sorts of questions, I’ve always been a big fan of stripping away emotion and hometown bias and going with a calculated, scientific approach. And there’s an opportunity to do that here, because part of a GM’s job involves occasionally going head-to-head with their colleagues. We can never read too much into a matchup between goalies or coaches or players, because the results will be determined by the rosters around them. But when GMs sit down to hammer out a trade, it’s just them. Just two men, locked in a battle of wits to see who can get the best of the other.

That should give us an opportunity to answer the question of who was the best in an objective way. All we need to do is go back through the trading records and see who got the best of who. After all, you can’t be the best GM ever if some other GM took you to the cleaners in a head-to-head matchup. We just need to work our way down the chain, looking for any trades that were clearly lopsided, and we’ll eventually get to an answer we can all agree on. It’s practically foolproof.

The only question is where to begin. That’s tricky, but I think there’s a logical answer: We start with the reigning GM of the Year. After all, if the league says a guy is the best in the business at this very moment, that seems like as good a place as any to start our search.

As it happens, the current GM of the Year is a legitimate contender for our Best Ever crown. That would be George McPhee, who won the 2018 award after working a near-miracle with the Golden Knights. He has nearly two decades of experience as an NHL GM, and he’s taken two teams to the Stanley Cup final. If you’re looking for someone to call the best, you could do a lot worse than George McPhee.

Except that for all McPhee’s success, he made one of the worst trades in recent history back in 2013, when he sent Filip Forsberg to the Predators for Martin Erat and a minor leaguer. It was a disastrous trade, as Forsberg quickly developed into one of the league’s best young wingers while Erat barely did anything in Washington. The deal has been referred to as a “dumpster fire”. And who was the GM who robbed McPhee blind in that deal? That would be David Poile.

So McPhee clearly can’t be the best GM ever. Instead, it’s Poile. See how this works? Simple and straightforward.

Except that while Poile certainly won his fair share of trades over his 36 years on the job, his record isn’t exactly spotless. Back in 1992, Poile was GM of the Capitals when he traded winger Dino Ciccarelli to the Red Wings in a straight-up deal for Kevin Miller. The 31-year-old Ciccarelli had scored over 100 goals in his three full seasons in Washington; he turned out to have over 160 more left in him, on the way to joining the 600-goal club and making the Hall of Fame. Miller lasted all of 10 games in Washington.

So sorry, David, you can’t be the best GM of all-time when you get robbed like that. Instead, we’ll hand those honors over to the man that fleeced you: Red Wings’ GM Bryan Murray.

Murray’s a solid pick; he was a GM for four different teams over the course of a quarter century. Unfortunately, he also had some shaky deals. Back in 2013, he traded Jakob Silfverberg, Stefan Noesen and a first-round pick to the Ducks in a deal for winger Bobby Ryan. That pick ended up being in the top 10, and the Ducks used it on Nick Ritchie. Meanwhile, Ryan has largely been a bust in Ottawa, and the team is currently trying to unload his massive contract. It was a clear loss for the Senators, and a win for Anaheim GM Bob “No Relation” Murray.

So Bryan can’t be our best-ever GM. But maybe Bob can be.

Unfortunately, the best GM ever wouldn’t have traded one of the top defensemen in the league without getting any impact assets back in return. That’s what Murray did back in 2009, when Paul Holmgren got him to part with Chris Pronger for the low price of Joffrey Lupul, Lucas Sbisa and two late first-round picks. Pronger immediately led the Flyers to within two wins of a championship, making the deal a big win for GM Paul Holmgren.

So Murray isn’t the best GM after all. Paul Holmgren is.

Except that he can’t be, because he once traded James van Riemsdyk to the Maple Leafs in a straight-up deal for Luke Schenn. That was a bad deal on the day it went down, and has been getting worse ever since. Schenn was barely a useful third-pairing guy, while van Riemsdyk had multiple 30-goal seasons in Toronto and just got a ton of money to come back to the Flyers. Chalk up a big win for Leafs GM Brian Burke.

So Holmgren is out. The best GM ever was actually Brian Burke.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, October 8, 2018

Weekend rankings: It is​ way​ too​ early​ for​ this

This​ is, admittedly,​ not a great time​ to be doing​ a power​ ranking.

For one thing,​​ it’s a holiday in Canada, so lots of hockey fans are in turkey comas and won’t ever see this. But more importantly, we can all agree that it is far too early to be power-ranking anything. Most teams have played twice. We’ve got roughly 80 games to go, spread out over six months and any attempt to evaluate teams based on what’s happened so far is guaranteed to look silly by then.

But that’s half the fun. And it’s why I wanted to debut this column today, rather than waiting a week or two for things to settle down. I’ve been doing Monday power rankings in some form for years now and the opening weekend edition is always my favorite one to write. It’s such a ridiculous concept that it’s pretty much irresistible. Plus it’s always worth a laugh to look back at the end of the season and remember how much we thought we knew and how little we actually did.

The caveat is that the early rankings will be based far more on preseason expectations than on what’s actually happened on the ice. That’s meant to keep things from going off the rails based on an upset here or a fluke there. It usually just makes things worse, because preseason consensus is so often wrong. Last year’s opening weekend rankings had the Oilers in the top five and the top-ranked team was the Blackhawks, fresh off a 10-1 demolition of the defending champion Penguins. Meanwhile, the bottom five included the Jets (who’d been shelled in both of their games), as well as the 2-0-0 Golden Knights and 1-1-0 Avalanche, because we all knew those feel-good stories couldn’t last.

You know, it’s possible I might be bad at this. Ah well, too late now.

In years past, these rankings would appear as part of a bigger look back the weekend. The full weekend wrap treatment isn’t really necessary now, since The Athletic’s roster of hockey writers now includes [checks notes] everyone, so you’re pretty much covered. But we’ll keep the Monday power rankings, and use them as an excuse to make observations, predictions and the occasional punchline.

While most these rankings will be wrong, this week’s will be really wrong. That’s the fun, so don’t say you weren’t warned.

Road to the Cup

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

If you went into the season without a clear Cup favorite – and you should have – then the first few games didn’t do much to help you. Most years there’s at least one team that looks unbeatable early on. Not this time; we’re already down to just six teams left in the league who don’t have at least one loss, and that includes teams like the Stars, Devils and Avalanche who aren’t getting anywhere near the top five based on one week.

So yeah, figuring out who’s actually good is already confusing. Don’t worry, things usually start to clear up sometime around mid-June.

5. San Jose Sharks (1-1-0, -2 true goals differential*) – They got pushed around by the Ducks and needed overtime to beat the Kings and so far Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns have combined for a single point. I still think they’re the best team in the Pacific, but I’ve already got one eye on the bandwagon’s emergency exit. If they lose to the Islanders tonight, it will be both eyes.

4. Washington Capitals (1-0-1, +6) – We’ll give the defending champs this much: They’ve been lots of fun. Both of their games have featured football scores, as we’ve seen a 7-0 win and a 7-6 loss. No doubt Todd Reirden will get the memo from the coaching fraternity that fun is bad and cannot be allowed under any circumstances, but in the meantime let’s hope they can keep it for Wednesday’s Cup rematch with the Golden Knights.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, October 5, 2018

Grab Bag: Oh la la

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Thoughts on Tom Wilson's suspension
- Jesperi Kotkaniemi makes history
- An obscure player who's tied with you and me in career scoring
- The week's three comedy stars
- And the 1979 New York Rangers would like to sell you some jeans...

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

When opening week games go horribly wrong

On​ Tuesday, we had​ some​ fun​ with​ the​ idea of​ overreacting to​ the season’s first​ week. It’s a silly​ thing​ that hockey fans​​ tend to do, and we usually end up looking back in a few months and wondering what all the fuss was about.

But every now and then the hockey gods like to smack us on the nose with an opening-week game that’s so lopsided, we wonder if they’re trying to tell us something. It’s one thing to lose a game or two. It’s another thing entirely to see your team get blown out of the water. That’s when it’s time to worry.

Or is it? I fired up the hockey-reference play index to see how many teams had been blown out by five goals or more in one of their first three games of the season during the cap era. It turns out to be rare, but not overly so, happening about twice a year on average. And as it turns out, some of the teams on the wrong end of those lopsided scores turned out just fine.

So today, let’s provide a dose of optimism for any teams that happen to get embarrassed this week. If they’re lucky, they’ll end up having a season like one of these seven teams.

The team: The 2017-18 Winnipeg Jets

The game: With hopes high that this would be the year the Jets finally returned to the postseason and maybe even win the first playoff game in their v2 history, Winnipeg hosted the Maple Leafs for their season opener. It was Steve Mason’s first game as a Jet, not to mention an early test against a fellow Canadian team hoping to contend in the near future.

It didn’t go well. The Leafs jumped out to a 3-0 lead, widened the gap to 6-0 at one point, and went on to a 7-2 win.

The aftermath: Patrik Laine described the game as “just embarrassing” and one columnist remarked that the Jets would “need to go back to the video machine for another look at that defensive game they thought they had patched up in training camp”. (For their part, Maple Leaf fans reacted with their typical mix of humility and good grace.)

The Jets looked almost as bad in their second game, a 6-3 road loss to the Flames in which they gave up 45 shots, as well as five unanswered goals after the first period. But they wouldn’t lose two straight in regulation again until December, recording 114 points and making the conference final.

In a sense, the first two games probably helped, since they weakened Mason’s hold on the starter’s duties and paved the way for Connor Hellebuyck’s emergence as a Vezina candidate. And besides, as bad as their start was, the Jets weren’t even the biggest loser of that season’s opening week …

The team: The 2017-18 Pittsburgh Penguins

The game: After opening their season with an overtime loss at home, the Penguins headed to Chicago for a battle between two teams that had combined to win six of the last nine Cups. We all figured it was going to be a classic. It was not.

Instead, in a game that still stands as one of the strangest of the season, the Blackhawks shelled the Penguins 10-1. It was one of the most lopsided games of the modern era, and the Penguins’ most embarrassing loss since the dark days of their pre-lockout bankruptcy era.

The aftermath: When asked what went wrong, Sidney Crosby responded with: “Do we have enough time? It’s embarrassing.” Kris Letang described it as, “no effort, no emotion.” Coach Mike Sullivan called the outcome “disturbing.”

Then, the Penguins went out in their next game and shutout the eventual Presidents’ Trophy winners Nashville, 4-0.

That didn’t quite cleanse the memory of the Hawks wipeout, but it set the Penguins back on track. They ultimately failed to win a third straight Cup, but did finish with 100 points and win a playoff round and everyone largely forgot about the Chicago debacle.

(Well, maybe not everyone. That night’s starting goalie was the newly acquired Antti Niemi. It would be one of only three appearances he’d make as a Penguin before being waived with a 7.49 GAA and a .797 save percentage.)

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Your early-season overreaction guide to the first few games

Opening​ night is almost​ here,​ with​ the​ NHL​ regular​ season kicking​ off Wednesday night.​ That means it’s​ time​ for an annual​​ hockey tradition: People reminding you to stay calm, to avoid panic, and not to overreact to every little thing that happens in a team’s first game or two of a long season.

Will we listen? No we will not. Those people are annoying, and it’s way more fun to overreact to every minor thing that happens in the season’s earliest days. We didn’t wait out three whole months of offseason just so we could be calm and measured once the season started. We want to hyperventilate now.

But even a good old-fashioned freak out works better with a plan. So to help you get started, I’ve come up with a half-dozen early storylines that will be ripe for overreaction. Feel free to get a few practice reps in before the puck drops, so that you’ll be ready to once it’s time to start mashing that panic button.

What could happen: Alexander Ovechkin doesn’t score and the Capitals drop their home opener to the Bruins.

What it would mean: Maybe if the Caps had spent less time doing keg stands and more time doing pushups they’d be ready to repeat like Sidney Crosby and the Penguins did.

The Capitals summer-long quest to drink all the alcohol was easily one of the offseason’s best stories. After almost a decade of hearing about how they could never win the big one, the team finally broke through and captured their first Cup, with Ovechkin capping it all of by taking home the Conn Smythe. Hockey players aren’t supposed to ever seem like they’re happy about anything, but the long-suffering Caps apparently decided it would be OK to let loose a little and enjoy the aftermath. There was drink, song, and a half-naked swim in a fountain. It was great.

And for the most part, the old-school traditionalist types let them have their moment. If there were any lectures about proper decorum, I don’t remember them. It’s safe to say Ovechkin and friends don’t either, because I doubt they remember anything. Either way, the party-pooper brigade stayed down.

But if Ovechkin and the Caps start off slow, all bets are off, and it’s not hard to imagine the critics coming after Washington’s stars if they seem to stumble out of the gate. You can almost picture the hot takes in advance. Good Canadian boys like Crosby and Jonathan Toews win multiple Cups because they celebrate with a lukewarm mug of skim milk and then get back to training, but apparently one ring is enough for glory boys like Ovechkin.

Or maybe not: It should go without saying that any sort of celebration-shaming would be nonsense. The Caps didn’t do anything different from every other Cup winner, other than not working as hard to hide their fun from the cameras. Trying to read anything into a slow start would be silly.

And that slow start is certainly possible; the Caps kick off their season with five straight against teams that made the playoffs last year, including four that posted at least 100 points. Things get easier from there, with eight straight against non-playoff teams, but by that point, the narratives will be set. Ovechkin won’t start off as super-nova hot as he did last year, but here’s hoping he can net a goal or two to ward off the fun police.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, October 1, 2018

31 oddly specific predictions for the 2018-19 season

Predicting​ what’s going to​ happen​ in​ the​ NHL​ is​ all but​ impossible in an​ age of parity​ that​ borders on coin-flipping.​​ You can choose to play it safe and stick with stating the obvious – Connor McDavid will score a lot, the Lightning will win a lot, the Senators not so much – but nobody is giving you any credit for that. Plus you’ll still probably find a way to be wrong.

As futile as the whole thing might be, we all keep trying. It’s pretty much mandatory. And when we inevitably miss, our kind readers are right there to remind us all about it.

But I’ve always figured that if you’re going to be wrong, at least be really wrong. So whenever I do preseason predictions, I like to make them as specific as possible. Anyone can point to a team and say they’ll make or miss the playoffs. Let’s try to pick the exact date for their 17th win.

I’ve been doing this in some form or other for years, and you may be wondering how many have actually turned out to be right. To be honest, not many. But every now and then the blind squirrel finds a nut – check out the double-pronged beauty on the Montreal Canadiens two years ago – and that’s where the fun comes in.

So with a new season just a few days away, let’s dial up another round of Oddly Specific Predictions for every team in the league. As always, no warranty of accuracy is expressed or implied.

Ottawa Senators – Erik Karlsson’s return with the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 1 stands as the hottest ticket of the season in Ottawa. But it’s Thomas Chabot who scores the winner that night, leading to a barrage of torch-passing narratives.

Buffalo Sabres – I picked Casey Mittelstadt as my Calder winner earlier in the preseason. He’s, uh, not exactly giving off that vibe based on training camp, but what the hell, let’s say he recovers to win a close race over Elias Pettersson. Hopefully the league doesn’t decide this one with a novelty raffle wheel.

Arizona Coyotes – After torpedoing their 2017-18 season before it even got off the ground with an 11-game losing streak, the Coyotes flip the script by starting off this year 4-0-0.

Calgary Flames – He’s running out of time at 36-years-old, so let’s make this the year that Mike Smith becomes the first goalie in NHL history to score a second, regular-season shoot-and-score goal.

Dallas Stars – Every year, I like to take a team that seems on the verge of a big move in either direction and pick them to annoy everyone by finishing with the same record as last year. The 92-point Stars fit the bill this season.

Chicago Blackhawks – If the Hawks are as bad as many seem to think they could be, it’s going to be a tough season in Chicago, and they’ll need someone to take out their frustrations on. Luckily, the schedule-maker serves up an old rival in the Blues four times in the season’s first six weeks. Let’s circle that fourth meeting, in Chicago on November 14, and say that something ugly happens. Maybe not a massacre, mind you, but something.

Colorado Avalanche – The Avalanche tied for the fewest shootouts in the league last year, with just three. This year, they have that many by the end of October.

Toronto Maple Leafs – Which of the big guns leads the team in scoring, Auston Matthews or John Tavares? Neither, as Mitch Marner sneaks past both to claim the crown (and eventually a huge new contract).

Washington Capitals – After rolling to three straight Metro Division titles, this edition of the Capitals fall all the way to third. Absolutely nobody in Washington cares.

Detroit Red Wings – Ken Holland tries really, really hard to make it through the season without replacing Jeff Blashill with Dan Bylsma. He fails, and the change is made in January.

Florida Panthers – They’re the easiest team in the league to predict, since everyone already has them locked into fourth place in the Atlantic. So it goes without saying that they won’t wind up there; instead, they sneak past one of the division’s Big Three and into third place.

Columbus Blue Jackets – They decide that going through the season with two star players about to hit UFA status just isn’t workable. So they make it three, pulling off a mid-season trade for Matt Duchene. Here’s hoping that works out better for them than for the last team that tried it.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic