Monday, November 12, 2018

Weekend power rankings: The reckoning arrives

The​ NHL season is​ a lot​ like​ the​ weather​ up​ here in​ Ottawa – once November​ arrives, it can​ get​ real ugly, real​​ quick. And when it does, you’re left wondering if it will ever get any better before the spring.

The first month of the season featured plenty of feel-good stories around the league, with the top half of the standings featuring various teams that were overachieving. But in the last few weeks, the reckoning has arrived. And now it feels like half the league has gone ice cold all at once.

Coming into the weekend, three teams were riding a losing streak of at least five games, with Colorado, Chicago and Pittsburgh all plummeting. And that list didn’t even include the Devils or Hurricanes, both of whom had lost five of six, or the Canadiens (four of six), or the Senators (seven of nine), or the Ducks (eight of ten). By the time you worked your way down to the Oilers, losing three straight by a combined score of 13-5 felt like a hot streak.

The big question of the weekend was which teams would be able to regain their footing and which would continue their plunge. That latter group ended up included the Hawks, who couldn’t muster a goal while dropping their seventh straight in Philadelphia. The Oilers dropped a fourth straight by another lopsided score, this time to the slumping Avalanche. The Devils and Ducks both kept losing and the Hurricanes couldn’t even beat the Red Wings. But the Canadiens picked up a dramatic win, the Senators at least got a split and the Penguins shut out the Coyotes with the kind of performance that might quell some of the talk of imminent changes.

Mixed results all around, as you’d expect in a league where the difference between mediocrity and disaster often feels razor thin. We’ll continue to sort through the stragglers beginning tonight, when the Hurricanes and Blackhawks face off in a game that [checks rulebook] one team probably has to win.

The good news is that there are still a few great teams in the league. The bad news is that it really is jut a few, and we’re still struggling to fill the top five with teams we actually feel good about. We’ve got another newbie to welcome this week, so let’s start there …

Road to the Cup

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

This is week six of the power rankings, and it ends up being the sixth straight week with a different team slotting in at number five. Three of those previous five teams dropped out of the rankings the very next week, including last week’s pick, the Flames. Does that mean something? It might indicate a league that’s still very much in flux at the top. It might also indicate that I’m just bad at this.

Will the curse of the five-spot continue with this week’s team? Let’s find out.

5. Minnesota Wild (11-4-2, +9) – Yeah, it’s probably time to start taking them seriously.

Honestly, this is probably too low for the Wild, who are one of the hottest teams in the league. That’s not some short-term streak – after losing four of their first five, they’ve gone 10-2-0 to move into second spot in the Central, two points back of the Predators. They just finished a brutal seven-game road trip, coming away with 10 of 14 points and now they’re home for six of the next seven.

They’re doing with it with contributions from the older veterans and Vezina-caliber goaltending from Devan Dubnyk. That’s not always the most sustainable model, but if they need to make adjustments, Bruce Boudreau can handle it. He’s pretty good at this.

In case you’re wondering, the Wild don’t get the Predators again until March, when they face them three times. That’s probably way too far ahead to get excited about, but there’s at least a chance that it will end up deciding the division and maybe serve as a playoff preview.

4. Winnipeg Jets (10-5-1, +9) – I’m showing some faith in the Jets by keeping them ahead of the red hot Wild. But a pair of 5-2 weekend wins over the Avalanche and Devils gives me enough cover to overrule the standings and go with my gut.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, November 9, 2018

Grab Bag: Avery vs. Brodeur, thoughts on the Senators' Uber ride, and enough with early-season stats

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Thoughts on who's right and wrong in the Senators' Uber fiasco
- These early season stats are out of control
- An obscure player with an unbreakable overtime record
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a classic YouTube breakdown of the Sean Avery/Martin Brodeur incident...

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The top secret schedule for Monday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony

The​ hockey world will​ come​ together​ on​ Monday​ to​ celebrate Hall​ of Fame induction​ night, capping off​ one​ of the very​​ best weekends on the season calendar. Legends from the past join the stars of today to honor the newest members of the sport’s most exclusive club, as part of a lavish and often emotional ceremony in Toronto.

This year’s class features six new Hall of Famers: Willie O’Ree, Martin Brodeur, Jayna Hefford, Martin St. Louis, Aleksander Yakushev and commissioner Gary Bettman. They’ll be celebrated all weekend long, including before Saturday night’s game between the Devils and Leafs. But the main event comes on Monday, when they’re formally inducted into the Hall.

That’s a big night, and it has to be planned carefully. Luckily, my DGB spies managed to get their hands on a copy of the schedule for the evening’s events.

7:30 – Induction ceremony begins. Opening remarks. Attendees are thanked. Brief interpretative dance by Justin Williams and the Carolina Hurricanes.

7:35 pm – Induction of Martin Brodeur begins.

7:36 pm – Somebody asks Sean Avery to sit down and stop waving his arms because he’s blocking everyone’s view.

7:40 pm – Special video highlight package commemorating Brodeur’s never-to-be-broken records such as 691 career wins, 125 career shutouts, and 7 trillion airings of that “midlife crisis” car rental ad.

7:45 pm – Touching speech by Brodeur in which he thanks all those who were involved in his NHL career.

7:46 pm – Murmurs of confusion as everyone tries to remember why he just mentioned the St. Louis Blues.

7:50 pm – Induction of Aleksander Yakushev begins.

7:51 pm – Courtesy pause for younger North American fans to google “Aleksander Yakushev” and then totally pretend they didn’t just have to do that.

7:55 pm – Video package highlighting how dominant Yakushev was during the 1972 Summit Series, and we quickly realize we may have been a little bit too effective when Bobby Clarke runs out and breaks his ankle out of force of habit.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Making the case for four passed-over Hall of Fame candidates

I​ have to admit,​ I​ love​ Hockey​ Hall​ of​ Fame debates.​ That makes this​ a good week for​ me,​ because it’s one​​ of two times during the year that the Hall’s choices are front and center. The first comes in the summer, when the inductees are announced, and the second comes now, as we get ready for induction weekend.

And I can’t get enough. I love arguing over who’s already in. I love arguing over players who aren’t eligible. And I especially love arguing over guys who haven’t made it yet, but maybe should have. Those are the really fun ones, because we can keep revisiting and refining the case for years – maybe even decades.

Over the years, I’ve written plenty of pieces on HHOF candidates. And you’ve probably read plenty just like them, because just about everyone breaks out a list from time to time. But if there’s a criticism of those pieces, mine included, it’s that they can be a bit wishy-washy. We end up listing a bunch of names and talking about the pros and cons of each, and maybe get into why some cases are stronger than others. But most of us try not to be too definitive. After all, you never know when the Hall will prove you wrong.

So today, I’m going to go one further. I’m going to break down the case for four names that have been eligible for a while, and that I’m willing to say should be in the Hall of Fame. No maybes or could-bes or “he has a solid case.” I’m planting my flag in the ground. These four guys should be in. Period.

Will the HHOF prove me right by eventually inducting all four? Maybe, but I don’t like my odds – as you’ll see, some of my picks have been waiting a while. But you never know. I remember going through candidates a few years ago and slowly but surely realizing that Paul Kariya’s case was a lot stronger than I thought. It took a few years, but eventually, the Hall agreed. Can I take all the credit for that? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. But most of the credit? Yes, I think that’s reasonable.

So let’s see if I can work that magic again. Here are the four names I’m willing to get behind as deserving a Hall of Fame plaque someday soon.

Curtis Joseph

Eligible since: 2012

The case for: The big number is 454. That’s Joseph’s career win total, which ranks fifth all-time.

Granted, wins aren’t a great stat for measuring a goalie’s worth, because they’re so team dependent. The wins leaders from a single season tell us close to nothing about true talent. But when you’re looking at career totals, there’s at least some value in the wins column, if only because it highlights guys who were able to hold down jobs as starters on competitive teams for a long time.

And it’s not like Joseph spent his career racking up wins behind loaded rosters. He spent the first 13 years of his career with the Blues, Oilers and Maple Leafs, three teams that were decidedly average (or worse) when he arrived, then got significantly better once he took over. Not all goalies are difference-makers; Joseph clearly was.

The case against: I think we can all agree that the biggest problem with Curtis Joseph is that when he writes a book it shoots straight to number one on the bestseller list and takes over entire walls of bookstores without leaving any room for lesser-known authors, right? Yes, I thought so. Stop doing that, Curtis.

(I’m kidding, of course. I’m not bitter. Joseph’s book is great, and I encourage you to learn more about it right here.)

Beyond that, his wins total is at least partly a factor of longevity over success – he also ranks third in career losses, after all. His career goals-against average and save percentage aren’t all that impressive, and even when you adjust for era they’re good but not amazing. He never won a Vezina or was a first-team all-star.

But the big knock on Joseph seems to be that he never won a Stanley Cup. Is it possible to rank in the top five for all-time wins and still not be “a winner”? That sounds silly, but apparently, it makes sense to somebody.

Why I think he should be in: At least part of my argument in favor of Joseph is that the Hall of Fame, in general, has been too stingy with goaltenders. If you became a hockey fan in 1973 – 45 long years ago – you’ve only seen the debuts of five goalies that made the Hall of Fame. That’s kind of ridiculous, and Joseph seems like a nice opportunity to start a course correction.

But beyond that, Joseph checks both boxes you want in a Hall of Famer: Big numbers over a long career, and a peak period where he was clearly among the very best in the league. He never won that Vezina, but he was a finalist three times and finished in the top five on two other occasions. Remember, his peak overlaps with Dominik Hasek’s; that should be a factor, just like how we don’t penalize guys for not winning Hart Trophies over Wayne Gretzky in the 80s or the Norris over Bobby Orr in the 70s.

Joseph wasn’t Hasek, nor was he Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy. But that can’t be where the bar is, because if it is then we might as well padlock the Hall doors for goalies right now. We can debate whether a Hall of Fame should be reserved for the very best of the best, but right now hockey is using different standards for different positions. Let’s fix that.

One sentence that will convince you: Everyone else in the top twelve in wins who’s eligible is already in, and the three active players in the group – Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-AndrĂ© Fleury – range from slam dunks to very likely inductees.

Odds he gets in: I like his chances, if only because when Luongo and Lundqvist arrive in front of voters with similar resumes – lots of wins and individual success, no Cup wins – they’re both getting in. That’s going to make Joseph’s exclusion a lot harder to defend. The question is whether he has to wait for those guys, or if the Hall decides to get its goalie house in order first.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, November 5, 2018

Weekend rankings: Coaches coroner

Last​ year, NHL coaches​ made​ it​ to​ very​ end​ of the​ season before anyone​ was fired. This​ year,​ they almost made​​ it one month.

Hey, at least NHL GMs are getting better at something.

The first pink slip of season arrived yesterday, with the Kings firing John Stevens and replacing him on an interim basis with Willie Desjardins. The move came as a bit of a surprise; Stevens was only in his second year behind the Kings’ bench, had made the playoffs last season, and was coming off of a nice win over the Blue Jackets despite his star goalie being hurt. On the other hand, the Kings are tied for dead last in the league, so nobody can claim to be completely shocked.

We’ll get to what this means for the Kings in a bit – spoiler alert, they might show up in the bottom five rankings. But there’s a more pressing question: Now that the firing squad has broken the seal, who’s next?

We’re not exactly short on candidates. When The Athletic rounded up our opening night predictions, ten coaches received votes in the “first fired” category, and Stevens wasn’t among them. But Randy Carlyle was. So were Dave Hakstol and Mike Yeo, although with just a single vote each. Jeff Blashill finished second to Guy Boucher. And nobody even cast a vote for Florida’s Bob Boughner. (But we did have him ranked third for Coach of the Year honors. We might need a mulligan on that one.)

There are plenty of names in play, although some of them are safer than others. But you wonder if seeing the Kings make a move this early turns up the heat on other struggling teams. If the Kings run off a few wins to get back into the playoff picture, it might get awfully tough to preach patience.

That’s a topic of particular interest to the league’s bottom-feeders. But first, let’s get to the top five, which inconveniently features way more than five teams with a solid case this week. Will I be able to sort it all out? Not really, no, but read on.

Road to the Cup

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

We’re into November, which in theory means the top five should be getting fairly stable. We’ll have some movement each week, and maybe even the occasional team moving in or out of the list, but for the most part we should all be settling in on the same page. One big happy family, am I right?

Oh wait, I’m told I have some reader feedback, let me just crack that open …

Huh. OK, maybe we’re not all on the same page just yet.

First things first: despite last week’s throat-clearing, the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t make the grade after all. Three losses in three games will do that. I’m not saying I jinxed them by writing that we all needed to “[s]tart mentally preparing yourself now for a world where the Carolina Hurricanes are considered one of the very best teams in the NHL,” but if they go 0-and-68 the rest of the way, I’m going to feel just a little bit responsible.

That said, there is opportunity for some new blood in this week’s top five. With teams like the Jets, Sharks, Bruins and Penguins all wobbling, maybe it’s time to get just a little bit crazy.

5. Calgary Flames (9-5-1, +2) – Like I said … a little crazy.

Look, I’m not sure the Flames will be here at any other point this season. I’m far from convinced they deserve to be here now. These are the guys who got speedbagged by the Penguins just over a week ago. But they’ve won four straight, including some impressive outings against the Leafs and Avalanche. Their underlying numbers are good. They’re basically unstoppable in the third period. They’re in first place in a bad division and are tied for top spot in the league in goals scored.

Should all that be enough? In a typical year, maybe not. But with just about everyone apart from the top two teams looking decidedly iffy, it’s enough to get the Flames in for now. I called them one of my most confusing team in the offseason and they’re not doing much to make me feel wrong.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, November 2, 2018

Grab Bag: Wanna bet?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- If the NHL is going to embrace gambling, I have some suggestions for prop bets I'd like to see
- How that phantom Zach Hyman goal should have been handled
- Ab obscure player who had one of the best first months ever
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of a classic blockbuster that made a bunch of new Red Wings very sad

>> Read the full post at The Athletic