Friday, November 30, 2018

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

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

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anaheim Ducks: 2007

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

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

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

Arizona Coyotes: 2015

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

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

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

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

Boston Bruins: 1981

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

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

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

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

Buffalo Sabres: 1977

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

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

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

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

Calgary Flames: 1990

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

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

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

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

Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers: 1989

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

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

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

Chicago Blackhawks: 2004

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

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

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

Colorado Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques: 1988

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

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

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

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

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, November 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

2012-13 Columbus Blue Jackets

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

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

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

2000-01 Boston Bruins

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

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

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

2013-14 Buffalo Sabres

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

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

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

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Weekend power rankings: Welcome to the Patrik Laine show

Man,​ how fun was​ that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road to the Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, November 23, 2018

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

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

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

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Thursday, November 22, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

The Deck-Chair Reshuffling

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

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

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

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

The Too-Little-Too-Late

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

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

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

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

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Weighing the pros and cons of various William Nylander trade destinations

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

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

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

Buffalo Sabres

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

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

Anaheim Ducks

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

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

Edmonton Oilers

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

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

Carolina Hurricanes

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

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

Vancouver Canucks

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

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

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Monday, November 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road to the Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Friday, November 16, 2018

Grab bag: A moment in time

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

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> This excerpt originally appeared at The Athletic

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Which early-season success story could be on this year's Senators?

We’re​ halfway into November,​ which​ means​ the​ NHL​ is​ settling into​ that mid-season grind.​ Teams have largely​ started​ sorting themselves out,​​ and we have a pretty solid idea which ones are good and which are bad, at least in general terms. There’s still lots of hockey left, and plenty of twists and turns for various stories to take. But for the most part, by this point on the calendar we usually know where most teams stand.

But not always.

One year ago today, the Ottawa Senators had just returned to North America after a two-game series against the Avalanche in Sweden. They’d won both of those games, running their record to 8-3-5. They were third in their division and comfortably in a playoff spot with multiple games in hand. Even better, they’d just pulled off a blockbuster trade to add Matt Duchene to the lineup. And remember, they were still just a few months removed from a dramatic playoff run that left them one goal shy of a trip to the Stanley Cup final.

Things were good. And then, almost overnight, they weren’t. As we all know, last year’s Senators were about to fall off a cliff. They’d lose their next seven straight and end up finishing with the second-worst record in the league. Mix in off-ice scandals that dragged into a relentlessly bizarre offseason, and the last 12 months have been a nightmare.

We can hope that no team is about to embark on a similar year, at least in terms of off-ice drama – the Senators feel like a once-in-a-generation outlier there. But in terms of wins and losses, is it possible that any teams that are feeling good about themselves right now might have a cliff of their own looming just around the corner?

Let’s see if we can figure that out. We’ll skip over the team that are already in crisis mode (like the ‘Hawks, Devils, Ducks, Oilers and seemingly half the rest of the league). Instead, we’ll look for five teams that roughly match that 2017-18 Senators profile – over .500, in the playoffs or close to it and generally feeling good like the season is going well. And then we’ll try to ruin those good vibes by figuring out whether it could all go wrong.

Montreal Canadiens

Where they’re at: At 9-5-3, the Canadiens are holding strong in the Eastern wild-card race, not to mention staying within range of the Bruins and Leafs for a top-three spot in the Atlantic. They haven’t gone back-to-back games without a point all season, and the offense has hovered around the top five.

And as an added bonus, the season’s first month has felt like at least a small redemption for the much-maligned Marc Bergevin. The team’s top three scorers are Max Domi, Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Drouin – all players he recently acquired in trades that many of us questioned.

How it could all go wrong: To some extent, maybe it’s already started to. If you ignore the loser point, they’ve lost almost as many as they’ve won, and they haven’t managed consecutive wins since the season was two weeks old.

Beyond that, they’re currently shooting 10 per cent across all situations, which seems on the high side given the talent level on the roster. Considering how much they give up, it wouldn’t take much of a drop in scoring for the Canadiens to go from decidedly average to something south of that.

And if that happens, Montreal is the kind of town where a losing streak can spiral into a crisis. We’ve seen it before, with many of these same players and coaches involved.

Why it won’t: The weird thing about this year’s Habs is that this is the sort of exercise where we’d normally be saying something like “They’re doing it on the back of Carey Price, so if he gets cold then look out.” But they’re not. In fact, Price hasn’t been good at all this year, and wasn’t all that good last year either.

On the one hand, that’s a terrifying red flag; his eight-year extension just kicked in this year, and if they find themselves paying $84 million for sub-.900 goaltending, they’re pretty much screwed. But in terms of right now, you can twist it into a reason for optimism. This is Carey Price, after all. The guy is good. So if they’re already winning when he’s getting lit up, how good will they be if he settles back into looking like a Vezina contender?

As an added bonus, we could point out that Shea Weber will be back at some point over the next month or so, which should give the team a big boost. And with the Panthers, Wings and Senators all struggling, a playoff spot in the Atlantic is there for the taking.

Odds that they’re this year’s Senators: There’s certainly a bit of that vibe, if only based on recent history. But preseason consensus aside, there isn’t all that much telling us that the Canadiens are a bad team right now.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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