Monday, December 17, 2018

Weekend rankings: Is Ovechkin the best ever? What the hell just happened in Philadelphia?

Nobody​ was surprised when​ reports​ emerged​ yesterday​ afternoon​ that​ Dave Hakstol​ had been fired.​ We’d all kind​ of​ figured it was​​ imminent, and when the Flyers closed out a brutal road trip with an ugly 5-1 loss in Vancouver, well, that was that. You never want to see anybody lose their job, but at some point you have to put a guy out of his misery, right?

So sure, Hakstol getting fired yesterday was no big surprise. But his replacement was, with Joel Quenneville reportedly getting the job. That was, needless to say, a great hire. It’s a franchise-changer. If you were a Flyers fan, you were thrilled and maybe even feeling some optimism for the first time all year.

And then, things got weird.

It started with a more careful reading of the initial reports. The Flyers hadn’t actually fired Hakstol or hired Quenneville; rather, they’d made the decision to do that. That seemed like a distinction without a difference, but as the afternoon wore on, the situation got murky. The Flyers didn’t announce anything, although that was probably just because they were still in the air on the way back to Philadelphia. But then they landed, and still nothing. At one point, there was a lost pair of shoes. It became apparent that if Hakstol had been fired, he didn’t seem to know it.

Then came the denials. First from Quenneville, and eventually from the Flyers themselves. Hakstol was still the coach. And at least as of first thing this morning, he still is. It was, as they say, a fluid situation. Then again, so is a bad stomach flu.

So what the hell just happened?

There are a few possible explanations. The first, and most straightforward, is that the whole story was just wrong. Somebody got bad information. It happens. The Flyers were never going to make a coaching change, at least not yesterday. But that ignores all the other signs that a change was imminent, which doesn’t make the simple explanation feel like the right one.

It’s also possible that the story was right, and that the Flyers had decided to replace Hakstol with Quenneville, only to have something go wrong. Maybe the “something” was the story leaking out early, or maybe it was something else. Or maybe the story was half-right; the Flyers were going to make a coaching change, but Quenneville wasn’t the guy. If so, the story coming out the way it did screws everything up, because anyone they hire now will seem like a step down from a three-time champion. Or maybe they’re just going to make the move today.

Whatever happened, it’s hard to see a way forward for the Flyers that looks good. Even if they hire Quenneville this morning, fans will wonder what happened over the weekend. If they hire anyone else, he’s not Quenneville. And if they stick with Hakstol now, well, good luck to the poor guy.

We’re officially onto the first, full-blown crisis of the Chuck Fletcher era, and he needs to pick a path forward and communicate it clearly. And then we’ll wait and see if this time, it sticks.

Road to the Cup

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

There are at least six teams who seem like slam-dunk picks for the top five, so somebody’s going to be left out. Let’s find out who …

5. Washington Capitals (20-9-3, +20 true goals differential*) – They needed a shootout to do it, but the Caps picked up their fifth straight win on Saturday, and now hold a six-point lead on top of the Metro. They were a pedestrian 8-7-3 in mid-November but have won 12 of 14 since, giving us an answer to the question “How long does a Stanley Cup hangover last?” It’s “roughly five weeks.”

Meanwhile, this seems to have been the week where some real buzz started building over the ridiculous season that Alexander Ovechkin is having. The 33-year-old is up to 29 goals in 32 games, including two hat tricks this week and another goal on Saturday, and is leading the race for what would be his eighth Rocket Richard Trophy.

That’s led to a couple of water-cooler debates. The first is whether Ovechkin can realistically catch Wayne Gretzky for the all-time goal-scoring lead. He’d need almost 260 more goals to get there, which seems impossible. Then again, what he’s doing right now seems impossible, we can’t rule anything out with this guy. And even if he doesn’t catch Gretzky, there’s a good chance he can get past Jaromir Jagr for third spot, and maybe catch Gordie Howe for second. For a guy who played his entire career in the Dead Puck Era, that’s amazing.

That leads to the next question: Even if he doesn’t catch Gretzky, is Ovechkin still the greatest goal scorer of all-time? On an era-adjusted basis, he’s already passed Gretzky, although he’s still well back of Jagr and especially Howe, who gets a boost based on having done most of his scoring in the conservative 50s and 60s. We’d also have to include guys like Maurice Richard, Phil Esposito and both Hulls in the discussion. But none of them won eight goal-scoring titles.

That “greatest ever” argument is one that people have been making for years now, and the answer has always seemed to come out to a hedge along the lines of, “He might be, especially if he keeps it up.” Well, he isn’t just keeping it up, he’s getting better. Can we just drop the qualifiers and say he’s already the best ever, right now? If he hangs up his skates tomorrow, has Ovechkin already done enough to be considered the best goal-scorer in hockey history?

I kind of think he has. I grew up in awe of Gretzky, and I’ll still occasionally go back and watch old clips of him cutting into the zone and teeing up one of those patented slapshots where the puck seemed to turn on its side in the air and blow past a helpless goalie. But that’s exactly it – Gretzky played in an era where forwards were allowed to cut into the zone with enough time and space to wind up a slapshot and the goalies really were helpless. Even the good ones. Ovechkin is doing it in the era where every goalie is 6’6″ and plays every angle perfectly, and gap control and shot-blocking are basically religion. It’s amazing.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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