Thursday, September 5, 2019

Five coaches and five GMs who absolutely won’t get fired this year, maybe

The NHL season is almost here, which means it won’t be long before we start hearing about all the hot seats around the league. Is Mike Babcock in trouble in Toronto? Does John Chayka need to make the playoffs in Arizona? Would Minnesota’s Bill Guerin prefer his own guy to Bruce Boudreau? Can Jason Botterill afford another miserable season in Buffalo?

But while the hot seat conversation is standard issue in pro sports, it always feels a bit awkward. We’re talking about people’s livelihoods here. We have to cover this stuff, but it’s not a pleasant topic.

So let’s turn it around and stay positive: Who’s on the cold seat? In other words, which NHL coaches and GMs are all but assured of still being on the job one full year from now?

It’s a tougher question than you might think. Everyone in the NHL is hired to be fired eventually, and just about everyone’s job security is one bad losing streak from coming into question. I wanted to come up with 10 names, and honestly, that might be too many. But we’ll do it anyway, because half the fun of doing this sort of list is so that when one (or more) of these guys inevitably gets fired in a few months, you can all come back here to point and laugh at me. It’s OK, I’m used to it by now.

Before we start, there’s one important ground rule: No picking any recent hires who’ve been on the job for less than one full year. That’s too easy. With apologies to Paul Fenton, even the worst coaches and GM usually get at least a year or two on the job in the NHL, so picking a brand-new hire is cheating. You won’t be seeing slam dunk names like Joel Quenneville or Steve Yzerman on the list, which increase the degree of difficulty.

We’ll try to come up with five coaches and five GMs. And we’ll start in the front office, where the job tends to be a little bit more secure.

General managers

Doug Armstrong

We might as well lead off with the one name on the list that feels like a genuine sure thing. Armstrong is the reigning Cup winner, and getting fired after a championship is just about impossible. (Sorry, Al MacNeil.) And even if the Blues got off to an absolutely terrible start, well, they did that last year too and things worked out OK.

Armstrong is a well-respected GM with plenty of experience and doesn’t seem like he’d want to leave on his own anytime soon, so barring some sort of scandal or falling out with ownership, he’s just about as safe as anyone could possibly be. Which isn’t completely safe, because this is still the NHL. But it’s pretty safe.

Doug Wilson

We’re two names in, and this one already feels at least a little risky. But only a little. I think Wilson is the very best GM in the league today, and the Sharks should be a very good team. It’s hard to imagine them having a bad year unless they run into major injury problems, which GMs usually escape the blame for. With 16 years on the job and counting, this is Wilson’ team, and it’s a very good one.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t all blow up in his face. We thought it already had a few years ago, when the Sharks were missing the playoffs and the franchise player was telling Wilson to shut his mouth. The GM survived that, so he should be able to weather any unexpected hurdles this year throws at him. If the aging Sharks hit a wall and miss the playoffs, could ownership decide that it’s time for a new direction and a fresh set of eyes? Nothing’s impossible, but it would take a total disaster.

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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Ten intriguing CBA ideas the NHL could borrow from other sports (but probably won’t)

The NHL’s CBA is making headlines again and for a change, the news might actually be good. The league announced last week that they’ll decline their option to reopen the agreement next year, and there’s a chance that the NHLPA will decide to do the same. If so, what had seemed like an inevitable 2020 lockout would be avoided, or at least pushed back until 2022.

But whether the next CBA comes in a year or down the road, it probably won’t represent a radical change in the way the league does business. The 2005 deal that ushered in a hard cap was quite literally a game-changer, one that reshaped just about everything about how the league operated. But the 2013 deal didn’t change all that much. And even as both sides eye each other warily and stake out their PR ground, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to make major changes to a system that seems to be working reasonably well.

That’s almost certainly a good thing, at least from the perspective of fans who just want to see a new deal get done without yet another lockout. But it’s always possible that one side (or both) might decide to ask for bigger changes. And they wouldn’t have to look far for inspiration, because the three largest North American pro leagues could all offer up some ideas from their current agreements.

Today, let’s imagine a world where the current CBA needed more than minor tinkering. Here are ten CBA ideas that the NHL could borrow from the NBA, NFL and MLB, and how they’d impact the sport.

We’ll start with the big one …

No guaranteed contracts

Borrowed from: NFL

How it works: The NFL is the only major league where contracts aren’t guaranteed, so teams can essentially walk away from a deal whenever they want. If a big star signs a five-year extension for mega-dollars and then doesn’t live up to the deal through the first year, his team can just cut him and move on. (It’s a little more complicated than that, but we’ll stay out of the weeds here.)

What it would mean for the NHL: Armageddon, probably. Whenever you talk about worst-case scenarios for NHL labor talks, this is the one demand the league could make that could lead to another 2004-05 type of shutdown. The players would have no choice but to push back as hard as possible. Most CBA demands that either side could make would be the equivalent of face washes in a scrum; this one would empty both benches.

But let’s pretend it happened. What would a new NHL without guaranteed contracts look like? Not necessarily like you think it would, because many fans don’t really understand how the NFL system works.

While it’s true that NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed, that doesn’t mean that terminating them is painless. NFL players (and their agents) know that they don’t have long-term security, so they make sure to get as much of their total as possible through signing bonuses and other guaranteed money. It’s not unusual for most of the money in a big NFL contract to be guaranteed on day one. NHL players would demand the same security.

Most of the money isn’t all of the money, and the NFL’s system still tilts heavily in favor of the teams over the players – especially the ones who aren’t big stars and can’t insist on huge bonuses. But cutting a player on a long-term deal can have serious cap implications, often creating big chunks of immediate dead money. Hockey fans dreaming of a world where their favorite team could just painlessly wash their hands of all of its worst signings won’t find the answer in the NFL’s system.

And remember, nonguaranteed contracts can cut both ways. The NHL’s ironclad deals mean that, for example, Connor McDavid is locked into his current eight-year contract, even as inferior players eventually blow by him with better deals. If contracts weren’t guaranteed, he could eventually demand that the Oilers tear up his deal and give him something better, the way that many NFL stars do. Back before the 2005 CBA, the NHL used to see big-name holdouts with some frequency, but they were essentially eliminated once contracts couldn’t be renegotiated by either side.

Will we ever see it?: Let’s hope not. Even though the NFL offers more security than you might think and empowers their biggest stars, its system is still stacked against the majority of players. Given everything we know about risks to players’ long-term health, nobody should be rooting for a massive work stoppage just to take away more of their security.

That covers the elephant in the room. But there are other ideas that the NHL could borrow from the competition …

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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Which two NHL franchises would hold the league’s Tag Team Championship?

We’ve almost made it through August. We’re just a few days away from September, which means we’re just a few weeks away from training camp, which means soon we’ll have some actual hockey to talk about.

Which also means, tragically, that we’re running out of chances to spend our days building fake rosters based on arbitrary rules. We’ve already done first names and the $200 challenge. Today, let’s celebrate the spirit of teamwork with a question: Which two franchises could combine to hold the NHL’s tag team championship belts?

In other words, which two teams could produce the best starting lineup entirely out of players who played for both of them?

This idea comes to me from a reader who pointed out a weird fact: You could build an entire 20-man roster just using players who played for the Islanders and the Oilers within a few years of each other. That seems like an extreme example, but we can certainly find a few combos that will give us a strong starting six. So let’s do that. Come on, it’s not like you wanted to work today.

As always, let’s lay out some ground rules:

– For each combo, we’re looking to build a six-man starting roster of players who played for both franchises. That means a minimum of one game – players who were technically acquired but never suited up do not count.

– We want each lineup to have three forwards, two defensemen and one goalie, but other than that position doesn’t matter.

– Here’s the important part that will mess up the people who don’t read it: For these rosters, you get credit for everything a player did on those two teams only. That doesn’t mean that a player had to have been a superstar for both teams – Gordie Howe only scored 15 NHL goals in Hartford, but he’d did still be a monster for a Whalers/Red Wings tag team. But Eric Lindros on a Leafs/Stars team? Not great.

Got the idea? We’re going to come up with 10 entries to get you started. Then you can head to the comments and unveil you challenger to the tag team title.

Older teams have a big advantage here, so let’s get started with a few Original Six combos to help us get our heads around the concept…

Bruins/Blackhawks

Forwards: Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, Pit Martin

Defensemen: Bobby Orr, Allan Stanley

Goaltender: Frank Brimsek

The 1967 Esposito trade is the key here, giving us all three of our forwards. Sure, we could have used the other Esposito trade to form a Bruins/Rangers tag team that would also feature Brad Park, Jean Ratelle and Rick Middleton. But we can’t resist the chance to build around Orr’s entire career, so the Hawks are the pick. And that means we can also take Brimsek, giving us the full decade-long resume of a Hall-of-Famer and eight-time all-star, even though he only played the final one of those seasons in Chicago.

But apart from Esposito, Orr and Brimsek, the rest of the lineup is hit-and-miss. The “only get credit for what they did on your team” rule means we can’t sneak in Paul Coffey here, and Stanley isn’t as impressive as he seems because we’re only getting the seasons he squeezed in between his stronger runs with New York and Toronto.

So it’s not a bad roster. But honestly, it’s not as good as you might expect once you get past the Orr/Esposito combo. Let’s have another Original Six team challenge them for the title…

Maple Leafs/Red Wings

Forwards: Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, Norm Ullman

Defensemen: Red Kelly, Borje Salming

Goaltender: Terry Sawchuk

There’s no Orr-level deity here, but it’s a more well-rounded lineup than the Hawks and Bruins could offer. We’ve got Hall-of-Famers at every position, with basically every one of their best seasons is represented. The only controversy might be over how you slot Kelly into the lineup, since he went from defense to center once he was traded to Toronto. Still, that just shows that he could play both, so we’ll use him on the blue line, if only so that we don’t have to mention the Larry Murphy trade.

So there you have it: The Leafs and Wings have captured our tag team championship. Can anyone beat them? We could probably keep going with various combos using just the Original Six teams, but while we’re not done with the glory days quite yet, let’s let some of the more modern franchises have a shot at the title.

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Friday, August 23, 2019

Grab Bag: About those unsigned RFAs, in defense of a bad stat and laughing at the 1993 Leafs

In he Friday Grab Bag:
- What's up with all those unsigned RFAs? My spies got the scoop.
- Another unpopular opinion I can share because it's summer and nobody's paying attention
- An obscure player who didn't have to be a goalie
- The month's three comedy stars, featuring dad jokes
- And a YouTube look back at my origin story in hockey comedy, featuring Jim Ralph and 1993-94 Leafs

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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The numbers say that these are the ten worst teams. Here's why they may actually be good.

I have kind of a love-hate relationship with preseason predictions.

On the one hand, they’re all sorts of fun. Readers flock to them, even when they disagree. And I’ve always believed that everyone should put their predictions on the record before the season starts, if only as a form of accountability for when something unexpected happens and we all pretend we knew it all along.

On the other hand, well, I’m bad at this. And I’m not alone. Every year, there are a few teams that everyone agrees will be terrible who turn out to be pretty good. Two years ago it was the Golden Knights, Avalanche and Devils. Last year, it was the Islanders, not to mention the mid-season turnaround from the Blues. Sometimes we underestimate the impact of an offseason change, or we fall in love with a narrative. Sometimes, hockey is just weird and stuff happens. But I’m always very wrong about at least a few teams, and you probably are too.

Well, the first step in solving any problem is to recognize that you have one. The second step is to overcompensate by steering way too far in the other direction. That’s what we’re going to do today. My pal Dom Luszczyszyn has kindly given me a sneak peek at the ten teams his model expects to have the worst seasons in 2019-20. I’m going to try to figure out why it’s wrong, and why those bottom-feeders will actually turn out to be playoff teams, if not Cup contenders.

Can I do it? Let’s just say that some teams will be easier than others. To keep from pulling a muscle on some of these reaches, I’ll warm up by starting with the best teams on Dom’s bottom-ten list and working my way down to the dregs.


No. 10. Columbus Blue Jackets

Dom says: A point total in the high 80s and a roughly 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs. (We won’t reveal the model’s exact predictions until a little closer to the season, and the specific order for the bottom ten could shift between now and then.)

Why he’s probably right: The Blue Jackets’ offseason drama has been well-documented. They went all-in on the 2019 playoffs and pulled off a legendary first-round upset that provided the greatest moment in franchise history, but then watched all their top UFAs walk away, including Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. When a team that barely squeezed into the playoffs in the final week loses two of its three best players, it’s not hard to see where things are headed.

But hear me out … : Losing Bobrovsky should hurt. But it might not because they’ve got a couple of good young goaltenders in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. If one of them runs with the job, the Blue Jackets should be fine in goal, and maybe even improved. Will that happen? Maybe, because as we’ll probably end up saying in just about all of these, goaltending is voodoo and unexpected things happen every year.

The loss of Panarin is tougher, and with apologies to Gustav Nyquist, there’s really no replacing his production. So how can a team recover from watching their best forward walk for nothing in return? Well, let’s ask the Islanders, who did exactly that last year. And that Islanders surprise came on the heels of a year where the team wasn’t very good. The 2018-19 Blue Jackets had 47 wins and 98 points. They probably don’t even need to improve to be playoff contenders. They just need to fall a few points rather than a whole bunch.

See? This hope stuff is easy. Let’s keep the positivity going with Dom’s next team.

No. 9. Chicago Blackhawks

Dom says: A point total in the high 80s and a roughly 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs.

Why he’s probably right: The Hawks weren’t great last year, and that was with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews having unlikely career seasons at 30 years old. If those two revert a bit, look out.

But hear me out … : For the second straight entry, we can invoke last year’s Islanders to give hope to one of this year’s also-rans. The Hawks’ biggest offseason acquisition was goalie Robin Lehner, who was so good for the Islanders last year that he somehow won the Jennings for the Rangers. Between adding Lehner and the possibility of Corey Crawford getting back to full health, the Hawks looks pretty set in goal after watching Cam Ward torpedo half their season last year.

Mix in the possibility of Kane and Toews continuing to play at a high level and continued development from youngsters like Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome, and there’s some decent room for improvement here. And don’t forget that this will be the first full season for head coach Jeremy Colliton. Everyone was ready to write off Jared Bednar in Colorado after one year despite being hired on the eve of the season starting, but he’s settled in as a solid coach once he had a full offseason to work with. Colliton is young and learning, so as he gets better, the Hawks should too.

Will it be enough to compete in a Central that may not be top-heavy but should be deep? Probably, because these are the Blackhawks and the dressing room is still knee-deep in Cup rings and magical know-how-to-win dust. See? Optimism!

No. 8. Vancouver Canucks

Dom says: A point total in the mid-80s and a roughly 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs.

Why he’s probably right: They haven’t finished over .500 in terms of points percentage in four years, in a league where the standings are rigged so that everyone can finish over .500. They’re bad.

But hear me out … : They’re a young team that took a decent step forward last year, improving by eight points. If they do that again, they’re at least in the playoff mix.

Can they? Sure. Most of their best players are young enough that they should improve just based on aging curves. They added guys like Tyler Myers, Micheal Ferland and J.T. Miller, and while we can debate the long-term wisdom of those moves, they should make the team better in the short term. And Jacob Markstrom continues to develop into a legitimate No. 1 goaltender.

Add it all up, and the Canucks should improve at least a bit. But if Elias Pettersson or Brock Boeser have the sort of big breakout that players their age sometimes have, or Markstrom reaches the next level, the Canucks could move up significantly. And if all of those guys make the leap – which hardly seems impossible – the Canucks could be that team that hits fast forward on the rebuild and zooms straight to contention.

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Thursday, August 8, 2019

The six teams that have me stumped heading into the 2019-20 season

Do you know which NHL team I just can’t figure out?

Well, all of them. I’m not very good at the whole “predicting” thing. Whenever I start thinking I know where a team is headed, you can probably make some money by betting the other way. Never listen to me about anything, is what I’m trying to say.

But when it comes to the 2019-20 season, there are a few teams I feel at least reasonably confident about. The Lightning will be good! So will the Sharks, and Bruins and probably the Knights and Leafs and Capitals. On the other side, the Senators should be bad, along with the Kings and Red Wings. The Blue Jackets will be worse than last year, maybe a lot worse. The Blues will be good again as long as Jordan Binnington plays well. The Coyotes, Hurricanes and Panthers are on the way up. The Penguins are not, but will still be the Penguins right up until they’re not.

I’ll end up being dead wrong about roughly half of that last paragraph, but for now, I feel like I’m on reasonably solid ground. But then I get to the teams where I have no earthly idea what’s going to happen. It’s just total confusion, either because I can’t figure out what they’re doing or where they’re headed or (in some cases) still can’t get my head around what happened last season or over the summer.

I still have a few weeks to figure it all out, but for these six teams, time is running out for me to get a handle on their situation and it’s not looking good. Let’s just put the cards on the table right now. Here are the half-dozen teams that I just can’t figure out heading into the season. Please help me.

New Jersey Devils

They’ll be good because: Every good player who was available in the offseason plays for New Jersey now.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But by adding Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev and even Wayne Simmonds on a manageable one-year deal, the Devils had one of the best offseasons of anyone. And they didn’t really give up anything of note to do it. They’re pretty much guaranteed to be way better.

They’ll be bad because: “Way better” than 72 points still might not get them anywhere near the playoffs.

The Devils were a mess last year, ranking 26th in both goals for and against. The offseason additions should help boost the offensive side, but the goaltending hopes seem to rest on either MacKenzie Blackwood breaking out despite being just 22 years old with only 21 NHL starts to his name, or Cory Schneider regaining the form he hasn’t had since 2016. Either of those things could happen, because goaltending is voodoo. But when you need to improve by about 25 points just to make the playoffs, I’m not sure that having to cross your fingers for a goaltending miracle is a great sign.

But they’ll probably be fine because: Every year, we see at least a few teams go from near the basement to the playoffs in one shot, often despite nobody seeing it coming. Last year, it was the Islanders. The year before that, it was the Avalanche, Knights and oh yeah, these same Devils. Most of those teams didn’t add anywhere near as much talent as New Jersey just did.

And speaking of talent, they’ve got a former MVP in Taylor Hall who’s healthy and ready to go, and who should be motivated to tear up the league in a contract year.

Unless they’re not because: Yeah, about that contract. Hall hasn’t re-signed yet, which means his status could become the dreaded off-ice distraction if it doesn’t get done by opening night. And if they can’t lock him down, don’t they have to consider trading him? That could torpedo a promising season, but you don’t have to look much further than Columbus to see how this can play out if a team tries to stand pat.

The verdict: The Devils are going rank very high on my watchability ratings for the year, but I really have no idea where they’re going to end up in the standings.

Colorado Avalanche

They’ll be really good because: They’re already good, and they’re young enough that they should get even better just by virtue of their stars developing. Every arrow on the dashboard is pointing in the same direction, and that direction is up.

And that’s why just about everyone seems to agree that they’re contenders. There are probably more than a few people reading this who aren’t even sure what there is to be confused about. They’re one of the best young teams in the league, they won a round last year and might have won another if the league’s replay review rules weren’t so dumb. They’re all set. What are we even talking about here?

They’ll be disappointing because: They won 38 games last year. That’s not great. They still made the playoffs, because they were in a conference where you could make the playoffs with 90 points. And they needed a league-leading 14 loser points just to get to that total.

Loser points are still points, so we can’t call the 2018-19 Avalanche a fluke; they earned their playoff spot based on the same system everyone else plays with. But if winning is the name of the game, this is a team that won fewer games than the Coyotes, just one more than the Flyers and Wild and just three more than the lowly Oilers.

Are we absolutely sure they should be anointed as some sort of guaranteed Cup contender?

But they’ll probably be great because: Well, yeah, they sure do seem like a Cup contender.

First of all, if winning is what matters then we need to factor in that the Avs did a fair amount of it during the playoffs, including knocking off the Flames in five and nearly beating the Sharks. The playoffs are a smaller sample size, but not too many bad teams make it within a misplaced toenail of the conference final.

Beyond that, you just have to look at the roster. They’ve got one of the very best players in the league on perhaps the very best contract in Nathan MacKinnon, who’ll only be 24 on opening night. Mikko Rantanen will be 23, and presumably, will have been signed by then. Basically all of the other key contributors are in their mid-20s, including new addition Nazem Kadri and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. And maybe most impressive of all, the blue line is stacked with young talent, with Samuel Girard and Cale Makar looking like future stars and Bowen Byram on the way.

It’s awfully hard to imagine this team not being even better next year.

Unless they’re not because: The blue line is indeed stacked with stud prospects, but young defenseman tend to have their ups and downs in the NHL, so the defense won’t necessarily be a sure thing in 2019-20. Grubauer’s never been a full-time starter and there’s no safety net with Semyon Varlamov gone. And while MacKinnon and Rantanen were both fantastic last year, there’s a flip side to that: Their two best forwards both had years where they looked unstoppable and the team still only won 38 games.

I know we keep coming back to that but look at this way. If we think that the Avalanche are going to be eight wins better than they were last year – which is a lot to improve in one offseason – they’re still behind the pace of teams like last year’s Jets, Predators, Islanders and Blue Jackets. They’d be a playoff team for sure. But are they more than that?

The verdict: If Grubauer disappoints and the younger players are inconsistent, they could conceivably take a step back. That feels unlikely and penciling the Avs in for improvement seems reasonable. But I think some of us are underestimating how far they may have to go to reach the league’s top tier, and this seems like a case where we’re all getting ahead of ourselves, if only by a season or two.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Let’s play the $200 Lineup Game

It’s August. Nothing much is happening in the NHL. Nothing much will be happening in the NHL. If anything did happen, we might not find out about it because Pierre is on vacation. Outside of whatever the Wild are doing, there’s nothing to talk about.

It’s a perfect time to play The $200 Lineup Game.

This game is based on some Twitter fun we had a few years ago. The rules are simple. You’re going to build the best starting lineup out of players who’ve played for your favorite NHL team. Here’s how it works.

  • You need three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie. Other than that, we don’t care about position, so you can mix wingers and centers and don’t need to worry about which side your defensemen play on.
  • You have a salary cap of $200 to work with to build your full lineup.
  • Each player you pick will cost you a salary of $1 per regular-season game that they ever played for your favorite team. If you want a guy who played one full 82-game season, that’s $82 of your cap gone.
  • Here’s the key, and the part that’s going to screw up the people who skip the intro on these things: Once you fit a player onto your roster, you get credit for their entire NHL career. Not just the games they played for your team – everything they did in the NHL.

In other words, you’re looking for star players who had the briefest possible stint with your team. Guy Lafleur isn’t worth anything to the Canadiens, because he’d cost way too much. But his one season in New York means that a Rangers team could squeeze him in for $67, and they’d get credit for the full Flower experience. Want Brett Hull and his 700+ career goals? You’re out of luck if you’re the Blues or even the Stars. But a Flames team could fit him in for just $57. And the Coyotes could get him for just $5.

A few more rules, just for your loophole-seekers out there.

  • A player must have played at least one regular-season game to qualify for a team’s roster. There are no freebies. That means, for example, that the Stars can’t claim Jarome Iginla even though they drafted him and the Oilers and Predators can’t claim Mike Richter even though both teams technically acquired him during his career. Coyotes fans don’t get Pronger, Datsyuk and Hossa. Same goes for any cases where a team only ever dressed a player in the postseason. Basically, if you think you’ve found a way to get a guy for free, you’re cheating.
  • We’re going by franchise here, so we’ll combine the Nordiques with the Avs, the Whalers with the Hurricanes, the Thrashers and the new Jets, etc. That cuts both ways; it gives those teams more players to work with, but also prevents any shady picks like trying to claim Owen Nolan as a $9 Avalanche despite his five full seasons as a Nordique.
  • You can use active players, but you only get credit for what they’ve done in the NHL as of today, not what they might do in the future. So if Canucks fans want to spend $71 on Elias Pettersson, they only get one season of him.
  • If a player had multiple stints with a team, they all combine together to produce his price tag. The Leafs can’t try to claim Doug Gilmour for $1 based on his brief return to the team in 2003.

Speaking of the Leafs, let’s use them as our first example …

Toronto Maple Leafs

Forwards: Ron Francis ($12), Eric Lindros ($33), Dickie Moore ($38)

Defense: Brian Leetch ($15), Phil Housley ($1)

Goaltender: Terry Sawchuk ($91)

Total: $190

That’s not a bad lineup, featuring six Hall-of-Famers. The Pat Quinn years are fruitful here, as late-season acquisitions of Francis, Leetch and Housley give us a cheap backbone and help us have enough left over to spend a relatively hefty $91 on Sawchuk (or, if you prefer, $95 on Grant Fuhr). If you’d rather go with a post-expansion look, you could swap out old-timers Moore and Sawchuk and bring in Joe Nieuwendyk ($64) and Bernie Parent ($65) instead for the same combined price. Or you could use Gerry Cheevers in goal for just $2 and spend more elsewhere. But whichever way you go, the Leafs are solid.

Makes sense? Do you see what we’re going for? Cool. Then let’s try some other teams around the league because as you’re going to see, there are a few teams that can give the Leafs a run for their $200 worth of money. We’re going to serve up a dozen teams in all, which doesn’t cover everyone but is more than enough to get your brain working and then turn it over to you to come up with your own.

Boston Bruins

Forwards: Jaromir Jagr ($11), Cy Denneny ($23), Dave Andreychuk ($63)

Defense: Paul Coffey ($18), Brian Leetch ($61)

Goaltender: Jacques Plante ($8)

Total: $184

You could say that this concept already has a playoff atmosphere because the Bruins immediately knock off the Maple Leafs. And to add insult to injury, they even do it with one of the same players off of the Leafs’ roster, as Leetch makes like a free agent and jumps to a rival for more money. They pair him with Coffey, who (spoiler alert) will also show up on more than one of these lists.

Other possibilities on the backend include Sergei Gonchar for $15 or Babe Pratt for $31. But the real options are up front. To be honest, I went with Andreychuk mainly to eat up a big chunk of the cap space that was going to be leftover, but you could go with somebody like Joey Mullen at $37 or even Rick Nash for $11 and just pocket the rest. Not that Boston ownership would ever do that.

So yeah, the Bruins are now our team to beat. Let’s see if anyone can do it.

Detroit Red Wings

Forwards: Darryl Sittler ($61), Mike Modano ($40), Charlie Conacher ($40)

Defense: Doug Harvey ($2), Borje Salming ($49)

Goaltender: Bill Ranford ($4)

Total: $196

In theory, the Red Wings seem like a team that would be made for this sort of game, since modern history is filled with Hall of Famers finishing their careers with brief stopovers in Detroit. But many of them aren’t brief enough, as guys like Daniel Alfredsson and Bernie Federko played enough games in their one season with the Wings to price them out of our budget. Marian Hossa did too.

We can squeeze in Modano and Sittler, though, largely because Harvey gives us a monster value on the blue line. We get more solid value in goal with a Conn Smythe winner in Ranford at just $4, but he makes Detroit our first entry that isn’t made up entirely of current or future Hall of Famers. The Wings’ entry is a solid one, but I don’t think they top the Bruins.

Let’s take a break from the Original Six teams and try a few who have a little less history to work with.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Forwards: Jarome Iginla ($13), Luc Robitaille ($46), Marian Hossa ($12)

Defense: Tim Horton ($44), Sergei Zubov ($64)

Goaltender: Tomas Vokoun ($20)

Total: $199

The Penguins benefit from our rule about just using three forwards without worrying about position, as they’ll roll with over 1,800 goals worth of wingers and apparently just hope that nobody ever has to take a faceoff.

Those three bargains up front allow us to spend some extra money on the blue line, which we kind of need to do – there aren’t any obvious sub-$40 bargains to be found here. We get a pair of Hall of Famers, though, so we’ll take it. We don’t have as much luck in goal, where the good-but-not-great Vokoun is really the only option. That takes this team down a notch after a promising start.

We’ve been heavy on the Eastern Conference so far, so let’s head to the West for the next few.




Friday, August 2, 2019

Grab Bag: Why Paul Fenton was fired, the uniform number controversy and a 1979 helping of Puck Soup

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Paul Fenton was fired after just one year and my spies found out why
- Thoughts on players taking famous numbers
- The comedy stars return
- An obscure player who was once traded straight-up for Fenton
- And a YouTube look back at a very weird piece of 1979 hockey comedy

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Monday, July 29, 2019

Putting together Team Ontario, a roster that will crush all the other states and provinces

It’s been a week of regional rosters around these parts, as The Athletic’s hockey writers have been busy assembling the best teams they can from various states and provinces. We’ve seen Team Minnesota, billed as “a squad that will kick your ass.” That roster was immediately called out by Team Michigan. New York and New Jersey formed a joint effort, New England weighed in and Chicago went in a slightly different direction by enlisting help from Wisconsin to find a full roster. Canada got involved too, with Team British Columbia and Team Quebec. The whole thing has basically been a fun exercise in celebrating a little old-fashioned civic pride.

How adorable. Today, let’s unveil a Team Ontario that will absolutely steamroll all of them.

Call that bragging if you want, but it’s the reality. Ontario has always been the NHL’s primary source for star players. According to hockey-reference.com’s database of player birthplaces, Ontario has produced over 2,300 NHL players. That’s almost three times more than the next highest province, Quebec. It’s almost six times more than B.C., eight times more than Minnesota and over ten times more than Massachusetts or a New York/New Jersey combo.

Granted, some of that discrepancy is from the old days, when almost all of the NHL’s players were Canadians. We won’t dip into history here, since that would be downright unfair, giving a team of Ontario-born players a core of Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Ken Dryden, backed up by Phil Esposito, Newsy Lalonde, Howie Morenz, Ted Lindsay, Larry Robinson and Denis Potvin, not to mention Bobby Hull and his turncoat kid. (Yes, even Team USA mainstay Brett Hull was born in Belleville.) The only team that could match up to a historical Team Ontario would be Team Literally Everywhere Else in the World Combined, and even then I don’t think they could beat us.

So no, we’ll stick to active players as we try to build the best Team Ontario we can right now. Spoiler alert: They’re still going to be pretty good almost everywhere, with one notable exception. We’ll get to that. But first, let’s start up front, with the first of our four first lines.

First line

C Connor McDavid, Oilers (Richmond Hill, ON)
The most talented player in the world seems like a decent place to start our roster. With three straight 100-point seasons, two scoring titles, a Hart and three first-team All-Star selections, he’s had a pretty decent start to his career. Will he be scared and confused when he shows up and is told that he’s actually going to have two decent wingers to play with? Probably, but he’ll figure it out eventually.

RW Steven Stamkos, Lightning (Markham, ON)
Much like the case with Team Canada at the Olympics or World Cup, we’re going to be a little bit too deep down the middle. That means a few guys will have to shift over to the wing, although we’ll try to at least keep players on their correct side. Stamkos will slot in at right wing, just like he did during the most recent World Cup.

LW Logan Couture, Sharks (Guelph, ON)
With McDavid and Stamkos lighting up the scoreboard, we’ll give them a left winger who provides a bit of a defensive conscience. Couture only had 70 points last year, the bum, although you can add 20 more from a dominant postseason. Will our McDavid/Stamkos/Couture first line be able to break even against Team Chicago’s top unit that features (checks notes) Ryan Dzingel? It will be tough, but we think they’re up for the challenge.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Who was the worst player to ever be traded one-for-one for a future Hall of Famer?

While there hasn’t been a ton of big news over the last few weeks, we have seen a handful of trades. The Hawks made two of them, sending Artem Anisimov to Ottawa for Zack Smith and Henri Jokiharju to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander. And then there was the big one, last week’s Milan Lucic for James Neal swap.

That one led to Bob McKenzie getting a little bit cheeky on Twitter.

That’s a callback to this all-timer about the Taylor Hall deal, but it highlights something neat about the last few weeks of deals: They were all classic one-for-ones.

I’ve always loved the humble one-for-one trade. I can appreciate the occasional nine-player blockbuster as much as the next guy, but there’s just something about the simplicity of one player going each way in a deal. It’s the sports equivalent of buying something with exact change. No draft picks, no prospects, no list of depth guys or fringe minor leaguers to balance out the ledger. Just two players switching teams, and two GMs betting that their new guy will be better than their old one.

The Lucic-for-Neal trade might not stay a one-for-one, thanks to the inclusion of a truly spectacular conditional third-round pick. But for now, it can be included in a category with a rich if uneven history. Crack open the NHL record books, and you’ll find one-for-one trades that include multiple Hall of Famers (Pronger-for-Shanahan, Sawchuk-for-Bucyk), very good players (Middleton-for-Hodge) and current-day stars (Weber-for-Subban). Some of them worked out great for both teams (Jones-for-Johansen). Some of them very much did not (Hall-for-Larsson, Rask-for-Raycroft, Naslund-for-Stojanov).

But today, I want to go in a slightly different direction, with what might seem like a weird question: Who’s the least successful player to ever be traded straight up in a one-for-one deal for a future Hall of Famer?

At first glance, you’d think the list would be a pretty short one. After all, future Hall of Famers tend to be pretty good. You’d figure that if you were going to be traded for one, you’d have to be pretty good too. And usually, yeah, that turns out to be the case. But not always, because this is the NHL. Sometimes circumstances get weird and stuff happens.

So, let’s look at five players who it might surprise you to learn can claim to have been traded one-for-one for a future Hall of Famer. (All trade details are from hockey-reference.com.)


Jim Montgomery

Technically, Guy Carbonneau isn’t a Hall of Famer yet; that will have to wait for the induction ceremony in November. But he’s now officially a future Hall of Famer, so we can use him to build our list. And as it turns out, he offers us two possibilities. Carbonneau was traded twice in his career, and both were underwhelming one-for-one deals. In 1995, he went from St. Louis to Dallas for Paul Broten, who wasn’t a superstar but at least put together a solid career. So instead, let’s use Carbonneau’s other trade, which came in 1994 and saw him dealt from Montreal to St. Louis for 25-year-old sophomore (and Montreal native) Jim Montgomery.

The trade was a big deal in Montreal, where Carbonneau had played 13 seasons, winning three Selkes and two Cups, including one in 1993 as captain. One year after that championship, and just days after the team was eliminated from the playoffs, a Montreal newspaper ran a front-page cover of Carbonneau giving the finger to a photographer at a golf course. The team claimed that the trade had nothing to do with the controversy, although it’s fair to say that not everyone believed them. Either way, Carbonneau was himself stunned by the trade, as were many fans.

In exchange, the Canadiens received a young center who’d been a college star and was coming off a 20-point rookie season. He made the Habs to start the lockout-shortened season, appearing in five games without recording a point. That would spell the end of his career as a Canadien; just two weeks into the season, the Flyers claimed him on waivers, leaving Montreal with nothing to show for trading away their captain.

Montgomery would spend parts of two seasons in Philadelphia and several more in the minors before resurfacing in the NHL with the Sharks and later Stars. In all, from the day he was traded straight up for Carbonneau he’d play just 55 NHL games, scoring three goals and 14 points.

So no, Jim Montgomery didn’t end up being much of an NHL player, despite once being traded for a Hall of Famer. But if the name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s back in the league now, having slightly more success as the head coach of the Dallas Stars.


Yan Golubovsky

Golubovsky was a Russian defenseman who’d been a first-round pick by the Red Wings in 1994. He didn’t debut until 1997, playing a dozen games for the Wings over a one-month stretch before being sent back down. He bounced up and down for three seasons, playing a total of 50 games and scoring one goal while mostly holding down AHL duties.

When he didn’t make the NHL roster out of camp in 2000, the team finally cut bait. And they did it by reacquiring a recent Wing. Igor Larionov had spent five years in Detroit before heading to Florida as a free agent in the 2000 offseason, presumably to center countryman Pavel Bure. That move had been a bust for everyone involved, with Larionov playing poorly, feuding with the coaching and staff and generally making a nuisance of himself. When the Wings came calling and Larionov agreed to waive his no-trade clause, the Panthers jumped at the chance to fold a bad hand, and a Larionov-for-Golubovsky trade was born.

Larionov played three more solid seasons for the Wings, including a 2002 Cup run in which he scored a massive goal. As for Florida, the deal was overshadowed by bigger news, as the Panthers fired GM Bryan Murray and coach Terry Murray on the same day. But they promised their fans that Golubovsky would play for the Panthers one day. He did – six games, to be exact. They’d be the last of his NHL career, as he’d head back to Russia after the season.

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Monday, July 22, 2019

Projecting the opening night lineup for whichever team you personally cheer for

One of the neat things about working at The Athletic is that there’s so much hockey coverage by so many smart writers that you can get a really good sense of what kind of content the readers like. You guys let us know what works for you, and certain types of articles always seem to do well.

For example, we always get a strong response on offseason pieces that project a team’s opening night lineup. That makes sense; it’s the summer, there isn’t any breaking news and hockey fans are already thinking ahead to October. It’s fun to try to predict the future, and lots of our local writers have done exactly that (like here, here and here, with more on the way this week).

That’s all well and good for the beat writers who follow one specific team. But what about me? My job is to cover the entire league as a whole. How do I get a piece of this gravy train? What am I supposed to do, project the opening night lineup for every team in the entire league?

Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

As in, I’m going to do the entire league in one shot. Including your team.

Do I know who your team is? I do not. But not knowing what I’m talking about has never stopped me before. And besides, despite all of our in-fighting and sniping at each other, hockey fans have more in common than we might think. I’m betting I can come pretty close on at least a good chunk of your favorite team’s opening night lineup without even knowing who it is.

Don’t read any further if you want to be surprised. But if you’d like to get a sense of who’ll you’ll be rooting for when your team takes to the ice in October, let’s break down the lines and pairings.


First line

The superstar everyone loves

Man, this guy is so good. He’s the face of the franchise, everybody owns at least one of his jerseys, his image is plastered all over the arena and he awkwardly mumbles his way through several commercials. He should get even more Hart Trophy love than he already does, you’re convinced that he’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and there’s a decent chance you’ve named one of your children after him. This guy is the best.

The other superstar that everyone loves slightly less

This guy is also good. There are times when he might even be better than the first superstar. He might even end up leading the team in scoring. And you like him well enough, you guess. It’s just not quite the same as it is with the other guy. Maybe it’s his contract, or his personality, or just his body language. Make no mistake, if fans of some other team talk trash about this guy you will fight them to the death. But your heart isn’t completely in it. Still, put him on the ice with the other star and you’ve got the foundation of a really nice top line.

The random guy who gets to play with the two superstars

Remember when teams used to put their best three forwards on the first line? That was fun. But these days, the top line is two stars and then this guy. He’s … fine? He’s fine. He’s good on the forecheck, he’s vaguely aware of where the defensive zone is, he might score 20 goals and he’s guaranteed to get a few assists just based on having the puck bounce off of him on the way to the better players. Is that enough to earn him a spot on the top line? Apparently! He probably plays Fortnite with one of the superstars.

Second line

The terrible contract that you’re just trying to make the best of

Look, it was a bad signing, OK? Everybody thought so at the time, and it’s turned out even worse than we thought. But we can’t do anything about that now, because the deal is also buyout-proof, so let’s just make the best of it. In this case, making the best of it means playing this guy way higher in the lineup than he deserves and hoping he gets off to a decent start, at which point the plan is to trade him to some team that hasn’t been paying attention and doesn’t know how Google works. We didn’t say it was a good plan, but it’s all we’ve got.

The rookie

This guy is going to be so good. He has to be, given all the hype around him. He may have been a high pick, or maybe he’s a late-bloomer who took a few seasons to figure it out. But either way, he’s going to be amazing, and that jerk Corey Pronman is going to eat his words for ranking him so low. He’ll be great. Please let him be great. Oh man, we are so screwed if this kid isn’t great …

The offseason acquisition

He’s the shiny new toy, and the team is really banking on him having a big year. Granted, he wasn’t very good last season. But that’s why he was available in the first place, so it’s actually a good thing. Besides, a change of scenery will probably be good for him. Did he cost too much? Well, yeah, he kind of did, but that’s the offseason, right? He’ll show up for camp in the best shape of his life, he’ll have a nice goal in the exhibition opener and he’ll say all the right things about how much he always wanted to play here. It’s going to work. Just give it some time.

You will have permanently turned on this guy within three weeks of the season starting.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Which first name produces the best starting six in NHL history?

Today, we’re going to try to answer a pressing question: What’s the greatest first name in NHL history?

I’m going to stop right here and acknowledge that you’ve immediately got two thoughts going through your mind. The first is, “Wow, this is dumb. Slow news day, guys? You’re really going to post a whole article about hockey players with the same first names?” Surely you’re tempted to cut-and-paste that in the comment section right now.

The second thought involves you immediately coming up with ideas for names you think should be on the list. You’re already having the debate in your own head.

I get it. If I’m being honest, I feel the same way. This is dumb, and we’re doing it anyway. Embrace the cognitive dissonance.

But first, let’s figure out some ground rules. Most importantly, we’ll group variations of the same name, e.g., Will and Bill and Willie can all come together to form Team William. We’re not going to haggle over minor spelling variations, meaning the Patricks can unite with the Patriks and the Johns and Jons can work together. (One exception: The Shawns will not be invited to join Team Sean, because screw those weirdos. They know what they did.)

And no, we’re not going to try to get clever with middle names or anything like that. Whatever a player went by during his playing days is his name as far as we’re concerned. We’ll use the invaluable hockey-reference.com database to resolve any disputes.

We’re going to assemble a starting lineup from each name, which means three forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender. And we want quality at as many of the six positions as we can get, not one or two superstars and then a bunch of guys you never heard of. That knocks a few famous names out of the running right off the bat. There have been plenty of Gordies, but only Howe and Drillon were truly great. We’ve only had one elite-level Mario, or Dominik or Maurice. There’s only been one really good Wayne, or maybe two if you want to count Cashman. None of those names will make our list. Luckily, that still leaves us with plenty of candidates, enough to form a playoff field of 16 with plenty of honorable mentions.

Let’s do it. Who’s up for wasting a little time in late July? After all, we might as well do this now. Partly because it’s summer, but mainly because I’ve watched enough of the WHL to know that we have a few years left before Team Kayden overwhelms us and makes the whole thing moot.


No. 16. Team Peter

We’ll start with what ends up being a surprisingly European-heavy roster, with three modern-era stars up front. The blue line is probably the weakest on our list, so much so that I considered just using both Petr Svobodas to save space and ended up having to rely on a journeyman defenseman/pro wrestling patriotic hero just to fill the ice time.

But let’s be honest, Team Peter has to make the list largely on the strength of the goaltender, where Petr Mrazek has a solid case but has to give way to a guy who was basically made for this sort of game.

Forwards: Peter Forsberg, Peter Stastny, Peter Bondra

Defensemen: Petr Svoboda, Peter Taglianetti

Goaltender: Pete Peeters

No. 15. Team Chris

As we’ll see, most of the teams on our list end up being heavy up front but light on the backend. Team Chris (and Kris) has the opposite problem. We’ve got decent goaltending and a blue line so stacked that Letang didn’t even get a sniff, but they’ll have to hold down the fort while a decidedly just-OK forward line tries to score.

Forwards: Chris Drury Kris Draper, Chris Kunitz

Defensemen: Chris Pronger, Chris Chelios

Goaltender: Chris Osgood

No. 14. Team Ryan

This one ends up being our most modern roster, with pretty much every notable Ryan from NHL history playing in the last decade. (Apologies to Ryan Walter.) It’s not the most star-studded squad, at least compared to some of the others we’ll run into and the recency bias means there aren’t any Hall-of-Famers. But it’s solid one-through-six with no obvious weak spots, and while the depth isn’t great on the back end, we could at least run a decent second line of Johansen, Nugent-Hopkins and Kesler.

Forwards: Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan O’Reilly, Ryan Smyth

Defensemen: Ryan Suter, Ryan McDonagh

Goaltender: Ryan Miller

No. 13. Team David

Please rise and remove your caps for the playing of the Team David national anthem.

With that out of the way, the actual Davids give us some depth options, but not much more than that. There’s David Krejci, Backes, Legwand and Perron. But the only obvious starter that the Davids can offer up is Pastrnak. Also, this Clarkson guy is ruining our cap.

Luckily, things get better when the Daves show up. The forward ranks include two Hall-of-Famers in Keon and Andreychuk, a quasi-candidate in Taylor, some solid options in Gagner and Christian and plenty of intimidation in Semenko, Williams and Brown. We don’t have any superstars on the back end, but the 1980s and 1990s serve up at least a few solid blue line candidates from the Dave brigade in Ellett, Manson and Babych. So yeah, the Daves are carrying us here. Also, this Bolland guy is ruining our cap.

Unfortunately, goaltending is going to be an issue for Team David. As best I can tell, it comes down to a battle between Dave Dryden and David Aebischer. I guess we’ve got to go with the guy who was at least traded for an MVP.

Forwards: Dave Keon, Dave Andreychuk, David Pastrnak

Defensemen: Dave Ellett, Dave Babych

Goaltender: David Aebischer

No. 12. Team Douglas

Now here’s a classic hockey name. There have been like two dozen notable Dougs in all of human history, and the whole list is basically Flutie, Henning, Adams, Stanhope and then a bunch of hockey players.

Unfortunately, none of those hockey players are goaltenders, so we’re kind of stuck there. Still, we’re pretty set everywhere else, with a few Hall-of-Famers plus a blueliner who should be there. The depth is OK, with Dougs on-call including Jarvis, Risebrough and Smail. Unfortunately, the pipeline isn’t great, with only Dougie Hamilton available among active players. Get to work making more Dougs, hockey parents of the world.

Forwards: Doug Bentley, Doug Gilmour, Doug Weight

Defensemen: Doug Harvey, Doug Wilson

Goaltender: Doug Favell

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Friday, July 12, 2019

Grab Bag: Summer days, an idea for bad GMs and the best Don Cherry soundbite ever

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- It's summer, so we won't be doing these every week
- I have a great idea for how we could mess with the league's worst GMs
- An obscure player with a familiar name
- An offseason confession that I have to get off my chest
- And a look back at the best minute of Don Cherry soundbites you'll ever hear

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Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Playing “What if?” with four of the cap era’s biggest free agency decisions

We’re over a week into the free agency period, which means most of the big decisions have already been made. And we’ve seen plenty. The Canadiens chose to try an offer sheet on Sebastian Aho, and the Hurricanes chose to match. Artemi Panarin chose the Rangers over the Islanders and Blue Jackets. The Panthers chose to give $70 million to a goaltender. And the Predators chose to finally do whatever it took to land Matt Duchene, even if it meant giving up P.K. Subban.

Will some of those decisions turn out to be mistakes? Probably. That’s the beauty of this time of year. The GMs, owners, players and agents make the best choices they can, and the rest of us get to watch and see how it all turns out.

That’s always been the fun part for me, because I love a good round of “what if?” I mean, I really love it. I’m the guy who once wrote an entire alternate history of the NHL based on the Tom Kurvers trade never happening. I may have a problem. But I’m betting at least a few of you are right there with me.

So today, let’s look back on four key free agency-related scenarios from the salary cap era, and how history may have changed if they played out differently. As we’ll see, the decisions that get made at this time of year can have profound and sometimes unexpected impacts – not just on the teams and players involved, but on what does (and doesn’t) happen around the league as a result.

2006: What if the Senators choose Zdeno Chara over Wade Redden?

The situation: One year into the cap era, the Senators were Cup contenders who’d just finished the 2005-06 season with the best record in the East. But they were faced with a tricky offseason dilemma. Each of their two best defensemen, Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara, were on the brink of unrestricted free agency. And the team decided that they only had the budget and cap space to re-sign one of them.

So who would it be? Both players were coming off excellent seasons; Chara had finished fourth in Norris voting, while Redden was fifth. Chara was a rare combination of size and skill who’d taken a while to find his game in the NHL but had developed into one of the best defensemen in the league since being traded to Ottawa, having been named a first-team all-star in 2004. Redden hadn’t quite hit those heights but owned a longer track record, having been a consistent presence on the Ottawa blueline for a decade. Along with Daniel Alfredsson, he was the face of the franchise.

You can pick one. Who do you go with?

What happened: The decision went down to the wire, but ultimately the Senators chose Redden, re-signing him on the eve of free agency to a two-year extension that carried a $6.5 million cap hit. Chara became a UFA, and quickly signed a five-year deal with the Bruins with a $7.5 million cap hit.

Needless to say, it all worked out brilliantly for the Bruins. Chara has had 13 years and counting in Boston; he’s been a postseason all-star five times, won a Norris and been a finalist four other times, and led the team to a Stanley Cup in 2011. He’s almost certainly the greatest free agent signing of the cap era, and maybe even of all-time.

Redden finished out his two-year extension in Ottawa, playing reasonably well if not quite at an all-star level, before needing a new deal again in 2008. This time, the Senators couldn’t keep him, and even tried to get him to waive his no-trade clause on multiple occasions. He refused, denting his reputation with some Senators fans in the process, and eventually signed a six-year contract with the Rangers on the first day of free agency. That deal ended up being a bust, and Redden spent much of it in the AHL.

At the time, it had seemed like a tough call. In hindsight, it couldn’t have been more lopsided. And the Senators chose wrong.

But what if… : First things first. A lot of the “Redden vs. Chara” narrative has always felt a little too convenient. We don’t know a lot of what happened behind the scenes, including whether Chara ever really wanted to stay in Ottawa in the first place. It’s possible that the Senators just re-signed the player who wanted to stay to the best deal they could, and the rest of it is just a dramatic storyline slapped on top of some fairly standard cap management.

But that’s no fun. So let’s pretend that the Senators really were faced with an either/or choice. What if they’d chosen Chara, on the same sort of five-year deal he got from Boston?

Well, the first repercussion is that a big chunk of their fan base is furious. That’s the part of the story that gets skipped over these days, but as a hockey fan living in Ottawa at the time, I can tell you that it’s hard to overstate just how popular Redden was. He had his occasional detractors, like any player. But for most of his time as a Senator he was the golden boy, and the fans didn’t want to see him go.

Are the Senators better with Chara instead, even at a higher salary? In hindsight, absolutely, although it’s worth remembering that Redden helped them get to the Stanley Cup final in 2007. Do they win that final with Chara in the lineup? They might. And they almost definitely manage more than the two playoff game wins they had over the following four years. Could they have kept Chara on another deal beyond that? That gets dicey, but even if he’d bolted after five years, they’d have still come out ahead compared to two years of Redden.

Meanwhile, the Bruins lose out on their captain, and probably their 2011 Cup too. More bad news: they would have had an extra $7.5 million to spend in that 2006 offseason. Do they throw it at another blueliner, like Ed Jovanovski or Pavel Kubina? Or maybe one of the big forwards like Alex Tanguay or Martin Havlat? None of those options look great in hindsight. Take Chara off the market in 2006, and the next decade-plus of Bruins history starts to look very different.

On that note, here’s one more what-if to consider: What if Chara had hit the market, but chosen not to sign in Boston? According to reports, the other main bidder was the Los Angeles Kings. Would Chara have been as dominant in Los Angeles as he was in Boston? Probably. But that might not have been a good thing. If Chara improve the rebuilding Kings by just a few wins by Year 2, that moves them out of the second-overall pick in the 2008 draft, and probably makes Drew Doughty an Atlanta Thrasher. Do the Kings win two Cups with Chara instead of Doughty? And if you want to really get crazy, do the Thrashers improve enough after adding Doughty with the second-overall pick that they’re not in Winnipeg today? Bruins fans are happy that we never got to find out.

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Friday, July 5, 2019

The top secret transcript of Gary Bettman’s Fourth of July party

As my longtime readers know, Gary Bettman loves nothing more than hosting the entire NHL world at one of his world-famous parties. This year was no different, as all the most important names in the hockey world were invited to Bettman’s home for a backyard cookout to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Somehow, I didn’t get an invite. But luckily, my spies were able to sneak in, and they sent me a top secret transcript of the entire event.

(Scene: It’s the backyard of a large home in a trendy New York suburb. Gary Bettman is wearing a “Kiss the Chef” apron as he works the grill and welcomes guests. He’s approached by an old friend.)

Bill Daly: Gary, thanks for the invite. How this year’s party shaping up?

Bettman: We’re just getting started, but so far, so good.

Daly: Great. Got enough food?

Bettman: I think so. I’ve got a few packs of frozen burgers, a couple of steaks and sausages, and several hundred hot dogs that Mike Sullivan dropped off.

Daly: That seems like a lot.

Bettman: Apparently all the hot dog carts near the arena were having going-out-of-business sales.

Daly: I see.

Bettman: He seemed pretty happy about it.

Daly: Are all the guests here?

Bettman: Well, not all of them. Gabriel Landeskog been has been standing on the porch for half an hour, waiting for somebody to open the door for him. Jake Gardiner couldn’t make it because he’s waiting for a repairmen to show up and get his phone line working. And Paul Fenton was on his way up the driveway when he thought he saw a lizard, and now he’s trying to sign it to a contract.

Daly: Does that make sense to anybody?

Bettman: Not remotely, no.

Daly: OK, just checking.

Bettman: Anyway, time to start serving up some food. Hey Sebastian Aho, want a burger?

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Thursday, July 4, 2019

The 20 stages of watching your team make a horrible free agency mistake

We’re a few days into the 2019 free agency period, and while there a handful of decent names and useful depth pieces still available, for the most part, the market has been picked clean.

And chances are, your favorite team signed at least one big contract. How are you feeling about that? You might be feeling pretty good, especially if you’re new at this. But if you’ve been around for a while, and you’re familiar with the history of big UFA deals, you’re probably feeling something that ranges from gnawing doubt to outright panic.

If so, that’s to be expected. It’s all part of being a hockey fan in the first week of July. So today, let’s calm those nerves and reassure everyone that what they’re feeling is perfectly normal, as we run through the 20 stages of finding out your team has signed a terrible free agency deal.

Stage 1: The first rumors

You’ll never quite remember where you first heard the original rumor. It might be on Twitter. It could be some talk radio segment. You might hear it from a friend who swears he heard it from a friend whose uncle-in-law used to work with the assistant GM’s former cleaning lady. But at some point, somebody strings together a sentence featuring a player’s name, your favorite team, and a number that is just way too high.

Stage 2: You laugh at those rumors

I mean, come on. That much? For that guy? Nice try. Granted, your team’s GM isn’t exactly crushing it out there. He’s been known to make the occasional mistake. He’s lost a few trades, and overpaid on a few contracts. Also, he once ended a press conference by confidently striding away from the podium and then pulling on a door labeled “PUSH” for half an hour.

So no, he’s not the second coming of Sam Pollock. But he’s also not a complete imbecile. You’re not remotely worried. Besides, if there was any truth to it, one of the real insiders would be reporting it.

Stage 3: One of the real insiders reports it

Uh oh.

OK, that’s a bad sign. Those guys are pretty plugged in, and they don’t make stuff up. If they’re talking about it, there has to at least be something to it.

This is not good.

Stage 4: You talk yourself into the cap hit as long as the term is reasonable

Look, the numbers being thrown around are pretty crazy. But what if this is one of those short-term deals? Those happen sometimes. Your team has a bit of cap room this year, after all. Sure, you were hoping they’d use it to fill one of the roughly nine different holes in the roster, but maybe they could just give it all to this guy on a one-year deal. Aren’t expiring deals for a lot of money a good thing? You could swear you heard your NBA fan friend say that once.

One year would be fine. Two, you could live with. It’s the term, not the cap hit.

Note: This is the point where one of the insiders will break in to report that the term is going to be, and I’m quoting, “for all eternity.” But you’ll probably get some cap relief on the day the sun explodes, so you’ve got that going for you.

Stage 5: The desperate search for any rumors linking the player to any other team

Please, let somebody else be linked to this guy. You don’t even care who. There has to be some other sucker out there.

Social media follows will be tailored. Radio and TV stations will be scanned. Google News alerts will be set up. You will develop a deep and abiding interest in KHL transfer rules. Somebody else out there has to be talking about this guy too, right?

Except they aren’t. And you know what that means…

Stage 6: The deal gets announced

This is always a fun moment, especially if this is one of the rare cases where you’ve skipped steps one through five entirely because the deal is coming out of the blue. You haven’t had the chance to brace yourself at all, and suddenly you get blindsided by a name and a number that don’t make sense. These sort of surprise signings are uncommon these days, especially with the week-long interview window, but they still happen occasionally.

Assuming you’ve had some advance warning and your team is at least a little bit smart, the final deal won’t be quite as bad as you’d been led to believe. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, but teams are starting to figure out that it can help to let a slightly higher number leak ahead of time so that the actual price seems reasonable by comparison. This will make you feel better for roughly 30 seconds before you run the numbers and realize they’re still awful.

If your team isn’t a little bit smart, then the official announcement will be even worse than you thought and you’ll need to go and lie down in a dark storage closet for the rest of the day.

(Also, bonus points if your team does that adorable “terms will not be disclosed” thing, just to give you an extra two minutes of hope before Pierre LeBrun discloses the exact terms down to the dollar.)

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Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Puck Soup: Season finale

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We try to figure out what the deal was with the Sebastian Aho offer sheet
- One of us thinks the Habs did a good thing; two of us do not
- Rounding up the rest of the free agency action
- Our thoughts on the big Leafs/Avalanche trade
- Greg and Ryan get into a heated argument over Joe Pavelski, Ben Bishop and the Stars
- Darryl Sutter joiins the Duck
- Something about Spiderman that I didn't pay attention to
- Plus Paul Fenton's weird comments about lizards and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

>> This is the final free episode of Puck Soup for the summer, but you can still get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.




Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Building a roster of the cap era’s worst July 1 signings

So the first day of free agency has come and gone. How did your team do?

Probably not well. If history is any guide, your team either missed out on the big signings, or paid way too much to get in on them. If we’ve learned anything about July 1 in the salary cap era, it’s that jumping in with both feet on Day 1 of the open market can lead to a lot of regret. There are bargains, sure, and occasionally a team will sign a big-dollar deal that works out great. But those are exceptions. Most of the time, July 1 is the day that GMs do their very worst work.

That feels like something worth celebrating. So as we recover from yesterday’s chaos and try to digest all the money NHL GMs just threw around, let’s look back on the mistakes of the past by building a full roster out of some of the worst July 1 UFA deals of the cap era.

A couple of quick ground rules:

– We’re only looking for UFA deals that were signed on July 1. That rules out a few names you might be expecting to see here, like New York’s Brad Richards or Calgary’s James Neal (both of whose deals came a few days into free agency) and Philadelphia’s Ilya Bryzgalov (who was actually acquired in a trade and signed before he reached UFA status, but still needs to be mentioned here because that was hilarious).

– We’re judging signings based on a mix of the reaction at the time and how the deal looks with the benefit of hindsight. Because of that second part, we’re going to try really hard not to include any of this year’s signing, although (double-checks yesterday’s list) yeah no promises.

– The 2013 offseason schedule was thrown off a few days by the lockout, so for that season only “July 1” is actually July 5.

All contract information, including signing date and cap hit percentage, is from the CapFriendly signing database. Salaries are average annual value; “cap hit” is the percentage of that season’s cap.

As you might expect, there’s going to be some overlap with our worst possible cap team exercise from last season. But as bad as that roster was, this one might be even more depressing. You’ve been warned. Let’s get started.

First line

Scott Gomez, Rangers, 2007: 7 x $7.357 million, 14.63% cap hit

This deal seemed steep at the time, and got far worse over the years. It wasn’t the complete disaster you might remember it as – Gomez was actually pretty good in his first year in New York, and nearly hit the 60-point mark in the next two. And of course, the Rangers managed to somehow unload the deal onto the Canadiens before it really blew up. But once it did, man, it was awful. When you have your own website to track whether you’ve scored, that’s bad. When that site doesn’t change for over a year, that’s worse.

David Clarkson, Maple Leafs, 2013: 7 x $5.25 million, 8.16% cap hit

“I’m not worried about six or seven right now,” Leafs GM Dave Nonis infamously said when signing the deal. “I’m worried about one. And Year 1, I know we’re going to have a very good player.”

Nope. Clarkson was a miss almost immediately, in part due to an ill-advised suspension that delayed his regular season debut. To be fair, many Leafs fans loved the deal at the time, and some of the local media went nuts for it. Others immediately saw the disaster that was coming, including a young Globe and Mail beat writer who I hear went on to work at some website.

While it was never from lack of trying, Clarkson never clicked in Toronto, and didn’t even last two seasons before the team ate millions of dollars to ship him to Columbus. He hasn’t played since 2015-16 and almost certainly never will again, but his contract is still kicking around the league – partly because Nonis decided to make it virtually buyout proof.

Milan Lucic, Oilers, 2016: 7 x $6 million, 8.22% cap hit

Three years after watching the Leafs throw seven years at an aging power forward because of heart and grit and compete level, the Oilers apparently figured they could do even better. Lucic at least gave them one decent year, which is one more than the Leafs ever got from Clarkson. But unlike the Leafs, the Oilers haven’t yet figured out a way to wiggle out from under this contract, despite rumors that they’re desperately trying.

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Friday, June 28, 2019

Grab Bag: Breaking down the HHOF class of 2019, a taxing debate and inside the goaltender’s mind

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Breaking down the pros and cons of the HHOF class of 2019
- A debate about free agency that gets kind of taxing
- An obscure American hero who tried to slam Yokozuna
- The three stars section says goodbye to a legend
- And a YouTube look back at a time when goalies could be interesting

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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Puck Soup: Hockey Hall of Lame

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Reacting to this week's HHOF announcement
- Our thoughts on who'll be next, including one player I think just moved into the "sure thing" category
- Our thoughts on the draft, the PK Subban trade,the Marleau deal and more...
- This whole Mitch Marner recap and why it might be about to get worse
- Saying goodbye to Roberto Luongo and Bob McCown
- Ryan and I face off in a quiz over what actually happened during the 2018-19 season
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.




Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Live Q+A

Hey everyone...

I'll be doing a Q+A over at The Athletic this afternoon at 3:00 ET. Swing by and talk NHL history, hall of fame, rules changes, offseason, weird YouTube clips, or anything else.

Here's the link. Drop by, it's not like you wanted to get any work done this afternoon anyway.




Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Six active players who could make for tricky HHOF debates someday

The Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee will meet today, and within a few hours we’ll know the identity of the Class of 2019. It’s an interesting mix this year, with only one sure thing (Hayley Wickenheiser) and only one new candidate on the men’s side who seems like a possible first-ballot pick (Patrik Elias, and that’s probably a stretch).

That could mean we get a small class this year, maybe even one that only includes Wickenheiser on the player side. Or it could leave the door open for some of the many candidates who built up a decent case but have yet to hear their name called. That would include guys like Curtis Joseph, Jeremy Roenick, Theo Fleury, Sergei Zubov, Alexander Mogilny … the list is a long one.

As you know if you’ve followed my work over the years, I love this stuff. I made the case for four candidates back in November, including longtime snubs Doug Wilson and Mike Keenan. I’ve looked at players who seemed to be falling off the radar. I’ve dug in on some individual candidacies, like Daniel Alfredsson and Marian Hossa. Back in 2016, I looked at 10 candidates who’d been passed over, five of whom have since been inducted. Honestly, I’d probably just do Hall of Fame debates every day if my editors would let me.

But one of my favorite angles to take is to look at active players who are shaping up as tough calls. I did that a few years ago, in a list that included Elias. Only two of those players are still active, and one (Roberto Luongo) seems like a safe pick now. So it’s time for an update.

Today, we’re going to look at a half-dozen players whose careers are on track to make for tricky Hall of Fame calls. We can’t predict the future, but each of these players is on pace to build a plausibly Hall-worthy resume without getting into no-doubt territory, although one or two are pretty close.

We’re looking for players who’ve been around – let’s say at least a dozen years of NHL experience – but haven’t already stamped their ticket. We know that stars like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Zdeno Chara and Joe Thornton are already in, even if they never play another game. Those won’t be long discussions when they get to the induction committee. I want the guys who are going to cause a few arguments.

To be clear, these aren’t the only players worth talking about, and if you don’t see your favorite player listed it’s not because I don’t think he has any chance. These are just six of the guys that seem like they’d be fun to debate. And by “debate” I mean yell at each other about in the comments, and by “fun” I mean the opposite of fun. Let’s get started.

Nicklas Backstrom

Why it’s a tough one: Can you be a Hall of Famer if you were never considered the best player on your own team? Yes, because lots of guys have been, including no-doubters like Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey and more recent picks like Dave Andreychuk and Dino Ciccarelli. But fair or not, Backstrom has spent his entire career playing second-fiddle to Alexander Ovechkin, and that perception could muddy the waters.

The case for: Backstrom’s still just 31 and barely hits our 12-year cutoff, so we’re going to have to do some projecting here. But he’s one of the best playmakers of his generation – he already ranks fourth in assists among active players, ahead of names like Evgeni Malkin, Jason Spezza and Anze Kopitar who’ve been around longer. Ovechkin could go down in history as the greatest goal scorer of his generation, and Backstrom will have had a lot to do with that.

On top of that, Backstrom is a solid two-way player who’s finished as high as seventh in Selke voting, and he’s been remarkably consistent through his 12-year career, including posting 70-plus points every year since the 2013 lockout. And now that he’s got his Cup ring, any lame narratives about the Caps not knowing how to win can’t haunt him.

The case against: Assists are important but goals get the glory, and Backstrom has never been a great scorer; he might struggle to even get to 350 for his career. He’s never won an award or been a finalist, and his highest finish in post-season all-star voting was third.

Worth remembering: Other noted playmakers like Adam Oates and Doug Gilmour eventually made it in, but each had to wait and it looked iffy for a while – and they both had over 1,400 career points.

Should he get in? It’s all going to depend on where his numbers end up. He won’t hit Oates or Gilmour territory, but he won’t have to because of the era he played in. Would 1,200 be enough? I think it might, especially if he continues to get credit for solid defensive play.

Will he get in? Right now, he ranks sixth among active players in points per game, and all five ahead of him look like likely (or sure-thing) Hall of Famers. Check back in five years, but his case is tracking stronger than you non-Caps fans might think.

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