Monday, January 21, 2019

Weekend rankings: There's been an explosion of trades across the NHL. So what does it mean?

Something​ unusual is happening​ in​ the​ NHL​ these​ days.​ Teams are​ making trades.

That shouldn’t​ be unusual. After​ all,​ trading has been​​ part of the NHL since the league’s earliest days. The art of the deal has evolved over time, but the basic concept has always been the same. If there’s a hole in your roster, you find a way to make a deal to address it. An NHL GM only has so many tools in his toolbox, and two of the key ones – drafting and free agency – aren’t available during the season, while player development is a longterm play that can’t really be rushed. But you can make a trade right now. If your team isn’t good enough, get out there and make it better.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. But in recent years, the in-season trade has been a dying art. GMs pull off their biggest deals around the draft and maybe work in a few more as the offseason drags on. But during the season, things stay quiet until a week or two before the trade deadline.

Why? We’re told it’s because the salary cap makes it too hard to swing a deal during the season, but I’ve never fully bought that idea. Instead, we seem to be living through an era of conservative GMs who know they probably won’t get a second chance at the job and are driven more by a cover-your-butt mentality mixed with a healthy dose of loss aversion than an all-consuming desire to make their teams better.

Or maybe, we were living through that era. Because lately, NHL GMs have been busy.

Last week, NHL teams made seven trades. In the two weeks before that, there were ten more. That adds up to seventeen deals since the holiday trade freeze was lifted.

In that same period last year – the holiday freeze through Jan. 21 – there were only three trades. Two more happened on Jan. 22, so bump it up to five if you’d like, but things went quiet again after that. In 2016-17, over the same period, there were five deals. The 2015-16 season was the outlier, with 11 trades, but 2014-15 only had four and 2013-14 had six.

That’s an average of about six trades per season during the post-freeze period. And yet this year, we’ve had 17. What does it mean?

One possible answer is that it doesn’t mean much of anything. After all, it’s not like any of these recent trades have been blockbusters. In fact, they’ve almost all been oddly similar: One-for-one swaps, perhaps with a middling draft pick or two tossed in, mostly involving depth pieces or minor leaguers that probably play the same position. Only two of the 17 trades have involved more than one player on either side of the equation (the two-for-two deal that sent Brandon Manning to Edmonton and the Anders Nilsson deal between the Canucks and Senators).

Other than that, GMs are keeping it simple. If you were a cynic, you might suggest that there’s an awful lot of deck-chair shuffling going on. There certainly hasn’t been anything approaching a blockbuster to be seen. If we’re being honest, some of these deals have been built around guys most of us have never heard of.

But still … 17 trades? Even if they’re underwhelming paint-by-numbers moves, that’s a ton of activity for the middle of a season.

One theory is that what we’re seeing is a function of the tight playoff races. Granted, the races are tight every year, but this season feels different, especially out West where the wildcard race has become a slow-moving traffic jam. Nine of the 17 deals involve some combination of the Ducks, Wild and Oilers, three teams that came into the season in win-now mode and are fighting over those final spots. Maybe we’re not actually seeing some sort of league-wide phenomenon so much as three desperate teams pulling everyone else’s average up. But even if you take those three teams out of the mix, we’ve still had more trades than normal, so that can’t be the whole story.

There could be at least a bit of a domino effect in play, where each new trade shakes something loose somewhere else for another move. And it’s also possible that we’re seeing a little bit of peer pressure at play here. It’s one thing to tell your fans (and your owner) that making trades at this time of year is too hard. It’s another to do it when Bob Murray is out here finding a way to swing a new deal every second day. Nobody wants to be the GM who sits on his hands during the frenzy and then ends up missing the playoffs by a point in April.

Or maybe it’s just a one-off fluke. There’s always that.

Whatever it is, the next question is what it means for the five weeks between now and the trade deadline. It’s tempting to say that we’re in for a dud of a deadline since teams are getting all of their moves out of their system now. But that doesn’t seem right, because as I said, we’re talking about a bunch of relatively minor deals here. If anything, this feels like more of a warmup than anything. Maybe these smaller deals are the consolation prizes from bigger conversations that could still be revisited down the line. And if you’re the GM of a bubble team that hasn’t been wheeling and dealing lately, how much longer can you wait while everyone around you is already making moves?

However all of this plays out, here’s hoping that it’s the start of a new trend. NHL trades are fun and arguing over the ones that happened and the ones that still could happen used to be a big part of the league’s in-season entertainment value. That’s faded over time. It would be cool to get it back.


Road to the Cup

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

With the All-Star Game a week away, a reminder that we’re now into bye week season. Ten teams are off as of today, with everyone else off next week. That’s going to lead to some light nights on the schedule and maybe not much movement within our rankings over the next two weeks.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (29-17-4, +20 true goals differential*) – The good news is that they’ve won nine of eleven, including an impressive 7-3 trouncing of the Penguins on Saturday. The bad news is that they’re not really gaining any ground in the Pacific and if anything a first-round matchup with the Sharks seems more likely now than it did a week ago. We won’t go overboard on “if the playoffs started today” here and there’s still a chance the Knights can claim the top spot in the Pacific. But we’re reaching that time of year when having three teams from the same division in the top five just can’t hold and right now the Knights would be the easiest team to bump.

4. San Jose Sharks (28-15-7, +26) – You could cut-and-paste a lot of the Knights’ entry here, although some of the models out there still seem to love them. If they win the Pacific, I love their odds. But right now they’re not winning the Pacific.




Friday, January 18, 2019

Grab Bag: Your guide to spotting fake trade tweets

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Finding a reason to be negative about the NHL's ten best teams
- Should you RT that fake-sounding trade?
- An obscure player who shouldn't be but is
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the last time Gary Bettman promised he wasn't looking for a CBA fight, and how that ended

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Thursday, January 17, 2019

Puck Soup: Not looking for a fight

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Gary Bettman wants you to know that this time, he isn't looking for a lockout. I have some thoughts on what this means, where it's going, why it sounds familiar and how fans should react
- The fake trade tweet that caused problems this week
- The Sabres hit a rough patch
- The Western wildcard race gets ugly
- Greg chats with Thomas Middleditch of "Silicon Valley"
- Ryan's top five hockey references in hip hop
- Rick Nash retires
- ... and lots more.

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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




Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What’s the worst possible salary cap situation you could create from today’s contracts?

Last​ week we tried​ to​ assemble​ a roster​ made​ up​ of some​ of the NHL’s​ best contracts. To​ add​ to the challenge​​ and avoid simply stocking up on entry-level deals, we decided to skip ahead to 2021-22 and put together the best team that would still fit under a reasonable salary cap. It turned out to be a lot of fun and at least a little bit thought-provoking, many of you weighed in with your own picks and a good time was had by all.

But more than a few readers had a suggestion: OK, now do it for the worst contracts.

My first reaction was that that sounded like fun. A cap-compliant team made up of the worst contracts in the league? That’s right up my alley.

My second reaction was that it would be easy. That was part of the appeal. Putting together the good contract roster had me looking like this guy by the end. But bad contracts? There are a ton of those! Every team has at least a few. This would be a breeze. I was in.

I got started. And then I began to actually think things through. And I realized what I had gotten myself into.

Here’s the thing: Anyone can do a simple list of the worst contracts in the NHL and lots of people have. But we’re talking about a roster of terrible NHL contracts that still fits under the salary cap, meaning we’ll have a hard time squeezing some of the worst deals in without having to fill out the roster with “bad” deals that somehow also don’t cost much.

That doesn’t just add several layers of difficulty, it barely even makes sense. It’s like putting together the best offensive team that won’t score more than 300 goals. What are we even doing here?

Luckily, “barely even makes sense” has never stopped me before. Let’s do this. Let’s build the worst possible NHL team that fits under the current cap. Or more specifically, let’s build the worst salary cap situation that would be possible in today’s NHL.

A few quick ground rules:

  • This is a roster for this season, using this season’s cap and this season’s contracts. Unlike last week’s piece, there’s no reason to jump ahead to 2021-22 here. This is all for 2018-19, using the current cap of $79.5 million. And as with last week, all we care about here is cap hit; actual dollars paid out don’t matter to us.
  • We’re not using any contracts that are dead money because of players that are on LTIR or whose careers are likely over. No David Clarksons, or Nathan Hortons or Marian Hossas on this team. Other than that, assume all active players are healthy – we’re not penalizing players for being injured here.
  • We can’t save cap space by burying deals in the AHL, a rule that will apply to any deals that actually are buried in the AHL. We also don’t benefit from any retained salary from previous trades. We’re paying full sticker price on everything.
  • We’re trying to build the worst cap situation possible, so term matters. Long deals are worse than short ones. Which means that for the purpose of our team, they’re better. Because they’re worse. You get what I’m saying.

This idea is so dumb. I love it. Let’s get to work.

(All salary info comes from CapFriendly.com. Stats for this season do not include last night’s games.)

But first, a word about “bad” contracts

It always feels a little weird to write about good and bad contracts and to realize that we always default to seeing those deals from the team’s perspective. A guy who makes too much money is considered “bad,” while a guy who makes less than he deserves goes in the “good” column.

On a certain level that makes sense. We’re fans, and ultimately the point of being a fan is to root for teams collectively, not individual players. This is a hard cap league now, meaning salaries matter. But it still feels strange to look at an underpaid player as always being a good thing, even when the difference might just be going straight into some billionaire owner’s yacht fund. And it’s especially strange to think that someone wanting to make as much money as they can has made a mistake when all of us feel the same way about our own jobs.

Let’s be clear: Every one of the guys we’re going to list in today’s piece earned his contract. They’re among the best few hundred hockey players in the world, playing in a league that generates billions in revenue based on people wanting to watch them play. Not one of them held anybody hostage, and each of them ultimately ended up signing an offer that their team put in front of them. If those turned out to be bad contracts, it’s only because their teams screwed up.

We are also going to screw up, although in our case we can at least claim to be doing it on purpose. Let’s do this. Who wants to make some capologists cry?

Goaltenders

Part of what makes this whole exercise so ridiculous is that we won’t be able to fit any of the league’s monster contracts onto the roster because they’d eat up too much space. In theory, there could be deals that are so bad that they can’t fit on our all-bad roster because they don’t leave room for anyone else.

For example, let’s look at Carey Price. His $10.5-million extension runs for another seven years after this one, even as he works through a second straight disappointing season. That one is tempting, and I tried to figure out a way to work it in. But I can’t. You just can’t build a truly terrible cap team when you’re spending that much on your starting goalie. (What that might say about building an actual Cup contender around a $10.5-million goaltender is an exercise left to the reader.)

But once you get past Price on the goaltender’s list, you find something a little surprising: There aren’t all that many goaltender deals that seem awful. There are certainly some questionable ones, but compared to the abject disasters we’re going to see at the other positions, NHL GMs seem to be showing getting smarter when it comes to choosing the men inside the crease.

A few deals do jump out as contenders for our team. Mike Smith ($5.67 million) and Semyon Varlamov ($5.9 million) are making more than you’d like, but both of those deals expire this year. Craig Anderson has another year left at $4.75 million, and that deal doesn’t look great, but you could live with it if he’s healthy and playing like he did earlier this year. Henrik Lundqvist at $8.5 million through 2021 has the potential to get ugly, but isn’t quite there yet.

Two familiar names almost make the cut. Roberto Luongo still has three more years at $5.33 million, and yes that deal still “sucks” even though he was really good last year. And then there’s Luongo’s old pal Cory Schneider, who’s got the Devils on the hook for three more years at $6 million. That one looks awful, which makes it awfully tempting for our roster.

But in the end, I’m going to save a little cap space while still grabbing a starter with one of the league’s more regrettable deals: Carolina’s Scott Darling at $4.15 million through 2021. Schneider has at least been a top goaltender in the NHL, even if it feels like a long time ago. Darling had never been a full-time starter when the Hurricanes gambled on him, and while it may have been worth rolling the dice at the time, it didn’t work. He’s been a great story, and is working to get his career back on track in the AHL right now. It’s still possible that we see him succeed in the NHL someday, but it seems unlikely to be in Carolina.

We’ll back him up with another goalie who’s currently in the AHL: Ottawa’s Mike Condon at $2.4 million. He’s signed through next year and is currently battling a hip injury in the minors. That leaves us with over $6 million in cap space spent on multi-year deals to goaltenders that aren’t actually in the NHL right now, which is way too much while also leaving plenty of room that we’re definitely going to need. Not a bad start.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Monday, January 14, 2019

Weekend rankings: Your guide to which teams should be panicking the hardest right now

We​ spent a lot of​ the​ season’s​ first​ half​ saying​ things like​ “Sure, this team​ may be struggling​ right​ now, but it’s​​ still early and there’s a ton of hockey left so nobody should panic.” Everyone does. It’s pretty much a standard disclaimer that you have to put on all first-half hockey writing.

Well, it’s not early anymore, and there’s no longer a ton of hockey left. It’s OK to panic now. In some cases, it may be mandatory. A few teams should have been here weeks ago.

But who? Since we’re all about arbitrary rankings around these parts, here’s a top ten list of teams that should be panicking right about now.

10. New York Islanders – They lost to the Rangers and Hurricanes, which wasn’t great, but then they smoked the Lightning last night to regain the top wildcard spot. Honestly, they’re only here because doing a top nine would be weird.

9. Montreal Canadiens – The good news is they’re playing reasonably well and aren’t ceding much ground in the wildcard race. The bad news is that even one week ago, we figured they only had to beat out one of the Sabres or Islanders to make it. Now, the Hurricanes are roaring back into the race, which ups the pressure on Montreal.

8. Dallas Stars – Two games against a pair of teams going nowhere resulted in zero points and the offense has dried up apart from the top line. And now we’re back to the organization saying stuff like this:

7. Florida Panthers – The only reason the Panthers don’t rank any higher is that, at this point, it’s basically over. They’re eleven points back and have four teams to catch, so barring a month-long hot streak, they’re done. They should have already moved past “panic” and onto “acceptance.” Now the question in Florida is who’s going to pay for it.

6. Columbus Blue Jackets – Unlike the other teams on this list, the Blue Jackets are playing reasonably well and in strong shape for a playoff spot. But they have other things to worry about these days, which we’ll get to down below.

5. Edmonton Oilers – The entire Western wildcard race is in a freefall, meaning it’s right there for the taking. And yet the Oilers can’t take advantage, losing at home to Arizona in a game that opened the door for the Coyotes to climb into the race. The big question here isn’t whether Oiler fans are panicking, but how much their beleaguered GM might be.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Friday, January 11, 2019

Grab Bag: The problem with letting the players police the game

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- If you want players to police the game, be honest about what that means
- I have suggestions to improve the only good page on the NHL web site
- An obscure player from maybe the greatest stat spoiler I've ever seen.
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at a wild 1998 line brawl and goalie fight

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Puck Soup: Total Garbage

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We try to figure out what's going on with Sergei Bobrovsky
- What's going to happen in Ottawa with Matt Duchene and Mark Stone?
- The all-star jerseys are garbage. Literally.
- The first of many arguments over what MVP means
- In defense of Islander fans
- Lots of reality TV talk during which I am very quiet
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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




Thursday, January 10, 2019

Islander fans think the hockey world isn't giving their team enough credit. Do they have a case?

Islander​ fans don’t seem​ to​ be​ an​ especially​ friendly​ bunch these​ days.

Not all of​ them, of course.​ But​ a lot of them.​​ As they see it, their team isn’t getting enough attention from the rest of the hockey world, and they’re eager to let you know about it. If you happen to cross paths with an Islander fan on social media, or in a hockey forum, or (lord help you) in the comment section of a power rankings post somewhere, there’s a good chance that they’re coming out swinging. The topic doesn’t even have to have anything to do with them. These days, I’m pretty sure you could do a piece about the best moments of the Original Six era and a horde of angry Islander fans would show up demanding to know why they weren’t mentioned.

So what’s going on here? There are a couple of possibilities. The first is that Islander fans are just being typical sports fan babies, sulking because their middle-of-the-road team isn’t getting the credit that their homer-tinted glasses tell them they deserve even as everybody else rolls their eyes.

The second possibility is that, uh, they might be right.

I mean, we can’t rule it out, can we? As best I can tell, Islander fans are mainly mad at some combination of the NHL media, self-professed hockey experts and other fans in general. And let’s face it, those three groups are wrong about things all the time. I know I am. (Seriously, check out this masterpiece.) Therefore, I have to at least consider the possibility that Islander fans are right and the majority of us are wrong.

Still, I’m not sold. Let’s break down both sides of the argument, and see if we can separate the typical hockey homerism from the legitimate complaints. Are the Islander fans right and the hockey world is sleeping on a major story?

Islander fans might be right because: The Islanders have been really good this year. They’d won six straight before the streak was snapped on Tuesday and are on pace for 100 points at the midway mark. That would be up there with the best years the franchise has posted since the glory days of the early 80s, and even factoring in loser-point inflation, it’s an impressive total that has them in the thick of the Metro race.

The Islanders’ story isn’t just about points, either. Last year, they couldn’t keep the puck out of their own net, finishing dead last in goals allowed. This year, they’ve spent time leading the league in that category. That’s a remarkable turnaround that would deserve to be a major story even if it wasn’t being reflected in wins and losses (which it is).

And yet, other teams around them in the standings seem to get more buzz. The Penguins’ recent eight-game winning streak had everyone ready to declare them an elite team again, but the Islanders are right behind them, with games in hand. The Sabres were treated like big news when they were hot earlier in the year, the Canadiens are considered a great turnaround story. While teams like the Jets and Maple Leafs get anointed as Cup contenders even though they’re only a few wins head of New York.

Fair’s fair. Where’s the Islanders love?

Islander fans might be wrong because: Yes, they’ve been good this year. But this is the NHL in the age of parity and just being “good” doesn’t make you some sort of major story. Even after winning six straight, the Islanders are sitting tied for 14th in the overall standings, so they’re firmly in the middle of the pack. They’ve spent most of the streak barely holding down a wildcard spot and the Canadiens knocked them out of that on Tuesday. The Islanders do have games in hand on most of the teams around them, so you could say that they’re still a playoff team based on points percentage, but even then it’s not by much.

And again, that’s after a major winning streak, which we just saw the end of. Even at their apparent peak, the Islanders were merely a reasonably good team in a league clogged with them. That’s a nice story. It’s not something that national media is going to give front-page coverage too.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What’s the best team you can build in 2021-22 using existing contracts?

From​ time to time,​ readers​ will​ send​ me​ story​ ideas. Some​ are good, some​ not so much,​ but​ they’re always appreciated.​​ Every now and then someone will come up with something that is just the right mix of weird and fun and it turns into something cool.

But by far, there’s one idea that gets suggested the most: What’s the best cap-compliant roster you could build using all of today’s contracts?

It’s a neat idea, and we’ve seen it done well in other sports. But it never quite works in the NHL, because you just wind up with a roster stacked with entry-level deals. In an era where players (especially forwards) peak so quickly, those first contracts often represent such outrageous bargains that they make the exercise too easy. Let me start with Auston Matthews, Mikko Rantanen, Patrik Laine, Elias Pettersson and Brayden Point all at $900,000 or so, and I can stack the rest of the roster with pretty much whoever I want. Heck, give them all the bonuses too, they’re still dirt cheap. There’s no challenge to it.

You could get around that by limiting how many entry-level deals you could use. But today, let’s try something a little more challenging. We’re going to see if we can make the best cap-compliant roster that we can by using just existing contracts. But instead of building that team for this year, we’re going to try to do it for 2021-22.

Why 2021-22? The first reason is that it’s three years away, which means we lose access to all of those entry-level deals. Matthews, Rantanen and friends will all be on their second deals and making just slightly more than they are right now and the Jack Hughes cohort isn’t in the league yet so we can’t use them either. Three years also has the benefit of not being so far away that we’re just guessing about who’ll still be good by then. And there are more players than you’d think who already have contracts that reach into the 2021-22 season – 165 as of today according to Cap Friendly, including many of the league’s best players.

The idea comes with a couple of hurdles. The first is that we’ll probably have a new CBA by 2021-22, meaning there’s a chance that the cap system or HRR split could work differently by then. And even if we assume that nothing important will change, we don’t actually know what the salary cap is going to be by then.

That second problem is easy enough to solve by just picking a number that seems reasonable. Let’s go with $90 million, which would represent an increase of just over $10 million from where we are right now. The cap went up $8.1 million over the last three years, so mix in a little inflation and $90 million seems about right for 2021-22.

That leaves us with 165 players to choose from and a $90 million cap to work with to put together a 2021-22 roster that fits under the cap and looks like a Cup contender. How hard could that be? Spoiler: Harder than you might think …

(All salary information in this piece comes from CapFriendly.com. Also, all values listed are a player’s cap hit; we don’t care about the actual dollars due on the contract.)

Goaltenders

They say that you should build from the net out, so we’ll follow that advice. But when we do, we run into our first problem almost immediately. Of those 165 players signed through 2022, only nine are goaltenders. And none of them look like major bargains.

When you think about it, that makes sense. There’s more supply than demand for goaltending these days, so teams aren’t making long-term commitments to guys unless they think they’re foundational pieces. Mix in deals like Henrik Lundqvist, Frederik Andersen and Tuukka Rask that all expire the year before our 2021-22 season, and it’s no surprise that the pickings are slim.

But it’s a problem for our roster because we’re going to be spending way more on goaltending than we’d like. Even if we went with the two most inexpensive options we can find, Ben Bishop and Roberto Luongo, we’re still paying over $10 million for a position where it’s often smart to go as cheap as possible. And even Luongo can’t realistically be a pick for three years down the road since he’ll be 42 years old by then.

Instead, we’ll hand the starting job to one of the few guys on the list who looks like he could be a bargain: Anaheim’s John Gibson at $6.4 million. He’s performing at a Vezina or even Hart Trophy level these days, and while that doesn’t guarantee anything about how he’ll be playing in three years (or even three weeks), we’ll take our chances.

The other option here would have been Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck at $6.166 million. He was great last year but has looked pretty ordinary this season. Hellebuyck should be fine, but I prefer Gibson enough to spend a few extra bucks. Ideally, we’d pick both guys, but $12.5 million will be too much to spend on goaltending, so we have to make a call here.

For the backup spot, we’ll go with Ben Bishop at $4.917 million, mainly because he’s the cheapest option available. Do I feel good about this pick? No, I do not – he’ll be turning 35 in 2021-22, and he’s a big guy who’s had hip problems. There’s a good chance he’s not an effective goaltender in three years’ time and we just wasted a big chunk of our cap on a guy who’ll be on LTIR or a buyout target. We’re two picks into this thing and I’m already angry.

But really, what other choice do we have? Carey Price at $10.5 million? No thanks. Cory Schneider at $6 million? Not a chance. Marc-Andre Fleury at $7 million? Maybe, but he’ll turn 37 during the 2021-22 season. Jonathan Quick ($5.8 million) and Martin Jones ($5.75 million) are at least worth considering, but we’re going to need every penny we can scrounge to fill out the rest of the roster.

That means it’s Gibson and Bishop, at a total cost of over $11 million. That’s pricey. Let’s see if we can claw back some of that space on the blueline.

Cap space spent so far: $11.317 million on two players, an average of $5.66 million each. We have $78.683 million left for 18 roster spots, an average of just over $4.37 million per player.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic





Monday, January 7, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Who's the NHL's most middle-of-the-pack team at the midway mark?

By​ design, these power​ rankings​ focus​ on​ the​ league’s​ best and​ worst. Those are​ the fun teams​ to​ talk about –​​ the Cup contenders and the train wrecks. And if a handful of teams in between get largely forgotten about, oh well. Who wants to spend time arguing about the mushy middle?

But now that we’ve officially crossed the midway mark of the NHL season, it’s a good time to tackle a question I like to break out every year around this time: Who’s been the most middle-of-the-pack team in the league this season? Who’s the reigning champion of being utterly average?

It’s a tougher question than you might think. In most sports, “average” means .500, but we can’t use that in the NHL thanks to the horrible, awful, embarrassing loser point. But we can look for teams that have won about as many games as they’ve lost, while also looking for a goal differential that’s close to even. Maybe even dig into some advanced stats and look for someone hovering right around 50 percent in possession or expected goals.

And when we do that, one team stands out as the obvious choice. The Minnesota Wild are almost perfectly average right now. Through 40 games, they’ve won 20 and lost 20. They’ve won ten and lost ten at home, and they’ve won ten and lost ten on the road. Their goals differential is +5, which is a little higher than average but not by much. And they’re just a shade over 50 percent as a possession team.

It’s an easy call. The Wild are the league’s most average team.

But are they? Being average would seem to imply some consistency and that’s not Minnesota. They looked great over the first month or two, even sneaking into our top five list for multiple weeks. Since then, they’ve been awful, including a recent five-game losing streak, and last week I had Wild fans demanding to know why they haven’t made their way down to the bottom five. But then they beat a pair of top-five teams in the Jets and Maple Leafs.

Take a step back, and the Wild look less like an average team and more like one that’s wildly careening back and forth across the standings, and just happened to have been right in the middle when we took this midseason snapshot. Therefore, I don’t think they can be our middle-of-the-pack champs after all.

But if not them, then who? A good place to start might be with the seven teams that haven’t appeared in either our top five or bottom five all year long. Of those, Boston and Columbus are too good, Carolina is too bad and Edmonton is closer to the Wild’s path of chaos than anything we’d call average. And I’m not picking the Islanders, because lord help me if those fans show up in the comments section again.

That narrows the list down to two teams: Dallas and Montreal. The Stars have 22 wins and 21 losses, a dead even goals differential and an expected goals differential hovering right around 50 percent. But I like the Canadiens’ case just a little bit more. They’ve won 22 and lost 20, with splits of 11 wins and 10 losses both at home and on the road. They’re close to even on goals differential, at -3. And they’ve been fairly consistent all year long; they had one five-game losing streak, but have only lost back-to-back games on two other occasions and haven’t won more than three straight all year. Also, their CEO didn’t go ballistic on them in an epic f-bomb tirade, which was a lot of things but didn’t seem especially average.

Congratulations, Montreal. Through the first half of the season, you’ve been the most middle-of-the-pack NHL team. Given how most of us expected you to fare, there are worse places to be.

OK, enough mediocrity. On to the teams that are actually good and bad …

Road to the Cup

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

Speaking of winners, congratulations to Team Finland for their gold medal at the World Juniors. Fans in Vancouver were no doubt hoping to see Team Canada playing for a medal, but they can’t say they didn’t get their money’s worth in that thrilling gold medal game.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (26-15-4, +17 true goals differential*) – Well well, look who finally decided to show up.

The Knights become the 13th team to appear in our top five this season. It’s a return to the territory they owned for much of last year when they were in the top five for 12 of the season’s final 13 weeks. This year they started slow, plodding along with a losing record until late-November. But lately, they’ve been unbeatable, winning six straight to catch the Flames at the top of the Pacific (although Calgary has games in hand).

We’ll slip them into the top five for now, if only barely; the Flames could be here instead, and you could make a case for the Sharks too after they beat the Lightning on Saturday. I’m feeling just a little bit better about the Knights these days because their goaltending situation is more settled, but it’s close. And it’s going to make a fascinating finish in the Pacific. All three teams are basically playoff locks already, but two of them will play each other in the first round while the other gets a theoretically easier matchup with a wildcard. Every point is going to matter down the stretch.

4. Washington Capitals (25-12-4, +32) – Last week, we had the Caps all the way up at No. 2. They drop down a bit this week, not so much because they’re playing any worse but rather because the Penguins look vaguely terrifying right now. The Metro might be more of a dogfight than we thought.

And if you’re wondering why the Pens aren’t holding down this spot … well, yeah, maybe they should. We try not to overreact to streaks around these parts, but the Pens are a week away from being just about impossible to ignore.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic





Friday, January 4, 2019

Puck Soup: Alex Ovechkin skips out, the Dallas Stars CEO flips out, and I take the "Is this a real movie?" quiz

Greg, Ryan and Sean break down Alex Ovechkin's decision to skip the NHL All-Star Game, the Dallas Stars' CEO calling his best players "fucking horseshit," who plays in the 2020 Cotton Bowl Winter Classic, Canada blowing it in world juniors, Sidney Crosby rewarding a heckler, Winter Classic ratings and Sean takes on a Lambert "is this an actual movie in 2019?" quiz. Sponsored by Seat Geek!

Episode length: 01:23:03

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DGB Grab Bag: An idea to save the All-Star game, Jim Lites’ bleeping tirade and the story of the Saska-Who Blues

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Stars like Alexander Ovechkin skipping the all-star game is a problem, but there's a simple solution
- Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites had a bit of a meltdown, but I have an idea for how he can make it up to us
- An obscure player with a famous name and a monster rookie season
- The week's three comedy stars, plus the last member of the Hall of Fame class of 2019
- And a YouTube breakdown of the time that a dog food company tried to move the St. Louis Blues to Saskatoon

>> Read the full post at The Athletic




Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A lot can change in a year. Five teams that proved that in 2018, and five more that could follow suit in 2019

We’re​ into the new​ year,​ and​ by​ now,​ we​ have a pretty​ good sense of​ where most teams​ stand.​ Some have emerged​​ as legitimate Cup contenders. But others are struggling through seasons that could charitably be described as disappointing.

For a hockey fan, there’s something even worse than disappointment: a lack of hope. That gnawing feeling that not only is your favourite team bad right now but that they’re not going to get any better.

This is the time of year when that feeling can really start to settle in. You’ve seen your team play roughly 40 games, so you can’t just chalk up their failures to a bad streak here or there. By this point, most teams are somewhere close to being what their record says they are. And when the record says they’re not good enough, the path back to the top can start to look awfully long.

For some teams, it will be. But for others, a lot can change in as little as a year. So today, let’s go back in time to this point one year ago. We’ll pick out five teams that were probably feeling pretty miserable about things midway through the 2017-18 season, only to flip the script over the 12 months to follow. And then, because we’re all about optimism around here, we’ll try to pair each of those with a team that’s struggling right now and could use a reminder of how quickly things can sometimes turn around.

Know hope. Or at least know how to trick yourself into thinking there might be some.

 

The 2018 team: The Buffalo Sabres

The situation: The team that’s been rebuilding for years and has plenty of young talent, but just can’t shift gears and start winning.

At 10-20-9, the Sabres were dead last in the East a year ago, and there were legitimate concerns that the rebuild had failed. Some of the pieces were in place, sure, but the results remained the same. And for yet another season, the Sabres were heading into the new year knowing they weren’t going to be part of the playoff hunt.

Somehow, things managed to get even worse in January, as the Sabres started the month with five straight losses. They sold at the deadline, moving Evander Kane to San Jose, then stumbled to a 25-45-12 record that was good for dead last in the league.

The turnaround: Two key turning points came in the offseason. The first was the Sabres finally winning the draft lottery, landing the first overall pick and bringing Rasmus Dahlin to town. The second was an aggressive move to land Jeff Skinner from the Hurricanes. Combined with the trade that sent Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis, GM Jason Botterill made it clear that he wasn’t willing to head into the new season with the same old Sabres.

The results, so far, have been solid. The Sabres are in the thick of the Eastern playoff race, largely powered by a 10-game win streak that briefly had them flirting with the upper echelon. They’re not quite there yet, but the playoffs seem likely. And at the very least, we’re going to see some meaningful second-half hockey in Buffalo for the first time in years.

The possible 2019 comparable: The Arizona Coyotes.

The Coyotes rebuild will always be tied to the Sabres, given their memorable duelling tank jobs for Connor McDavid back in 2014-15. Much like the Sabres, the Coyotes have been spinning their wheels ever since, despite John Chayka making some aggressive deals to try to get better.

He’ll have to make a few more if he wants to follow the Sabres model. His track record suggests he’ll be up for it, and some of the pieces are already in place. Granted, the Coyotes don’t have a Jack Eichel-type stud to build around up front, largely because they whiffed on that 2015 pick with Dylan Strome. Then again, the Sabres didn’t have Oliver Ekman-Larsson or Antti Raanta.

The Coyotes don’t have Raanta either these days, but he’ll be back eventually and the emergence of Aiden Hill should give Chayka some options to work with. Winning the lottery would help too, of course, as would finding a Skinner-type on the trade market who’s ready to have a career season.

But the good news is that even in the midst of another disappointing year, the Coyotes have far less ground to make up than last year’s Sabres were facing. It can be done. But staying the course is rarely the way it happens.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic