Thursday, November 14, 2019

Six more active players who’ll make for tricky Hall of Fame debates someday

It’s Hall of Fame Induction weekend, one of my favorite times on the hockey calendar. I love the HHOF, partly because of the history and reverence and celebration of the game’s history. But mostly, because it gives me an excuse to do one of my very favorite things: Argue with strangers about questions that don’t actually have a correct answer.

Hey you, do you feel like arguing? No? Wrong! Of course you do, you dummy. See, it’s fun. We’re having fun right now.

Hall of Fame debates are great fun when they involve the players who are up for induction, or even the ones who are about to be honored. (Guy Carbonneau? Really? OK, as long as we’re sure.) But I’ve never been good at waiting around for an argument to be fully formed, so I also like to occasionally take a swing at some of the active players who’ve been around long enough to establish a career trajectory that may or may not be tracking toward the sport’s ultimate honor.

We did this earlier in the year, when we looked at names like Phil Kessel, Shea Weber and Marc-Andre Fleury. As part of the discussion that followed, plenty of other names were thrown out as equally worthy of consideration. So today, let’s take a look at six more names that are trending toward a tough Hall of Fame call, and where I think they’ll end up.

Brent Burns

Why it’s a tough one: He’s got some pretty decent numbers for a defenseman, although he racked up at least some of them as a forward. He was good in his own end, but probably not great. He was among the very best in the league in his prime, but his prime didn’t kick in until he was almost 30. Also, the beard is either a major plus or a dealbreaker depending on how it looks on any given day.

The case for: Let’s start with the Norris Trophy. Burns has one, from 2017, and the list of players who’ve won the award is almost entirely HHOF guys. And it’s not like he just had one crazy outlier award year – the technical term for that is “a Theodore” – and then went back to being just OK. He’s been a finalist two other times and a postseason all-star three times in all. If your first question for a Hall of Fame candidate is “Were you ever in the conversation for being the best at your position?” Burns is a definite yes.

Beyond that, he’s the leading scorer among defensemen in the cap era, and we all know that offense sells when it comes to the Hall of Fame.

The case against: Those three Norris-caliber seasons all came within a four-year period, so while his peak is high it may not stretch for as long as you’d like. He could extend that this year, and he’s off to a decent start, so we’ll wait and see.

Moreover, he’s an offensive defenseman whose offensive numbers are in the ballpark of the Hall, but only just. If he retired today, a) that would be weird timing, and b) he’d still be 150-200 points behind modern guys like Sergei Zubov, Rob Blake and Scott Niedermayer. That’s fine – he’s got time to bank those points. But he’s not there yet.

Worth remembering: Burns will be remembered as one of the most entertaining characters of his era, which won’t hurt his cause. (It won’t hurt, right? Please tell me we’re not going to hold the occasional smile or joke or naked photoshoot against him.)

Should he get in? I think he’s on track with another Norris-caliber season or two, or with three or four good-but-not-great years to pad his numbers. So at this point, it may be a race against Father Time.

Will he get in? I’d say he needs about 750 points from the blueline to feel like a safe pick, and he’s on pace to get to that mark and maybe even blow by it. But he turns 35 this year, so injury or a major drop in production loom. If I had to bet, I’d say he gets in.

Ilya Kovalchuk

Why it’s a tough one: Because first, based on recent news we may be stretching the definition of “active” here. And more importantly in the big picture, as we’re so often reminded, it’s the Hockey Hall of Fame, not the NHL Hall of Fame. Except that in the era where European players have free access to come over to North America for their pro careers, it’s pretty much been the NHL Hall of Fame.

The case for: He was one of the best offensive wingers in the NHL for over a decade, racking up six straight 40-goal seasons in an era where those were really hard to come by. He won a Richard and had two All-Star nods that came eight years apart and three other years in the top three. So if you’re looking for a guy who was in the “best at his position” conversation, he passes the test. And through 2013, he was easily on pace to hit the major offensive milestones you need for a Hall career.

The case against: Kovalchuk’s departure for the KHL complicates things, because it means his NHL numbers won’t end up where they’d typically need to be. Based on his limited production since his comeback, it’s fair to say that he won’t get to 500 goals or 1,000 points even in the unlikely event he gets another NHL shot. You can take his KHL numbers into account, and you should, because again it’s the Hockey Hall. But how? What’s the conversion rate? It adds a layer of complexity that some voters won’t want to bother wading through for a one-dimensional goal scorer.

Worth remembering: The Hall will have to wrestle with the KHL question with Jaromir Jagr and Pavel Datsyuk before Kovalchuk comes up for a vote. Both of those guys would get in on their NHL years alone, but acknowledging the KHL on Hall of Fame resumes might crack the door ever so slightly for Kovalchuk.

Should he get in? When he left the NHL in 2013, he already had comparable numbers to guys like Pavel Bure and Cam Neely, so you could argue that if he’s blown out his knee instead of just taken a better job somewhere else, he’d be a cinch. I’d be on the fence if I had a vote, but I think I might lean toward yes because I’m more of a high-peak guy than a longevity one.

Will he get in? I don’t think he does. He made his name in a market that doesn’t exist anymore, left the league in a way that made him some enemies and hasn’t done much in a comeback that now seems to be over. Who’s going to stand up in the room on selection day and pound the table for him?

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

I grew up on Coach’s Corner. Don Cherry’s fall has been hard to watch

I can’t believe they actually did it.

News broke Monday afternoon that Don Cherry had been fired from “Hockey Night in Canada,” after Saturday’s comments that singled out immigrants for a lecture on the importance of poppies and patriotism.

Fired. Not gently nudged out to pasture at the end of a season. Not allowed to resign at a time and place of his choosing. No mutual parting of the ways, with friendly well wishes for future endeavors. They actually canned him, after 39 years.

This time, Cherry went too far in a way that he hadn’t before, at least not so brazenly. Or maybe he had, and people like me just weren’t listening closely enough, to him or to the people he was targeting. But as more than a few people said in the aftermath of Saturday’s comments, this time felt different.

Whether his fans want to admit it or not, Saturday’s poppy rant was vintage Cherry. Bigoted and bullying, maybe without even realizing it, or maybe just without caring. Love him or hate him, you can’t say that he changed for the worse. The rest of us did, for the better. Or at least enough of us did that it finally tilted the scales toward the side that plenty of Canadians had been on all along, waiting for the rest of us to catch up. We’ll say that he finally crossed the line, but the truth is the line finally moved beneath him, far enough that he couldn’t get away with it anymore. For all the reasons laid out by Sunaya Sapurji, this was finally the moment where it had to end.

I said as much on Monday. Except I didn’t really. When it came to actually write the words – Don Cherry should be fired – I ducked and dodged. I’ve watched the guy for almost his entire run, and counted myself as a fan for most of it, and being a Cherry guy has always meant knowing when to avert your eyes. So instead, I wrote that it was going to be a tough call, and I was glad I didn’t have to make it.

They made it, and Cherry is gone. At 85 years old and midway through what was probably going to be his final season, he finally went too far.

There are going to be a ton of people, fans and media alike, who are thrilled at the news, because it’s what they’ve wanted for years, maybe decades. There will be others who never really watched Cherry and don’t understand why he ever mattered, but will weigh in anyways because these days that’s what you have to do.

I don’t fall into either category. I grew up watching Cherry, both on “Coach’s Corner” and through his various other outlets. I owned all the tapes. I listened to the radio segments and watched him interview people at his bar. He was the cornerstone of how I came to view the game. Something would happen – a big game, a fight, a trade – and my first instinct would be “I wonder what Grapes is going to say about this.” And then we’d all crowd around the TV and shush each other when it was time to find out.

Sometimes, I’d nod along, or cheer him on. Other times, I’d shake my head, or worse. Occasionally, I’d know it was one of those times to avert my eyes. You get good at it after a while if you let yourself. You might not even realize you’re doing it.

As the years went by, the shake-your-head moments came more frequently. Even the biggest Cherry fan would admit that he’s been coasting on shtick for years. The costumes got sillier, the takes more rambling, the mispronunciations more embarrassing. Occasionally he’d say something especially dumb, and you’d have to figure out if you could come up with a reason why he should still have his platform. It got harder and harder as the years went by. Plenty of one-time fans stopped bothering.

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Monday, November 11, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Early-season surprises slow down, Caps and Blues stay hot and Don Cherry thoughts

If there was a theme to the first months of the season, it was “Wow, the top of the standings are crazy.” We always expect to see a few surprises over the first few weeks, but this year seemed extreme. The Hurricanes were in first place through two weeks, which made some sort of sense because we all figured they’d be decent. But right behind them, we had teams like the Sabres, Oilers and Ducks. Soon enough, the Canucks joined the party too.

Those four teams had missed the postseason by a combined 52 points in 2018-19. And yet here they were, all sporting the kind of records that said they weren’t just playoff teams, but actual contenders. The question was, could it last? Or maybe more accurately, who could it last for?

Well, not the Sabres. They’ve lost five straight (with the last four coming in regulation), including both games in Sweden against the Lightning. Since only the loss against the Caps was a blowout, we’ll hold off on any cliched “same old Sabres” storylines. But after an 8-1-1 start gave them a nice cushion, Buffalo has already dropped all the way out of a playoff spot.

Things aren’t much better for the Sabres’ expansion cousins in Vancouver, where four straight losses have derailed an impressive start. This week should have been an opportunity to bank points against opponents like the Hawks and Devils, but a dynamic offense has suddenly gone cold and left the Canucks teetering on the edge of the wildcard race. That’s not a terrible place for a young team to be; it’s just not where things seemed headed even a week ago.

Then there are the Oilers and Duck, who hooked up last night. Anaheim headed into that one having lost five of eight after a 6-2-0 start, while the Oilers came in having lost six of ten after coming out of the gate 7-1-0. The Oilers rolled in that one, earning a 6-2 win powered by a Connor McDavid hat trick. It was their second straight impressive win, while the Ducks have now lost three straight, and scored two or less in eight of ten.

The Oilers are still in first place in the Pacific, and the other teams mentioned are all still in the thick of the playoff race. You’d have to think that if you asked fans of all four teams before the season if they’d be happy with a first quarter that played out like this, they’d all take it. But it’s a reminder that this is a long season, and sometimes a hot streak to start the year is still just a hot streak. All four of these teams may be better than we thought, but it will take a while to figure it out for sure.

As for the Hurricanes, well, we’ll get to them down below. Let’s move on to this week’s rankings …

Road to the Cup

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

Fair warning: This week’s top five is getting a little East-heavy. That’s not the end of the world and will sort itself out over the course of the season, but it’s going to look a little weird. I’m sorry, but after two weeks the Predators are getting put into timeout because I can’t have anyone on the list in a week where this happens.

Should that mean the Avalanche take their place? Maybe, but after a five-game losing streak, we’ll want to see a bit more before they’re back in the circle of trust. Instead, we’ll welcome a new team to the top five.

5. New York Islanders (12-3-1, +13 true goals differential*) – We said they were close to the top five last week. Since then, the win streak came to an end, thanks to a third-period collapse against the Penguins. But they still got a point in that one and then rebounded nicely on Saturday against the Panthers, and with the Predators surrendering their spot that leaves the Islanders with a solid case to slip in. Now the question is whether they can get any higher, or whether they’ll top out right here just like they did last season.

Time will tell. Next up: John Tavares and the Maple Leafs are in town on Wednesday, which is always fun.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (8-5-2, -1) – Two wins in Sweden means that for once, the Lightning are making it easier instead of harder for me to keep them in the top five. They get a bit of a break and then close out the week with the Rangers and Jets, so there’s some potential for a winning streak heading into a showdown with the Blues in a week. Hey, speaking of whom …

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Friday, November 8, 2019

Grab Bag: Ranking that player survey, broken standings and Mike Keenan attacks a timekeeper

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Breaking down the answers in that ESPN player survey
- The standings were kind of broken all season and nobody noticed until a few days ago
- An obscure player with a brutal nickname
- The week's three comedy stars are swept by two teams
- And a YouTube look back at the pre-replay days, when coaches just ran across the ice to fight the timekeeper

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Puck Soup: Seeds of Doughty

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Alexander Ovechkin and Drew Doughty weigh in on the Leafs, but should we take them seriously?
- Doughty's complaints about his quotes being taken out of context
- The Sharks continue to struggle
- Trying to make sense of the Pacific
- The Islanders' win streak
- Disney's new streaming service
- And far most importantly of all, Ryan finally tries his hand at an ad read

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

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

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A look back at seven defunct NHL awards (and whether we should bring them back)

We’re far enough into the season that we can start having debates about who should win the various awards and trophies, or at least who might be the frontrunners right now. Does Connor McDavid reclaim the Hart or would one of the Bruins’ top forwards have something to say about that? Does John Carlson’s record-breaking offense mean the Norris conversation is already over? Is Barry Trotz going to become the first coach in over 30 years to win back-to-back Jack Adams Trophies? And who exactly is the favorite for the Art Ross, the Presidents’ Trophy and even the Stanley Cup?

Maybe you think it’s too early for all of this. If so, you’re wrong. Awards debates are one of my favorite parts of being a sports fan. I wish there were more of them. And maybe there should be.

After all, while the NHL has plenty of awards today, it used to have more. We’ve seen several come and go over the years. So today, let’s look back at seven awards that the NHL used to give out and try to figure out whether there’s a case to be made for the NHL bringing a few of them back.

The O’Brien Trophy

Awarded to: The Stanley Cup runner-up, among other things.

The O’Brien Trophy has a long and varied history, one that predates the founding of the NHL. It was originally created in 1910 by the National Hockey Association and recognized the league’s champion. The NHL adopted it in 1918 and it was awarded to the league champ back in the days when the Stanley Cup could still be won by teams from other leagues. Once the NHL assumed control of the Cup in 1928, the O’Brien was given to the Canadian team with the most points, before becoming the consolation prize for the Cup final loser from 1939 until 1950, when it was retired for good.

Not seen since: 1950, making the Rangers the last team to earn it.

Should we bring it back?: Absolutely. The O’Brien Trophy was fantastic.

The question is what we use it for. It’s tempting to go with the “best Canadian team” concept, since it would be nice for a Canadian hockey team to be able to win something again.

But I think we have to go with the Cup runner-up idea. Just think about every old person you know who loses their minds over kids getting participation trophies. Now picture them reacting to the news that the NHL would be giving out a trophy for losing in the Cup final. Their heads would explode. So that’s one benefit.

Even better, imagine the team that just lost the Stanley Cup having to skate up and accept a trophy from Gary Bettman right afterwards. You think NHL player are unreasonably reluctant to touch the conference championship trophies? Wait until you see Bettman calling up the losing captain to get the “At Least You Tried” award. Could we even last three years before somebody took a sledgehammer to the thing on live television? We need to find out.

(One possible problem with this idea: The O’Brien Trophy is also the name of basketball’s adorable little knick-knack, which would cause confusion and give the please-like-my-sport people something to be insufferable about. Let’s make a note that we may need to sue the NBA to get them to change the name. We had it first.)

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Monday, November 4, 2019

Hockey nicknames are broken. Here’s how we fix them

The NHL has a rich history of cool nicknames. Classic monikers like The China Wall, Old Poison or the Golden Jet evoke memories of larger than life stars, while memories of legendary moments can be summoned just by mentioning The Rocket, Mr. Hockey, Boom-Boom or, simply, The Great One.

But with a small handful of exceptions, all the sport’s best nicknames are from long ago. These days, star players get half-hearted variations of their last names, if they get anything at all. Nicknames used to matter in hockey, but not anymore. The entire concept is broken.

But we can fix this. And all it will take is five steps. Here’s what we need to do:

Step one: Stop accepting what we have now

Ask around an NHL dressing room over the past few decades and you’ll find out that most players are just referred to by modified versions of their last name. Usually, you just take the first syllable or two of their surname, maybe slap on an “er” or a “y” to the end, and you’re done. Sometimes you don’t even do that much. Jonesy. Kaner. Gio. Alfie. Iggy. Ovi.

Everyone agrees that these are terrible sports nicknames. But everyone is wrong.

No, those aren’t bad sports nicknames, because they’re not sports nicknames at all. They’re abbreviations. If you want to get technical, you could call them diminutive hypocorisms. Terms of affection between friends, in some cases. They’re nicknames, I guess, if only in the broadest possible sense.

But they’re not sports nicknames. Sports nicknames are a special class. They’re supposed to be descriptive, or at least creative. Fun, even. Vaguely interesting, at a bare minimum. (An academic paper by Robert Kennedy and Tania Zamuner calls these kinds of nicknames “Homeric,” which I kind of love because it’s a reference to the poet Homer but also captures that homer sports fan vibe).

The key point is that most modern hockey nicknames aren’t good nicknames because they’re not real nicknames at all. If your last name is Jones and people call you Jonesy, you don’t have a nickname. Yet. But maybe you should.

But first, we have to do something very important …

Step two: Stop asking the players what their nicknames are

Sure, players are terrible at assigning nicknames, at least publicly. Therefore, the whole problem is their fault, right? No. Not at all.

It’s not their fault. It’s ours.

All of us. The media. The fans. We’re the ones who are supposed to be coming up with nicknames. That’s supposed to be our job. But at some point along the way, we all decided to offload it onto the players. And again, they’re terrible at it.

The problem was buried right there in the first sentence of step one. “Ask around an NHL dressing room.” Why are we doing that? Who cares what the players call each other? That’s not where great nicknames come from.

Do you think Georges Vezina’s teammates were calling him “The Chicoutimi Cucumber” when they played cards on the train? Of course not. They probably called him Vezzy. But we don’t know that, because nobody ever asked them, and rightly so. Some old-timey sportswriter came up with The Chicoutimi Cucumber, everyone else went “that’s awesome” and a nickname was born. Vezina himself didn’t get a say. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Back then, you had to rely on a handful of anointed media to come up with creative names, which worked well enough because most of the good ones were drunk at all times. Later, as cable TV and sports talk radio spread, you might occasionally get something generated by fans that was able to break through the filters. But today, in the age of social media, literally anyone can send a thought out into the world and see it gain traction. And sports nicknames are exactly the sort of fun-but-meaningless content that should be thriving on Twitter. We should be living in a golden age of nicknames.

But we’re not. And it’s because literally, nothing good has ever come from Twitter we all got lazy and just decided to ask the players to do it. Shame on us. It’s not their job, it’s ours. Let’s take it back.

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Weekend power rankings: Just how worried should Maple Leafs fans be right now?

Hey, remember a whole month ago when the Maple Leafs getting a shootout win over a non-playoff team wouldn’t have felt like anything noteworthy?

It’s been a rough month for the Leafs, who were hyped as a Cup favorite and instead have mostly looked mediocre. Getting two points out of Saturday’s shootout marathon in Philadelphia will quiet the criticism, but only ever so slightly, because this is Toronto and they don’t really do “quiet.” The Leafs get to be on the front page every time they accomplish anything vaguely positive, so it’s only fair that they get some attention when things are going poorly.

And they are going poorly, at least given expectations. Fifteen games into the season, the Maple Leafs have won seven games and lost eight. That’s not good. They’re on pace for a 93-point season, which also isn’t good for a team that was supposed to be a playoff lock. They’re sitting in the East’s second wild-card spot if you go by points, but if you look at points percentage the Habs pass them for that too. All in all, if you are what your record says you are, the Maple Leafs are just a middling team right now.

So what’s gone wrong? There’s no shortage of candidates. We can start with Frederik Andersen, who hasn’t looked sharp. Special teams are an issue, with the powerplay looking so-so and the penalty kill being downright bad. They’ve had some key injuries, especially to John Tavares. And they’re taking way too many penalties a year after they barely took any.

Then you’ve got the narratives. The Leafs can’t play defense. They can’t defend a lead. They’re not tough enough. They’re tuning out Mike Babcock, because the team threw an unprecedented amount of money at a bunch of kids who aren’t interested in doing the kind of hard work necessary to win the tough ones.

That’s a long list of problems. But if you’re a Leafs fan looking for positivity, you could point out that those narratives all seem a little too convenient, and that most of the real issues seem unlikely to continue. We’ve seen Andersen start slow before, and he always recovers to post the same .918 save percentage he’s had for four straight years, give or take a point. Special teams and penalties can be adjusted. They’re getting healthy, with Travis Dermott already back and Tavares and Zach Hyman on the way. Maybe the last month has just been pretty much the worst-case scenario and even with everything going wrong, the Leafs are still basically a playoff team. If that’s the floor, this team will be fine.

That’s the optimist’s view. And if you’re a Maple Leafs fan who’s good at optimism, well, welcome to your first day here, I guess. For everyone else, it’s time to worry. Or, if you’re a fan of one of the other 30 teams that might like some attention every now and then, time to grab some popcorn and watch the mess unfold.

It will not surprise you to hear that the Maple Leafs are not in this week’s top five. Let’s figure out who should be …

Road to the Cup

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

As we’ve mentioned each week, the idea behind these rankings is to look ahead to who’ll win the Stanley Cup in June, as opposed to who’s playing the best right now. If you’d prefer the latter view, there are other rankings out there, including a group effort from Athletic writers that came out on Friday. That’s the one where you’ll find teams like the Sabres and Islanders ranked ahead of the Lightning, because they’re better at this moment in time. It’s a perfectly valid way to look at things; it’s just not what we’re going for here.

But what if you like the approach we’re taking here, but aren’t sure that I’m getting the rankings right? Is there somewhere else we can look for a quick sanity check?

As it turns out, there is, because there’s another group of people out there who are basically trying to do the same sort of long-term thing: the oddsmakers. Go to any sportsbook or online wagering service and check their Stanley Cup futures odds. That’s pretty much the same idea, albeit with a small degree of variance built in to account for public betting patterns. And unlike me, these are smart people who are putting money on the line.

As luck would have it, we got a look at some updated odds from one company on Friday. Let’s see where things stand:

Click to see the full list and a few interesting things jump out, starting with the Lightning still being ranked with the best Cup odds despite a significant drop since opening night. That’s a little bit of vindication for my insistence on keeping them in my top five – the oddsmakers not only agree, but they’re even more bullish on Tampa Bay than I am.

The rest of the top of the list looks at least a little familiar, although the oddsmakers have come around quicker on teams like the Sabres, Oilers and Islanders. Maybe more surprisingly, they have the Coyotes in that same log jam. (In case you’re wondering, the Predators were accidentally left off the main list that was sent around, but their conference odds place them in that group too.) The Avalanche seem low, although that’s probably factoring in their recent injuries, while the Golden Knights are higher than you might expect.

This is just one set of odds; anyone who was actually going to make a bet would shop around, since different books can vary, sometimes significantly. And it goes without saying that oddsmakers aren’t infallible; they can get it wrong just like the rest of us can. But it’s a data point to consider. And for now, at least, it proves that I’m not the only one left on the planet who hasn’t deserted the Lightning bandwagon. See let’s see where I have them this week …

5. St. Louis Blues (9-3-3, +2 true goals differential*) – It’s not often you can go 4-0-0 and still come out of it feeling like you had a bad week, but that’s where the Blues are at after losing Vladimir Tarasenko until at least March.

Injuries are tricky for these rankings. Our big-picture view means we shouldn’t worry too much about short-term injuries, and even something like Mikko Rantanen being out for several weeks isn’t a game-changer, as long as he’s back for the playoffs. Still, I’m slotting the Blues into the last spot instead of the Avs, even though it’s very possible we don’t see Tarasenko again at all this year.

Maybe that’s the wrong call. But I’m making it, partly because it’s too early to assume the very worst-case scenario here, and partly because Doug Armstrong is so clearly in a win-now mode that a move to replace his star seems likely. But it’s a situation worth watching, as the Central feels very volatile right now.

4. Nashville Predators (8-4-2, +13) – Speaking of the Central, we’ll keep the Predators in the top five by virtue of being the only contender that’s still running at close to full power, even though they’ve lost two straight.

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Friday, November 1, 2019

Grab Bag: The Svechnikov debate, who’ll survive the curse of November 1st and sexy Joel Quenneville

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The Curse of November 1st is here, and this year there are an amazing 12 teams that are already four points out of the playoffs. Which ones have the best chance to make it?
- Debating that Andrei Svechnikov lacrosse goal
- An obscure player who was part of one of the weirdest drafts any team ever had
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the thoughts and ambitions of 20-year-old Joel Quenneville

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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Get ready for Halloween with this team full of the NHL’s scariest starts

It’s Halloween tomorrow. Do you have a scary costume?

If not, don’t worry. I’ve got you covered. If you want to frighten anyone this week, all you’ll need is an NHL jersey, a hockey stick and a stats sheet to point at. Other props are optional, although you might want to invest in accessories like hands of stone, a turnstile or a great big goose egg.

Yes, it’s time for our annual tribute to the league’s scariest starts, where we build an entire roster out of some of the biggest names having the ugliest Octobers we can find. Some of these are bad signs for the rest of the year. Most of them will be forgotten by mid-November. We’ll try to figure out which is which as we go, but in the meantime, you can get into the Halloween spirit by yelling “Boo!” at each guy. It probably won’t be the first time this year that they’ve heard it.


The player: Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks

The start: On the heels of a career year at the age of 30, the Hawks’ captain has managed just two points on the season so far. We already had our first wave of “Is Toews breaking out of his slump?” stories two weeks ago; since then he’s been pointless in six.

Odds it ends well: Toews will get going offensively at some point. But for now, at least, last year’s 81-point season is looking like an aberration for a player who’d been in the 50-something range for the three years before that. That’s not good news for a Hawks team that needs all the help it can get these days.

The player: Sebastian Aho, Hurricanes

The start: Three goals and three assists through a dozen games, with only one of those goals coming against an actual goaltender. To put that in historical context, it’s the worst start in six years for a player who had just signed an offer sheet.

Odds it ends well: Aho’s been heating up lately, or at least getting back to lukewarm. He had that first real goal on Thursday and followed that up with his first multi-point game of the season on Saturday. He can be his own toughest critic, so once he gets a few more solid games under him, he could take off.

The player: Taylor Hall, Devils

The start: On the bright side, Hall is the only player on this roster who is also his team’s leading scorer. On the not-so-bright side, he has just seven points and, well, (gestures at the Devils’ entire season). We could just as easily go with fellow forwards like Jack Hughes or Nikita Gusev, since they’re underperforming Hall. But with apologies to the all-about-the-team narratives, the former MVP has a lot more on the line than his younger teammates. With an extension or unrestricted free agency on the horizon, this isn’t a great time to be sitting with just one goal in the first month.

Odds it ends well: Hall is still generating a ton of shots, and has somehow managed six assists, which doesn’t sound impressive until you realize the Devils are dead last in scoring with just 22 goals on the season. He’s doing his part, even if the numbers don’t look great. The question now is whether he’ll finish the season still doing it for the Devils.

The player: Kaapo Kakko, Rangers

The start: He has just two goals and an assist, is getting caved in on possession and has been on the ice for just one even-strength goal for vs. eleven against. Other than that, things are going great.

Odds it ends well: I think we’ve seen enough to know the kid is a bust. (He’s 18, he’ll be fine.)

The player: Joe Pavelski, Stars

The start: Six points in 14 games for one of the biggest UFA signings of the offseason, half of which came last night. Maybe more concerning, his shots rate has dropped by over a shot-per-game compared to his last few seasons.

Odds it ends well: The shots rate is a concern for sure. But I think we can give Pavelski a bit of a break here; after 16 years and thirteen NHL seasons with the same organization, a bit of an adjustment period after switching teams for the first time seems reasonable. Now if only he could play the Wild every night …

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Puck Soup: Ray of sunshine

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Jonathan Toews has an idea for a new type of schedule and you'll either hate it or think it's brilliant
- What happens when you play an overtime game and nobody notices?
- The Vladimir Tarasenko injury is not good
- Some big names get the healthy scratch treatment
- What comes next for women's hockey?
- An interview with Ray Ratto
- Some pop culture crap I think, I wasn't listening
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

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

Monday, October 28, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Checking in with the teams stuck in NHL’s mushy middle

We’re four weeks into the season, which means it’s officially Still Early. As you’d expect, the rankings are still in flux; you’re going to find two new teams in the top five this week, including a brand new No. 1.

All told, there have already been nine different teams that have shown up in the top five at least once so far, and six that have been in the bottom five. In addition to those teams, there have six more teams that have at least been close enough to earn a spotlight in the “not ranked” section. Add it all up, and that gives us 21 teams that have been worth a mention so far, either at the top or the bottom.

But what about the ten remaining teams, the ones that are just kind of floating around in the middle? The dogs that haven’t barked, so to speak. The nature of these rankings means that we don’t talk about them much, but it’s worthwhile to occasionally check-in, if only because being in the mushy middle can mean different things for different teams.

For some teams, being in the middle of the pack is just fine — that gets you into the wildcard race, and some teams would consider that a success. I think you could count three of our ten middle teams in that group, with young teams in Anaheim, Arizona and Vancouver all feeling reasonably good about hovering around the playoff conversation. I’m not as sure about the Flyers, but I think they can probably count the first ten games as at least a moderate success.

Then you’ve got the teams that are having good seasons and are close to breaking into that top-five conversation. I’d count the Malkin-less Penguins and (especially) the Islanders in that group.

That leaves us with four teams who are interesting because they may not feel as good about their middle-of-the-pack status. Let’s start with the Panthers, who came into the season with heightened expectations after an offseason spending spree. They’ve lost more than they’ve won, but have been good at getting the game into overtime and have a league-leading four loser points to show for it. Joel Quenneville has been keeping things positive, and wins like yesterday’s over the Oilers will help in that regard, but he needs Sergei Bobrovsky to start looking like the star his contract says he is.

The Jets are sitting at an even 6-6-0, which is disappointing based on their last few seasons, but maybe not so much given how the blue line looked coming into opening night. So much here rests on whether Dustin Byfuglien comes back, and the signals continue to be mixed on that one. Up front, the scoring has been almost too balanced, with five players with either three or four goals but nobody with any more than that, so having somebody heat up might go a long way.

The Montreal Canadiens have picked up right where they left off last year, which is to say just on the outside of the Eastern wildcard race. They’ve been consistently average all year, never winning or losing more than two straight. We know they can stack up with good teams – they’ve already beaten the Blues twice, and Saturday night was their second big third-period explosion of the month against the Leafs. The question is whether they can put it together long enough to be more than mediocre. For what it’s worth, the Habs were one of only four teams that went all last year without making the top or bottom five, so this is becoming a trend.

And then there’s maybe the most interesting team on the list of ranking no-shows: The Calgary Flames. It’s easy enough to forget now, but this was one of only two 50-win teams in the entire NHL last year. A little regression wasn’t hard to anticipate, but so far Calgary has been decidedly average. They’ve won just six of thirteen, requiring a shootout for two of those victories, and have been alternating wins and losses over their last half-dozen games. There isn’t an obvious goat here; pretty much everyone on the team is putting up numbers that range from about what you’d expect to maybe just slightly below. It’s a team-wide “meh.” Bill Peters has tried shaking things up, throwing all four lines in a blender before Saturday’s game, with mixed results.

There’s plenty of time to figure it out in the Pacific, especially with the Sharks struggling and the Knights cooling off. But of all the teams you thought we’d have heard more from by now, the Flames are the most conspicuous by their absence.

Road to the Cup

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

We had our first outdoor game of the year, one that we certainly all knew was coming and we’re very excited for. All in all, the event was a success, with a fun crowd, good ice and an entertaining game that saw the Jets beat the Flames in overtime.

I realize that there are plenty of fans out there that are just all outdoored out, with the novelty pretty much having worn off. I’m not quite there yet, and it was cool to see fans in Regina get a chance to host. But please, NHL: three of these a year is more than enough.

5. Nashville Predators (7-3-1, +12 true goals differential*) – The Predators are the first of two debuts in this week’s top five, and I’ll be honest when I say I’m still having trouble figuring them out. Their first 11 games have been downright weird – they’ve lost to the Kings and Red Wings, but have beaten the Lightning, Knights and Capitals. Overall, their schedule hasn’t been especially tough and it’s also been home-heavy, two trends that continue this week with the Hawks, Flames and Rangers coming to town. It’s at least possible that the Predators’ record is flattering them a bit, but with few of the other preseason contenders really standing out, we’ll slip them onto the list for one week at least.

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Friday, October 25, 2019

Puck Soup: Death to the shootout

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- John Tortorella is tired of the shootout and he's right
- John Carlson is good
- David Pastrnak is crazy good
- When is it OK to text after a big hit or a fight?
- Mikko Rantanen's leg is not supposed to bend that way
- A dumb Star Wars quiz that goes exactly as well for me as you'd think

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

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

Grab Bag: Second outdoor games, screwy schedules, and the legend of Allan Bester

In the Friday Grab Bag

- Which team should be next up to get a second outdoor game?
- The standings are already messed up by games in hand and it's weird
- An obscure player that will be familiar to longtime readers
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube back at teenage heartthrob Allan Bester

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A guide to the fun but confusing world of watching decades-old NHL footage on YouTube

I spend way too much time watching clips of NHL action from decades past.

You probably already figured that out, especially if you’re a reader of the Friday Grab Bag and its weekly way-too-detailed delve into the archives. Maybe the book about NHL history tipped you off. If we’ve ever spoken in person, you may have noticed my ability to steer literally any given topic of conversation into a reference to a mid-80s NHL game within minutes. I’m told that my wife has.

The point is that I’ll often find myself making what I think will be a quick trip over to YouTube to grab a recent highlight or rewatch a play that’s in the news. Next thing I know, an hour has gone by, I’ve forgotten what I came there for in the first place, and I’m watching some dude’s grainy recording of a Jets/Oilers game from 1987. If you’ve got a rip of a novelty VHS blooper tape from 1991, I’m in. I’ve watched the “All Heart” montage so many times that I recently heard Hero of the Day on the radio and got legitimately confused when Bob Cole and Joe Bowen didn’t start calling goals during the guitar solo.

And I regret nothing. It’s great, and I highly recommend it. I’m not going to be some grumpy old guy who lectures you about how hockey was more fun back in the old days. I absolutely do believe that and I’m right, but I won’t lecture you about it. I’m simply going to suggest that you occasionally take the time to head over to YouTube, type “NHL” and a long-ago year into the search bar and start clicking through whatever random offerings come up.

But when you do, be prepared. If you’re not used to the old NHL, you’re going to see and hear some things that will be strange. So today, let me walk you through 10 differences you’ll notice when you watch old school NHL footage. And just for fun, let’s even try to figure out if there’s anything we should be bringing back.

The occasional epic coach meltdowns

What you’ll notice: NHL coaches have always been a disagreeable bunch. That’s still true today, with guys like John Tortorella, Joel Quenneville and Bruce Boudreau carrying on the tradition of hotheaded antics behind the bench.

Well … kind of. Because while today’s coaches will occasionally yell and flail their arms and (maybe) grab their crotch, they really can’t hold a candle to the old school. These guys did not hold back.

Oh, your coach threw a fit? Robbie Ftorek threw a bench. Your coach gave the other team a mean look? Herb Brooks and Jacques Demers started tossing haymakers. Your coach angrily demanded a replay review? How adorable. Here’s Mike Keenan jumping on the ice and trying to fight the timekeeper.

And we didn’t even mention the time Tom Webster punched Doug Gilmour, which wasn’t even the craziest thing he ever did. And if there wasn’t an opponent or a referee around, old school coaches would just attack their own players.

NHL coaches used to be completely insane, is what I’m trying to say.

Should we bring it back: Are you crazy? Of course we should. This stuff was amazing. I’m not sure how we could go about mandating at least one epic meltdown per season for every NHL coach, but let’s look into it. Or at least make somebody rehire Patrick Roy.

Faceoffs in random locations

What you’ll notice: These days, faceoffs can only happen in nine places on the ice – the two circles in either zone, the two dots outside either blueline or at center ice. But up until 2007, faceoffs could also be held elsewhere under certain circumstances. If a puck was shot out of play, for example, the faceoff would take place wherever it had last been touched (with some restrictions).

So when you’re watching an old game, you’ll occasionally see the teams line up for a faceoff at some seemingly random spot. And your modern-NHL-fan brain goes “Uh, that’s not right.”

Should we bring it back: Yes, if only for how much confusion it would cause among younger fans. I’ll go even further: I think we should bring this back, but limit it to one random faceoff location per game. Make it the linesmen’s choice. Consider it a small measure of payback for making their lives miserable with the stupid offside review.

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Monday, October 21, 2019

Weekend rankings: Every slow starter wants to be this year’s Blues. What if you’re already worse?

When can we look at the standings and say, with some reasonable degree of confidence, that a given team is going to be good or bad? Or more specifically, that their 2019-20 season is going to be good or bad, regardless of what their true talent might look like?

When it comes to the good side of the spectrum, we run into some obvious problems. Injuries, for one. Take any team in the modern salary cap era, then have an injury take their starting goaltender away. They’ll get worse very quickly, and probably a lot worse. The same is often true for their best skater. With maybe a handful of exceptions, even the very best teams are a torn ACL away from seeing it all crumble.

And of course, we know that even the most uninspiring teams can get hot for a few weeks – remember last year’s Sabres, or the 2016-17 Flyers, both of whom won ten straight during the season. Were they good? For a few weeks, sure, but not beyond that. When it comes to definitively slapping an “elite” label on a team, we can all agree that we need to see more than a few weeks. Sorry, Oilers, Sabres and Ducks.

But what about the bad teams? If a team looks terrible right out of the gate, how long before we can write them off? October? November?

It’s tempting to say that the answer is “never,” or at least, “not until the second half,” and we all know why. Last year’s Blues won the Stanley Cup despite an awful start. In fact, as you’ve no doubt read roughly a hundred times by now, they were dead last in the entire league last January. If they can come all the way back from that, anyone can, right?

Well, maybe. But here’s the dirty little secret of last year’s Blues that rarely gets talked about. (Lowers voice and looks around nervously for the narrative police.) They weren’t that bad.

I mean, they were bad. I had them pegged as one of the league’s five worst teams in this very column, more than once. But after they turned things around, emerged as contenders and eventually won the Cup, just the tiniest bit of revisionist history has kicked in over just how bad the Blues’ first half really was. For example, that stat about them being dead last? It’s true – they were indeed dead last on the morning of January 3. But only in total points, with 34, and largely because they’d played just 37 games. That same day, the Kings had 35 points in 41 games. So did the Senators. The Hawks had 36 points in 42, the Flyers had 35 in 39, the Coyotes had 36 in 40 and the Wings had 37 in 42. In terms of points percentage, the Blues were ahead of all of them. Even at their lowest point, the Blues were arguably better than six other teams, based purely on their record.

Let’s look at it another way. Because this stupid league has a stupid rule that gives out a stupid loser point for overtime and shootout losses, we can’t just rely on wins and losses anymore. So let’s look at points percentage. Guess how many games below .500 last year’s Blues got at their very worst. The answer: four. They were 8-12-3 in late November and 9-13-4 in early December. That was it. As much as you’ve heard about the terrible first-half, the Blues were never more than a four-game win streak from getting back to .500. That’s still a decent gap, and .500 doesn’t even get you into the playoffs, but at least you can tell yourself that you’re just one good week away from being back on even ground.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild have both been five games or more under .500 already, not even three weeks into the season. So if you’re pointing at the Blues and saying “you never know” because you’re a fan and/or the coach of one of those teams, well, know that you’ve already dug yourself into a hole that’s deeper than the Blues’ lowest point last year. Just three weeks in. (And the Senators could join them tonight.)

Does that mean we can write those teams off? No. We’ve seen teams get off to truly terrible starts and still have time to recover. But it’s rare – in terms of a truly awful first few weeks that were followed by a strong recovery, it’s basically the 2015-16 Ducks and then you have to go back to the pre-Cup era. The Stars and Wild and Senators aren’t done yet, or even any time soon. But they’re closer than you might think.

Well, that was depressing. Let’s brighten the mood by talking about the good teams.

Road to the Cup

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

Worth reading if you missed it over the weekend: The story of Erik and Melinda Karlsson welcoming their newborn daughter into the world.

5. Carolina Hurricanes (6-3-0, +4 true goals differential*) – They’ve come back to earth a bit, losing three of four and putting up some uninspiring performances during their west coast trip. They’ve got nearly a week off to get right; we won’t seem them again until Thursday.

In the meantime, check out this interesting interview with Hurricanes’ VP of Strategy Eric Tulsky.

4. Vegas Golden Knights (6-3-0, +10) – They’ve won four of five, including an impressive road shutout over the red-hot Penguins on Saturday. Now about all that cheating

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Friday, October 18, 2019

Grab Bag: Coaches on the hot seat, when refs don’t suck and teenage Joe Sakic rides a bicycle with one leg

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A look at some of the coaches around the league who could be on the hot seat
- Everybody needs to ease up on the "Ref you suck" chant
- An obscure player who has nothing to do with politics
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at teenage rookie Joe Sakic, who can ride a stationary bike with one leg

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Puck Soup: Rock Bottom

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We look at the terrible starts in New Jersey, Dallas and Minnesota and which ones might be for real
- The Oilers keep rolling
- The Donald Brashear story
- Jim Hughson's apology
- A soccer star tries his hand at hockey
- Is there a goaltending controversy in Washington?
- We run down all of this year's nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The 10 types of bad starts to an NHL season (and which one your team is having)

We’re now two weeks into the season. How’s your team doing?

We asked that question one week ago, as part of a post that was all about optimism. Bad starts aren’t always fatal. Some teams recover just fine. There’s a chance that everything will turn out OK.

But that was a whole week ago. We were all so young and full of hope back then. Now that we’re two weeks in, any teams that are still underachieving might be wondering if it’s time to start panicking. And the answer is yeah, it might be.

But like any bad situation, the first step is to figure out what we’re dealing with. Not all bad starts are created equal, after all. Today, let’s get those struggling teams into triage, as we work our way through ten types of bad starts to an NHL season.

The “Maybe we should have seen this coming” bad start

What happens: A team that isn’t very good suddenly stumbles into some optimism. Maybe they add a player or two during the offseason, maybe it’s a new coach, or maybe it’s just one of those weird cases of collective amnesia that fans sometimes get. Either way, everyone decides that the team is good now. Then the season starts, and it turns out they are not.

The outlook: These starts are never fun, and they can lead to the sort of overreactions that set a franchise back. But under the right circumstances, they can be a positive – the sort of wakeup call that a team might need, or at least a reminder of the work still left to do on the long road ahead.

Historical precedent: Coming off a lackluster 81-point season, the 2011-12 Blue Jackets loaded up for a quick turnaround. Rather than go full rebuild by trading Rick Nash, they swung a blockbuster trade to get him a top center in Jeff Carter. They also added James Wisniewski to shore up the blue line and welcomed rookie Ryan Johansen as a Calder contender. With a significantly increased payroll and plenty of pressure to make the playoffs, it felt like better times were ahead. Then they lost their first eight games and thirteen of their first fifteen on their way to finishing dead last. Oops.

Potential current example: The Devils. They had a great offseason, and that led to some justified optimism. But this was still a team coming off a 72-point season with an unproven coach and unsettled goaltending situation. Lining up for playoff tickets might have been premature.

The “Everybody Hurts” bad start

What happens: On paper, the lineup should be decent. But we haven’t seen it yet, because several players are out with injury. We can’t say what the real lineup can do, because we haven’t had a chance to see it yet.

The outlook: It all depends on what sort of injuries we’re talking about. If the star goalie or leading scorer has a torn ACL, well, better luck next year. But if it’s just a case of a few key guys being banged up, there’s at least some room for optimism once everyone is healthy – as long as you haven’t already fallen out of the race by then.

Historical precedent: After years of rebuilding, the 2016-17 Sabres went into the season hoping to contend for a playoff spot. But Jack Eichel suffered a high-ankle sprain the day before the season and Evander Kane went down with a rib injury in the opener. With Kyle Okposo missing time with a knee injury and Ryan O’Reilly playing through back spasms, the Sabres limped out of the gate with one win in their first six games and were dead last in the Atlantic by the time Eichel returned in late November.

Potential current example: The Stars. While their very best players have been healthy, they’ve been missing at least a few guys just about every night. They lost three players in the season opener, including Roman Polak being stretchered off, and are still waiting on Corey Perry to make his debut. And while it’s not an injury, Julius Honka isn’t there either. Those absences haven’t been the team’s only problem – that list is a long one – but they sure haven’t helped.

The “Critical flaw exposed” bad start

What happens: A team heads into the season feeling pretty good about themselves, aside from one nagging doubt. It could be weak goaltending, or a lack of a game-breaker up front, or a blue line that keeps springing a leak at the worst possible time. You’re left to wonder whether that one flaw is going to spell doom yet again. Soon the hockey gods answer: Yep, it sure is, and you were right to worry.

The outlook: A lot of this depends on just how big of a flaw we’re talking about, and how easy it is to fix. If goaltending is the issue, is there a prospect ready to come up and save the day? If the offense is missing a piece, can it be added through a trade? If there’s an answer out there, and the GM is willing to be aggressive in finding it, there may be hope.

Historical precedent: We could use last year’s Blues for a bunch of these, but they fit especially well here. Heading into the season, everyone figured they were at least borderline contenders. But all of that optimism came with a caveat: They needed a solid year from Jake Allen. Not necessarily a great one. Just decent. They didn’t get it, to the tune of a 3.99 GAA in October. Everything fell apart, people lost their jobs, and the next thing you know they had a former ECHL guy in net. I can’t remember what happened next, it probably wasn’t important.

Potential current example: Their start hasn’t been as bad as some of the other teams we’ll get to, but the Maple Leafs’ shaky play in their own zone keeps popping up at the worst possible times. If Mike Babcock hasn’t been able to fix it by now, you wonder if he ever will.

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Monday, October 14, 2019

Weekend rankings: The standings don’t make any sense right now and it’s great

Man, the top of the standings look super-weird right now.

The Hurricanes’ monster start is a surprise, but not a jaw-dropping one. Plenty of experts liked the Canes a lot heading into the season, and while they couldn’t stay perfect forever, Saturday’s loss to Columbus shouldn’t do much to diminish a strong start. They didn’t make the top five last week, but their case is stronger this time. I’ll keep you in suspense for another few paragraphs over whether they made the cut, but at this point, I think everyone would agree that they’re a very good team. Seeing them push for first overall is unexpected, maybe, but it doesn’t feel crazy.

But beyond that … whew. The Oilers are 5-0-0. The Sabres are right behind them at 4-0-1. The Ducks are 4-1-0. Those are teams that virtually everyone had missing the playoffs, if not finishing in the bottom five. And they’re all rolling. What’s going on?

We could come up with a simplistic answer to that question for each team – the Ducks might have the best goalie in the league, the Sabres are responding to Ralph Krueger, the Oilers are shooting the light outs and crushing it on the powerplay, etc. But in the bigger picture, the answer is a more straightforward one: This is the modern NHL. Parity reigns. Anything can happen, and over a small enough sample size, it probably will.

We saw this last year in the first round of the playoffs, where just about every series featured either an upset or some crazy turn of events (or both). At the time, I wondered whether or not that level of unpredictability bordering on randomness was actually a good thing. It ended up being one of the most controversial takes I’ve ever had, with many of you agreeing that there was such a thing as too much parity and others making it clear that they thought all the chaos made for fantastic entertainment.

Are we just having the same debate here? No, actually. That’s the beauty of October. It’s pandemonium, sure, but there are still five months to sort it all out. If a great team has one bad week in April and it costs them their season, that sucks. Or it’s great, depending on your perspective. But it matters, a lot. October? Not so much. It matters a little, sure, but there’s a ton of time to get back to equilibrium, whatever that ends up being.

And no, it almost certainly won’t involve all of the Oilers, Sabres and Ducks being the best teams in the league. That’s why they’re not in the top five this week, and probably won’t be any time soon. Maybe they’ll earn their way in eventually, but it could take a while. Or a week. You never really know with October.

But in the meantime, enjoy the chaos. It’s early. This is the fun* part.

(*Fun does not apply to Minnesota Wild fans.)

Road to the Cup

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

Let’s use this spot to do the mandatory “it’s still early” warning, only because if we don’t, then a flood of commenters will take care of it for us. We’re less than two weeks into the season and we’re far from the point where we can know anything for sure.

For example, here’s what the standings looked like on the second Monday morning of last season. The only two teams that hadn’t lost in regulation were the Devils and the Blackhawks; neither made the playoffs. The year’s biggest surprise team, the Islanders, were sitting at a pedestrian 2-2-0. Anaheim was leading the Pacific, while the Blues were last in the Central.

A few teams were trying to tell us something – Carolina was second overall, just like they are today – but if you’d just taken the entire standings page and tossed it into the fireplace, you wouldn’t have missed much.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work with what we have in front of us right now. It’s just your weekly reminder that so far, we don’t have very much to work with.

The good news is we cleared up that whole “too many Atlantic teams in the top five” problem for this week, at least. Let’s get to that.

5. Carolina Hurricanes (5-1-0, +7 true goals differential*) – So yes, the Hurricanes do indeed crack the top five, although based on the feedback from their fans last week I’m guessing this won’t be high enough. A reminder that these rankings aren’t meant as a snapshot of what’s happening right now, but rather who’s most likely to be left standing at the end of the year. That’s why you won’t see teams like the Oilers, Sabres or Ducks here, despite their excellent starts. And it’s why the Hurricanes aren’t leap-frogging preseason favorites like the Lightning based on a few games. In the big picture, they’re not the Cup favorites. Not yet.

But they are very good; this isn’t a case of a team being flattered by their record. They’ve pretty much picked up where they left off in the playoffs (non-Bruins edition), with very good possession numbers, balanced scoring, strong performances from key guys like Dougie Hamilton and sophomore Andrei Svechnikov and goaltending that’s good enough to win with but not so good that you chalk the whole thing up to a temporary hot streak.

They’ve been a complete package so far. They’ve earned this spot, and the way they’re looking, they might keep climbing.

4. Colorado Avalanche (4-0-0, +7) – Our second new entry to the top five, as the rough weeks for the Maple Leafs and Golden Knights clear out a couple of spots. The Avs slide in on the strength of a perfect start that includes an impressive win over the Bruins. Things get interesting now, with a six-game road trip starting tonight in Washington that also includes the Lightning, Blues and Knights. That’s a real tough test, and I’m not moving the Avs any higher than this until they’ve passed it.

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Friday, October 11, 2019

Grab Bag: Player vs. player rivalries, goalpost trust issues and a Brett Hull slapshot to the groin

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- We need more rivalries like Doughty/Tkachuk and I have an idea on how we can get them
- Please tell me I'm not the only one developing trust issues when shots hit the post
- An obscure player who knew how to put on a show
- The week's three comedy stars
- And happier time for the San Jose Sharks (their goalie taking a slapshot to the pills)

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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Puck Soup: What's real and what's not after one week

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Doughty/Tkachuk rivalry doesn't disappoint
- James Neal cannot be stopped
- One week in, which surprising starts are for real and which will be forgotten
- An interview with Julie Stewart-Binks
- Batman villain talk
- I give the boys a quiz on NHL team leaderboards
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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

A brief history of NHL teams getting off to terrible starts that ultimately didn’t matter at all

We’re one week into the NHL season. How’s your team doing?

If you’re a fan of someone like the Hurricanes, Blues or Bruins you’re probably in a pretty good mood. Even fans of supposedly bad teams like the Oilers, Ducks and Sabres are feeling OK so far. All those teams are off to strong starts, the kind that inspire plenty of confidence and maybe even generate a little self-fulfilling “we can do this” momentum. At the very least, those October points count just as much as the ones in March and April and it’s nice to get a few in the bank.

But what if your team is off to a rough start? They might still be winless, or already a few points out of a playoff spot. Maybe they’ve already had a loss that was so bad, so embarrassing, that it made you start asking tough questions. Maybe they’re the Sharks and it’s all of the above. What happens when the season has just started and every warning light on the dashboard is already flashing?

Are you screwed?

Well … yeah, maybe. You definitely could be. Recent history is filled with teams that came into a season with high expectations, stumbled out of the gate and never recovered. Heck, the Coyotes do it pretty much every year. In this age of parity, where three-quarters of the league finishes over .500 and the mushy middle accounts for roughly 20 teams, even a bad week or two can make the difference between the playoffs and the lottery. Mix in the sort of bad vibes and occasional panic decisions that a slow start can generate and there’s every reason to be worried.

So yeah, if your team has looked bad, they might absolutely be screwed. But maybe not, because while we’ve seen plenty of teams start poorly and never recover, that’s hardly a guarantee. Remember, last year opened with the Bruins losing 7-0 and the Blues dropping five of six and eight months later they were playing for the Stanley Cup. Sometimes a good team just starts slow, shrugs it off and gets back to playing at a high level. And in those cases, we often don’t even remember how the first few weeks went.

So today, let’s offer up some optimism for those fans who are watching their teams flatline early, by looking back through history at a half-dozen examples of terrible starts that turned out not to matter at all. Whether it was an embarrassing early performance, an immediate losing streak or even a rotten October start-to-finish, these teams gave us plenty of reason to worry. Then they figured it out, rolled through the rest of the year, and all was forgiven.

Could your struggling team enjoy the same sort of turnaround, or at least flip their seasons into something positive? Maybe. And at this point, for some teams, “maybe” will have to do. Let’s crack open those history books …

The 2015-16 Anaheim Ducks

The team: The Ducks were entering their fourth full season with Bruce Boudreau behind the bench and had already won three straight Pacific titles. They were the heavy favorites to capture another, coming off a 109-point season and a trip to the conference final. With a strong mix of youth and veterans and a top-tier goaltending tandem of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, the bigger question was whether they could go further and maybe even win the franchise’s second Stanley Cup.

The bad start: Their first four games were a nightmare, as the Ducks only scored one goal on the way to four straight losses. They snapped the streak with a home win over the Wild, but then lost five more. Ten games into the season, they had one win, just 10 goals, and had already been shutout five times. And on top of all that, an appendectomy had just taken Ryan Getzlaf out of the lineup.

The easy narrative: The window had closed, Boudreau had lost the room and it was time to fire everyone and tear down the roster.

Sample reaction: “While the Ducks are off to a horrendous 1-7-2 start as they prepare to face the Nashville Predators Sunday, many around the league are starting to wonder if (GM Bob) Murray himself will take the fall for this awful first month because, after all, he’s the architect of this mess.” – From the Ottawa Sun on Oct. 31, 2015.

But then: Despite the rumor mill, Murray didn’t end up doing much of anything at all. The Ducks eased the pressure by rolling off four straight wins, starting on the road back to respectability. It was a slow climb, and they went into the Christmas break having won just 12 of 33 games. But they caught fire the rest of the way and eventually passed the Kings to take yet another division title by a single point on the season’s final night.

How it all ended: The Ducks didn’t exactly get the happy ending their second half seemed to be building to. That first-place finish earned them an opening round matchup with the Predators, who pulled off a seven-game upset that cost Boudreau his job. Still, based on where they were at the end of October, even being in a position to be upset in the first round was pretty amazing.

They could be inspiration for: The Sharks. Just like those Ducks, this year’s Sharks went from Pacific favorites to looking old and washed up almost overnight. They’re not a perfect team, and they certainly don’t have that Ducks team’s elite goaltending. But it’s a long season, and talent tends to win out over time. That’s worth remembering if you’re a Stars fan too.

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Monday, October 7, 2019

Weekend power rankings: It’s way too early but we’re doing this anyway

Welcome back to the Weekend Power Rankings. I hope you all had a great summer and came back well-rested and ready to debate some NHL rankings. Grab a seat and get comfortable, and we’ll get started by … OK, I see a lot of hands waving out there. Is there a question you’d like to ask?

Why yes, it is way too early for this. Thanks for pointing that out.

It’s admittedly kind of silly to be doing power rankings when the season is less than a week old and some teams have only played one game. That’s part of the fun. The first few days of the season are chaos, and there are always plenty of results that, in hindsight, mean absolutely nothing. Last year, the Bruins lost their first game 7-0, then came within a win of the Stanley Cup. The year before that, the Blackhawks flexed on everyone by crushing the defending champs 10-1, then missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade while finishing dead last in their division. October likes to lie to us.

In fact, it can be tempting to say that we should just ignore all of it. But that’s not quite right, because even in the very earliest days of a season, certain truths are starting to emerge. For example, the first two weeks of last year suggested that the Knights were bad and the Ducks were good, which was wrong. But it also told us that the Panthers and Coyotes could be in trouble and that the Hurricanes might finally be for real. There’s always a little bit of signal buried in all the noise. We just have to find it.

But first, an important reminder about what exactly these rankings are trying to do. Unlike most power rankings you might read, the idea here is not to capture a snapshot of who’s playing well right now. Instead, we’re looking at the big picture and trying to predict who’s ultimately going to win the Stanley Cup, and which teams will finish in the running for dead last. If your favorite team beat the Lightning last week, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean they automatically move past them in the rankings. The question here isn’t “Who had the best week?” or even “Who would be the favorite if the playoffs started right now?” We’re thinking long term.

For our purposes this week, that long-term view means a few things. We won’t see the sort of wild swings you might see from other rankings, where a surprise hot start can vault a team straight to the top of the list. This week’s rankings will look an awful lot like the preseason projections since a few games shouldn’t change our views of the top (and bottom) teams all that much.

While you won’t see any overreactions, that doesn’t mean no reactions at all, because even with only a few games to work with, we already know a little bit more about the 2019-20 season than we did a week ago. Let’s get started on trying to figure this out.

Road to the Cup

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

Goal of the week honors goes to Blake Coleman, who turned a rough night into a spot on the highlight reels.

That also gives us a chance to talk about the Jets, who roared back to win that game. It always feels a little bit silly to try to spin October games as must-wins or crucial moments or whatever, but with the Jets losing again last night and narrowly avoiding a winless start that we’d all overreact to, Friday’s turnaround did feel a bit like the sort of thing we look back on months later as being important.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (2-0-1, +5 true goals differential*) – Regular readers will know that last year’s rankings fought a season-long battle over the Atlantic Division heavyweights and whether it made sense to include three teams from the same division as elite Cup contenders when only two could even make the second round. You may be wondering if I managed to solve that problem over the offseason. The answer: No, I did not. Sorry. I had all summer to think of it.

Anyway, through three games the Leafs have looked a lot like what we all expected: A ridiculously talented offensive force that can blow opponents out of the water with skill but will also occasionally cost themselves points by forgetting how to play defense. Saturday’s third-period collapse against the Canadiens was maybe somewhat understandable – the old tired team traveling to play a rested one trap – but it was still comical. Let’s all point and laugh at Kasperi Kapanen’s brain cramp:

4. St. Louis Blues (1-0-1, even) – Here’s a fun fact: The 2019 champs never appeared in the top five of last year’s rankings, but did show up in the bottom five on a few occasions. OK, maybe that’s less “fun” and more “embarrassing.”

Or is it? After all, as we’ve all heard a hundred times by now, the Blues were in dead last in January. And even after their excellent second half, they were hardly considered sure-thing contenders; heading into the playoffs, the oddsmakers had them tied with two other teams for the sixth-best Cup chances, so in that sense, they weren’t a top-five team at any point during the season. The system worked!

Did that sound convincing? I’m not sure it did. Anyways, the Blues are the defending champs, so I’ll work them into the top five this week despite needing a third-period comeback against Dallas to avoid a winless start.

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