Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Sharks vs. Blues: Which franchise holds the crown for making its fans miserable?

We may be just a few days away from deciding the most important title in the NHL.

No, not “Stanley Cup champion.” Those come and go. This is something bigger and more enduring. We’re talking about the title of the most miserable franchise in the entire league. Which team has done the most to torture its fan base over the years?

For a long time, there was a fairly easy answer. It was the Washington Capitals, a franchise that had built a reputation for finding new and exciting ways to raise expectations and then brutally crush them. Whether it was blowing 3-1 series leads, or losing quadruple overtime game sevens, or winning Presidents’ Trophies only to lose to a hot goalie or to the Penguins or to a hot goalie on the Penguins, the Capitals were the undisputed kings of hockey misery.

But then last year, it all came crashing down. They actually went out and won a Stanley Cup. It was confusing and even a little frightening. And it left the hockey world wondering: Which team has the best claim to the vacated throne?

The Canucks certainly have a strong case, one bolstered by nearly a half-decade without a title that includes two heart-breaking Game 7 losses in the final. The Sabres would be right there with them, with a Cup-losing goal that shouldn’t have counted highlighting their resume. The Maple Leafs could be in the mix too since their last Cup came before most of today’s fans were alive. Maybe you work in some consideration for fans in places like Winnipeg, Minnesota or Ottawa.

But the two teams that have to be near the top of just about any list are the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks. Those two teams have spent the last few decades doing what miserable teams do: Being pretty good just about every season, convincing their weary fan base that this just might be the year and then having something horrible happen to crush those hopes and dreams.

As a lifelong Maple Leafs fan, I know a thing or two about misery. And I think there’s a strong case to be made that when it comes to taking over the Capitals’ crown, the Sharks and the Blues are the two best candidates we have. But which one should earn the honors? That’s a tough call. As we wait for the two teams to face off in Game Six of the Western Conference final, let’s compare their cases in a head-to-head battle with even bigger stakes.

How long are we talking about?

True misery isn’t a short-term game, but a slow drip that builds over time. It’s not about a moment or a series or even a season. We’re looking for decades here.

The Sharks: San Jose entered the league as an expansion team (sort of) back in 1991, which doesn’t seem like all that long ago to some of us but actually puts the Sharks right around the middle of the current league in terms of longevity in their market. We are all so old.

They were historically awful for their first two years. But when you’re talking about their history of misery, you’re really starting the clock right around 2001, when they crack the 90-point mark for the first time and start heading into the postseason with expectations. That kicks off a long run of regular season success that’s still going to this day, with only two playoff misses in nearly two decades. But of course, no Cup.

The Blues: The Blues came into the league in the 1967 expansion and were the first quasi-success story among the half-dozen new teams. They won the all-expansion West Division in each of its first three years, earning trips to the Cup final each time but never winning. They didn’t have much success in the 1970s but had turned things around by the start of the 1980s.

That’s when the Blues really became the Blues – which is to say, a perfectly respectable regular season team that never seemed to do all that much in the playoffs. From 1979-80 through to the 2005 lockout, the Blues made the playoffs every year. That’s 25 straight seasons, the same as what the Red Wings pulled off in their much-hyped streak. And yet I’m guessing some of you may have never even heard of the Blues streak because it didn’t deliver any Cups or even any final appearances and only two trips out of the second round. The St. Louis Blues: Just kind of there™.

Misery edge: This one’s a pretty easy call as (furiously punches numbers into his calculator) 52 years is more than 28. The Sharks’ case here is that they may have had more seasons with serious expectations; they’ve had nine 100+ point seasons since 2001, compared to eight for the Blues since 1980. But St. Louis still takes this one.

Signature heart-breaking moment

Every truly miserable fan base has a few of those plays that they still can’t watch without wanting to whip the remote through the TV.

The Sharks: This ends up being a tougher call than you might think, for reasons we’ll get to down below. But for sheer hands-over-head disbelief, it’s hard to beat the way they were eliminated by the Canucks in the 2011 conference final.

That’s just the hockey gods toying with you right there.

The Blues: It’s the opening round of the 2000 playoffs and the Blues have just captured their first and only Presidents’ Trophy. They’re heavy favorites over the eighth-seeded Sharks, but the underdogs have stretched the series to a seventh game. And then, with seconds left in the first period in front of 19,000 stunned fans, this happens:

That ends up being the winning goal and the best season in franchise history ends in Round 1.

Misery edge: For creativity, it’s the Sharks for sure. But for actual psyche-scarring misery, the Blues get the nod here.

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Grab Bag: Not another replay review

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Oh god we have to talk about expanded replay again don't we?
- The best way to react to a waved-off goal
- The week's three comedy stars introduce a new culinary term
- An obscure player who committed mid-game murder
- And a look back at the immediate aftermath of the craziest brawl in NHL history

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Puck Soup: No glove, no love

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We break down last night's blown OT call
- The Bruins on the verge of sweeping the Hurricanes
- An NBA-inspired media meltdown
- Ralph Krueger takes over the Sabres
- What's the hockey equivalent to the Bret Hart/Tom Magee match?
- I put my undefeated quiz streak on the line
- And lots more...

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Which of the 15 draft lottery teams should consider trading their picks?

There are two annual traditions when it comes to the lottery picks in the NHL draft. The first is that fans and media get very excited about the possibility of at least a few of those picks being traded, either in the weeks leading up to the big day or (even better) in dramatic draft floor blockbusters. Trade rumors are catnip for all of us, so we come up with all sorts of scenarios and possibilities and argue back and forth over which ones are the most likely to turn into reality.

The second tradition is that just about none of those rumored trades ever actually happen.

That’s the reality of the modern NHL, where trading is a dying art at the best of times and teams have been taught to treat picks in the top half of the first round like gold. This is a league where young talent is more important than ever before, and the best way to get it is to hold onto those precious picks.

But while it’s exceedingly rare to see a high pick get traded in between the lottery and the draft, it’s not unheard of. It happened in 2017, when the Rangers got the Coyotes’ seventh-overall pick for Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan. The Bruins acquired the 13th and 15th pick back in 2015 in separate deals involving Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton, although that didn’t work out great for them in the end. And there was the big draft floor deal in 2013 that sent Cory Schneider to the Devils for the ninth-overall pick, leading to the best Gary Bettman trade announcement ever.

But high picks being traded in advance remains a rarity, and trades involving the very top picks are all but extinct. We hear the rumors every year, but they almost never come true.

Well, maybe that’s because NHL teams just need a little bit of encouragement. So today, let’s make the case for each of the 15 lottery teams to trade their pick for immediate help. We’re not interested in seeing teams shuffle picks around to move up or down a few spots – we want to see a bold move by a team looking to get better right now by swapping their choice for veteran reinforcements. And since most of these teams have plenty of room for improvement, that should give us at least a chance to make a decent case.

Can we pull it off? It’s going to be easier for some teams than others, but let’s see what we can do. We’ll work our way down from the worst of the lottery picks to the top of the draft.

#15 – Montreal Canadiens

The case for a trade: We’ll start with what should be, in theory, the easiest trade to sell you on, if only because it would involve the least valuable of the lottery picks. And the case here is a relatively straightforward one: The Habs are pretty good, and should be focused on getting better right now instead of waiting around for some middling first-rounder to make his NHL debut a few years down the road. After all, you don’t swallow big-dollar contracts for 30-something stars like Shea Weber and Carey Price without taking on at least some sense of urgency.

If you prefer a more positive spin, we could remind you that the 2017 Lightning barely missed the playoffs with 94 points and then went to the conference final in 2018, while the 2018 Blues barely missed the playoffs with 94 points and are in the conference final right now. Well, the 2019 Habs barely missed the playoffs with 96 points. They may not be as far from contending as you think they are.

Is it convincing?: It’s not a bad start. (And fair warning, if you’re already rolling your eyes at the thought of a team like Montreal even considering this sort of deal, you may just want to bail on the rest of this piece.)

The pessimist view is that Montreal isn’t as close to contending as their 2018-19 season suggests, and still have to get past Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto, plus a potentially improved Florida team. But assuming that Marc Bergevin thinks he already has a solid foundation in place here, it might be worth it for him to find out what he could get if he dangled that 15th pick.

#14 – Arizona Coyotes

The case for a trade: It looks a lot like the Canadiens – good team, already close, so worry about making the leap right now instead of stockpiling another prospect you won’t see for a few years.

Is it convincing?: If anything, it’s a better case than Montreal’s. The Coyotes haven’t been to the playoffs since 2012, and you’d have to imagine that ownership is watching what’s happening in Carolina these days and thinking “Why not us?”

On top of that, remember that the Coyotes are one of the few teams that’s actually pulled off this sort of move before, having dealt that seventh-overall pick for veteran help a few years ago. I’m not sure if that makes a move more likely (because they’ve shown they’re willing to do it) or less likely (because it didn’t necessarily work last time). But the idea is at least in play.

#13 – Florida Panthers

The case for a trade: And here’s the third of our three “decent teams that might want to win right now” entries. Except this time, we know that there’s no “might” about it. Dale Tallon has all but called his shot for this offseason, and you have to figure that Joel Quenneville didn’t choose the Panthers because he was in the mood for a lengthy rebuild. The Panthers want to get better right now, and anything that gets them there should be on the table.

Is it convincing?: Sure. The only question is whether trading a first is the Panthers’ best path to immediate help. They may prefer to wait and see how free agency shakes out, and if so then this year’s pick will be out of play (and next year’s probably goes in). But the Panthers have a history of at least talking about moving much higher picks than this one, so this is a situation worth watching.

#12 – Minnesota Wild

The case for a trade: They looked good at times during the season and only missed the playoffs by 10 points, which isn’t insurmountable. With a veteran roster and a new-ish GM who hasn’t really put his stamp on the team just yet, they might decide that immediate help would get them back to the postseason.

Is it convincing?: Lord no. The Wild desperately need to start restocking the system and looking down the road. We can scratch this one off the list.

#11 – Philadelphia Flyers

The case for a trade: Are the Flyers rebuilding? They’ve never had that bottom-out season, but they also haven’t been to the second round in seven years. They seemed to buying into the patient approach, right up until their patient GM was fired for being too patient. They’ve changed coaches twice and remade the front office in the last year, and teams don’t usually do that if they’re planning to stay the course.

Is it convincing?: There has to be at least a part of the Flyers’ brain trust that sees division rivals like the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Islanders having success and thinks “on paper, we’re at least close to those guys.” Still, this feels like a team that would be better off just banking a solid prospect and then seeing where the Carter Hart era takes them.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

In a copycat league, what lessons can we learn from the four conference finalists?

We often hear about how the NHL is a copycat league. A few teams do well and everyone else decides to try to be just like them. Then somebody new comes along, has success with a different approach and the entire league pivots and goes chasing after that. NHL GMs who’ve been tasked with building a Cup contender often end up reminding you of the flustered student in the back row desperately trying to copy off of the smart kid’s paper.

Now that we’re down to four teams left in this year’s playoffs, can we figure out what the league might be about to learn? Maybe, because when you look at the final four as a group, there are some similarities that stand out. Today, let’s look through a half-dozen lessons you might learn from this year’s conference finalists – you know, if you happened to be the copycat type.

Lesson No. 1: Be bold when it comes to coaching changes

Making a coaching change can’t be fun for a GM. You never like to see anyone lose their job, especially when they’ve worked hard for your organization over the years. Mix in an owner who might not appreciate paying somebody not to work and you can understand why a GM might prefer the status quo.

But as this year’s final four has shown, sometimes it pays to pull the trigger. The most obvious example was in St. Louis, where making the change from Mike Yeo to Craig Berube may have saved their season. At the time the move was made, you could understand why Doug Armstrong may have hesitated. After all, Yeo had only been given one full season behind the bench and it’s not like Berube’s resume made him an obvious upgrade. Armstrong probably could have talked himself into waiting another month or two, or maybe even the whole season. But he didn’t and the Blues were eventually rewarded.

The Hurricanes also have a first-year head coach and the change came under odd circumstances. Technically, they didn’t fire Bill Peters; he exercised an out clause in his contract. But the team didn’t exactly seem like they were all that eager to keep him, with owner Tom Dundon expressing disappointment at the team’s record, acknowledging that he was willing to be “pretty flexible” in regards to whatever decision Peters made. When Peters left for Calgary, the promotion of rookie head coach Rod Brind’Amour turned out to be a near-perfect fit for a young team looking to find the next level.

Boston and San Jose have had more recent stability behind the bench, but both have seen good results after making changes that took some courage. The Sharks moved on from Todd McLellan in 2015 after the first playoff miss of his career and then watched him get snapped up by a division rival within weeks, but Peter DeBoer has done well in four seasons since. And the Bruins took plenty of heat for firing Claude Julien midway through the 2016-17 season and replacing him with little-known assistant Bruce Cassidy, especially when the Habs hired him just one week later. But Cassidy has done a fantastic job ever since.

Who could learn from them: I know you all want me to say Toronto here, but it seems like it’s one season too early to really dig into that possibility. Rather than call for any specific coach’s job, I’ll just point out that there are seven teams in the league who’ve had the same coach since the 2015 offseason, and only one – the Sharks – made it out of the first round. Tampa, Winnipeg, Nashville and Toronto all went out early, while New Jersey and Detroit didn’t even make it in.

Lesson No. 2: Don’t be afraid to take a big swing on the trade market, especially in the offseason

One of the early themes of the 2019 playoffs was the positive impact that a team could gain from being active at the trade deadline, as big movers like the Golden Knights and Blue Jackets started strong. But with those teams out, that narrative has faded. Instead, maybe we should be talking about summer blockbusters, since three of these teams made big trades in the 2018 offseason.

The biggest was the Sharks acquiring Erik Karlsson in a move that’s paid off nicely now that he’s healthy enough to play. The Hurricanes pulled off the Dougie Hamilton blockbuster with the Flames and also sent Jeff Skinner to the Sabres, while the Blues pulled off the Ryan O’Reilly deal (not to mention Brayden Schenn the summer before). Those were four very different types of deals, but they all took some guts to pull off and all of them are big parts of why these teams are where they are today.

The outlier here is Don Sweeney and the Bruins. He’s not much of a trader – he’s been on the job for four years and his NHL Trade Tracker entry still doesn’t have a second page. And after a busy first offseason in which he made deals featuring names like Dougie Hamilton, Milan Lucic and Martin Jones, he’s basically taken summers off. He’s more of a deadline guy, but that’s paid off for Boston, as the additions of Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson have helped.

Who could learn from them: Any GM who prefers to sit on their hands and mumble about how making big trades is just too hard, which is to say most of today’s GMs. That could even include David Poile in Nashville, an aggressive trader who somewhat surprisingly hasn’t made a big summer move since the P.K. Subban trade almost three years ago.

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Friday, May 10, 2019

Grab Bag: Terrible offside reviews, missed head shots, injured goalies and another round of playoff outrage

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- We need another playoff outrage lightning round, as we deal with offside review, injured goalies, and Brad Marchand being a jerk
- A quick request to media covering the playoffs from the press box
- An obscure player or two
- The week's three comedy stars, where (almost) everyone is excited about the Blues
- And a YouTube breakdown of a 24-year-old the fake injury that helped kill a franchise and changed the rulebook

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Thursday, May 9, 2019

Puck Soup: Yet another replay review disaster

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Avalanche get screwed by the terrible offside review rule
- In hindsight, were the Blue Jackets right to go all-in?
- Thoughts on Charlie McAvoy's hit and suspension
- More officiating controversies from around the league
- An interview with actor Bill Camp
- Ken Holland is hired in Edmonton
- Greg tries to stump me with an on-the-spot quiz about the 1992 Jays, which, come on
- Brad Marchand acts like a jerk, again
- Our conference final picks, and lots more...

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Building a roster for the 2019 Playoff Disappointment Team

The first two rounds of the playoffs are over, and we’ve made it through one of the most unpredictable and outright shocking months of postseason action we’ve ever seen. Twelve teams are out and four more are on to the conference final, just eight wins away from the sport’s ultimate prize. So you know what time it is now.

No, not time to celebrate the accomplishments of the winners. Ew. Is this your first day here?

No, we’re hockey fans, so we’re going to do what we do best: Point and yell “SHAME” at those who have displeased us. So today, let’s assemble a full roster’s worth of playoff disappointment. These are the players who didn’t live up to expectations once the postseason started, and may now be part of the reason their team isn’t playing anymore.

And why did they let us down? (Ignores that one guy with a pocket protector shouting “Small sample size!”) That’s right – they didn’t want it bad enough. Try harder next time, guys, and everything will work out fine. Consider it a lesson learned.

Like all great teams, we’ll build from the net out. Please welcome your 2019 All Playoff Disappointment Team.

Goaltenders

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Lightning: Spoiler alert – Vasilevskiy won’t be the only Lightning player to show up on this list. And in a sense, that should shield him from some criticism, since a goalie is only as good as the team in front of him. But the series between the Lightning and Blue Jackets was closer than you probably remember it, and an extra save here or there could have at least extended it, if not changed the outcome. The Lightning never seemed to get that save. Put it this way: So far, 17 goalies have started at least one playoff game, and 16 of them have posted a save percentage over .900. The 17th is Vasilevskiy, with a downright ugly .856.

Matt Murray, Penguins: The story of the Islanders’ surprising sweep over the Penguins was how Pittsburgh just couldn’t ever seem to hold any momentum. They’d score a big goal, you’d think “OK, here we go,” and then the Islanders would come right back down and score almost immediately. Those goals weren’t always Murray’s fault, but some sure were, and the Penguins were always going to need something more than .906 goaltending to get past Robin Lehner and the Islanders.

Missed the cut: Martin Jones looked like he had a spot on this team all wrapped up after the first week, but he’s been fantastic ever since. Pekka Rinne has a stronger case, and he certainly didn’t get that redemption he was looking for after last year’s disastrous finish. But he had three games where he was .950 or better, including 49 saves in the OT loss that ended the Predators’ season. And unlike Murray or Vasilevskiy, at least he won a game. Marc-Andre Fleury did too, and would have won a series if the Knights could kill off a penalty.


First pair

Kris Letang, Penguins: You can’t accuse him of not showing up, as he averaged over 27 minutes a game. But in a series where the Penguins always seemed one goal away from turning things around, their only high-scoring defenseman managed just one assist. Worse, he was front and center on several key goals against, as his aggressive style seemed to backfire just about every time. As Letang himself pointed out, you can’t just tell an offensive defenseman not to make mistakes. But when your style is high risk/high reward, sometimes you wind up high on the list of goats.

Jacob Trouba, Jets: In what could be his last games in a Jets uniform, Trouba had a rough series against the Blues. His offense dried up, to the tune of just one assist in six games. But his most memorable moment came in his own end, where a disastrous decision may have been the series turning point.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A celebration of goaltenders allowing really terrible goals

I’ve always been fascinated by bad goals. You know the kind – the ones where the puck goes in, you immediately start swearing at your TV either out of frustration or amazement, and we get an extended zoom-in on the goaltender while his teammates all turn and skate away in disgust without even acknowledging he exists.

Bad goals have always been a part of hockey, but if anything they’ve become even more interesting over the course of the Dead Puck era. An entire generation of defense-first coaches have worked to squeeze the offense out of the sport, desperately trying to turn every game into a 2-1 slog of blocked shots and neutral zone turnovers. And they’ve mostly succeeded. But every now and then, all that planning goes out the window because some puck that barely seemed worth paying attention to suddenly winds up in the back of the net.

We almost got one for the ages last week in Boston. With the Bruins and Blue Jackets fighting through a crucial overtime, a harmless looking dump-in from center ice suddenly took an unexpected bounce and very nearly slipped past Sergei Bobrovsky. Only a lunging glove save kept the Blue Jackets goalie from being on every highlight reel for the next decade.

So close. But don’t worry, bad goal fans. There’s still lots of playoffs left to add a few entries to the list. It’s only a matter of time.

In the meantime, let’s get organized. Here are 10 types of terrible goals that are all sorts of fun to see, as long as you’re not a goaltender.

Type 1: The long-distance bouncer

This is the one that nearly got Bobrovsky. Somebody lobs one in from center ice, it takes a few bounces, and suddenly everyone realizes that the goalie is in trouble.

Victims of the long-distance bouncer include Sebastien Caron and Cam Talbot, but they’re not alone; we see one of these a few times a season. And of course, there’s the most famous example of them all, the one you were probably thinking about as soon as you saw the headline on this post …

Here’s the thing: These shots are way tougher than they look. I’m not even entirely convinced we should call them bad goals. Pucks aren’t designed to bounce in a predictable way, and if you can land one just right in front of a goalie, they basically have no choice but to get as big as they can and hope the hockey gods are on their side. And every now and then, they’re not.

Put it this way: There’s no save that has a higher degree of difficulty and a lower level of sympathy if you fail. We don’t expect goalies to be able to adjust and make saves on shots that were deflected by a skate or a stick right in front of them. But when the ice is doing the deflecting, there’s no mercy.

If I was in the NHL, I’d be taking these shots all the time. I’d be staying late and practicing them, trying to get them to land in just the right spot and with just enough spin. Honestly, it might be my shootout move.

Type 2: The long-distance boomer

The more-advanced cousin of our first type of bad goal, this one looks like a much tougher save even though it probably shouldn’t be. There’s no bounce or deflection here, just a guy winding up from long range and straight-up drilling it.

We can get into a bit of a gray area here; personally, I’d argue that Steve Yzerman’s laser beam winner against Jon Casey back in 1996 wasn’t a bad goal at all, but rather one of the greatest shots in hockey history. But Owen Nolan’s bomb from center ice a few years later? Yeah, that’s a bad goal.

Dan Cloutier never really lived down giving up a crucial playoff goal to Nicklas Lidstrom back in 2002, although that one’s on the borderline of Type 1 and Type 2 because Lidstrom skipped it. Other Canucks goalies haven’t had that excuse, although at least that one didn’t come in the playoffs. But they can happen to the best of them and even show up in the middle of some of the great goaltending runs of all-time.

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Monday, May 6, 2019

What was the most unexpected final four in NHL playoff history?

It’s​ been the year​ of​ the​ wildcard​ in​ the​ NHL playoffs.​ The Hurricanes are​ already through to​ the​ conference final, having​​ knocked off the Metro’s top two seeds along the way. The Dallas Stars have a chance to head to the Western final if they can win tomorrow night’s Game 7. And the Blue Jackets and Avalanche are still alive in their quests to win divisions they aren’t even in.

It’s all added up to a postseason that’s been, to borrow a technical hockey term that the insiders use, “weird-ass.” And if all four wildcard teams make it through to the conference finals, it would be safe to call this year the most unpredictable postseason we’ve ever seen. It wouldn’t even be all that close.

But even if a few of the favorites survive, this season will still have a solid claim to the “most unpredictable” crown. Today, let’s take a look back through the history books and try to figure out which other seasons are in the running.

There are a few ways you could do this, including just trying to remember which years felt the most surprising. But that’s tricky because hockey fans are good at fooling ourselves into thinking we knew more than we did. Instead, let’s stick with something objective.

I went back through all the postseasons since the league went to a full sixteen-team format in 1979-80 and looked at where each of the final four teams finished in their conference standings. If they had the best record, they get one point. The second best is two, down through to the team with the eighth-best record among playoff teams in the conference. Add those four scores up and you’ve got a pretty decent idea of just how unlikely that season’s conference finalists were.

The highest possible score would be 30, from two sevens and two eights. If all this year’s wildcards make it through, that would give this season an unpredictability score of 29. (The Stars were a wildcard but actually had the sixth-best record in the West, ahead of Vegas.) It won’t surprise you to know that that would be the highest score ever by a wide margin. But what if the three remaining favorites all make it through? That drops us down to a seven (Carolina), five (St. Louis) and a pair of twos (Boston and San Jose), for a total of 16. Still not bad.

Not bad, but not the best. I could find ten seasons that could beat that total, which seems like a good place to draw the line. Let’s revisit some of those other seasons that left us scratching our heads and trashing our brackets, as we work our way up to the highest score.

1988-89

The final four: Calgary (1), Chicago (8), Montreal (1), Philadelphia (7), giving us a total of 17 points.

The path there: This was a weird year, with two top seeds that finished miles ahead of the pack and that everyone expected to see in the conference final and then two longshots who both made unexpected runs. The Flyers’ push wasn’t all that shocking; they’d been a decent team during the season and only had to navigate a lukewarm Patrick Division and they’d been to the Cup final in 1985 and 1987. But the Hawks had finished with just 66 points before knocking off the Wings and Blues to win the typically terrible Norris.

Fair warning: For reasons I’m not quite clear on, the Hawks show up in these seasons a lot.

The epilogue: Do you believe in miracles? No? Good, because the Flames and Canadiens both advanced, giving us a rare Cup final between the league’s two top teams. The Flames won that one in six.

2009-10

The final four: San Jose (1), Chicago (2), Philadelphia (7) and Montreal (8), for a total of 18 points.

The path there: This might have been one of the first seasons that popped into your mind when you saw the premise for this piece. And rightly so, since it’s the only season (until maybe this year) when one conference saw its two worst playoff teams by regular season record meet in the conference final. The Flyers and Habs were both big underdogs who wrote stunning playoff stories, Montreal on the strength of Jaroslav Halak’s red-hot goaltending and Philadelphia by coming back from down 3-0 to stun the Bruins.

Unfortunately for our rankings, while all that was going on the West played out exactly as expected, with the top two teams rolling through the early rounds. Therefore, this season won’t rank as high on our list as it probably deserves to.

The epilogue: Halak’s magic dried up and the Flyers won the battle of the underdogs. But they couldn’t finish the story against the Hawks, who swept the Sharks and then ended their 49-year Cup drought with Patrick Kane’s overtime winner. It was a fittingly weird end to an unpredictable postseason.

1991-92

The final four: Pittsburgh (4), Boston (6), Chicago (3) and Edmonton (6), for a total of 19 points.

The path there: This one looks more surprising on paper than it felt at the time. The Bruins/Penguins conference final was a rematch of the year before, so not exactly a shocker there. The Oilers had won five of the last eight Cups, so even in the post-Gretzky era, it wasn’t that stunning to see them advance. And the Hawks were a decent enough team.

Still, the 1992 postseason marked the first time in the 16-team era that neither conference sent a top-two team to the final four. And even in the pre-loser point days, it was at least a little bit odd to see that none of the four finalists even cracked 90 points.

The epilogue: This may have been the worst final four of all time. Both conference finals ended in sweeps, and then the final did too, with Mario Lemieux and the Penguins knocking off the Hawks to win their second straight Cup.

1981-82

The final four: Vancouver (4), Chicago (7), the Islanders (1) and Quebec (7), a total of 19 points.

The path there: It was the Kings who did the heavy lifting here, knocking out the powerhouse Oilers in the first round thanks to the Miracle on Manchester. That opened a path for the 77-point Canucks, who lost just once while knocking out the Flames and Kings. The Nordiques knocked off the heavily favored Habs and then survived the Bruins, while the top-seeded Islanders handled their business. Meanwhile, the 72-point Hawks only had to escape the Norris, which they did by knocking off the North Stars and Blues.

The epilogue: This was the mid-dynasty Islanders of Al Arbour, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin and Bryan Trottier, so when they arrived in the conference finals to find all these scrappy underdogs waiting for them, they probably weren’t too worried. They shouldn’t have been; they didn’t lose a game the rest of the way while rolling to their third straight Cup.

2005-06

The final four: Anaheim (6), Edmonton (8), Carolina (2) and Buffalo (3), giving us another 19-point total.

The path there: This is another memorable postseason that you might expect to have higher on the list. You could make a case that it should be, since the Sabres were technically the four-seed in the East because of the three-division format. But they had the conference’s third-best record, so they earn three points towards our total. And the Hurricanes only contribute two, because while most fans seem to remember their Cup win being a big surprise, they were actually a really good team that year, racking up 112 points.

But the real action was in the West, where the Oilers shocked the 124-point Wings in a first-round in which all four underdogs advanced. If you wanted to call the 2006 West the craziest playoff year that any one conference has ever seen, I wouldn’t argue with you. But the East was relatively straightforward, so they bring down the overall total.

The epilogue: The Oilers dispatched the Ducks fairly quickly, while the Hurricanes barely held off the Sabres. That left us with a Carolina/Edmonton final that gave us one of the worst-timed injuries ever, Gary Bettman’s most awkward Cup handoff and the start of a decade of darkness.

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Friday, May 3, 2019

Grab Bag: In defense of Brad Marchand, pucks in the netting and Gary Bettman’s 2000 replay thoughts

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- I try to think of a dozen nice things to say about Brad Marchand
- Thoughts on last night's puck-in-the-netting review controversy
- An obscure player with quite the Game Seven resume
- The week's three comedy stars, featuring one of the most brutal tweets of all time
- And we got back nearly 20 years to hear a young Gary Bettman make the case against more replay

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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Puck Soup: Sucker punches, dives and other playoff fun

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Hurricanes are on the verge of a trip to the conference final
- Should Brad Marchand have been suspended?
- The good and bad of this year's NHL award nominations
- An interview with LA Kings voice and potential new Jeopardy host Alex Faust
- How big a problem is diving?
- We get to react in real time to breaking news in Vegas and women's hockey
- Gary Bettman's latest public appearance
- Remembering Jason Botchford
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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





Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Hart Trophy should be based on both the regular season and the playoffs (so let's repossess a few trophies)

The​ NHL revealed the​ three​ finalists​ for​ the​ Hart​ Trophy for​ league MVP on​ Sunday, and there​ were​ no major surprises.​​ The honors went to Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, with everyone expecting that Kucherov will end up as the winner.

Given how voters typically treat the award, those finalists seem about right. It’s a bit of a surprise to see McDavid in the final three since his team didn’t make the playoffs, which seems to be a deal-breaker for many voters. But I had all three on my ballot, along with Johnny Gaudreau and Patrick Kane. So sure, Kucherov, Crosby and McDavid are worthy picks.

But they have something else in common: None of them won a playoff round this year. In fact, none of them even won a game.

That’s apparently the first time that’s ever happened, but it’s not far off from last year, when the top three were Nathan MacKinnon, Anze Kopitar and eventual winner Taylor Hall. None of them made it out of the first round either, as they combined for a grand total of three playoff wins. Go back through the history of the award, and this sort of thing isn’t rare. That’s because the voting is done immediately after the regular season ends, before we know how the playoffs turn out. And often, they don’t turn out very well for the Hart finalists.

Is that a problem? Maybe not, but it highlights an oddity about how we vote for the Hart. Modern voters have apparently decided that only players who make the postseason can ever be the league’s move valuable player; Mario Lemieux in 1988 was the last non-playoff participant to take home the trophy, and even being a finalist is exceedingly rare. That’s because, as it’s been explained to me, the postseason is what matters. You can rack up all the numbers you want, but if they don’t get your team into the playoffs, it was all meaningless.

But then we do the voting before the first round starts, when we have no idea if that all-important playoff berth will amount to anything. It’s a weird place to draw the line. Kucherov didn’t just have a quiet playoffs, after all, with no goals and only two points – he actively hurt his team by taking a suspension for a must-win game. And yet he’s almost certainly going to run away with the Hart voting, while guys like Kane and McDavid get left off many ballots entirely because we’re told that the playoffs are all that matter.

It’s not wrong, necessarily. Just strange. Pick a lane, you know?

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Monday, April 29, 2019

Which surviving playoff teams should Canadian fans root for?

It’s​ another year without​ a Stanley​ Cup​ for​ Canada but​ at​ least the​ hockey gods didn’t​ toy with us​ for​ too long this​​ time. Four of the country’s seven teams didn’t make the playoffs at all and the three that did all made first-round exits. When the Maple Leafs are your longest surviving team, it hasn’t been a great year.

And if we’re being honest, most Canadian fans are probably fine with that. The whole national Cup drought thing has always been the sort of narrative that seems to be more important to the media than to most of the fans. Let’s face it, most of the country’s fans don’t want to see any Canadian team other than their own win a Cup. When our team is out, we don’t jump on the bandwagon of the Leafs or Jets or whoever. We want everyone else in the country to be miserable too.

But now everyone is miserable and we’ve still got three rounds to get through. And that’s had some fans wondering what comes next:

That’s a great question. We’ve already done the annual guide for bandwagon-hopping, but that was a league-wide initiative. Today, we’re looking for the best remaining bandwagon for fans of each Canadian team. We’ll consider a few factors, like rivalries and history, hometown players on the roster and any popular former figures who might show up in another team’s story.

And since Canadian fans don’t do unity, let’s make sure that each fan base gets a team of its own, with no duplicates. We’ll go through all seven teams, starting with the easiest pairing we’re going to find …

Ottawa Senators

The Senators give us a couple of obvious options to consider. The first is in Columbus, which is writing the kind of underdog success story that Ottawa will be shooting for over the next few years. More importantly, they’re doing it with a pair of former Sens in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. Granted, there may be some mixed feelings towards Duchene given how his tenure in Ottawa played out. But if he’s happy in Columbus, he’s more likely to re-sign there, which would deliver another first-round pick to the Senators. That makes the Blue Jackets a decent choice.

But there’s an even better one and it’s one of Pierre Dorion’s other key trading partners. That would be San Jose, where former captain Erik Karlsson is chasing the Cup he never managed to bring to Ottawa. Karlsson remains universally beloved among Senator fans, so it shouldn’t be tough to convince them to cheer him on. Let’s face it, most of them already are.

Mix in Logan Couture being a former 67s star and we’re all set. And if you’re a Sens fan who still somehow needs just a little extra incentive, remember that Ottawa can get the Sharks’ 2021 first-round pick if they make the final.

That covers Ottawa and it takes the Sharks off the board. That’s the easiest pick we’re going to able to find, but let’s see if we can pair up a few more Canadian fans with a temporary team that makes sense.

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Friday, April 26, 2019

Grab Bag: Replay review for penalties is coming and it will be a disaster

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Replay review for penalties is coming and here's why you're going to hate it
- Why I'm hoping for an Avs/Blue Jackets final
- An obscure player who shares a record with David Pastrnak, Cam Neely and Phil Kessel
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the Winnipeg Jets' bizarre attempts at marketing in the 1980s

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Puck Soup: First round wrapup, second round picks

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We try to make sense of a ridiculous first round, including the Hurricanes' game seven stunner
- That missed call in Sharks/Knights leads to a spirited debate about replay review for penalties
- What's next for Mike Babcock and the Maple Leafs?
- I give this ad read thing another shot
- Ryan interviews the lead singer of PUP
- We make our second second-round picks
- I try to fake my way through a discussion about Marvel movies
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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




Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Finding positive thoughts for the non-playoff teams

The​ first round is​ a weird​ time​ to​ be​ a fan​ of a non-playoff​ team.

On the one​ hand, it’s like​ being​ the kid who’s​​ sick at home, watching with your nose pressed up against your bedroom window while everyone else frolics outside. On the other hand, sometimes the playoffs are more fun when you don’t have a rooting interest, or at least less stressful. And more importantly, as all those playoff teams get eliminated, their fans get to be sad too. Welcome to the pity party, losers.

Therefore, I can understand if you non-playoff fans have some mixed feelings these days. But today, let’s try to tilt the scale to the bright side. Let’s go through all 15 teams that didn’t make the postseason and come up with at least three positive thoughts as we head into the offseason. And since that will admittedly be more difficult for some teams than others, we’ll work our way down from the easiest to the most challenging case.

Positive thoughts, everyone. Let’s find our happy place. Starting with the easiest non-playoff team to feel good about …


Florida Panthers

The negative: Despite plenty of young talent, they missed the playoffs yet again and still haven’t won a single playoff round since 1996.

Positive thought No. 1: All that young talent is still there and most of it should still be getting better. Sasha Barkov is still just 23 and is already considered one of the league’s elite young players (not to mention among the very best cap values). Mix in a breakout year from Jonathan Huberdeau and some of the pieces are already in place.

Positive thought No. 2: They just hired one of the best coaches ever in Joel Quenneville. Will all due respect to Bob Boughner, that should be a massive upgrade behind the bench.

Positive thought No. 3: They’ve made it clear that they’re going to spend a ton in the offseason, which we all assume includes signing two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. Goaltending sunk them this year, so adding a star there changes the team’s entire outlook even if they don’t make any other moves.

See? Optimism is easy. Granted, the Panthers are the tutorial level. Let’s up the difficulty just a bit.

Arizona Coyotes

The negative: The Coyotes missed the playoffs for the seventh straight year, the longest streak in a Western Conference where only one other team has missed for more than two.

Positive thought No. 1: The Coyotes finished the year with more wins than they’ve had since their last trip to the postseason. They won ten more games and had 16 more points than last year, so there was very clear progress. That obviously doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s better than the alternative.

Positive thought No. 2: That progress came despite a season marred by plenty of injuries to key players. That included their starting goalie, a loss that would have derailed most teams. Every team has injuries, but give the Coyotes slightly better luck in the health department and they make the playoffs. And even with all those injuries, they still won more games than the Avalanche, who are already on to the second round.

Positive thought No. 3: Speaking of goaltending, the Coyotes head into 2019-20 with two potential starters in Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper, which is two more than some of the other teams on this list have. That could lock down an important position, or it could open the door to a trade. Either way, the Coyotes are in solid shape heading into next season and most of us probably already have them penciled into the playoff race.

New York Rangers

The negative: You know how sometimes you think a team will be bad and even they seem to think they’ll be bad, but then miraculously they’re actually really good? That happened to a New York team this year, but it wasn’t the Rangers.

Positive thought No. 1: It’s a rebuild. Jeff Gorton has made that clear. This season had its ups and downs, but it was basically all part of the plan. If anything, they won a few more than most of us expected.

Positive thought No. 2: They won the lottery and will pick second, meaning they’ll almost certainly get a blue-chip prospect in Jack Hughes or (more likely) Kaapo Kakko. They overachieved expectations and still got a potential franchise player. It was the best of both worlds.

Positive thought No. 3: In addition to their own pick, they also have Winnipeg’s first and Tampa’s second. And don’t look now, but they might still get the Stars’ first too, if Dallas makes it to the third round.

Montreal Canadiens

The negative: They came into the season’s final week in good shape to snag a wild card, but stumbled and missed the playoffs. That makes this just the second time since the 1920s that they’ve missed in consecutive years.

Wait, that’s can’t be right.

(Double checks the numbers.)

Wow.

Positive thought No. 1: They missed the playoffs by two points in a year when just about everyone thought they’d be terrible. And they did it while racking up more points than three Western playoff teams. That might be a sign that the format is unfair, but it reinforces how strong a season Montreal just had.

Positive thought No. 2: Goaltending is crucial for every team, but when you’re paying your starter a league-high $10.5 million against the cap, you absolutely have to be getting All-Star level play out of the position. In recent years, Carey Price hadn’t always provided that. But this year, the old Price was back. Wait, Habs fans probably want us to avoid the word “old” here.

Positive thought No. 3: Remember when everyone thought Marc Bergevin was a terrible GM who’d surely be fired any day now? You should since it was less than a year ago. But this year’s moves largely worked out and Bergevin’s reputation has at least been given a polish. That’s good news for Habs fans, seeing as how Geoff Molson has apparently decided that Bergevin will be around forever.

OK, this hasn’t been too bad, but I’m pretty sure that’s the last 96-point team we’re going to find on our list. Let’s bear down and think positive.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The 2019 playoffs are total chaos. Is that good? It depends on your door

The​ 2019 NHL playoffs​ are​ chaos.

On​ that,​ we​ can​ all agree.​ The argument comes​ with the second​ half​ of the equation,​​ which we’ll get to in a minute. But chaos? Honestly, that might be underselling it.

As far as things playing out as expected, we’ve got the Maple Leafs and Bruins going to Game 7, which we all figured was coming. The Capitals are in good position to beat the Hurricanes, although it’s been a tougher battle that most one-versus-wildcard matchups. The Islanders were technically the favorite over the Penguins, although nobody saw that one ending in four.

Beyond that? Madness. The first round has been a steady stream of upset exits, ranging from mildly surprising (Jets) to shocking (maybe the Predators Monday) to stunning (Flames) to incomprehensible (Lightning). Both top seeds are out, and it’s possible that all four division winners could be done in Round 1. The Islanders might be the only home-ice team to make it out alive. I don’t know what your bracket looks like, but I know it’s busted, and I wouldn’t be shocked if more than a few of you are staring down the possibility of an oh-for-eight.

That should be pretty close to impossible, but here we are. Nothing makes sense, nobody knows what’s going on, and none of us have the slightest clue what’s going to happen next. It’s chaos. We all agree.

Here’s the part where the argument starts: Is all this chaos a good thing?

I’ve asked that question in a few places, and something very strange happens whenever I do. Take this tweet, which quotes from a post I wrote a few weeks ago and then adds what seems like a reasonably lukewarm take: “I’m not sure this kind of Tampa upset is really a good thing for the NHL.” I tweeted that a week ago, and lots of people called me an idiot. That’s not strange – it’s Twitter, you can’t say anything without getting called an idiot. But the reaction was split almost exactly down the middle, with half of the people in the “Can you believe this idiot?” camp and half on the “Yep, this is how I feel too” side of the fence.

Here’s the strange part: More than a few fans on both sides didn’t seem to understand why the point even needed to be made. It was either the dumbest thing they’d ever heard, or the most obvious. There were all these hockey fans, just about evenly divided, who didn’t even seem to be aware that the other side of the debate even existed. It was Yanny vs. Laurel for the NHL playoff crowd.

It’s weird. Even when hockey fans get really mad over replay review or suspensions or fighting or whatever else, they tend to at least be aware that there’s another side. Not here. All of these upsets are obviously a good thing. Or they’re very obviously not. Why are we even talking about this?

I think I’ve figured out what’s going on.

Picture yourself standing in front of two doors. It’s Day 1 of the playoffs, when everything is still all shiny and new and nobody’s brackets are busted yet. You’re about to settle in for two months of NHL postseason action. But first, you have to decide which door you want to go through. You’re probably going to pick the same door you pick every year. You’re probably so used to picking that door that you don’t even realize the other one is there. But which door you pick ends up deciding a lot about how you view the playoffs, and whether you’re enjoying this year’s edition.

The first door stars with a belief, and it goes like this: The best team always wins the Stanley Cup.

It’s not the team with the best regular season record, because while the regular season tells us something, it’s not enough. It’s not the team with the biggest stars, or even the most talent top-to-bottom. It’s not the team with the best special teams or the smartest coach or the loudest fans or even the hottest goaltender, because while all of that certainly helps, it can only take you so far. And that’s what it’s all about: How far you can go.

One team goes all the way, while the other fifteen go home. When it’s over, one team is left standing, and that team is the best. They always were, even if we didn’t realize it until the very end.

In essence, if you choose door No. 1, you view the Stanley Cup playoffs as a two-month tournament designed to reveal the identity of the best team. The system can be ruthlessly efficient, discarding some teams almost immediately. It can also tease us with fakes and misdirection, baiting us into thinking we’ve figured out the identity of the best team, only to have the case dramatically collapse, leaving some other team as the new favorite.

But the key point is that the best team always wins. The occasional controversy aside, the system has a pretty much perfect success rate. It’s brutal and exhausting for everyone involved, but it works, and in the end the best team is left standing. They win because they’re the best. They’re the best because they won.

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Friday, April 19, 2019

Puck Soup: Mistakes were made

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg, Ryan and I look back on our broken brackets and try to figure out what went wrong
- What happened to the Lightning, and where do they go from here?
- The Islanders' sweep the Pens, the Flames and Sharks on the ropes, and all the other series
- Thoughts on the Kadri suspension and Ovechkin vs. Svechnikov
- Two new coaches get big deals, but what about Buffalo?
- I give the guys a quiz on a subject I'm an expert on: Playoff misery
- I also get to do an ad read, but my transitions may need work

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Grab Bag: Penguins/Lightning excuses

In a special Thursday edition of the Grab Bag:
- Penguins and Lightning excuses
- Breaking down a week of first-round outrage
- An obscure player who was at least consistent
- The week's three comedy stars
- And our old friend Alan Thicke helps us remember when the Lightning were just starting out...

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A brief history of really good teams that didn’t win a playoff game

What​ the hell is​ happening​ to​ the​ Lightning?

That’s​ the​ big question​ in the NHL​ these days, and​ honestly,​ I have no​​ idea. None. I know there are easy narratives we can grasp at – They’re not built for playoff hockey! They don’t want it bad enough! They haven’t had to face enough adversity! – but I think we all realize on some level that it’s nonsense. Teams that rack up 62 wins don’t suddenly become fatally flawed in the playoffs.

Except that yeah, the Lightning sure seem flawed. A month ago I wrote about pretty much this exact scenario, where the Lightning suffer through a shocking exit and we all race to slap an explanation on it. But even then, I was working under the assumption that a Lightning upset would feel like, well, an upset. That they’d run into a hot goalie or have a bunch of bad bounces or whatever. That’s not what’s happening. They’re getting their butts kicked. The Blue Jackets have been the better team since the first period of Game 1. This is some history-making madness.

So yeah, I’m as lost as you are. But the reality is that there’s a good chance that the series ends tonight, and the Lightning season will end without so much as a playoff win to their name. And they may not be alone – the 100-point Penguins are also staring down a sweep tonight. Those are two pretty good teams, and they might combine for zero wins in the postseason.

That’s hard to explain. But it’s not unprecedented. So today, let’s try to make Lightning fans feel better – or let’s face it, probably worse – by looking back at eight of the best regular season teams in NHL history who didn’t win a single playoff game.

The team: 1992-93 Chicago Blackhawks

The regular season: Under rookie head coach Darryl Sutter, the Hawks had one of the best regular seasons in franchise history. They finished the year with a record of 47-25-12, good for a conference-best 106 points that set up a first-round meeting with the 85-point Blues. Easy, right?

The disaster: Curtis Joseph has a weird tendency to show up in these stories. This one was the 24-year-old’s first time performing what would become his trademark move for the rest of the ’90s: pretty much single-handedly winning a playoff series.

After making 24 saves in a 4-3 win in Game 1, Joseph went on to shut out the Hawks in back-to-back games, making 81 saves in the process. That pushed the Hawks to the brink, and while Chicago would find the net again in Game 4, the Blues finished the job in overtime. That goal came with a bit of controversy, and an appropriately heated Ed Belfour meltdown.

The epilogue: This was the second stunning first-round exit in three years by the Hawks; they’d lost to the North Stars in six games in 1991. They’d followed that with a trip to the final in 1992, but there was no similar rebound here. The Hawks would win just three more rounds in 15 seasons until reemerging as Cup contenders in the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane era.

The team: The 1980-81 Canadiens

The regular season: By 1981, the Habs dynasty of the late-70s was essentially over. For the first time in five years, they hadn’t won the Cup in 1980, and key pieces like Scotty Bowman, Jacques Lemaire and Ken Dryden were gone. But they still had guys like Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Steve Shutt on a roster that featured seven Hall of Famers, and they rolled to a conference-best 103 points. That earned them an easy first-round matchup against a 74-point team that had never won a playoff game.

The disaster: That first-round opponent was the Edmonton Oilers, and they turned out to have a few Hall of Famers of their own. Even though they’d only won 29 of their 80 games during the season, the Oilers stunned the Canadiens by pumping home 15 goals in a three-game preliminary round sweep.

The epilogue: Those early-80s best-of-five openers were tricky – they also saw sweeps of 100-point teams like the 1982-83 Flyers, 1983-84 Sabres and 1983-84 Bruins.

As for the Canadiens, they finished first again in 1981-82, only to suffer yet another first-round upset, this time to the Nordiques in five. Montreal wouldn’t win another playoff round until Steve Penney showed up in 1984, and some other rookie goalie who arrived a year later helped them get back to winning Cups. And those upstart Oilers went on to win a few of their own.

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Monday, April 15, 2019

The 2019 OGWAC rankings

OK,​ kids. Hike up​ your​ pants​ around​ your​ armpits,​ hang an​ onion from your​ belt and park​ your​ walker over by​​ rotary phone, because it’s time for the annual OGWAC rankings.

For you newbies, an OGWAC is that beloved species of hockey player whose story everyone loves to hear during the playoffs: the Old Guy Without a Cup. He’s the grizzled veteran who’s been around forever and has probably come agonizingly close a time or two, but he doesn’t have a ring and he’s running out of time. Everyone’s rooting for him, and if his team does win it all, he usually gets the honor of being the first in line for the Cup handoff.

The greatest OGWAC story of all-time is Ray Bourque in 2001, one that still makes the toughest hockey fan you know cry a little. Others include Teemu Selanne in 2007, Lanny McDonald in 1989 and Kimmo Timonen in 2015. Last season’s OGWAC story was Alexander Ovechkin, who was a little young for the honor but has somehow had grey hair for five years, so we’ll allow it.

I’ve been breaking down the annual OGWAC rankings going back to the Grantland days and the format hasn’t changed much. It doesn’t need to, because the OGWAC is timeless. Or so I thought. Because this year, I’m starting to wonder if we don’t need something new.

I think we might need to introduce the OGWACWIT: The Old Guy With a Cup Who Isn’t Thornton.

After all, there isn’t really a ton of suspense about the top spot in these rankings. Joe Thornton has emerged as one of the league’s most lovable characters and will be a no-questions-asked Hall-of-Famer as soon as he’s eligible. But he’s about to turn 40 and has battled injuries in recent years. He’s almost at the end of the road and still doesn’t have his ring. He’s pretty much the archetypal OGWAC right now.

Even as wait to see if last night’s high hit on Tomas Nosek gets him suspended, Thornton is going to rank at the top of our list. Sorry for the spoiler. But there are plenty of other guys who are worth a mention too. Let’s count down the best stories of the Cupless guys who a.) are at least 33 years old; b.) have played at least ten seasons; c.) are in the playoffs and either playing or at least have a chance to at some point.

With the criteria set, let’s get to the rankings. We’re going to need a top 15 this time, because for reasons I’m not quite clear on, there are just a ton of great OGWAC candidates this year. And even a few OGWACWITs.

15. Dan Hamhuis, Predators

Hamhuis is a nice starting point because he’s basically the classic OGWAC story. He’s 36, has played 15 seasons and won’t have too many more shots at this. And of course, he had an agonizing near-miss in 2011 with the Canucks. That loss was especially tough for Hamhuis, since he was hurt in the first game of the final and didn’t play again. He hasn’t won a playoff round since.

This year’s Predators are an especially loaded OGWAC team, as we’ll see a little bit further down. That hurts Hamhuis’s standing just a bit, but he’s still worthy of a spot on our list.

14. Matt Hendricks, Jets

Hendricks is a bit of a tricky call. On the one hand, he’s a 37-year-old role player and his teammates love him. And unlike some of the other players on this list, this really does seem like his last shot at a Cup. On the other, there’s a good chance we won’t see him suit up for the Jets during this run – he barely played down the stretch and is really here to be a veteran leader as opposed to an on-ice contributor. In terms of the Jets who matter during this postseason, Hendricks doesn’t rank that high.

Still, it’s a long way to a Stanley Cup, and if the Jets can get past the Blues and go deep, you never know who they might need. And if Hendricks was in the lineup for a Cup win, he’d be close to a guaranteed first handoff. We’ll rank him here and hope against hope that his case gets stronger in the weeks to come.

13. Blake Comeau, Stars

Comeau’s the youngest player on our list, having just turned 33 in February. But he’s had the classic journeyman career that can make for a great OGWAC story, playing 13 seasons for six teams and never having seen the second round of the playoffs. In fact, he’s only ever been part of six playoff wins, including Game 1 against the Predators.

We can’t rank him too high since he’s presumably got more runway left than most of the other guys on this list. But let’s consider him an OGWAC prospect to keep an eye on.

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Friday, April 12, 2019

Grab Bag: Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's a bed sheet

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A deeper look at that amazing NBC playoff portrait
- A word about postseason trolling
- An obscure player who knew how to start a playoff series
- The week's three comedy stars, featuring a victory lap from Mr. Lottery
- And a YouTube breakdown of the Leafs setting a playoff record exactly 40 years ago today, and celebrating it very weirdly...

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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Eight games that changed the results of the NHL draft lottery

OK,​ so maybe there​ really​ wasn’t​ a lot​ of​ suspense​ to be​ had in Tuesday’s​ draft lottery. You​ could​ have saved yourself​​ some time by just reading my preview, which correctly predicted the Devils winning the top pick. Or you could have skipped that too and just known which team Taylor Hall plays for.

Hall is Mr. Lottery, a fact he’s embraced over the years and was quick to remind us of that night:

It’s possible that Hall is just unstoppable, and nothing could have prevented the lottery from playing out the way it did. Then again, maybe you don’t buy into that particular brand of superstition.

If so, then you’ve come to the right place, because it’s time for the annual round of “Find a single game from the season that would have changed the lottery outcome.”

This has been kind of a hobby of mine over the years. For every draft lottery, once you know who won, you can look back and find games from that season that altered the results. The most memorable example is probably the infamous Patrik Stefan flub, which ended up sending Patrick Kane to the Blackhawks instead of the Oilers. Edmonton’s win in the last game ever played at Rexall Place ended up costing them Auston Matthews. A late Geoff Sanderson goal in 2004 cost the Blue Jackets the Alexander Ovechkin pick.

You can do this all day. It’s fun. Or, depending on your perspective and how close your team came to a franchise-altering lottery win, extremely un-fun.

First, let’s explain what we’re even talking about. Many fans assume that the NHL draft lottery just involves a barrel full of ping pong balls with each team’s logo on them. That would be the easy way to do it, but the league is looking for more control over the odds. So instead, they use 14 numbered balls, and draw four of them. That gives them 1,001 combinations, which they assign in advance to the qualifying teams. (You can read about the whole process on this page; the actual number combos can be found here; these were the actual winners.)

Those combinations are handed out based on the final standings, which means that it’s not really teams that are winning or losing the lottery at all – it’s spots in the standings. There are three winners every year, and this year the lucky slots were 29th, 26th and 20th. Whichever teams were holding down those spots were going to win. We just didn’t know that until Tuesday night.

(I’ll pause here to acknowledge that you can get into some “time traveler steps on a butterfly” arguments here, where changing the results of one game ends up impacting other things that happen in the future. If you feel very strongly about this and won’t be able to enjoy this premise because of it, I encourage you to go argue philosophy in the comment section of a Mirtle article while the rest of us have a little fun here.)

Some years, there’s no single game that would change a certain result. For example, in the Connor McDavid lottery in 2015, no team was even within five points of the Oilers on either side, so they could have won or lost a few extra games without changing anything. But other years, we get plenty of what if scenarios.

This is one of those years. By my count, there are 12 teams that could have won or lost one of the three lottery draws based on changing the outcome of just one game on their schedule. So that’s what we’re going to do today. Here are some of the (many) games from the 2018-19 season that could have altered the result of Tuesday’s draft lottery.

Arizona Coyotes – March 26

The Coyotes finished with 86 points, two up on Chicago for that winning No. 20 spot. But they also would have held the ROW tiebreaker, so just having them lose an extra game doesn’t do it. No, we have to flip the results of a game where they beat the Blackhawks. And luckily, we have two to choose from.

The first was a 4-1 win in Chicago on Oct. 18. But all else being equal we prefer more recent games – less time for those butterflies to get stepped on, and all – so let’s go with March 26. On that night, the Hawks and Coyotes went into the third period locked in a 0-0 tie. Arizona’s Nick Cousins banged home a rebound to make it 1-0, and the lead held up for a regulation win.

If the Hawks get that first goal instead and win the game, the Coyotes end up dropping to 20th, and they’re holding the lucky combo to move up to the third-overall pick. Instead, they’re picking 14th, all because of one game.

See how this works? Fun, right? Trust me, it’s going to get so much worse.

Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres – November 30

The Panthers finished tied with the Coyotes but make for an easier case because they wouldn’t have owned the tiebreaker against the Hawks, meaning all we have to do is turn any ROW into a regulation loss. Meanwhile, the Sabres finished two points back of the Rangers and held that tiebreaker, so they move into a winning spot with one additional regulation win. That gives us plenty of games to choose from, but it’s always fun to try to change two results with one game, and we get a chance to do that here.

We’ll head back to Nov. 30, as the Sabres visit the Panthers in Florida. The night before had seen Buffalo’s 10-game win streak come to an end at the hands of the Lightning, so you could expect a bit of a letdown for a tired road team on short rest. And indeed, the Panthers largely dominated the game, outshooting Buffalo 43-24. But Linus Ullmark stood on his head, and the Sabres held a 2-1 lead late in the third. That’s when Casey Nelson took a high-sticking penalty, and the Panthers converted on the power play to tie the game and send it to overtime, where Aleksander Barkov would win it.

If the Sabres manage to hold onto their lead, they win in regulation and end up finishing 26th and winning the second-overall pick, while the Panthers drop down to 20th and pick third. Two teams, two high picks, both gone because of one game.

Keep your sticks down, kids.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The bandwagon-hopper’s guide to the 2019 playoffs

The​ playoffs begin tonight,​ as​ we​ start​ a journey​ that​ will see​ 16 teams battle​ it out until​ only​ one is left​​ to lift the Stanley Cup. Of course, that means there are also 15 teams that didn’t get an invite, so nearly half the league’s fans don’t have anyone to root for.

When your team doesn’t make the postseason, there are two ways you can respond. The first is to spend the next two months hating the world, openly cheering against all 16 playoff teams and dedicating yourself to stomping out any spark of happiness you find in any other fan base. This is the default setting and I highly recommend it.

But not everyone leans that way. For some, it’s more fun to have some sort rooting interest in the postseason, even if it’s only temporary. Those fans have an important decision to make, and they’ve only got a few hours left to make it.

Those fans need a bandwagon.

It’s a tough call to make. You want to pick a team that’s fun and easy to get behind. Some inspiring plotlines certainly help. Ideally you also want a team that might actually win something, so that you’re not just signing up for the misery of an early exit. But you also don’t want a team that’s already got a trophy case full of hardware, because even in the bandwagon game there’s nothing worse than a front-runner.

I’m here to help. So today, I’ve ranked the 16 playoffs teams in terms of their bandwagon potential for you fans who are into that sort of thing. We’re here for a good time, not for a long time, so let’s find you a temporary team.

16. Pittsburgh Penguins

Why you should get on board: They’ve got Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and a ton of star power, and there’s a decent chance they’re gong to win it all. You know… again.

Why you shouldn’t: Remember what we said about front-running? The Penguins have won three Cups in the last decade, including two of the last three. They didn’t win last year, so this wouldn’t be quite as bad as jumping on the bandwagon of, say, the Patriots or Warriors. But it wouldn’t be far off.

Bottom line: Also, they’re facing a classic feel-good story in the first round. If you choose this moment to jump on the Penguins’ bandwagon, you might be a bad person.

15. Dallas Stars

Why you should get on board: It’s always fun to hop on the bandwagon of an underdog and then watch them pull off an upset or two. The Stars could certainly do that, as they’ll face a favored Predators team that seems beatable. If they can pull it off, you’ll be along for the ride. And if they can’t, there’s a good chance they’ll at least get all dramatic about it.

Why you shouldn’t: The Stars feature great defence and goaltending but don’t score much. If you can pick any team in the league to root for, do you really want to go with the one that’s going to try to bore its way to a title?

Bottom line: I’m all for a classic underdog pick, but there are better options available.

14. Colorado Avalanche

Why you should get on board: They’re a fun team with three star forwards, not to mention plenty of underdog cred given where they were just a few years ago. And like the Stars, they’ll go into the first round as longshots but it’s hardly inconceivable that they could pull of the upset.

Why you shouldn’t: Could they beat the Flames? It’s possible, sure. Are they going to win the Cup? It would take a near-miracle. That means you’re basically signing up for heartbreak, and it’s just a question of how quickly it arrives.

Bottom line: They should be more fun than the Stars, but you’re still probably looking for a new team after a round or two.

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