Friday, March 29, 2019

Grab Bag: Introducing the Devan Dubnyk Rule, a word about shutout jinxes and a decade of Canucks

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Devan Dubnyk did something crazy this week, and I think we should make a new rule about it
- A word about people who think you can jinx a shutout by talking about it
- An obscure player whose first two years with the Leafs rank with Auston Matthews and Wendel Clark
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at an entire decade of Vancouver Canucks' history

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Puck Soup: Benefit of the Doughty

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Drew Doughty rips into Matthew Tkachuk and Brent Burns
- Ilya Kovalchuk rips into his own coach
- Roberto Luongo nears the end, and what that could mean
- Thoughts on fighting, concussions, and my piece from earlier this week
- Ryan finds out about that St. Louis bagels thing and has some feelings about it
- An interview with Matt Porter of the Boston Globe
- Greg and I face off in an NCAA hockey quiz
- And lots more...

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>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Ranking the ten best first-round matchups we might realistically see

We’re​ down to less​ than​ two​ weeks​ left​ in​ the regular​ season, and for​ a handful of teams​ still​ jockeying for wild-card​​ positions, there’s plenty left to play for. But for most fans, our teams are either locked into a playoff spot or already eliminated. There’s still seeding and home ice to play for, sure, but for the most part, we know whether our team is in or out.

And that means it’s time to start looking ahead to the single best time to be a hockey fan: The first round of the playoffs. It’s the best, just two straight weeks of non-stop hockey between teams that either already hate each other or are about to.

Let’s start the hype. But we have to do it responsibly. After all, there’s no point getting all worked up over a matchup that’s almost definitely not going to happen. I’d love to see the Jets face the Predators or Leafs vs. Habs as much as the next guy, but it would take a near-miracle to make those happen in the first round. We need to figure out which pairings actually have a shot at happening.

Luckily, our pal Dom Luszczyszyn has done that work for us. His projections page now includes a section for most likely playoff matchups. Today, let’s pick an arbitrary cutoff – let’s say 30 percent based on the March 26 update – and count down the ten best first-round matchups that we have a realistic shot at seeing. We’re looking for the total package: good teams that are legitimate contenders, an established rivalry, as much star power as possible and some interesting storylines.

With that in mind, here are the ten best matchups that look like they might actually happen.

10. Avalanche vs. Flames (47 percent likelihood)

Contender status: Not bad on the Flames side. The Avalanche are a major longshot.

Rivalry factor: Low. They’re not in the same division and they’ve never met in the playoffs. Aside from the whole Ian Cole/Sam Bennett incident back in November, there hasn’t been all that much bad blood between the two teams that didn’t involve poorly thought-out offers sheets.

Potential storylines: Only one of these teams made the playoffs last year and it was the Avalanche. That makes it kind of tough to call this some sort of classic underdog battle, even though it would probably feature a one-seed against a second wildcard. Instead, let’s focus on all the offensive firepower and questionable goaltending and hope we’d get some shootouts. (No, not those, the good kind.)

Random clip to get you fired up: The Flames score five straight in the third period to roar back to win that November game.

Bottom line: Calgary is one of those teams that’s going to make the playoffs but doesn’t yet have a clear opponent emerging, although the Avalanche are getting close. Personally, I’d probably rather see them face the Coyotes, but they don’t meet our 30 percent threshold. Still, the Avs at least bring some star power and it’s not like the Flames and their shaky goaltending are exactly looking upset-proof.

9. Hurricanes vs. Capitals (35 percent)

Contender status: The Caps are the defending champs. The Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs in nine years, although that won’t stop all the analytics types from picking them to win this series anyway.

Rivalry factor: Who has fond memories of the Southeast Division? (Scans room.) Right, nobody. Still, they’ve at least been division rivals for two decades, even though they’ve never met in the playoffs.

Potential storylines: Celebrations. Last year, the Capitals took post-Cup hijinks to a new level. This year, it’s the Hurricanes and their Storm Surge. Does that prove that having a bit of fun is OK? Or are the Capitals still the counter-example, because they waited until they’d actually won something to get goofy? Get ready to hear all about it, whether you want to or not.

Once we get that out of the way, this sets up nicely for the well-worn storyline of the young up-and-comers running into the grizzled veterans who aren’t ready to give up the throne quite yet. Having a respected veteran like Justin Williams face his old team adds a bit of intrigue.

Random clip to get you fired up: OK, “fired up” may be overselling it a bit, but how about Alexander Ovechkin scoring a hat trick in a 6-5 win?

Bottom line: There’s no real history here to speak of. But the present features two good teams who could make for an intriguing matchup. We could do worse.

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Monday, March 25, 2019

I cheered as a generation of NHL players gave each other concussions. What do I owe them now?

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I’m​ going to warn​ you​ up​ front​ that​ this​ post is​ going to be​ heavy on the​ questions.​ It’s going to​​ be a lot of smaller questions, all piling up toward one bigger question. And the answer is going to be unsatisfying, because the answer is going to be: I don’t know.

Maybe I should, because I’ve been struggling with this for years. Maybe you have too. And if so, I wish I could wrap it up for you with a nice easy answer we could all agree on. That’s where I wanted this to end. I didn’t get there.

But I still think there’s value in the questions because for too long most of us didn’t ask them at all. Or at least, we didn’t ask them out loud, even as they might have been lingering somewhere in the background.

I have questions about concussions, the players who are still feeling their effects, and the shared experience of being a hockey fan and what that should mean. I find myself asking those questions a lot these days. But to get to right now, first I need to go back almost three decades.

It’s 1989, and I just finished opening up my Christmas presents. I don’t remember exactly what I got that year, but I’m sure there was a nice pile of clothes, books and computer games. I do know which gift I want to turn to first: a VHS copy of “Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey.” I’ve been getting hockey tapes for years now, but this one is different. It’s the first in the series, before we even knew there would be a series, and it isn’t just the usual bloopers and silly sketches. This is Grapes. This is going to be good.

And it is good. All the hockey fans in the house quickly gather around the TV to watch the hits and goals and other highlights. Then comes a segment of big hits, after which Cherry thanks us for watching and gives a big thumbs up as the screen fades to black. There are probably a few puzzled looks for a second or two, but then Cherry is back and he chuckles at the fake out. “Hey you, folks, I know what you’re thinking out there. What’s a Don Cherry video without the odd tussle?”

But before we get to that, we arrive at what Cherry would eventually start calling “tea time.” That’s where he gives all the “sweethearts” out there who don’t like fighting a chance to turn off the TV. At my house, nobody even thinks of turning it off.

First up is a scrum involving a clearly uninterested Wayne Gretzky that’s played up for laughs, complete with rag-timey piano music. Then comes “two guys that aren’t fooling”: Bob Probert and Craig Coxe. The fight is from early in the 1987-88 season, more than two years before this time, but in the days before YouTube or 24-hour sports highlights, most fans have never seen the whole thing start-to-finish.

Coxe and Probert go toe-to-toe for nearly a full minute, and it’s all bombs. Cherry says there are 71 punches thrown; it seems like more. A lot of them don’t land. A lot of them do. “Way to go, Craig, and way to go, Bobby,” Cherry exclaims when it’s over. I’m sure I was nodding along.

Next up is another super heavyweight bout, this one featuring John Kordic and Jay Miller. Then another non-fight that’s played for laughs, and the video ends. I can remember feeling vaguely disappointed. Only two real fights? I thought there’d be more. Ah well, let’s rewind and watch Coxe and Probert again.

That scene became an annual tradition at my house. Christmas day was about stockings, family and a nice turkey dinner. But it was also the day to tear open the latest “Rock’em Sock’em” and gather around the TV to watch Grapes walk us through another season of goals, saves, crushing hits and, at the end, the odd tussle. I’m willing to bet there were plenty of families across Canada that did the same.

Bob Probert died in 2010. The cause was heart failure, but he donated his brain to researchers who found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease that’s been linked to blows to the head. His wife described him as experiencing memory loss and uncharacteristic behavior in his final years in an article in the New York Times. Click that article today, and you’ll be greeted by a photo of Probert in mid-fight, blood pouring out of his forehead, while a young fan beams just a few feet away.

John Kordic died in 1992 after a drug-fueled altercation with eight police officers in a motel room; the official cause of death was listed as heart and lung failure. He’d abused steroids during his career and had long battled drugs and alcohol. He’d attributed his struggles in part to his father, who never approved of his role as an enforcer because he wanted his son to be a real player. Sports Illustrated wrote about Kordic’s passing in the weeks after it happened. They ran the article under the headline “Death of a Goon”.

Should we have turned it off?

Even then, even as a kid, I can remember feeling just the slightest twinge of guilt over watching players absorb haymakers. Or maybe I didn’t, and I’m just wishing that part into existence. But if it was there, it was easy enough to extinguish. This was hockey, after all. These guys knew what they signed up for. As Coxe and Probert are pummeling each other, Cherry bellows what we’re all thinking: “Two tough guys going at it. They want to go, let ’em go!”

And then, the fight fans’ mantra: “They’re not hurting anybody but themselves.”

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Weekend power rankings: Thinning the wild card herd and the Sabres make history

With​ less than two​ weeks​ to​ go​ in​ the​ regular season,​ let’s skip the​ gimmicks and get​ straight​ to figuring out​​ where we’re at after a busy weekend on the wild card bubble.

First things first: While we did our best this week to spread some optimism among the eight teams that were chasing playoff spots, we can safely narrow down that list now. The Flyers are done, thanks to a pair of weekend losses. So are the Panthers, who lost in regulation to the Bruins. And the Oilers and Canucks are also done. None of those teams are mathematically eliminated, but they’re close enough that they’d need a miracle. Chicago’s close to that point too; we’ll get to them in a bit more detail down below.

That leaves us with a more manageable group still in the wild card race. In the East, it’s down to the Blue Jackets, Canadiens and Hurricanes, with two spots up for grabs. The Habs and Canes hold them right now, and they met last night in one of those games that Columbus fans just knew was going to go to overtime and summon the loser point fairy. It did, with the Hurricanes taking the two points on Andrei Svechnikov’s winner.

That left the Blue Jackets facing a must-win in Vancouver and they got the job done with a 5-0 win. That capped off a week-long road trip which saw them lose three straight and their grip on a wild card spot, and after going all-in at the trade deadline, Columbus is dangerously close to falling out of the race. The good news is that they host the Habs on Thursday, in what will be the biggest game of the year and maybe even of the Tortorella/Kekalainen era – not to mention the one that determines whether it continues.

Out west, the feel-good Coyotes are flatlining, losing five straight to cough up their hold on a wild card spot and fall two points back. The only good news is that they haven’t lost as much ground during that streak as you might think; the Stars have lost four of five while the Wild have lost six of eight. Only the Avalanche are hot, winning four straight before having their streak snapped in OT by the Hawks last night.

Where does that leave us? In the East, the Blue Jackets still control their own destiny, although a loss to the Canadiens this week would just about spell the end. As for the Habs and Hurricanes, remember that seeding matters here, a lot – the first wild card spot earns a matchup with the Metro winner while the second spot gets the Lightning. That could be the difference between having a real shot at winning a round and just being happy to be there.

In the West, the Coyotes still hold most of the card thanks to a schedule that serves up the Hawks, Avalanche and Wild this week. Meanwhile, the Stars head out on a four-game Western Canadian road trip that starts tonight in Winnipeg, so they’ve got their work cut out for them.

By this time next week, both races could be settled. Or both could be even tighter. Or one of those teams I just said was dead and buried could be back in the hunt, and gosh, if that happens I sure some of their fans will drop by to remind me.

For now, let’s get to this week’s rankings, where we had more movement than usual in the top five and something very weird in the bottom five …

Road to the Cup

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

Before we get to the top five, I thought last night’s fishing-themed Storm Surge was just OK. Saturday’s version was fun, though:

5. Vegas Golden Knights (42-27-6, +27 true goals differential*) – It might seem a little weird to hand a top-five spot to a team that probably won’t even have home ice in the first round. Maybe it is. But the Knights have been rolling since the trade deadline, going 10-1-1 since Mark Stone arrived and scoring five or more goals in five of those games. That includes this week’s impressive 7-3 win over a Sharks team they’ll probably face in round one.

Put simply, at this point I’d pick the Knights to beat the Sharks in a seven-game series, even one that started in San Jose. They have better goaltending, the offense is humming and their defensive game is good enough that they can pitch a 20-shot shutout at the Jets with their backup goalie. They’re not perfect – they lost to the Red Wings on Saturday – but I can’t think of five teams whose odds I like better right now, so they’re in.

4. Winnipeg Jets (45-26-4, +35) – Saturday’s 5-0 win over the Predators was a statement game, one that left even Roman Josi saying things like “they’re just better than us.” More importantly, it left the Jets in great shape to earn the top seed in the division, as they hold a four-point lead, a game in hand and the ROW tie-breaker. That means they should avoid an occasionally scary Blues team that just beat the Lightning and instead start the playoffs against a wild card opponent they’ll be heavy favorites against.

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Friday, March 22, 2019

Grab Bag: Fixing the lottery, let’s experiment on bad teams and happier times for Minnesota fans

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Should there be a limit on teams winning the lottery?
- A brilliant idea for meaningless late-season games we can steal from the 1930s
- An obscure player who may have invented the unsustainable shooting percentage
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the Minnesota Fighting Saints, one of the weirdest teams of the early WHA days

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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Puck Soup: Poll postions

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg, Ryan and I react to the NHLPA players poll
- Are the Lightning still the best team if they don't win the Cup?
- Is there anything to this Mike Babcock vs. Kyle Dubas feud?
- The Western wildcard gets fun
- The Hurricanes' "Duck Hunt" celebration spurs some old school NES talk
- Plus Bill and Ted 3, saddest retirements and lots more...

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>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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Breaking down the best and the worst of the 17 nights left on the schedule

OK,​ hockey fans, huddle​ up.

We’re​ down​ to​ 17​ nights​ left on​ the regular season​ schedule. That’s not​ much​ and there’s still​​ plenty left to be decided. Most teams still have eight or nine games left, so just about everyone is going to be busy and the stakes are high. It’s tempting to just get comfortable and lock in for the rest of the homestretch.

But that’s not healthy. We have to pace ourselves. Three weeks from now we’re going to be into the first round of the playoffs, which is the absolute craziest time of the year to be a hockey fan. You’re not going to last if you burned yourself out over the last few weeks of the regular season.

Today, let’s walk through every night left on the schedule and figure out which ones are must-see TV and which ones we can maybe take a pass on. The NHL has never really been great at balanced scheduling; they’ll serve up a busy night packed with great games immediately followed by one with nothing worth watching. That can be frustrating when it’s November, but in March and April, it’s actually good news. We need to pick our spots.

Grab your calendars and let’s figure this out.

Thursday, March 21

Total games: 12

The can’t-miss matchup: We get a rematch of the 2017 Stanley Cup final tonight, as the Penguins visit the Predators in a game with major ramifications for both teams. The Predators are fighting it out with the Jets for top spot in the Central and need every point they can get, while the Penguins still have a shot at home ice or even the division title. Mix in plenty of star power and this should be a good one.

Other good options: Jets at Golden Knights is a rematch of last year’s conference final and maybe a preview of this year’s too. Avalanche at Stars has wildcard implications and the Islanders can drive a serious nail into the Canadiens’ coffin. And Tampa visits the Hurricanes in what could be a preview of a sneakily intriguing first-round series.

No thanks: Despite a dozen games on the schedule, Flyers at Blackhawks is somehow the only one that won’t feature at least one team holding down a playoff spot. Instead, it’s two teams that will probably finish the season just a few points out and regretting the missed opportunities along the way.

Entertainment quotient: 8/10 – Tonight should be a great start to the homestretch, with so many good-to-great games that it’s almost inevitable that there will be at least a few memorable ones.

Friday, March 22

Total games: Two

The can’t-miss matchup: Uh … Wild at Capitals, I guess? At least both teams still have something to play for.

Other good options: Netflix. A good book. Interacting with your family.

No thanks: Sharks at Ducks. The various versions of the Battle of California usually serve up something fun, but nobody should be carving out time to watch the Ducks these days unless you have an immediate family member on the team.

Entertainment quotient: 2/10 – You know what, maybe DVR a few of tonight’s games to watch tomorrow.

Saturday, March 23

Total games: 14

The can’t-miss matchup: Predators at Jets, in the final meeting of the season between the two teams. It’s too early to say whether this one will decide the Central, but there’s a decent chance that it will. And if it plants a few seeds of bad blood for a Round 2 matchup along the way, that would work too.

Other good options: The theme for most of the rest of this busy night is games in which a good team is playing a bad one. But Lightning at Blues and Penguins at Stars should be fun and Sabres at Canadiens is a classic case of a division rival with the chance to play spoiler.

No thanks: Senators at Oilers isn’t the worst game on the schedule; that would be Ducks at Kings. But that one at least has serious lottery implications, while this one features a team that doesn’t want to finish last against a team that realistically can’t.

Entertainment quotient: 6/10 – This ends up being a weirdly disappointing night, as the NHL serves up a slate that’s just one game shy of the maximum, yet doesn’t feature all that many really intriguing matchups. Still, there’s so much going on that a few games have to be worth watching. Just be ready with the remote if the one you’re on isn’t delivering; you want a Mike Keenan-like hook tonight.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The optimist’s case for the eight teams still chasing down a playoff spot

We’re​ down to crunch​ time​ in​ the​ NHL​ playoff​ race, with​ 16 spots up​ for grabs and​ less​ than three weeks​​ to sort it all out.

At this point, we can basically break the league down into four groups. There are the teams that are already in, either because they’ve clinched (Tampa, Calgary) or are so close that they’re basically locks (Boston, San Jose, Winnipeg and several others). You’ve got the teams that are already out, like Ottawa and Los Angeles. And you’ve got teams like Arizona, Carolina and Columbus that are holding down spots right now and who would really like to run out the clock before somebody can catch them.

It’s the fourth group that we’re interested in today: Teams that are still alive but don’t have a spot today. According to Dom Luszczyszyn’s projections model, there are eight teams that wouldn’t be in the playoffs if they started today, but who still have a playoff probability north of zero percent.

Note that we’re not counting teams like the Sabres, Rangers and Ducks who are sitting at zero percent probability even though they haven’t been mathematically eliminated yet; we can call them the dead teams walking. We’re interested in the teams that still have a chance. A slim chance, in some cases, sure. But a chance.

It’s nervous times for fans of those teams. Some of them are probably pretty miserable right now. Today, let’s put on our optimist goggles and look on the bright side, as we make the case for why each of those eight teams is going to close the gap and make the playoffs. We won’t be right for all of them. There’s a good chance that we won’t be right for any of them, given how hard it is to make up ground in an NHL playoff race. But we’re going to try, if only because fans of these teams could probably use some news.

Finding optimism is going to be a challenge for some of these teams, so we’ll start off easy with the team that the model likes best and work our way down. (All odds are from the Tuesday morning update to Dom’s model.)

Let’s get positive, starting with the team that’s most likely to make the leap.

The team: Minnesota Wild

The race: The Wild sit just one point back of the Coyotes for the final Western wildcard spot. They could also theoretically catch the Stars, who are three points up, or even the Blues, who are five up. But the Blues and Stars each have a game in hand.

All in all, it’s not a bad spot to be in. And it’s why the Wild have the highest odds of any team currently on the outside looking in.

Their odds: 29 percent. Huh. That’s not actually all that high. This may be tougher than I thought.

Why they’ll make it: They’re chasing three teams and only have to pass one, which is a pretty good position to be in. If they can get hot, they’re probably in, and even if they can’t, there’s always the chance that one of the other teams will stumble down the stretch. Fans tend to focus too much on how many points a team has to make up and not enough on how many teams they have to pass and the Wild are in decent shape by both measures.

More importantly, the schedule serves up one more game with the Coyotes, on March 31 in Arizona. That means that the Wild control their own fate. Win that game, and hold serve the rest of the way, and they’re in.

Why they won’t: Yeah, about that schedule. It also brings games against teams like the Predators, Knights, Capitals, Jets and Bruins. That’s not good news for a team that’s already lost six of eight and has recently been saying things like “We have no heart right now.”

Parting words of optimism: Two weeks ago, the Wild went into Tampa and shut out the Lightning. Compared to doing that, catching the Coyotes should be easy.

The team: Montreal Canadiens

The race: With ten games to go, the Habs are three points back of the Blue Jackets and four back of the Hurricanes, who have a game in hand.

Their odds: 18 percent, down from over 40 percent just a week ago. That’s the biggest drop in the league in recent days.

Why they’ll make it: Last week was brutal, but there’s a chance to turn it around starting tonight as they get the Flyers, Sabres and Panthers over the next week. They also have one game each with the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets, meaning they control at least some of their own destiny. And while the last week looks brutal – it goes Jets, Lightning, Capitals and Leafs – those teams will have all wrapped up playoff spots and could be resting starters.

Beyond that, the Canadiens looked great on Saturday and just got robbed by a goalie who stood on his head. That happens. And when you’ve got Carey Price, it’s more likely to happen in your favor than the other way around.

Why they won’t: We can talk all we want about deserving a better fate, but last week really was devasting to Montreal’s hopes. Three or four points doesn’t seem like much, but history tells us that it’s a lot to make up in the first half, let alone in late March. And remember, they won’t hold the ROW tie-breaker on either Columbus or Carolina, so the gap is more like four and five.

On top of that, the offense has dried up and there isn’t a lot of time left to figure out how to get it back.

Parting words of optimism: You’re chasing a team that’s never won a playoff round and one that’s missed the postseason for nine straight years and you have Carey Price. You’ve got this.

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Monday, March 18, 2019

Weekend power rankings: The Lightning are the NHL’s best team and they probably won’t win the Cup

We’re​ just three weeks​ away​ from​ the​ start​ of​ the playoffs.​ It’s the very​ best time of​ year,​ with a ton of​​ action, intensity through the roof and the crushing suspense of finding out who’ll be left standing as the season’s best team.

Except that this year, there’s no suspense, because we already know the answer. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the best team of the 2018-19 season. There’s really no question about it. Even if they lose every game they play for the rest of the year, they’re still the season’s best and it’s not even close.

Now we just need to wait and see if they actually win the Stanley Cup. However, they probably won’t.

That feels like a weird thing to say. As hockey fans, we’re trained to believe that the Cup winner is the best team. Of course they are. They were the last team standing and they won a big trophy for it. Regular season success is nice, but as the league itself has told us, it’s all about the Cup. We can’t know who’s the best until we’ve seen who survives four rounds and emerges as champion.

Nonsense. This year, we already know. It’s the Lightning.

To be clear, I’m not trying to make a case that the Presidents’ Trophy is somehow the real prize of an NHL season. Most years, there’s so little difference between the top few teams that the difference between finishing first overall and third or fourth doesn’t really tell us anything about which team was actually best.

But not this season. The Lightning aren’t just clearly the best team in the league, they might be the best team of the last quarter-century. They’ve been dominant at pretty much every facet of the game. They’re loaded with stars, with many of them having career years. They’re well-coached, have the league’s best powerplay and penalty kill, are strong in goal and don’t feature any obvious holes anywhere on the roster. If you could wish the perfect cap-era team into existence, it would look a lot like this year’s Lightning.

But they still probably won’t win. And we might as well start getting our heads around that now.

Dom Luszczyszyn currently has the Lightning at about a 25 percent chance to win the Cup, even though he also thinks they may be the single best team of the cap era. That seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. In the NHL’s era of hyper-parity, 25 percent is pretty close to the best you can do.

To understand why, let’s do some math. Imagine a team that was a 70 percent favorite in a playoff series. That’s pretty good. It’s rare for any team to be a 70 percent favorite in a single game, even against the last place team or a tired one that’s starting its backup goalie. There’s more variance in a single game than a seven-game series, but still, 70 percent would be a heavy favorite. Now imagine our team is so strong that they’re a 70 percent favorite against each and every team they could possibly play in the playoffs.

That’s sounds good. And it is. But there’s a problem: If you’re a 70 percent favorite in every series, it’s more likely than not that you won’t even make it to the third round. Our 70 percent team has only a 49 percent chance of winning two straight rounds. And their odds of winning four in a row are only 24 percent.

The Lightning are probably a better than 70 percent favorite over whichever wildcard team they play. But they’re less than that against, say, the Bruins or whoever comes out of the West. Mix in a few injuries or a poorly timed slump and you can see how this might end.

Here’s what will probably happen: The Lightning will go into the playoffs being referred to as overwhelming favorites even though, compared to the rest of the league collectively, they’ll be big underdogs. And at some point, they’ll likely lose. Maybe some key players will get hurt. Maybe they’ll draw an especially tough matchup. Chances are, they’ll just run into a red-hot goalie who’ll steal the series even though Tampa plays better.

And when that happens, the narratives will kick in. Fans and media and maybe even the Lightning themselves will honor the age-old hockey tradition of refusing to accept that sometimes the best team doesn’t win and instead will start looking for reasons why Tampa wasn’t as good as we thought. Odds are we’ll settle on something around their character and leadership and heart. They didn’t want it bad enough. They were good, sure, at least during the season. But the problem is, we’ll tell ourselves, they weren’t the best after all.

And we’ll be wrong. The Lightning are the best team in the league, even if they get swept in the first round. They may not be Stanley Cup champions and we all agreed long ago that that’s what matters most. If and when they get eliminated, they’ll be devastated and their season will feel like a failure. That’s natural and it’s how it should be. The Cup is what counts.

Just don’t fall for the narratives. Instead, accept the reality of today’s NHL: The Lightning are the best, but the best team usually doesn’t win.

On to this week’s power rankings. Hey, I bet you can’t guess who’s going to be ranked No. 1 …

Road to the Cup

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

One downside of focusing on the top five and bottom five every week is that it doesn’t leave us with much room to talk about the wildcard races in the middle. That might be good news for Canadiens fans, who watched their team stumble through a rough week punctuated by Saturday’s loss to Corey Crawford. Montreal sits three points back of the Blue Jackets and four back of the Hurricanes with just ten games left and the Habs don’t look like they’ll hold the ROW tie-breaker on either. They’re still in it, but their odds look a lot worse than they did when we were breaking them down just one week ago.

In the West, it’s the Wild and the Avalanche chasing the Coyotes and Stars and maybe the Blues. The Avs got a big win yesterday, but didn’t gain all that much ground because the loser point fairy decided to show up and work its magic on pretty much everyone else. Sorry, Colorado, just because you win and all the teams you’re chasing lose doesn’t mean you should gain two points on anyone and that makes sense because (mumble, mumble) closer playoff races (mumble, mumble) and hey look over there it’s the power rankings.

5. Washington Capitals (42-23-7, +20 true goals differential*) – Two goals to 50 for Alexander Ovechkin, who has yet another Rocket Richard Trophy all but wrapped up. And as Sportsnet reminds us, Wayne Gretzky’s unbreakable record remains within his sights.

4. Boston Bruins (43-20-9, +32) – Three straight regulation losses during the week put an end to their points streak and allowed the struggling Leafs to stay in range. More importantly for our purposes, it took some of the pressure off of trying to figure out how to get them higher in the rankings.

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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Grab Bag: Who wants to smell like a Flyers fan?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Please stop saying the Dead Puck Era is over just because scoring is up slightly
- The concept of the "microcore" is great but I think we can do better on the name
- An obscure player with the only good "-er" nickname ever
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown in which a scientific experiment proves that Flyer fans smell like number two

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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

I haven’t watched a shootout in two years and I highly recommend it

John​ Tortorella has a proposal for​ how​ the​ league​ should​ handle​ the shootout​ and it involves​ a whole lot of​ people​ dying.

I’d like to go on the record as being against league-mandated team-wide extinction. But allowing for a little bit of hyperbole to make his point, I’m with Tortorella on the broader issue. I’m not a shootout guy. I wouldn’t mind if the league got rid of it altogether, or at least figured out a way to drastically reduce how often they occur. Tyler Dellow has been on the case and he makes a convincing argument that expanding overtime by even a few more minutes would mean far fewer shootouts. Sounds good. Let’s make that happen.

But in the meantime, I’ve come up with a slightly more straightforward way to reduce the number of shootouts I’m subjected to: I just stopped watching them. Literally. I haven’t sat through an NHL shootout in almost two years.

Yes, I know. Great job, Einstein, figuring out that you can avoid something by, uh, avoiding it. And I realize that this doesn’t exactly qualify as some sort of scandalous confession. But it’s a bit of a strange thing to say given that, you know, my entire job is to watch hockey.

But that’s the thing: I like hockey. I’ve spent huge chunks of my life watching hockey. It’s pretty much my favorite thing to do short of making my children smile and it’s possible that I only said that last part because my wife might be reading. Hockey is great.

But here’s the thing, shootouts are only kind of hockey. They’re closer to being hockey than they are to being, say, backgammon or competitive Rubik’s cubing. But only barely. And when the game you’re watching finishes up overtime without a winner, there’s a good chance that there’s still real hockey being played on some other channel. Why wouldn’t you want to watch that instead?

A couple of years ago, that’s what I started doing. The shootout starts, I reach for the remote and find another game.

You know what? It’s way better this way. I highly recommend it.

I can’t remember the last shootout that I sat through, although I’d assume it came late in the 2016-17 season. But when opening night arrived in 2017, I made an impulse decision to bail on any shootouts and go looking for a game where they were still playing actual hockey instead.

At first, switching away from a game right before it ended seemed odd, like walking out of a movie right at the big finale. But it turns out that it doesn’t feel that way. I’d already seen the big climax – two teams had played real hockey for 65 minutes without finding a winner and now they were going to flip a glorified coin to award an extra point. Skipping the shootout turned out to be more like walking out of the movie before the long, boring credits sequence that you don’t really need to see anyway.

Back then, I figured my no-shootout experiment would last a week before I’d go back to watching hockey the way everyone else did. But a week turned into a month, which turned into a year and now two. And I can tell you: I don’t miss those things at all. There’s a good chance you wouldn’t either.

It turns out that you don’t actually miss all that much when you decide to just stop watching shootouts. You still find out who got the extra point within minutes, and somebody on Twitter will almost certainly be live-tweeting every attempt, so you don’t miss any important information. In the rare cases where somebody does something creative or there’s a spectacular save or a controversy or whatever, you’ll see that somewhere too, almost immediately. You’re not actually gaining anything by watching, other than a head start of a few seconds and maybe some vague sense of closure. Those things are worth something, I guess. They’re just not as much fun as watching actual hockey.

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Monday, March 11, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Counting down my worst rankings of the season (so far)

We’re​ getting into that​ time​ of​ year​ when​ power​ rankings start​ to lock in​ from week-to-week. A team​ might​ still occasionally have​​ an especially good or bad week and move a spot or two, and every now and then a dark horse will make a surprise charge down the homestretch. But generally, once we get past the trade deadline and close in on the 70-game mark, there really isn’t much reason to make big changes to what we have. Spoiler alert: The Lightning are in first place again this week.

Before we can start looking at our Stanley Cup and draft lottery hopefuls, let’s take a look back with a different kind of top five: My five worst rankings from this season.

I’ll pause here so you can all make your “How did you narrow it down?” jokes.

It’s true that in one sense, we’ve got plenty of candidates to choose from. In all, there have been 15 teams that have made at least one appearance in the top five, and 13 that have made an appearance in the bottom (including one team that showed up in both). That’s a lot, more than in any previous season I’ve been doing this. It’s been a volatile season. Or maybe some of the picks have just been bad.

To be honest, I don’t think anything stands out as an embarrassingly awful call; it’s not like there was some week that had Tampa in the bottom five or the Kings as a Cup contender. But that’s a low bar and let’s just say that some of those picks hold up better than others. Today we’re going to take our medicine and own up to five of the worst:

5. Arizona Coyotes ranked No. 1 in the bottom five (Oct. 5) – The Coyotes might end up making the playoffs and at one point I thought they were the odds-on favorite to finish dead last. That’s not a great look, although in this case, it comes with a pretty decent excuse: The season was just a few days old. We even called that week’s rankings the “way-too-early edition.” The Coyotes had started 0-2-0 so they were probably as good a pick as anyone; within a few weeks they’d made their exit from the bottom five to great fanfare, never to return. But for one week at least, I thought they’d be worse than the Senators, Red Wings or Kings. They were not.

4. Colorado Avalanche ranked No. 4 in the top five (Dec. 3) – “I’ve never fully bought into the Avalanche. I still don’t, if I’m being honest.” Good for you, past me, but you still let a hot streak mislead you into ranking them as the fourth-best team in the league. This one only lasted a week, but it doesn’t hold up well and unlike with the Coyotes, I can’t claim the “it was early” excuse.

3. Buffalo Sabres ranked No. 5 in the top five (Nov. 26) – Of all the teams to crack the top five this year, none will finish lower than the Sabres in the final standings. In that sense, no call was more wrong than this one.

If that’s the case, why not rank it higher? For one thing, the Sabres only showed up in the top five once, at the tail end of that ten-game winning streak. That stretch had briefly elevated Buffalo to first place overall, and yet I only had them fifth that week. More importantly, my writeup was packed with caveats, like that their top-five case “is far from iron-clad” and that this is “probably the only chance to slide them into the top five” and “Will it last? Maybe not.” Reading it all these months later, I half-expected to go back and see that the first letter of every line spelled out “I don’t actually believe this ranking.” But I still made it, so I’ll own it. (But do check out the comments that week from furious Sabres fans who insist I’m short-changing them by ranking them below the Lightning.)

2. St. Louis Blues ranked in the bottom five (five weeks total, as late as Dec. 10) – I have to include this one, especially since it lasted over a month. But the funny thing was that at the time, nobody thought I was wrong. If anything, it became a running joke that Blues fans were mad that I was going easy on them (they dipped as low as No. 3 for a few weeks). As I wrote on Dec. 10, “something big has to be coming in St. Louis.” I was right, just not in the way I thought I was.

1. Minnesota Wild in the top five (for three straight weeks beginning on Nov. 12) – The Wild aren’t as bad as the Sabres and might finish ahead of the Avalanche too. But what stands out here is how long I had them listed – three weeks in all, with them drifting as high as third after a big win over the Jets. And I can’t even fall back on hedging my bets when I wrote about them, because I was saying things like “Yeah, it’s probably time to start taking them seriously” and “Honestly, (fifth spot) is probably too low for the Wild.”

They were playing well at the time, going 10-2-0 at one point, but it was a stretch powered largely by red-hot goaltending from Devan Dubnyk. He eventually cooled down and then got hurt to start an extended cold streak. I couldn’t have seen an injury coming, but I was too eager to buy into the Wild as a legitimate Central favorite instead of what they were: a decent team that can sometimes look like more than that when the goalie is hot and they’re getting some breaks.

OK, I feel better. Now onto this week’s ratings, which I assure you are all 100 percent accurate. (Unless they’re not, in which case, uh, it was still too early.)

Road to the Cup

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

One big story to watch in the final month: The Colorado Avalanche are going to have to make their playoff push without Gabriel Landeskog, who’s out four-to-six weeks with an upper-body injury. That timeline means he could be back early in the playoffs and there’s a slight chance he could return before the end of the season. But as Ryan Clark wonders, by that point will it still matter?

5. Washington Capitals (41-21-7, +22 true goals differential*) – Screw it, I’m back on board.

The Capitals showed up in our very first top five, then vanished for two months before reappearing in December. They hung around for five weeks, reaching as high as the two-spot on New Year’s Eve even as I wrote that the ranking “seems a little high.” Now, after two weeks of winning pushed them back into top spot in the Metro, they seem like as good a pick as any out of a crowded top-five field.

Or maybe not. You might prefer the Jets, who have a decent case even though they lost in Washington last night. But the Jets look to have a tougher road out of the Central than what the Caps will have in the Metro and that matters too. For the same reason, I can’t talk myself into Nashville. The post-Stone trade Golden Knights? They’ve looked great at times, but the top of the Pacific is very tough and they’re locked into third. The Islanders are still at least in the mix, but I’d rather know more about the Robin Lehner injury before I get them back near the top five. And the Leafs somehow haven’t shown up here in eight weeks even as they’re tied for second in the league in wins.

It’s a tough call. But this is about who’s going to win the Cup, and when in doubt, deferring to the defending champs doesn’t seem like a bad way to break the tie. For this week, at least.

4. Boston Bruins (42-18-9, +35) – Figuring out where to rank the Bruins is really getting interesting. On the one hand, you could make a very strong case that they’re the second-best team in the NHL. Last night’s loss aside, I’m not even sure you’d get much pushback from anyone. That means they should be ranked second, right?

But this isn’t a “best teams” list. It’s “most likely to win the Cup,” and that means that having the best team in the league in your division is bad news. Without going into the whole playoff format debate again, the Bruins’ path out of the Atlantic is brutal, and unlike the next two teams on the list, there’s no hope of improving it down the stretch.

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Friday, March 8, 2019

Grab Bag: Can anyone beat the Lightning?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Coming up with reasons that various teams could beat the Lightning
- Are his fellow mascots right about Gritty being overexposed?
- An obscure journeyman who had one monster night
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the impact of NHL crowd noise, starring a wonderful sports psychologist who doesn't watch hockey

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Puck Soup: Wrestling with Hollywood

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Brad Marchand trolls Mitch Marner and the Maple Leafs
- The Oilers GM candidates include some interesting names
- Final thoughts on John Tavares and Islander fans
- The wildcard races heat up
- The GM meetings don't bring much news
- The passing of Ted Lindsay
- Greg ranks the ten best movie performances by pro wrestlers
- And lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Baffled of Ontario: Who’s had it worse, the 1980s Maple Leafs or today’s Senators?

It’s​ been a bad two​ years​ for​ the​ Ottawa Senators.​ Ever​ since they​ lost a heartbreaking Game​ 7 showdown with​ the​ Penguins in the​​ 2017 conference final, the franchise has endured a seemingly endless series of setbacks both on and off the ice. The misery has been well-documented – you may have seen this epic Twitter thread – and the worst part is that some days it doesn’t feel like there’s any end in sight.

And, at some point, beaten-down Senators fans have probably wondered: From ownership to coaching to off-ice scandals to the steady stream of star players bolting for the exit, has any fan base ever had it this bad?

At which point Maple Leafs fans of a certain age might hobble over, waving their canes and mumbling ominously: You kids don’t realize just how bad it can get.

You see, some of us had to deal with the Harold Ballard era back in the 1980s. And while we can sympathize with what Senators fans are going through right now, we might object to the suggestion that Ottawa has it any worse than we did. We’ve seen some stuff, man.

So since the playoff version of the Battle of Ontario has been on pause for over a decade and doesn’t seem like it will be resuming anytime soon, let’s take the rivalry in a different direction. Who’s had it worse, modern-day Senators fans or 1980s Maple Leafs fans?

This is going to get depressing. Let’s go through 10 key categories and figure out which of Ontario’s teams can claim the suffering hockey fans’ crown.

Worst season

Let’s start with the basics. When you’re building a solid foundation of misery, you want to start from rock bottom.

Today’s Senators: While it’s still a work in progress, it’s fair to say that this year will go down as the worst in the Senators’ post-expansion history. They’re on pace for a point total in the low 60s and will likely finish last in the league for the first time since the Sparky Allison days.

The 1980s Maple Leafs: Despite finishing under the 60-point mark five times, the Maple Leafs somewhat amazingly only came in dead last once during the ’80s. That was in 1984-85, when they won just 20 games on the way to a pathetic 48-point season. The good news: They at least had their own draft pick, unlike some teams we could mention, and the guy they used it on turned out to be pretty fun.

Who had it worse? Based on points, it’s the Maple Leafs by a fair margin. But their worst season came during an era where horrible teams were commonplace, while the Senators are having theirs in what’s supposed to be the parity era. They’re also finishing last in a league with 10 more teams than the one the 1980s Leafs faced. I think you have to adjust for era here, and when we do this one comes out fairly even.

Best season

The flip side of the last category. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then, right?

Today’s Senators: It seems more amazing with every day that goes by, but it’s really true: The Senators really were one goal away from the Stanley Cup final just 21 months ago. Sure, in hindsight their three-round run was powered by some lucky matchups and good bounces, and it probably did more harm than good by convincing the front office that they were legitimate contenders. But it did happen, and it was all sorts of fun for Senators fans in the moment.

The 1980s Maple Leafs: The Leafs made the playoffs six times during the 1980s because they played in the Norris Division and somebody had to go. But they only won two rounds in the decade and never made it out of the division final.

Who had it worse? The Leafs get the edge here.

Franchise player falling outs

Even when things are bad, at least you’ve got a franchise player to cheer for. Right up until you don’t.

Today’s Senators: They watched Daniel Alfredsson walk away as a player in 2013 and then again as an executive in 2017.

Then they went through the same sort of situation with Erik Karlsson with some added off-ice drama, culminating in him being traded last fall. And then it happened yet again with both Matt Duchene and Mark Stone at the 2019 deadline. (And we haven’t even mentioned Jason Spezza or Dany Heatley.)

The 1980s Maple Leafs: The team’s relationship with Darryl Sittler went off the rails in the early ’80s. The front office wanted to move him, but he had no-trade protection, so they dealt his best friend Lanny MacDonald instead to send a message. That led to Sittler infamously cutting the captain’s “C” off his jersey, and he’d eventually walk out on the team citing doctor’s orders. He’d be traded to the Flyers a few weeks later.

Who had it worse? This one’s close. Nothing that’s happened in Ottawa can match the over-the-top ugliness of the Sittler situation. But I feel like you have to give the Senators a slight edge here just based on volume.

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Monday, March 4, 2019

Weekend rankings: Sorting through the trade deadline fallout

The​ trade deadline was​ last​ week.​ It​ feels​ like​ last month.

That’s​ the thing about​ the deadline. It’s​ such​ a hugely important milestone​​ in the season that it almost manages to warp our sense of time around it. The weeks leading up to it seem to drag on forever. The day itself flies by in a blink. And then it’s all over and it almost immediately feels like a lifetime ago. Looks at us, watching Mark Stone play for the Ottawa Senators. We were so young then.

While you might be ready to move on past the deadline, the weekend rankings can’t quite yet. That’s because last week, we were still in pre-deadline mode and trying to figure out how different these rankings might look once the dealing is done. We can’t just leave a question like that open. Let’s dig in and find out how much the deadline day changed the rankings?

Uh, not all that much, actually.

That’s because the deadline saw something unusual this year: The best teams didn’t actually do all that much. Instead, most of the biggest moves were made by teams closer to the mushy middle.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. You’re supposed to have your sellers, who are bad and trying to get worse. They do that by selling off assets to the buyers, who are supposed to be the good teams searching for the final piece of a Stanley Cup puzzle.

But this year, we didn’t really see that. In fact, last week’s top five teams – the Islanders, Bruins, Sharks, Flames and Lightning – didn’t do all that much in the days around the deadline. The Bruins got Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle and the Sharks got Gustav Nyquist. But with apologies to Oscar Fantenberg and the Flames, that was about it in terms of meaningful moves. The Islanders and Lightning didn’t do anything at all.

In theory, that should open up the door for other teams to storm in and take those spots. But that didn’t really happen either. The Golden Knights were the biggest winners of deadline day itself thanks to the Stone blockbuster, but they’re not catching the Sharks or Flames so their path out of the Pacific remains brutal. And while the biggest trade deadline week moves were made by the Blue Jackets, they’re barely in the playoffs right now, let alone the top five. After this weekend, if anything, it might be time to start worrying about them.

The teams that could make a deadline-based claim at a spot are two that have spent much of the season shifting in and out of the top five. The Jets landed Kevin Hayes and the Predators got Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund. Spoiler alert: One of them does crack the top five this week but we’ll get to that in a minute.

As for the sellers, the big one was the Senators. But they’ve already been owning the No. 1 spot in the bottom five, and after consulting with The Athletics’ analytics experts, it’s been determined that that’s as bad as I can rank them. I thought about trying to slot them in somewhere like “zero” or “negative three” or “let’s never speak of this again,” but apparently those aren’t options. The Senators stay where they already were and the rest of the bottom five doesn’t see all that much deadline-related movement either.

And that’s it for the 2019 deadline. I promise, after today, there will be no more weekly power ranking columns framed around it.

(But tune in next week for the 2020 trade deadline preview.)

Road to the Cup

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

We all had a chance to learn a new rule yesterday: You can win a shootout without actually putting the puck into the net, thanks to the ultra-rare shootout HORN OF DOOM:

That win also moved the Capitals back into first place in the Metro, as the Islanders lost both weekend games and continue to struggle when they’re not pantsing John Tavares and the Maple Leafs. That leaves us without a Metro team in our top five again, at least temporarily, while making room for a Central team to nudge back in. But which one? Let’s end the suspense …

5. Winnipeg Jets (39-22-4, +28 true goals differential*) – Should this be the Predators? Maybe. But the Jets are still holding down a narrow lead in the Central and maybe more than narrow if you factor in their games in hand. They beat the Predators head-to-head on Friday. And they may have landed the bigger deadline day prize in Hayes, although that’s a close call and probably hinges on whether you think Simmonds has much left. It’s not much more than a coin flip, really. But we don’t do ties here, so the Jets get the spot this week.

4. Boston Bruins (39-17-9, +34) – Their win over Tampa snapped the Lightning’s 10-game win streak and was the sort of statement game that suggests that the Atlantic may not be quite the sure thing it looks like. The Bruins are riding a streak of 16 straight with at least a point, although they still haven’t opened up all that much of a lead over the Maple Leafs for home ice in their almost inevitable first-round matchup. Maybe that comes this week; Boston gets a tough matchup tomorrow with the Hurricanes, but then finishes off the week with home games against the Panthers and Senators.

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Friday, March 1, 2019

Grab Bag: About those angry Islanders fans, the NHL’s long week and the Blue Jackets get dramatic

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Thoughts on that cringe-worthy Tavares video, last night's reaction, and telling fans how they should feel
- It was a weird week in the NHL so here are some nice videos of kids
- An obscure player who was the oldest NHL draft pick ever
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a 2001 pump-up video that's so over-the-top it will turn you into a Blue Jackets fan

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Puck Soup: On traders and traitors

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to the trade deadline, and see how last week's bets did
- What now for the Senators and Oilers?
- John Tavares returns to New York
- An interview with Jim Vandermeer
- Zdeno Chara vs. Evander Kane
- What the NHL could learn from MLB's proposed rule changes
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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