Monday, July 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First line

The superstar everyone loves

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

The other superstar that everyone loves slightly less

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

The random guy who gets to play with the two superstars

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

Second line

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

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

The rookie

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

The offseason acquisition

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

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

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