Friday, November 29, 2019

Grab Bag: Eye-for-an-eye suspensions, coaches behaving badly and trades I still don’t understand

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Stop suggesting that suspensions last for as long as the injury
- The five trades from the 2010s that I still can't figure out
- An obscure player for Black Friday
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube reminder that coaches being terrible to their players ins't new...

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Thursday, November 28, 2019

Get ready for holiday shopping regret with the NHL’s all buyer’s remorse team

Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S., and if I know my Americans friends, that means two things: Some of you are reading this through the haze of a turkey coma and you’re going to do some serious shopping tomorrow.

The whole Black Friday thing isn’t as much of a thing in Canada yet, at least in its full-on “fight a stranger to save $20 on a blender” form. But we get the gist of it. You’ve got a list of stuff you need. You’ve got a chance to get that stuff. You go out and get the stuff, and hope you don’t regret your spending spree when it’s all over.

It’s kind of like the NHL offseason. Except that the offseason has hockey players instead of electronics, it lasts three months instead of a few days, and nobody gets a discount. So really, it’s nothing like the NHL offseason. But it’s too late now because I’m committed to the bit and we’re going with it.

Today, we’re going to celebrate this weekend’s shopping spree by looking back at the NHL’s version. With a few months’ worth of hindsight, some of those offseason trades and free-agent signings look pretty good. But others haven’t aged well, and like a cheap TV that stopped working after a few days, they may be causing some buyer’s remorse.

We’re two months into the season, which means there’s still plenty of time for some of these moves to work out in the long run. That’s part of the fun. But for now, let’s put together a roster of players who switched teams in the offseason and may have their new GMs looking around to see if the receipt has a return policy on it.


Sergei Bobrovsky, Panthers

Twenty starts into the season, and one of the offseason’s biggest prizes is still sporting a save percentage well under .900. The good news is that there’s still plenty of time for him to get into a groove. Almost seven years, to be exact. So assuming this is a slump, and not a guy hitting the downside of the aging curve at 31, he should be fine. Of course, with the second-highest cap hit at his position, the Panthers might want more than just “fine.”

Cam Talbot, Flames

He wasn’t traded for Mike Smith – he signed as a free agent after a quick stop in Philadelphia – but it kind of felt that way. And it seemed like a decent exchange because even coming off of a brutal season, you figured a change of scenery could get Talbot back on track. Instead, he’s only had six starts, and hasn’t looked great in most of them. He comes cheaper than Smith, and it’s just a one-year deal, so this signing has hardly been a disaster. It hasn’t been much of anything.

Late cuts

Other than Bobrovsky, the two biggest crease names to move in the offseason was Robin Lehner leaving the Islanders for Chicago and Semyon Varlamov coming into New York. Both have been very good in their new homes. Smith’s been fine in Edmonton, James Reimer has been OK in Carolina and nobody else who switched teams were expected to do much more than mop-up.

First pairing

P.K. Subban, Devils

Given his name value and Norris Trophy pedigree, you figured that the Devils got him so cheap that the trade had to work out. Maybe it still will, but with just five points through two months, Subban’s been a bust in New Jersey. The analytics say he’s been a little bit better than his boxcars would suggest. But only a little, and the Devils are on the hook for another two expensive years after this.

Justin Faulk, Blues

He’s scored double-digit goals in four of his last five seasons but doesn’t have even one in St. Louis yet. Instead, he’s stuck at six assists and hasn’t recorded a primary point in over a month. Even the head coach trying to pump his tires can only come up with “he’s been fine.” The only good news for the Blues is that they didn’t rush into handing him a huge extension before they’d seen how he’d fit in. (Double-checks notes.) Well then.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The 10 dumbest NHL moments of the 2010s

p>Over the next few days, writers across this site will be looking back at the last decade in sports. You’ll read about the best players, the greatest moments, and most memorable games, as well as in-depth breakdowns of the most important stories and their lasting impact on the sport.

I was not asked to write any of those posts.

No, like any well-run team, The Athletic makes sure to use everyone in the role they’re best suited for. And that means that I was asked to write about the NHL’s 10 dumbest moments from the last decade.

My answer: I’m going to have a tough time narrowing the list down.

To be clear, we’re looking for dumb moments that were, for the most part, ultimately harmless; we’ll save the serious stuff for another day. Maybe these moments made us laugh at the time. Or maybe we only laugh when we look back in hindsight. Or maybe we don’t laugh at all, instead slowly lowering our head onto our desk and then sobbing quietly over why we ever let ourselves become a fan of this ridiculous league in the first place. You do you, I’m not going to tell you how to live your life.

We’ll do this in chronological order, because trying to rank these moments would be like asking me to rank my own children, except that my children can occassionaly go a few straight weeks without embarrassing me.

June 9, 2010: When sudden death isn’t all that sudden

Imagine being a middle-aged Blackhawks fan in 2010. Your team hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1961, before you were even born. They’ve come close, but never sealed the deal. You’ve literally waited your entire life just to see them score a Cup-winning goal.

And then they finally come through and win it all and… you still don’t see them score a Cup-winning goal.

In terms of immortal goal calls, you’ve got “Henderson has scored for Canada”, “May Day!” and “What a goal, what a move, Lemieux, OH BABY”. For the Hawks’ first Cup-winner in almost half a century, we got “To the net… [awkward silence]… Leighton stopped it… Where’s the puck?” That one might need some work.

But in defense of Jim Hughson, I didn’t realize the puck was in either. You probably didn’t. Just about everyone in the building seemed to miss it, including the referee and the goal judge. Other than Patrick Kane and Michael Leighton, nobody seemed to realize that the Blackhawks had just won the Stanley Cup.

It was the NHL’s first big moment of the 2010s, and nobody saw it. In hindsight, maybe that should have been a sign of what was to come for the rest of the decade.

Nov. 15, 2010: Email etiquette

One of the ongoing stories from the start of the decade was a lawsuit between the league and former referee Dean Warren. It was a marginally interesting story, if kind of dry and largely stuck in the legal weeds, and most fans probably didn’t pay much attention.

But Tyler Dellow did. Long before he was employed as a stats guru by NHL teams (or as a contributor at The Athletic), Dellow was a fan with a legal background who took an interest in the Warren case – specifically, with some emails that had been included in court filings. Those emails, sent between league executive Colin Campbell and former head of NHL officiating Stephen Walkom, were redacted because they were sensitive in nature. Only, as Dellow discovered, they weren’t redacted very well.

And so we all learned that Campbell had sent at least one email ranting about a call against his son, Gregory, and that he thought Marc Savard was “a little fake artist”. That was embarrassing enough, but the fact that the revelation came just months after Campbell had declined to suspend Matt Cooke for essentially ending Savard’s career only made matter worse.

Somehow, this wasn’t even the decade’s only controversy involving Campbell’s emails. Say what you will about how things were done in the old days, but you never saw Original Six executives getting embroiled in email scandals.

Nov. 9, 2011: The Flyers stage a Lightning strike

By the start of the new decade, the NHL was still firmly mired in the Dead Puck Era of defense-first thinking. But with the post-lockout rules limiting clutch-and-grab tactics and the lack of a red line hindering the old school neutral zone trap, the next generation of coaching minds had to come up with new ways to stifle the game.

One of those minds was Guy Boucher, who took over in Tampa in 2010 and immediately guided the Lightning to an impressive 103-point season based partly on his 1-3-1 system: One player back, three players across the neutral zone and one lone “forechecker” passively guiding the attacking team towards the traffic jam. It was a tough system to beat. But on November 9, 2011, Peter Laviolette’s Flyers figured out what to do: Nothing.

Literally. The first time they had control in their own zone and the Lightning set up their 1-3-1, the Flyers did nothing. Thirty seconds into a nationally televised showcase game, Chris Pronger got the puck, and just… stood there.

Nobody knew what to do. Pronger clearly wasn’t going to make a move. Boucher’s system meant the Lightning were under strict orders not to directly attack the puck-carrier. And as long as somebody is controlling the puck, there’s nothing in the rulebook that says that any of the players in a hockey game actually have to, you know, play hockey. The stand-off lasted 30 seconds before the officials blew the play dead, only to resume again when the same sequence played out a few minutes later, and again several times during the period.

The Lightning eventually took home a low-scoring 2-1 win, as players and media around the league weighed in real-time. Gary Bettman didn’t like it, and the GMs discussed changing the rules before deciding to keep the status quo. And fans were left with the memory of a debacle that the Wall Street Journal would call “The Worst Hockey Game Ever”.

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The 10 most important NHL trades of the 2010s

I love trades. They’ve always been one of my favorite parts of being a sports fan. One-for-one trades? Perfect, I love the simplicity. Big multi-player blockbusters? Awesome, let’s blow up two teams at once and see what happens. Overly complicated trades that should be one-for-one but somehow morph into a long list of throw-ins and late-round picks? Beautiful, just because I can picture the increasingly ridiculous conversations between two stubborn GMs who have to get the last word.

I love a good trade. Or a bad one. Or just a plausible rumor. Or let’s face it, a completely ridiculous rumor that falls apart as soon as you think about it for even a minute. I’ll take it all. Trades are the best. The more the merrier.

Which means the last decade has been pretty rough for people like me.

The trade is a dying art in the NHL. Where we used to get multiple blockbusters all year long, now we get excuses. The salary cap makes it too hard. It’s not the right time. We won’t make a trade just for the sake of making a trade. Hey, I’m only a general manager. What do you want me to do, my job?

So no, a list of the ten best trades of the 2010s doesn’t include any Wayne Gretzky-style deals that shake the foundation of the league. There was no Eric Lindros double-dealing. No Patrick Roy walkouts. Nothing like the mega-deals of decades past involving Doug Gilmour or Phil Esposito or Ted Lindsay. The days of the true blockbuster may be gone for good.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have some material to work with. Today, let’s count down the ten biggest trades of the 2010s. And just for fun, we’ll throw in a few mini-categories along the way. Trading may not be what it once was, but it still deserves a place in our look back at the decade. After all, just because a job is tough doesn’t mean you don’t have to do it. Unless you’re an NHL GM.

Big trade No. 10: Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils

The trade: On Feb. 4, 2010, the Thrashers traded their all-time leading scorer along with Anssi Salmela and a second to the Devils for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier, a first and a second.

The immediate reaction in one sentence: The Devils didn’t have to give up much to get a superstar, but can they get him signed?

Why the deal was made: Kovalchuk had been the face of the franchise in Atlanta. But with his contract coming to an end, he’d repeatedly turned down offers for an extension. Therefore, the Thrashers got what they could at the deadline rather than watch him walk for nothing.

What’s happened since: None of the players the Thrashers got had much impact, although they used the first to get Dustin Byfuglien out of Chicago. One more disappointing season later, the team was headed to Winnipeg.

The Devils did get Kovalchuk signed, although it took most of the summer, $100 million, one rejected contract and the (temporary) loss of a first-round draft pick to make it happen. He had two 30-goal seasons in New Jersey, then stunned the hockey world by bolting for the KHL in 2013. He announced a comeback with the Kings in 2018, but I’ve been watching the highlights ever since and I guess he changed his mind.

The verdict today: Would it be overly dramatic to say that the decade’s first true blockbuster was the nail in the coffin of NHL hockey in Atlanta? Maybe, but we’ll say it anyway.

Big trade No. 9: Roberto Luongo to the Panthers

The trade: On March 4, 2014, the Canucks shook up the deadline by sending Roberto Luongo and Steven Anthony to Florida for Jacob Markstrom and Shawn Matthias.

The immediate reaction in one sentence: Wow, the Canucks actually managed to trade that contract.

Why the deal was made: Because Luongo’s contract sucked. Those were his words, not ours, although honestly, they were ours too and probably yours as well. His monster 12-year deal had already scuttled the team’s attempts to trade him in 2013 and ultimately led to Cory Schneider being shipped out instead. But when the Panthers came calling about re-acquiring the three-time Vezina finalist, the Canucks finally pulled the trigger, even though they didn’t seem to get much in return.

What’s happened since: Luongo experienced a bit of a renascence in Florida, posting four strong seasons before age and injury caught up to him. He retired in 2019, so the Panthers are off the hook for the rest of that sucky contract. Meanwhile, Markstrom has developed into a legitimate NHL starter, so the Canucks are happy with their side of the deal.

The verdict today: This was a tough one for the Canucks, if only because trading away Luongo signaled the indisputable end of the era that saw the team almost win its first Stanley Cup. But it makes the list for a bigger reason, standing as one of the first blockbusters of the cap era that was almost entirely about a contract. Trades had always been influenced by finances, but this was one of the first times that we just outright talked about a contract being traded instead of a player – even though the player was a future Hall-of-Famer.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Puck Soup: Coaches behaving badly

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Reactions to the Mike Babcock/Mitch Marner ranking story
- Our thoughts on the Bill Peters situation, which was developing as we recorded
- The Robert Bortuzzo suspension
- The Stars and Sharks make a push
- An interview with Rachel Doerrie
- A quiz about another country being all weird
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

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

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

Monday, November 25, 2019

Weekend rankings: Who’ll be the next coach to be fired?

We had our first coaching change on the 2019-20 season last week. You may have missed it since it came in Toronto and that team tends to fly under the radar. But with Mike Babcock handed his walking papers and Sheldon Keefe installed behind the Leafs’ bench, we can now settle those “first coach fired” bets from October.

Great. So who’s going to be second?

It’s kind of a macabre question – we’re talking about people losing their jobs, after all – but it’s unavoidable in a league where midseason changes are taking on increased importance. This time last year, we’d already had four, including one by the eventual Cup winners. The Babcock firing came one year and one day after the Blues replaced Mike Yeo with Craig Berube, en route to becoming the fourth team in a decade to fire their coach and win a Cup in the same year.

The Leafs hope they can pull off the same sort of turnaround. But history tells us that they won’t be the only candidate. We’ll probably see another coach sent packing before long. But who is the most likely candidate?

It’s a tricky question, and perceptions can shift quickly. Go back even a few weeks, and the odds-on favorite was clear: Dallas coach Jim Montgomery, whose Cup-worthy roster was spinning its wheels. But the Stars have been on fire lately, so Montgomery suddenly seems as safe as can be. At least until the next losing streak.

A few of his Central division colleagues may not be so lucky. Bruce Boudreau’s Wild continue to flounder, and with an expiring coaching contract and a new GM in place who didn’t hire him, there’s little reason to think he’ll be Bill Guerin’s long-term answer. It feels like more of a when-not-if situation in Minnesota, so the question might be whether somebody else beats them to the punch.

Another Central candidate: the Predators, whose recent losing streak dropped them all the way out of a playoff spot. Adam Vingan explored the question of Peter Laviolette’s job security last week, and the coach doesn’t seem overly worried. But as the league’s third longest-serving coach, and with a veteran roster that’s built to win it all right now, he probably should be.

The only other two coaches with longer tenures may have worries of their own, although Paul Maurice has his Jets hanging around the wildcard race. Jon Cooper and the Lightning have been underwhelming, but he feels like a guy who’d be in danger after another first-round exit, not during the season. Then again, we all said that about Babcock too.

The Pacific offers up a few candidates, with Peter DeBoer’s Sharks and Bill Peters’ Flames both underachieving. San Jose is at least trending in the right direction, and you’d think Peters would get the benefit of the doubt after last year’s turnaround. But six straight losses were starting to feel like a crisis, so somebody getting fired in Calgary no longer feels impossible. The question might be who.

Shifting to the East, the bottom of the standings reveals a few candidates. Jeff Blashill’s been showing up on hot seat lists for a few years now, and while we thought he’d received a vote of confidence last year in the form of an extension, that was under a different GM. Furthermore, the extension reportedly includes a club option, so he isn’t as secure as it looked. The question in Detroit might be whether Steve Yzerman would bother with a midseason change, rather than waiting out a rebuilding year, banking some high lottery odds and then making a change in the offseason.

David Quinn’s Rangers are underachieving in what was supposed to be a transition year back to contention, although he’s only in Year 2. John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets are outside of the playoff picture, although most of us expected that after their offseason exodus. And then there’s John Hynes, who is somehow the fifth longest-serving coach in the league now. His Devils continue to be inconsistent at best, and while he can’t strap on the pads and play goal, you get the sense that patience is running out in New Jersey.

Did we miss anyone? I’m not counting any first-year coaches, on the assumption that nobody’s going to get Sparky Allison’ed. We’ll assume that anyone whose team is overachieving or securely in a playoff spot is safe for now, although two bad weeks can change that. And while his team is playing below expectations, I can’t imagine Gerard Gallant being in any danger, so we won’t call a cab for him anytime soon.

Who’s the favorite? Of all the candidates, Hynes stands out – he’s been around forever, his team looks awful and there’s pressure to win right now thanks to the looming Taylor Hall decision. But Babcock’s availability could shift some equations; we’ve seen teams make surprise moves to grab recently fired coaches before, and Babcock speculation is already popping up around some of the teams on our list. A veteran, win-now team like the Sharks or Predators could make sense if he wanted to jump right back into the mix. And if he doesn’t, a Maple Leafs turnaround after making a switch will just ramp up the pressure on anyone else who seems to be on the fence.

We’re at that time of year. It’s officially no longer early. And as the Blues showed us last year, a big move at the right time can save a season. One team’s already taken the plunge; let’s see who’s next.

Road to the Cup

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

Under Babcock, the Leafs had won just two games over teams currently holding a playoff spot, and neither of those had come in regulation. Under Keefe so far, the Leafs are 2-0-0, with impressive road wins over the Coyotes and Avalanche. Thursday’s win over the Coyotes was a strong 60-minute performance, while Saturday’s victory against the Avs was more of an up-and-down affair. Still, the two wins snap a six-game losing streak, and combined with Keefe’s strategic shifts, they offer some hope that the season can be salvaged, or maybe more than that.

Is that enough for a top-five spot? Well …

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (11-10-4, -3 true goals differential*) – I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Calm down everyone. The Leafs aren’t in the top five based on two games. I’m not that much of a homer, come on.

(But check back next week.)

5. Tampa Bay Lightning (11-7-2, +8 true goals differential*) – They’ve won two straight and five of seven, and looked at least a little like their old selves while rolling over the Ducks on Saturday. They’ve played the fewest games in the entire league, with just 20 on the books, so the point total isn’t impressive. But in terms of points percentage, they’ve already climbed back into an Eastern playoff spot. In fact, they’ve passed by the wildcards and are sitting in third in the Atlantic.

4. St. Louis Blues (14-5-5, +8) – How did you celebrate Mike Yeo Anniversary week? The Blues recognized the occasion with home wins against last year’s top two regular-season teams, as they beat the Lightning and Flames. Then they lost to the Predators on Saturday; they’ll get a rematch tonight.

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Friday, November 22, 2019

Grab Bag: Toronto Maple Leafs excuses, no spitting allowed and a Norris Division coach fight

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- My spies have compiled a list of Maple Leaf excuses
- Should you spit on people? A debate
- An obscure player who recently put up an epic stat spoiler
- The week's three comedy stars
- And the only worse thing for a Leafs coach than getting fired: Having Jacques Demers try to strangle you

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Thursday, November 21, 2019

Puck Soup: The Babcock firing

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Mike Babcock firing, and his potential next stops, where the Leafs go from here
- Garnet Hathaway's three-game suspension for spitting
- Does the NHL need to change the rules after the scary Matt Calvert incident
- Some final thoughts on the Hall of Fame, including predictions for next year's class
- We play "Hell Yes or B.S." with the Islanders, Senators, and David Pastrnak's goal-scoring
- Baby Yoda
- And lots more...

>> Stream it now:

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

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The story behind the Hall of Famer who played the fewest games for your favorite team

The Hockey Hall of Fame welcomed six new members this week, including three men in the player’s category. So congratulations to Sergei Zubov of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Vaclav Nedomansky of the New York Rangers and Guy Carbonneau of the St. Louis Blues.

OK, maybe those aren’t the teams you associate with those guys. But I’ve always been kind of fascinated by legendary players who briefly show up on weird teams. It always just looks wrong. You might even forget about those stints altogether. If you’re a new fan, maybe you’ve never heard that it happened.

So today, let’s say goodbye to another year of Hall of Fame festivities with a simple question: Which Hall of Fame player spent the least amount of time with your favorite team?

In some cases, the answer might seem easy. In others, we’ll have to dig a little. There are two teams that have never had a single Hall of Famer at all, one of which is obvious (Vegas) and one of which we’ll get to in a bit. Take a minute and see if you can figure out the answer for your favorite team before you read any further.

To be clear on the ground rules, we’re looking for guys who were inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player; no builders or other off-ice types who happened to have a cup of coffee in the big leagues. They have to have played for the team, not just worked there in the front office or behind the bench, and we’re looking at regular season games only. And we’re of course looking for somebody who played at least one game, so apologies in advance to everyone who was going to answer “Vladislav Tretiak” or something equally clever. We’ll be using the invaluable franchise histories, because I already spend eight hours a day on that site, so what’s a few more?

Do you have your guess for your favorite team, and maybe a few others in your back pocket? Think you’ve figured out the identity of that one non-Vegas franchise that’s never had even one Hall of Famer? Want to take a crack at the one outlier team that’s had multiple Hall of Famers, but somehow never a single one who played fewer than 500 games? And can you figure out which players will manage to show up as the fewest games “leader” for multiple teams?

Then let’s dive in. We’ll do this alphabetically.

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks are a good team to start with, since they demonstrate the concept. You might think of Chris Pronger or Scott Niedermayer, but they both played several seasons in Anaheim. You probably remember Sergei Fedorov’s 85-game stopover, but maybe not Jari Kurri’s 82. But the winner here is a guy who dropped by for one season near the end of his career: Adam Oates, who had a forgettable 67-game regular season in 2002-03 but helped the team to a surprising playoff run that spring.

For what it’s worth, those 67 games from Oates will end up being one of the higher totals we’ll see on this list. Our next team can hit the under on that score by a decent margin.

Arizona Coyotes

The Coyotes have been a popular destination for veterans on the tail-end of their careers, and that’s even if we don’t count quasi-retired stars like Pronger and Pavel Datsyuk who wound up on the roster as cap-related paper transactions. Mike Gartner might come to mind, but he lasted two seasons. None of Owen Nolan, Tony Amonte or Curtis Joseph are in the Hall, at least not yet. But even if they were, they couldn’t beat out our easy winner: Brett Hull, who lasted just five games in a post-lockout comeback attempt in 2005 before abruptly calling it quits.

You might figure that it will be a while before we find a team that can undercut Hull’s total. As it turns out, we don’t have to wait long at all …

Boston Bruins

As you might expect, the Original Six teams do well on this scale; they just have more history to draw from. In Boston’s case, that history includes two Hall of Famers who played over 1,400 games for the franchise in Ray Bourque and Johnny Bucyk. It also included far briefer stopovers at the other of the scale, from guys like Mark Recchi (180), Sprague Cleghorn (109), Brian Leetch (61) and Paul Coffey (18). But you’ve got to keep scrolling all the way down to Sylvio Mantha, a Hall of Fame defenseman who played 13 seasons with Montreal in the 1920s and 1930s and then four games with the Bruins at the very end of his career.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres have a couple of classic “Oh, I forgot they had that guy” names, including Doug Gilmour (82 games) and Clark Gillies (86). But the winner here is Dick Duff, whose two partial seasons with the expansion Sabres in 1970-71 and 1971-72 add up to 61 games, narrowly beating out Grant Fuhr’s 64.

Calgary Flames

You might be expecting to see Brett Hull stake his claim as our first repeat winner here, and his 57 games puts him in the running, ahead of Martin St. Louis’s 69. But the winner, for now at least, is Grant Fuhr, whose 23 games in 1999-2000 take the crown. That “for now” is important, though, since Jaromir Jagr’s 22 games will steal the spot as soon as he goes in – unless Curtis Joseph and his nine games can sneak in before that.

Carolina Hurricanes

Are we counting the Whalers here? I’ll leave that call to Canes fans. If we are, then it’s Bobby Hull’s nine-game stint on the 1979-80 team that also featured Gordie Howe (80), Mark Howe (213) and Dave Keon (234). If you’d prefer to keep it in Carolina, we can go with Mark Recchi’s 20 games after coming over at the 2006 deadline.

Chicago Blackhawks

Another Original Six team means plenty of options, including Coffey (10), Lionel “Big Train” Conacher (48) and maybe most notably, Bobby Orr (26) and Dominik Hasek (25). But the crown here goes to Barney Stanley, a star from the pre-NHL days who was inducted based on his career in the PCHA but who appeared in his only NHL game with Chicago while coaching the team in 1927-28. If you’d prefer a player who was inducted based on his NHL career, we could also use the delightfully named Herb Gardiner, who won the Hart in 1926-27 with the Canadiens before appearing in just four games with the Hawks a few years later.

Colorado Avalanche

The Avs have had a few short stints by notable names, including the ill-fated 2003-04 duo of Teemu Selanne (78) and Paul Kariya (51). Their most famous temporary star was undoubtedly Ray Bourque, who stuck around for 94 games. But the winner here is a guy who tagged along in that famous Bourque trade – Dave Andreychuk and his 14 games.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Admit it, the Blue Jackets were your prime suspect for that other team that had never had a HHOFer, weren’t they? They’re close, since they’ve had only one. But let’s not forget the Sergei Fedorov era, which lasted parts of three seasons and 185 games.

Dallas Stars

Eric Lindros is probably the biggest name that comes to mind, at 49 games. Mike Gartner shows up too, with 80, as long as we’re counting the North Stars days. But we can aim way lower than that and find Sergei Makarov, a Russian star whose seven seasons in the NHL included 134 goals, the 1990 Calder Trophy and four whole games with Dallas in 1996.

Detroit Red Wings

Hoo boy. The Red Wings aren’t just an Original Six team, they’re the franchise that specializes in squeezing one last year out of other team’s franchise players. You might be thinking of names like Mike Modano (40), Borje Salming (49), Darryl Sittler (61) or Bernie Federko (73) here. But none of them end up coming all that close. Instead, it’s Doug Harvey, the five-time Norris winner who sadly did not earn the honor based on either of his two games as a Red Wing in 1966-67.

Edmonton Oilers

Edmonton’s a bit of a strange one, since it’s usually longtime Oilers who end up making brief appearances with other teams late in their career. There’s also the Chris Pronger factor; he stuck around for 80 games. But they’re notable here for giving us our first repeat winner: Adam Oates doubles down on his Ducks honors thanks to spending the final 60 games of his career in Edmonton.

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Monday, November 18, 2019

Weekend power rankings: Which team represents Canada’s best hope to end the Stanley Cup drought?

Did you know that a team from Canada hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993? It’s a little-known fact that almost never gets brought up. If you’re a Canadian, you probably haven’t heard anyone mention it in minutes, maybe even hours. (Squeezes bottle of maple syrup so tightly it shatters in his hand.) Yeah, we really enjoy hearing that little fun fact. Sure do.

Since we’re already just a wee bit on edge up here these days, let’s steer into the skid. A quarter of the way into the season, which Canadian team looks like they have the best chance to win the Stanley Cup?

That’s a fitting query for this column since the Cup question is the big one we’re trying to answer each week. So far this season, only one Canadian team has appeared in the top five. That was way back in week one, and it’s fair to say that team isn’t going to be invited back anytime soon. But even if Canadian teams aren’t showing up here often, some of them have to be at least quasi-contenders, right?

Well, maybe. We’ve got seven teams to work through, and it feels like we should mention all of them, just for the sake of completeness. So … the Ottawa Senators. They’re a team. So far, even a slightly better one that we may have been expecting. But they’re not winning the Cup. Next.

If we keep working our way up the standings, we get to the middle-of-the-pack before we run into a four-team Canadian traffic jam. (For American readers, a Canadian traffic jam is a lot like one of yours, only with more apologizing, moose and Zambonis.) All four teams are within three points of each other, hanging right around the wildcard race. That isn’t the worst place to be, but doesn’t exactly scream “Cup favorite.”

Of those teams, two are probably right about where we’d have expected. The Canucks were one of those early-season surprises that have been coming back to earth, hitting a November speed wobble after a very strong October. There’s a general sense of optimism coming out of Vancouver these days, and rightly so, as the future looks bright. But that future isn’t here yet, though, and a Cup run this year still seems like a longshot.

The Jets are heading in the opposite direction; a recent contender that now feels like a borderline playoff team at best. We know the blue line situation by now, and it certainly doesn’t sound like Dustin Byfuglien is walking through that door any time soon. But it’s also fair to say that the total disaster some of us saw coming hasn’t happened. The Jets are a perfectly decent team so far, albeit one with flaws. And we know from 2018 that this core is capable of a long run if they can heat up at the right time. They won’t be anybody’s playoff favorites, and they still have a tough fight just to make it that far, but if they ever did … I mean, you never know. But it feels unlikely.

We also have to mention (deep sigh) the Maple Leafs. They’re probably the most hyper-analyzed team in the league right now, partly because there are so many Leaf fans and partly because everyone else loves a good train wreck 18-wheeler cliff dive. They’re a mess right now, coughing up a winnable game with the slumping Bruins on Friday and then getting their teeth kicked in by the Penguins on Saturday. They’re a team built to play one way with a coach who wants another, with frail psychology and too many injuries and no backup goalie and a long road trip that still has five games to go. Panic time? It might be.

The Leafs are getting most of the attention these days, as per Canadian law. But they aren’t the country’s only supposed Cup contender that’s underperforming; the Flames were a 107-point team last year, and they’re on pace to fall well short of that. A few weeks ago on the podcast, I described the Flames as a team where almost everyone was performing just 10 percent worse than you’d expect, and it was all adding up to an ugly start. That’s overly simplistic, but they’re still giving off that underachiever’s vibe. It’s a mixed message in terms of optimism; on the one hand, there are no glaring problems here that can’t be solved, but on the other hand, there’s also no easy scapegoat who can be shipped out and replaced in an easy fix. One thing worth remembering: as Eric Duhatschek points out, their record at this point last year was pretty much the same as it is now. They haven’t impressed so far, but I’m not taking them off the contender’s list yet.

Next up are the Canadiens, who had one of those statement games in Friday’s win over the Capitals and then lost a weird one to the Devils in which we learned you can’t kick a puck with your hip. They haven’t been getting much Cup talk outside of Montreal, and even a few weeks ago I had them pegged as just about the prototypical stuck-in-the-middle team. But the buzz is building, and rightly so. The Habs aren’t dominating, but they’re banking points, and staking a solid claim to one of the Atlantic’s top three spots. The schedule gets tough now, and we’ve seen hot starts disintegrate in Montreal in recent years. But right now, Montreal is the first Canadian team that’s playing like a legitimate contender.

And that brings us to the country’s best team, at least according to the standings. The Oilers are still camped out on top of the Pacific, with few signs that the inevitable plunge back to earth is coming. They had a weird week, losing to the lowly Sharks, beating the Avalanche and then dropping an OT decision to the Stars. The story is still Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl; they’re unstoppable, and so are the Oilers when they’re on the ice, but when they’re not this team is pretty ordinary. Can you win a Cup with two forwards carrying the team? Probably not, although you can bank enough early-season points to get a firm grip on a playoff spot while you figure the rest of it out.

Back to our original question: Which team is the most likely to end that Canadian drought? The unfortunate answer is that nobody jumps out as an obvious choice, although we can make a few cases. For all their problems, the Leafs certainly have the talent, and probably more than any team in the country. The Flames and (maybe) Jets are in that boat too, looking like teams that aren’t especially dangerous right now but could be by the end of the season. The Canucks are feisty, and young teams sometimes make sudden leaps that we don’t see coming. And while the Oilers might have too much recent baggage for anyone to feel confident, they’re playing great and will eventually have to be taken seriously.

But out of everyone, I think the answer might be the Canadiens. They look good, they have a goaltender we know can catch fire and Shea Weber might be a ninja. They don’t feel anything like favorites right now. But at 26 years and counting up here, we may have to take what we can get.

So after all of that, did Montreal make this week’s top five? They did not. Let’s go figure out who did …

Road to the Cup

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

It’s Hall of Fame induction night in Toronto tonight. Congratulations to all the honorees – yes, even Guy Carbonneau – on their big night. Be sure to check out our recent features on Vaclav Nedomansky, Jerry York, Sergei Zubov and Hayley Wickenheiser.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning (9-6-2, +4 true goals differential*) – They had a chance to come into the weekend rankings on a four-game win streak and make my life easier, so of course they dropped a 4-3 decision to the Jets on home ice. Come on guys, let’s work together here.

By the way, I thought Justin Bourne’s take on the Lightning was insightful, although it may not make Tampa fans feel especially optimistic.

4. New York Islanders (14-3-1, +14) – I guess they didn’t like their last ten-game win streak and have decided to start over with a better one.

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Friday, November 15, 2019

Puck Soup: Cherry bomb

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to the Don Cherry story
- Greg's list of his top ten candidates to replace Cherry
- Sidney Crosby is out for six weeks
- The Leafs are bad now
- The Devils are worse
- The Islanders are good, again
- The Ilya Kovalchuk era in L.A. appears to be over
- Greg and Ryan nerd out about Star Wars stuff
- The top ten TV shows of the decade
- and lots more...

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

Grab Bag: The pros and cons of Brian Burke replacing Don Cherry

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The pros and cons of Brian Burke replacing Don Cherry
- The new way we're apparently doing HHOF debates from now on
- An obscure player who played a game behind a rookie defenseman
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the days when disagreeing with a call meant every one just attacked the goal judge

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Thursday, November 14, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Brent Burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ilya Kovalchuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

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

I can’t believe they actually did it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, November 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road to the Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, November 8, 2019

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

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

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Puck Soup: Seeds of Doughty

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

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

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

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

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

The O’Brien Trophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, November 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

Step one: Stop accepting what we have now

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

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

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

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

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

But first, we have to do something very important …

Step two: Stop asking the players what their nicknames are

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

It’s not their fault. It’s ours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road to the Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, November 1, 2019

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

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

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