Monday, December 30, 2019

Weekend rankings: Who were the 5 worst NHL teams of the decade?

Last week, we celebrated the best of the decade by running down my picks for the five top teams of the 2010s. It spurred plenty of debate, some fun discussion, and a few angry fans who were convinced their team should be higher. Good times.

A lot of readers asked why I was being uncharacteristically positive, focusing on the best without also doing an all-decade bottom five. The rest of you, I’m presuming, realized there was one more Monday left in 2019. That Monday is here, and yeah, we’re doing this.

But fair warning: This is going to be even tougher than coming up with the top five. One of the themes we had to wrestle with last week was Cup wins, and how heavily to weigh those in the final order. Did the Hawks automatically get the top spot because they had more championships, or could the Penguins sneak past them due to better overall consistency? Did the Kings have to be in the top three despite their recent misery, or could somebody like the Caps or Bruins pass them?

It made for some tough calls. But having Cups in the mix still helped, because it gave us somewhere to plant a flag. You win a Cup, we all agree that matters. A lot. With a bottom five, we don’t have that to hang our hat on. We can look at who finished dead last, of course, but the difference between 30th or 31st and, say, 27th probably isn’t all that big a deal.

So we’re going to have to focus on the forest for the trees here. I’m going to be looking at overall record, as well as playoff appearances (and success). We’ll give bonus points for those miserable rock bottom years, the kind that sap the will to live out of a fan base.

A few teams are going to be obvious. The Oilers have to be on the list; no team (apart from the expansion Knights) won fewer games, and they only made the playoffs once. And not only did they finish dead last twice (in 2010 and 2011), but they rebuilt from that, drafted Connor McDavid, made it back to respectability, and then fell almost all the way back down to the bottom again. They at least won a round, but otherwise, it was an agonizing decade, which isn’t great for a team that was already four years into a decade of darkness when the 2010s began. The Oilers were probably the first team that came to your mind for top spot.

Or maybe your first thought was the Sabres. They won fewer games than everyone apart from the Oilers, made the playoffs just twice without ever winning a round, and finished dead last three times. Granted, at least one of those last-place seasons seemed to be on purpose. I’m not sure if that should help their case or hurt it.

But yeah, the Sabres and Oilers are on the list. And that offers up a reminder of the paradox of NHL misery because my guess is there are plenty of fans in Buffalo and Edmonton who would look at high picks like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin and whoever else and say that they’re perfectly happy to have had a miserable decade. Sometimes, like it or not, losing pays in this league.

Who else makes the cut? The Panthers had the next fewest wins, didn’t win a playoff round in two tries, and were dead last once. The Coyotes had the fifth-fewest wins, although they did make the playoffs three times and had one run to the conference final. So did the Hurricanes, whose run last spring was their only playoff appearance of the decade; they also had the fourth-fewest regular-season wins. Neither team finished dead last, although the Coyotes sure seemed to want to back in 2015.

A few other teams are in contention but have weaker cases than you might think. The Leafs were a joke for the first six years of the decade and finished dead last in 2015-16, but they did make the playoffs four times (although they went oh-for-four once they got there). The Devils only made three playoff appearances, although one resulted in a trip to the final, so I’m not sure they’re really in the running. The Stars and Jets also made just three postseason appearances. So did the Flames, and they only won six playoff games, which is actually the fewest among Canadian teams, trailing even the Oilers and Leafs. The Blue Jackets, Islanders and Senators all had more lows than highs, although all three put up better records for the decade than I would have thought.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Monday, December 23, 2019

Weekend rankings: How would you rank the five best teams of the decade?

We’re coming up on the end of the decade. Let’s have some fun.

And by “fun” I mean let’s all get really mad at each other.

Week after week, this column includes picks for the five best teams in the league. And week after week, I patiently try to explain that we’re looking at the long view – not just who’s hot right now, or who beat who last night, but which teams are in the best position to win the Cup. Big picture.

Well, let’s make that picture about ten times larger this week, by asking the question: Which five franchises were the best teams of the 2010s?

On the surface, this should be a lot easier than what we’re normally trying to do around here. For once, we’re not looking ahead and trying to predict the future. We’re dwelling entirely on the past here, which means we have all the information we need right in front of us. We should be able to come up with a list that everyone will agree on.

Spoiler alert: Everyone will not agree. But that’s half the fun, so let’s try to figure this out.

Let’s start at the top. Three teams won multiple Cups this decade, so they seem like our obvious best picks for the top three spots. That gives us the Blackhawks, Penguins and Kings to work with. But in what order?

My first thought is that it’s an easy call: It has to be the Hawks, right? They won three Cups, while the other teams won just two, and that seems to be the end of that. But if there’s a crack in the armor, it’s that the Hawks didn’t do all that much this decade when they weren’t winning Cups. Apart from those three Cup runs, they only had one other season where they made it out of the first round. They were knocked out in the opener four times and missed the playoffs entirely in each of the last two years (and sure seem headed there again).

Compare that to the Penguins, who only won two Cups (plus one in 2009, which doesn’t matter for our purposes here). They didn’t miss the playoffs once during a remarkably consistent decade in which their very worst season saw them post 98 points. In addition to their two Cup wins, they won at least a round in four other seasons. Hawks or Pens turns out to be a tougher call than I thought.

By contrast, the Kings are easier. They had two Cup wins, three playoff misses (with another on the way) and four first-round exits. Like Chicago, they only had one non-Cup year where they got out of the first round. Those two Cups still matter, so I’m penciling the Kings in at No. 3 for now, but they don’t have a case to go any higher.

While we mull over that Chicago/Pittsburgh conundrum, let’s move down the list. Filling the four and five spots gets tricky, in part because it’s going to turn into a philosophical debate. There are only three other teams that won Cups in the decade, so one of the Blues, Capitals and Bruins won’t make the cut. But will it be only one? Does a team have to win a Cup to be considered one of the best of the decade? I’m not completely convinced they do. As I’ve argued before, I think we’ve swung too far to the whole “You either win the Cup or your season is a failure” way of thinking, which makes for a miserable way to try to market a 31-team league. Sometimes, great teams run into a hot goalie or some bad luck or whatever else and don’t win the Cup. They’re still great teams.

In theory, that should open the door to teams like the Sharks and Lightning that were consistently good throughout the 2010s even if they never got a championship out of it. The Sharks made the playoffs nine times, and they had some success when they got there – believe it or not, they actually won more playoff rounds this decade than the Kings did. The Lightning were a little shakier, missing four times but advancing to at least the conference final in four other years. And last year’s edition was the best regular-season team of the decade.

Of the two, I think the Sharks have the best argument. But can they beat out the Blues, Bruins or Capitals?

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Friday, December 20, 2019

Grab Bag: A Taylor Hall FAQ for confused GMs, the One Good Savard Rule and a very Kings Christmas

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A special FAQ for all the NHL GMs who are confused by the Taylor Hall trade
- The One Good Savard Rule, which is important but I'm not sure why
- A Christmas Eve obscure player
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the 1991 Kings' family Christmas party

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The 10 players that no NHL fan can hate (except for all the ones that do)

We’re into holiday mode, where everything is supposed to be about peace and goodwill. Love thy neighbor and that sort of thing.

That’s nice and all, but it can be tough for hockey fans, who are preconditioned to be mad at just about everything. Pretty soon we’ll hit the Christmas trade freeze, meaning we can’t even sit around and imagine that bum who’s clogging up our team’s salary cap being traded for a ransom of picks and prospects. Now you want us to be nice to the jerks on the other teams too? It’s a rough time of year when you’re a diehard hockey fan who hates everyone.

Well, almost everyone. Because at any given time, there are always a few players who just about everyone seems to like. It’s been a rough few years for that crowd, as we’ve said goodbye to guys like Roberto Luongo, Pavel Datsyuk, Teemu Selanne and Jarome Iginla. But that just creates some extra room on the nice list.

Today, let’s get into the holiday spirit with a list of the ten players in the NHL that nobody can hate. (And then the reasons why maybe you can hate them just a little.)

Connor McDavid

Why almost everyone loves him: First of all, he’s the best player in the league, with maybe the most pure skill since Mario Lemieux. Even in a league with more dominant young talent than ever before, McDavid still occasionally does things that you’ve never seen, or ever thought possible. He’s one of the rare players who’d be worth paying full price just to watch on his own and brings back that pre-Dead Puck Era feeling of excitement you used to get whenever a star player had the puck on his stick.

Second of all, he’s signed long-term in Edmonton, so the sympathy factor is off the charts.

The one group that still kind of hates him: Flames fans get a pass, as they do for any Oiler. Beyond that, nobody really dislikes him, although you get the sense that there’s an undercurrent of aggravation from other fan bases who keep waiting for him to stomp out of Edmonton and demand a trade. Come on, they’re terrible, and he looked vaguely sad at his draft lottery. Surely he wants to play somewhere else. Specifically, for my favorite team. Come on Connor, blink twice if you want us to send in a chopper to airlift you out.

Patrick Marleau

Why almost everyone loves him: He’s been around forever, his speed means he’s been fun to watch over the years and he always seems disturbingly happy. He became the team father figure in Toronto – literally – and then headed home to San Jose to finish out his career. Plus he’s still chasing that elusive Stanley Cup, and everybody loves a good OGWAC story. Uh, please don’t check the standings to see how that quest is going for him.

The one group that still kind of hates him: Nobody right now, although we’ll save a spot for Leaf fans when they miss the playoffs and end up having to send the 11th overall pick to the Hurricanes for getting out of the last year of his contract. Also, it’s going to be kind of weird if he sticks around next year and ends up breaking Gordie Howe’s all-time games played record. See, you didn’t realize that was going to happen, and now you feel just a little conflicted, right?

Marc-Andre Fleury

Why almost everyone loves him: He’s a former first overall pick who’s smiled his way through a very good NHL career, without ever being so dominating that you resented him. He was part of three Cup winners in Pittsburgh, then handled what could have been a tricky Matt Murray situation and eventual exit with class and good humor. That was supposed to lead to him spending his last few years getting shelled for the expansion Knights, but instead, he’s played some of the best hockey of his career while leaning hard into his likable personality to sell the game in a new market.

The one group that still kind of hates him: Man, I’m not even sure. That Sharks/Knights rivalry is pretty solid, so maybe you allow San Jose fans to sneer at him just a bit. Beyond that, his only natural enemy at this point are Canadians who still aren’t over how the 2004 World Juniors ended and Hall of Fame sticklers who’ll be mad when he makes it in on the first ballot.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Last-minute gift ideas for people you forgot about until just now

How's your Christmas shopping going? Oh, you say you're all done? Get out of here, you weirdo. Go be thoughtful and organized with your own kind. Freak.

For the rest of us, this about the time of year when you're thinking about getting started, even though it's already too late. If that's you, I'm here to help, with a pair of last-minute gift ideas.

The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL

The book is now available in paperback, and if you order it from Amazon or somewhere with fast shipping, you can still get it in time for Christmas. You could also probably go outside and find a store if that's a thing that people still do. Either way, it's a great gift for any hockey and/or history fans on your list. And it's also available in e-book format, or even as an audiobook. Give the gift of me talking for eight hours in a voice that's been described as somehow both more and less Canadian than you thought it would be.

Here are the links:
(The old Best of DGB book is still available, and in Canada at least it will arrive before Christmas too.)

A gift subscription to The Athletic

If you know somebody who'd like to read my stuff on The Athletic, or the stuff of one of the dozens of other excellent hockey writers on the site, or really the stuff of pretty much any sportswriter these days, consider a gift subscription. You can do as little as three months for $20, or a full year $40, which works out to a 33% discount. You can print off a gift notice, or have one delivered by email on a date of your choosing, so it won't ruin the surprise. Here's the link.

Or you can get everyone socks. I'm not here to tell you how to live your life.

Either way, thanks again for your continued support in 2019, and here's looking forward to 2020.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Weekend rankings: If Taylor Hall gets the midseason trade market moving, who’ll be next?

Despite a reasonably full schedule featuring 20 games, by far the biggest story of the weekend was a trade that didn’t happen.

Or at least, one that hasn’t happened yet. Because it sure seems like a Taylor Hall trade is coming very soon. Teams typically don’t hold healthy players out of multiple games because talks are heating up. They do it because a deal is almost done.

We’ll try not to get ahead of ourselves on a Hall trade because even deals that are almost done can still fall through. Instead, let’s get way ahead of ourselves. Now that we’ve been reminded that it really is possible for a GM of a struggling team to do his job during the season without waiting until the week before the trade deadline, the question naturally shifts to: Who’s next?

In other words, which team that’s falling out of the running for a playoff spot is the most likely to swing the next blockbuster trade that ships out a legitimate star in exchange for future assets?

To state the obvious, the answer might be “nobody.” Maybe the timing of a Hall deal would be a one-off quirk, and everyone else will go back to waiting until February to get serious. Then again, the last time we did one of these “Who’ll be next” pieces, the entire world immediately went insane. So let’s give this a shot and see where it goes. We’ll focus on the teams that are currently under .500 in points percentage.

We can pretty much rule out a few bad teams right off the bat. The Red Wings won’t be trading away any veteran stars because they don’t have any. Neither do the Senators. Both teams have pieces they might move; in Detroit, we’re due for another round of the annual “Luke Glendening is somehow a top trade target” stories, and a healthy Jimmy Howard would draw some attention, while the Senators will have to figure out what to do with pending UFA Jean-Gabriel Pageau and his career year. But neither team has a Hall-level move available.

The Kings probably don’t either. They do have some big-name veteran stars, but Drew Doughty or Anze Kopitar aren’t going anywhere, and nobody’s trading for Jonathan Quick. Jeff Carter is at least a possibility, but this feels more like a situation where Tyler Toffoli will be the biggest bait.

The Ducks are interesting. At first glance, they don’t seem like they have much to offer, without any pending free agents who’d be especially attractive to a contender and a bunch of late-20s guys on long-term deals that you’d figure they’d be better off keeping. But then there’s the Ryan Getzlaf question. He’s 34 and comes with a massive cap hit north of $8 million. But there’s only one more season after this one left on that deal, he’s playing well this year, and with some retained salary he’s the sort of player who’d be awfully attractive to a contender with a hole in the top six. He has a full no-move and there don’t seem to be any serious rumors about him, so this is probably more of a next-year situation if it ever surfaces at all. But it’s at least worth keeping an eye on if we’re looking for an actual blockbuster.

Moving up the standings, we hit an interesting situation in Columbus. Like most bad teams, they’re not exactly dripping with elite talent, and like the Ducks, they don’t have a single expiring deal that would draw serious attention. The unique factor here is the recent history, and last year’s refusal to cash in any chips at the deadline. That worked – I still say that giving fans the greatest week in franchise history was worth sacrificing some long-term prospect depth – but it’s part of the reason they’re where they are right now. If there’s any team that would have an appetite to figure out a way to make some moves this year, you’d have to think it’s the Blue Jackets.

I’m not sure what to do with the Hawks and Sharks, two veteran teams with a recent history of contending that appear to be going through transitions. Chicago isn’t moving Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane or Duncan Keith, and good luck on Brent Seabrook. Could Brandon Saad make sense for someone? Or maybe more realistically, does Robin Lehner’s strong season and one-year deal make him attractive to a contender who needs help in net? That was supposed to be the Sharks, and maybe it still is, but I really have no idea what Doug Wilson does next, especially since he’s locked into most of this veteran core. Could we see a finally-win-a-Cup type of rental for Joe Thornton? Patrick Marleau? The Sharks still want to make the playoffs, but at some point that goal could be off the table. Realistically, it probably already is.

And that brings us back to the one sub-.500 team we haven’t looked at: The Devils. They seem like the best fit, even once Hall is off the list. Maybe especially with Hall off the list, since his trade would prove they’re open for business and not interested in waiting around. They have Wayne Simmonds on a one-year deal, plus Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen with a year left and Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri with two. And then there’s maybe the biggest name who seems to make sense: P.K. Subban. He’s got a huge cap hit and isn’t playing well, but if the Devils were willing to retain a chunk of his salary, you’d figure some team out there would be able to talk themselves into a right-shot defenseman with a Norris pedigree.

Or maybe not. Having gone through the list of certifiably bad teams, maybe we are going to have to settle for Hall and not much else. At least until the Predators or Leafs join the party with a bad week or two. If you’re a fan of the trade game, you can always hope.

Onto this week’s rankings.

Road to the Cup

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

If you’ve been paying close attention over the last few months, you may have noticed something missing from the top five: The Pacific Division. Other than some very early appearances by the Golden Knights, they’ve been completely absent from the rankings. That’s not necessarily wrong – we’ve flirted a bit with the Coyotes but will want to see more, and the Oilers aren’t exactly making us regret being skeptical of their early success. But it’s worth mentioning because whoever wins this division is going to get at least two rounds of home ice, which should be worth something.

So yeah, we haven’t forgotten you, Pacific Division. We’re just not sure what to make of you quite yet.

5. New York Islanders (22-7-2, +18 true goals differential*) – They keep rolling, with a two-game sweep in Florida and an overtime decision over the Sabres. They’ll get a big challenge this week when they go into Boston on Thursday, which should be a fun one.

4. St. Louis Blues (20-8-6, +12) – The losing streak got to three, but wins over the Knights and Hawks turned things around. That sets up a big home matchup Monday with the Avs, with first place in the Central on the line. It’s the second meeting of the season, with two more to come in January and then another on the season’s final day.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Friday, December 13, 2019

Puck Soup: Unemployed coaches edition

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Sharks fire Peter DeBoer
- The Jim Montgomery mystery
- The NHL unveils a four-point plan to combat player abuse
- Another Akim Aliu horror story
- We won't have a World Cup in 2020
- The Red Wings are quite bad
- Evaluating the micro-cores
- 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.

Grab Bag: World Cup pros and cons, when a streak isn’t a streak and Rick Bowness bites his tongue

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The pros and cons of holding another World Cup of Hockey
- A debate about losing streaks
- An obscure player who did not qualify for this week's Team Brother roster
- The three comedy stars
- And a YouTube clip of Rick Bowness trying very hard not to say what he really wants to say

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Could an all-time team made up of NHL brothers beat one made up of NHL fathers and sons?

Cayden Primeau made his NHL debut last week, playing goal for the Montreal Canadiens two years after being drafted in the seventh round. It’s a great story, especially when you remember that Primeau’s father Keith was a longtime NHLer. Keith’s brother Wayne also played in the league, which was nice for them except for that time that it wasn’t.

Battling brothers. Proud fathers and sons. It feels like there’s a story idea in there somewhere. And luckily, one reader found it for me:

Oh hell yes, we’re doing that. Thank you, Lee. (And thanks to everyone else who takes the time to send me weird YouTube clips, obscure trivia and ideas for bizarre stories nobody else would write. You are all the greatest.)

Team Father/Son vs. Team Brother, from all of NHL history. Which side can build the best team? Let’s do this.

But first, as always, some ground rules:

  • We’re going to build lines and defense pairings, but we’re not going to get too caught up in who plays where. We might have some guys switch wings or move around a bit. They’re stars, they’ll figure it out.
  • We’re using Peak Production rules here, which is to say that if you get a player, you get them at their very best. They’re healthy, motivated and at the height of their powers.
  • Most importantly, and maybe most controversially: We’re going to institute a rule that everyone on this roster has to have played at least 250 NHL games as a skater or 100 games as a goalie. Call it the Brent Gretzky rule. Yes, we could build out a pair of rosters that were front-loaded with mega-stars and then pad them out with a fourth line of guys like Alain Lemieux, Paul Messier and Brett Lindros. But that’s not fun. That’s just naming superstars who happened to have relatives who played hockey, and that’s most of them. We want our rosters to feature guys who made their own name in the game. Or at least came close enough that we can squeeze them in without feeling guilty.

OK, let’s make this happen. We’ll start up front with the top lines, which means both sides are breaking out their big guns.

First lines

Team Brother: Phil Esposito, Maurice Richard, Frank Mahovlich

Team Father/Son: Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Peter Stastny

Yikes. Good luck to anyone trying to shut down either unit; you could make a good case that we’ve got four of the top ten players in hockey history here. That includes Howe, the single greatest player we’ll find on either roster, which gives Team Father/Son a strong start. Mr. Hockey and the Golden Jet together would be close to unstoppable, with a combined 1,400 NHL goals between just two guys (and nearly 500 more if we count the WHA). But they’re facing a killer trio from Team Brother, with the first 50-goal scorer, the first 100-point player and the Big M there to feed them both.

Stastny is notable for a few reasons. For one, he’s the weak link on Team Father/Son’s top line, which isn’t exactly an insult given who he’s playing with. But more importantly, you may be questioning why he’s even on Team Father/Son at all. You could absolutely put him on Team Brother instead, on a line with Anton and Marian. Having run through the various combinations, he ends up fitting a bit better on Team Father/Son, but there may not be a player in league history who presents a tougher call.

Second lines

Team Brother: Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Henri Richard

Team Father/Son: Brett Hull, Zach Parise, J.P. Parise

Both teams have some decent scoring depth. There’s more balance on Team Brother, with three Hall-of-Famers. But Team Father/Son has the most dominant player in Hull and his 741 goals, plus a pair of All-Stars who saw action in some of the most important international tournaments ever played.

Also, a quick clerical matter: We made the call to deny Team Father/Son eligibility to Howie Morenz and Bernie Geoffrion; Howie was Boom Boom’s father-in-law, which doesn’t quite fit the spirit of the thing. Any complaints or challenges can be filed with the official Down Goes Brown Office of Appeals (my trashcan).

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Monday, December 9, 2019

Weekend rankings: Flyers make their case, Devils move on and Wild come back from the dead

This is the tenth power rankings of the season, which seems like a good time to take stock of where we’re at and how things are going. And how they’re going is: weird.

Or more specifically, weirdly stable. These rankings just aren’t changing all that much from week-to-week.

A new team hasn’t cracked the top five since the Islanders back in week six. There have been a total of ten teams to make an appearance, including week preseason favorites like the Maple Leafs and Golden Knights who quickly punched out. The Hurricanes and Predators also briefly showed up, but it’s been some combination of the Bruins, Caps, Blues, Avs, Islanders and Lightning for five weeks running. By comparison, by this time last year, we’d seen a dozen teams in the top five, including two recent newcomers.

The bottom five has been even more locked in. The Ducks made their debut last week, becoming just the seventh team to appear. The Senators, Kings and Red Wings have been on the list every week, with the Devils joining them in week two. That’s only left one spot for the Wild, Ducks and Blue Jackets to pass around. This time last year, twelve teams had already appeared in the bottom five.

What’s going on? Let’s start with the obvious: These rankings aren’t being generated by some mathematical model or other objective methods. I’m making the calls here, so maybe I’m just wrong. Maybe I’ve just been too conservative, and my hesitancy to embrace surprise teams at either end of the spectrum is gumming up the works.

It’s possible. I’m always rambling on about how these rankings are meant to be a long view, and we don’t want to overreact to every big win or loss, or even to outlier streaks. That’s fine, but you can take it too far, and maybe I have.

But I don’t think so. I mean, which teams should have cracked the bottom five that have been left out? Maybe the Rangers at some point, but who else? The Hawks? That’s pretty much it for the candidates. The reality is that this year features four really bad teams, which makes it tough to keep up the suspense when your gimmick is a list of five.

The top five is a little trickier. Edmonton fans will argue that I’ve been too slow to buy in on the Oilers, and they may have a case. There have certainly been teams with worse records that I’ve slotted in ahead of Edmonton, and maybe I’m clinging too much to reputation here. Then again, the Oilers have been pretty mediocre lately, winning five of their last eleven, including losses to the Kings and Senators. They’re knocking on the door, but they’re not kicking it down.

Who else should be in the mix? At various times, you could have made a case for the Sabres, Penguins, or maybe even the Jets or Canucks. None made the cut, and none are exactly making me look bad for it these days. The Coyotes and Flyers are at least in the ballpark. And there’s probably a good case to be made that I’ve been too slow to embrace the Stars as a top-five candidate. But go easy, Dallas fans – I didn’t drop you in the bottom five when things were awful, so sometimes the conservative approach works both ways.

All in all, it’s been a strange first few months. Trust me, these rankings are more fun to write when there are new teams cycling in and out, if only so that I’m not talking about the same ones over and over again. It’s tempting to just mix it up for the sake of it. But so far, at least, I think the bias towards the status quo has been the right approach.

Now, was all of that just a big set-up for this week’s rankings being full of unexpected teams? Let’s find out …

Road to the Cup

5. New York Islanders (19-7-2, +11 true goals differential*) – They had two regulation losses for the second straight week, which is notable for a team that went 17 straight with at least a point. That’s let the Caps pull away a bit for the division lead. Maybe more importantly, the Flyers are gaining ground for home ice. This week doesn’t get any easier, with a two-game trip to Florida to face the Lightning and Panthers, so it’s possible we won’t see the Islanders here next week.

4. St. Louis Blues (18-7-6, +12) – They’ve lost two straight in regulation for the first time all year, thanks to a pair of underwhelming performances against the Penguins and Maple Leafs.

Playing the Maple Leafs also meant we got some Toronto-centric trade speculation, as well as some adorable pregame floor hockey. The Blues head to Buffalo tomorrow, followed by a four-game homestand that will include a showdown with the Avs a week from now.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Friday, December 6, 2019

Grab Bag: Is your terrible NHL team secretly the next Blues? Take the quiz and find out

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A handy quiz to figure out if your terrible team is secretly this year's Blues
- A debate about retired numbers and honored players
- An obscure player from a Mickey Mouse team
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the early days of the Flyers' Sign Man

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Puck Soup: Shout at the Devils

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Devils fire John Hynes
- The Taylor Hall trade watch begins
- More reaction to the Bill Peters story
- The Marc Crawford allegations, and what comes next for hockey coaching
- Nicklas Backstrom is going to try to be his own agent
- A surprisingly tricky "pick your team" challenge
- A way-too-long discussion of pro wrestling stables

>> 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.

A guide to some things you might expect to find in an NHL rulebook (but won’t)

I’ve always been a bit of a rulebook nerd. My readers know that, and we’ve had some fun with it over the years. Last season, we went through seven rules that don’t work the way you think, or that you might not have known were in the book at all. Did you know that it’s an automatic penalty to swear, or challenge a referee’s judgment, or (sometimes) even freeze the puck after a save? The NHL rulebook is weird.

But while there are lots of rules that you might not have known were in there, the flip side is also true. There’s stuff that hockey fans tend to assume is explained in detail in the rulebook, but isn’t. Sometimes it’s missing completely. In other cases, it’s a lot more vague than you might have been led to believe. Sometimes, that might even be a good thing.

Today, let’s dig into that side of the story, with five things you might assume you could find in an NHL rulebook that aren’t actually there.

Pretty much any definition of charging

What you know: Charging is a penalty that isn’t called often, but it comes up from time to time, and plenty of fans seem to believe that it should be called a lot more than it is. Leaving your feet to make a hit is definitely charging. So is skating halfway across the ice to drill a guy. You’ll sometimes hear that it’s based on how many strides a player takes before initiating contact.

It’s a bit of a gray area, sure, but you know it when you see it. (Specifically, you know it’s charging when you see a player from your favorite team get sent flying.)

What you might expect to find in the rulebook: Some sort of definition of what charging actually is.

What you get instead: An almost comically ambiguous description of charging that could be applied to half the hits in a typical game, or none of them at all.

Seriously, go check out Rule 42. It’s one of the shortest rules in the rulebook, just over 300 words; half of those are the standard-issue breakdown of minor versus major versus match, and half of what’s left is just a reminder that goalies aren’t fair game for hits. The actual description of charging is just two sentences long, and neither is very helpful.

The first tells us that a charging penalty “shall be imposed on a player who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner.” The first problem here is that we’re using the word “charges” to help define what “charging” is, a turn of phrase that sounds like it should be read by Smokin’ Joe Frazier. But more importantly: any manner? That seems a little vague, no? It can be read as saying that skating into an opponent is always against the rules. Is every hit a potential charge?

Well, yeah, as it turns out, it kind of is. The next line clarifies, but only a little: “Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner.” Now we know that we’re looking for violent checks, and that distance traveled is an important factor. But that’s as far as we go. Despite what you may have heard, there’s nothing in the rulebook about how many strides a player can take. And while there is that reference to jumping into an opponent, it doesn’t explicitly say that leaving your feet is an automatic charge, at least any more than skating into someone should be.

How it gets called: This is one of those rules that’s evolved as the game has changed. It’s a bit of a relic from the sport’s early days when players taking two-minute shifts would glide around the ice and only accelerate to full gear when needed. Back then, somebody going full speed into a body check would stand out – that was charging. But as Ken Dryden once told me, these days the entire game is played at charging speed. Based on how the sport works today and how the rule is written, it’s not an exaggeration to say that yes, literally every hit could be called charging.

Nobody wants that. Instead, today’s officials have pretty much settled on looking for a player who takes multiple strides into a stationary opponent and/or leaves his feet when delivering a hit. That’s reasonable. It’s just not what the rulebook says.

(Now can we also talk about how the phrase “leaves his feet” doesn’t make any sense?)

A clear-cut definition of possessing or controlling the puck

What you know: Certain scenarios covered in the rules will hinge on who has possession and/or control of the puck. Delayed penalty calls, legal line changes, penalty shots and offside calls can all depend on whether or not a player (or team) had the puck, and when.

What you might expect to find in the rulebook: A detailed definition of what it means to possess or control the puck.

What you get instead: Not much. Or, depending on how you look at it, maybe too much. References to possession show up all over the rulebook. Often, they’re accompanied by a reference to control, which is a similar concept but not the same thing. (As the rulebook charmingly puts it at one point, “A player can have possession of the puck without control, but he cannot have control of the puck without possession.” That’s almost deep enough to go on a motivational poster.)

Some of those references tip-toe up to defining the term, if very loosely. For example, Rule 56 on interference says that possession is simply “The last player to touch the puck.” But the closest we get to something firm is tucked away in the glossary, which says that control is “The act of propelling the puck with the stick, hand or feet.” That’s a start. But there’s nothing about, for example, the puck staying within a certain distance of the player, or how much contact he needs to make to maintain possession, or whether the propelling needs to be intentional, or any of the other nit-picky things you might wonder about.

You know how the NFL seems to have roughly six dozen rules and sub-rules about whether or not a receiver possessed the ball at a given moment? The NHL doesn’t have that. This might not be a bad thing.

How it gets called: This is another one that often falls into the “we know it when we see it” category. And honestly, that usually works out fine. Except when it doesn’t.

This came up recently in a game between the Bruins and Canadiens, where Charlie Coyle was ruled offside after video review on a play where he seemed to control the puck with his skates. The rulebook is clear that “a player actually controlling the puck who shall cross the line ahead of the puck shall not be considered offside.” But since it doesn’t really define what “actually controlling the puck” means, the officials were left on their own to figure out if Coyle’s skate skills were enough. They decided they weren’t. Lots of us watching disagreed, but the officials weren’t wrong, so much as they were caught in a gray area of the rulebook.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Monday, December 2, 2019

Weekend power rankings: It’s no longer too early, especially for the teams that are struggling

When it comes to evaluating a team’s playoff chances, there are three key pressure points on the schedule. The first of those comes on Nov. 1, when Elliotte Friedman’s infamous stat about teams that are four or more points back being all but done kicks in. This year, there were a ton of those teams, including several that have since climbed back into the race.

The second key day just passed. It’s American Thanksgiving, and we’re often told that it’s the cutoff that NHL GMs care about. The Nov. 1 thing is cute, and it’s been oddly accurate over the years, but it always feels like it’s a little too early to panic. But by Thanksgiving, the season is almost a third of the way over. If you’ve dug a hole by now, it’s tough to climb back out.

How tough? Jonathan Willis took a look at the recent history and found that over the past six seasons only four teams that were more than four points out this late in the year were able to claw their way back to a postseason invite. When the calendar flipped over to December this year, seven teams are facing that kind of gap.

Some of those feel like easy calls. The Red Wings, Senators and Kings are all rebuilding teams and are already way out of the race. Can we say with 100 percent certainty that they won’t make the playoffs? Well … maybe, since Dom Luszczyszyn’s model pretty much does. Miracles happen, so we’ll never say never. But for these three teams, it’s close to never.

The Devils fall into the same group in terms of how far back they are. They were supposed to be far enough along that they weren’t a rebuilding team in the same sense as the others, although maybe they will be again by the trade deadline. A few of the experts had them as a playoff team, and newcomers like Nikita Gusev and Jack Hughes have been starting to find their groove, so there’s a chance they can get back into something that feels like a race. But they’ve got so much ground to make up that they’re all but done.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Lightning are technically five points out of a playoff spot this morning. But they’ve played the fewest games in the league, and are already holding down a spot in terms of points percentage. Also, they’re the Lightning. They’re not a lock to make the playoffs, but it’s virtually impossible to be five points out in December and be in any better shape than Tampa Bay is right now.

That leaves us with two teams that fall into more of a grey area. Columbus has six points to make up and five teams to pass, so they’re in rough shape. But they’re not so far back that it feels impossible, and they did have 98 points and a playoff round win last year. That was a very different roster, and they may have lost Zach Werenski, so maybe it’s wishful thinking, but we can’t rule them out entirely. And the Blackhawks have shown flashes this year, including a four-game win streak just a few weeks ago. They’ve given back a lot of that ground since, losing five of six. Informally, I can report that Hawks fans rank towards the top of any crankiness power rankings these days. But if somebody’s other than Tampa is going to make a push, Chicago looks to have the bests shot.

(By the way, the third key checkpoint for non-playoff teams is a new one for this year: the first week of January, when last year’s Blues hit their low point before turning their season around. From that moment on, teams that are still struggling won’t be able to play the “But what if we’re secretly the Blues?” card anymore. That will be a sad day for a lot of GMs. Let’s let them enjoy these last few weeks while they can.)

Road to the Cup

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

We haven’t mentioned the Flyers much in this section, and they’re not in this week’s top five. But they’ve been hot lately, including a win on Saturday on an overtime beauty from Ivan Provorov:

The Flyers have been somewhat quietly climbing the Metro standings, and even briefly moved into second with that Provorov goal, before the Islanders retook the spot later that night. Hey, speaking of whom …

5. New York Islanders (17-5-2, +11 true goals differential*) – For the first time in a while, a few warning lights are blinking on the dashboard. They lost three straight for the first time this season, scoring just twice in the process. And while Saturday’s 2-0 win over the Blue Jackets snapped the streak, they gave up 39 shots and may have lost Thomas Greiss, who left the game in the first period with an undisclosed injury. The Islanders are a team that goes as far as its goaltending can take it, so losing one for any length of time would be worrying. We don’t know that that’s the case yet, but we’ll keep an eye on it.

4. Colorado Avalanche (16-8-2, +22) – The Avs reached as high as second in these rankings in October, but haven’t cracked the list in a month. That ends this week, thanks to three straight wins in which they outscored their opponents 16-6. But more importantly, Mikko Rantanen is back and looks like his old self. They’re still missing Gabriel Landeskog and Andre Burakovsky, and they have the Stars and Jets nipping at their heels. But with the fifth-best points percentage in the league and a big star back in the lineup, it’s time to get them back into the top five.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)