Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Remembering the dramatic tying goals that went to waste (aka the Zelepukins)

With no new NHL action these days, the league’s broadcast partners have been dipping into their archives to fill airtime with memorable games from the past. And it’s been pretty cool. We all miss live hockey, but getting to rewatch some old classics isn’t a bad way to spend an evening.

For example, over the weekend Canadian viewers were treated to replays of a pair of classic Canucks Game 7s: their showdown against the Flames in 2004 and their grudge match against the Blackhawks in 2011. A few days earlier, both Sportsnet and Fox Sports West showed the Kerry Fraser game between the Leafs and Kings from 1993.

All memorable games. But they had something else in common, and you may have noticed it. They all featured a very specific type of goal. They all had a Zelepukin.

OK, I’m guessing you don’t call it that, since that’s a label I’ve been using in my own head over the years. But you know the moment. A Zelepukin is when a team scores a dramatic goal to tie a crucial game at the end of regulation but then goes on to lose that game in overtime.

A Zelepukin goal is always a weird moment in hindsight. When the tying goal happens, it’s euphoric for one fan base and crushing for the other. But then the script gets flipped in overtime, and you realize that the Zelepukin just prolonged the misery. Sometimes, the tying goal itself is all but forgotten, replaced in the collective memory by the overtime goal it spawned.

And that’s where the paradox of the Zelepukin kicks in – if your team scored it, you might end up wondering if you’d rather it had never happened at all.

That question has always kind of fascinated me. So today, let’s look at those three Zelepukin goals we’ve been able to relive in recent days, as well as a few more famous ones from hockey history. We’ll start with the one that might have been the most memorable in NHL history. If you’re not sure which one that is, well, the name might give you a hint.

May 27, 1994: Devils vs. Rangers

The setup: It’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, with the Rangers hosting the Devils at Madison Square Garden. New York has won the Presidents’ Trophy and is looking to punch a ticket to the final and a chance to end a 54-year Cup drought. But the underdog Devils are giving them all they can handle. The series is already legendary, having featured Mark Messier’s infamous Guarantee that kept the Rangers alive in Game 6. Now it all comes down to one winner-take-all showdown.

The situation: Game 7 turns into a fierce defensive battle, with Mike Richter and Martin Brodeur trading saves in a 0-0 tie until Brian Leetch gets the Rangers on the board midway through the second. As the third period ticks away, it starts to look like that goal will hold up as the winner.

The Zelepukin: With Brodeur on the bench and 18 seconds left, the teams line up for a faceoff in the Rangers’ end. Messier wins the draw but the Rangers can’t clear, and a goalmouth scramble leads to a golden scoring opportunity. Richter makes what seems like an impossible save, but a certain Devil is there to hack away at the rebound: Tom Chorske!

No, just kidding. It is, of course, Valeri Zelepukin.

And just like that, 18,000 delirious Rangers fans go dead quiet. For at least a little while.

But then: In arguably the most famous overtime of the era, the two teams don’t score through one period before Stephane Matteau’s harmless-looking wraparound attempt ends it. The goal isn’t especially pretty, but the call will live forever.

Do you wish it never happened? If you’re a Devils fan, it’s quite possible that Zelepukin’s goal, at the moment it happened, was the highlight of your entire life as a sports fan. But in hindsight, if you could wave a magic wand and make it disappear, I think you’d have to. Sure, losing 1-0 on a Brian Leetch goal would have been painful. But if you never had to hear Stephane Matteau’s name screamed at you ever again, I think it would be worth it.

April 26, 2011: Blackhawks vs. Canucks

The setup: By 2011, the Hawks and Canucks had managed to brew up a surprisingly heated inter-division rivalry, one that had seen Chicago eliminate very good Vancouver teams in both 2009 and 2010. The Hawks had gone on to win the Cup after that second series, but the Canucks were the favorites heading into their 2011 rematch after a franchise-record 117-point season. All they had to do was slay the dragon.

And through three games, they did. The Canucks built a 3-0 series lead, one that the history books said should be all but insurmountable. But then the Hawks fought back with a blowout win, and then another, and then an overtime win in Game 6 to tie the series. That set up a Game 7 in Vancouver where the Canucks would either fight back with one of the biggest wins in franchise history, or suffer a loss so devastating that they’d have no choice but to detonate the roster. No middle ground.

The situation: Alex Burrows opened the scoring early in the first, and it seemed like that might be enough as Roberto Luongo held off a surprisingly toothless Chicago attack. Late in the third, the Hawks’ chances went from bad to worse when Duncan Keith took a tripping penalty to leave them shorthanded. All the Canucks had to do was play keep away for two minutes, then take it home.

The Zelepukin: A neutral zone turnover led to a harmless looking 2-on-4 rush for the Hawks. But as it turns out, Jonathan Toews is pretty dangerous, even from all fours.

And just like that, the Canucks were headed to sudden death on the verge of what would have been viewed as one of the most epic chokes in NHL history.

But then: Five minutes into overtime Chris Campoli’s failed clearing attempt wound up in Burrows’ glove, and he hammered one past Corey Crawford for the winner.

Do you wish it never happened? Watch that overtime winner again. Do you see how happy Burrows is? It’s the highlight of his entire career. If you were a Hawks fans, would you want to take that away from him? Of course you would. It’s not even a hard question. This Zelepukin clearly needs to go.

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Monday, March 30, 2020

In which I attempt to answer a simple question about jersey numbers that almost breaks me

Every now and then, a reader will reach out to me with a question. Sometimes, I already know the answer. Often, I have no idea where I’d even start. But the best kind of questions are the ones that make me think: “Huh, I’m not sure, but I bet it would be fun to find out.”

I got one of those a little while ago from a reader named Bryce. It was nice and simple. Bryce wanted to know which NHL player had scored the most goals in a single season in which their total matched their jersey number.

That’s kind of a cool question. And it’s one that shouldn’t be all that hard to figure out. I couldn’t come up with an answer off the top of my head, but I knew how to find one: just crack open a list of the highest single-season goal totals and work backward.

So that’s what I did. It will be fun, right?

Let’s begin, the way all great journeys do, at the beginning. In this case, that meant a list of every NHL player to ever score 60 goals or more in a season. It’s not a long list, but it’s probably longer than you might think. There have been 39 seasons of 60+ goals in NHL history. Could we find our answer in that list? I wasn’t sure, but it was the right place to start.

Five of those 39 seasons belong to Wayne Gretzky, and we can obviously eliminate him; he wore No. 99 for his entire NHL career, and he never got that many goals in a season. He came reasonably close, topping out at 92 in 1981-82, which still stands as the all-time record and probably always will. But we’re not looking for close here, so Wayne’s not our man.

He does have an impact, though, because his iconic No. 99 encouraged a generation of stars that followed to wear distinctive high numbers of their own. That was a new thing, and it should make our search easier.

Here’s where we run into our first problem: A lot of history’s greatest offensive talents have worn high numbers, but they were too high. Gretzky’s the only player to ever crack the 90-goal plateau, which wipes out the chances of plenty of today’s 90-wearing stars, like Connor McDavid and Steven Stamkos. Eric Lindros and Patrick Kane have posted big goal-scoring years, but neither got anywhere close to the 88 they wore. Alexander Mogilny’s 76 goals in 1992-93 is tied for the fifth-most ever, but he had a long way to go since he was wearing No. 89. Sidney Crosby’s great, but he hasn’t come anywhere near 87.

Brett Hull did, scoring 86 in 1990-91 and hitting the rarified 70-goal mark on two other occasions. But he did that while wearing No. 16, which leads to our second problem: Star forwards who don’t wear really high numbers usually wear relatively low ones. It’s a tradition thing. So right off the bat, we know we can rule out low-numbered stars like Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull (all No. 9), Alexander Ovechkin and Cam Neely (No. 8), Guy Lafleur and Pavel Bure (No. 10). Mike Bossy, Teemu Selanne, Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille or Jari Kurri? Sorry. All wore good, solid, traditional numbers that are way too low for what we’re looking for.

There is one player who wore a number in the 70s and had a 70-goal season. But that’s Phil Esposito, and he scored 76 in 1970-71 while wearing No. 7; he didn’t switch to No. 77 until he was traded to the Rangers, so he’s one goal and five years away from being our answer.

After dropping down into the 60s, optimism kicks in because there are two legendary scorers who both wore numbers in this range – Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, with both showing up on the list of 60-goal scorers. But Jagr topped out at 62 goals in 1995-96, missing his iconic No. 68 by a half-dozen. And while Lemieux had two seasons of 69 goals, one of 70, and one of 85, he never landed on exactly 66. He goes down in history as the highest jersey number to be exceeded by his goal total, but our search for an exact match carries on.

The only other candidates left on our initial list are Lanny McDonald, Dennis Maruk, Steve Shutt and Reggie Leach, and they all came along before higher vanity numbers were a thing. So no, we won’t find our answer in the 60+ club after all. No worries, though – we’ll just have to open up the search to the 50-goal club. And as it turns out, that’s a very big club indeed. Dropping our cutoff down to 50 goals opens the floodgates enough to allow 157 new seasons onto our list, so surely we’ll find our answer here.

The good news is that our list now includes dozens of names that we haven’t seen yet. The bad news is that a glance at some of the guys who had seasons in the high 50s tells us that we’re going to immediately run into the same two problems as before. Marcel Dionne, Tim Kerr and Michel Goulet? Traditional numbers that are too low. Pierre Turgeon or Sergei Fedorov? Too high.

And then, the first sense of doubt creeps in: Wait, what kind of star forward wears a number in the 50s?

There sure aren’t many. Typically, if they hand you a number in the 50s in training camp, it’s because they don’t expect you to stick around long. If you do, you get yourself a real number as soon as possible. What kind of self-respecting sniper is going to wear No. 58?

Not many. But that’s OK because we only need one. And the 50-goal tier is where we start to see some names where I wasn’t sure what number they wore. Charlie Simmer? Craig Simpson? Blaine Stoughton? Rick Kehoe? Nope across the board. John Ogrodnick, Wayne Babych or Pierre Larouche? Negative. I held out some hope for No. 55 since the double-digit thing was in vogue after Gretzky, Lemieux and Lindros. But no such luck, as guys like Keith Primeau, Jason Blake and Eric Daze fall well short, and Mark Scheifele has yet to come close. Dave Andreychuk did wear No. 52, but only for one season in 2000-01 when his 50-goal days were well behind him. Same with Dany Heatley wearing No. 51 for the Ducks.

I had a brief flutter of optimism when I remembered Jonathan Cheechoo’s 56-goal season. Did Cheechoo wear No. 56? It seems like the sort of number he might wear, right? He’d never been an elite goal-scorer before that wild 2005-06 season, so maybe he was still wearing a scrub’s number when he broke through. Alas, he was not. He wore No. 14 that year. Not even close.

By the time I got into the low 50s – Rick Martin? Blaine Stoughton? Ray Freaking Sheppard? – desperation was beginning to set in. I felt like I may have made a terrible mistake.

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Friday, March 27, 2020

Grab Bag: Buildup to legendary Wings/Avs brawl, time for NHL to get creative

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Should the NHL do anything for the teams that traded draft picks for rentals they'll never use?
- A debate about what the rest of the season should look like gets interrupted
- An obscure player with a Wrestlemania theme
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the pre-game coverage of the famous Wings/Avs brawl

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Puck Soup: What was the best team ever that didn't win the Cup?

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg makes the case that the NHL should cancel the regular season right now
- Jeremy Jacobs and the Bruins stiff their workers
- That wild lottery idea
- The Memorial Cup is canceled for the first time ever
- And we run through a 16-team tournament to determine the best team ever that didn't win the Cup

>> Stream it now:

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

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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Ranking all 67 hat tricks from the 2019-20 season

It’s been a while since I’ve done a way-too-in-depth ranking of some random subject. And since we all miss hockey, I thought it would be fun to remember some of the good times. What about hat tricks? Everybody loves a good hat trick. Let’s rank every hat trick from the 2019-20 season, I thought. That would be fun.

Then I found out there were 67 of them. That’s, um, more than I thought. Damn you, dead puck era, where are you when I need you?

Ah well, it’s not like any of us have anything better to do right now. So here we go. Each of the 67 hat tricks from the 2019-20 season, ranked from worst to best, based on a rigorous scientific methodology of me just deciding I liked some better than others. You’re free to disagree. You’ll be wrong, but you’re free to do so.

No. 67: Blake Coleman (Devils vs. Maple Leafs, Jan. 14)

Every hat trick is at least kind of cool, and it feels a little weird to pick one as the season’s very worst. But Coleman is as good a choice as any because his hat trick was unique in two ways. First, the Devils lost the game in regulation, making Coleman the only player on this entire list whose team didn’t even get so much as a point out of his hat trick game. And it’s also the only entry where another player in the same game also had a hat trick – in this case, Auston Matthews. Factor in that all three of Coleman’s goals came with his team trailing by four goals or more, and yeah, this one really didn’t matter. It apparently impressed the Lightning scouts, though.

No. 66: Evander Kane (Sharks vs. Capitals, Jan. 5)

Like Coleman, Kane got his trick in a loss. Unlike Coleman, he at least saw his team earn a point. But this was the infamous game in which the Sharks collapsed with a minute left, allowing two goals to tie the game before losing two minutes into overtime. When your hat trick comes in your team’s most gut-wrenching loss of a gut-wrenching season, that’s not great.

No. 65: Nicolas Deslauriers (Ducks vs. Senators, March 10)

Deslauriers’ first-period blitz was the last hat trick of the season, coming on the penultimate night. It happened two weeks ago. It feels like two years.

No. 64: Tyson Jost (Avalanche vs. Lightning, Oct. 19)

This early-season hat trick accounted for 37.5 percent of Jost’s offensive output for the entire season; he scored just five other goals in 66 games. But he’ll go down as the youngest player to have a hat trick in 2019-20, and the one to do it with the least ice time (just 10:58).

No. 63: Dustin Brown (Kings vs. Wild, March 7)

And here’s the oldest player on our list, as 35-year-old Brown became the third Kings player to manage the feat in a five-week stretch.

No. 62: Craig Smith (Predators vs. Islanders, Feb. 13)

No. 61: Carter Verhaeghe (Lightning vs. Canucks, Jan. 7)

No. 60: Andrew Mangiapane (Flames vs. Ducks, Feb. 17)

No. 59: Joonas Donskoi (Avalanche vs. Predators, Nov. 7)

No. 58: Derek Grant (Ducks vs. Blues, Nov. 16)

Hat tricks by guys you don’t expect are always at least a little bit sneaky-fun. These five guys are all pretty similar stories – they’re not considered big scorers, they finished with fewer than 20 goals on the year, and these were their first and so far only career hat tricks. Grant takes the top spot in the group because of this.

No. 57: Frank Vatrano (Panthers vs. Blackhawks, January 21)

I kind of assumed Vatrano would fit into that same “plugger scoring his first career hat trick” category as that last group, but no – he also had one as a rookie with the Bruins way back in 2015. You learn something new every day. Not something remotely useful, but something.

No. 56: Mika Zibanejad (Rangers vs. Senators, Oct. 5)

This was the season’s first hat trick, as well as the first of two Zibanejad would have on the year. Spoiler: The second one was better.

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Monday, March 23, 2020

DGB weekend power rankings: A rerun from 1993

Editor’s note: The DGB Power Rankings would normally appear in this space today. However, due to the current shutdown, there is no NHL action to write about. So for this week’s rankings, we’ll do what our friends in the TV industry have been doing: Dip into the archives and air a rerun.

The following Weekend Rankings column originally ran exactly 27 years ago today, on March 23, 1993.

Let’s dive right in with the big news of the day: Yesterday’s trade deadline. As expected, it was a frantic day of wheeling and dealing, with a ton of action to sort through.

Nine trades, to be exact. Involving fourteen different players. Whew. Nine trades! Where do you even begin?

The Penguins loaded up for their run at a three-peat, adding defensemen Mike Ramsey and Peter Taglianetti. That’s not quite up there with the Ron Francis deal from two years ago, but it’s a pair of nice adds that cement the Pens as the favorites heading into the stretch run.

The Kings added veteran blueliner Mark Hardy from the Rangers, while the Caps and Jets pulled off a goalie-for-goalie swap involving Jim Hrivnak and Rick Tabaracci. Murray Craven went to the Canucks for Robert Kron. And Chicago added Craig Muni from Edmonton; the veteran will be going from a bottom-feeder to a Cup contender, and will no doubt be thrilled to report to the Hawks.

The big loser in all of this might be the Rangers, who whiffed in their well-publicized efforts to add a big-name defenseman. They did pick up Esa Tikkanen from Edmonton a few days ago, for the low cost of marginal prospect Doug Weight. And they’re still holding down third in the Patrick, so unless they collapse, they won’t become the first Presidents’ Trophy winner to miss the playoffs. It’s not all bad. But if they’re ever going to break their 53-year-and-counting Cup drought in New York, you’d think Neil Smith will have to learn how to get aggressive at the deadline.

Will any of those trades impact this week’s power rankings? Let’s find out …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of respectfully celebrating a hard-earned victory in a quiet and dignified fashion.

Last night’s Canucks/Blues game was a real snoozer, eh? Just four goals total in a 3-1 Blues win, one that turned into a goaltending battle between Curtis Joseph and Kirk McLean. Here’s hoping they offered a partial refund to any fans who paid to see that dud. Luckily, these sorts of defensive struggles remain rare; there’s only been one other game all week that featured fewer than five goals, compared to an even dozen that featured eight or more.

Offense isn’t quite back up to 1980s levels, but it’s rebounded nicely after a two-year dip that saw league scoring drop all the way down to seven goals-per-game. With a league full of in-their-prime legends and young up-and-coming stars, good luck to any defensive-minded coaches out there looking to stem the coming tide of fan-friendly offense; they’ll no doubt have a devil of a time.

5. Washington Capitals (36-28-7, +24 true goals differential*) – They’ve cooled off since last month’s impressive seven-game win streak, but they remain well-positioned for home ice in the playoffs. Their path out of the division goes through Pittsburgh, which is a concern, but they’re pretty much the only Patrick team that has any chance of beating the Penguins. And besides, they’ve lost to the Pens in each of Pittsburgh’s two Cup-winning years. If I know the law of averages, there’s no way that keeps happening.

By the way, how about that Dale Hunter? Three points against the Sharks and he’s closing in on the team scoring lead. Don’t turn your back on this guy, he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

4. Boston Bruins (41-25-7, +38) – They remain one of the most consistent teams in the league, with last night’s comeback win over the Whalers meaning they still haven’t lost consecutive games since early January. While they haven’t caught the Habs for top spot in the Adams yet, that feels all but inevitable right now. Will they have a long playoff run? Nothing’s ever guaranteed, but let’s just say I’m feeling pretty confident that May is going to be memorable.

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Friday, March 20, 2020

Grab Bag: A league on pause, a CBA thought and 1980s montage perfection

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- How various NHL fan bases are passing the time without hockey
- A sliver of good news that could come out of all of this
- An obscure player with an unbreakable draft record
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of one of the best 1980s montages you'll ever see

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

Puck Soup: Now what?

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- (shakes head)
- (gestures at everything)
- (sighs deeply)
- So what now for the NHL, it's fans and employees?
- What would the playoffs even look like if the league came back?
- What about the impact on escrow and next year's cap?
- A movie quiz
- (shrugs despondently)

>> 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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Possible NHL playoff formats, from the idea to the weird. Then the weirder. Then even weirder.

The NHL is officially in uncharted territory, with a season that’s been paused with three weeks to go, no way of knowing when the games could resume, and no clear plan on what should happen if they do. Will this become the third season in NHL history without a champion? It certainly looks like it’s possible, maybe even likely. But if not, and we do award the Stanley Cup this season … well, how exactly do we even do that?

That’s the question that’s probably occupying a large chunk of the NHL’s brainpower these days, with various scenarios in play. There are a ton of unknowns here, not to mention some very real logistical problems that would have to be addressed, and it’s impossible for the league to make any firm decisions anytime soon. But they have to at least be weighing their options.

For example, this tweet went around earlier this week:

That would, needless to say, represent a huge departure from what hockey fans are used to. But as Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston writes, it appears to indeed be on the table. That suggests that the NHL, or at least some of its teams and stakeholders, may be open to getting creative here.

Let’s help them out. Come with me as we head down the rabbit hole of ways the NHL could handle the rest of the 2019-20 season, if they even get that chance. We’ll start with the most options that say as close as possible to what we’re all used to, and work our way down to the weird stuff. And then we’ll keep going into the really weird. Let’s do this.

The best-case scenarios

We’re already well beyond any “in a perfect world” cases; that ship sailed once the season was paused. But at this point, we can at least hold out hope for something that looks like what we’re used to. Let’s start with those options.

Option 1: The status quo

The idea: We wait this out, then finish up the regular season before moving onto the playoffs as normal.

Pros: It’s the ideal scenario; beyond a few weeks off and little rust once the games resume, we get a typical season.

Cons: At this point, there’s essentially zero chance of there being enough time to do this.

Bottom line: I’m only including this option to set a baseline; it’s not happening.

Option 2: The almost status quo

The idea: OK, we won’t have time to finish the season. But when the NHL resumes, we at least play a few nights to get everyone to the same number of games, even if that’s something like 72 where some teams would only play once or twice. Then we move on to the usual 16-team, four-round playoffs.

Pros: Everyone gets to shake off the rust with a few games before the playoffs, and we get a (very abbreviated) playoff race to give bubble teams who are a few percentage points out of the race right now a chance to earn their way in.

Cons: Even with the elimination of 10 games per team, the timeline here is unlikely to work. We’d be asking players on bad teams to leave their families just for a few games that wouldn’t matter to them. And if you think teams get mad about losing games when they’re rusty after the bye week, imagine the reaction when they lose a playoff spot they’d been holding through 71 games based on a 72nd played after a month off.

Bottom line: This is more realistic than option 1, but only marginally.

Option 3: A play-in round

The idea: We stop the season, but do a mini-round of play-in games for the bubble teams. The exact format could vary, but let’s say we have each conference’s 7-through-10 seeds play a quick play-in round to determine who gets into the full tournament.

Pros: We’d get back to action with high-stakes hockey right out of the gate, without needing to involve the teams that aren’t in the running for anything. And it could be a nice proof-of-concept test run for the play-in format that people like Pierre LeBrun have been pushing over the years.

Cons: Putting aside your feelings about a play-in round, do we really think we’re in a position to add to the playoff format right now?

Bottom line: If time wasn’t a factor, this could be a great idea. Time is going to be a factor.

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Monday, March 16, 2020

Remembering my worst power rankings of the season

It’s Monday, so this is supposed to be the weekend rankings column. Only this time, there’s no weekend to rank. That’s the new status quo, as we won’t have any NHL action to pick apart for weeks, if not a lot longer.

I’m not really sure what to do with that. I’m guessing you might be in the same boat as we try to figure out what to do without any sports in our lives, and how much that absence should even matter. It feels bizarre to think that it was just a week ago that I was pumping the tires of a potential Lightning/Bruins series (in a move that many of you correctly labeled as an obvious reverse-jinx attempt on behalf of the Leafs). That was seven days ago? It feels like seven years.

The plan around here is to keep the hockey writing coming, which will mean getting creative. OK, it’s going to be mean getting weird. If you thought Offseason DGB can sometimes get strange, wait until you see what No Hockey When There’s Still Snow On The Ground DGB might wander off to. This could get awkward.

But for today, I’m going to skip the rankings. The top five wouldn’t change much; we only had three nights of action since last week’s rankings, and even though I have no actual memory of any of those games, I’m going to assume they didn’t change the Stanley Cup outlook all that much. As for the bottom five, that’s just trying to predict what the basement will look like in the final standings. And right now, the standings look pretty darn final. So, you know, here you go.

Therefore, no rankings. Instead, I’m going to do what I always do when I have too much time on my hands: Revisit and rethink every bad decision I’ve ever made.

Yes, gentle reader, while it will no doubt shock some of you, I have a confession: Some of the rankings I’ve made over the last season have turned out to be wrong. And this is the week when I have to face the music on the worst of them.

We did this last year, under happier circumstances, and you all seemed to enjoy pointing and laughing at me appreciate my honesty and self-reflection. In case you’ve forgotten, that was a year that included bold calls like “the Sabres are a top-five team” and “those Blues sure are pretty bad.” As the kids say, those aged poorly.

So how did I do this year? Honestly … not awful? I feel like this year’s worst picks, while occasionally regrettable, won’t leave any serious marks. Maybe that’s because, as we’ve noted several times throughout the season, I’ve been more conservative about moving teams in and out of the rankings this year. In theory, that should make it easier to avoid the big mistake. And I think I mostly have.

But that’s not to say I didn’t make a few picks that I’d like to have back. So instead of this week’s rankings, let’s count down my five worst calls of the year.

5. Detroit not being the worst team every week: Did that sound harsh? It sounds harsh. But the Red Wings deserve it because they’ve been historically awful this year. It’s one thing to finish dead last – some team has to. It’s another to be quite possibly the worst team of the cap era, which is where Detroit was headed pretty much from the start. For most of the year, they’ve made at least one ranking nice and easy, because you could always pencil in the Wings for that No. 1 spot in the bottom five.

Except I didn’t. Not every week. In fact, there were four weeks when I didn’t have Detroit ranked as the league’s worst team. Which means there were four weeks where I was very wrong.

In my defense, those four weeks were the first four of the season; Detroit’s been holding down the spot ever since, a total of 20 weeks. Still, they didn’t dislodge the Senators until the first week of November. I can give myself a pass for week one since the Wings started 2-0-0 (and I still had them ranked third in the bottom five). Maybe week two, when they were 3-2-0. But after that? Like Jimmy Howard’s glove hand, I was too slow.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The loser point is broken. I can fix it. You're going to hate it.

I'm not a big fan of the NHL's loser point.

You may already know that, if you've read my work or seen my recent twitter rant or ever spoken to me for more than 30 seconds about literally any topic. I've been beating this drum for years. The loser point rewards failure, breaks the standings, and makes games worse by encouraging conservative play late in regulation. The loser point sucks.

Many of you agree. But whenever I bring this up, there's one counterargument I can count on hearing: We need the loser point, because it makes the playoff races closer.

That's been the league's go-to explanation for years, with everyone from Gary Bettman to Brian Burke and David Poile using it to defend the status quo against proposals like 3-2-1-0 or a win percentage system. The races are so close, they tell us, why would we mess with what's working? And yeah, it makes a certain kind of sense. If your favorite team is chasing a playoff spot, they need to bank points to make up ground. The best way to get those points is to win. But if they can also earn points for a loss, well, that helps too. You don't want to see one bad week torpedo your team's chances, and a few loser points can help keep them in the race when the bounces don't go their way.

(I'll pause here to acknowledge that there are other arguments in favor of the loser point, including that 3-on-3 overtime and the shootout are so gimmicky that it's unfair to punish a team for losing that way, so we should treat those as regulation ties and think of three-point games as awarding a bonus to the winner rather than the loser. That's a better case, at least, but it's not the one the NHL itself likes to make – after all, the extra point column on the standings page says "OT/shootout loss", not "regulation tie" or "gimmick contest win". So for our purposes today we'll take the league at its word that this is about keeping those playoff races nice and close.)

More teams in the hunt makes for more excitement, and if we have to award a few extra points to make that happen, it's worth it. That sounds reasonable, right?

Maybe. But only if you don't actually look at the standings. Because the loser point isn't doing what we're told it does, at least not consistently. And it never has.

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Monday, March 9, 2020

Weekend rankings: Who’s up for 7 more games of Bruins versus Lightning?

I know that we should live in the moment and appreciate the time we have right now, but would anyone object if we just skipped straight ahead to Round 2 in the Atlantic?

(Scans audience.)

Cool, no objections. Bruins and Lightning, get back out there. Best of seven, let’s do this.

Specifically, let’s do Saturday night, but for seven games in a row. Because that may have been the game of the year

(Stefon voice.) The game had everything. The first and second place teams in the overall standings. Two shorthanded goals on the same powerplay. Bad blood. A flying stick. A Horn of Doom. A brawl breaking out after the Horn of Doom. Jack Edwards being weird. Last year’s MVP. Maybe this year’s MVP.

And ultimately, it had a Lightning road win, which snapped a four-game Bruins win streak and avenged a Boston win in Tampa earlier in the week. The whole game was a trip, so much so that the Sportsnet highlight package apparently decided to go full Tarantino and dispense with chronological order. Look, far be it from me to question somebody else’s artistic vision. The whole thing was a ton of fun.

What the game didn’t have is much impact on the standings; barring a collapse, the Bruins are still going to finish first. The Lightning have the same pure win-loss record (both teams have won 43 and lost 26), but this is the NHL so that’s not how we do things. The Bruins hold a six-point lead, which should be safe.

But in the bigger picture, this is the sort of win that can feed into a narrative, and sometimes narratives can matter. The Lightning have spent the last 11 months hearing about how they’re not a playoff team, they can’t win when the going gets tough, they have to change their style, you name it. Does one regular-season win in Boston change any of that? Of course not. Unless they believe it does, in which case … maybe?

It was the last game of the season between the two teams, at least until that Round 2 matchup. And yes, we know how this goes – the hockey gods see how excited we all are, and then they throw a wrench into things. The Lightning get tripped up by a Maple Leafs team with enough talent to give them a series, or a Panthers team that’s back in the picture after Toronto coughed up its California road trip. Maybe the Bruins get upset by a wild-card team from the Metro – remember, the Islanders, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets all won rounds last year. Maybe both teams get knocked out early, because the NHL playoffs are chaos, whether you like it or not. And sure, you could argue that this is a matchup we should see in the third round or even the final, not Round 2. I’m with you.

But for now, it’s OK to think ahead and get just a little bit excited over what might be on the horizon. Because if these two teams could put on that kind of show in a game that probably didn’t even matter all that much, imagine what they could do with a trip to the final four on the line.

All that said, was the Lightning’s win enough to move them past the Bruins for top spot in the top five? I’m sure that’s the main question everyone has heading into this week’s rankings, so we can just go ahead and …

Oh right, I guess there’s that too. OK, let’s sort this out.

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Friday, March 6, 2020

Grab Bag: Hawks since, we're old, and what were the GMs actually doing at those meetings?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- What were the GMs doing all week? My spies found out
- I'm feeling old so now I'm going to make you feel old too
- An obscure player who played the most games in net without a loss
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the Blackhawks kind of maybe trying to sing

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Thursday, March 5, 2020

Puck Soup: Breaking the plane

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Ryan and I are on our own because Greg was fired for saying a swear at Eugene Melnyk
- Lots of news from the annual GMs meeting, including a tweak to the offside rule
- The Flyers might be very good
- The Islanders and Canucks might not
- Who should be the MVP?
- More off-ice drama in Ottawa
- We each get a shot at doing an ad transition
- And Ryan puts me to the test with another round of Real Movie or Fake Movie?

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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

What's the fourth-best Canadian international hockey moment?

Last Friday was the 10th anniversary of Sidney Crosby’s golden goal, the overtime winner against the United States that delivered Olympic gold in front of a delirious Vancouver crowd.

It was a remarkable goal that still holds up as a “where were you” moment to this day, and the anniversary spurred a rush of pride and patriotism among Canadian hockey fans. But it also prompted something else, something far more rare and wonderful: a good tweet.

Specifically, a tweet by user @thupka1982 asking a seemingly simple question: What’s the Mount Rushmore of Team Canada goals? In other words, which four stand above the others as the best and/or most memorable in Canadian international hockey history?

I’m going to take the liberty of expanding the question to not just goals, but moments. The beauty of the question is that the first three are obvious. Just about everyone would give you the same list: Crosby’s Golden Goal, Paul Henderson’s winner in 1972 and Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux teaming up to beat the Soviets in 1987. You can’t get hockey fans to agree on anything, but I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t have those three moments on their list.

But what’s No. 4? That’s where it gets interesting. Today, with permission from our pal @thupka1982, let’s break down some of the candidates.

Darryl Sittler’s fake shot

The game: The inaugural Canada Cup in 1976 was meant to expand on the success of the 1972 Summit Series, with the expectation that we’d get a rematch between Team Canada and the Soviets. Instead, Canada ended up facing an underdog Czechoslovakian team in the final.

The moment: Canada won the first game of the best-of-three in a 6-0 blowout. But they had a tougher time in Game 2, needing a late goal to send the game to overtime. That’s when this happened:

Why it’s in the running: It was the first great international moment to happen in sudden death, and it’s an absolute beauty of a goal. (Side note: Don Cherry has tried to claim the credit for the move, which may or may not factor into where you rank it.)

The case against: Not having it come against the Soviets hurts the case a bit, as does the fact that it wasn’t a must-win game for Canada.

Bottom line: It’s definitely in the conversation, although I’m not sure there’s room on our Mount Rushmore for two games from the 1970s.

John Slaney plays the hero on home ice

The game: Heading into the 1991 World Junior Championship, Canada was the defending champs. But they’d never won back-to-back tournaments and had never won the tournament on home ice. They had a chance to make history on both fronts when they faced the Soviets in their final game of the tournament, with the winner taking gold.

The moment: Late in a 2-2 tie, a draw in the Soviet zone ended up with the puck sliding back to Canadian defenseman John Slaney, who had time to step into the shot of his life.

Why it’s in the running: It’s not the greatest goal on the list, although it might challenge for the best celebration. But this moment, along with the crowd reaction and TSN’s coverage of it all, may have been the one that elevated the world juniors from a vaguely important tournament to a Canadian institution.

The case against: In terms of big names to score a crucial goal, Slaney doesn’t exactly rank up there with Crosby or Lemieux or Sittler. Then again, when it comes to the world juniors, that might be part of the appeal.

Bottom line: It’s probably hard to explain to younger fans, but this one really was a huge moment back in the day and set the stage for other great WJC moments to come. Like this one …

Jordan Eberle’s buzzer-beater

The game: Canada and Russia renewed international hockey’s greatest rivalry at the 2009 world juniors in Ottawa. Canada had won four straight golds, but the Russians held a one-goal lead late in the game.

The moment: With the goalie pulled and Canada pressing in the final minute of the third, Ryan Ellis made a play at the blue line to keep the puck in the Russian zone. After an extended scrum along the sideboards, the puck squirted free to Jordan Eberle in front of the net.

Why it’s in the running: There may not be a goal in Canadian hockey history that came out of nowhere quite like this one. One second, the puck was by the boards as the game ticked away; the very next, Eberle was somehow all alone in front of the Russian net. The whole thing played out almost too quickly for a fan’s brain to process in real time, which made it one of the great “Did I actually just see that?” moments ever.

The case against: Memory is a funny thing. You know Canada went on to win the game, but do you even remember who scored the winner in overtime? Nobody did because the game was decided in a shootout, which is kind of lame. Another piece you may not remember, with shades of the Miracle on Ice: This wasn’t the gold medal game. It was the semifinal.

Bottom line: The fact that a goal that didn’t end a game or a tournament is still remembered to this day just drives home how insane the moment was for those that watched it live.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Weekend rankings: Sorting through trades, streaks and one major injury

We’re not going to waste any time with a long preamble on this week’s rankings, because this is one of my favorite weeks of the year.

Most seasons, things start to stabilize around December and January, and by February, it’s mostly the same teams that keep showing up in roughly the same spots and there isn’t always all that much new to say. But then the trade deadline arrives and things get shaken up. We’ve had about 30 trades since the last set of rankings, and while they weren’t all blockbusters, that should be enough action to move the needle.

So we’d expect to see some changes in this week’s rankings. But even without the trades, this has been a wild week. We’ve got some teams surging, including the top of the Central. We’ve got some teams flatlining, including the top of the Metro. And on Saturday, we found out about a big injury that could have implications for the rest of the regular season and beyond.

There’s a lot to get to, and we might need to work in a few more teams than usual. So let’s skip the usual intro essay and head straight to the rankings.

Road to the Cup

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

The March edition of The Athletic’s collective power rankings came out over the weekend, and you can find them here. As a reminder, in the case of any discrepancy between my rankings and everyone else’s, you should assume that mine are right.

5. Colorado Avalanche (39-18-7, +49 true goals differential*) – They just keep rolling along, even if they’re not gaining any ground on the Blues or all that much on the Stars. The difference between finishing second in the division and facing Dallas or finishing first and playing somebody like Calgary or Winnipeg feels huge, so there may not be room for two Central teams down the stretch. But for now, we can make it work.

I’m still surprised that the Avs had such a quiet deadline given all their cap space, and I’m on board with the theory that Joe Sakic was eying Chris Kreider and didn’t have time to work a significant Plan B when the Rangers decided not to move him. This is one of those situations where the right answer only becomes apparent in hindsight, so we’ll see if Sakic deserves criticism for not being more aggressive or applause for not disrupting a winning room.

4. Vegas Golden Knights (36-23-8, +13) – Well, that didn’t take long. One week after they were getting close, the Knights kick the door down on the top five by running their win streak to eight while making what may have been the biggest addition of the deadline.

The streak ended last night at the hands of the Kings, but it means that Vegas has opened up a little bit of breathing room on top of the Pacific. It’s only a little, and they’ve still got a ways to go to close this out, but with the Canucks and Oilers battling injuries and inconsistency, this now feels very much like the Knights’ division to lose. Which is what we all figured it would be if they could ever get their entire lineup clicking the way it should; they’re pretty much there now.

I liked the Robin Lehner trade, although I’m not as ready to call it a home run as some are. That’s not a knock on Lehner, who’s been excellent for a few years now. Rather, I’m not sure that this will play out as easily as others seem to think. To hear some of the reactions, the Knights will either see Fleury snap back to his previous Cup-caliber form, or they switch over to Lehner and don’t miss a beat. I’m not sure it’s that simple, and we’ve seen teams turn this kind of thing into a Buridan’s ass scenario. But it’s still better to have a tough choice than no choice at all, so the Knights are in better shape this week than last. And that’s enough to move them back onto our list for the first time since the third week of the season.

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Friday, February 28, 2020

Grab Bag: EBUG rules, Islanders talent and what should the Zamboni goalie do next?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Some ideas for what Zamboni goalie David Ayres can do next
- Should the NHL change the EBUG rule? Yes, and it has nothing to do with hating fun.
- Marking a milestone with an obscure player with (almost) 300 games
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at a 1982 Islanders talent show that will horrify you

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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Puck Soup: Trade deadline and EBUG reactions

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Trade deadline reactions, including the big deals that didn't get made
- Reactions to that Leafs game. You know the one
- Should the NHL change it's emergency backup rule?
- A conversation with Cat Silverman of IN GOAL Magazine
- How did Greg and Ryan do on last week's deadline wagers?
- 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, February 26, 2020

Every trade deadline of salary cap era ranked

There have been 15 trade deadlines in the salary cap era, and out of all of them, 2020 was definitely the most recent.

That’s about all we can say with any certainty right now. Monday’s deadline was high on volume, but the impact of those moves remains to be seen, even as some initial reactions have already surfaced. That’s how these things work, after all – the deadline arrives, and we all start ranking the winners and losers.

Well, forget that. I say we aim a little bigger. Let’s not just stop at one trade deadline; let’s pass judgment on all of them. Or at least, all of them since the salary cap arrived, since we’re constantly told that that changed everything. So today, let’s count down all 15 deadlines of the cap era to remember the big deals, the worst busts, some random crap you’d long since forgotten, and which ones actually delivered for NHL fans.

#15. 2011

Biggest trade: The Oilers sending Dustin Penner to the Kings for prospect Colten Teubert, a first and a second. That’s right, we sat around all day to see where Dustin Penner wound end up. For what it’s worth, Teubert was a bust, but the first turned into Oscar Klefbom.

Most important trade: Probably Penner, as sad as that it is, since he helped the Kings win a Cup in 2012. Other than that, the Canucks traded for Maxim Lapierre and Chris Higgins to add depth for a long playoff run.

Worst trade: Fighting for top seed in the East, the Penguins had already pulled off a significant hockey trade to land James Neal. But they went cheap on their big deadline rental, sending a seventh-round pick to the Senators for 38-year-old Alexie Kovalev. He didn’t do much, and the Pens were upset in a first round that saw them lose game seven 1-0.

Trade you totally forgot about: Bryan McCabe to the Rangers. In related news, Bryan McCabe was apparently a Ranger?

OK, sure: The Canadiens added a future Wrestlemania main eventer.

Final grade: D. This could surprise you, since you might remember the 2011 season having more action. It did, but not in the days leading up to the deadline; big trades involving names like Tomas Kaberle, Kevin Shattenkirk, Blake Wheeler, Craig Anderson, Francois Beauchemin and Mike Fisher were all done in mid-February. If anything, 2011 marked the year when GMs realized they didn’t have to wait until the last minute to do their shopping, a trend that’s been looming over deadline days ever since.


#14. 2012

Biggest trade: Zack Kassian for Cody Hodgson. Yes, really. The deal broke late on deadline day, and with both players still early in their careers, it launched all sorts of debate over who won and how the trade would look years down the road.

Most important trade: Jeff Carter from Columbus to the Kings actually happened several days ahead of the deadline, but it’s pretty much the only pick we can make here. Johnny Oduya from the Jets to the Hawks is a distant second.

Worst trade: Buffalo sending Paul Gaustad to the Predators for a first-round pick. You know that thing where every fan base thinks their bottom-six depth guys should be worth a first on deadline day? Blame this trade.

Trade you totally forgot about: A still-figuring-it-out Ben Bishop going from St. Louis to Ottawa

OK, sure: Remember when Brian Burke said people would eventually remember the seven-player Dion Phaneuf blockbuster as the Keith Aulie trade? Two years later, the Leafs traded Aulie to Tampa for Carter Ashton, a forward who scored zero goals in 54 games in Toronto.

Final grade: D+. The Kings’ Carter deal saves it a bit, but otherwise this was almost as bad as 2011 without any of the pre-deadline fireworks. It’s the year that fans officially started to worry about the deadline.


#13. 2016

Biggest trade: Eric Staal going from Carolina to the Rangers for two second-rounders and a prospect who didn’t pan out. It was a classic case of a rebuilding team sending a longtime franchise player to chase a Cup with a contender, but Staal went pointless in the Rangers’ opening round playoff loss.

Most important trade: The Oilers gave up on Justin Schutlz, sending him to the Penguins for a third. He’d help the Pens win the next two Cups.

Worst trade: Dustin Jeffey, Dan O’Donoghue and James Melindy from Arizona to Pittsburgh for Matia Marcantuoni. I’m pretty sure at least three of these four players are made up.

Trade you totally forgot about: Niklas Backstrom to the Flames. Wait, he played for Calgary? (Double-checks.) Oh, that Niklas Backstrom.

OK, sure: Michael Sdao, Eric O’Dell, Cole Schneider and Alexander Guptill from Ottawa to Buffalo for Jason Akeson, Phil Varone and Jerome Leduc. I’m 100 percent sure that seven of these seven players are made up.

Final grade: C-. I got to be part of Sportsnet’s live broadcast of this one, so it was probably my fault.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Was the zamboni driver game the worst loss in Maple Leafs history? A scientific study

The Toronto Maple Leafs lost a crucial game on home ice to a freelance Zamboni driver that they employ, and it was the worst.

But was it the worst ever?

That’s a tough question for Maple Leafs fans, and it has come up more than a few times over the last 48 hours. You have to be slightly damaged to even really contemplate it. So yeah, this is right up my alley, let’s do this.

I’ve picked out ten candidates for the coveted title of “worst Maple Leafs loss ever.” Let’s break down the cases for and against, and see which ones are the true contenders.

It Was 4-1

The game: We may as well start with the game just about everyone seems to have had holding top spot until this week. On May 13, 2013, the Leafs went into Boston for Game 7 of their opening-round series. The Bruins were clearly the better team and had led the series 3-1, but the Leafs clawed back with a pair of hard-fought wins to force a winner-take-all game. Then they went out and built a 4-1 lead early in the third.

Everyone knows what happened next.

Why it may have been the worst: It was an agonizing scene to watch in real-time, with every Maple Leaf fans looking like these guys. But there’s a myth about this game, which is that it hurt because Toronto fans thought they had it wrapped up. We didn’t. Not those of us who’ve been doing this for any length of time. We knew that a collapse could be coming at any moment, and then watched our worst fears play out right in front of us. It was brutal.

Mitigating factor: The Bruins immediately rolled through the next two rounds with ease, making it seem like a miracle that a very mediocre Leafs team even made them sweat. But more importantly, this Leaf team didn’t deserve to beat the Bruins. It was a poorly constructed roster, built up by questionable coaching and a front office that was almost defiantly dumb. If they’d won, they’d have doubled down. They mostly did anyway – hello, David Clarkson – but this loss helped pave the way for Brendan Shanahan a year later, and an eventual ray of hope.

Worst loss ever? It’s a very strong candidate. But let’s run through a few others.

The Boxing Day Massacre

The game: On December 26, 1991, the Maple Leafs went into Pittsburgh to face the defending champs and got utterly dismantled by a final score of 12-1. Mario Lemieux had seven points, and linemates Kevin Stevens and Joey Mullen each settled for six.

Why it may have been the worst: The final represented the worst loss in franchise history. Grant Fuhr, acquired to great fanfare just a few months earlier, was in net for all 12 goals and looked awful. The loss left the Leafs in third last overall, driving home the reality that new GM Cliff Fletcher wasn’t going to be able to magically fix this mess overnight.

Mitigating factor: Fletcher proceeded to magically fix this mess overnight; largely inspired by witnessing a debacle he called “embarrassing to say the least”, he went out and pulled off the ten-player Doug Gilmour trade just days later.

Worst loss ever? At the time, it kind of felt like it. But in hindsight, it was actually a positive if it nudged Fletcher into pulling the trigger on his long-rumored blockbuster.

The Six-Shooter

The game: Facing elimination in Game 6 of their second-round series, the Leafs went into New Jersey and were shut down almost completely. They managed just six shots on goal in a 3-0 loss that was pretty much peak Dead Puck era.

Why it may have been the worst: The six shots set a modern NHL record which still stands today. And while you’d expect the urgency to ramp up, it actually got worse as the game went by – the Leafs were credited with three shots in the first, two in the second and just one in the third.

Mitigating factor: They had way more than six shots, and the official scorers in New Jersey are filthy liars.

Worst loss ever? It was certainly an embarrassing way to end a season, especially for a team that looked like a borderline contender. But I don’t think it’s in the running for the very worst ever, especially since those Devils went on to win the Cup.

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Monday, February 24, 2020

Weekend Rankings: Deadline day thoughts, Ovie’s 700th and Zamboni drivers

It’s deadline day, which means you’re either reading this in the morning while you wait for the action to kick in, or it’s the afternoon and most of what follows is already out of date. Either way, I won’t waste your time with thousands of words of deadline analysis, because soon it won’t matter. The day is here. Let’s settle in and watch the fireworks.

That’s assuming there are any since the weekend was quiet and several big names are already off the board. But we do this every year. Deadline day seems like it might be a dud, almost nothing happens before noon, and then we end up with 20+ trades by the end of the day. Stay patient, the deals will come.

Here are 10 situations I’ll be watching today, in no particular order.

Chris Kreider: He’s the big name on the board, which kind of tells you everything you need to know about this year’s deadline. He’s a good player. He’s fine. He’s not exactly Jarome Iginla or Martin St. Louis or Rick Nash or Ron Francis. But if he’s the best option, somebody should overpay. It’s up to Jeff Gorton to make it happen.

All that Colorado cap space: It’s kind of amazing that it was just three years ago that Joe Sakic had one of the worst deadlines ever, trading Iginla for nothing at all and not adding any future assets of note for his 48-point disaster of a team. Now he’s got an elite Cup contender and a ton of cap space to bring in reinforcements. Life for an NHL GM moves quickly.

The Blackhawks’ goaltending situation: They’ve got two big names in Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner, both of whom are pending UFAs, and based on the standings don’t really need to keep either. A trade or two makes all sorts of sense, but the problem is that contending teams aren’t usually looking for goaltending this late in a season.

The Hurricanes’ goaltending situation: As you may have heard, they lost both of their goaltenders to injuries in Toronto on Saturday. And yes, I put this right after the Chicago entry for a reason. There has to be a fit here, you’d think.

Marc Bergevin: He’s off to a solid start, turning a profit on deals involving Marco Scandella and Ilya Kovalchuk. There’s a chance to do more, but he could also stay the course, which would be an intriguing call in its own right. Those post-deadline media scrums with GMs are usually pretty worthless, but it could be interesting to watch Bergevin spin if he chooses to have a quiet day.

Kyle Dubas: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Unfortunately, both the smoke and the fire are coming from the torches being held by the hoard of seething fans outside his office, so this suddenly doesn’t feel like a great time to do anything big. Waiting a few days for things to cool off isn’t an option, though, so let’s see what he can do. A Tyson Barrie deal? Moving a forward for blue line help? Something smaller? Nothing at all? There are no easy answers, but here’s a spoiler alert: Whatever he does, Leaf fans will think it was wrong.

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Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Toronto Maple Leafs just lost to a freelance Zamboni driver, because of course they did

I’ve been a Leafs fan my whole life, which means I’ve seen a lot of really embarrassing losses.

I’ve seen It Was 4-1. I’ve seen them get six shots in an elimination game. I’ve seen the 12-1 loss in Pittsburgh. I’ve seen them lose 8-0 in the playoffs, at home, while fans rained garbage and jerseys on the ice. I’ve seen the paper bags. I’ve seen the waffles.

I thought I had seen it all. Then I saw the Leafs lose to a 42-year-old Zamboni driver.

This one was… well, it was different. I’m not sure yet if it’s worse. I know that’s the reaction you probably want, and maybe it’s the right one. I’m still mulling it. The competition is stiff.

Here’s the thing: Strip away all the history and the baggage and the punchlines, and you can at least kind of explain this one. The Leafs were down 3-1 when David Ayres came in midway through the second, after both Hurricanes goalies on the roster were injured to trigger the NHL’s rarely seen emergency backup goalie rule. They were down 4-1 before they got anywhere near him. Their own goaltender ended up giving up six. They were playing a really good team that knows how to squeeze the life out of a game, and went all out to do exactly that. It’s embarrassing, sure, but maybe it makes a certain kind of sense, if you ignore all the other stuff.

But you can’t ignore all the other stuff, because this is Toronto, and all the other stuff has been earned. This was a disaster. And it’s the sort of disaster that can be a turning point, not just in a season but for a team that was supposed to have been built for the long-term. This isn’t the kind of loss that you can shake off with a strong effort the next time out. This is the kind of loss that sticks.

This year’s Leafs have already had the narratives built up around them. They don’t work hard. They don’t do the little things you need to do. They put together a strong effort, like they did on Thursday against the Penguins, and then they pat themselves on the back and hang a Mission Accomplished banner and go back to doing it the easy way. They disappear when it counts, because when it counts things get hard and this team can’t handle that.

Is all of that true? Is any of it? I’m not sure it matters. Not after that game. You don’t want to be labeled as the team that chokes? Don’t choke. The Leafs choked hard against a Zamboni driver, so here we are.

So let’s start with what we know for sure: You’re going to hear about this game for a long time. If you’re a Leafs fan and you’re sick of stale It Was 4-1 jokes nearly seven years later, I have good news for you. You’re about to hear some fresh material. On the long and winding road of people all around the sports world pointing and laughing at the Toronto Maple Leafs , we just planted a new signpost.

So now what?

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Friday, February 21, 2020

Grab Bag: Saving the trade deadline and celebrating a historic anniversary

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- I have an idea to save Trade Deadline day
- Are hockey fans having a fun? A debate
- An obscure player from a very forgettable Leafs trade
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of one of the most important games in hockey history on the eve of its 40th anniversary

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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Puck Soup: Trade deadline gambles

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- A debate about Bruce Boudreau gets a little heated
- What's up with the Leafs?
- Yet another outdoor game
- I have a hot take about speaking to the manager and rating employees
- Evander Kane's player safety criticism
- Thoughts on the trades so far
- Greg and Ryan place their bets on my trade deadline odds

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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, February 19, 2020

Building a roster of all-time Maple Leaf trade regrets

With a few days to go until the trade deadline, Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs still haven’t pulled off their big move. Or maybe they have, and Jack Campbell was it. But most of the fan base seems to be expecting something bigger, preferably a top-four defenseman. And while Dubas doesn’t have much in the way of picks to work with, he could surely work a blockbuster using guys off of the current roster, or from the prospect pipeline. Do it Kyle! Swing for the fences!

Just one thing: Do not under any circumstances trade away somebody we’re all going to regret losing.

That’s the tricky part of making trades. Fans love the short-term adrenaline rush of seeing a big deal cross the wire. But something has to go the other way, and that will often be a player or two or more. And sometimes, those players can turn out to be pretty good.

That’s where the regret comes in, along with that sense of disbelief that anyone ever thought it would be a good idea to give up that guy in the first place. It’s a feeling that Maple Leaf fans know well.

How well? How about well enough to fill out a full roster, which is what we’re going to do today. Just in case there were any Leaf fans out there with a little bit of hope and optimism still clinging to this rollercoaster of a season, let’s wring that right out with a full 20-man roster of guys that the Leafs probably wish they hadn’t traded away.

A few quick ground rules. First, we’re only worried about what the player did over the course of his career after being traded away by the Leafs. We’re looking at trades only, not guys lost to free agency or waivers or various drafts. And finally, we’re only considering players, not draft picks.

That last one is important because it removes a few names you might be expecting to see. Scott Niedermayer was never Maple Leafs’ property. Neither were Tyler Seguin or Roberto Luongo, or John Gibson or Roman Josi, or any number of good players who were drafted with picks that teams acquired from Toronto. The Leafs have certainly had a bad habit of trading high picks over the years, and it almost always works out great for the team on the other side. But trading a pick isn’t the same as trading a player, and you never know who your team might have taken if they’d stayed in that spot. While it costs us some star power, we’re going to stick to players who actually belonged to the Leafs.

The good news is that we still have plenty of candidates to choose from. And by good news, I mean let’s all hold hands and feel sad together. We’ll build this team the way all those Dubas critics insist on, from the net out …


Bernie Parent

The trade: Parent bounced around a bit early in his career, going from the Bruins to the Flyers to the Leafs before flirting with the WHA. That led to the Leafs sending his rights back to Philadelphia in 1973.

What he did once he left: Parent returned to the NHL for the 1973-74 season and immediately won the Vezina, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup. Then he did it all again the next year. He was inducted into the Hall-of-Fame in 1984.

But it’s OK because the Leafs got: The 10th overall pick in the 1973 draft, which they used on Bob Neely. He played five NHL seasons and scored 36 career goals as a Leaf.

Tuukka Rask

The trade: Heading into the 2006 offseason, Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. found himself with two can’t miss goaltending prospects, but nobody to hold down the starting job at the NHL level. He kept Justin Pogge and sent Rask to the Bruins.

What he did once he left: Rask is in his 11th season in Boston, most of those as a starter. He’s won a Vezina, is closing in on the 300-win club and was part of a Cup winner in 2011.

But it’s OK because the Leafs got: Andrew Raycroft, in a straight-up deal. He lasted one season as the starter in Toronto, leading the league in goals against and then lost his job to Vesa Toskala. That may be the most depressing sentence I’ve ever written.

But remember, the Leafs also got to keep Pogge, who played (checks notes) seven NHL games. A lot of people forget that part.

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Monday, February 17, 2020

Weekend power rankings: Which teams are facing the most pressure ahead of the trade deadline?

We’re down to one week before the trade deadline, and every team is feeling the heat. Whether it’s buying or selling, a big move or minor tinkering, an investment for down the road or an all-in move for right now, everyone is under pressure to do something.

But not all pressure is created equal. Therefore, before we get to this week’s power rankings, let’s break out a different sort of list by ranking the dozen teams facing the most pressure to make something happen this week. It’s a tough list to narrow down.

12. Devils: Selling is generally a more straightforward path than buying, but Tom Fitzgerald is an interim GM auditioning for the big job, either in New Jersey or elsewhere. That adds an interesting dynamic to a season that’s already had plenty of twists and turns. Yesterday’s deals are getting good reviews, so that’s a solid start. Is there room to do more?

11. Flames: Brad Treliving signed an extension earlier in the season, and nobody saw the whole Bill Peters mess coming. Still, going from 107 points to out of the playoffs in one year should be unthinkable. The Flames are right there, and they need help. But maybe they should sell

10. Blues: They already have their rings, and Doug Armstrong could play the whole “Vladimir Tarasenko is our deadline addition” card. But the last few weeks have gone sideways, and you only get so many chances to win with a championship core. Armstrong knows he has one, so how aggressive does he want to get?

9. Hurricanes: It’s Carolina, so we know that if they make it in, they’re going to play in at least three rounds. But right now, they’re no guarantee to make it in, and missing out would derail a lot of the momentum they built up with last year’s run and all the fun stuff that went with it. We keep hearing that their first-round pick is in play, so there’s a chance of something big happening here.

8. Oilers: You know the drill by now. Missing the playoffs in Connor McDavid’s prime is not an option, even though they keep doing it. Ken Holland was brought in to make sure that didn’t happen and the Oilers are in decent shape in the Pacific but are a bad week away from dropping out of a spot. There aren’t any obvious paths to a major upgrade, but Holland has some pieces that he could move and still has the Jesse Puljujarvi card to play. And they didn’t bring him in to just do the easy stuff.

7. Coyotes: John Chayka has made two major deals to bring in big-name forwards, and his team still might miss the playoffs. A lot of that would be due to injuries, especially in goal, and a GM can’t control that. But man, missing the playoffs after the Taylor Hall deal would feel like a disaster, no? On an unrelated note, Chayka is the longest-serving GM in the league to have never made the postseason with his current team.

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Friday, February 14, 2020

Grab Bag: Trade deadline rumors, when goalies get traded and breaking down some awkward NHL ads

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The DGB spies report in on all the trade deadline news from around the league
- An idea for goalies who get traded
- An obscure player who fits the theme of the day
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at the NHL's awkward mid-90s ad campaign of "all our stars are huge jerks"

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Puck Soup: Roasting Sedins

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Sedins get their numbers retired, and roasted by Kevin Bieksa
- The scary Jay Bouwmeester situation
- The Penguins finally get their man
- The NHL is trying to pull of an Olympic scam and it will probably work
- Shea Weber, Paul Maurice, Connor McDavid 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.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A guide to your GM’s favorite trading excuses (and which ones you should actually believe)

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We’re down to an even dozen days to go before the trade deadline, which means every GM across the NHL is hard at work, burning up the phone lines as they engage in what they clearly view as the single most important part of their job.

No, not making trades. Come on, is this your first day here?

As any longtime fan knows, this is the time of year when most GMs are focused on something far more important: Condescending lectures about why they won’t be making trades of any significance. It’s all about managing expectations. Specifically, your expectations, and those of your fellow fans. And those expectations should not, under any circumstances, include the GM of your favorite team actually doing all that much.

That’s where the excuses come in. Most NHL GMs have a trusty list of go-to talking points for those pesky fans who seem to think they should do their jobs, and this is the time of year when they break them out. And if we’re being fair, some of them are reasonable. But only some.

Today, let’s get ready for the final countdown to deadline day by going through some of the most common NHL GM excuses for taking the next few weeks off, and figure out which ones should have us rolling our eyes and which ones might make some sense.

The excuse: “The salary cap makes trading too hard.”

We’ll start with what’s become, by far, the best-known of NHL GM excuses. The salary cap ruined everything, you guys. Your favorite team’s GM would love to swing for the fences on a big, bold move. But he can’t, because there’s a cap, and it just can’t work.

Should we buy it?: Yes and no. It’s certainly true that the salary cap has an impact, and some trades would otherwise make sense but it would be difficult to fit under the tight cap situation that several teams are operating under. Sometimes, you just don’t have room to add the player you want.

Of course, working under a budget is nothing new. GMs have always had to do that, dating back to the league’s earliest days. But back then, you could occasionally squeeze some extra room with a phone call to the owner. And more importantly, contracts weren’t fully guaranteed to the same extent, and they were almost never for the kind of long-term commitment the cap world sees today.

So yes, there’s some validity to this one, and maybe even a lot. But it’s also worth remembering that, compared to other pro leagues, the NHL’s system is basically baby’s first salary cap. It’s about as simple as a hard cap can get. There are no rules about balancing cap hits on trades as the NBA has. A trade doesn’t accelerate a player’s future cap hit to the current year, the way they can in the NFL. Instead, NHL GMs just have to stay under a number. There are even loopholes like LTIR, that can make manipulating the cap easier.

Mix in the ability retain salary and the fact that the prorated system means late-season trades have far less impact on that year’s cap number, and there’s a lot more room to work with than most fans have been led to believe. Over half the league has more than $5 million in prorated cap space to work with right now, including several contenders.

So does the cap make trading hard? Sure. But too hard? We should think twice before we accept that.

The excuse: “This sort of trade is too complicated to get done in the time we have left.”

Usually, “the time we have left” means the days until the trade deadline. For some GMs, I’m pretty sure it’s a reference to the sun eventually exploding. Either way, this is the cousin of the salary cap excuse, and it’s something we often hear filtered through friendly members of the media. Some late-season development will push a new name into the rumor mill, and fans will get their hopes up that a deal could happen. Not so fast, we’re told – a trade might make sense, but there’s just not enough time to get something done with only weeks or days left before the deadline.

Should we buy it?: Every once in a great while, this one makes sense, at least in theory. If the franchise player demands a trade on the morning of the deadline, then sure, you probably want more time to mull over the options before you rush into a mistake.

But that essentially never happens. Instead, we hear this excuse trotted out for some third-line winger who’d probably fetch a mid-round draft pick. That seems like the sort of thing that could come together quickly, no? Not according to some GMs, who insist that it’s just too complicated a concept to work without months of lead time.

Meanwhile, NBA GMs are routinely doing stuff like this:

I don’t know, I guess those guys are just smarter.

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