Monday, January 20, 2020

Weekend rankings: The top five, the bottom five and why they’re all wrong

We’re going to try something different this week.

That will be a nice change because we haven’t had a lot of “different” in this year’s rankings. It’s been pretty much the same teams cycling in and out of the top and bottom five for most of the season; since mid-November, only six teams have appeared at the top of the list, with just seven holding down the bottom spots. That’s unusual for this feature, where in past years we’ve seen a lot more churn.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re a fan of one of the good teams (or one of the bad ones, and you’re already looking ahead to the lottery). But it can make writing this column every week a challenge. How many different ways can you say “The Capitals are good” or “The Red Wings are bad?” Teams like the Bruins, Kings and Senators have shown up on the list every single week. At some point, you get it. And with the all-star break and bye weeks coming up, we’re unlikely to see much in the way of big changes over the next few weeks either.

So today, we’re going to flip the script. I’ll still list the five teams I think have the best shot at the Cup, and the five that are on track to finish dead last. But I’ll use their space to make the argument that I’m wrong and that they don’t actually deserve to be there.

It will be easier for some teams than others, of course, but that’s fine. Let’s mix things up a bit. Heck, maybe I’ll even be to be right about something for a change.

Road to the Cup

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

Oh look, it’s the same five teams as last week, and the week before that. I’m getting sick of saying nice things about these guys. Let’s knock them down a few pegs.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (31-13-5, +32 true goals differential*) – They were good when Sidney Crosby got hurt, then somehow even better when he went out. Now he’s back, so you do the math.

OK, here’s some math: The Penguins still probably won’t catch the Capitals for first place in the Metro. And even if they do, they’ll have a tough path out of a brutal division, one that could see them have to face an Islander team that swept them last year. Or maybe Columbus or Carolina or Philadelphia, none of whom will be a great matchup because whoever makes it out of that group in April will be coming in hot.

There’s also the goaltending question. Matt Murray doesn’t look great anymore, and while Tristan Jarry does, this is a career backup/AHLer that the team was trying to unload in the offseason because he was supposed to be their third wheel. Do you trust him? They probably have to, but it’s not ideal.

Other than that, the Penguins remain a top-heavy team up front, the blue line is just OK, and Jim Rutherford doesn’t have a ton of cap room to work with to plug the holes. And with Crosby and Malkin both well into their 30s we can’t just assume they’ll stay healthy the rest of the way. They’ve been a great story so far, but it’s not hard to imagine that story ending in the first round or two.

(How much I believe it: A little, but the Penguins still scare me. Maybe the next team will be easier.)

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (28-15-4, +30) – Yes, they’re rolling again. But have we all forgotten what happened last year? When they finished with 128 points and then choked in the playoffs, everybody seemed to agree that there was some sort of fundamental flaw in the way this team was constructed. Heck, they even seemed to be saying it themselves. They tried to change their style early in the season, and it didn’t work. They couldn’t do it.

Now they’re winning, sure, but they’re doing it with scores like 7-1 and 9-2. That’s great for racking up personal stats in the season, but it’s not how you’re going to win a Stanley Cup. The Lightning are basically a team that decided it needed a change in identity, found out that was too hard to pull off, and then went right back to what they were last year. And we all know how that ends.

(How much I believe it: Not at all. These guys are good, and while the playoffs are chaotic, they don’t transform into some sort of entirely different sport. The Lightning could lose again in the first round because in today’s NHL, absolutely anyone can. But they’re stacked with talent and hitting their stride, and they’re better defensively than you probably think. If anything I should have them higher.)

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Friday, January 17, 2020

Grab Bag: Brad Marchand excuses, my terrible predictions and old school Battle of Alberta

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- What was up with that Brad Machand shootout attempt? My spies found out.
- A look back at my predictions about which coaches and GMs were 100% safe
- An obscure player who was the last NHL player to ever do something
- The week's three comedy stars
- And an old school Battle of Alberta brawl

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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Puck Soup: Goofus and Gallant

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to surprising firings in New Jersey and Vegas
- The Battle of Alberta reignites
- A spirited debate on the role of rats in the game
- Brad Marchand's epic shootout fail
- How should NHL teams approach goaltending?
- All-star weekend gets a shakeup
- Nicklas Backstrom gets a new deal
- Oscar talk, somehow including a movie I've seen but Greg hasn't

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Which cap era draft class could produce today’s best 6-man lineup?

One of the nice things about carving out a reputation as the hockey writer who spends way too much time on hypotheticals and random thought experiments is that people come to you first with their weird ideas.

That happened to me last week when a Puck Soup listener wrote in with a mailbag question: Which draft class from the cap era could assemble the best lineup right now? In other words, which class gives you three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie that would win a tournament held today?

Note that that’s a very different question from wondering which draft class was actually the best. A great draft class produces lots of good players, at every position. For this exercise, we just need six stars at the right spots. A draft class can be top-heavy but otherwise awful and score well; it’s also possible for a deep class to end up with just an OK starting six. If you want insight and expertise into which draft classes were the strongest overall, follow Corey Pronman’s work. If you want to keep it simple and get a bit silly, you’re in the right place.

A couple of quick ground rules:

  • As usual, we’ll go with three forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender, but won’t worry too much about having forwards in the right position or which hand a guy shoots with. If you’re good enough to make the team, you’re probably good enough to move around the lineup if you need to.
  • Imagine this tournament is being played today. We’re not interested in how good a guy was at his peak years ago, or how good he might be someday. This is about right now. And we’re going by how a player has performed in the NHL, meaning they need to have some significant big-league experience. Lighting it up in the minors or junior doesn’t impress us here.
  • That said, everyone is magically healthy, rested and motivated. Also, contracts and cap hit don’t matter. And while we’re focused on each team’s starting six, we’ll break ties by considering depth.

Before we start, we have one tough question to figure out: How far back do we go? We obviously can’t use the 2019 Draft, since they couldn’t even ice a team; there are only three players from that class seeing anything close to regular NHL duty this season. But where do we draw the lines?

As it turns out, that ends up being an easier call than you might think: We start with 2016, because neither 2017 or 2018 have produced a goaltender with more than a couple of games of NHL experience. So they’re out, which happily leaves us with an even dozen draft years to consider.

We’ll count this down from the worst starting lineup to the best.

No. 12: Team 2007

This one hurts because the forward group is loaded. And the defense is decent, if a little painful for Habs fans. But the danger with this sort of game is that one position can blow your whole team up, and that’s what happens here.

Forwards: Patrick Kane, Logan Couture, Max Pacioretty

We’re led by Kane, a Hart Trophy winner and likely Hall-of-Famer. He’s got to decent linemates, with Pacioretty edging out Jakub Voracek and former Art Ross winner Jamie Benn for the last spot based on their play this year. It’s not the best front three we’ll see, but it’s a solid start.

Defense: Ryan McDonagh, P.K. Subban

This pairing would have looked better a few years ago, but it’s not bad. They’ll probably be fine as long as the goaltending isn’t a total black hole, he said, engaging in a little ironic foreshadowing.

Goaltending: Scott Darling

Yeah, I know. But here’s the thing: Darling is by far the best goalie from this class. Only three other goalies even made it to the NHL, combining for four wins, and you probably haven’t heard of any of them. (They’re Allen York, Jeremy Smith and Timo Pielmeier, if you’re wondering.) That leaves Darling, who did have some decent years in the NHL and is still active in Europe, or we disqualify Team 2007.

Depth: The forwards are decent; in addition to Benn and Voracek, we could use David Perron, James van Riemsdyk or Wayne Simmonds. The blue line has Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez or Kevin Shattenkirk. Goaltending … nope.

Overall: They’d be in the running for a middle-of-the-pack finish with a goalie, but it was not to be. What a weird draft year.

No. 11: Team 2006

Another team with a strong forward group that’s going to have trouble keeping the puck out of their net. Although this time, it won’t all be the goalie’s fault.

Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom, Brad Marchand, Jonathan Toews

Remember, we’re looking at who’s at the top of their game right now, which is why somebody like Marchand makes the cut even though in career production he’s well behind guys like Claude Giroux and Phil Kessel. Let’s just hope there are no shootouts.

Defense: Erik Johnson, Jeff Petry

Yeah, the blue line is an issue. Johnson is widely remembered as a bad pick at No. 1, and maybe even a bust, but on this team he’s a no-brainer. Petry kind of is too. Do you know who ranks third in NHL games played among defencemen from the 2006 class? Andrew MacDonald. Yikes.

Goaltending: Semyon Varlamov.

(Double-checks blue line.) Good luck, Semyon!

Depth: Poor. The forwards really only offer Giroux and Kessel, then maybe Jordan Staal. The blue line’s got nothing, and the goalies offer James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier and not much else unless Steve Mason makes a comeback.

Overall: Maybe it’s not surprising that the 2006 and 2007 teams struggle. It’s a young man’s league, and as much as I hate to say it, these guys are getting up there. (The 2005 team might finish a little higher, though – I hear they had a top pick who’s still pretty good.)

No. 10: Team 2014

Imbalance strikes again, as two weakish positions drag down one of the best units we’ll see.

Forwards: Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Brayden Point

That’s a ridiculous line, right? I’m stunned to see this squad so low on the list. But as it turns out, this class doesn’t have all that much else to offer.

Defense: Aaron Ekblad, Anthony DeAngelo

Ekblad has been a minor disappointment as a first overall pick, and we can quibble with his contract, but on this team, he makes the cut without breaking a sweat. DeAngelo is probably our next best option, beating our Brandon Montour.

Goaltending: Elvis Merzlikins

It’s either him or Thatcher Demko, and we did say this was being played right now, so we’ll go with the hot hand.

Depth: Nothing in goal besides Igor Shesterkin, and not much on the back end. There are a few options up front, including Dylan Larkin, Willian Nylander, Viktor Arvidsson and Nikolaj Ehlers, but nobody that gives our big three a serious run for their money.

Overall: They’d score a ton. They’d probably need to. If I have to buy tickets to watch a team, these guys are high on my list. If I have to bet on someone to win it all, not so much.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Do these five stars have bad contracts? Welcome to Salary Cap Court

There was a time when fans could get away with not caring about player salaries. Except in an indirect way, it wasn’t their money, so who really cared if some rich owner was paying a bit too much for a third-line center? Maybe he missed a payment on one of his yachts, but otherwise, no harm no foul.

Then the NHL became a hard cap league. Today, salaries – or more specifically, cap hits – are absolutely crucial. Squeezing as much value as possible into an artificially limited salary structure is the key to building and maintaining a contender, and even one big mistake can derail a roster. In today’s NHL, as I’ve phrased it before, a good player with a bad contract isn’t a good player.

We’ve had some fun over the years with some of the league’s worst signings, even building an entire cap-compliant roster out of them. But for the most part, those were the contracts nobody argues about. We all know that Brent Seabrook’s deal is bad. Nobody’s calling Bobby Ryan a value contract these days. We’ve beaten Milan Lucic’s deal into the ground, picked it up and dusted it off, then beaten it down again. With very few exceptions, even the most diehard fans aren’t defending those kind of deals anymore.

Other contracts aren’t as simple, and those are the ones we’re going to focus on here. Welcome to Salary Cap Court, where we’ll weigh the pros and cons of five contracts that might be bad, but maybe might not.

To be clear, every contract that makes its way to cap court will be questionable; there won’t be any good deals here. But we want to know if they’re outright bad, or merely not great. We’ll make the case for both sides of the argument, and then we’ll render a verdict, passing judgment on whatever’s left of a deal and deciding once and for all whether it really deserves to have the dreaded “bad contract” label slapped on it.

Make sense? Then be seated, because Salary Cap Court is in session. Let’s bring out our first defendant.


Erik Karlsson, Sharks

The details: Eight years and a cap hit of $11.5 million, thanks to an extension signed days before he would have become an unrestricted free agent last summer.

The case that it’s a bad contract: Karlsson has two Norris Trophies, should maybe have more, and might have been the very best defenseman of the 2010s. But everything in that sentence is in the past tense, and with his new contract only kicking in this year, the present and future are all that matters. The reality is that he didn’t play at a truly elite level in his last year in Ottawa, he didn’t live up to the hype in his first year in San Jose, and he hasn’t been especially great this year.

If you’re trying to figure out why, it’s not hard to round up the usual suspects: injury and age. He had a groin injury last year that resulted in surgery, and a heel problem before that. Mix in the fact that he turns 30 at the end of this season, and it’s not hard to wonder if his recent decline is permanent. That doesn’t mean he can’t still be a solid player, or even a very good one. But he’s being paid like he’s the very best defenseman in the league, and it sure looks like he isn’t that player anymore.

The case that it might be OK: Injuries heal, and we’ve already seen Karlsson overcome a more serious scare in 2013, when he missed most of the season with a sliced Achilles. He came back from that just fine, posting three straight first-team all-star seasons. As for age, we’ve seen plenty of superstar blueliners play into their late-30s and beyond, including Ray Bourque, Al MacInnis, Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom. Karlsson’s always been a great skater, but his most important talent is his vision and instinct, and that won’t fade even if he loses a half-step.

Sure, he’s been disappointing this season. So has everyone on the Sharks. The year has been a disaster. We can’t just throw out the whole season, but we shouldn’t lean on it too much either. Last year might be a better example of what Karlsson’s floor could be, and it’s worth remembering that even in an off-year his underlying numbers were decent and he still played well enough to show up on a handful of Norris ballots. If that’s the worst-case, it’s not bad. And his best-case looks a lot like his 2017 playoff run, when he almost managed to drag a very average Senators team all the way to the final. That wasn’t that long ago, and he was fighting through injuries then too.

The bottom line is that Karlsson is a generational talent, and when he’s fully healthy he’s basically been unstoppable. Every long-term deal is a gamble in some sense, but if you’re going to roll the dice, this is exactly the sort of player you do it on.

Key comparisons: Drew Doughty is the obvious one, with a similar eight-year deal that carries an $11 million hit. We’d also want to look at Roman Josi (8 x $9 million) and teammate Brent Burns (8 x $8 million). There’s also John Carlson, who signed his 8-year, $8 million cap hit deal at a similar age and is delivering the sort of dynamic Norris-caliber season Karlsson used to, but for a lot less money.

The verdict: The case against the Karlsson deal is a strong one, but I’m not sure it goes beyond a reasonable doubt. The Sharks are in cap hell, and we’ll watch Karlsson closely over the next season or so, but for now we’ll tentatively say: not a bad contract. Yet.

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Monday, January 13, 2020

Weekend rankings: The Battle of Alberta, a stunning GM firing and Lightning make their case

It was a busy weekend in the NHL, one that served up 20 games. That slate included crucial divisional showdowns like Jets/Predators and Leafs/Panthers, at least one potential Cup final preview in Penguins/Avalanche, a 50th-anniversary celebration (sort of) and the temporary return of a defunct team. There was a lot going on.

And chances are, you’re not going to remember any of it a few weeks from now. Instead, what we’ll all remember from this weekend is a stunning GM firing – we’ll get to that in a bit – and what happened between the Oilers and Flames on Saturday night.

The Battle of Alberta is back. Or at least it was, for one game.

If you somehow missed it, let’s recap. It won’t surprise you to learn that Mathew Tkachuk was in the middle of it, as he always seems to be. On this night, he locked in a big target in Zack Kassian, drilling the Oilers’ winger with three big hits. The hardest of those knocked Kassian’s helmet flying and sent him spinning to the ice.

As you might expect, Kassian didn’t appreciate the attention, and late in the second period, he decided he’d had enough.

That earned him four minutes, which was actually a pretty lenient sentence for a half-dozen haymakers. The Flames went on to score the go-ahead goal on the powerplay, and it held up as the winner.

And almost instantly, the NHL had one of those Rorschach test moments. What do you see when you watch those plays unfold?

A lot of fans, including most of the ones wearing Flames jersey, see a classic case of a physical player doing his job well enough that he suckers an opponent into a bad penalty. Tkachuk’s hits were clean, or at least close enough, and if the Oilers can’t handle that then they shouldn’t be on the ice in what’s still a contact sport. Kassian has made a career out of catching guys with their head down, but when it happens to him he has a meltdown, and costs his team a crucial game in the process. Tkachuk wins this round.

Hold on, says the other half of the room, including most of Edmonton. Tkachuk is nothing but a rat, running around throwing borderline hits and then refusing to answer the bell for it. Hockey is a rough sport, sure, but it’s also one with a code, and nobody gets unlimited free shots. If you’re going to play that way, you eventually have to back it up. If Tkachuk won’t do things the honorable way, guys like Kassian will just have to give him no choice.

The fallout came quickly, with both players dropping memorable postgame quotes on each other. Kassian called Tkachuk a “punk,” among other things, and made it clear he had no regrets. Tkachuk responded that Kassian should “stay off the tracks” if he doesn’t want to get hit, then twisted the knife: “We’ll take the power play, we’ll take the game-winner, and we’ll move on to first place.”

Call it advantage Tkachuk in the war of words. They weren’t the only ones talking after the game; it seemed like just about everyone had a take. Maybe Tkachuk was exposed as a wimp and a turtle, out there throwing dangerous hits. Maybe the problem is guys like Kassian who can dish out the contact but can’t take it. Maybe both guys were wrong. Maybe neither one was.

Maybe this is all exactly the sort of nonsense you hate seeing in a sport that was supposed to have evolved past all of this. Maybe it’s exactly the kind of old-school bad blood you miss about what the league used to be.

For what it’s worth, the Department of Player Safety called Kassian on the carpet for a hearing, while apparently giving Tkachuk’s hits a passing grade. The two players do have a history, which could come into play, as could the weak call on the ice and Kassian’s lack of remorse. That hearing will happen on Monday, so we’ll probably get a verdict later in the day.

Did we mention that the Flames won, and took over a share of first place in the division? That sort of gets lost in the shuffle, but it seems important, especially since it was only a few weeks ago that the Flames’ season seemed to be slipping away. They’ve rebounded nicely from the Bill Peters debacle, and Geoff Ward has them looking more like last year’s contender. Cam Talbot looking like vintage Mike Vernon helps too.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were scrambling to figure out when these two teams play next. The answer: soon. They’ll face each other twice in the week after the buy, on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1. It’s been a while since we’ve circled our calendars for a Battle of Alberta matchup, at least for reasons other than draft lottery odds. But it’s safe to say that everyone will be watching these next two meetings. (Possibly including Kassian, who’ll miss the games if his suspension stretches to five games.)

On to this week’s rankings …

Road to the Cup

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

It was another Whaler night for the Hurricanes, as they blanked the Kings for their third straight win and second straight shutout. This is always a bit of a tricky one since I know some fans love the retro feel of seeing the Whalers’ green again while others feel like it’s forced nostalgia, driven by the marketing department. Either way, it means we get to hear Brian Burke’s favorite song which is always fun.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (28-12-5, +29 true goals differential*) – They continue to roll along without Sidney Crosby, getting tough wins over the Knights, Avalanche and Coyotes. Crosby’s return had seemed imminent earlier in the week, but hit a snag when he wasn’t feeling well enough to practice on Friday. We should see him soon, but in the meantime, the Pens continue to rack up points without him.

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Friday, January 10, 2020

When an anniversary isn’t, what NHL broadcasts are missing and better days for the Sharks

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The weird pattern of NHL teams being off by a year on their anniversary celebrations
- The one thing hockey broadcasts need to steal from the NFL
- An obscure player who made a name for himself, just not in North America
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at a time when the Sharks were on the other end of an historic comeback

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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Puck Soup: Place your bets

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Predators fire Peter Laviolette and hire... John Hynes?
- Why stars don't want to play in the all-star game, and what the NHL should do about it
- The Blue Jackets are surprising
- The Penguins are surprising
- The Sharks are completely screwed
- We each get $100 in play money to predict the Cup finalists
- Plus Jeopardy, all-star game jerseys, Meghan Markle 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, January 8, 2020

The eight types of midseason turnarounds (and which one your team might pull off)

January 3 was an important date for struggling NHL teams. It represented the one-year anniversary of last season’s St. Louis Blues hitting rock bottom, as they spent that date in 2019 in last place overall before beating the defending Cup champs that night and then slowly but surely turning things around. We know how that story ended. And we’ve been reminded of it ever since, as every bad team rushes to reassure its fans that everything is fine, because if the Blues can turn things around then they can too.

GMs mumbling about “remember the Blues” has become a punchline, but there was at least a little truth to it. They really did prove that a disappointing season can be saved. But as of January 3, the time for playing that card has run out. If your team is still struggling, and the turnaround hasn’t started, you’re already behind the St. Louis schedule.

Fans of those teams will have to turn elsewhere for their optimism now. But that’s OK, because NHL history is full of teams that were struggling at the midway mark and still salvaged the season to varying degrees. In fact, it’s happened often enough that we can divide those comeback stories into some distinct categories. So let’s break down the eight types of midseason turnarounds, and figure out which teams are in the best position to pull it off this year.

The coach firing turnaround

What happens: Maybe the coach isn’t very good at his job. Maybe he is but his team has tuned him out. Or maybe he’s actually doing everything he reasonably could and he’s not the problem at all. Whatever the case, it’s always easier to can the coach than to overhaul the roster, and just about every struggling team will at least think about making a change.

Who can do it: Pretty much anyone, although some teams are obviously better candidates than others. A coach’s contract might come into play. His resume definitely will. And like it or not, his relationship with the media can help or hurt. If he’s been around for a few years without winning much, is on an expiring deal and already has a few knives out for him, then the risk of a change gets higher with every losing streak.

Who can’t: Anyone who’s already fired their coach during the season, unless they’re the 1995-96 Senators. (It didn’t work for them either.)

Historic example: You could point to last year’s Blues here, as well as other Cup winners like the 2011-12 Kings and 2015-16 Penguins. But all three of those coaching changes actually happened in November and December, meaning teams looking to recapture that magic now are already too late. The good news is that they can still look at the 2008-09 Penguins, who sent Michel Therrien packing in mid-February and still had time to get back on track.

Best current candidate: Well, this was going to be Peter Laviolette and the Predators until Monday night. But since David Poile couldn’t wait a couple days to make me look smart, let’s turn our attention elsewhere. Most of the hot seat candidates from earlier in the year seem safer now, including Paul Maurice, Jon Cooper, Bruce Boudreau and John Tortorella. That doesn’t leave many options, although Montreal’s recent slump might put Claude Julien in play.

The big roster shakeup turnaround

What happens: A team struggles, playoff hopes fade, and eventually the GM has seen enough. He pulls the trigger on a major trade or two or maybe more, reshaping the roster and turning the team around.

Who can do it: Any team with a creative GM who isn’t afraid to open himself up to criticism because he knows it’s all part of doing his job.

Who can’t: The other 25 or so NHL teams these days whose GMs would rather make excuses about how trading is too hard.

Historic example: You can probably guess where I’m going with this one. Back in 1991-92, the Maple Leafs were terrible at the midway mark, going 10-25-5 including a recent 12-1 loss. New GM Cliff Fletcher decided to blow the whole thing up, swinging a 10-player deal with the Flames to land Doug Gilmour. The Leafs went a respectable 20-18-2 the rest of the way, then rode that momentum to actual contention for the next few years.

Best current candidate: We couldn’t use the Predators in the last category, so let’s do it here. We’re told David Poile is actively shopping around for a shakeup, and unlike most of his colleagues, he actually has a history of making bold moves when the situation calls for it.

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Monday, January 6, 2020

Weekend rankings: Penguins and Sharks remind us of the two ways a veteran contender can go

I had something very rare happen to me last week. Somebody pointed out a prediction that I actually got right. Sort of.

To be clear, I didn’t predict that the Sharks would actually be bad. I was pretty sure they’d be one of the better teams in the league. But I added the caveat that if they were bad, they might be really bad. It’s part of a larger point I’ve made before: When it comes to teams that have been good for years but feature an aging core and a tough cap situation, the window often doesn’t close as slowly as we expect. You would think that a really good team should gradually slide from, say, a 105-point Cup contender one year to maybe a 95-point wildcard the next to missing the playoffs and then eventually being outright bad. But as fans of the Kings or Blackhawks could tell you, it often falls apart much quicker than that. For a lot of teams, windows don’t close, they slam shut.

That’s what seems to be happening the Sharks. So yay me, I (kind of) got one right.

Except that in making that point over the summer, I also made it about another team: The Pittsburgh Penguins, whose sudden downfall I’ve been predicting for years now. And they’ve been one of the very best stories of the season.

It’s weird. At a high level, the Sharks and Penguins came into the season in similar situations. Both teams had just put up 100-point seasons. Both clubs boasted star-studded rosters, but those marquee players are mostly on the wrong side of 30 and locked into big contracts. Both teams had questions in goal. Both had a coach on the hot seat, or at least a warm one. Both seemed to be all-in on one or two last runs before all the bills came due.

If anything, the Sharks were in better shape. They’d just been to the conference final, after all, while the Penguins hadn’t even won a playoff game. If you had to pick one team to keep the success going, it was San Jose. And if your crystal ball told you that pretty much of all of Pittsburgh’s top players would get hurt, then it was an easy call.

Except it hasn’t been. The Sharks have been the season’s biggest disaster, while the Penguins somehow keep churning along, even without Sidney Crosby. It’s yet another reminder that this is a league where logic sometimes takes a vacation.

In San Jose, they’ve already fired the coach, they don’t have their own first-round pick and we’re officially into the “overhearing stuff in the dressing room” section of a season-long nightmare. That last one’s not the end of the world, but it’s certainly not a great look for a veteran team of well-paid stars that was supposed to be all-in on a winning season.

The Sharks actually had a respectable week, with points in three of four, so there’s still a pulse on their playoff hopes. But it’s very faint. Yesterday’s collapse in Washington was devastating, and in the bigger picture, this may be the scariest tweet I saw all week.

Meanwhile, the Penguins keep producing points, with nine in their last six games. They’ve passed the Islanders for second spot in the Metro — albeit with extra games played — and look like they could still take a run at the Caps for top spot. And now it seems like Crosby’s return is getting close. Lately, the Pens can do it all, with the exception of managing their passports.

The Penguins’ window will close at some point, and that when it happens, the results might be ugly. But it sure doesn’t look like it’s going to be this year. They’re starting to look unbeatable.

Well, almost. Before last night’s loss to the Panthers, they’d only dropped one game since the Christmas break. That one came against the Sharks, because of course it did. We get it, NHL. You make no sense.

Last week, we had one of these two teams in our power rankings, as the Sharks cracked the bottom five while the Penguins sat just outside the top five. Let’s see where they landed this week …

Road to the Cup

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

It’s a new month, meaning we have a new set of power rankings from The Athletic’s hockey collective. And this time, they’ve landed on the same top five that I have here, at least as far as the teams involved (in a slightly different order). I’m not completely sure what to make of that.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (25-12-5, +27 true goals differential*) – So yeah, I probably should have found room for them last week. But now, they’re in, because when a ranking system factors in the future as much as what’s already happened, we can go ahead and start factoring in Crosby’s return. It’s a little too early to start getting excited about another epic Pens/Caps playoff round, especially with an Islanders team that swept Pittsburgh last year still very much in the mix. But the possibility is out there.

4. Boston Bruins (24-8-11, +35) – Their loss on Saturday to the Oilers was their third straight, and 11th out of their last 15. And for a change, they didn’t even get a point. We can’t just call this a slump or a cold streak anymore. The Bruins have some problems.

Now the question becomes whether their sure-thing grip on the Atlantic is in question. They’re still six points up on the Maple Leafs, and seven on the Lightning (who have two games in hand). That’s a good spot to be in, of course, but it’s not the lock that it once looked like. One site has them at less than a coin flip to finish first. That would have seemed unthinkable just a month ago.

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Friday, January 3, 2020

Puck Soup: Winter Classic reactions

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Winter Classic reactions
- Who should face Minnesota in next year's game?
- Not a lot of WJC talk from Ryan and Greg for some reason
- We find out about Kovalchuk to Montreal as we're recording
- Brent Seabrook and phantom LTIR injuries
- An interview with Daryl "Razor" Reaugh
- Our bold predictions for 2020
- And our thoughts on the latest Star Wars movie

>> 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: Who were the NHL’s 5 most mediocre teams of the decade?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Counting down my picks for the five most "meh" teams of the 2010s
- John Tortorella and the Blue Jackets got screwed, and now we're going to overreact
- An obscure player who beats Alexander at powerplay goal scoring
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at another time when the Red Wings were terrible, but at least their TV guys were creative

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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Filling out a World Cup roster for Team Canada’s B-Team

We’ve spent the last week or so on this site having some fun with the World Cup. Or rather, with the lack of a World Cup, since the NHL in its infinite wisdom has apparently decided that hockey fans don’t want to see best-on-best tournaments anymore. We’re not so sure about that, so we’ve been coming up with our best guess at what the various rosters would look like if the World Cup were revived.

That’s always a fun exercise for any country. But it gets especially interesting for Team Canada because the country continues to produce more talent than anyone else. No matter who you pick for a roster, you’re going to end up leaving out a bunch of stars who’d be easy picks for pretty much any other team in the tournament. Sometimes, it feels like Canada could do pretty well with a second entry.

So let’s do that. We’ll scratch off all the names that wound up on Eric Duhatschek’s Team Canada entry, and see what we can do with the rest of the options. Call it the Canadian B-Team.

We’ve still got plenty of talent to choose from, and we should be able to put together a decent team. More than decent, actually. In fact, it’s tempting to wonder: With some savvy picks, can we build a roster that’s good enough to give the real Team Canada a run for its money?

No. No, we cannot. That team has Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. It has Mitch Marner on the fourth line. It has the reigning Norris winner on the third pairing. They’re good.

But can we build a Canadian B-team that could give some of the other countries in the tournament a run for their money? I think we can. Let’s find out.

Forwards

I admit that I was hoping Eric would get cocky (or maybe just have a senior moment) and leave McDavid off of his list. No such luck. In fact, Canada A snaps up the three leading Canadian-born scorers since the start of the 2017-18 season in McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and (believe it or not) Brad Marchand.

But somewhat surprisingly, the next three leading scorers are all available, so we’ll happily build our first line around Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux and Jonathan Huberdeau. That’s a solid start. Stamkos is a decorated veteran of international best-on-best, and we’ll make him team captain. Huberdeau is on his way to his second straight 90-point season and is still in his prime; he might be one of the most underrated offensive stars in the league right now. And Giroux is a talented scorer who gives us some versatility because he can play multiple positions. Plus picking him keeps my chimney dry.

We’ll build our second line around a pair of teammates from Dallas, as Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn form two-thirds of a decent unit. Neither one is dominating this year, and Benn’s actually been pretty disappointing. But it speaks to the strength of Team Canada that he’s even here, since I can’t imagine too many other countries would be slotting a recent Art Ross winner onto the B-Team’s second line. We’ll make this an all-Central unit by adding Matt Duchene, who suited up for Canada at both the 2016 World Cup and 2014 Olympics.

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