Monday, July 13, 2020

Five memorable NHL moments that wouldn’t have been the same without fans

The NHL is on the way back, and we’re just days away from seeing meaningful hockey played for the first time since March. Everything about the situation is deeply weird, from the hubs to the bubbles to the format. But once they actually get out onto the ice and drop the puck, there’s a chance that it might all feel normal.

Well, almost. There’s the small matter of playing without any fans in the building. Is that going to matter? We’ve had this argument before, and no doubt fans around the world will be having it over the next few weeks. For some of us, those empty arenas will be a big distraction. While others will barely notice it at all. Maybe we’ll get a better insight into what’s happening on the ice because we’ll be able to hear the players, coaches and officials more clearly. Or maybe TV will throw a bunch of weird sound effects and CGI into the mix to try to compensate.

Nobody knows what the future holds. And that’s OK because I’m not really the “future” guy around here. But I do know a thing or two about the past, which got me to thinking about some famous and not-so-famous games in NHL history that just wouldn’t have been the same without fans in the building. Today, let’s pay tribute to those die-hards who show up to cheer, boo, pound the glass, wave frantically at the camera and sometimes do a whole lot more than that. Here are five games from NHL history that wouldn’t be as memorable without the fans.

April 19, 2004: Flames at Canucks

The setup: The first-round playoff series between the two rivals had been a classic, and after the Canucks had survived a triple-overtime cliffhanger in Game 6, we headed back to Vancouver for a deciding game.

All of this would have been the same: We would have had a classic from the genre of tight, low-scoring games that defined the era. Jarome Iginla would have still opened the scoring in the first, Matt Cooke would have tied it midway through the third, and Iginla would have restored the lead minutes later. The Flames would have led 2-1 in the final minute, and after a controversial late call against Ed Jovanovski, would have had a chance to ice the game with the goalie out when Iginla got to a loose puck in the neutral zone with seconds left and nobody between him and the open net.

But without fans, we wouldn’t have seen: A fan fire their Canucks jersey on the ice just as Iginla took the shot, nearly landing on the puck and potentially distracting the Flames captain at the game’s most crucial moment.

The shot went just wide, the Canucks scored the tying goal seconds later, and we headed to overtime.

What it would have meant: Quite possibly, nothing. There’s a good case to be made that the toss came just slightly too late for Iginla to see it. Besides, NHL players can get so locked in with a game on the line that they wouldn’t notice a live bear on the ice with then, let alone somebody tossing a jersey on the ice.

Still … I mean, how crazy was that? It’s hard not to play what-if with that moment. What if the jersey had landed on the puck, or blocked it from heading towards the net? I’m not even sure what the rule would be there, and knowing obscure rules is pretty much my beat.

For the record, Iginla didn’t blame the jersey toss for missing the open net, although he was suspiciously noncommittal — his answer was “I don’t know, I was focused.” Since we all know he’s too classy to make excuses, I’m just going to go ahead and interpret that as “I 100 percent missed that empty net because some fan chucked a jersey at me.”

To make matters even crazier, just a few seconds later Iginla had his stick chopped out of his hand by Brendan Morrison, taking him out of the play just before the Canucks tied the game. It was a clear penalty that wasn’t called, and while officials often ignore stuff late, look what the ref is doing at that exact moment: picking up the stray jersey instead of watching Morrison’s hack.

It all could have added up to one of the most controversial moments in playoff history. Instead, the Flames ended up winning in overtime, so Cooke’s tying goal was a Zelepukin and everyone just kind of laughed it off. And the hockey gods got to work plotting a different way to screw over the 2004 Flames.

March 29, 2001: Maple Leafs at Flyers

The setup: Two good teams faced off in a late-season battle with playoff seeding implications, not to mention a rematch of a 1999 playoff meeting and a potential preview of a series that could happen in a few weeks.

All of this would have been the same: The two teams would have played a tight, hard-nosed game. Dan McGillis would have still opened the scoring in the first, with Gary Roberts answering for Toronto in the second. Early in the third, Luke Richardson still would have hit Darcy Tucker, who sold it like he was dead. Tie Domi would have still tried to get at Richardson. Kevin Collins would have intervened because Kevin Collins always intervened. And once things were under control, Domi and Richardson would have headed to the penalty box to serve matching minors for unsportsmanlike conduct.

But without fans, we wouldn’t have seen: Domi presumably wouldn’t have felt the need to squirt his water bottle into the empty stands. That wouldn’t have led to a Flyers fan deciding to get involved, leaning over the glass in the process. And we wouldn’t have all learned a valuable lesson about just how strong that glass actually is.

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Friday, July 10, 2020

The NHL has its new CBA. What will it mean for fans?

p>The NHL has a new collective bargaining agreement. With the results of this week’s vote now in and approval from nearly 79 percent of players, per reports, the league can move forward with its return-to-play plan for a summer playoffs paired with a new deal that will last through 2026. A new CBA, let alone one reached with little in the way of animosity, would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago, but pandemics have a way of shifting priorities.

By now, you’ve probably already seen plenty of smart breakdowns about what this all means for the owners, for the players, for Gary Bettman’s legacy and for the bottom line. But I want to look at it from a slightly different angle: What does this mean for the fans? What does it mean for you and me, who don’t really care where every single dollar winds up as long as we get to watch our favorite team chase a Stanley Cup?

Let’s try to figure that out. I’m going to focus on the actual CBA – the return-to-play agreement is its own separate category, and we’ve already looked at what that might be like for fans and whether we should even want it to happen in the first place. Today, let’s worry about the new CBA itself, and what it might mean for us over the years to come.

And we can start with the obvious.

Just getting a deal done is a big win for fans …

Let’s start with the important thing, and we can just cut to the chase: This is good news for fans. There’s no need to go looking for a contrarian angle here. For the first time in the Gary Bettman era, and in fact, the first time since the players briefly went on strike late in the 1991-92 season, the NHL is going to get a new CBA without a work stoppage. That’s good news, full stop.

I’ll admit, I didn’t think it was going to happen, and maybe it wouldn’t have if the world hadn’t been hit by a global pandemic that upset everything we thought we knew about pro sports economics. Or maybe it would have happened anyway, because there are only so many times that smart people can try to pull the same act on their customers. We’ll never know. But the point is they made a deal without locking the doors, and now we’ve got another six years before we have to wonder about this stuff again.

Should it have taken a global catastrophe for the NHL to do what every other league seems to have already figured out a way to do? No, but it did, and here we are. If you’ve spent the last quarter-century ripping on the league for always needing a lockout to get a deal (raises hand), you have to applaud them for finally getting it right this time.

… as long as you don’t cheer for a team that’s up against the cap

A flat cap for several years, until revenue returns to pre-pandemic projections? Hoo boy. Sorry, fans of the Maple Leafs, Lightning, Blues and all the other capped out teams who only a few months ago were told that next year’s cap could be as high as $88 million. This might get ugly.

That’s not to say there was any way to avoid a flat cap, and in fact, having it stay where it is might be a victory of sorts. If the league had insisted on the cap remaining tied directly to revenues, the wreckage of the 2019-20 season would have meant the cap dropping, maybe significantly. That would have been a nightmare, as teams scrambled to cut wherever they could to stay compliant. Nobody would have won in that scenario – not fans, not players, not the teams who’d have to frantically gut their rosters – so avoiding it is a win of sorts.

That said, there were options available to mitigate the pain for capped out teams. The league could have thrown in a compliance buyout or two. They could have borrowed cap-bending measures from other sports, like a Larry Bird exception or variable cap hits. They could have got really creative, allowing teams to trade for cap space or borrow from future years.

They didn’t do any of that. Instead, they basically served up the same format we’ve had for years. Given the urgency to get a deal done as quickly as possible, you can understand why they didn’t do anything crazy. But if you’re a fan that’s used to defending your team’s budget crunch by saying “It’s OK, the cap always goes up,” then you’re about to see what life’s like when it doesn’t.

At a more granular level, the same concerns apply to fans of teams with one or more bad contracts. Sorry Blackhawks fans, there’s no get-out-of-jail-free card coming for Brent Seabrook. Same with the Sharks and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. We could name plenty of others. If you cheer for those teams, it’s time to shift your thinking from “compliance buyouts will save us” to “the expansion draft will (somehow?) save us.”

So yeah, tough times for a lot of teams in the league. Of course, that could present an opportunity for others. If you root for one of the few teams with lots of caps space, you’re about to see how creative your GM wants to get.

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Thursday, July 9, 2020

Puck Soup: Ruff landing

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Devils hire Lindy Ruff and Greg has thoughts
- We break down the new CBA and return-to-play plan
- Is this actually going to work?
- Chris Pronger leaves the Panthers, an organization you definitely knew he was working for
- We talk about Supermarket Sweep for some reason
- A new quiz debuts
- And we give the OUFL treatment to Tom Cruise movies

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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Playing "what if?" with five draft scenarios from NHL history

We’ve spent a good part of the last week sorting through the fallout of the draft lottery, which certainly gave us plenty to talk about. But we weren’t supposed to be doing this. Before the pandemic hit, the draft lottery was scheduled for April, and we were supposed to have spent the last week talking about the draft itself. The same Friday night the league was drawing ping pong balls and Bill Daly was flipping over generic logos, the NHL was supposed to be gathered in Montreal for Round 1 of the draft.

What if they had been? It’s impossible to know how it would have played out, although we’ll get some indication when the delayed draft is held, well, whenever they get around to it this fall. In the meantime, we’re left with that question: What if?

Alternate realities don’t sound like a bad option right now, so let’s do this. Here are five draft-themed what-if scenarios from modern NHL history and how they might have changed everything.

What if Eric Lindros had just put on the jersey?

The arbitration-mandated trade that sent Eric Lindros from Quebec to Philadelphia for a massive package that included Peter Forsberg is probably one of the most what-if’d transactions in NHL history. Most of those alternate realities revolve around the arbitrator making the decision he’d been expected to make at the time and awarding Lindros to the Rangers instead, for a package that was reported to include names like Tony Amonte, Alexei Kovalev and (maybe) Mike Richter. Lindros could have wound up somewhere like Chicago, Detroit or Montreal. I’ve offered up my own version where he lands in Toronto, and everything changes.

But there’s a simpler scenario that often gets overlooked: What if Lindros had just put on that Nordiques jersey? What if he’d never decided he didn’t want to play in Quebec or had been talked out of his stance or had backed down once training camp arrived and decided to report?

For one thing, Lindros would have arrived in the NHL in 1991 instead of heading back to junior. That might mean he adds a Calder Trophy to his resume instead of finishing miles behind Teemu Selanne in 1992-1993. It also means he misses the 1992 Olympics, which might cost Canada a medal.

Instead, he’d have been in Quebec, playing on a team that already had Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan. But they didn’t have much else – the real 91-92 Nordiques’ leading scorers included names like Mike Hough, Greg Paslawski and Mikhail Tatarinov, and starting goalie Stephane Fiset went into the season with nine career games on his NHL resume. Add Lindros, who scored 40 goals in his real-world rookie season, and they’d be a lot better than the 52-point team they were, but we won’t get silly and suggest they’d be a playoff team. Meanwhile, would the Flyers have had the patience to wait for Forsberg to arrive, or would they have used him as a trade chip to land some other big-name star?

But those aren’t the big questions. Instead, we want to know two things about our what-if Nordiques: Do they still move to Colorado and do they still go on to win multiple Stanley Cups?

I think the answer to the first question is yes, they do still end up moving. The NHL’s economics in the early ’90s were just about impossible for small-market Canadian teams to manage, and the clock was already ticking on the Nordiques by 1991. It’s possible that Lindros bursting onto the scene would have meant a reinvigorated fan base, a new arena and a team that puts down firmer roots that remain to this day. But it feels unlikely.

Still, Lindros might at least have bought them another season or two, which puts everything about their Colorado days in question, even if we assume they still wind up there eventually. Having Lindros instead of Forsberg might be close to a wash, although plenty of fans would tell you Forsberg was better, and there were plenty of other pieces from that trade tree that ended up being crucial. But more importantly, what if those Lindros-led Nordiques haven’t moved in time for the 1995-96 season? There’s no way the Habs trade Patrick Roy to their provincial rivals, and without him the Sakic-era Cups seem a lot less likely.

We never found out, which is good news for hockey fans in Colorado and bad news for those in Quebec.

What if there hadn’t been so much confusion over Pavel Bure’s draft eligibility?

The saga of Pavel Bure’s draft remains confusing to this day. Heading into the 1989 draft, Bure was considered one of hockey’s most dynamic prospects, but back in those days teams were hesitant to invest high picks in Soviet players who may have taken years to come to North America, if they ever did at all. Soviet players were almost always taken as late-round flyers, and the rules of the day said that an 18-year-old Bure was only eligible to be picked in the first three rounds because he hadn’t played two full pro seasons back home.

Or had he? While the threshold for a season was 11 games and Bure’s official records only listed five with CSKA Moscow in 1987-88 (and still do), the Canucks believed they’d uncovered evidence of six more. They believe Bure was eligible to be picked. And depending on who you believe, they weren’t the only ones.

According to Brian Burke, who helped the Canucks build their legal case, the only other team that knew about Bure’s mystery games was the Edmonton Oilers. But years later, a story emerged that the Red Wings were in the loop too, and that’s where the confusion really kicks in. According to Jim Lites, an executive with Detroit at the time, the Wings were ready to take Bure in the fifth round but were specifically told by the league that he wasn’t eligible. The Canucks called his name in the sixth round, other teams immediately objected, and everything went to hell.

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Monday, July 6, 2020

The Leafs are the Best: An oral history of ‘The Passion Returns’ VHS video

“This has been… an unbelievable… turn of events!”

If you’re a Maple Leafs fan of a certain age, you know the moment. Those words conjure it instantly. They belong to Bob Cole, and they came from the immediate aftermath of Nikolai Borschevsky’s Game 7 overtime goal against the Red Wings on May 1, 1993. You can hear Cole’s voice, probably picture Borschevsky getting bear-hugged by Wendel Clark, or Cliff Fletcher’s ear-to-ear grin, or Brian Papineau going nuts with a water bottle. You’re right back in the moment, all these years later.

If you’re not a Leafs fan, your eyes have already rolled deep into the back of your head.

Look, I hear you. That 1993 run didn’t end with a Stanley Cup, or even a trip to the Final. But Leaf fans won’t shut up about it. Almost three decades later, they – ok fine, we – still go on and on about that season. It’s the most beloved Leafs team since the Original Six days, and it’s not even close. If you’re a fan of another team, you might be completely confused.

But if you’re a Leafs fan, you get it. And here is something else you almost certainly got: A copy of a VHS tape called The Passion Returns that came out later that year. You probably got it for Christmas, and had watched it a dozen times by New Years. And you know, to this day, that it is a masterpiece.

Everything about The Passion Returns is just about perfect, from the overly dramatic opening credits, to the heavy dose of early-90s dance music, to the heartstring-tugging epilogue after they lose to the Kings. It’s so over the top. The Leafs weren’t the only team to make a season-in-review tape in the ‘80s and ‘90s to commemorate a season where they didn’t even win anything (no really, save your punchlines, your team probably had one too). They were just the only team to reach the absolute peak of the art form.

It really was, as a wise man once said, an unbelievable turn of events. But how did this thing get made? And why? And why does it still resonate with so many Leafs fans, even almost three decades later?

We decided to find out, by talking to the people who made the tape, the faces that appeared on it, and the fans who loved every minute of it. And along the way, we’re also going to talk about a very unfortunate haircut, and, yes, whatever the hell that music video was.


The Toronto sports and media landscape in October 1992 would be unrecognizable to many fans today. The Argonauts were a year removed from playing home games in front of 50,000 people at SkyDome. The Raptors didn’t exist. The Blue Jays — who before the month’s end would claim their first World Series championship — were unquestionably the toast of the town, if not the entire country.

The Maple Leafs? After missing the playoffs earlier that spring, expectations were low entering the 1992-93 NHL season, despite the addition of Pat Burns behind the bench and the prospect of a full season with Doug Gilmour as their No. 1 centre.

Damien Cox, Toronto Star Maple Leafs beat reporter in ’92-’93, author, The Last Good Year: Seven Games that ended An Era: My expectations were not very high. It’s hard to explain to people now, but they really weren’t even a consideration to be a playoff team… we’re not even talking Stanley Cup. When the season started that year, they still didn’t have Dave Andreychuk. They had Grant Fuhr. Bits and pieces, but not anything solid. Gilmour wasn’t a superstar at that time. I don’t think there were any expectations at all.

Sean McIndoe, high school student in ’92-’93: I remember there being a little bit of optimism at the start of the season because they’d been OK down the stretch after the Gilmour trade. And more importantly, Pat Burns was going to come in and finally teach them how to play defense. Then they went out for the home opener and lost 6-5 and it was like, OK, yep, same old Leafs.

On television, every Maple Leafs game was produced by Molstar Communications, a subsidiary of Molson Brewery, who owned both the NHL’s national Canadian broadcast rights and the Maple Leafs regional rights. Regional games were aired on the Global Television Network across southern Ontario, while CBC carried national Leafs games on Hockey Night in Canada.

One Molstar employee in the fall of 1992 was 34-year-old, Mark Askin. Entering his seventh year producing games for Molstar on both CBC and Global, and as a lifelong, long-suffering Leafs fan, the Toronto native would bring a unique perspective to his work during the season, and in the summer of ’93 once tasked with a special assignment…

Mark Askin, senior producer with Molstar in ’92-’93: I grew up a Leafs fans. I remembered the night the Leafs won in ‘67. I remember the night Bobby Baun scored, I watched it on TV with my dad. My uncle and dad kept payments on season tickets. We’d go down in section 67, row B, seats 11 and 12. Fifteen-to-20 times a year. They were the highlights of my year.

In 1992, pre-internet, newspapers were at the peak of their power in terms of their ability to shape opinion and distribute information. TSN was the only 24/7 sports network in town. Toronto’s first all-sports radio station, The Fan 1430, was a month old when the Leafs season began.

Cox: There was a bit of rivalry between the baseball media and the hockey media and the baseball media were riding high. The CFL was looking south (for expansion), Rocket Ismail had come north. A lot of attention was on the States and in some people’s minds, baseball had become the preeminent sport (in Toronto). (Harold) Ballard had only recently died. By then you were 15 years of (the Leafs) being run into the ground and the Blue Jays were this professional organization with the biggest payroll in baseball. The Leafs were in a lot of ways, a joke.

McIndoe: I know it sounds crazy to today’s fans, but it’s true. The Leafs mattered, but the Blue Jays ruled. They weren’t just winning, they were signing all the top free agents and making the Yankees and Red Sox cry about how unfair it was that Toronto had all the money. And the town was going crazy for all of it. Then you looked at the Leafs and thought “Man, what if they got good too?”

Led by Doug Gilmour’s Leafs record 127 points, and a Jack Adams-winning performance from Burns behind the bench, the Leafs exceeded every pre-season prognostication by posting 99-points, good for third in the Norris Division behind the Chicago Blackhawks (106 points) and Detroit Red Wings (103). Despite finishing just four points back of Detroit, the Leafs were big underdogs entering their first-round series against the Red Wings and the league’s No. 1 offence.

Doug Gilmour, Maple Leafs forward in ’92-’93: People forget what you did in the regular season. People remember what you do in the playoffs.

Mark Osborne, Maple Leafs forward in ’92-’93: We were the underdogs. And yet there was a belief that because of Burnsie and our style of play that something positive would result of it.

Cox: Detroit was such a powerhouse or an evolving powerhouse. Toronto was not in the same class back then. Once the Leafs won Games 3 and 4, you went ‘holy shit.’ Even in Game 7, nobody thought they were going to win. Maybe they did, I don’t know. But once they beat Detroit, everything changed.

McIndoe: On paper, beating a team that was four points ahead of you shouldn’t feel like a giant upset. But these were the Leafs, so we all knew they weren’t going to pull it off. Then they did, and suddenly you looked around and the Hawks were out, the Smythe didn’t have a powerhouse for once, and you were like, ‘Wait a second, something could happen here.’

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Friday, July 3, 2020

Mailbag: Could a team of 20 Zdeno Charas beat a team of 20 Johnny Gaudreaus, and other important questions

Welcome to another edition of the mailbag, in which you ask me very strange questions and I put way too much thought into coming up with the right answer. This week, we’re going to figure out how to trade Jack Eichel, rank the teams that had the most luck picking first overall, induct a placeholder into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and figure out whether a team full of Zdeno Charas could beat a team full of Johnny Gaudreaus. No, I don’t desperately need hockey to come back, why do you ask?

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity.

What franchise has gotten the most value out of the first overall pick in NHL history? It has to be the Penguins, correct? They chose the second-best player ever, the best player of the 2000s, and a goalie that took two teams from worst to first. – Michael O.

Oh yeah, it’s the Penguins for sure. I can’t even come up with a contrarian take here. In fact, you could make a decent case that the two best first overall picks in history both went to the Penguins. Mix in a decent goaltender and the fact we all know they’re getting Lafreniere this year and it’s a no-brainer.

But you got me thinking about who would be next on the list. So let’s rephrase the question as “Which team other than the Penguins got the most value out of the first overall pick?” Here’s my top five:

Not ranked: Montreal Canadiens – They’ve actually had more first overall picks than anyone with five, but only ever hit on one of them. That was Guy Lafleur with the Seals’ pick in 1971, and he was a legend, but the other four guys were Garry Monahan, Michel Plasse, Rejean Houle and Doug Wickenheiser.

Also not ranked: Ottawa Senators – Three first overall picks in four years, and they turned them into a bust (Alexandre Daigle), a guy who refused to play for them (Bryan Berard) and a solid stay-at-home defenseman (Chris Phillips). When the guy who didn’t crack 300 points is easily your top pick, that’s rough.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning/Toronto Maple Leafs (tie) – The Lightning have had the top pick three times and got a solid defenseman in Roman Hamrlik, a guy who looked like a Hall of Famer for the first decade of his career in Vincent Lecavalier, and a legit franchise player in Steven Stamkos. The Leafs have somehow only had it twice, but they used them on Auston Matthews (who’s been one of the most productive young goal scorers in NHL history) and Wendel Clark (who was this guy).

4. Buffalo Sabres – They’ve had three, and they produced one slam dunk Hall of Famer (Gilbert Perrault), one guy who has a borderline case (Pierre Turgeon) and a kid who might be on the way (Rasmus Dahlin).

3. Edmonton Oilers – I thought they’d be higher, but despite four top picks in six years, they didn’t end up with as much as you’d hope. They’ve got the very best player in the world in Connor McDavid, so they have to crack the top three, but other than that they got a future MVP they gave up on too early (Taylor Hall), a solid player who’s never been elite (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) and an all-time bust (Nail Yakupov).

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What’s the best roster you could make out of NHL stars who were clearly not the best player in history to have those initials?

What’s the best possible roster you could make out of NHL stars who were clearly not the best player in league history to have those initials? Let’s find out!

A few ground rules:

  • We’re going to let be our guide on the question of the “best” players. This turns out to be deceptively simple since their search engine defaults to sorting by a player’s importance. I think this is based largely (but not entirely) on point shares, which isn’t a perfect stat but will work well enough for our purposes. We search for a set of initials, and the first result that matches them is the best player and can’t be on our roster.
  • Except … I know this is all subjective, but I did run into a few cases where the search engine was just wrong, or at least where it felt like the top two guys were too close to call. When that happens, I reserve the right to overrule the site and disqualify a player we could otherwise use. This will make things harder, but it also means I won’t have to wade through 100 comments from people who think I took the easy way out because Mats Sundin is clearly better than Martin St. Louis no matter what some computer says. Remember, we said “clearly not the best,” so we only want guys where there’s no real case to be made that they could be at the top of their list.
  • Active players are in play, but we only get credit for what they’ve done in their careers so far. Connor McDavid has two Art Ross trophies, but with less than 500 career points might not make the roster yet. (And he’s already the best C.M. in league history, so we couldn’t use him anyway.)
  • We’re using whatever was considered a player’s most common name during their playing days.
  • We’re filling out a 20-man roster with four centers, four right wings, four left wings, six defensemen and a goalie.

Sounds like fun? (Crickets chirp.) Awesome, let’s do this!

We’ll start with the obvious problem: By definition, we’re not going to be able to use any of the NHL’s true all-time greats. Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux … they’re all out.

That applies to pretty much all of the second tier too. It would be nice if a pair of top 10 players had been considerate enough to double up on initials, but that doesn’t really happen. There isn’t an NHL equivalent to the NBA’s Michael Jordan/Magic Johnson combo.

Well, except for maybe one: Who’s the best player in NHL history to have the initials D.H.?

That’s a tough one. You could make a case for Dominik Hasek, who might be the best goaltender of all-time. But there’s also Doug Harvey, who won seven Norris Trophies in eight years and was almost universally ranked as the best defenseman ever during the pre-Bobby Orr era.

I’d lean to Hasek, but the hockey-reference results go with Harvey. It’s a tough one because whichever way I go I’m going to have a big chunk of hockey fans mad at me. So I’m not going to pick at all, and instead, declare this one a tie – neither Hasek nor Harvey clearly fit our criteria, so neither can make our team.

The good news is that the D.H. listing still offers some possibilities, including Dany Heatley and Dale Hunter. But I’m going to go with 1980s legend Dale Hawerchuk, who can’t lay claim to a place in Hasek or Harvey’s tier but will slot in nicely as one of our centers.

And while we’re building from the middle, we should grab another obvious choice: Adam Oates, who brings us 1,400 points and a reputation as one of the greatest setup men of all time but still can’t get near the A.O. title when Alexander Ovechkin is around.

Let’s fill in a few more forward spots. Jean Beliveau is a consensus top-10 player of all-time, which means we can safely grab 500-goal man Johnny Bucyk at LW. And we find another strong LW choice in former MVP Taylor Hall, who’s available thanks to the 24-year career of Hall-of-Famer Tim Horton.

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Monday, June 29, 2020

Puck Soup: Placehold my beer

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- So that draft lottery sure was something
- Yeah, it was weird. But is that bad?
- Ranking the Lafreniere worthiness of each of the playoff teams
- Artemi Panarin weighs in as a new CBA nears
- The latest on hub cities, the biggest story in hockey that you secretly don't care about
- A new quiz
- Our favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger movies

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

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Call for mailbag questions

Hey folks...

I'm probably going to do a mailbag either this Friday or next. Please send over some questions we can have some fun with, via email at Feel free to get creative. What-ifs, would-you-rathers and all-time bests (and worsts) work well. I don't think my editors actually read these so let's get weird.


Saturday, June 27, 2020

The winners and losers from the NHL Draft lottery

The NHL held its annual draft lottery Friday night. Well, one of them. We’re going to need another one to figure it all out.

Did I mention this gets weird? It gets weird.

Here’s the short version: We don’t know who’ll have the first overall pick in this year’s draft because it was won by one of the placeholder teams. We’ll have to wait for the play-in round to be over, at which point the eight teams that lose will go into a second drawing. One of those teams will get the top pick and presumably use it to draft blue-chip prospect Alexis Lafreniere.

This is, it should go without saying, not how things normally work. You probably have strong thoughts about whether this is how it should work, and those views are probably heavily influenced by which team you cheer for. And that’s fair because while we still don’t know who won the first overall pick, it’s fair to say that Friday night worked out better for some than for others. So let’s try to sort it all out, as we break down the winners and losers from the strangest draft lottery in NHL history.

Loser: Detroit Red Wings

It’s a winner/loser format, and tradition says we should start with the winners and alternate from there. But since we don’t know who the winners are yet, let’s go right to the one part we can all agree on.

Detroit… ouch, man.

Look, Red Wing fans knew the odds. There was a roughly 50 percent chance this could happen. That’s the way it’s worked since 2016, and we’ve seen the last place overall team drop all the way to number four on multiple occasions, including a Colorado team in 2017 that might have been even worse than this year’s Wings. If you’re a Detroit fan and you were blindsided by what happened on Friday, you weren’t paying attention.

But that doesn’t make it any easier. This team was awful, not just losing but getting their doors blown off with regularity. They desperately need a stud prospect to build around. They need some hope. The draft lottery was all they had from about November on. And then Bill Daly flips over that card at number four, and… gut punch.

So yeah, it sucks, and there’s no way to sugar coat it. You can point out that those 2017 Avs ended up with a pretty decent kid named Cale Makar with the fourth overall pick, but that doesn’t really soften the blow.

Red Wings fans are mad, and they should be mad. They get to be unbearable for the next few days. Save them your lectures about lucking into Pavel Datsyuk or getting to watch Nicklas Lidstrom. They don’t want to hear it right now, and that’s the way it should be. This hurts, a lot.

Winner: Team Chaos

We asked for chaos. We got it.

OK, we didn’t quite get the ultimate chaos scenarios, like having all three lottery spots taken by play-in teams. But Friday’s result was a decent substitute, one that adds a new dynamic to an already unprecedented play-in round. How will it all play out? Nobody knows because none of us could have even conceived of this set of circumstances just a few months ago.

Of course, not everyone will appreciate that. Plenty of fans are shaking their heads today, wondering why the NHL couldn’t have figured out a way to just do all of this in a normal way like a normal league. We’ll get to that in a bit. But at some point, maybe you just have to accept that there’s nothing normal about 2020 and steer into the skid. The NHL held a lottery and the winning team was TBD. Be careful what you wish for.

Still, the reaction on Twitter when Bill Daly flipped that card on Friday night was glorious. And in a way, it felt like the old days. How long has it been since your timeline turned into a steady stream of people going “WHAT?” and “WOW!” and “NOOO!” over something sports-related? Too long. It was nice to see a team get to celebrate a big win again. Even if it was Team Chaos.

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Friday, June 26, 2020

The 2020 draft lottery power rankings

Every year, I look forward to writing these words: It’s time for the annual draft lottery power rankings.

And this year, I get to add a few more words to the end of that sentence that I never imagined I’d need to use.

Part… one?

Yes, this year is weird. The whole year, I mean, but also this year’s draft lottery. For the first time ever, and hopefully also the last time, we’re looking at a pandemic-related rule change that means that tonight’s lottery might only be the first of two drawings we need to figure out who’ll pick where at the draft in … well, I guess we don’t know that either. Like I said, a weird year.

If you’re not up to speed on the rules of this year’s lottery, you can do some last-minute cramming here. But the basics are that we’ll draw for the top three spots this week, based on the usual field of 15 teams, with the catch that we don’t know who eight of those teams are. If all three winning teams are from the bottom seven, then we’re done. But if one (or more) picks go to the other eight teams, we’ll have to wait for a second drawing held after the play-in round is over, at which point the eight eliminated teams will get a second lottery to see who gets those picks.

Confused? Don’t worry, everyone else is too and we’re just faking it. For our purposes here, the important thing is that we’ve got more teams than usual to consider in this year’s power rankings. As usual, we’ll be breaking down the top five teams in various categories, starting with one I’m sure we can all agree on.

The ‘Who Actually Deserves It?’ Ranking

The idea of anyone deserving to win a lottery is a funny concept, and some fans might answer “nobody.” But until we get the Gold Plan and make teams actually earn the top pick, we can at least acknowledge that some teams deserve a break more than others.

Not ranked: Pittsburgh Penguins or Edmonton Oilers — Both teams went from playoff locks to play-in question marks. If they lost in an unprecedented qualifier of questionable fairness, wouldn’t they deserve a consolation prize of some lottery luck? (Remembers the two team’s histories of picking first overall.) No they would not, screw these guys.

5. Buffalo Sabres — Do their owners deserve it? No. Does their front office? But their fan base could absolutely use some good news, so I’m putting them on the list. Yes, they already won a lottery, back in 2018. But they finished dead last that year, meaning they’ve never actually moved up in the lottery in franchise history, and they were passed for the first overall pick on two other occasions.

4. Anaheim Ducks — They’ve never picked first overall in franchise history, and only picked in the top three twice. And one of those was in 2005, when they got to spend 10 minutes thinking they might have landed Sidney Crosby before settling on Bobby Ryan.

3. Los Angeles Kings — Here’s a fun bit of trivia: The Kings won the NHL’s first-ever lottery, all the way back in 1995. But they only moved up from the seventh slot to third overall, and they used the pick on Aki Berg in a draft where Shane Doan went seventh and Jarome Iginla went 11th, so did they really win at all? They did not. And in the quarter-century since, the Kings have picked in the top five on five occasions, but never first overall, a spot they haven’t held since taking Rick Pagnutti in 1967. They’re due, is that I’m saying.

2. Ottawa Senators (via San Jose) — If the Senators win the lottery with their own pick, fine, great, congratulations on being a very bad team for the third year in a row. But if they win it with the Sharks’ pick, one they acquired in the Erik Karlsson trade that just about everyone thought they’d lost? That’s called earning it.

1. Detroit Red Wings — We don’t need to overthink this. The lottery is meant to discourage tanking, and we can debate the semantics over whether that’s what the Red Wings did this year. But the whole point of using the standings to determine draft order is to offer help to the teams that need it, and no team needs more help than a Red Wings squad that just had arguably the worst season of the cap era, and maybe beyond. And if you’re still not sold, remember that they haven’t picked in the top five in 30 years.

The ‘Which Team Needs It Most?’ Ranking

Yeah, I know, they all do, especially the team you cheer for. But some teams need the help — or just the momentary jolt of happiness — more than others.

Not ranked: Any team that finished over .500 this year — Everyone wants to win, but these teams don’t need to win.

5. New Jersey Devils — Nobody wants them to win given they’ve already had two recent first overall picks. But do they need the help? (Checks standings.) They do.

4. Ottawa Senators — They’ve added some promising pieces, but the rebuild isn’t yet at the point where Eugene Melnyk’s “five-year run of unparalleled success” seems imminent. A top-three pick or two would certainly help.

3. Detroit Red Wings — It feels weird to rank them this low, and obviously the Red Wings desperately need help. But the thing is, they need so much help that even adding Alexis Lafreniere or another top prospect is only going to move the needle so much. If they win a high pick, they’ll move from being the 31st-best team this season all the way up to the projected 31st-best next year, and maybe the year after that but I’m not sure because don’t forget there will be 32 teams by then. In the long term, the Wings need this the most. But if we’re talking right now, there are two other teams that could at least make a case.

2. Montreal Canadiens — If this list was “Which GM needs it most?” the Habs probably take top spot. But even as it stands, this a franchise that still seems to desperately want the sort of French-Canadian star they built dynasties around in the good old days. There are only so many of those guys out there, and Lafreniere might be the next one. Their draft odds won’t be great, but look on the bright side — they’re better than the odds of an underpriced offer sheet working a few years from now.

1. Buffalo Sabres — The team needs it. The new front office needs it. More than anything, the fans need it. This is a team that desperately needs some good news. And winning the draft lottery would definitely be good news, right? Uh, maybe hold that thought…

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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Puck Soup: Hall of Fame highs and lowes

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to the Hall of Fame's Class of 2020
- An appreciation of Jarome Iginla
- Marian Hossa was good, but was he first-ballot good?
- Kevin Lowe. Huh.
- The lack of women, the builder conundrum, and the names that weren't called that we're not happy about
- The Auston Matthews controversy, Steve Simmons, and whether this story is being covered correctly
- The hub search narrows, and one city seems to want it more than others
- Plus 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, June 24, 2020

Making the one-sentence case for and against 25 Hall of Fame candidates

The Hockey Hall of Fame will announce the class of 2020 today, and time will tell if they did a better job than our picks on Tuesday. For now, let’s consider the cases for and against some of the candidates, as we break down 25 of the biggest names up for consideration.

Wait, twenty-five?

Yeah, there are a lot of candidates out there who can, at the very least, make a plausible case for induction. I wound up with a list of 25, and I’ll still be excluding at least a few names that some readers will be expecting to see.

This is for the men’s player category only, since the drama around the women’s side appears to be mainly whether the committee stops at Jennifer Botterill or inducts two players for the first time since 2010, and the builder category always feels like a total crapshoot from the outside. I’ve also focused on players who made their names in the NHL, although the committee could look to some of the underrepresented international leagues for at least a spot or two.

Still, 25 names is a lot. I’m not even dipping all that far back into history with most of these, which may be a mistake since the committee will occasionally induct a player who’s been eligible forever. And of course, we occasionally get picks that seem to come out of nowhere; if I’d written this piece last year, I doubt I’d have included Guy Carbonneau, but he made it in. At the same time, the committee has 18 members and each can only nominate one candidate, so several of the names below won’t even be discussed in this year’s proceedings.

With 25 names to get through, we’ll limit the case for and against to one sentence each. In a few cases, one run-on sentence, but only one. And while the whole point of this sort of thing is to give us something to argue about, we’ll start with what should be the one candidate that everyone can agree on.

Jarome Iginla

The case for: He’s Jarome Iginla.

The case against: With over 600 goals and 1,300 points to go along with being one of the most respected leaders in the sport, there really isn’t one, and the committee should take roughly three minutes of discussion to wrap this one up before moving on to the tougher calls.

Daniel Alfredsson

The case for: He finished with 1,157 career points and won a Calder to go with a King Clancy and that weird Mark Messier award, not to mention Olympic gold, and if feels like we all just assumed he’d get in eventually when he first became eligible.

The case against: That eligibility came back in 2017, and every year it seems like there are a couple of new candidates that push him off enough ballots that you start to wonder if he’s destined to become the poster child for the Hall of Very Good.

Pierre Turgeon

The case for: At 1,327 points, he’s the leading scorer among eligible players who haven’t been inducted yet by well over 100 points.

The case against: With no awards except for a Lady Byng and only one season in a 19-year career where he received so much as a single Hart vote, Turgeon might be the all-time example of a player who racked up big numbers without ever being considered one of the game’s elite.

Doug Wilson

The case for: I made it in more detail earlier this week, but Wilson was one of the very best defensemen of the 1980s, winning a Norris and finishing in the top 15 in career scoring.

The case against: He was considered a tier below the Ray Bourques and Paul Coffeys of his generation, and his production trailed off just enough after the age of 32 to leave his career numbers a bit short of slam dunk territory.

Theo Fleury

The case for: One of the most memorable and entertaining players of his generation, the diminutive Fleury went from a longshot to even crack the NHL to a Cup-winner and 50-goal scorer who had two 100-point seasons and over 1,000 career points.

The case against: Partly because of some personal struggles, his career didn’t last long enough to rack up the sort of numbers the Hall typically looks for in an 80s/90s offensive star; he didn’t crack 500 goals and his 1,088 points rank just 70th all-time on an era-adjusted basis.

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Monday, June 22, 2020

The chaos lover’s rooting guide to the playoffs and lottery

We finally know what the NHL will look like when the season resumes, and I have to say, I’m pretty sure my favorite team is set up to dominate.

No, not the Maple Leafs. I mean my other favorite team: Team Chaos.

I’ve been on the Team Chaos bandwagon for years, and they’ve come through with some pretty special seasons. There was “expansion team rolls over the league and makes the final,” and “terrible team takes Sidney Crosby’s dynasty to overtime in Game 7 of the conference final” and “128-point juggernaut gets swept in the first round.” Unlike some other teams I could mention, Team Chaos rarely lets me down.

But this year? This year could be something else. The league’s new format seems like it was designed by Team Chaos representatives. We’ve taken an unprecedented 24-team format with a postseason round that may or may not count as the playoffs and combined it with the potential for a double-lottery that could see one of the league’s best teams win the first overall pick despite finishing top ten in the standings. The potential scenarios in play boggle the mind.

We don’t even have to get into the real-world situations that could cause legitimate chaos, such as an outbreak of positive tests or players refusing to report. Let’s pretend that everything plays out exactly the way the league wants it to. That could still lead us down some truly bizarre paths.

Today, we’re going to explore some of those possibilities. Here are 15 of the weirdest scenarios I could come up with, and how appealing they would be to a diehard Team Chaos fan.

Scenario: Carey Price single-handedly wins the Cup

One of my favorite movie moments is the diner scene from “Mulholland Drive.” Two characters we don’t know meet for lunch and one of them, clearly disturbed, explains a nightmare he’s been having. In the dream, he walks out of the diner and down the alleyway behind it, at which point a horrifying figure appears and he dies. He wants to confront his fear by seeing what’s really back there — “to get rid of this god-awful feeling.” With his friend trailing him, the man gathers his courage. Then he walks out of the diner and down the alleyway behind it, at which point a horrifying figure appears and he dies.

The scene is terrifying because there’s no twist. There’s no misdirection. The movie tells you exactly what’s going to happen and why you should be afraid of it, and then it unfolds precisely as promised. And somehow, that makes it so much scarier than any surprise could have been.

The NHL version of the figure behind the diner is Carey Price, who is apparently the scariest goaltender in the world. He’s been mentioned by name in multiple objections to the play-in format. This despite the fact that it’s been years since the numbers suggest he’s been an elite goaltender, or even an especially good one. Forget about the stats or the standings or even what your own eyes tell you. Carey Price is the monster in your nightmare — and he’s going to get you.

And that means there’s nothing scarier than having all our fears turn out to be exactly right, as Price takes the ice and immediately Voltrons himself into 1986 Patrick Roy and 1971 Ken Dryden and 1984 Steve Penney and 2010 Jaroslav Halak and 1950s Jacques Plante, then goes five rounds without allowing a single goal while every GM in the league screams “I TOLD YOU SO” into the void.

Chaos meter: 80/100. This one’s pretty darn good, but there are so many other options that I have to leave some room at the top of the scale. Onwards …

Scenario: We get a Cup Final rematch between the Blues and Bruins

It’s been months since anyone looked at the standings, so it’s easy enough to forget that the Bruins and Blues had the best records in their conferences. In theory, if everything goes according to expectations, they’d meet again in the final.

Will everything go according to expectations? Not according to pretty much everyone; we’re all expecting plenty of upsets, thanks to short series and rusty teams. But maybe we get a curveball and just end up with a rematch of the classic seven-game 2019 Final. Only this time, in October instead of June.

It would result in a good matchup, but the timing would feel all wrong. Kind of like a Brad Marchand line change.

Chaos meter: 10/100. Would this be kind of cool? Sure. Would it be chaos? Let’s just say we can do a lot better.

Scenario: The Presidents’ Trophy champion Boston Bruins are the fourth seed in their own conference

This is the better Bruins’ scenario if you’re on the Team Chaos bandwagon.

Here’s a fun fact about history’s Presidents’ Trophy winners: They’ve always been the top seed, with home ice throughout the playoffs. They had to be; that was the only way it could work. But this year, thanks to the weird decision to let a three-game round robin determine the seeding for each conference’s top four teams, the Bruins could get off to a slow start, lose a few games and end up being the fourth seed in the East.

You know, the same East that they’re currently leading by eight points in the regular season. A regular season that we’ve been told is now over, meaning the Bruins officially finished on top.

A Presidents’ Trophy winner that doesn’t even have home-ice advantage after the first round of the playoffs. That wouldn’t be possible in a pre-pandemic world. It almost certainly shouldn’t be possible today. But it is, which means it has to happen.

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Friday, June 19, 2020

Grab Bag: Awards thoughts, MLB lessons and the 1994 Rangers visit David Letterman

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- My spies have the scoop on what the voters really thought about all your favorite awards candidates
- A lesson hockey can learn from this MLB mess
- An obscure player who could have been an off-brand all-star
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at the 1994 Rangers celebrating their Cup win in a David Letterman top ten

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Thursday, June 18, 2020

Puck Soup: Sabre rattling

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Sabres fire everyone
- The NHL's return-to-play plan pushes forward
- So does the NBA's, with some key differences
- Eugene Melnyk gets an apology
- Thoughts on next week's Hall of Fame vote
- A discussion about baseball and the DH for some reason?
- And a new quiz called 20 kess-tions

>> 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, June 17, 2020

The 12 types of fans you’ll meet when the NHL season resumes

The NHL is on the way back, and while there’s still no guarantee that the season will be able to resume, plans are in full swing with a date set for training camp and progress on other key elements.

Is this a good idea? That’s up for debate, especially with news leaking out of positive tests in other sports. There are still several ways this could all go badly, including scenarios where a resumed season had to be halted again or never got off the ground at all. But for now, the league is pushing forward, and we’re just weeks away from seeing NHL teams back on the ice.

As fans, we might as well start preparing ourselves for what’s to come. And that means an attempted conclusion to the season that will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. With 24 teams, a play-in round, hub cities and empty arenas, this might end up being the most unique few months in NHL history.

Whichever way you feel about the plan, it’s certainly going to be interesting. So today, let’s start getting ready for what’s to come by introducing a dozen types of hockey fans you can expect to meet when (or if) the NHL returns.

The Pessimist

We might as well start here, because you’ll be hearing from The Pessimist plenty. You already are. The Pessimist has a long list of reasons why resuming the season is a bad idea, can’t possibly work, and is going to end badly for everyone involved. Anywhere fans are starting to show some excitement over the season resuming, the Pessimist will swoop in with data, charts, and more than a few terrifying worst-case scenarios.

Here’s by far the biggest problem with The Pessimist: They’re almost definitely right. Maybe not about those worst-case scenarios – we hope – but about the level of risk we all seem way too comfortable accepting here. Are we bravely pushing forward in the face of adversity the way we might like to think, or just selfishly putting other people in danger so that we can enjoy some vague semblance of normalcy (that we’ll still just complain about anyway)? Should we even be doing this? Am I bad person for wanting any of this to happen? Are you?

The Pessimist will make you wonder, which means they’ll be one of your least favorite voices over the next few weeks and months. But look on the bright side: at least you’ll be able to blame them for ruining your fun, instead of your own nagging conscience.

The Format Proposer

Yes, it took months for the NHL and NHLPA to agree on a format for the rest of the season. Did they get it right? No they did not, and The Format Proposer is here to tell you all about it. In detail. So much detail.

As it turns out, this fan had a better idea all along. Against all odds, Gary Bettman doesn’t seem to have stumbled onto their Twitter feed, so he missed out on implementing the correct format. Or did he? The Format Proposer seems to be convinced that there’s still time for everyone to recognize the genius of their idea, and that will stay true even after the games have started. All they have to do is keep telling you about it, constantly, at all times.

It goes without saying that The Format Proposer’s idea is terrible, completely implausible, and clearly set up to benefit their personal favorite team. That doesn’t matter, because they’ll still be yammering on about it as the Stanley Cup is being lifted.

The Binger

This fan can’t wait to watch the games. No, not some of them – they plan to watch every game. They’re counting on limited rink availability in the hub cities to force an Olympic-style schedule with games spread out as much as possible. The Binger has multiple screens. They are willing to record games and watch them in the middle of the night. Time zones are their friend.

This fan has missed sports a little too much, is undoubtedly way too into that Korean baseball league, and has probably been gambling on their kids’ Fortnite games. They need this. Let them have it.

The Asterisk

Are you enjoying the playoffs? Are you starting to get emotionally invested in who’s going to win? You shouldn’t, because none of this counts, and The Asterisk will be there to remind you of that at every turn.

Like a few of the folks we’ll meet on this list, The Asterisk won’t necessarily be wrong. They’ll just be annoying, because you won’t even be able to express any sort of interest in how a series will turn out without them showing up to scold you about how none of this really matters. And if your team wins and you seem even mildly happy about that? The Asterisk will be there to put an end to that, you fool, you absolute imbecile.

Luckily, they won’t be able to do any of that without running into their own adversary…

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Monday, June 15, 2020

Do these stars have bad contracts? Cap Court is back in session

Welcome back to Cap Court, where we take some of the NHL’s most questionable long-term deals and ask the seemingly simple question: Is this a bad contract?

As always, we’re looking at this from the teams’ perspective, so “bad” means too much money and/or too many years. Remember, we’re only worried about how the deal looks from this point forward. If it made sense when it was signed but has turned bad now, it’s a bad contract. If it’s going to be terrible in five years but still makes sense today, it might be OK.

Past sessions have seen us rule against players like Carey Price and Jamie Benn. We’ve got five new names on the docket this time, and we’ll start with the one that came up often when I asked for suggestions …

Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

The details: He signed a five-year extension in January, which kicks in next season and carries a cap hit of $9.2 million (and that he negotiated himself).

The case that it’s a bad contract: You saw the part about the $9.2 million cap hit, right? That’s a pretty big ticket for a guy who’s never been the best forward on his own team and has only cracked 25 goals or 100 points once in his career. Those both came in 2009-10 when he was 22 years old. He is no longer 22 years old.

In fact, Backstrom is 32 and will be 37 when this deal expires. There have been skill guys who maintained something close to a high level of production into their late 30s, but the list is a short one and most of those careers came before the league shifted to being dominated by 20-somethings. Furthermore, Backstrom has shown some decline in production; he hasn’t even been a point-per-game player since 2016-17. These days, he’s basically a 70-point guy in a league where elite forwards are consistently cracking 100 points. That’s not worth $9.2 million now, let alone when he’s got a few more years of mileage on him.

The case that it might be OK: The contract represented a big raise in dollars from his previous $6.7 million hit, but in terms of percentage of the cap, he basically signed the same deal he did back in 2010. Not only did he live up to that contract, but Backstrom seemed underpaid for a lot of it. He’s evolved as a player since then, and while he may have lost a fraction of a step, he’s a smarter two-way player.

Sure, maybe the cap hit is a bit high. But the Capitals probably faced a choice between that or offering more years to keep the hit lower. That would have been a mistake and Brian MacLellan deserves some credit for avoiding that route, even knowing he’d probably be leaving a mess for someone else to clean up. And the cap hit isn’t that bad for a No. 1 center; it’s only the eighth highest for a pivot next year.

Besides, what’s the worst-case scenario here? A beloved star who was underpaid for years and played a key role in the team finally winning a Stanley Cup makes a little bit too much in his final seasons before retiring as a lifetime Capital? I feel like Washington fans can live with that.

Key witnesses: Of those centers with higher cap hits, two are around Backstrom’s age (Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar) and one is a year older (Evgeni Malkin). Of course, Sidney Crosby makes less, but Crosby’s contract is a bad comparable for pretty much everyone.

The verdict: Watch me thread a needle here. This contract is going to be bad — there’s a very good chance that in those last few years, with Alexander Ovechkin either retired or in decline, the Caps are going to be trying to rebuild or reload and wishing they hadn’t overpaid for the past. If we check back two years from now, we probably get a guilty verdict. But it’s not two years from now, and the Caps are still Cup contenders. Signing a deal you know will end badly is a mistake for most teams, but for an aging contender with a championship core and a closing window, it can make sense. There’s no time like the present and flags fly forever, so this isn’t a bad deal … yet.

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Friday, June 12, 2020

Puck Soup: And now we wait

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The NHL officially has a target date for training camp; will they hit it?
- We react to that tone-deaf Tyler Seguin BLM video
- John Tortorella shifts his stance on anthem protests, kind of
- We try to figure out where our award votes should go
- Yet another Eugene Melnyk soap opera
- And a quiz: Tik-Tok star or 2019 fifth-round draft pick?

>> 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.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

What's the worst roster that kind of looks like an amazing roster? Let's meet the Off-Brand All-Stars.

Remember when you were a kid and you’d see some cool cereal or treat at the grocery store and beg your parents to buy it for you, only to be told that you already had some waiting at home? Inevitably, you’d get back only to find that your parents had not, in fact, bought you the item of your dreams – they’d settled for the off-brand version, which had a similar name but was never anywhere near as good.

It was a universal experience. I’m told it’s even become a bit of a meme. And today, we’re going to bring the concept to hockey as we build the most off-brand roster in NHL history. It’s the Off-Brand All-Stars, a collection of names that will seem impressive if you scan them quickly, but will turn out to be… well, not impressive.

If you’re a regular Grab Bag reader, you may know some of these names from the Obscure Player section. For the other 99 percent of you, you may be meeting them for the first time. Or maybe you’ve stumbled across a few of them in your own travels around the hockey record books. Or maybe they are you, in which case hi there, this is going to be awkward for both of us.

Either way, we’re going to assemble the worst possible roster we can build that sort of vaguely looks like the best possible roster as long as you squint.

Another way to look at this: This is the roster your spouse who only occasionally pays attention to hockey would spit out if you asked them to name all those players you’ve been talking about over the years.

Another way to look at this: This is the roster you would get in a video game that had its license agreement fall through at the last moment.

Another way to look at this: We’re in the middle of a five-month offseason and I am well and truly out of ideas.

Here are three important ground rules to keep in mind:

  • Preference will be given to players who actually played (or were at least drafted) in the NHL, although we reserve the right to round out the roster with a few names from other leagues.
  • We want to avoid players who have recognizable names because they were relatives of famous players, since that seems to go against the spirit of the thing.
  • This is a complete waste of time and you are right to be disappointed in me.

Let’s meet our Off-Brand All-Stars!

First line

Wayne Grotski

We have to start with the immortal Wayne Grotski. Unlike most of our roster, Grotski never made it past junior, but he still ranks as perhaps the greatest off-brand hockey superstar there ever was.

I mean, just the name alone is perfect. But amazingly, Grotski’s connection to the slightly more successful Wayne Gretzky doesn’t end there. Grotski’s junior years came with the Edmonton Crusaders and ended in 1978, meaning he was playing in Edmonton just a few months before Gretzky arrived.

Even better, look at the roster of that 1977-78 Edmonton Crusaders team. In addition to Wayne Grotski, they also feature a Tessier and Currie, and now I absolutely need to see a sci-fi movie where dynasty-era Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri have to time-travel back to 1978 and go undercover on an obscure local junior team to save the world.

Grotski’s hockey career appears to end once he leaves Edmonton, which is indisputable evidence that he and Gretzky are the same person an interesting coincidence. He appears to have gone on to become a firefighter who has no patience for morons, and to this day his hockeydb page is periodically discovered by delighted hockey fans.

Wayne Grotski is hereby named captain of the Off-Brand All-Stars.

Taylor Hall

Since we’re starting off our roster with an Edmonton theme, let’s add a name that put up big numbers with the Oilers. A name, but not a player, because this is the other Taylor Hall. This one played five NHL seasons back in the 80s, debuting with the Canucks and later appearing in a few games with the Bruins. All told, this Taylor Hall’s NHL career lasted 41 games and saw him score seven goals before he embarked on a career in coaching and management with, of course, the Oilers. No, the other Oilers. Please keep up.

And what the hell, we might as well finish off an all-Edmonton top line…

Conor McDavitt

Much like his near-namesake, McDavitt produced consistent offense and led his team in scoring. That team would be the Skidmore College Thoroughbreds. On February 22, 2003, McDavitt recorded a hat trick to account for all of his team’s offense in that game. Connor McDavid has accomplished that feat exactly once in his NHL career, meaning these two are pretty much the same player.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Ottawa fans have lost hope in Eugene Melnyk. There’s no getting it back

There’s something missing in the reaction to this week’s latest round of Eugene Melnyk drama, and it should make you feel terrible for Ottawa Senators fans.

The situation began with last week’s announcement that the Senators would be parting ways with their charitable wing, The Sens Foundation. That situation raised eyebrows, and there were a few days of back-and-forth over what exactly it might mean, and who could be at fault. Then came a devastating report from The Ottawa Sun’s Rick Gibbons, accusing Melnyk of meddling in the foundation’s giving while his own charity organization raised $1 million for organ donation while only putting $5,000 to good use.

The charity story is still unfolding, and there may be further layers. Melnyk will be called on to offer an explanation. He might even have one.

At this point, though, that hardly seems to matter. I watched the reaction to Monday’s report unfold in Ottawa, on Twitter and local radio and the various places where fans gather. There was outrage, and disgust, and more than a little confusion. There was an inspiring effort to raise money for charity that brought in $18,000 and counting. There was anger. There were the usual wild rumors and the typical hot takes.

But here’s what was missing: Any sense of shock. Any surprise. Anybody saying “No, this story can’t be right, they wouldn’t do that. Not our team. Not our owner.”

It’s the Eugene Melnyk era. Nothing is off the table, and nothing feels impossible, not even some ill-defined plot to rip off his own charity that borders on cartoonishly evil. Nobody that I could see was stepping up to defend the guy because Melnyk has spent years burning his credibility with the fan base to the ground.

That credibility is gone now. Not diminished, not running low – gone. And when that happens, there’s no rebuilding it.

I know because I’ve been there, having grown up as a Maple Leafs fan in the Harold Ballard era. If you were a Blackhawks fan in the Bill Wirtz years, you know it too. If you’re an NBA fan in New York, an NFL fan in Washington, you’re living it right now. There are probably a few others, but only a few. The NHL has always had owners who temporarily lost part of the fan base, like Darryl Katz in Edmonton or Stan Kroenke in Colorado; that’s bad, but the trust can be rebuilt. There have been outright disasters, like John Spano; those are embarrassing, but they tend to be short-term problems. It’s rare that an owner can get to that Ballard or Wirtz zone, where they’ve completely decimated the fans’ faith without any exit plan in sight.

It’s the worst possible place to be as a fan. It’s literally hopeless. And it’s where Senators fans find themselves these days.

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Monday, June 8, 2020

Not all Cups count the same. Where will this year’s rank?

The NHL has made it official: They’re going forward with a plan to finish the season with 24 teams, and they’re going to do everything they can to make sure we see a team win the Stanley Cup in 2020.

Great. Will it count?

You’re going to hear a lot of talk about asterisks this summer. Some fans are going to insist that any results from here on out don’t count because the pandemic and the pause have left us with something completely different than anything we’re used to. Others will argue that hockey is hockey and of course it counts. Others will want to wait and see.

Time will tell which side wins, but the reality is, that’s always been the case. Not all Cups carry the same historical weight and some are viewed differently than others. Fans can always find a reason to diminish a particular championship if we look hard enough. So maybe the right question here isn’t “Will it count?” but rather “Just how much will it count?”

Let’s see if we can sort this out. Today, we’re going to start at the very top of the Stanley Cup scale with the championships that not even the most cynical fan can dispute, and work our way down to the ones that are easier to discredit. Along the way, we’ll try to figure out where exactly history will end up viewing this year’s championship.

Tier 1: Any Stanley Cup that your favorite team won, obviously

We need to start here because otherwise, everyone is going to read this post and just get madder and madder as they go, and I’d certainly never want that to happen. So let’s be clear: this whole piece is entirely about everyone else’s Stanley Cups. Those are the ones that are on shaky ground. Any that your favorite team has won? Those are exceptions. Perfect, impeccable exceptions.

Tier 2: The dynasty

Hockey fans tend to be caustic and jealous, especially when we see somebody else being happy, so we’ll jump at any opportunity to hand-wave away some other team’s glory. But that’s just about impossible to do when that glory keeps repeating itself year after year. By the time a team has won four or five Cups in a short span, there comes a point where even the most embittered rival fan has to go: “Yeah, fine, they might be OK.”

Examples: The 1970s Canadiens, the 1980s Islanders and Oilers.

Tier 3: The quasi-dynasty

Similar to the above, this team won multiple Cups, although maybe not quite as many and there was enough space in between them that we can argue over whether they deserve full-fledged dynasty status. Still, at a certain point, that feels like splitting hairs — these teams are good.

Examples: The 90s/00s Red Wings, Avalanche and Devils. Probably the cap-era Blackhawks and Penguins too, unless you think the parity era has lowered the bar.

Tier 4: The two-time winner

Not quite a dynasty, not quite a one-and-done. These teams are confusing and need to pick a lane. Stop doing this, everyone. Either stop at one and let someone else have a turn or go all out and win three or more. Shoot or get off the point.

Examples: The 1974 and 1975 Flyers, the 1991 and 1992 Penguins, 2012 and 2014 Kings

Tier 5: The dominant one-and-done

OK, so this team didn’t win multiple Cups. But they were very good, in both the regular season and playoffs. Ideally, they won a Presidents’ Trophy along the way or at least came close.

The proper way to deal with a fan of one of these teams is to acknowledge how stacked the roster was and how well the team came together at the height of their powers. Then pause just long enough for them to let their guard down, before adding “I guess it’s kind of disappointing that they didn’t win more than one” and then immediately exiting the conversation.

Examples: The 1994 Rangers, the 1989 Flames, maybe the 2018 Capitals if we grandfather in those three Presidents’ Trophies from the Ovechkin era.

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Friday, June 5, 2020

Mailbag: Relegation, Toronto expansion and my ideal hockey broadcast

Thanks to the assorted lockouts, every couple of years I try to get into European football when there are no NHL games to watch. Mostly, it doesn’t really last but I am kind of fascinated by the concept of relegation and occasionally wonder what that would look like in hockey. For all of the crazy ideas that you have thrown out there over the years, as far as I am aware, you have never written about relegation and I’d love to get your take on how that might work (or not work!) in the NHL.

– Mitch J.

Any time I do anything about ideas I’d like to steal from other sports – and I do that often – somebody will bring up relegation. I’m not a soccer fan, so I don’t have a strong grasp on how it all works, but based on my limited understanding, I’m fascinated by the concept. Every year, a team or teams at the bottom of the standings get banished to the equivalent of the minor leagues, while other teams are elevated to take their place. It adds an entire new level of drama to the race to stay out of last place. In hockey, if your team is terrible you might get rewarded with a new superstar in the draft. In soccer, you might get kicked out of the league.

Would I want to see that in the NHL? Are you insane? Of course not, I’m a Maple Leafs fan. Asking a Leafs fan if they support relegation is like asking a snowman if they support saunas. I’m not even going to pretend that I don’t know with absolute certainty how that would end up.

What is your all-time NHL commentary crew? Let’s go with PxP, color, between the glass, studio host and two or three studio analysts.

– Tyler A.

Hoo boy. OK, let’s stipulate that this is all based on my personal experience as a fan – I’m not trying to do some sort of objective leaguewide survey here. That said, my team is obviously going to start with Bob Cole and Harry Neale in the booth. Cole’s voice is the soundtrack to my hockey story, and I’m not sure he ever paired as well with anyone as he did with Neale’s dry wit.

Between the glass, I’ll take current-day Ray Ferraro. My host will be James Duthie, although I’d be happy with Ron MacLean too. And my analysts would be any of Bob McKenzie, Elliotte Friedman or Chris Johnston as the insider, Kevin Weekes or Mike Johnson as the former player/Xs and Os guy, and Brian Burke as the crusty old guy with stories. Mix in Jim Ralph doing the occasional comedy bit and every broadcast starting with a Tim Thompson montage and I’m a happy viewer.

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Thursday, June 4, 2020

Puck Soup: The hockey world finds its voice... for now

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- A devastating week leads to a league and its players finally speaking up
- So where were these voices when we were talking about Bill Peters or Akim Aliu?
- How much credit should the players and teams get for their statements?
- The league moves forward towards resuming play
- Rumors that a summer playoffs could become permanent
- And the three of build our best rosters in a challenging draft draft; you can vote on the winner here

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