Friday, November 27, 2020

The Bizarro-meter’s Eastern Conference offseason rankings

Welcome to part two of the annual Bizarro-meter column, in which we grade each team based on just how weird their summer has been. Except this year, the offseason wasn’t in the summer, because it’s 2020 and nothing about the sports world makes sense. Should we just say “weirdest year ever”, give every team a 10/10 and be done with it? Probably, but doing things the straightforward way wouldn’t be on-brand for me, so we’ll grade on a curve.

On Wednesday we did the Western Conference, with Arizona landing the highest score thanks to front office drama, a big name on the trade block and a commitment to finding creative ways to forfeit draft picks. Today’s it’s on to East, as we see whether anyone can wrestle the crown away from the Coyotes.

Metropolitan Division

Columbus Blue Jackets

The offseason so far: The flipped Josh Anderson for Max Domi in a deal that made sense, as did making a cheap bet that Mikko Koivu still has something left. Buying out Alex Wennberg and shipping Ryan Murray to the Devils for next to nothing was less impressive, but necessary to clear salary.

But their strangest story was: You knew that a new Pierre-Luc Dubois deal was going to be a tricky negotiation, but the near total silence on that front is at least a little unnerving.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.6/10. There’s also an apparent COVID-19 outbreak, although these days that’s not all that bizarre. Other than that, it was a busy offseason, but nothing too out of the ordinary until the Dubois offer sheet lands.

Carolina Hurricanes

The offseason so far: The big news was the retirement of Justin Williams, which we knew was coming someday but will leave a leadership hole. Other than that, it was pretty quiet, with a nice pickup of Jesper Fast and a handful of veteran departures that won’t move the needle all that much.

But their strangest story was: Not adding a goalie. It will be yet another year of relying on Petr Mrazek, James Reimer, and any random arena workers who happen to be around when needed. On the one hand, you can see why – not many of the goalies who changed teams this year were guaranteed to be better than what they already have. Still, weren’t the Hurricanes pretty high on your pre-offseason list of teams that would be looking for a change here?

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.9/10. A quiet offseason makes sense for a team on the rise, but there’s going to be plenty of second-guessing if the goaltending lets them down, especially with both Mrazek and Reimer unsigned after this year.

Washington Capitals

The offseason so far: The biggest story was the firing of Todd Reirden after an embarrassing loss to former boss Barry Trotz. Peter Laviolette will inherit a roster that won’t look all that different, although they did add Justin Schultz and Trevor van Riemsdyk to the blueline.

But their strangest story was: Signing Henrik Lundqvist to replace Braden Holtby, because man it’s going to be weird to see him in a different uniform.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.6/10. Not that you’d expect it to happen amidst all the financial turmoil, but can we point out that Alexander Ovechkin is eligible for an extension that he hasn’t signed yet?

New York Islanders

The offseason so far: It’s been a rough one, as they’ve had to clear space for an eventual Mathew Barzal contract that still hasn’t come. That’s cost them some veteran depth, and more importantly it meant that they had to move Devon Toews for a disappointing return.

But their strangest story was: Signing Cory Schneider… we think? It was reported everywhere, but doesn’t seem to have officially happened, and there are rumors of handshake deals for Andy Greene and Matt Martin too. Did we mention that the Islanders don’t seem to need a goalie?

Bizarro-meter ranking: 5.2/10. The phantom signings are weird, but I’m deducting a point for the Islanders’ reverse retro jerseys, because Lou Lamoriello refusing to let anyone have fun is the least bizarre thing ever.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Bizarro-meter’s Western Conference offseason rankings

One of the tough parts of writing about hockey is adjusting for era. A 50-goal season is a very different thing today than it was in the high-scoring 1980s, which was very different than it was when Rocket Richard was doing it in a 50-game season in the 1940s. It makes it a challenge to compare one season to another. Some years are just different than other years.

Which brings us to trying to figure out what qualifies as bizarre in 2020.

This is my seventh year of doing a bizarro-meter column that covers every team in the league, and it’s usually good fun. The idea is to figure out which teams had the strangest offseasons – not the best or the worst, but the most confusing, odd or unexpected. Most years, that makes for a pretty straightforward concept.

But now it’s 2020, the dog days of the offseason are in November, and we don’t even know when camp will start because nobody’s figured out how next season will work. Every team in the league is having their weirdest offseason ever.

So what do we do? I guess we adjust for era and judge every team by 2020 standards, if only because giving every team a 10/10 rating would feel like it was too easy. We’ll do this by conference, with the West up today and the East on Friday. We’ll also break it down by division, even though we don’t know what division anyone will actually be in, because it’s 2020 and nothing makes sense. Screw it, let’s get weird.

Central Division

Dallas Stars

The offseason so far: They mainly seemed to want to keep the band together, locking up Rick Bowness and Anton Khudobin but not (so far) Corey Perry.

But their strangest story was: Losing Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop for a reported five months. We knew both guys were hurt, but not that Seguin would be out so long.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 2.5/10. When you almost win the Cup, you try to stay the course, get everyone healthy and come back for another shot. It rarely works, but it’s really the only reasonable way forward, and it’s not remotely bizarre.

Nashville Predators

The offseason so far: Plenty of guys moved in and out, although none were major names. Losing Craig Smith and Mikael Granlund hurts, while the Kyle Turris buyout was a tough pill to swallow but probably inevitable.

But their strangest story was: Not giving $8-million to a second-line center for a change. (Although there’s still time.)

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.1/10. The Predators still feel like a team that’s built to win now, or at least thinks it is, but they’re coming off a disappointing year and I’m not sure they’re any better.

Colorado Avalanche

The offseason so far: Joe Sakic made a good trade to land Brandon Saad and a better one to add Devon Toews, without losing anyone who was especially important.

But their strangest story was: The emergence of Sakic a a near-consensus pick as one of the best GMs in the league, just three years after he had a terrible trade deadline with a terrible team and looked completely overwhelmed as a former GM campaigned for his job. Were we all wrong back then? Are we all wrong now? Were we right both times, and Sakic has just improved so much in a few years? Nobody knows, but history suggests it’s the probably one of the options where I’m wrong.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.4/10. I’m still kind of bummed that they didn’t use their limited cap space to chase a big-name free agent, but Sakic probably knows what he’s doing.

Winnipeg Jets

The offseason so far: They kept Dylan DeMelo, signed some cheap depth, and added Paul Stastny for next-to-nothing beyond cap space. They also hired a player’s dad as assistant coach, because what could go wrong.

But their strangest story was: The whole Patrik Laine saga, where he went into the offseason as the biggest name on the trade block, churned up all sorts of intriguing rumors, then ultimately didn’t get moved even though it still feels like he eventually will.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 5.4/10. The Laine rumors got all the attention, but the lack of work on the blueline was also weird.

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Thursday, November 19, 2020

Puck Soup: Wait, that's an igloo?

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Our thoughts on the best and worst of the NHL's new "reverse retro" jerseys
- The NHL wants to change the deal they agreed to with the players
- Updates on what the new season might look like
- NCAA hockey is in rough shape
- Too much NBA talk, honestly, sorry about that
- The debut of a new quiz called "Surely that's gotta be it"
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

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

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




Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Why the 10 teams we all think are bad could actually be good

I kind of like it when preseason predictions are really wrong. That’s partly because mine are usually terrible, and I like to have company. But I’ve always ben fascinated by a specific type of surprise, the one that sees a team that everyone thinks will be terrible suddenly emerge as a legitimate Cup contender.

The most famous recent example would have to be the Golden Knights, who were supposed to be a typically awful expansion mess but went straight to the final. Two years ago, we saw the Islanders go from consensus pick for last overall to a 100-point team that did playoff damage. A few years before that, the Avalanche went from one of the worst seasons in cap era history to Central powerhouse.

We didn’t really get that last year; a few teams did outperform expectations, but nobody really made The Leap from bottom-feeder all the way to contending. Maybe that means the experts are getting better at this. I’d like to think it means we’re due, especially heading into an uncertain season that will be unlike anything we’ve seen.

So today, let’s take a crack at making the case for the league’s ten worst teams, based on Dom’s offseason power rankings. That list is based on both his statistical model and our writers’ personal picks, so it should cover the consensus pretty well. Our goal will be to take the ten most hopeless teams, based on those rankings, and come up plausible reasons why they’re going to be not just respectable, but actually good.

We did this last year, and if you revisit that piece you’ll find a handful of arguments that hold up reasonably well, including that the Blue Jackets goaltending may be better than we think, that the Canucks could be ready for a jump thanks to young talent and additions like J.T. Miller, and that Dave Tippett may be able to work some early magic to get the Oilers into the mix in a weak Pacific. I’m not sure that going 3-for-10 is all that impressive, but we’ll take what we can get.

The good news is that one season later, those three teams have all escaped the bottom ten. But the other seven teams from last year’s post are all back this year, reminding us that clawing your way out of the league’s cellar is no easy task, even in the era of parity.

So yeah, hope is hard to come by. But that’s where we come in, so let’s crank up the optimism and, in a few cases, turn off our brain cells as we try to get the NHL’s ten worst teams into the contention. We’ll start with the easiest case to make, and work our way down to the real dregs.

10. Minnesota Wild

The rankings say: About a quarter of The Athletics’ writers thought the Wild would be in the playoff mix, with the rest having them on the outside looking in. Dom’s model was a little bit more optimistic than that, but only a little, and the overall message was a familiar one for Wild fans: They won’t be good enough to contend, or bad enough to land a high pick. They’ll just kind of be… there.

Why they’re probably right: The Wild finished sixth in the Central last year, and a busy offseason from Bill Guerin probably made them worse, at least in the short term. They lost Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu, so they’ll be weak down the middle, and there’s no guarantee that Cam Talbot is an improvement in goal.

But hear me out … : Last year’s team wasn’t as bad as you might remember; they were on pace for 92 points, and were heating up down the stretch with 12 wins in 19 when everything paused. And they did that despite 30 games of ugly goaltending from Devan Dubnyk. You never know in net, but Talbot was pretty solid last year and will almost certainly be better than Dubnyk, and probably better than Alex Stalock. A goaltending upgrade fixes a lot of problems, and the Wild look like they’ve found one.

As for those veterans up front, it hurts to lose a franchise icon like Koivu, but he had 21 points last year, and Staal just turned 36. Guerin was trying a little addition-by-subtraction here, clearing space for some of the team’s younger players to move up the lineup and take over the dressing room. That’s always a risky play, but if it works, the Wild could take another step forward. If so, they’re not that far away from being dangerous.

9. Buffalo Sabres

The rankings say: What they pretty much always say, that the Sabres will be bad. In this case, the writing staff is nearly unanimous on that, although there’s one outlier who think the Sabres can be dark horse contenders. But everyone else is bearish, and Dom’s model is even more pessimistic.

Why they’re probably right: It’s been nine years since the Sabres made the playoffs, and seven since they even came close, so we all know the drill by now. They’ve got Jack Eichel and one year of Taylor Hall, and Kevyn Adams made a nice move to land Eric Staal. But the goaltending and blueline aren’t any better than they were last year. And last year, they weren’t anywhere close to good enough.

But hear me out … : First of all, let’s remember that last year’s Sabres were one point away from tying the Canadiens for the last spot in the expanded postseason, and everyone seems to think Montreal is in reasonably good shape to make a playoff run.

But we’re supposed to be aiming higher than just a playoff spot here, so let’s see if we can get the Sabres into the top third of the league. That path starts with Eichel having one of those years where he finds a new level, sort of like Leon Draisaitl did last season. Mix in a Miro Heiskanen-style breakthrough from Rasmus Dahlin, add a healthy and focused Hall having a contract year for the ages, then finish it with a boost from Staal and maybe even one of the occasional Jeff Skinner years where he looks like a legitimate star. There’s some talent here.

If all of that happens, they still need above-average goaltending. But Linus Ullmark is only 27 and was decent last year, so it’s not out of the question that he either has a breakout year or at least one of those weird outlier seasons that even bad goalies sometimes have. Either way, the pieces are here, and there’s a really good coach in place to figure out how to put them together.

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Monday, November 16, 2020

Building an ultra-exclusive Hall of Fame, one player at a time

Today should be a big day in the hockey world. It was supposed to be induction night at the Hockey Hall of Fame, with Jarome Iginla, Marian Hossa, Doug Wilson, Kevin Lowe, Kim St-Pierre and Ken Holland getting their moment in the spotlight to receive the highest individual honor the sport has to offer.

Instead, nothing. Thanks to the pandemic, tonight’s induction ceremony has been postponed, and the class of 2020 will have to wait a year. As part of that delay, we also won’t be getting a class of 2021, as the Hall has decided to hold off on any new inductions until this year’s class has been recognized.

That was a strange decision, but it will probably be popular with a certain segment of fans. Whenever I write about the Hall of Fame, I hear from readers who insist that the whole thing should be far more exclusive. It’s not supposed to be an honor for very good players, they argue, or even great ones. Only the very best of the best should earn a spot. On the men’s side, at least, the typical three or four inductions a year is too many.

I don’t necessarily agree, but I’m willing to play along. So today, let’s take that concept to an extreme. What would the Hockey Hall of Fame look like if we could only induct one player each year?

Just one. That’s all we get. Each year, we recognize one and only one player from the men’s side. The best of the best, and everyone else has to wait.

A few ground rules:

– We’re not worried about builders or officials here. And the women have the opposite problem, with not enough representation, which is a topic for another column. Today, we’re only worried about paring down that list of men’s players that so many of you seem to think is inflated.

– The real-world Hall has always had a weird relationship with international players and stars from other leagues, often acting like a de facto NHL Hall of Fame while occasionally remembering that they’re supposed to be honoring stars from elsewhere. For our purposes today, we’re just looking for inductees based on what they did in the NHL. Apologies to Vaclav Nedomansky.

– Because our version of the Hall is so exclusive, nobody can be inducted until they made it into the real thing, even if they were eligible.

Can we do it? I don’t see why not. I’m not a small Hall guy, but even I can admit that there’s some room to trim. So let’s get to work and see where we end up. We’ll do this by decade, starting when Hall inductions became a regular thing.

The early years

The Hockey Hall of Fame’s first class came in 1945, but inductions were sporadic. The second class came in 1947, followed by 1949, 1951 and 1952. Then there was a six-year gap until a huge class of 1958, at which point new Hall classes finally became an annual event.

In theory, I could argue that our “one per year” limit means I should get 15 slots for those early years, or even more if we’re counting every NHL season. But honestly, I’m not even sure I want to, because a lot of those early names aren’t especially well-known today. Instead, I’ll give myself the same seven pre-1960 inductions that the real Hall had, covering off the very best of the best of the NHL’s early years.

A few picks are obvious. I’ll start with Howie Morenz, Newsly Lalonde, Phantom Joe Malone and Eddie Shore. I’ll also add Georges Vezina and King Clancy, which leaves me with one spot and more than a few worthy candidates. That list includes Hart Trophy winners Aurel Joliat and Nels Stewart, as well as Dit Clapper, Sprague Cleghorn, Cy Denneny and Frank Nighbor. It’s a tough call, but I’m going to give the last of our early spots to two-time MVP Nels Stewart, and work on the assumption that I’ll be able to sneak in some of the other names as we get into the 1960s.

1960s

The real class of 1960 was highlighted by Frank Boucher and Sylvio Mantha, two good players who’ll have to wait their turn behind some of the other name on our list. I’ll use my 1960 slot on Dit Clapper, a six-time all-star and two-time Hart finalist on the blueline, in part because it’s just such a great hockey name.

Our first sign of a problem comes with the class if 1961, which featured 11 players. We only get one, and it’s a pretty easy call, as we induct Rocket Richard. But that leaves out names like Syl Apps, George Hainsworth, Charlie Conacher and Milt Schmidt, so our backlog is already growing.

Things get even worse in 1962, which featured 26 player inductions. No, that’s not a typo. The Hall really announced 26 additions in one year, and while many of them were old-timers from the pre-NHL days, we do see some recognizable names like Sweeney Schriner and Punch Broadbent that we’ll have to think about.

They’ll have to wait as we work through our backlog by inducting three-time Vezina winner George Hainsworth in 1962, and five-time goals king Charlie Conacher in 1963. The class of 1964 offers up one must-have candidate in goalie Bill Durnan, and we can find room for Milt Schmidt in 1965 at the expense of goaltending legend Clint Benedict.

There’s bad news for our backlog in 1966, as we run into three apparent slam dunks in the same real-world class: Ted Lindsay, Toe Blake and Teeder Kennedy. I’m going to cheat a little bit here, because we’re from the future and know that Blake is going to finish with eight Cups as a coach, more than enough to get him in as a builder. Instead, our 1966 slot goes to Ted Lindsay.

We have to use our next spot on the NHL’s first 300-game winner, Turk Broda; who retired in 1952 but somehow wasn’t inducted into the real HHOF until 1967. The 1968 class only had one player, Bill Cowley, so we can use that to dip into our waiting list for Ted Kennedy. And we’ll close out the decade with another sure thing in 1969 inductee Red Kelly.

One decade in, and while we’ve certainly had to squeeze out some big names, I don’t think we’re in bad shape. This might not be so bad!

1970s

We start a new decade with another thin real-world class, which means we can reach way back for our 1970 spot and induct Clint Benedict, followed by an easy one in 1971 with Terry Sawchuk.

And then we run into the class of 1972. Hoo boy.

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Friday, November 13, 2020

Grab Bag: Offseason winners and losers, Pavel Bure and a perfect goalie

In the return of the Friday Grab Bag:
- Offseason winners and losers
- Pleas tell me I'm not the only one having this offseason problem
- An obscure NHL goalie, barely
- This month's comedy stars
- And an awkward Pavel Bure interview about backgammon, tennis, and being god

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Monday, November 9, 2020

Which team makes the best current lineup out of ex-players?

Have you ever had an ex that, for whatever reason, you had to move on from, but then you find out that they’re doing well in their new life without you and you feel genuinely happy for them?

No, of course you haven’t, nobody wants that. Seeing an ex go on to bigger and better things is miserable. And that’s especially true for hockey fans, who hate to see a player that used to be part of their favorite team go on to success somewhere else.

So today, let’s all feel that misery together, as we try to answer the question: Which team could build the best six-man starting lineup of players who used to play for them?

But first, a few ground rules:

– Let’s be clear on something important: We’re trying to make teams that are good right now. Imagine we’re trying to build the best team for a single season played this year. If a player was an elite superstar years ago but no longer is, he won’t be a strong choice. (Call this the Joe Thornton rule.) And it should go without saying, anyone who’s retired or otherwise inactive isn’t an option, because this isn’t an all-time team. (Call that the Jaromir Jagr rule.)

– We want three forwards, two defenseman and a goalie, and a team has to have a decent option at all six spots to qualify. But otherwise, we don’t care about specific positions.

– Players who’ve changed teams during this offseason count, but free agents who remain unsigned do not. You’re not officially an ex until you’ve found a new home. That’s the Zdeno Chara rule.

– Players that were traded away as prospects count, even if they never played a game for the team. But we’re not including players who were drafted with picks a team traded away. Your rights have to have belonged to the team at some point before you can be an ex.

As always, I’ll try to cover about half the league, then turn it over to you in the comments to fill in the rest, improve on my choices, and tell me about which obvious player from one team I forgot that will ruin my whole day. And we’ll start with a team that seems like it could be the favorite…

Ottawa Senators

Forwards: Mark Stone, Mika Zibanejad, Matt Duchene

Defense: Erik Karlsson, Zdeno Chara

Goalie: Robin Lehner

Man, the last few years have done a number.

The Senators were probably one of the first teams you thought of when you saw the premise, and rightly so – they’ve executed a full-scale rebuild, which means they’ve parted with a lot of good players. The forward line is stacked, and they could even run out a Jean-Gabriel Pageau/Mike Hoffman/Ryan Dzingel second line. They might want to trade one of those guys for a defenseman, because a 43-year-old Chara is the only thing close to a weak spot here (but still good enough to beat out Cody Ceci and Mark Borowiecki).

It’s a very good lineup, as you probably expected. Can anyone beat it? Let’s try a few division rivals and find out.

Buffalo Sabres

Forwards: Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis

Defense: Tyler Myers, Marco Scandella

Goalie: Robin Lehner

O’Reilly is the big name, based on a disastrous trade that still aggravates Sabres fans. Ennis narrowly beats out Conor Sheary as the third forward, and I went with Scandella over Zach Bogosian and Andrej Sekera as the second blueliner based on where he is right now. Meanwhile, Lehner beats out Ryan Miller to already make a second appearance on the list, reminding us that he’s somehow already on his fifth NHL team.

Montreal Canadiens

Forwards: Max Pacioretty, Max Domi, Alex Radulov

Defense: Ryan McDonagh, P.K. Subban

Goalie: Jaroslav Halak

That’s not a bad lineup, although it would have looked better a few years ago when the blueline would have been a major strength. McDonagh’s status has dipped, but he’s still a solid player, while Subban has seen his stock plunge. If you wanted to make the argument that Jordie Benn would be a better choice at this exact moment, it might not be completely crazy.

Speaking of Subban and stacked bluelines, let’s head to the Western Conference…

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Thursday, November 5, 2020

Six NHL teams that have me stumped right now

It’s been a confusing year. There are a lot of things in the world I’m not sure about these days, including what month it is and whether I’m actually muted on this Zoom call. If you ask me a direct question these days, I will look you straight in the eye and flat-out guess, followed by immediately forgetting what I just told you.

But when it comes to the NHL, there are at least a few teams I feel … well, not sure about, but at least vaguely confident. The Lightning are good. The Avalanche and Golden Knights should be, too. The Red Wings are not good, and the Senators and Kings are still a year or two away from breaking through. The Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl but not enough depth or goaltending, and will stay that way until the end of time. And a whole bunch of teams are stuck in the middle, close enough to the playoff race but not really scaring anyone, just the way the league likes it.

But every year, there are a few teams that I just can’t figure out. So as we all wander around in a haze of confusion, let’s break out my annual attempt to argue with myself about the half-dozen teams that have me stumped heading into the (whatever year it is next year) season.

Philadelphia Flyers

They’ll be good because: They were good last year. Like, really good. They were on pace for 105 points if we’d played a full season, and even that might be underselling it. In early January, the Flyers were muddling along with about as many wins as losses. They were fine. But over what turned out to be the last 26 games of the season, the Flyers went 19-6-1, earning a playoff bye and planting their flag as a legitimate contender.

That was last year. So what’s changed heading into a new season? Not much. The retirement of Matt Niskanen was a surprise, but you could argue that helped more in terms of cap space than it hurt in terms of blue line quality. They lost a few depth pieces, like every team does. But all the key names are back, so there’s no reason to expect a dropoff.

They’ll be bad because: Virtually nobody had the Flyers pegged as an elite team last year; they’d missed the playoffs in 2019. That doesn’t mean they were a mirage, since we’re wrong about plenty of teams all the time, but you’d probably like to see it for more than one season before you nudge anyone into the sure thing column.

Beyond that, the Flyers didn’t look all that great in the postseason. They struggled with a Canadiens team that, on paper, they should have rolled over. And they lost to an Islanders team that imposed their will on the series. It’s hard to know what to make of that whole deeply weird playoff tournament, and maybe the answer is that we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at all. But at the very least, you could piece together an argument that the Flyers are an above-average team that got hot for two months in the second half, but don’t deserve top-contender status yet.

But they’ll probably be fine because: The most important player on the team is Carter Hart, and he’s 22. Goaltending is impossible to predict, especially younger guys, but if you had to make a bet you’d think Hart is going to be even better over the next few years. He’s also on the last year of his entry-level deal, which means the Flyers have a nice window here with some extra cap space to work with.

Unless they’re not because: So far, they haven’t really done anything with that space. They were quiet in free agency, and while they’ve been rumored to be in on a few names on the trade market, nothing has happened yet. And that cap space window only lasts for this year, because both Hart and Travis Sanheim will need new deals.

Meanwhile, they’re on the hook for over $16 million in annual cap hit to Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, who have been good, plus another $7 million to James van Riemsdyk, who hasn’t, and all three of those guys are over 30. The Flyers aren’t an old team by any stretch, with Hart, Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov all entering their prime. But if the older guys take even a small step back and/or Hart has the sort of rough year that good young goalies sometimes endure, it’s not hard to imagine the Flyers falling back to the middle-of-the-pack.

The verdict: In theory, the Atlantic features two perennial contenders (Caps and Pens), one good team that’s especially tough in the playoffs (Islanders) and two teams on their way up (Hurricanes and Rangers). There aren’t enough playoff spots for everyone, and that’s before factoring in a temporary realignment that might shuffle things around and drop someone like the Bruins into the mix. I still think the Flyers will be good, but I’m not sure they’ll be any better, and they might not have as room to work with as they’d like.

Calgary Flames

They’ll be good because: They aggressively addressed their most-discussed weakness in the offseason, paying up to land Jacob Markstrom in free agency. We can debate whether that was a smart contract, and maybe it looks bad in a few years. But today, it should be a nice upgrade over Cam Talbot (who’s now in Minnesota) and David Rittich.

They’ll be bad because: Talbot and Rittich weren’t actually a bad combo; they were pretty much a middle-of-the-pack duo, so it’s not like goaltending was the reason the Flames took a step back. And even if they’ve upgraded the position, losing two top-four defenseman in T.J. Brodie and (probably) Travis Hamonic will cancel some of that out. The Markstrom signing made headlines, but it’s no sure thing that the offseason has made the Flames any better.

But they’ll probably be at least OK because: As easy as it is to forget now, this was a 107-point team only one year ago. Granted, they followed that up with a disappointing season, but it’s proof that the core is capable of contending. And remember, last year’s team had to deal with a bizarre midseason coaching switch from Bill Peters to Geoff Ward, one that nobody saw coming based on performance. Ward did a good job under tough circumstances, but like most coaches, you’d expect him to do a better job with a full season (including a training camp) to put his system in place.

Unless they’re not because: Hmm, a Canadian team that has a breakthrough season followed by a letdown, where we’re wondering if they should get credit for how they looked at their best. If that sounds familiar, it’s a lot like what we went through last year with the Jets, another team that confused me. And it turned out that the recent, mediocre season was a more accurate predictor than the 100-plus point days. Sometimes, you don’t need to overthink it when a good team takes a step back to mediocrity. That’s just what they are now.

The verdict: I’m lost. And to make things even more complicated, we don’t even know what division the Flames will be in. Home ice in the Pacific seems up for grabs, with the Golden Knights looking strong but nobody else really looking unbeatable. But would a temporary all-Canadian division present an easier path, or a tougher one?

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Monday, November 2, 2020

Every all-Canadian playoff series of the modern era, ranked

While nothing is official, it sure sounds like there’s a good chance we’re going to get a temporary all-Canadian division this season. That would be pretty crazy, giving us a one-time opportunity to see all seven of the country’s teams fight it out for national bragging rights.

It would also presumably mean we’d be guaranteed to see four Canadian playoff teams, who’d face each other over the first two rounds. That would make for three all-Canadian series, the first time since 1987 that we’ve had that many in one year.

That’s going to be a lot of fun, right up until we all strangle each other. So today, let’s get hyped for some national rivalries with a ranking of every all-Canadian playoff matchup of the modern post-1967 era. There have been 44 such matchups, which sounds like a lot until you realize that it averages out to less than one per season. And as you’d expect, some have been better than others.

We’re looking for all the things that add up to an entertaining series: A close matchup, big star power, as many games as possible, at least a few overtimes, and a dramatic twist or two. We’ll start from the bottom and work our way up to the best all-Canadian matchup in modern history.

(And I’ll give you fair warning: I’m a little surprised about where I wound up.)

44. Oilers 4, Jets 0 – 1987 division final
43. Oilers 4, Jets 0 – 1985 division final
42. Oilers 3, Jets 0 – 1983 division semifinal
41. Oilers 3, Jets 0 – 1984 division semifinal

We’ll start with a recurring genre that fans became way too familiar with during the 1980s: The plucky Winnipeg Jets facing the powerhouse Oilers and just straight-up getting their doors kicked in.

Seriously, look at those results. Four straight series, played over a span of five years, with the Oilers sweeping all four. That’s 14 straight wins, if you’re keeping count. The Jets often kept it close – two of those 14 Oilers wins came into overtime, and more than half were by one or two goals. But that just made it worse. The Jets always seemed like they were this close to having a chance. Then they’d lose, again, like always. By the end, you just wanted this matchup to stop.

40. Oilers 3, Canucks 0 – 1986 division semifinal

The Oilers took a temporary break from embarrassing the Jets to embarrass the Canucks instead. Vancouver was outscored 17-5, then responded by trading point-less winger Cam Neely to the Bruins for Barry Pederson.

39. Flames 3, Jets 0 – 1986 preliminary round

I know, it feels like we’re picking on the Jets. I promise, they have won a playoff game before. Just not in this series, which saw Winnipeg waste a five-point performance by defensive defenseman Mario Marois. Did I mention that the mid-80s Smythe Division produced a lot of mismatches? It did.

38. Oilers 3, Canadiens 0 – 1981 preliminary round

In theory, this should have been legendary. You had the Canadiens, just two year removed from winning four straight Cups, facing an Oilers teams on the verge of something special. Gretzky, Messier and Coffey vs. Lafleur, Robinson and Shutt. But the series was a bust, with the Oilers rolling to an easy sweep. The entire Canadiens team combined for 12 points in the three games while Gretzky on his own had 11.

37. Canucks 3, Flames 0 – 1982 division semifinal

Both teams were under .500 and there wasn’t much in the way of star power, but the retroactive fun factor of it being the start of the Canucks’ unlikely run to the final is enough to keep it out of the running for last spot.

36. Oilers 4, Flames 0 – 1988 division final

Even the best rivalry of the era can produce the occasional dud, as what turned out to be the last Battle of Alberta of the Gretzky era ended in a disappointing whitewash. Fun fact, this was the last all-Canadian series to end in a sweep for 23 years, until our next entry …

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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Mailbag: If each team was a WWE wrestler and other important topics

It’s been four weeks since our last dip into the mailbag. In that time, Alex Pietrangelo became a Golden Knight, Taylor Hall became a Sabre, Joe Thornton became a Maple Leaf, Mike Hoffman tried to shake the weird feeling that there was something he was supposed to be doing, and literally every team in the entire league got a new goalie. We had a draft, the second day of which is still going on, and started to get just a little bit of clarity over when (or if) next season will start.

It’s been a busy month. Let’s see what weird stuff you folks managed to come up.

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and style.

Hockey players have notoriously boring, head-down, pucks-in-deep personalities. In the interest of finding the good and praising it, what is your all-time All-Personality team? Fun, funny, crazy, self-absorbed, and zany players qualify. Not necessarily the people you’d want to grab a beer with but the ones that might spice up a press conference or make a splash in the Twittersphere.

Let’s say this all-star team is a starting six (so you’ll have to find five skaters and can only pick one wacky goalie). Also, we are only counting what players did during their careers, so people like Don Cherry probably won’t make the cut. – Josh B.

You did say it’s an all-star team, so I’m going to try to find guys who were legitimate stars at some point. That rules out some true characters, like Eddie Shack, Gilles Gratton, Tiger Williams and Ron Duguay. Here’s my starting six:

Goalie: I mean, just about every goaltender is deeply weird, and it’s really just a question of how much of that they let out. Ron Hextall, Billy Smith and Patrick Roy all check the ‘crazy’ box you were looking for, and we could make a case for Dominik Hasek or Ilya Bryzgalov, not to mention the dozen guys who played the position before going on to successful broadcasting careers. But at the risk of being too predictable, I think we have to go with the obvious choice here and pencil in Roberto Louongo as our starter.

Defense: I’ll start with another obvious pick in P.K. Subban. He’s dialed the personality down a bit in the last year or two, partly because he took so much crap for it and partly because he hasn’t been as good on the ice, but he’s still an easy call here. The other spot should probably go to Brent Burns, and I could make a case for Chris Chelios, Rod Langway or even Chris Pronger. But instead, I’m going to sneak in a homer pick here and go with Al Iafrate, a four-time all-star who was also one of the craziest personalities ever. Fire up a dart, grab a leather jacket, hook up a mullet/bald spot combo, trim those sweet jean shorts, and give me a guy who was somehow the fastest skater and the hardest shot in the league at the same time while also being interesting.

Forwards: I’ll take Phil Esposito as my center. I can’t pass up a legendary player who was making terrible novelty pop albums in his spare time. I want Jaromir Jagr too; when you think of his personality, people remember him being the self-aware veteran in his later years, and that was great, but don’t sleep on his younger days when he was rubbing peanut butter on his groin and redefining the concept of hockey hair.

The last spot is tough. I’d love to find room for Alexander Ovechkin, and might have to if we do this again in a few years. Brendan Shanahan was occasionally hilarious, in addition to being a secret super-villain. Wayne Gretzky at least tried every now and then, even though he seemed to hate every second of it. Jeremy Roenick has a case, and you did say it’s playing career only so we’d ignore his recent transformation into a certified idiot. But I’ll go with a Team USA alumni in Brett Hull, a better player who never seemed to take himself or the league too seriously, whether that was cracking a joke or feuding with a coach. Even his son is funny.

If you could retroactively apply an NHL rule change to any other era in the game, what would you go with? (e.g. putting in the trapezoid in the 1980s, goalie pad sizes in the 70s, etc.) I feel like an easy one would be implementing Rule 48 several decades ago, but if you’ve got any else that stand out, I’d definitely be curious to see. – Rob R.

I think we have to exclude any safety-based rules here, otherwise we look like monsters. Obviously we’d want to go back and make helmets mandatory for the Bill Masterton game, or put in the breakaway goal pots for Mark Howe. Stuff like that and Rule 48 are the right answers, but they’re too easy.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

31 teams, 31 picks to build the ultimate draft round

Today’s post is another cool idea from a reader. Take it away, Neil:


Love it. The Ultimate First Round. Let’s do this. But first, a few ground rules:

  • As Neil says, we’re going to put together one round, lasting 31 picks, from all of NHL Draft history. Every player we take has to have been drafted in that exact slot, and we have to use one pick from all 31 existing teams.
  • To up the difficulty even further, I’m going to add another wrinkle: We want to come away with something resembling a realistic extended roster, so I’m going to say we need to use our 31 picks to draft four goalies, nine defensemen and 18 forwards.
  • We’re picking guys based on their entire NHL career, not just what they did for the team that actually drafted them.
  • While we’re presenting this as the ultimate first round, we’ll allow players who weren’t actually first-round picks as long as their draft slot matches the one we’re on. For example, in the 1980s the 22nd overall pick would have been a second-round choice, but that’s still OK for our team.
  • Finally, we’re only looking at players who were drafted by one of the 31 current teams. No picks by the Nordiques, Whalers, Golden Seals, etc. But the Winnipeg Jets count as both the old version and the new. If you’d like to head into the comments or my Twitter mentions to argue technicalities about franchise lineage, let me assure you that I do not care. Go find a Winnipeg hockey fan and tell them they think about hockey wrong. The Jets are the Jets.

Sound good? I think this will be fun...

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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Looking for mailbag questions

Hey folks...

It's getting close to mailbag times again. Please send over some questions we can have some fun with, via email at dgbmailbag@gmail.com. Feel free to get creative. What-ifs, would-you-rathers and all-time bests (and worsts) work well.

To give you an idea of what works, some of the better questions so far have included:
- Could you win a Stanley Cup will a full roster of Connor McDavids, including in net?
- Could 20 Dominik Haseks beat 20 Ron Hextalls?
- Which Cup final changes history the most if you flip the results?
- Who's better, a guy who can't skate but scores on every shot or a guy who skates like the wind and can't score?
- Should the HHOF announce a mystery inductee?

Thanks,
Sean




Friday, October 23, 2020

Puck Soup: Building the perfect booth

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg died so it's just me and Ryan
- Doc Emrick's retirement leads us to our ideal broadcast booths
- The Blackhawks are rebuilding... we think? Can they pull it off?
- Joe Thornton to the Leafs, and some thoughts on OGWACs
- A roundup of where we're at and who's still left in free agency - An interview with comedian John Cullen
- A new game that's a lot harder than it sounds, and more...

>> Stream it now:

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

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




Thursday, October 22, 2020

This is all your team’s fault: One part of the modern NHL to blame on every team (Western edition)

Welcome to the conclusion of a two-part series in which I try to find a rule, tradition or other piece of the hockey world that each team can take the credit (or blame) for introducing.

On Tuesday, we looked at the 16 Eastern Conference teams, and thank them for giving us icing, the draft lottery, trade calls and the all-star game, among other things. Today, it’s on to the West. As before, we’ll be looking at changes that were big and small, good and bad, important and trivial, and everything in between. We just want to make sure all 15 Western teams – sorry, Seattle, maybe next year – have some small piece of today’s NHL that they can claim as their own.

Chicago Blackhawks

Thank them for: The limit on how curved a stick blade can be

For the first century or so of hockey, stick blades were flat. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the curve blade fell into wide use, making it easier to lift the puck and occasionally producing unpredictable shots that were harder for goalies to stop.

There’s some dispute over who actually came up with the curved stick; most versions of the story mention Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita of the Hawks, although New York’s Andy Bathgate had claimed that they got the idea from him and some sources credit the initial innovation 1920s star Cy Denneny. But either way, it was Hull and Mikita who took the idea to the next level, taking to the ice with ridiculous curves that became known as banana blades. The NHL eventually put a limit on how much curve was too much, a fact that still makes Kings fans cry.

Edmonton Oilers

Thank them for: The post-Cup group photo

The 1980s Oilers had plenty of chances to innovate when it came to winning Cups, since they did it kind of a lot. They’re often given credit for starting the tradition of the first handoff by giving it to Steve Smith in 1987, the year after his infamous own-goal. But I’ve always loved the story behind the 1988 win, when Wayne Gretzky made the apparently impromptu decision to gather everyone for a team photo.

We hadn’t seen that before, and it was an undeniably cool moment – especially since it became Gretzky’s last moment in an Oiler jersey.

Los Angeles Kings

Thank them for: Your current coach not being able to take a job with another team

Not your current coach in the sense of a guy you fired but who remains under contract. I mean the guy who’s behind your bench, right now, for tonight’s game. Other teams can’t just show up and hire that guy for a different job.

Yeah, that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing we should need a rule about. There’s a story here.

It comes from December 1986, as the legendary Pat Quinn was halfway through his third season as Kings’ coach. He stunned the league, and his employer, by announcing that he’d accepted a job as the new GM of the Canucks, with the intention of starting after the season ended.

Quinn, a former lawyer, argued that he was within his legal rights to negotiate with another team, even as he was still working for the Kings. The NHL didn’t necessarily dispute that, but considered Quinn’s attempt to coach one team while signing a contract with another a conflict of interest. They hammered everyone involved with heavy fines, and suspended Quinn from working anywhere for the rest of the season, and from coaching a team until 1990. Not surprisingly, various appeals, threats and lawsuits followed. It was kind of a mess.

So the next time you about a team needing to ask permission to talk to a coach that some other team already fired, you can trace it back to the Kings, the Canucks, and the lawyer/coach who knew an upgrade when he saw it.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

This is all your team’s fault: One part of the modern NHL to blame on every team (Eastern edition)

This is all your fault.

Well, not your fault, personally. But this is your favorite team’s fault, with “this” being… well, something. A rule, a tradition, a protocol, or something else that’s a part of the NHL. The sport is filled with little details that we’ve become used to over the years, and almost all of it has an origin story, and sometimes that story might involve your team. This week, we’re going to try to find one example for every team in the league.

In some cases, we’ll be talking about actual rules you can find in the rulebook. In others, we’ll be working with less formal guidelines, interpretations, traditions and unwritten rules that have evolved over time. We’ll cover big changes and tiny ones, the relatively new and the age-old, some good and some bad. Honestly, a few of these are just here because I want to tell you a weird story from the history books. But my goal here is to give every fan base something from today’s NHL that they can point to and say “Hey, that’s because of us”.

Thanks to reader Mason for sending in this idea. We’ll do the East today, and the West on Thursday.

Boston Bruins

Thank them for: Icing

This one’s a little hazy, because it goes all the way back to the 1930s. But apparently we can thank the Bruins for one of hockey’s oldest rules.

Here’s the story. In the NHL’s earlies days, there was no rule against a defending team relieving the pressure by just lofting the puck down the ice over and over. If that sounds like a problem, you agree with the Bruins, a newbie team that had been complaining about the situation since their very first home game in 1931. That came on December 8, 1931 against the New York Americans, who took a 3-2 decision thanks in part to their strategy of just firing the puck down the ice whenever it was in their zone, causing frustrated Boston fans to litter the ice with garbage and bottles. The Bruins retaliated in a rematch weeks later by icing it 89 times in the same game, including 42 in the first period of what ended up being a scoreless tie.

Because this was the NHL and it takes forever to make an obvious rule change, it wasn’t until 1937 that Bruins’ GM Art Ross finally convinced the league to pass a rule against the practice.

Ottawa Senators

Thank them for: The draft lottery

Do NHL teams tank? That depends on how you define tanking. Is it any team that goes into a season already resigned to being bad? Do they have to actively dismantle their roster? Keep key players out of the lineup? Or is it not a tank unless a team is actively throwing games? That can’t be it, because no NHL team would ever do that.

Or would they?

That’s the question that hangs over the 1992-93 Senators, thanks to owner Bruce Firestone. He reportedly made the claim after having a few pops around some local media, as revealed by Roy MacGregor.

The NHL investigated the claim, which was denied by everyone else involved, and ultimately didn’t find any proof it was true. Still, it quickly became clear that a lottery would be needed to avoid any future confusion over who was actually trying, and the lottery was brought in for 1995. As for the Senators, drafting Alexander Daigle with that 1993 first overall pick was probably punishment enough.

Montreal Canadiens

Thank them for: A powerplay goal ending a minor penalty

Sometimes you’re just too good. That was the problem from the 1950s Habs dynasty, one led by legendary names like Jean Beliveau, Rocket Richard, Doug Harvey and Boom Boom Geoffrion. They won five straight Cups, and as you might imagine given all that talent, their powerplay was unstoppable. A little bit too unstoppable, as it turns out.

Back in those days, a minor penalty mean a team stayed shorthanded for the full two minutes, even if their opponents scored on the powerplay. With the Habs frequently racking up two or three goals on one powerplay, the other teams decided they needed a change. At the 1956 board of governors meeting, the league votes five teams to one to change the rule to what we have today. I’ll let you guess which team was the one vote in favor of the status quo.

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Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Maple Leafs have signed Joe Thornton, theoretically filling their third-line center role without putting too much strain on their cap. More importantly, though, it’s just a great story, with a future Hall of Famer coming to Toronto in hopes of being the final piece to end the franchise’s Stanley Cup drought. It’s like a movie.

But if so, it’s a movie we’ve seen before because the Leafs have had a bit of a habit over the years of making exactly this sort of move. In the decades since they won their last Cup in 1967, the Leafs have made more than a few moves to bring in Hall of Famers whose best years were behind them, but they hoped could still contribute. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. So today, let’s look at ten ways the Joe Thornton signing could play out, with help from other moves from Leafs history.

Level 1: The worst-case scenario

The player: Doug Gilmour

The transaction: The big trade that brought Gilmour to Toronto in 1992 was arguably the best the franchise ever made. But that’s not the one we’re referring to here. Instead, we’re looking at the 2003 trade deadline move that saw the Leafs send a sixth-round pick to Montreal to reacquire their 39-year-old former captain for one last run.

The outcome: Well, the first four shifts went well.

That’s about the best you can say for this story, one of the worst in modern Leafs history. On just the fifth shift of his big return, Gilmour collided with Dave Lowry, stayed down, and then crawled off the ice. He’d blown out his knee and never played again. He didn’t even get a game back in Toronto.

I’m bummed out even thinking about it. Please keep Joe Thornton away from Dave Lowry.

Level 2: The whipping boy

The player: Larry Murphy

The transaction: Cliff Fletcher acquired the 34-year-old blueliner from the Penguins in 1995, hoping a player who’d had three top-five Norris finishes in the last four years could spark the Leafs’ fading offense.

The outcome: For reasons nobody is quite clear on to this day, Toronto fans never took to Murphy. He was never a bruiser, and he certainly had his share of shoddy defensive moments. But he also racked up 61 points in his only full season in Toronto, which made it strange to see him all but booed out of town. The Leafs shipped him to Detroit midway through the 1996-97 season for literally nothing at all, then watched him help the Red Wings to two Cups.

Luckily, there’s no way this market would glitch out and turn on somebody as universally beloved as Joe Thornton, right? (Laughs nervously while imagining Toronto Sun headlines saying stuff like “Dumbo Joe.”) No, of course not, let’s move on.

Level 3: Don’t remember him but if you say so

The players: Ron Francis and Phil Housley

The transaction: Fair warning, the Pat Quinn-era Leafs will show up on this list a lot, so much so that we can combine a pair of similar acquisitions. In 2003, his Leafs acquired a 39-year-old Housley for a pick. A year later, it was a 41-year-old Francis coming over from Carolina, also for a pick.

The outcome: No idea because nobody remembers anything about either of these moves.

OK, that’s not completely true. Francis was at least passable in Toronto, putting up 10 points in 12 games down the stretch before sputtering to just four assists in two rounds of playoff action. Housley barely did anything, appearing in just one regular-season game and three in the playoffs without recording a point.

Thornton isn’t a deadline acquisition, so with a full season he’s unlikely to fall into this category, but it remains to be seen if he’ll look as weird in a Leafs uniform as Francis did.

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Friday, October 16, 2020

Let’s build the best all-time team that can’t play defense

This year’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars set up as a classic showdown between offense and defense. Not entirely — the Stars have plenty of talented offensive players and the Lightning are strong in their own zone. But at a high level, this was the team that scored the most goals in the league against the one that gave up the second fewest.

And offense won. Good.

I know I’m supposed to be impartial, but I’ll always cheer for offense, because it’s more fun. I could appreciate a defensive team, back before that’s what everyone in the league was trying to be. But these days, I’m sick of being told that defense always wins and is the only way to play, even if it’s usually true.

So today, let’s build the best roster of all-time stars that breaks that rule. All offense, no defense. And that last part is a hard and fast rule. If you were ever recognized for your play in your own zone, even a little bit, get out. You’re not welcome here.

How do we do it? By basing this off a suggestion from reader Tyler, who asked: What’s the best roster you can build out of players who never received so much as a single vote for the Selke, Norris or Vezina?

I love it. It’s so simple. Three awards that recognize a player’s ability to keep the puck out of his own net, and we’re disqualifying anyone who ever so much as showed up on a ballot for any of them. This is going to be the most one-dimensional team ever, which means it should be lots of fun.

But first, a few ground rules™:

  • Position matters. We need four centers, four left-wingers and four right-wingers. Defensemen can play either side. I’ll do my best to use guys in the position they were best known for, without getting sneaky on anyone who moved around for a season or two.
  • No votes means no votes at all. If even one voter thought they were good enough to earn a spot on their ballot, they’re out. We’ll use the hockey-reference database to track who got votes for what.
  • We’re starting from 1954 for the Norris and 1978 for the Selke, the first years those were awarded. And while the Vezina dates back to 1927, for our purposes we’re only going back to 1982, when it reverted to being an award that was voted on. Players whose careers started before those seasons are still eligible, but we’re only getting credit for what they did afterwards. Gordie Howe never got a Selke vote, but if we take him then we only get his 1979-80 comeback season. (We will not be taking Gordie Howe.)

Sound good? Let’s do this. Let’s build the most offensive team we can find.

Forwards

We’ll start up front, where things should be easiest. The Norris and Vezina recognize general excellence at a position, so I’m mildly worried about how deep we may have to dig to find guys who never received any votes at all. But the Selke is a specialist award, and it’s possible to be a very good player without ever being considered a great defensive forward. So while it may be slim pickings on the back end, we can make up for that by stocking our team with some of history’s greatest forwards.

Not all of them, of course. Guys like Steve Yzerman and Ron Francis actually won the Selke late in their careers, Peter Forsberg and Doug Gilmour won it in their primes and Joe Sakic and Mike Modano were finalists. Some guys evolve into strong defensive players as their careers wear on. But most star forwards don’t do that; once you know you can light it up in the offensive zone, you tend to stay there. So let’s stock up with an army of history’s greatest one-way glory hounds.

For example, we can start with pretty much our perfect candidate: Wayne Gretzky, who racked up 200-point seasons while barely ever seeing his own zone. We can give him a couple of elite wingers in Alexander Ovechkin and Jaromir Jagr, two flashy Europeans who’ve been constantly criticized for their one-dimensional games, but will be close to unstoppable next to the Great One. And for our second line, let’s start with Mario Lemieux, and put him with Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya, two old friends who’ll compliment his playmaking perfectly. For our third line, how do Pat LaFontaine, Mike Bossy and Ilya Kovalchuk grab you?

Those lines are so good. I think we’re going to have to put Brett Hull and his 700 goals on the fourth line. Forget goaltending and defense, this team will never see its own end of the rink. We’re going to be unbeatable.

Except.

Yeah … every one of those players I just mentioned got a Selke vote at some point in their careers. All of them.

I’ll admit, I was a little worried about Gretzky, since I remembered him adding a little bit of defense to his game in his Rangers years. But nope, he got his votes when he was shattering records. Three of them, to be exact, for his entire career – a third-place vote in both 1985 and 1986 and a second-place vote in 1990.

Lemieux got the only two votes of his career in 1997. Ovechkin hasn’t had one in 10 years but got a few in 2008 and 2009 before peaking with a 28th place finish in 2010. Jagr got a fourth-place vote in 2007, then another in 2016. Kovalchuk got a lone fourth in 2013. Hull showed up on a ballot once in his 19-season career, in 2003 when he was 38. And so on down the line.

It turns out that virtually everyone gets a Selke vote at some point. Even guys that were constantly criticized for their defensive play throughout their career have a maddening tendency to sneak in a single vote somewhere over the course of their career.

Pierre Turgeon got a first-place Selke vote. What in the actual hell.

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Thursday, October 15, 2020

Puck Soup: Free agency winners and losers

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to the first week of free agency
- Pietrangelo to the Knights. Krug to the Blues. Hall to the Sabres?
- The goalie carousel
- A zamboni caught on fire
- What will next season look like?
- Overrated/underrated appetizers
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

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

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




Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The best and worst cap era UFA deals of every length

We’re a few days into free agency, and most of the bigger names have found landing spots. The flat cap made for some tight fits, and we saw lower AAVs on many deals than we’d thought. But even though it was October instead of July, the last few days still had plenty of the “who’ll go where” intrigue that fans love.

But one thing was missing: Deals of varying lengths. Aside from Torey Krug and Alex Pietrangelo, virtually everybody was getting one or two-year contracts. It was a noticeable difference from previous years, where deals would span the range from short-term to long to way-too-long.

It’s always fun to come up with lists of the best and worst signings, and I’ve certainly made my share. This time, I wanted to take a different angle. So today, we’re going to try to figure out the best and worst free agent deals of the cap era for each specific length. One year, two years, and so on down the line.

To be clear, we’re looking for UFA deals where a player changed teams. Teams almost always get good value out of RFAs, who are close to their prime and don’t have much leverage, and players who re-sign with a team they’re already playing for will usually leave some money on the table. We want those signings where a team drops a big bag of money on a table and says “Join us”. For our purposes, that will include cases where a pending UFA’s negotiation rights were acquired in the days before the market opening, as long as it was by a team they hadn’t played for before.

(Please read that last paragraph again before you go into the comments and just post the name of some other player with a question mark at the end and nothing else. Please? I even bolded the important part. You won’t, will you. Awesome, can’t wait.)

We’ll start with one-year deals and work our way up to the longer ones, recognizing both the best and worst. Spoiler alert: One of those categories gets harder as we go, and the other does not.

One-year deals

We’ll start off with the easiest one. Or so I thought, because it turns out that at least until this year, one-year deals are fairly rare in free agency. That makes sense – if you’ve made it all the way to the open market, you’re going to want to try to land some term. One-year deals are for the depth guys, or the veterans who may not play more one more season. The big names, for the most part, aren’t interested.

Still, we see some from time-to-time, including Kevin Shattenkirk last year and Robin Lehner in each of the last two. Those worked out pretty well, and of course Taylor Hall just went for a one-year prove-it deal in Buffalo. But I’m going to go in a different direction for my pick for the best one-year UFA deal ever.

Best deal: Marian Hossa, one year at $7.45 million with the Red Wings, 2008

Hossa didn’t come cheap – at over 13% of the cap, his AAV would translate to north of $10 million today. But his willingness to sign a one-year deal in the prime of his career was the key to finding a fit with the defending champs in Detroit. He reportedly turned down a five-year offer to stay in Pittsburgh because he thought he had a better chance of winning a Cup with the Wings.

OK, that part didn’t work out great, as those same Penguins beat Hossa’s Red Wings that spring. Still, you have to give him credit for taking his swing, and he did his part with a 40-goal season before heading back to the market in 2009.

On the flip side, there aren’t a ton of candidates for truly awful one-year deals because… well, they’re one year. Most veterans on expiring deals can be flipped at the deadline for at least a pick, and the absolute worst-case scenario is that the guy is a complete bust and you free up some cap space at the end of the year.

My first thought here was Alexander Semin’s $7-million deal with the Hurricanes in 2012, but he played pretty well on that one – it was the subsequent extension that blew up on Carolina. I’m not going to pick on Jack Johnson and the Rangers. So instead, I’ll let recency bias kick in and go with a signing from last year.

Worst deal: Wayne Simmonds, one year at $5 million with the Devils, 2019

This deal was signed back when the Devils had just drafted Jack Hughes and traded for P.K. Subban and we all thought they’d be good. They weren’t, and neither was Simmonds, and while they were able to trade him at the deadline, all they got was a fifth. So not great. But still, far from any kind of a disaster, because one-year deals are virtually no-risk scenarios.

Two-year deals

If anything, two-year deals for big-name players are even harder to come by than one-year signings. After all, the thinking might go, if you’re going to take short-term then you may as well go really short and get ready to hit the market again in a season’s time. And if you want security, two years doesn’t really offer much.

We do see some two-year deals, of course, especially to older players. Justin Williams did it twice, with the Capitals in 2015 and again with the Hurricanes in 2017, and both worked out well. Dan Hamhuis was solid for the Stars in 2016, and at least OK with the Predators in 2019. And Johnny Oduya was a solid add for the Stars in 2015.

But my pick for the best two-year deal is going to be one that I’m not completely sold on, but have to choose just for the magnitude of it.

Best deal: Peter Forsberg, two years at $5.75 million with the Flyers, 2005

This was one of the very first big signings of the cap era, with the 32-year-old former MVP jumping from the Avs to the Flyers team that had originally drafted him. The deal looks like a bargain to today’s eyes, as a guy who was at least in the conversation for the best two-way player in the game got less than $12 million total. But while Forsberg’s injury history kept the term short, that cap hit took up nearly 15% of the Flyers’ space – the equivalent to someone signing for over $12 million today. We’re talking McDavid money.

Did it work out? Pretty much, yeah. Forsberg missed games, but he was excellent when he did play, racking up 75 points in 60 games in year one and a point-a-game in year two before being traded to the Predators for a nice haul.

The candidates for worst two-year deals is a little longer than the best category, and mostly made up of veteran gambles that didn’t pay off, like Danny Briere to the Habs in 2013, Mathieu Schneider to the Ducks in 2007, Alexei Kovalev to the Senators in 2009, and maybe Dan Boyle to the Rangers in 2014. That’s never great, but again, at just a two-season commitment none of these deals really ruined anyone. Neither did my pick for the worst deal.

Worst deal: Steve Mason, two years at $4.1 million with the Jets, 2017

This one was always a little weird, coming on the heels of Connor Hellebuyck establishing himself as the full-time starter. The Jets were looking for some insurance, but it turns out they didn’t need it – Hellebuyck blossomed into a Vezina finalist in 2017-18, Mason only started 12 games, and was traded, bought out and retired one year after signing this deal.

Three-year deals

We’re getting into the territory where teams are taking on bigger risks, especially with older players. But we’ve still seen some signings that worked out well, including Mike Green with the Red Wings in 2015 and Adam Foote with the Blue Jackets in 2005. One year in, the Stars’ deal with Joe Pavelski might be headed to this category too. But my pick for the best three-year UFA signing goes back a few seasons.

Best deal: Eric Staal, three years at $3.5 million with the Wild, 2016

Staal had just been one of the big deadline prizes, going from Carolina to the Rangers. But he hadn’t lit it up in New York, prompting some whispers that he might be done. He signed a surprisingly cheap deal with the Wild, then put up three productive seasons before re-upping last summer.

On the worst side, the danger of paying for past performance starts showing up here, as we find regrettable deals like Jarome Iginla with the Avalanche in 2014 and Ilya Kovalchuk with the Kings two years ago. Paul Kariya’s $6-million was a big price for the Blues in 2007, and didn’t really pay off because he didn’t stay healthy. But I’ll go with one that hits closer to home for me.

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Friday, October 9, 2020

Ranking every all-rookie team in NHL history

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The NHL draft has come and gone, and now you’ve had time to absorb the decisions your favorite team made. In the moment, sure, all those prospects they drafted seemed great. But after a few days of sober analysis? Now, your more realistic side takes over, and you come to realize: They’re really great. Like, all of them. There’s a non-zero chance that next year’s all-rookie team will be made up entirely of players your favorite team just drafted.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that just making the all-rookie team isn’t necessarily a guarantee of success. The all-rookie selections – three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie – have been part of the annual awards since 1983. But in the 37 seasons since, some of the picks have held up better in hindsight than others.

That hindsight part is going to be the key to this ranking, since we can judge every year’s team by how well everyone’s careers turned out (or at least, for the most recent ones, which way they’re headed). It’s worth remembering that’s not what the actual voters are trying to do, though. The all-rookie teams are meant to recognize the best rookie seasons, not the rookies with the best long-term potential. So the fact that some of these teams don’t hold up well doesn’t mean the voters were wrong, so much as that the fates and the hockey gods had other ideas. (Or that the voters were wrong. Honestly, it’s probably that.)

We’ll start from 37 and work our way down from the underwhelming squads to the best all-rookie team ever. I’ll be using a strict set of objective criteria which consists of me looking at the six names and deciding whether they were good or not. As always, appeals are welcomed and can be filed through the official process of yelling at Mirtle on Twitter.

37. 2004

Forwards: Trent Hunter, Ryan Malone, Michael Ryder

Defense: John-Michael Liles, Joni Pitkanen

Goalie: Andrew Raycroft

As you’ll see, there aren’t many all-rookie teams that are flat-out bad. But this one … woof. It was a rough year for rookies, with nobody scoring more than 25 goals or cracking 65 points. The best you could say for this group is that one of them got traded for Tuukka Rask, but I can’t remember which one and it’s probably not important. Meanwhile, an 18-year-old Patrice Bergeron was ignored by the voters, and the whole team was so bad the league decided it needed to take a year off and regroup.

36. 2000

Forwards: Simon Gagne, Scott Gomez, Mike York

Defense: Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart

Goalie: Brian Boucher

These guys all had reasonable NHL careers to at least some extent, but Gomez is the only one who was ever much of a star, even as Rafalski developed into an underrated contributor. The only name that really stands out as a potential snub is Alex Tanguay, whose 51 points trailed only Gomez among rookies.

35. 1996

Forwards: Daniel Alfredsson, Eric Daze, Petr Sykora

Defense: Ed Jovanovski, Kyle McLaren

Goalie: Corey Hirsch

No Hall of Famers yet, although I still think Alfredsson probably gets there someday. That will save a year that was otherwise pretty underwhelming, although Daze’s back issues may have kept him from having a bigger impact. One weird note: Sykora got the last forward spot even though he finished well back of Saku Koivu in Calder voting.

34. 2001

Forwards: Martin Havlat, Brad Richards, Shane Willis

Defense: Lubomir Visnovsky, Colin White

Goalie: Evgeni Nabokov

It’s a group that won’t produce any Hall of Famers, although Nabokov was in the best goalie conversation for a good chunk of his career and Richards won a Conn Smythe. Willis scored 20 goals for the Hurricanes, then only 11 more in his career. Other rookies this year: Marian Gaborik, Roberto Luongo and the Sedins.

33. 1998

Forwards: Patrik Elias, Mike Johnson, Sergei Samsonov

Defense: Derek Morris, Mattias Ohlund

Goalie: Jamie Storr

It’s a solid enough group, but one without any Hall of Famers unless Elias can squeeze his way in. Storr only played 17 games, but there just weren’t any rookie goalies that year. Other notable rookies include Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, who debuted with a meagre seven point season and didn’t get so much as a single Calder vote.

32. 2003

Forwards: Tyler Arnason, Rick Nash, Henrik Zetterberg

Defense: Jay Bouwmeester, Barret Jackman

Goalie: Sebastien Caron

Yeah, apparently we just stopped making prospects in the early 2000s. This class did give us Nash, who seemed like he’d become a Hall of Famer, and Zetterberg, who still might. Bouwmeester had a long and successful career. But Caron only played two more full seasons and was never a full-time starter. And unlike most of these years, there aren’t even any obvious misses from a year where Zetterberg’s 44 points led all rookies.

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Thursday, October 8, 2020

Puck Soup: Draft, trades, UFAs

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Wrapping up the world's longest draft
- Thoughts on how the virtual draft was presented
- Where we think the top UFAs will end up (and what we'd like to see)
- Trade talk
- Some Star Wars crap
- NHL 94 is coming back
- Can Ryan design a quiz so simple that even Greg can understand it?

>> 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, October 7, 2020

Which draft round makes the second best all-time roster?

What’s the best round in NHL draft history?

It’s the first round. Sorry if you were hoping I’d build some suspense, but this one was a little bit obvious. I’m not even really sure you could come up with a cute contrarian take here. The first round leaves the competition in the dust. Mario Lemieux, Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Martin Brodeur, Ray Bourque, Jaromir Jagr… yeah, I’ll take those guys. Real tough call, great topic for an article, genius.

OK, so what’s the second best round in NHL history?

That gets a little trickier. Your instinct might be that the second best round must be, well, the second round. But is it? Here’s the thing about the NHL draft: Once you get past the obvious picks in the first round, a whole lot of uncertainty kicks in.

So today, as we get ready to watch the league draft rounds two through seven in a day-long blitz of picks, let’s build some all-time rosters from all the players who didn’t get the glory of being a first-round pick. We’re going to make eight teams: One for each round from two through seven, another for the eighth round and later (which doesn’t exist anymore, but used to), and one for undrafted players.

But first, a few ground rules:

• We’ll build 20-man rosters with four centers, eight wings, six defensemen and two goalies. Wingers can switch sides because I’m weeks away from some time off and I just don’t have the mental energy to deal with the whole “there are no good LWs” thing today.

• Active players are allowed, with the usual caveat that they only get credit for what they’ve done so far in their career.

• When we get to the undrafted team, we’ll only include players who arrived after the draft became the primary way to acquire young players in 1969 since otherwise it would just be packed with guys like Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard who weren’t drafted because there wasn’t one.

We’ve got eight rosters to build, so let’s dive in. And we’ll start with the team that enters as the prohibitive favorite. But can they live up to the hype?

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Monday, October 5, 2020

Remembering five of history’s weirdest draft classes

The NHL draft starts tomorrow, and I can’t tell you what’s going to happen, because Cory Pronman already did. But I can make two predictions with confidence: Every team is going to tell us that they’re thrilled with their 2020 draft class, and the whole thing is going to be weird.

The weirdness will come from the setting, as the league ditches the big everyone-in-one-building draft floor (for obvious reasons) and shifts to a virtual setup. And the teams will say they love their draft classes because teams always do that. The next GM who walks out of a draft saying “Man, we messed up, these guys are a bunch of bums” will be the first, and also my new hero.

So today, let’s get ready for a weird draft full of great classes by mashing those two concepts together into one: Weird draft classes from NHL history. We’ll revisit five times that a team went into a draft and came out with something that, in hindsight, was kind of remarkable.

There aren’t the best classes ever, or the worst, or the most important. It’s just five interesting stories to kill some time on a Monday before your team drafts a new franchise player and/or screws up everything forever. Let’s remember some NHL draft oddities.

1977 Montreal Canadians, aka In Crease Increase


Imagine you’re a scout for the 1977 Montreal Canadiens. You’ve just come off what might very well have been the greatest season in NHL history, a 60-8-12 masterpiece that ended with your second of what will turn out to be four straight Cups. You have the best coach ever (Scotty Bowman), the best GM ever (Sam Pollock), and an absolutely stacked lineup. Oh, and your goaltender is Ken Dryden, who was just a first-team all-star for the third time in four years. And he’s only 29.

What’s your draft plan? Apparently, it’s “draft all the goalies”, because the 1977 Canadiens took seven of them.

Seven! In one draft. I’m all for having a strategy and sticking to it, but that seems extreme.

It’s not quite as crazy as it might seem to modern eyes – remember, this was back when the draft could go on forever. The Canadiens used 27 picks that year, stretching out to a 15th round, so it’s not like they only took goalies. But still… seven? When you only have one net, which is currently occupied by a legend in his prime? (And in case you’re wondering, their backup goalie was Bunny Larocque, who’d led the league in GAA that season.)

So how’d they do with all those goalies? Not great. Their first goalie pick, fourth-rounder Robert Holland, only played two NHL seasons, neither with the Canadiens. They did a little better with seventh-rounder Richard Sevigny, who was a part-time starter in Montreal for five seasons in the 80s. Mark Holden played eight NHL games. And the other four goalies they took never made the big leagues at all.

It was all part of a decidedly mixed bag for that 1977 Habs draft. They found a future Hall-of-Famer at the end of the second round in Rod Langway. But they also spent a third-round pick on Moe Robinson, the younger brother of Larry, who lasted one game. And they used the 10th overall pick on Mark Napier, passing on a fellow right-winger who was a hometown kid from Montreal. Some guy named Mike Bossy.

1983 Detroit Red Wings, aka Toughen Up


The most famous Red Wings draft of all time came in 1989. That was the year they found two Hall-of-Famers who’d form the core of a Cup team (Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Federov), plus two more 1,000-game NHLers (Mike Sillinger and Dallas Drake), plus Soviet star Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th round. Not bad. But not my favorite Wings draft.

No, that would be 1983. It’s a draft every Detroit fan remembers fondly, because it saw the Wings land Steve Yzerman with the fourth overall pick. That took a bit of luck – the North Stars spent the first overall pick on Brian Lawton and the Whalers took Sylvain Turgeon, leaving both Yzerman and Pat LaFontaine on the board for the Sabres and Wings at three and four. That’s the draft, though. You do your homework, and hope a franchise player drops to your pick.

And what do you do when it all breaks right and you get that franchise player? Well, if it’s 1983 and you play in the Norris Division, you make sure you protect him. And you do that by drafting three of the most legendary tough guys in hockey history.

The Wings got started in round three, grabbing big winger Bob Probert from the Soo Greyhounds. Probie would go on to become the NHL’s all-time heavyweight champ, but the Wings apparently figured he could use some backup, so they used a fifth-round pick on Saskatoon Blades’ wrecking ball Joey Kocur. And just to make sure nobody got any ideas when both those guys were in the box, the Wings added some insurance in the 10th round, taking Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson from the Regina Pats.

To be clear, none of those guys were one-dimensional enforcers coming out of junior. (Probert in particular was really good, with 72 points in 44 games for the Hounds.) And as it turned out, Grimson never signed and went back in the 1985 draft, where he was taken by the Flames. He’d eventually end up in Detroit for a few years in the mid-90s, but by that point Kocur was winning Cups in New York and Probert was on his way to Chicago.

So no, Yzerman never got to suit up for a game knowing all three guys were behind him, although I’m guessing that the Bruise Brothers provided enough protection on their own. But the effort was there. To this day, only 44 players in NHL history have racked up more than 2,100 PIM over their careers, and at the rate the game is going that list might not grow. It’s an exclusive club. And three of them were picked by the same team in the same draft.


1993 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, aka This Guy Looks Familiar


This was the first draft in Anaheim franchise history. And they got off to a strong start, managing to pick the leading scorer in the draft.

Any Ducks fan knows how the team spent its first ever draft pick. The Ducks had the fourth overall pick, and after watching Alexandre Daigle, Chris Pronger and Chris Gratton go off the board, they grabbed the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner. That would be Paul Kariya, and while his career was shortened by injuries, he was easily the best forward in the draft, and his 989 points in 989 games was the most by any player taken that day.

But he’s not the leading scorer I was referring to.

Kariya was the leading scorer from the 1993 draft. But I said the Ducks took the leading scorer in the draft. Which they did.

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