Saturday, September 26, 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 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 Johnny Gaudreaus beat 20 Zdeno Charas?
- 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?


Friday, September 25, 2020

Prove you’re a champion by taking the Stanley Cup Final quiz

We’re three games into an entertaining Stanley Cup Final that could end as soon as (checks notes) tomorrow. Wait, is that right? It doesn’t seem right. We’ve been at this bubble playoff thing for two months, but we really could be almost done.

But first, let’s have a quiz to make you feel dumb.

Or smart. You could ace this one. I’m pretty sure it’s easier than the weird playoffs quiz, and a few of you did really well on that because you cheated you’re geniuses. Others did not, but that’s OK, because it’s playoff time and we all love a good redemption story.

You know the drill. Sixteen questions, all multiple choice, some easier than others. You can do this. I believe in you.

Once you’ve submitted your answers, scroll back up to access your score and find out how you did:

0-3 right answers: First-round elimination. You clearly didn’t want it bad enough.
4-7 right answers: Second-round elimination. You ran into a hot goalie.
8-11 right answers: Third-round elimination. That’s why they call it the hardest quiz to win in all of sports.
12-15 right answers: Conference champion, Cup final loser. Shouldn’t have touched the trophy.
16 right answers: Get ready to take an awkward photo with Gary Bettman, because you’ve just won the Stanley Cup.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Puck Soup: Fading Stars

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Lightning surge to a 2-1 series lead
- The dramatic but brief return of Steven Stamkos
- Who'll win the Conn Smythe?
- Comparing the NHL's bubble product to the NBA and other sports
- Running down the awards, including the worst votes
- Alex Pietrangelo puts the pressure on the Blues
- Plus Bob Boughner, the 500 best albums of all-time, and a quiz

>> Stream it now:

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

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes (including next week's insane ultra-specific draft) by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

A way-too-in-depth look at 25 years of Stanley Cup handoffs

I’ve always been kind of fascinated with the Stanley Cup handoff. The moment where Gary Bettman calls over winning team’s captain to accept the Cup is great, once you get past the boring speech and awkward photograph. But it’s what happens after that really gets me, as the captain chooses a teammate to receive the first handoff, then that guy chooses who goes next, and on down the line.

That first pass from Bettman to the captain is cool, but can feel corporate or manufactured (and occasionally downright awkward). The handoffs that follow are all about the players, and the way they decide to handle it can tell us a lot about how the team dynamic really works.

That’s a pretty awesome tradition. It’s a relatively new one, too. For most of NHL history, the captain got the Cup and his teammates just kind of mobbed around him. The first time most of us remember a handoff having some thought behind it was when the Oilers made a point of giving it to Steve Smith in 1987, a year after his notorious own goal ended their season. And it didn’t really become an annual thing until 1994, when the NHL formalized the Bettman process we’re used to today.

If we go back to 1994, that gives us a nice round 25 seasons to work with. That feels like something we should work with. I already did a first-handoff ranking a few years ago, so let’s do what we tend to do around here and dig even deeper. Like, probably too deep. Can I interest you in some Cup handoff analytics?

I went through the last 25 Cup winners and made a note of the first five players to get the Cup after the captain. (I couldn’t find all five for two teams; I’m missing the fourth and fifth players for the ’96 Avalanche and the fifth for the 2000 Devils.) Then I went through those players to figure out how they rated in various categories.

Here’s what I went looking for, and what I thought I’d find:

How many seasons had the player been in the league? I’m assuming that veteran players get the Cup first.

How many seasons had the player been on that team? I’m guessing that franchise lifers will have the edge, although I can remember a few guys who were new to a team.

Is this the player’s first Cup? I’m assuming these guys are more likely to get an early handoff.

Was the player an OGWAC (Old Guy Without a Cup)? A combination of the first few categories. We’ll use the definition from this year’s rankings: 33 or older with at least ten years in the league. I’m thinking this will be the biggest single factor, with OGWACs going right to the front of the line.

Was the player a star? I made a note of whether the player was a Hall-of-Famer, had won a major award (Hart, Vezina or Norris), or had played in an all-star game. Stars should probably have advantage.

Did the player win the Conn Smythe that year? I’d think that players who just had a monster playoff will be more likely to get an early handoff.

We’ll be looking at players only, so we’re not counting owners (Mike Illitch got the Cup first for the ’97 Red Wings) or coaches (Scotty Bowman famously took a lap with the Cup in 2002). We are counting players who were injured or otherwise unable to play, since it turns out there are a lot of them. That includes Vladimir Konstantinov, who was recovering from a career-ending car accident when he got the Cup first for the 1998 Wings.

Sound interesting? Maybe not, but I’ve already done the work so you’re stuck with me. Let’s see what we can learn, and maybe make some predictions along the way.

Observation #1: Sorry, kids, veterans get the Cup first.

No big shocker here. The average first-handoff recipient has been in the league 13.36 seasons by the time they get the honor. Even that’s actually a little misleading, because it includes Viacheslav Fetisov, who was nearly 40 when he was the first Red Wing player to get the Cup in 1997 but had only been in the league eight years.

The only other two players with less than a decade of NHL experience to get the Cup first were Konstantinov in 1998 and Curtis Leschyshyn in 1996. Konstantinov was obviously a special case. As for Leschyshyn, at 26 he’s the youngest player to ever get the first handoff, and it’s not all that close. If you’re looking for the story behind that, there really isn’t one, except that he’d been friends with Joe Sakic since they broke in together with the Nordiques and the traditional first handoff protocol hadn’t really been cemented yet.

Once the first handoff is out of the way, the older guys still tend to dominate. The average player to get a second or third handoff has been in the league 11.72 seasons, while a fourth or fifth handoff averages 10.34.

That’s not to say that the kids never get their hands on the Cup early. But in 25 seasons and 122 handoffs, I couldn’t find a single rookie. And I only found one second-year player (Tomas Holmstrom, who got it third after a breakout postseason in 1998), and just one in his third year (Milan Hejduk went fifth in 2001).

What it means for this year: If the Stars win, you might assume that Miro Heiskanen would be a leading candidate given how good he’s been this year. But if he was, the Stars would be breaking with tradition. And that’s especially true given how many older options the Stars have.

OK, sure, but what if Heiskanen stays hot through the end of the final and wins the Conn Smythe? Well…

Observation #2: Being a star in your prime doesn’t really matter. Neither does the Conn Smythe.

This one surprised me a bit. I expected veterans to be prime candidates for early handoffs, especially if they hadn’t won a Cup before. But I figured that a team’s best players would be next in line. Not really, as it turns out. Or at least, it’s far from a sure thing.

For example, Drew Doughty wasn’t a top-five handoff in either of the Kings’ championship years. Patrick Kane never got higher than fifth for the Hawks (and that was in 2015, not in 2010 when he’d just scored the OT winner). Evgeni Malkin has never had a top-three handoff for the Penguins, and while Nicklas Lidstrom was captain for Detroit’s 2008 Cup win, he never got top-five honors in any of 1997, 1998 or 2002.

That’s not to say that big stars never get the Cup early. Future Hall-of-Famers accounted for 25 top-five handoffs, including going first eight times. But most of those were guys who were near the end of their career; the only times that the first handoff went to a star in his 20s would be Mike Modano in 1999 and Scott Niedermayer in 2003, and they were both 29. When it comes to the kiddie table, even the big names have to wait their turn.

Maybe more surprisingly, the Conn Smythe just doesn’t seem to matter at all. In the 18 years that the Conn Smythe was awarded to a player on the winning team that wasn’t the captain, not one has received first handoff honors. Only Brian Leetch in 1994 went second, and only Tim Thomas in 2011 went third. Until Ryan O’Reilly last year, a Conn Smythe winner hadn’t received top-five handoff honors since that Thomas year. And O’Reilly only went fifth.

Bottom line: The voters might do a better job on the Conn Smythe than on the Hart, but the players don’t seem to care.

What it means for this year: This is probably bad news if you have guys like Miro Heiskanen, Tyler Seguin, Brayden Point or Nikita Kucherov in your pool.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Monday, September 21, 2020

Defensemen and goalies win the Conn Smythe but not the Hart. Why?

The NHL will announce the winner of the Hart Trophy tonight. We know it will be a forward, because the finalists are Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, and Artemi Panarin. It’s the third year in a row and tenth time in the last 13 seasons that all three finalists are forwards. Hold that thought.

We’ve also got a Stanley Cup final game tonight, and each team has a defenseman at the top of the Conn Smythe watchlists, with Miro Heiskanen and Victor Hedman emerging as perhaps the two leading candidates. There are forwards from both teams in the mix, and with a dominant performance in the final, either goalie could move to the front of the line. Hold that thought too.

Last week I tried to figure out if a team made up entirely of players who’d won the Hart Trophy as league MVP could beat a team made up of players that hadn’t. It ends up being closer than it probably should be, for a simple reason: There’s a strong positional bias in Hart voting, so while they had a ton of legendary centers to choose from, things got dicey on wing and downright barren on the blueline and in goal.

It’s actually kind of astounding when you dig into it. Only three goalies have won the Hart since the days of Jacques Plante, and only one defenseman has won it since Bobby Orr. That’s crazy, right? It spurred some discussion in the comment section about why exactly we see this. In a league where we’re told that you build a winning team from the net out, where nobody can win without a hot goalie and a stud on the blueline, why do Hart voters only seem to want to recognize forwards?

A consensus quickly formed, and the consensus was that the voters are bad.

That’s… well, it’s maybe not a terrible place to start. As a member of the PHWA, I’m one of those voters, and I think we can all agree that my votes are always good. (Full disclosure, my five-player Hart ballot had four forwards this year.) But with so many of us voting in any given year, individual ballots don’t matter all that much, and a case of groupthink can sway the vote in the wrong direction. Maybe that’s it. The PHWA is just bad at voting for MVPs.

But there’s a possible flaw in that theory, and it’s one I find interesting. The PHWA doesn’t just vote for one MVP award. In addition to the Hart Trophy for regular season excellence, the writers also vote on the Conn Smythe, for playoff MVP. And somewhat weirdly, the Conn Smythe doesn’t really show the same positional bias.

The Hart was introduced in 1924; the Conn Smythe was first awarded in 1965. Here’s how the winners have broken down by position over the years:

Hart Trophy (regular season MVP)


Conn Smythe Trophy (postseason MVP)


Wingers are still having a rough time, but maybe that’s to be expected – up front, center is just a more important position, so we should probably expect to see it represented more in the awards. (And for what it’s worth, wingers have won three of the last seven Conn Smythes.)

But the big takeaway is that goalies and defensemen are getting a fair shake from Conn Smythe voters. Your mileage may vary, but to my eyes that second chart looks a lot more like what I’d expect to see if we’re measuring which players on a hockey team are actually the most valuable.

So what’s going on? Why do voters from the same organization seem to treat two MVP awards so differently?

I asked around, checking in with a few writers who’ve voted for both awards. (I’ve only ever voted for the Hart.) Based on that, and just thinking through the possibilities, I have five theories about what we could be seeing here.

Theory #1: The Conn Smythe voters are different

I said that the PHWA votes on both awards, and that’s true. But it also might be misleading, because it’s not the same group of voters. For the Hart, ballots go out to nearly 200 members from every market in the league. But for the Conn Smythe, the voting list is much smaller, maybe two dozen or so in a typical year, with a mix of national writers and locals who cover the finalists.

That could matter, in a couple of ways. First, the smaller group is made up a lot of recognizable names. You have to have been around a while to get an invite, so the voters should know their stuff. Maybe they’re just smarter, or at least better informed, than the larger Hart voting bloc that occasionally includes writers who cover multiple sports and may not be following the race as closely. Better voters, better results. It’s a possibility.

But having fewer voters might be important in another way, because these two dozen or so writers are presumably all talking to each other. With the Hart and its 200 voters, I can complain all I want about positional bias, but I’m probably not going to move the needle much, if at all. But with the Conn Smythe, one writer who makes a strong case for a goalie or defenseman over intermission popcorn or postgame beers might be able to sway over two or three votes. And with so few in play, that could be enough.

Theory #2: Seeing things in person makes a big difference

The knock against PHWA voters is that when it comes to the Hart Trophy, we just lazily go to the stats page and click “sort by points” and call it a day. As someone who spends hours agonizing over my ballot every year, I can assure that this is not true. It’s never been true. You should ignore anyone who suggests it might be true.

But also, it’s kind of true?

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Friday, September 18, 2020

Puck Soup: Stanley Cup, finally

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Thoughts and picks for Lightning vs. Stars
- We say farewell to the Islanders
- What went wrong in Vegas
- The Eric Staal trade
- Caps get a coach, Coyotes get a GM, Montgomery gets a second chance
- OUFL Tarantino films, 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.

A Stanley Cup Final rooting guide for every other fan base

We’re almost there. After seven weeks in the bubble, zero positive tests, and some surprisingly solid hockey, we’ve got our Stanley Cup Final matchup. Just two teams remain.

Which means, of course, 30 teams on the sidelines. That makes it time for the annual Stanley Cup Final rooting guide, in which we go through each of the other teams to try to figure out which of the conference champions they should be throwing their support behind.

Most years, the results split out pretty close to 50-50. That didn’t happen last year, when the final delivered a matchup between an inspiring underdog and a favorite that was too easy to hate. I’m happy to report that this year’s matchup between the Stars and Lightning gets us back to something close to balance. That’s important, because if we’re all going to spend the next week yelling at each other over bandwagons we just joined, it should at least be a fair fight.

As always, these are merely suggestions, and you are of course not obligated to follow them. If you disagree with my pick for your team, or just feel like you’d prefer rooting for someone else, simply fill out an appeals form and send it to the head office. We’ll notify you of our decision by next month.

In the meantime, here’s who to root for …

Anaheim Ducks
Put it this way: If Corey Perry wins the Cup, everyone has to talk about 2007 a lot. That’s a good thing for Anaheim fans, especially with those glory days feeling further away than ever right now. Add in longtime Duck Andrew Cogliano chasing his first ring, and this one’s easy.

Pick: Stars

Arizona Coyotes
Rick Bowness joined the Coyotes as an assistant in 1999 and was there for five years before getting a shot as head coach … for 20 whole games, before the owner demoted him so he could name himself head coach, despite never having coached before. It did not go great. The Coyotes are one of several teams that should be rooting for Rick Bowness.

Pick: Stars

Boston Bruins
It’s tempting to go with Dallas, thanks to the Anton Khudobin factor, not to mention that the Bruins got smoked by the Lightning. But that series was over so quickly it didn’t really have a chance to elicit as much bad blood as it could have, and seeing the Lightning lose in the final, while vaguely cathartic, wouldn’t really change the fact that they were a better team.

Besides, do Bruins fans really want to read a bunch of seven-year-old “trading away Tyler Seguin was a mistake” takes? Do you really want to have to see this clip a million times next month? Grit your teeth and root for the Lightning to win, so that beating them next year will feel like an even bigger deal.

Pick: Lightning

Buffalo Sabres
The easiest call on the list. The Stars are in a Stanley Cup Final? Sabres fans don’t just get to root against them, they get to wish every misery imaginable on them along the way. Oh, sorry, would that be over the line? That’s OK, it’s the Dallas Stars in the final, nobody notices when someone’s over the line.

Pick: Lightning

Calgary Flames
If the Lightning win and he’s healthy, the Conn Smythe will probably go to Calgary born-and-raised Brayden Point. That and the lingering resentment from a Round 1 loss to Dallas is more than enough.

Pick: Lightning

Carolina Hurricanes
Dallas, for three reasons:

1. Cities that stole teams from traditional markets in the ’90s should stick together.

2. Screw the Lightning, because Southeast Division rivalries never die.

3. If the Stars win, people will say the turning point was when an executive went on an expletive-laden tirade about the team’s best players, and let’s be honest, you could kind of imagine Tom Dundon doing that someday.

Pick: Stars

Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks beat the Lightning in the 2015 final, but only after Ben Bishop got injured, so karma says Chicago fans should root for … wait, I didn’t think this through. Huh.

Do the Blackhawks and Stars even have a rivalry these days? Maybe not, but they did back in the Norris days, and I know Hawks fans have long memories.

Pick: Lightning

Colorado Avalanche
A team that barely beats you in seven games even though half your team is injured and you’re down to your third-string goalie, then rolls through the rest of the playoffs to win the Cup? You do not want that sort of regret in your life.

Pick: Lightning

Columbus Blue Jackets
I’m going with Dallas, for two reasons. First, a Stars win would be a reminder that low-scoring hockey can win. Only two teams in the league saw a combined total of fewer than 370 goals (for and against) in their games this year, a mark that even low-event teams like the Coyotes and Islanders couldn’t reach. Those two teams were the Stars and Blue Jackets, and they even scored an identical 180 goals along the way.

Also, the Blue Jackets’ sweep psychologically decimated the Lighting last year, and you’d hate to see them fully recover from that in just one season.

Pick: Stars

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Which team had the most miserable season one year before a Cup win?

With three weeks left in the playoffs and three teams still standing, we still don’t know who’s going to win the Stanley Cup this year. Depending on who you talk to, we’re not even all that close to knowing who the favorite is.

But here’s one thing that’s likely to be true about this year’s winner: They’re going to have recovered from a pretty miserable ending to their 2018-19 season.

Every ending to a season that doesn’t involve a lap around the ice with the Stanley Cup is going to be miserable in its own way. But some are more miserable than others, and some of those are so awful that you might expect a team to have a hard time recovering. There’s such a thing as a loss that’s so devastating that it ripples past the current moment and wipes out a chunk of the future.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. But maybe not, because if it’s true, some of the teams from this year’s conference final shouldn’t have been here.

Take the Lightning. Their 2018-19 edition rolled through one of the best regular seasons of the modern era, then suffered one of the most shocking and humiliating first-round sweeps in NHL history. The Stars season ended when they blew a 3-2 series lead on a controversial non-call, then dropped a double-OT Game 7 classic against the eventual champs when their captain just missed a chance on a half-empty net. And the Golden Knights were in full control of a Game 7 against a hated rival until a controversial call, a penalty kill disaster and an overtime dagger that capped off one of the most unlikely comebacks ever.

If any of those teams had decided to blow it all up or wobbled off track for a year or two, would you have blamed them? Instead, they were all back and looking better than ever.

The Islanders don’t really fit the narrative, because hockey gods forbid these four teams ever agree on anything. Their 2018-19 ended badly, with a sweep against the Hurricanes, but overall it was a surprisingly successful year, the kind a team can grow on. That’s how it’s supposed to work – a team wins a round one year, then goes to a conference final the next, then finally builds to winning the Cup. One positive step after another.

Often, that’s exactly how it does go. But this year, there’s a good chance that one team is going to write one hell of a short-term recovery story.

So today, let’s set the stage with a look back on NHL history, and a question: Which Stanley Cup champion recovered from the most agonizing end to their previous season? We’re not just looking for teams that had disappointing seasons, with an early exit or even missing the playoffs altogether. We’re looking for style points, with as much pain as possible in how it all ended. Let’s really twist the knife.

I’ve picked 10 teams from modern history; let’s count them down from the merely horrific to the outright unconscionable.

10. 2017-18 St. Louis Blues

We all know the story of the 2019 Blues and their Gloria-inspired journey from dead last in January to Stanley Cup champions in June. It’s a great tale, and if you’re looking for a comeback story, those six months are really all you need.

That makes it easy to forget about the Blues’ 2017-18 season. Which is probably a good thing, because man, did that ever end badly.

Most of the entries on this list will be about miserable playoff losses, with Game 7 collapses or controversies. The 2017-18 Blues didn’t even get that. After six straight years of making the playoffs, including a trip to the conference final, the Blues were looking to build on sustained success. And despite some ups and downs, they were in decent shape heading down the stretch. After a March 27 win over the Sharks, the Blues were sixth in the West, part of a four-team logjam fighting for three playoff spots. They had six games left, including two against the struggling Hawks and one against the last-place Coyotes. All under control.

Then it all went off the rails. The Blues lost four straight, including an embarrassing 6-0 loss to the Coyotes. That set up a desperate final weekend, and after a win over Chicago snapped the streak, it was down to a winner-take-all finale against an Avalanche team that had been the worst in the league a season prior. The Blues lost that one 5-2, missed the playoffs, and some of us wrote them off as serious contenders. In hindsight, possibly incorrectly.

9. 2000-01 Detroit Red Wings

The 2002 Wings are one of my favorite teams ever. Just a roster stacked with future Hall of Famers, from longtime Wings like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan to ringers like Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull, almost all of them old and expensive. It is, quite literally, the sort of team we could never see again in the cap era.

But if you went back to the spring of 2001, you’d have found plenty of fans who thought the Wings were all but done. They’d put together a strong 2000-2001 season, one that saw them rack up 111 points, tied for second in the NHL. But it all fell apart in the playoffs against a Kings team they should have beaten easily. The Wings cruised through the first two games with wins by a combined score of 9-3, then lost four straight one-goal games, including two in overtime. To make matters worse, Yzerman and Shanahan both got hurt in Round 1, building a narrative that the Red Wings were too old and beaten up to go the distance again.

No less an authority than Sports Illustrated was writing articles about how the 2001 postseason could be “the last dance for the NHL’s oldest team.” And it really did feel that way. But rather than hit the reset button, the Wings doubled down on even older names, and it paid off. And we mostly forgot about those disastrous two weeks the year before.

8. 1978-79 New York Islanders

When we look back at the Al Arbour era of Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Mike Bossy, we naturally tend to jump ahead to the dynasty. But that leaves out some really strong seasons, including thee 1978-79 squad, a 51-win powerhouse that finished with a league-leading 116 points.

They continued to roll in the playoffs, knocking off an overmatched Hawks team in four straight. That set up a meeting with a Rangers team they’d finished 25 points ahead of during the season. But they lost the series in six, with most of the big names disappearing. Bossy had one goal, Trottier had two points and Clark Gillies had one point as John Davidson shut the door for the Rangers.

That Rangers team was good, but wasn’t especially well-respected; you may remember Don Cherry calling them a “piece of cake” opponent for whoever faced them in the final. But the Islanders couldn’t get past them, and at the time there were some who were starting to wonder if Arbour’s boys would ever break through.

And yes, this was during the “Potvin Sucks” era. But it had just started – the Ulf Nilsson hit had come just a few months earlier – which had to make it even worse.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Monday, September 14, 2020

Does a team made up entirely of Hart Trophy winners beat a team made up of everyone else?

Here’s something neat: There are only two Hart Trophy winners left in the 2020 playoffs, one in each conference. That would be Nikita Kucherov of the Lightning, and Corey Perry of the Stars (who won it with the Ducks). Each series features an MVP facing a team that doesn’t have any. Cool, right? Great, now that I’ve found a way to loosely give today’s post a current events hook, let’s get to the weird roster question I wanted to do anyway.

It started, as these things tend to do, with a question from a reader: Would an all-time NHL team made up exclusively of Hart Trophy winners beat an all-time team made up of everybody else?

It nearly ended with an immediate answer: Yes, of course they would, duh.

I mean, it’s the Hart Trophy. The MVP of the league. It’s been awarded 92 times, to 56 different players, and those 56 players represent the very best the league has ever had to offer. You build a team using just those players, you’re going to be looking at pretty close to the best roster that’s even possible. Where’s the debate?

But as I’ve learned in the past, sometimes these things aren’t as easy as they look. So OK, let’s do this. An all-MVP squad against a team made up of everybody else.

But First, A Few Ground Rules™:

  • We’re filling out a 20-man roster where position matters. We don’t care about handedness for defensemen, but everyone else sticks to where they played in their Hart season. No playing out of position, no centers moving over to wings, etc.
  • For guys who moved around in their career, we’ll use the hockey-reference guide as the arbiter of who was playing which position when.
  • I don’t have a third rule but always feel like this section needs three bullet points.

Team All Hart vs Team No Hart, who you got?

Center: Team All Hart

It’s almost an embarrassment of riches. Let’s start with Wayne Gretzky, whose nine career Harts stands as the all-time record. Next up, give me Mario Lemieux. Gretzky and Lemieux combined to win 12 of 17 trophies during one stretch of the 80s and 90s, which didn’t leave much hardware for the rest of the league during that era. That might create a bit of an opening for Team No Hart, but with the two greatest of all-time already in the lineup, Team All Hart isn’t worried.

The challenge with our next two slots is wading through all the options, because pretty much all of the greateest centers in NHL history are here for the taking. I’m going to go with a mix of Original Six and the modern era, with Jean Beliveau and Sidney Crosby, which means I’m cutting legends like Phil Esposito, Bobby Clarke, Mark Messier, Howie Morenz and Stan Mikita. Modern stats like Connor McDavid, Joe Thornton and Evgeni Malkin barely even make the conversation.

Sidney Crosby is my fourth-line center. What are we even doing here? This is going to be a massacre.

Center: Team No Hart

As expected, the Gretzky/Lemieux era at least yields some decent 1980s options. I’ll go with Steve Yzerman, who did win a Pearson as the players’ pick back in 1989, and Dale Hawerchuk, who was runner-up to Gretzky in 1985. They’ll center my middle six, but my first-line spot will go to a guy who ranks as the best center to never win an MVP or a Cup: Marcel Dionne, who won the Pearson twice and was a Hart finalist for three straight years from 1979 to 1981, but never won.

I’ve decided I want a Selke winner for my fourth line, since I’m going to need somebody to shut down Gretzky and friends. I could go with Pavel Datsyuk, or an active player like Patrice Bergeron or Jonathan Toews. But I’m going to aim for a bigger offensive threat in another 80s/90s star: Ron Francis, who combines with Dionne and Yzerman to give me three of the seven top scorers of all-time. That’s not Gretzky or Lemieux, but it’s better than I thought we could do. And while I didn’t have anywhere near as many options to choose from as the All Harts, I’ve left off other top-20 options like Doug Gilmour and Adam Oates.

So yeah, not bad. But still, center is a clear win for the Harts. One position in, the No Harts have some serious work to do if this is going to be competitive.

Right Wing: Team All Hart

For a brief moment, my unwavering confidence in Team All Hart takes a hit, with the realization that the number of MVPs who played right wing is significantly smaller than what we had to work with at center. We had 49 seasons of centers to work with, but the award has been given to someone who was primarily listed at RW on 18 occasions – and Gordie Howe accounts for a third of those. This is about to get tougher.

But not that much tougher, because a lot of these guys were really good. We’ll start with the obvious pick, and go ahead and slot Gordie Howe on Gretzky’s wing. And we can follow that up with another slam dunk in Rocket Richard, who somewhat surprisingly only won the Hart once but still makes the cut. After those two Original Six legends, we have to lower our standards all the way down to the second-leading scorer in NHL history, as Jaromir Jagr joins the team on the strength of his 1999 award.

While we still have access to old-timers like Andy Bathgate and Boom Geoffrion as well as modern stars like Patrick Kane and Nikita Kucherov, the fourth spot really comes down to two names: Brett Hull and Guy Lafleur. The Flower won the award twice, while the Golden Brett only captured it once. But I think Hull’s 80-goal peak is just too much to ignore. Besides, what kind of powerhouse could pass on a 700-goal man? Brett Hull gets the last slot.

Good luck matching that foursome, Team No Hart.

Right Wing: Team No Hart

Well, hold on. These guys are actually going to be pretty good.

Let’s start with arguably the best pure goal scorer to ever play the position: Mike Bossy, who had six top-ten finishes but never won a Hart despite regularly scoring 50 or 60 a year. We’ll follow him with roughly 1,300 goals worth of Dead Puck Era production from Teemu Selanne and Jarome Iginla. Selanne was a finalist in 1998, while Iginla absolutely should have won in 2002 but lost a tie-breaker to Jose Theodore. It was one of the worst votes in the award’s history, and Team No Hart is glad it happened.

For our fourth spot, we could look at Mark Recchi and Marian Hossa. But I said I wanted a checking line, so let’s go with two-way artist Jari Kurri. His 601 goals means that Mike Bossy is somehow the lowest-scoring right winger on the team. That’s a lot of scoring depth. How much? Well, remember how Team All Hart didn’t have the nerve to leave a 700-goal sniper off the roster? Team No Hart went and did it, with Mike Gartner failing to make the team.

All in all, you still have to give the edge to Team All Heat. But it’s only an edge, as this position is a lot closer than the center slot.

On to the other wing…

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Friday, September 11, 2020

Grab Bag: Playoff excuses, ultimate losers and Alex Trebek with a mullet

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- My spies have gathered excuses from the NHL's playoff losers
- Where things stand with a possibly historic Ultimate Loser race
- An obscure player who shares a record with Wayn Gretzky and Joe Pavelski
- The month's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at Alex Trebek, his mullet, and the cheesy glory of the 1993 NHL awards

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Thursday, September 10, 2020

Puck Soup: And then there were four

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Catching up on the conference finals
- Saying goodbye to the teams we've lost since our last show
- Early NHL awards thoughts
- Lehner vs. Fleury, McGuire misses another GM's job, and Babcock to Washington?
- Zombies, arcade fighting games, gender reveals
- And the return of 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.

A futile attempt to learn something from all four remaining teams

We’re down to four teams left in the playoffs, and that means it’s time for one of the NHL’s most cherished annual traditions: Looking at the final four and deciding that everyone needs to be just like them.

It’s a copycat league, after all, and we’ve already tried to figure out what lessons we can learn from individual teams. Teams love to point at the winners and say “Let’s be that”. And with two rounds left, we should be able to find some key elements that all four contenders have in common.

Or at least, you’d think we’d be able to do that. This year’s final four turns out to have an annoying habit of using three teams to teach us something important, then having the last team show up and ruin it. Trust me, it gets annoying. So today, let’s comb through some of the important lessons that we can learn from the final four, as long as you ignore one of them.

Lesson 1: The NHL is a two-goalie league now

The lesson: Legendary teams of that past would ride one goalie all the way through the playoffs. But while that worked in the days of Brodeur, Roy and Belfour, today’s contenders need two goalies they can trust. Between injuries, fatigue, slumps and the dreaded back-to-back, you’re going to need both guys to play, and they have to be able to play well.

Look at the Stars, where Ben Bishop put up a Vezina-caliber regular season, but has been hurt for most of the playoffs. Anton Khudobin has stepped in and played just well enough to keep the Stars in the running while they wait to see if Bishop can return. Then there’s the Islanders, who’ve spent the last two seasons deploying a platoon system in goal. Semyon Varlamov has mostly handled the load in the playoffs, but when he started to falter against the Flyers, Barry Trotz didn’t hesitate to switch to Thomas Greiss for a winner-take-all Game 7. It worked, with Greiss posting a shutout. And when Greiss struggled in Game 1 against Tampa, it was right back to Varlamov.

And then there’s the most obvious example: the Golden Knights, who went out and got Robin Lehner even though they already had a goalie with tons of playoff experience. The decision to go with a two-goalie system hasn’t exactly been a popular one with everyone involved, but it’s working.

Teams around the NHL are already learning this lesson. Even the Canadiens, with the highest-paid goalie in the league, went out and traded for a reliable backup. That’s the modern NHL, where you need two goalies.

Except…: The Lightning are going old-school with Andrei Vasilevskiy, and it’s working fine. He’s their undisputed number one, with a big contract kicking in next year, and it’s his net. In fact, there’s a decent chance you’re not even sure who the Lightning’s back even is. It’s Curtis McElhinney, if you’re wondering, but the 37-year-old hasn’t seen the ice for so much as a minute this postseason. And barring an injury, it’s almost impossible to imagine him getting a start.

Apparently, you can win just fine with one goalie after all. Huh. OK, on to the next lesson.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Let’s all boo the 2020 Playoff Disappointment Team

We’ve finished two rounds of the NHL playoffs. Or maybe three, if you count the play-in. Did we ever decide if that counted? I’m not sure we did. I feel like we all kind of just collectively decided not to think about it, and I respect that.

Either way, a tournament that started with 24 teams has seen 20 of them go home. Chances are, that includes your team. And you know what that means: It’s time to pick one specific player to point at while yelling “THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!”

OK, that might be a bit extreme. Still, blaming an entire lost season on one guy having a bad few weeks is an important hockey tradition, and we’re all looking for ways to cling to normalcy these days. So let’s do it. Let’s break out the annual Playoff Disappointment Team.

We do this every year, but this season comes with a twist. Since we’ve had 20 teams eliminated, that means we can build a 20-man roster using exactly one player from each of the losers. In some cases, that’s going to make for a tough call, since let’s just say a few of these teams bring more candidates to the table than others. That’s OK, we’re up for the challenge. Unlike these chumps.

Get out your torches and pitchforks, and let’s start blaming some world-class athletes for not living up to our standards.


Jordan Binnington, Blues
We’ll start with one of the more obvious picks, as Binnington just couldn’t recapture the magic from last year’s run. In fact, we may as well just say it: He was bad. Not streaky, not inconsistent… bad. His final stat line includes an .851 save percentage and 4.72 GAA. Those are numbers that would get you benched in the 1980s, let alone today.

But maybe most impressive of all, he claimed a spot next to Wayne Gretzky’s 92 goals and Bobby Orr’s +124 on the list of unbreakable hockey records by becoming the first goalie in NHL history to finish a postseason 0-and-5.

Pavel Francouz, Avalanche
This feels like a weird pick, and maybe it is, because it’s hard to find anyone on the beaten-and-battered Avalanche who really played badly. And to be clear, we’re not blaming Francouz for getting hurt. But before he followed Philipp Grubauer to the injured list, Francouz stepped in to start the first four games of the Dallas series. And he was, well, not great. He gave up 15 goals while posting an ugly .862 save percentage, and the Avalanche found themselves in a 3-1 hole that they couldn’t quite climb out of. Then he got hurt, and maybe we’ll find out he was less than 100% during the series. But as it stands, it was a rough ending to what had been a surprisingly strong season by a 30-year-old who’s still technically a rookie.

Hockey fans know that sometimes, your team just loses to a hot goalie on the other side. The unfortunate truth is that it can work the other way, and a cold goalie can cost the better team a series. That may have happened here.


Jack Johnson, Penguins
The Penguins came into the postseason with high hopes, then made a quick exit at the hands of a 12-seed. Not surprisingly, they’ve got plenty of candidates for this squad, and if you wanted to go with a bigger name like Kris Letang or even Evgeni Malkin, you’d have a case. But our spot goes to Johnson, who’s disastrous series had observers tossing around phrases like “fundamentally hopeless”. When your GM has to specifically defend your continued employment after the series, you’ve had a rough postseason.

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Friday, September 4, 2020

Mailbag: Would you win a Stanley Cup with a team of 20 Connor McDavids, including in net?

It’s been a busy week for me around here, with deeply reported features on important subjects like hockey sudokus and annoying commercials. We should probably end the week with something a bit lighter, so let’s do a mailbag.

(Man, doing sudokus and complaining about commercials? I might officially be old and crotchety. Here’s hoping my loyal readers can make me feel young again.)

I’ve been reading DGB since 2013, when I was in fifth grade. – Josh B.

Bad start!

Could a team of all Connor McDavids, including in net, win the Stanley Cup? Personally, I think it’s an obvious yes, so let’s make it interesting. Where do you draw the line? Could Team MacKinnon win it all? Zibanejad? Kopitar? Subban? Barkov? Girgensons? – Josh B.

Solid recovery, Josh. But I don’t know if this is the obvious yes you think it is. Connor McDavid in goal would be terrible. Have you ever had your regular goalie no-show your rec league game, and somebody who doesn’t usually play goal has to gear up and go in? It’s always a disaster. Granted, a pro athlete with excellent conditioning and instincts isn’t quite the same as your buddy with the beer gut. But when was the last time McDavid played goal on skates? Maybe when he was eight or nine, if ever? Put it this way, there’s a reason why when a real NHL team ran out of goalies, the Hurricanes went with a 42-year-old Zamboni driver who vaguely knew what he was doing instead of Sebastian Aho or Jacob Slavin.

So yeah, Goalie McDavid gets absolutely shelled against NHL competition. He’s probably lucky if he posts a save percentage north of .600 against NHL opponents. So the question becomes whether those 18 McDavids in front of him can dominate enough to make up for it, and I don’t think that’s completely out of the question. The team-wide speed would be insane, and opponents couldn’t even game-plan for it. When you’re facing one McDavid, you can work the matchups and get your best defensive players out there as often as possible, and just try to break even until he goes off. With a whole team full, you’re eventually going to have put your fourth line out there. And they’re not facing one McDavid, but five. There would be a lot of shifts where the other team never touched the puck.

By the way, do we assume that the cloned McDavids all have that matching DNA mind-reading powers than the Sedin twins had? I think we have to. I’m factoring that in.

Bottom line, I could see Team McDavid winning a few games where they outshoot the opposition by like 80 to 15 and win 8-7. But could they do it four out of seven, four times in a row? It’s a tough ask. I think it’s possible, but I’m not calling it likely. And once you get past a team full of MacKinnons, Crosbys, and a handful of others, I’m not sure anyone is going to be good enough to make up for having a sieve in net.

(Wait, do you pull the goalie and play the whole game 6-on-5, maybe with one McDavid hanging back as a rover in his own end? Hmm…)

Which Stanley Cup final, if the results were reversed, would most change hockey history?

From the Red Wings’ perspective, the two losses (’95 to New Jersey, which could have stopped the trap from popularizing; ’09 to Pittsburgh, which would’ve given us years of wondering if Crosby could win) both seem like things could have been different with a Red Wings victory. – Gord F.

This is a good one. I’ve come up with a top ten, limited to the modern era.

10. 2016 and 2017 (tie) – The Predators and Sharks are still good teams that never managed to win the big one. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby’s multiple Cups allow him to ascend from the superstar tier to sit among the all-time greats.

9. 1974 – The first Cup win by an expansion team didn’t exactly redefine how hockey was played, but watching the Broad Street Bullies brawl their way to a title certainly had an impact on how the game would be played for the rest of the 70s and well into the 80s.

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Thursday, September 3, 2020

Puck Soup: Goalie soap operas

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Catching up on all the playoff action
- Did the Stars make the right call with Ben Bishop?
- The Blues and Canadiens make an interesting deal
- One team finds its new GM, one team is still looking
- Should the Jets trade Patrik Laine?
- We open up the mailbag, and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

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

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

An American and a Canadian show each other their country's worst playoff ads

The wonderful thing about the NHL playoffs is that you never know what you’re going to get. Every time you sit down in front of your TV to watch a game, the possibilities feel endless. The postseason is full of wild upsets, crazy bounces, unexpected heroes and goats and sudden death chaos. It can start to feel random, maybe even too random, but it’s never predictable.

And then comes the commercial break. And you know exactly what you’re going to get.

That’s because the NHL’s sponsors apparently make roughly a dozen new commercials in any given year, and then play them on an endless loop during the playoffs. It’s the same ads, several times a night. And they’re almost always terrible.

You know this. But here’s something that might not have occurred to you: The ads that play over and over again during hockey in Canada and the United States are different.

Not entirely different; there’s a handful of crossovers. (What’s up, Martin Brodeur?) But for the most part, Americans and Canadians are seeing different commercials. And that means that when you go online to complain about that horrible ad you just saw for the 20th time, most of your fellow fans across the border have no idea what you’re talking about.

I wanted to fix this. So I found an American volunteer, Sean Gentille, who agreed to watch three of my least favorite Canadian hockey ads. He’s also got three annoying American ones to show me. We’ll be seeing each of the ads for the very first time, and reacting in real-time for your amusement. It should be fun. Or maybe the exact opposite of fun. Probably that.

Y’all ready for this?

Pregame strategy

McIndoe: My first challenge was narrowing down the list to three, which involved some heartbreaking late cuts. Sorry, incredibly yellow no-name brand amateurs. Pack your stuff, old lady who dances about laundry freshener. You too, toe fungus guy, motivational Sportsnet dude and all those weirdos fantasizing about cars.

Instead, I’ve made the strategic decision to ease in Sean with a leadoff ad that isn’t completely awful, and that features a celebrity guest star he’ll recognize. Lull him into a false sense of security. Then wham, I’m going to hit him with a one-two punch that should ruin his day.

Also, I’m both deeply excited and vaguely terrified to finally understand all your taxidermy/tax attorney jokes.

Gentille: My top three was cast in cement by the end of the play-in round, but I still floated the question on Twitter to see if I was missing something obvious. All apologies to John Stamos, the Liberty Mutual “LiMu Emu” and the Geico “Aunts Infestation,” but nothing changed.

Folks, I held the hammer in this one. Nobody denies this. Idina Menzel herself knows it to be true. The toughest choice was trying to figure it out which respective Dunkin’ and Subway ads would round out my lineup.

Commercial No. 1

McIndoe: Let’s do this. Do you want to kick or receive?

Gentille: Receive, baby.

McIndoe: OK. I’m going to start you out with one that I don’t think is actually all that bad. But it airs roughly 700 times during every game, so take it in that context.

McIndoe: Rabbity babbity boo!

Gentille: So what we’ve got here is a famous person engaged in an annoying act? One that sort of winks and says, “Yep, we know this is annoying. That’s the conceit. Isn’t that funny? The juxtaposition of a vaguely charming celebrity, doing something awful that’ll burrow into your brain and make your life a little worse?”

That’s part of American and Canada’s shared culture, I guess. You’re going to get your own taste here shortly — and buddy, it’s a lot worse.

McIndoe: I can’t wait.

For background, this ad is part of an ongoing series that’s been running for years, starring Jon Hamm and, um, Skinny Young Jon Hamm. I don’t think it’s ever been firmly established what the relationship is supposed to be, but I think the kid is maybe his assistant and most of the ads revolve around Hamm subjecting him to some low-level psychological abuse.

Gentille: I’m assuming SkipTheDishes is a meal-delivery service. Do you guys not have Postmates or DoorDash?

McIndoe: I want to say no, but it’s possible that we have them and I just don’t realize it because they never hired Jon Hamm and bought up all the advertising slots on Hockey Night in Canada.

Gentille: All this does is open the door for a U.S. Grubhub ad starring Jim from The Office. I’m surprised it doesn’t already exist. Honestly, though, I’m kind of impressed by the guts this takes from the ad agency. If we were doing a draft of The Most Annoying Professions, “auctioneer” would be a lottery pick. And that’s what they chose — proudly, one would assume — to feature here. Next up: Jon Hamm in character as a mime. (I don’t like mimes.)

McIndoe: Rabbity babbity boo!

I plan to keep doing that constantly, by the way. I want you to have to live in my world for a bit.


McIndoe: I do not understand what that means.

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Monday, August 31, 2020

Which NHL team wins the hockey sudoku challenge?

The last few months have been rough, and we’ve all been finding our own ways to cope and stay sane. For me, that’s included stumbling into a weird but apparently thriving online subculture: Watching other people do sudokus.

You remember sudokus. The little boxed number puzzles were a fad years ago; you probably bought a large-print book full of them at the drug store checkout when you realized you needed a gift for your grandparents. Well, it turns out they’re still a thing. And while I’m not very good at actually doing them, it’s oddly soothing to watch polite British dudes solve weird variations, especially when they get overly excited about some breakthrough and then start getting poetic about it.

Unfortunately, because my brain is broken, I eventually started wondering how I could apply all this to hockey.

Among other rules, the point of sudoku is that you have to fit all the numbers into the grid without any duplicates along any line. So here’s my hockey version: What’s the best six-man starting lineup you can make for a given team out of players whose jersey numbers combine to use each digit once and only once?

It should be simple, right? We’ve got 10 digits to work with, zero through nine, and six positions to fill. You need three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie, and you only get credit for what the player did on that team while wearing that number.

The strategy is nice and straightforward: Start with a few stars, fill in the best players you can find based on the numbers you have left, and you’re all set. This should be fun, a nice relaxing diversion we could all probably use right now. Or it will be way harder than it looks and ruin everyone’s day.

As always, I’ll try to polish off about a dozen and then turn the rest of the league over to you.

Edmonton Oilers

I like starting with the Oilers with this sort of thing, because in theory they should be one of the easiest teams to work with. They have a star-studded dynasty from the ’80s and two of the best players of today, so we should be all set. If they turn out to be tougher than expected, that will tell us something.

Let’s start with the first limitation our format hits us with, one you probably figured out already: We can’t have any double numbers. If we can only use the number 9 once in our lineup, that means Wayne Gretzky and his 99 are lost to us. We also lose Mark Messier (11) to the same limitation. So right away, the Oilers drop some obvious candidates.

They don’t lose Connor McDavid, so we can build our team around him and his 97. Or can we? By using up that 9, we’re wiping out Glenn Anderson, not to mention Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Doug Weight and Ryan Smyth. And that 7 cleans out most of the rest of the dynasty in Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri. I still feel like we have to go with McDavid, but man, it’s a costly choice.

We need some representation from those 1980s Cup winners, so I’m going to go ahead and drop in Kevin Lowe and his 4. The other obvious name is Grant Fuhr, whose 31 would cover off two more digits. But let’s hold that thought, because the Oilers are about to teach us another important lesson about this exercise: That 0 is going to be important. With apologies to Neil Sheehy, zero is the only number that can’t yield a single-digit player, so we need to find somebody who wore 10 or 20 or 30 or so on. And there just aren’t a lot of legendary players who did that. If a team has a great 0 option, they’re going to have an advantage.

The Oilers, with apologies to Ilya Bryzgalov, Sébastien Bisaillon and Stuart Skinner, really don’t. I think we have two options here: Use Esa Tikkanen and his 10, or Bill Ranford and his 30, both of which cost us Fuhr. I think we have to go with the Conn Smythe-winning Ranford here, and save that 1 to get us a forward in the teens.

That leaves us with 1, 2, 5, 6 and 8 for two forwards and a defenseman, one of which has to be single digits. I think there’s a good candidate there on the blue line in Steve Smith’s 5, leaving us with two spots to fill up front. We can do that with Todd Marchant (26) and Craig Simpson (18), which is … not great? Given everything we had to work with, I feel like it’s not great.

Forwards: Connor McDavid (97), Todd Marchant (26), Craig Simpson (18)

Defense: Kevin Lowe (4), Steve Smith (5)

Goalie: Bill Ranford (30)

There has to be a better Oilers combo out there, and I suspect it involves dropping McDavid and starting with Kurri and Draisaitl. But for now, let’s go with this as our proof-of-concept and move on to another team that should be easier.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins are a team with a history of weird numbers ranging from high to low, so there should be plenty to work with here. But right off the bat, our no-doubles limitation means we lose Mario Lemieux, not to mention the Pittsburgh edition of Coffey and Larry Murphy. The good news is that at least we can use Sidney Crosby.

Or can we? His 87 costs us Jaromir Jagr’s 68 and Evgeni Malkin’s 71. Is that a trade we want to make? Seems like we’d rather have both those guys. Then again, Malkin would cost us Ron Francis, whose 10 seems like it will be our best option for a zero. We haven’t even got past the superstars and it’s already a bit of a mess. Let’s come back to that one.

We do have two solid options in goal, with Tom Barrasso’s 35 or Marc-André Fleury’s 29 both covering off a pair of numbers we’re not using yet. But there’s a problem forming on the blue line. We’re not going to be able to use Kris Letang’s 58 thanks to Crosby or Jagr already claiming the 8, while no doubles means we lose not only Coffey and Murphy but also Sergei Gonchar, Brooks Orpik and Darius Kasparaitis. Even Randy Carlyle’s 25 is lost to either one of our goalie options. Our single-digit options aren’t especially strong either.

This is a mess. At one point, I was seriously considering a lineup with both Pascal Dupuis and Ian Moran. For the Penguins, a team that’s won the Stanley Cup five times. This game is either a lot harder than I thought or I’m bad at it. Either way, I’m filled with regret right now, thanks for asking.

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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Puck Soup: The NHL misses its moment

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- On the night that sports stopped, the NHL goes ahead with the games
- What we think of that, and what might come next
- Why I don't want to hear about how you don't politics mixed with your sports
- Plus the Marc-Andre Fleury story, a Leafs trade, a coach firing, a quiz and lots more

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

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

The playoff performer Hall of Fame (for non-Hall-of-Famers)

Ah, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That magical time of year when reputations are made, legacies are written, and superstars become legends.

Of course, it’s also the time of the year when pretty ordinary players can become legends too. That’s one of my favorite parts. For some reason — a knack for the clutch, an abundance of heart, or just the joy of small sample sizes — certain players seem to level up in the postseason. Some were already stars, some were borderline scrubs, but they found a way to elevate their game when it mattered most.

There’s no such thing as the NHL Playoffs Hall of Fame. But there should be. So today, let’s honor those players who took their game to the next level when it mattered most by building a roster’s worth of inductees.

There’s one important criteria for making our squad: The player can’t already be in the real Hall of Fame. Spoiler alert: Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr were all really good in the playoffs too. There’s no fun in that. So we’re only looking for playoff heroes who haven’t been inducted into the real Hall. (In the same spirit, we’re also ruling out active players, and recently retired ones who aren’t eligible yet.)

We need 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies, and maybe a few Black Aces along the way. We won’t worry too much about position beyond that, because it’s the playoffs and everyone will do what they need to do to help the team. Let’s remember some guys.

First Line

Barry Pederson
Today, most fans know Pederson as a key piece of one of the most lopsided trades of all-time. He was the guy that the Canucks acquired in 1986 in exchange for both a first-round pick and a young Cam Neely. It’s probably the worst trade in Canucks history.

But there’s a reason that Vancouver gave up so much to get Pederson: He was really good in the playoffs. Like, historically good. In four postseasons from 1982 through 1986, Pederson appeared in 34 playoff games for the Bruins, and he racked up 22 goals and 52 points in those games. That total includes his 1983 run, in which he banked 32 points in 17 games.

All told, Pederson’s lifetime points per game in the playoffs of 1.53 ranks behind only Gretzky and Lemieux among players with 10 games. The next three guys on the list: Mark Messier, Mike Bossy and Orr.

Ironically, injuries and diminished production meant Pederson never played another postseason game after the trade. But he did get his name on the Stanley Cup with the 1991 Penguins, along with our next guy…

Kevin Stevens
If you run a list of the top 40 postseasons by points scored, it won’t surprise you to see a lot of names show up multiple times. Gretzky is there six times. Messier has four. Lemieux, somewhat surprisingly, only has two. Jari Kurri, Doug Gilmour and Bryan Trottier show up a few times each.

But only one player who isn’t in the Hall of Fame manages the feat, and that’s Stevens. And that’s because in the early 90’s, Stevens was a freaking beast. He had 33 points in the Pens’ first Cup run in 1991, then followed it up with 28 more in 1992. More impressive, his 30 goals in those two years ties him with Gretzky for the most in consecutive postseasons by anyone other than Bossy, Kurri or Lemieux.

He was on his way to a three-peat, with 16 points through 12 games in 1993, when tragedy struck. A brutal fluke injury against the Islanders ended his season and, indirectly, his career as in impact player. It might be hyperbole to say it cost the Penguins a third straight Cup, but I’m not entirely convinced it would be wrong. Stevens was that good.

Reggie Leach
He has to be on the team, because it’s possible that nobody ever had a playoff run quite like Leach’s masterpiece back in 1976. It’s not easy to follow up a 61-goal season by finding another gear in the playoffs, but that’s what Leach did when he set an all-time record with 19 playoff goals that year, a mark that still hasn’t been beaten to this day – guys like Gretzky, Bossy and Lemieux cleared 15 in a postseason, but never topped Leach’s mark. It wasn’t quite enough to lead the Flyers to a third straight Cup, but it did earn Leach the Conn Smythe, making him the only non-goalie from a losing team to ever win it.

Leach had some other solid postseason runs, including 16 points in 1980, so he wasn’t a one-hit wonder in the same way as some other guys we’ll meet. But man, his biggest hit was an all-timer.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

DGB vs. Mirtle: Are the Canucks now "Canada's Team"?

Like many great stories here at The Athletic, this all started with a Twitter argument.

One of us has a soft spot for the annual conversation over whether or not the last remaining NHL team from Canada — in this case, the Vancouver Canucks — should be deemed “Canada’s Team” and gain the resulting bandwagon fans.

The other person, however, thinks this is really dumb.

When we put the question to a poll on social media, meanwhile, the audience was split, nearly 50-50.

To settle this polarizing, important debate once and for all, we bring you this.

Mirtle: So, Sean, the second round has started and again in this country we’re down to one last hope in the playoffs, the Vancouver Canucks. Not a lot of confusion over who people should be cheering for, given there’s only one choice for Canada’s Team. Go Canucks! Hope they can end the 27-year drought.

McIndoe: James.

Mirtle: It’s been so long! Remember Montreal back in 1993? I was on a Grade 7 graduation field trip to Big Bar Ranch during that series. Ride a horse during the day, watch Kelly Hrudey let in some goals at night. That’s … a long time ago. So we need the Cup to come home, no? Give millennials something to get excited about?

OK, so I’m going a bit overboard. But there’s this great resistance to the idea of “Canada’s Team” among hockey fans in general that I think is a little unfair. It’s more something for casual fans to rally behind, the idea that there’s a city from this country still involved in the tournament.

It’s not like Canadian teams are in the finals all the time like in the ’80s — I think some fans just want something to care about once their team is eliminated. (Usually very early.)

McIndoe: Anyone who’s been reading me over the years knows where I’m going to go on this, but let’s be clear: Unless it’s an Olympics or world juniors, there’s no such thing as “Canada’s Team.”

Yes, there’s a drought. We all know about it. And we all want to see it end. But here’s the thing — we only want to see our team be the one to end it. That team (and city and fan base) will be the one to get all the bragging rights. Why should I want the Canucks and their fans to have all that fun?

Mirtle: Because the percentage of hockey fans that have that deep a level of animosity for teams on the other side of the country is pretty small? I mean, when your team (the Leafs) goes out early, do you just spite watch the rest of the tournament? There’s no joy left? Who do you root for?

I can see not wanting to get behind, say, the Senators, but Vancouver? That’s not a direct rival! And you’ve been there on vacation with your family without using a passport and, hey, good for them. You’d rather see Dallas win again than a team in Canada? That feels … weird.

McIndoe: First of all, never underestimate the animosity that hockey fans are capable of. We’re a very bitter and jaded bunch. We want our team to win, sure, but we also know that in a 31-team league, the odds of that are slim. So we want as many other fans as possible to be as sad as we are. Yeah, my team lost, but so did yours, so we all get to be miserable together.

It’s possible I’m projecting here. But I don’t think I’m alone.

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Monday, August 24, 2020

In a copycat NHL, 8 lessons to learn from the 8 remaining teams

The NHL is a copycat league.

We know that, because we hear it all the time. That’s especially true around playoff time, as the list of eliminations grows and those teams try to figure out what went wrong. Inevitably, as we narrow down the field and eventually crown a champion, everyone comes up with the same plan: Point at whoever won and say “do what they did”.

Of course, those lessons keep changing. If a big team wins the Cup, everyone wants size. If it’s a smaller team, we pivot to speed and skill. You need a stud blueliner, unless you don’t. Never spend big on goaltending, unless you should. Build around veteran depth, but stay young. Make trades, but don’t disrupt chemistry, and sign lots of free agents, but don’t mess up your cap.

What lessons will we learn from 2020? Nobody knows yet. But based on the teams that are left, there are some lessons that fans can hope the league will learn. After all, some ideas and concepts just make the NHL more fun, and all else being equal we should hope that teams decide to copy those. So today, let’s take a look at the eight teams left, and take a fan’s perspective on the copycat lesson we’d like to see everyone learn from them.

(Will it all be wishful thinking when GMs inevitably include that the answer is “more grit”? Yes, but shut up, let us have hope.)

The team: Vegas Golden Knights

The lesson: You can still trade your way to a championship.

Remember trading? Trading was fun. For you kids out there, teams used to occasionally exchange assets, often in large transactions that we used to call blockbusters. This was back before the salary cap made every GM’s job too hard. Ask your grandparents, they’ll tell you.

OK, I’m getting dramatic here, and this is a topic I may have already mentioned once or twice or roughly a million times. Trading is still part of the NHL, even if we don’t see the sort of wide-ranging moves that we used to. But for many teams, it doesn’t seem to be a priority. Build through the draft, the thinking goes, and then supplement with a few well-timed moves only when the moment’s right.

The Knights didn’t do that. Granted, they kind of couldn’t; being an expansion team has a way of limiting your options. I doubt many teams are going to bother with trying to copy a team that’s only existed for three years. But it’s still worth pointing out how aggressive the Knights have been when it comes to making trades, not just around their expansion draft but in the seasons since. They went big for Max Pacioretty. They won the Mark Stone sweepstakes. And this year they went out and got Robin Lehner even though they already had a goalie. That seems to be paying off. Guess they had to take a stab at it.

Again, nobody can point at the Knights and say “copy everything they did,” because expansion drafts aren’t an option for anyone outside Seattle. But if they win it all in Year 3, it’s at least going to get tougher for GMs to tell us about how they just can’t be expected to make important trades anymore. (Especially at the deadline, but we’ll hit that point again in a little bit.)

The team: Vancouver Canucks

The lesson: Offense isn’t the enemy.

This one’s not complicated. Defense might win championships, but goals are fun, and if you watch the Canucks you’re going to see more goals in a typical game than you will for any other contender.

The Canucks scored 228 goals in the regular season, good for second in the West behind Colorado. But they also gave up 217, more than any other team that’s still standing. At nearly 6.5 combined goals per game, the Canucks lead the remaining teams by a decent margin.

I’m not naive enough to think that a Canucks Cup win would change the defense-first mentality that permeates the league – that ship sailed decades ago. There are no offense-friendly NHL coaches. There are only defensive coaches who can’t get their teams to lock it down as much as they want.

Still, we can hold out hope that an unexpected Canucks run might at least remind a few coaches – or the GMs that hire them – that the idea is to put the puck into the other team’s net more often than it goes in yours, and that a 5-4 win still counts as a win. Wishful thinking? Probably, but we need all the help we can get.

The team: Philadelphia Flyers

The lesson: You can trust your young goalie (maybe).

Goalies are weird. That’s not exactly breaking news to longtime fans, but try explaining the position to a newbie. The goalie can be the most important player in any given matchup, with the ability to single-handedly win or lose a game or even a series. But we’re never completely sure who’s good and who isn’t, and sometimes guys we’ve never heard of become superstars, at least temporarily.

And oh yeah: goalie prospects take forever to develop. Your team drafts a guy, you get excited hearing about how good they’ll be someday, and then they just … disappear. Not completely, of course. But while your team’s best forward and blue line prospects start making their NHL debuts within a season or two, if not immediately, that goalie just lingers off in the distance. For years.

Look around the league. Thatcher Demko just finished his first year as a full-time NHLer, six years after he was drafted. Ilya Samsonov took five. The KHL means Ilya Sorokin still hasn’t arrived, and he’s already 25. Your favorite team’s best goalie is probably in a similar boat.

It didn’t used to be this way. Top goaltending prospects used to show up fairly quickly, just like other positions. Tom Barrasso had a Vezina-winning season at 18. Patrick Roy’s big breakout came when he was 20. Martin Brodeur’s Calder season came at 21. Grant Fuhr was the Vezina runner-up at 19.

Enter Carter Hart, the Flyers goalie who debuted at 20 and has established himself as a star despite just turning 22 this month. That’s old school, and it’s been fun to watch a team make a run with a baby-faced goalie. And hey, it’s not like the Flyers haven’t watched a young rookie have some playoff success before.

Granted, not every team has a Carter Hart waiting in the wings, and nobody wants to see young goalies rushed into starting jobs before they’re ready. But maybe not every goalie needs six years in the minors and three more as a backup before they’re ready to handle the big job. Watching Hart dominate might help nudge us back to trusting the kids.

(Just please get him to stop talking about how he grew up watching Carey Price, it’s making me feel very old.)

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Friday, August 21, 2020

The Mandela Effect: Six memorable moments that we may not remember quite right

There’s an interesting phenomenon in pop psychology called the Mandela Effect, in which a large number of people tend to remember something incorrectly. Named after South African political leader Nelson Mandela, it’s based on the widely held belief that he died in the 1980s. He didn’t, but lots of people remember that he did, which leads to an interesting case of …

Sigh. Yes, Nelson Mandela. OK, fine, I’ll pause here while you all make your Jonathan Bernier jokes.

Got that out of your system? Cool, because today we’re going to look at some candidates for hockey examples of the Mandela Effect. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that everyone remembers all of these moments the same way. If you remember these moments correctly, cool. You’re certainly not alone. But in my travels around the hockey fan world, I’ve run into repeated cases where memories of these moments aren’t quite right.

That’s always been kind of interesting to me. So today, let’s dig into six famous moments from hockey history that might not have actually happened the way you remember them.

When golden moments aren’t so golden

The memory: We might as well start with what’s no doubt the most famous hockey Mandela moment — the Miracle on Ice, in which an underdog Team USA beat the Soviets for the gold medal in one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports. Millions of fans around the world watched as the final seconds ticked down to Al Michaels’ legendary call of “Do you believe in miracles?” with the American players spilling off the bench to celebrate their golden moment.

The problem: That wasn’t the gold medal game.

OK, I’m guessing you knew that. This is one of those moments where so many fans had it wrong for so many years that by now, we’ve all been corrected. That happens sometimes with these things. The myth that the Miracle on Ice happened in the gold medal game was around for so long that most fans probably believed it at some point, but now we all know the truth. Any real hockey fan can tell you: Team USA still had to beat Finland in the gold medal game two nights later.

Except that’s also wrong.

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