Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Every trade deadline of salary cap era ranked

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

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

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

#15. 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#14. 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#13. 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

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

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

But was it the worst ever?

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

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


It Was 4-1

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

Everyone knows what happened next.

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

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

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

The Boxing Day Massacre

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

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

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

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

The Six-Shooter

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

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

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

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

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Monday, February 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, February 22, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So now what?

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Friday, February 21, 2020

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

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

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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Puck Soup: Trade deadline gambles

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

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Building a roster of all-time Maple Leaf trade regrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Goaltenders

Bernie Parent

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

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

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

Tuukka Rask

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

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

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

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

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Monday, February 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, February 14, 2020

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

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

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Puck Soup: Roasting Sedins

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

>> Stream it now:

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

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




Wednesday, February 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, NBA GMs are routinely doing stuff like this:

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


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Monday, February 10, 2020

Weekend rankings: Changes in Toronto, questions in Montreal and a new/old team takes over top spot

Screw it, I’m moving the Lightning back into the No. 1 spot.

I’ve been mulling it over for a few weeks now. They started the season in the top spot before yielding it the Bruins, Capitals and Blues. I kept the Lightning in the top five for two months, even as they struggled and plenty of angry readers insisted their team was clearly better. But I could only hold on for so long, and eventually ran out of room for them in December. That lasted for a month before they forced their way back into the top five.

And now, after yet another week of running the table, they’ve made it all the way back to the top.

I can anticipate three main objections here.

Objection No. 1: Hey, what about the Bruins? Let’s start with the toughest one to argue my way out of. The Lightning are surging, having won six straight. But the Bruins had also won six in a row before yesterday’s loss in Detroit. They’re still five points up on the Lightning (who have two games in hand), so the division remains theirs to lose. If we’re going to put an Atlantic team in the top spot, maybe it should be Boston.

That’s a solid case. But it ignores how red hot the Lightning have been for months now. They haven’t just won six straight, they’ve won 18 of 21, dating back to before Christmas. Hot streaks come and go, but this is something more than that. This is an elite team finding their gear. By comparison, the Bruins have won 13 of 21, which is still pretty impressive but has them losing ground.

We’re getting cute with arbitrary endpoints there, but you get the idea. The Lightning are rolling, they have been for a long time, and they’re in every game – you have to go back almost two full months to find a game they lost by more than one goal, not counting empty-netters. And on paper, I just think they’re better than the Bruins, if only slightly. This team didn’t win 62 games last year by accident. When they’re at their best, they’re pretty much unstoppable. And they’ve been at their best for a while now.

Remember, the idea here isn’t to pick who finishes first in the Atlantic. We’re looking for a Cup winner. And even if Tampa does finish second in the division and has to go through Florida or Toronto before facing Boston without home ice, I like their odds. Only one Cup winner in the last six years won their division, so catching Boston isn’t mandatory.

Of course, if we’re talking Cups, we have to address the elephant in the rink …

Objection No. 2: Did you see last year’s playoffs? The Lightning had 62 regular-season wins last year, which was 62 more than they managed in the playoffs. That led to plenty of well-worn stories about how this team isn’t designed to win in the postseason. The Lightning even seemed to be buying into the theory themselves. So why would this year be any different, especially with an even tougher path to the final?

You could argue that the Lightning have changed and that those early-season struggles were a team learning about itself and making the tough changes necessary to win. You could also say that last year was a wakeup call, as a team that had it a little too easy for too long, got cocky and took its eye off the ball. That won’t happen again, because the Lightning learned their lesson.

Maybe. But my answer is that I just don’t buy the narrative. Yes, the playoffs are different than the regular season, but despite what some fans seem to believe, it doesn’t become an entirely different sport. I don’t believe that last year’s Lightning group was somehow fatally flawed, or that they fell victim to some sort of moral failing. Instead, I think they ran into a perfect storm of bad luck and bad timing. Their best defenseman got hurt. Their best player slumped and got suspended. Their goalie went cold. And it all happened against a pretty good team, one that had 98 points, a Vezina winner in net and a bunch of trade deadline reinforcements. It happens.

And it could happen again. The Lightning will face a good team in the first round this year too (and maybe even that same goalie that beat them last time). Key players could get hurt or go cold again. They could lose. If their path to the final goes through Boston and Washington, they probably will lose. That’s life in today’s NHL – every team will probably lose. Nobody’s better than maybe a 20 or 25 percent chance to pull it off. We just have to pick the team with the best chance. Right now, I think that’s the Lightning.

I’m not the only one, which leads to the last objection …

Objection No. 3: What took you so long? Yeah, I’m admittedly not breaking new ground here. It hasn’t exactly been hard to see what was happening in Tampa, and others are ahead of me on declaring them the favorites. Four of us had them ranked first in the most recent power ranking poll, and some of my colleagues never left the bandwagon.

Maybe, more importantly, the oddsmakers have already moved the Lightning into the Cup-favorite spot.

That’s pretty solid evidence that I’m on the right side of this one, but also that I’m late to the party. Given the alternative, I think I’ll take it.

And of course, if the Lighting fall off now and/or flame out in the playoffs yet again, we’ll all agree to forget this ever happened.

On to what’s left of this week’s rankings …


Road to the Cup

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

Two wins in twelve games for a team that traded for two veteran offensive stars, one of whom can walk as a UFA in July. That’s, uh, not great.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (34-15-5, +30 true goals differential*) – They’ve won three of four, with the one loss coming to the same Lightning team they get to face tomorrow night. They’re within four points of the Caps in the Metro, and four points up on the surging Blue Jackets.

4. St. Louis Blues (32-15-9, +20) – They continue to spin their wheels, having won just six of fifteen since New Year’s eve. That includes a pair of recent regulation losses to the Jets that have kept Winnipeg alive in the wild-card race, and Saturday’s OT loss to the Stars, which allowed the Avalanche have closed to three points back with two games in hand. The Central is still probably the Blues’ division to lose, but lately, they seem like a team that might be willing to lose it.

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Sunday, February 9, 2020

Puck Soup: Rage Against the (Russian) Machine

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Alexander Ovechkin chases Wayne Gretzky's goal-scoring record
- The Sabres situation just keeeps getting worse
- The Lightning look unstoppable
- The Leafs and Kings swing a trade
- Ryan gets Rage Against the Machine tickets
- I have to take part in an Oscars quiz, and lots more...

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




Friday, February 7, 2020

Grab Bag: Identifying the greatest goal-scorer ever, a weird playoff drought and Darryl Sittler’s 10-point night

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Is Alexander Ovechkin the great goal-scorer ever? Sizing up some of the contenders for the crown.
- A weird playoff streak involving two Pacific teams
- An obscure player who is Scotty Bowman
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at Darryl Sittler's 10-point game, 44 years ago tonight

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Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Sabres fans have lost all hope. Which struggling team’s fan base might be next?

The Buffalo Sabres are coming off one of the worst weeks in recent franchise history. They continued to fade out of the playoff race thanks to a pair of demoralizing losses to bad teams. Their starting goalie got hurt. And then it all blew up thanks to a frustrated radio caller who ripped into the organization from top to bottom. That rant struck a nerve with a long-suffering fan base that seems to have run out of patience.

I’ve been there. As a Leafs fan, I’ve actually been there a few times. There’s a good chance you have too. Whether it’s Toronto fans throwing waffles, Columbus fans holding protests, Vancouver fans chanting for the GM to get fired or Edmonton fans getting lectured about knowing a thing or two about winning, plenty of us know that feeling of hopelessness they’re experiencing in Buffalo right now. It’s not fun.

So who’s next? If the Sabres are all but a lost cause, which team is in danger of being the next to hit a Buffalo-style tipping point, where fan frustration boils over and it starts to feel like there’s no going back without some sort of major reckoning?

Including the Sabres, there are 10 NHL teams who missed the playoffs last year and are currently sitting outside of a spot again this season. That’s not an exhaustive list of fan unrest, as it leaves out places like Nashville, Winnipeg and Toronto where there’s some definite tension, not to mention the ongoing implosion in San Jose. But it’s a solid starting point.

There are three main components of a fan base losing hope, and this year’s Sabres check all three boxes. Their recent history is awful, with eight straight playoff misses and counting. They’ve lost faith in ownership and management, with calls to fire Jason Botterill and plenty of invectives aimed at Terry and Kim Pegula. And they’re wondering about the future, as a so-so prospect pool means the cavalry isn’t exactly on the way. Three-for-three. The Sabres are a mess.

So today, let’s count down those nine other teams using those three criteria – recent history, faith in management and hope for the future, plus a bonus section for any special circumstances – and see if we can figure out which ones are at risk for the next Sabres-style fan base meltdown. We’ll even get some help from the fans themselves, who had plenty to say when I asked about the topic on Twitter earlier this week.

We’ll count them down from nine to one. Let’s get sad.


9. New York Rangers

Recent history: 5/10. They’re on pace to miss the playoffs for a third straight season.

Lack of faith in ownership/management: 5/10. Most of the fan base still seems to believe in Jeff Gorton, and rightly so. This year has been disappointing, but he’s done a good job of mapping out his plan and making sure the fans understand what he’s thinking. The interesting piece here is James Dolan, whose work with the Knicks has seen him widely mocked as one of the very worst owners in the NBA, but who seems to have avoided that reputation on the hockey side, largely by staying out of the way.

Future hopelessness: 3/10. Corey Pronman had them as the No. 1 farm system in the league heading into the season. That was partly based on the excitement over Kaapo Kakko, who hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype in Year 1, and the Lias Andersson situation could be a concern too. But overall, they’re in good shape.

Bonus points: -1 for not being the Knicks. If you have that one sibling who’s a total screwup, you don’t have to do much to look like the good one by comparison.

Tipping point total: 12/30. New York can be a tough market, so when patience starts to run out it could drain down to empty fairly quickly. For now, the Rangers seem fine.


8. Anaheim Ducks

Recent history: 3/10. This will be their second year outside the playoffs after having made it in six straight seasons. It’s also shaping up to be their first really bad season in a long time; they haven’t finished under 80 points in the cap era.

Lack of faith in ownership/management: 8/10. The Henry Samueli/Bob Murray combo has been in charge for well over a decade now, so patience is wearing thin. Samueli already had to do the disappointed-letter-to-fans thing last year, and you wonder how much more rope Murray gets before something changes at the top.

Future hopelessness: 5/10. It’s a solid group, maybe even a bit better than that. But there’s no sure-thing franchise player on the horizon to take the torch from Ryan Getzlaf.

Bonus points: -1 because I only got a single response from a Ducks fan all week and, well, you’ll see.

Tipping point total: 15/30. There are a surprising number of “Fire Bob Murray” petitions out there, which is a very California way for fans to express their frustration.

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Monday, February 3, 2020

Weekend rankings: Escaping the mushy middle, the Battle of Alberta erupts and Buffalo loses hope

We’re a week clear of the All-Star break, which means we’re officially done with bye weeks for another year. We’re into the homestretch, where seasons are made or lost, and that should mean some movement in the rankings. This week, though, not so much, hopefully for the last time.

We’ve touched on this before, and it’s become a season-wide trend. This time last year, there were only six teams that had yet to appear in either ranking. This season, there are an even dozen. The top five have been stable, with just 11 teams showing up. But the bottom five has been a virtual log jam, with just eight entrants all season long.

What’s the deal? I think there are three options. The first is that I’m bad at this; I’m being overly conservative, too reliant on preconceived expectations and too slow to react to what teams are doing. The second is that I’m actually good at this, and unlike last year I’m not overreacting to short-term streaks and narratives that don’t last. And the third is that this has just been a weird season in the parity era, with even more teams than usual crammed into the middle of the pack. My vote is with option three, but your mileage may vary.

But here’s a more interesting question: Which of those dozen no-shows has the best chance of showing up in the top or bottom five at some point during the rest of the way?

I think we can divide our candidates into four tiers. The first are the teams that could conceivably make a push into the top five by stringing together a few strong weeks down the stretch. The strongest of those nominees are the Stars, who were right around the top five in the standings in terms of total points a few weeks back before cooling slightly. They had a lousy start, nearly cracking the bottom five a few weeks in, which means they’ve been great ever since. If they can make a late run at the Blues on top of the Central, they’ve got a real shot.

If we’re feeling especially optimistic, other candidates to make a case for the top five could include the Canucks and Flames, either of whom could still pull away in the Pacific and maybe the Panthers, who’ve been quietly solidifying their playoff credentials over the last few months (but are stuck in a brutal division and will find it tough to even get home ice, so they’re a serious long shot).

Tier two are the teams who could make a run at the bottom five, and they’re a little easier to find. The Sabres are the obvious candidate, and we’ll have more on them in a bit. The Rangers are right in the same points range, although without as much sky-is-falling momentum. And then there’s the Canadiens, who continue to wallow and have now apparently reached the stage of hopelessness where they’re sending a key piece of the future out of town for a reset.

Tier three are the teams that just seem locked into the middle of the standings. They’re good enough that they’re unlikely to collapse down to the depths, but also don’t seem like threats to shoot up the standings, partly because they’ve already given up too much ground. I’d put the Flyers and Coyotes there, and after some early-season stumbles the Hawks probably deserve a spot too. I’m also going to somewhat hesitantly put the Jets in this tier; despite lots of signs that they’re a bad team being held up by excellent goaltending, they’ve banked enough points that they should be safe barring a total collapse.

That leaves just one team for tier four: The Oilers. I have no idea. Could they win the Pacific going away? Absolutely – they’re playing well lately and they have Connor McDavid. Could they blow a tire and plummet down the standings? Absolutely – they’re the Oilers. I’ve pretty much given up on trying to figure out what this franchise will do. You’re on your own, Edmonton fans.

(And for those about to ask “What about my team …”: The Knights, Hurricanes, Leafs and Predators all cracked the top five in October but not since, while the Avs and Islanders have been in recently. And the Blue Jackets made a single bottom-five appearance in Week 1, the Wild made several in the first half and the Ducks were in just a few weeks back.)

There’s your look at our dirty dozen of season-long ranking no-shows. At least you can’t say we never mentioned you. Now on to the real thing …

Road to the Cup

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

This moment from Saturday night looked like it could have big implications not just for the Rangers, but several potential trade partners on our top five list and beyond:

Early reports are that the injury may not be serious, meaning everyone can breathe a little easier.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (33-14-5, +31 true goals differential*) – I haven’t been able to get them any higher than fifth yet, but at some point, they may leave me no choice. Yesterday’s win in Washington was impressive and is the kind of statement game you can only have when everyone is giving 100 percent on every play.

OK, fine, almost everyone …

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (32-15-5, +41) – They’ve rolled off three more wins, although those came during their California road trip. Go pick on someone your own size. This week it’s back home for a bit of a test against the Knights, Penguins and Islanders.

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