Thursday, April 30, 2020

Puck Soup: Revisiting the 2010 draft

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The NHL is considering a new playoff format that is very weird
- I have a conspiracy theory about that
- The Blackhawks make a surprising change at the top
- We review the 2010 draft, including the picks, the trades, the busts and the real top ten
- Dennis Rodman, Blink 182 and sitcom dads
- 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, April 29, 2020

What’s the best roster you could make from modern NHL history, while only using players who never played together?

For today’s post, we’re going to work through a simple question suggested by a reader.

I know what you’re thinking. The last time we tried the whole “simple question from a reader” thing, it didn’t go especially well for my psychological health. I’m pleased to report that won’t be the case this time; this question was actually a lot of fun to work through. Thank you, Kris B. from the comments section. This didn’t ruin my whole week.

That’s partly because unlike last time, we’re not looking for one right answer. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that you might be able to come up with a better answer than I can. But that doesn’t mean the question is easy, because it’s not – it’s deceptively tricky and gets harder as you go.

Here it is: What’s the best roster you could make from modern NHL history, while only using players who never played together?

That’s it. Nice and easy. You’re probably already filling in spots in your head, right?

Before we dive in, let’s nail down a few quick ground rules:

  • “Playing together” means they were on the same roster at the same time during a season or playoffs. This is NHL only – we don’t care about the minor leagues or the WHA or international play or All-Star games or old-timer rosters.
  • Positions matter. We need four centers, four guys at each wing, six defensemen and two goalies. No forwards playing out of position. (We’ll use hockey-reference as the arbiter of who plays where.)
  • Because the records of who played on which team can get a little dicey in the league’s early days, I’m only going to go back to the start of the Original Six era. Apologies to “Phantom” Joe Malone.

Makes sense? Then let’s get started. And we’ll start in the obvious place: With the best player the sport has ever had.

Our first pick can be literally anyone from NHL history, so let’s start with Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky is the perfect starting point for this game, for two reasons. For one, every fan would agree that he’s either the best player ever or at least very close. If you get a blank canvas to build any roster you want, of course you’re going to start with Gretzky.

The second reason is that he illustrates the dilemma we’re dealing with here. Gretzky played with a ton of elite players, meaning we can start scratching a whole lot of big names of our list right away.

His Oilers days cost us Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey, not to mention Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson. The trade to the Kings wipes out Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake, among others. The Rangers years mean we lose Brian Leetch and Pat LaFontaine. And his stint with the Blues, even though it only lasted a few weeks, ends up wiping out a surprising number of big names, including Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger and even (by just a few days) Dale Hawerchuk.

Yikes. It’s enough to have us already doubting ourselves. Do we … do we leave Wayne Gretzky off our roster?

There’s a case that we should, since it’s not like we’re going to be hurting for offensive center options. The counterargument is that this is Wayne Freaking Gretzky. He’s the NHL’s all-time scoring leader by nearly 1,000 points. Of course he’s on the team. Don’t galaxy-brain this. Write him in as the No. 1 center and don’t look back.

That’s the camp I’m in, so Gretzky’s on the team. Still, we’re one name in and you can already see how this is going to get tricky.

We’ve still got lots of room to work with for our next few picks. We said Gretzky was probably the greatest player ever, but some fans would argue that. Luckily, we don’t have to pick and choose among the top candidates – none of them ever played together, meaning we can fit them all onto the roster. So welcome aboard Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux.

Those are all easy calls, right? They do come at a cost – Howe means we can’t use an entire generation of Red Wings, including Terry Sawchuk, Ted Lindsay, Johnny Bucyk or Red Kelly. And his brief stint with the Whalers ends up being surprisingly costly, as we lose access to Bobby Hull and Dave Keon. Orr means we can’t use fellow Bruins stars like Phil Esposito or Brad Park, and his stint in Chicago costs us Phil’s brother Tony, as well as Stan Mikita, who was still a Hawk well into the late-70s. Still, I can’t imagine anyone objecting to paying the price to have Orr and Howe on the team.

And then there’s Mario. He ends up being the first addition from what will turn out to be an important subset of players for this game: Guys who only ever played for one team. As we’ll see, guys who move around a lot end up being harder to fit in. Lemieux still costs us, though, because those early-90s Penguins teams were stacked with Hall of Famers, so we’re going to lose access to Ron Francis, Larry Murphy and even Bryan Trottier. Not bad names, but we’re not losing sleep over them.

And yeah, we also lose out on Jaromir Jagr, and that hurts, especially since winger figures to be a tough spot to fill. But come on, this is Mario Lemieux. There’s no way we don’t have him on the team.

Or is there …

Problem #1: The Mario Conundrum

Here’s the thing about picking between Lemieux and Jagr: It’s an easy call. Jagr was great, but Lemieux was legendary. There might be five players in NHL history that you take over Jagr without even thinking about it, but Mario’s one of them.

But then you remember Lemieux’s comeback, and that it stretched all the way into playing a few games in the post-lockout season in 2005-06. And that means he was briefly teammates with Sidney Crosby.

Mario Lemieux … or Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby?

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Monday, April 27, 2020

Six realities that fans will have to get their heads around if the NHL returns

It sounds like hockey fans might get to see a conclusion to the 2019-20 season after all.

It’s no sure thing, and the plans being floated seem to change almost daily. But over the last few weeks, it feels like the consensus has shifted from doubt that won’t see any hockey until at least the fall to something more optimistic. Maybe we resume the regular season, or maybe it’s an expanded playoff tournament, or maybe we have to settle for less than that. But it increasingly sounds like the hockey world is expecting that we’ll get … something.

We’ll see. There are still countless details to work out, and it would only take a day or two of bad news from the front lines of the pandemic to render all of this moot. But for now, let’s assume that the optimists are right. Let’s imagine that the NHL is indeed coming back at some point this summer. That’s great news, right? Hockey fans should be thrilled.

Well, yeah. For the most part. But at the risk of being a downer, we may need to pump the brakes just a bit. If the NHL does return, I think there are a few things that hockey fans should start thinking about now. None of these are meant to be read as reasons why the league shouldn’t return, or why fans shouldn’t hope that it does. But if we’re going to wade into uncharted territory, there are a few things we should probably start wrapping our heads around first.

At least early on, the quality of play might not be great

Have you ever watched the first few games of the exhibition schedule in September, as everyone shakes off the rust after a few months off? No, you have not, because those games are terrible and you have better things to do.

And that’s fine because none of those games matter. In a resumed NHL, they’ll matter a lot. So what will the quality of play look like?

It’s an open question, but at least we have some evidence that it won’t be great. Remember, this is the same league that has an annual crisis over teams returning from bye weeks needing a few games to get back up to speed. That’s after a week off. Now, we’ve got players who haven’t played since early March, and who may not have had access to the workout routines they’re used to. They’re going to have a few weeks of practice and then jump right back into the regular season, or even directly into the playoffs, and it’s going to be business as usual?

It won’t be. But here’s the thing: That might not be a negative. Bad hockey is often fun hockey. Every coach’s idea of a perfectly played game involves his team winning 1-0 while all the fans fall asleep. But when everyone is making mistakes, things can get wild. And wild is fun.

Maybe in a perfect world, the NHL comes back with forgotten defensive systems, end-to-end action and a bunch of sloppy but exhilarating 6-5 finals. Most of us could get on board with that, especially if the extended layoff means everyone is healthy and the risk of new injuries isn’t any higher.

Unfortunately, there’s a related problem that looms larger …

Intensity is going to be an issue

Justin Bourne hit on this a few days ago, and he’s absolutely right. Are NHL players going to be motivated to go all out for the rest of the season? Some of them will be, sure. But not everyone, and it’s going to show.

Let’s start with the teams that have nothing to play for. We’re still being told that the NHL wants to finish the regular season, and that would mean teams like the Kings and Red Wings being pulled away from their families and communities so that they can play out the string on last-place seasons. The Senators have had multiple players test positive. Do they even want to play?

They might since the alternative could be losing a big chunk of their paychecks. But are they going to leave it all on the ice? Doubtful. It’s not hard to imagine that late-season Devils/Sabres game having all the intensity of an All-Star Game, only without the stars.

The same issue will be in play even if common sense prevails and we skip straight ahead to the playoffs. Some players will have spent their time off obsessing about the chance to get back on the ice and chase a Cup. Many others will have decades of hyper-competitive instincts kick in as soon as they step on the ice. That’s great. But others may have been dealing with difficult situations involving family and friends. Some might have been sick. Some may be struggling. Some of them just won’t want to be there.

Mix in the lack of fans to fire up the home side, and it wouldn’t shock me to see a near-total absence of the sort of big hits and bad blood that so often define the playoffs. Fighting might disappear completely. We could see highs and lows, where some games have all the intensity we’re used to and others feel like they don’t need to be happening. Sometimes it might be both in the same game.

It’s going to be weird. Be ready.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Ranking the top 10 prospects of whichever team you personally cheer for

The NFL draft starts tonight, and as a hockey writer, it’s hard not to feel a little bit jealous of my football colleagues. They’ve got lots to write about these days, with actual news and transactions to report on.

And more importantly, as every sportswriter knows, fans love prospect talk. They can’t get enough of it. And if you cover an NFL team, you now get to spend weeks profiling and projecting and ranking all of these new prospects.

Well, I want in on that action. So today, I’m presenting my breakdown of the top 10 prospects of your favorite hockey team.

That’s right, your team. No, I don’t know which one that is. And no, I’m not going to let that stop me. I’m pretty sure I can accurately break down your top 10. How hard can it be? Move over Pronman and Wheeler, I’ve got the prospect beat covered today.

1. The first-round pick from the most recent draft

This guy is a sure thing. No, first-round picks don’t always turn out, and you never really know how a player will develop. But this guy is a virtual lock. From the moment the team announced his name, you’ve seen nothing but praise for his well-rounded game, not to mention his pedigree and character. Also, the team’s GM said he couldn’t believe he was still available when their pick came, and it’s illegal to lie about that sort of thing.

This prospect has already been penciled in as a regular in the lineup for the coming season, and honestly, that’s probably being conservative. He’s pretty much a sure-thing for the top six and will probably be driving the first line by November. Calder Trophy? You won’t guarantee anything, but yeah, it’s more likely than not. That’s the beauty of a first-round pick. They’re locks.

2. The first-round pick from a few years ago who should really be here by now but it’s fine

Sometimes it just takes a little while longer, right? There’s no need to worry. Who’s panicking? Not you. Certainly not you.

Would it be nice if this prospect was already producing in the NHL, like the guy taken one pick ahead of him and also one pick behind him and also the three other picks after that and somehow several guys from later rounds? Yes. In a perfect world, that would be happening. But that is not happening, and you’re fine with this.

Remember, it’s not unusual for prospects to need a few years before they can stick in the NHL and still go on to become legitimate superstars. It happened with Mark Scheifele and also … uh … look, Scheifele’s good, OK? This guy will be too. Everybody just stop panicking.

3. The mid-round sleeper pick you’re a little too invested in

This guy didn’t get much attention when he was drafted, and everyone just kind of forgot about him almost immediately. But then he went back to junior and put up better than expected numbers, and fans started paying attention.

And you were at the front of the line, jumping on the bandwagon before anyone else. Sure, it was like seven minutes before everyone else, but that still counts. You have appointed yourself president and founder of this fan club, and you will personally fight anyone who says anything bad about this prospect.

Bottom line: This kid is going to be good. He has to be. Because if he isn’t, you’re going to feel like you’ve wasted a big chunk of your sports-fan life.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Puck Soup: Cap court, perfect movies, and should the draft happen before the playoffs?

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The NHL mulls having a June draft before the playoffs
- The latest on the empty arena plans
- Thoughts on the 2011 Bruins reunion
- Should the Devils hire Gerard Gallant?
- Perfect movies
- Ranking wrestling theme songs
- And we bring Salary Cap Court to the podcast, with Mitch Marner, Shea Weber, Brent Burns and more on the docket
- Seriously, Lambert has to defend the Drew Doughty deal and it's the best

>> 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, April 22, 2020

No, contracts won’t just expire in the middle of the playoffs. But what if they did?

Any chance of the NHL finishing the 2019-20 season revolves around the playoffs extending further into the summer than ever before. Some of the proposals being kicked around would go into August or even September, and even the best-case scenarios extend well into July.

That’s led to some fans asking a question: What happens to all those contracts that are set to expire on July 1?

After all, everyone knows that July 1 is the key date of the offseason; when expiring contracts officially terminate, multi-season deals roll over to the next year and the free agency market opens. What if all that happens while the NHL is still in the middle of the playoffs?

Well, as it turns out the answer isn’t all that exciting. Yes, the CBA defines the start of the league year as being July 1. But it also allows for a different date to be used, as long as the NHL and NHLPA agree. It’s right there on one of the agreement’s very first pages, where “league year” is defined as “July 1 of one calendar year to and including June 30 of the following calendar year or such other one year period to which the NHL and the NHLPA may agree.”

That makes it pretty clear that the actual year-end date is flexible. Having the two sides agree to push back the date presumably wouldn’t be all that hard, nor would it be unprecedented; it’s happened before due to lockouts, most recently in 2013 when free agency didn’t open until July 5.

So there you have it. Sorry for anyone who was rooting for Team Chaos, but this one is actually pretty simple. It’s even kind of boring. The NHL and NHLPA would just pick a new date in September or October or whenever made sense, and the new league year would start then.

(Editor’s note: Wow, it took you a month but you finally wrote something like a normal person. It’s a little bit shorter than usual, but otherwise nice work.)


(Editor’s note: Oh lord.)

Look, I promised you things were going to get weird around here. Today, let’s ask the question: What if the NHL playoffs resumed, but the league and players didn’t push back the July 1 date? What if they decided not to or couldn’t agree or, with everything else going on, they just forgot? What kind of madness might ensue if the league year rolled over in the middle of a postseason?

Let’s figure it out, for all 18 teams still in the running for a playoff spot based on points or points percentage. We’ll imagine a world where the NHL regular season is declared over, and the playoffs start sometime in June. Then July 1 rolls around and … whoops.

This is so stupid. Let’s do it.

Teams in good shape

Tampa Bay Lightning

While they have nine players lining up for new deals, none of them are key pieces beyond Anthony Cirelli and maybe Kevin Shattenkirk. The timing for Cirelli will be tricky since tradition dictates that young Lightning stars play hardball for weeks or months before caving and signing an embarrassingly team-friendly deal.

They’ll have the cap room to get something done, though, and can pick and choose which other pieces they feel they need based on how the playoffs are going. This whole forgotten contract deadline even makes Julien BriseBois look smart, since both of his big deadline pickups were signed through 2021.

Colorado Avalanche

They’ve got a dozen guys on expiring deals, which looks bad at first glance, but the only one who jumps out as a problem is Andre Burakovsky. He was their second-leading scorer among forwards this year, and he’d become a UFA. They’d definitely want to re-sign him, and they’d need to bring back most of their restricted free agents just so they could ice a full roster. But with lots of cap room already on the books and bad deals like Vladislav Namestnikov going away, they’d have more than enough space to get it all done.

Dallas Stars

All their key guys are locked in, and they have a ton of cap room to clean up any loose ends. Roope Hintz would need a new deal and Miro Heiskanen would want to talk extension, but that’s about it. Veteran Corey Perry would see his contract expire, but it’s the middle of the playoffs so he’d probably be suspended anyway, so no rush there.

Nashville Predators

Mikael Granlund, Craig Smith and Dan Hamhuis all hit UFA status. Granlund might be asked to take a pay cut from his $5.75 million cap hit, which would be an awkward conversation to have in the middle of a playoff series. Everyone else is locked up, though, and there’s enough cap room to patch up the bottom half of the blue line. And Roman Josi would probably be in a good mood on July 1 after that $11 million signing bonus hits his account. Breakfast is on the captain, boys.

Philadelphia Flyers

They’d have ten guys to re-sign, including UFAs Justin Braun and Brian Elliott, but overall the situation seems manageable. Carter Hart is eligible for an extension, which could be tricky. And I don’t know what you do with Nolan Patrick’s first post-ELC deal, if he’s even available to play.

Still, they could clear Radko Gudas off the books and would have room to bring guys back, and maybe even add somebody. My suggestion: Sign one of the Pittsburgh free agents to a mid-series deal just to get them to spill the Penguins’ game plan.

(Editor’s note: OK, that last part was weird but so far this hasn’t been as dumb as it could be …)

Hold on, I’m still warming up.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Monday, April 20, 2020

Which birthday produces the best starting six in NHL history?

Last summer, I wrote a post about which first names could produce the best starting six lineup in NHL history. The response from readers was immediate and overwhelming: OK, great, now do the same thing for birthdays.

Look, I know when I’m being mocked. And yes, rummaging through 366 days’ worth of player data just to build a few imaginary teams full of stars and also-rans who’ve never played together or met or (in some cases) been alive at the same time, all seems like a gigantic waste of several days. But gigantic wastes of days are kind of my beat, so I was tempted.

I initially held off for two reasons. The first is that I figured I wouldn’t have the time to even consider such a weird concept until the offseason. That offseason came early this year, and it might last a while, so every crazy idea is back on the table.

But the second reason felt like the deal-breaker: There wouldn’t be any suspense. We all knew which date was going to win. It wasn’t even worth digging into.

It’s obviously going to be Team Oct. 5.

That’s pretty much the greatest date in NHL superstar birthday history. Specifically, Oct. 5, 1965. That’s the day that two of the very best players in the sport’s history were both born, just a few hours and about 100 miles apart: Mario Lemieux and Patrick Roy.

It’s a great bit of NHL trivia that also kind of ruins this whole “best birthday” concept. You start with two guys who have plausible cases as the best to ever play their positions, and it’s over.

Or is it? When I finally got around to confirming my suspicion, I realized that the rest of Team Oct. 5 isn’t going to be quite as unbeatable as you might think. In fact, it ends up looking something like this …

Oct. 5

Forwards: Mario Lemieux, Roy Conacher, Dean Prentice

Defence: Fredrik Olausson, Bob Whitelaw

Goaltender: Patrick Roy

Conacher won an Art Ross and made the Hall of Fame, while Prentice was a decent winger who played forever. Olausson was fine, but Whitelaw is a name from the 1940s and he barely played.

It’s still a pretty intimidating group, if only because Lemieux and Roy alone would dominate most lineups. But it doesn’t seem invincible. With 365 more days to work with, there could be a challenger lurking out there somewhere.

Screw it, I don’t have anything better to do. Let’s make this happen.

As always, we start with a few quick ground rules:

  • We want three forwards, two defencemen and a goalie. Beyond that, positions or handedness won’t matter.
  • Let’s assume everyone is alive and healthy and you get the player at the peak of their powers.
  • If you can’t fill out a full lineup, you’re out of the running. The goalies will trip a few teams up, but that’s life in the tough world of imaginary roster-building.

We’ve set the bar high with Team Oct. 5. We’ll run through this chronologically, so let’s see who wants to step up and challenge them for the crown.

(Birthday data comes from And special thanks to the NHL front office denizen who helped with the research but wishes to remain anonymous because he doesn’t want people to know he talks to me.)

Jan. 3

Forwards: Bobby Hull, Rick MacLeish, Mike Walton

Defence: Ryan Ellis, Cory Cross

Goaltender: Jacques Cloutier

This date features some big names like Bourque and Lemieux, but unfortunately, that would be Ryan and Real. We do get the real Bobby Hull, and he has some decent support, but this team isn’t giving Mario and Patrick any real worries. It’s a decent proof-of-concept, the equivalent of a light warmup stretch, but that’s about it. We can do better a bit further into the month.

Jan. 18

Forwards: Mark Messier, Syl Apps, Brian Gionta

Defence: Alex Pietrangelo, Dean Kennedy

Goaltender: Jason LaBarbera

Man, this team was feeling at least mildly frisky right up until we got to the goaltender, with two Hall-of-Famers up front and an All-Star on the blueline.

Jan. 21

Forwards: Dany Heatley, Doug Weight, Ulf Dahlen

Defence: Ryan Suter, Moe Mantha

Goaltender: Jonathan Quick

We don’t have any surefire Hall-of-Famers here, but we do get four modern-day All-Stars as part of a solid six-man lineup. Quick has a Conn Smythe, Heatley had multiple 50-goal seasons and Suter is definitely not on a bad contract. That’s not awful, but we can probably do better.

While we’re still in January, let’s check in on an entry some of you are probably wondering about …

Jan. 26

Forwards: Wayne Gretzky, Frank Nighbor, Dale McCourt

Defence: Fred Barrett, Vic Lynn

Goaltender: Daniel Berthiaume

Yeah, that’s what we’d call a top-heavy lineup. The Great One is at least joined by a fellow Hall-of-Famer in Nighbor, and McCourt was a first overall pick, but that’s about all the support this date can offer. Gretzky vs. Lemieux makes for a great debate most of the time, but not when Mario has Roy in net and Wayne has to rely on The Bandit.

Feb. 7

Forwards: Steven Stamkos, Ryan O’Reilly, Peter Bondra

Defence: Aaron Ekblad, Lee Fogolin

Goaltender: David Aebischer

This team starts strong but fades as we go. Still, that’s a hell of a forward line. And our depth includes a WJC hero in John Slaney and a former first overall pick in Alexandre Daigle. It’s not a bad group, but let’s skip ahead a week and see if Valentine’s Day can warm our hearts …

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Friday, April 17, 2020

Grab Bag: Burying Harold Ballard

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- We can learn something important about the standings from this paused season
- A debate about goalies goes badly
- An obscure player with an all-time stat spoiler
- The (two) week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at Harold Ballard's very weird funeral

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Puck Soup: Was This an Actual ProStars Episode?

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg tells a story about a mascot ruining his face
- Gary Bettman and Drew Doughty have comments about restarting
- Bill Peters is back
- Does Wayne Gretzky know how to play video games?
- A quiz about ProStars
- And we rank Keanu Reeves movies, including the three that I've seen

>> Stream it now:

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

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

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Five rounds to fix your favorite sport. Welcome to the Inter-League Envy Draft.

Every sports fan has their favorite league. We watch them, debate them, and defend them from those misguided fans of other sports who don’t seem to get it. These days, with just about the entire sports world shut down, we have plenty of time to sit around and miss the leagues that have become such a big part of our lives.

We also know they could be better. Way better.

That’s a universal trait of sports fans. We have the sport and the league that we love. But we also know what the other leagues are doing, and how those sports work. And we’ve all got at least a few ideas that we wish our favorite league could “borrow” from the competition.

So that’s what we’re going to do. Welcome to The Athletic’s Inter-League Envy Draft.

The concept is simple. Each of the big four North American pro sports leagues will be represented by one of The Athletic’s writers that covers it. They’ll take turns stepping up to the podium and picking one quality or characteristic from another league that they’d like to adopt for their own. It’s a five-round draft, with no limits on how many (or few) traits can be chosen from each sport.

By the end, each league should be far better than it was before. Of course, that’s up to the GMs. Let’s meet them, and find out what they’re hoping to do.

Pre-draft strategy

We asked each of the four GMs to share a few pre-draft thoughts on what they were hoping to accomplish.

Seth Partnow, NBA (@SethPartnow)

My goal here is simple. I think the on-floor product of the NBA is as good as it has been since at least the early-90s, so I went into the draft looking for ways to accentuate that quality of play and remove obstacles for the fanbase to fully enjoy and appreciate it. If it seems like a wish list of all the things I tend to complain about and/or advocate for in general, well, that’s intentional!

Jayson Stark, MLB (@jaysonst)

Anyone who has read me knows I love baseball. I just want the rest of the world to love it as much as I love it. So that means I need to build a shrewd draft strategy around elevating the stars in my sport and finding ways to create more must-watch Big Events. I’ll be all over the best of the NBA and NFL in this draft… because of course I will.

Jayson Jenks, NFL (@JaysonJenks)

I have but one goal: I want to get a little weird. That’s what I’ve told my scouting department and front office personnel to focus on: the weird and exotic (just not the Joe Exotic).

Sean McIndoe, NHL: (@DownGoesBrown)

I’ve been a diehard hockey fan for pretty much my entire life, but longtime readers may have caught me criticizing the NHL product once or twice. Or pretty much constantly. My jealousy of the other leagues has been on display, so here’s my chance to act on it. I’ll be working from a draft list that has roughly three dozen ideas on it, so I don’t think I’ll run out of picks. But I’ll admit I’m also kind of fascinated to see what, if anything, the guys from the other sports feel is worth drafting from the NHL. I’m assuming that the Stanley Cup and handshake lines have been heavily scouted, but it’s a deep draft, so there are no guarantees.

Round 1:

1.1 The NBA drafts the Stanley Cup from the NHL.

Partnow: While I think modern “RINGZ!” culture loses sight of the value of the journey, that shouldn’t obscure that it’s important to have a worthy prize at the end of that journey. While the notion of being crowned champion is the most important part, the physical object representing that championship should measure up to the moment. With the possible exception of an Olympic gold medal, there is nothing in sports that compares to Lord Stanley’s Cup. From its size to its classically pleasing appearance; to the pomp and circumstance of the awarding of the Cup (including de rigueur and vociferous booing of the commissioner!) to the engraving of the names of players who have lifted it, I love everything about it. Plus, who doesn’t want to see a seven-foot dude military press a huge hunk of metal in celebration?

1.2 MLB drafts the grip the Super Bowl has on everyone in America from the NFL.

Stark: I love the World Series, so don’t take this wrong. But it’s no longer an event that causes all of civilization to stop what it’s doing and not just watch the games, but actually hang on every second of a Doritos commercial. So I admit it. I’m jealous. There. I said it.

1.3 The NFL drafts unique parks/dimensions from MLB.

Jenks: Let’s get crazy. What if teams could change the dimensions of the field in their stadium? Maybe the Ravens would opt for a field with a severe crown, like the old Nebraska teams, to get Lamar Jackson and Co. roaring downhill. Maybe the Legion-of-Boom Seahawks would have shrunk the width of the field and dared you to beat them in a boxing ring.

Maybe this is all a terrible idea. But it would be interesting.

Oh, and I want retro stadiums, too.

1.4 The NHL drafts players with personalities from the NBA.

McIndoe: Death to “pucks in deep.” Give me players that will actually say or do something interesting every now and then, whether it’s to reporters, on social media, on a talk show, in a recording studio, or any of the long list of other places that NBA stars feel comfortable showing off who they are. Hockey has made being boring part of the culture – you can’t seem like you think you’re bigger than the team, after all. But some stars are bigger than the team, and those are the guys who make your league fun to watch.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Does Carey Price have a bad contract? Debating five star contracts as salary cap court is back in session

Everybody please take a seat. Cap court is back in session.

This is a feature where we weigh the pros and cons of various big-dollar deals around the league, and render a verdict on a simple question: Is it a bad contract? In our first session back in January, Erik Karlsson, Jamie Benn, Aaron Ekblad, Ryan Johansen and Jonathan Toews were called to the stand. Two were found guilty of having bad contracts; three were let off with a warning. Many of you had strong feelings about those verdicts – Toews especially – and we’ve heard that appeals may be working their way through the lower courts.

But for now, we have a new docket of names to consider. And we’ll start with the one that came up the most often, by far, in the responses to that first piece.

Carey Price, Canadiens

The details: The 32-year-old Price is finishing the second year of an eight-year deal that carries a cap hit of $10.5 million.

The case that it’s a bad contract: When the Canadiens gave Price this deal during the 2017 offseason, he was just two years removed from winning both the Vezina and the Hart Trophy in the same season. He was near the top of every list of the best goaltenders in the league, and with one year to go until unrestricted free agency, he held all sorts of leverage. Rather than turn the negotiation into a season-long sideshow, the Habs quickly offered up a deal that reset the market for goaltenders.

Or did it? In the nearly three years since, only two goalie deals have landed in the same ballpark as Price, with Sergei Bobrovsky getting seven-years at $10-million AAV as a UFA last summer and Andrei Vasilevskiy getting an eight-year extension at $9.5-million AAV with the Lightning a few weeks later. Like Price, both players had a recent Vezina. But despite Vasilevskiy being younger and Bobrovsky being a UFA, neither player came all that close to topping Price’s total.

In other words, the Canadiens paid top dollar – literally – on the sort of deal that really needs Price to be a perennial Vezina frontrunner to make sense. So far, he hasn’t been. He was below-average in 2017-18, his first season after signing (but before the extension had even kicked in), leading to philosophical questions about whether you could regret a deal that hadn’t even technically started yet. He was better in 2018-19, finishing seventh in Vezina voting. But his numbers dipped again this year during an up-and-down season, and people around the league are starting to reassess whether he’s still a top-tier goaltender. Since the day he signed, among goalies with at least 100 starts, he ranks just 19th out of 27 in save percentage. He’s even behind Carter Hutton.

Goaltender aging curves can be all over the map, but two so-so seasons after turning 30 is a bad sign, especially for a guy with a league-leading cap hit until the summer he turns 39. The contract is bad right now, and it has the potential to turn into a total disaster.

The case that it might be OK: Price had one of the best seasons any goalie has ever had in 2014-15, becoming one of just three goaltenders to be named MVP since Jacques Plante in 1962. He has four other seasons as a top-five Vezina candidate and was the starter for Team Canada at both the 2014 Olympics and 2016 World Cup. The bottom line is that he’s clearly perceived as an elite goaltender. And that’s especially true among players, who still consistently rank him as the league’s best goalie. They should know, right?

His numbers haven’t been great lately, but even the very best goaltenders have a bad year or two – Bobrovsky did this year, as did Marc-Andre Fleury and others. And Price hasn’t exactly been playing behind an elite roster.

Is he the very best goaltender in the league, as his cap hit would indicate? Probably not, although that doesn’t mean he can’t get back to that level. But even if he doesn’t, he’s unquestionably the most important player on the Canadiens’ roster, and these days lots of teams are paying their top guy north of $10 million. He’s their rock. His contract might not be great, but under the circumstances it’s far from awful.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Friday, April 10, 2020

The worst players to wear every jersey number in NHL history

With no games to cover, we’ve spent a big chunk of the last few weeks debating the best players to wear every number. A group of us put together a list that covered the entire NHL, and various team sites have done lists for individual franchises. As a confessed history nerd, it’s all been a fun trip down memory lane. It’s always nice to remember the greatest to ever lace up the skates.

But really, why should the best of the best get all the attention? We all know about the legends who wore numbers like 99, or 4, or 66 or 77. But what about the other 99.9 percent of NHL players who never came close to making their numbers iconic? They deserve some attention too.

Today, they’re going to get it, as I work through the very worst players to wear every number in NHL history.

Of course, “worst” is subjective, especially when you’re talking about guys who managed to crack the highest level of pro hockey in the world. In some cases, they might actually be the worst, based on their career output. In others, they’ll be players who had an especially bad game or stretch or season while wearing a certain number. A lot of these are just names I remember and want to tell you a story about. Honestly, this whole thing is pretty much just an excuse to Remember Some Guys. Please don’t be mad at me if somebody you know is on the list.

With all that said, let’s settle in for some NHL History 101. Literally … that’s how many numbers we’ve got to go through. Let’s see how many I can get you to agree with.

(Unless otherwise specified, all jersey number data is via

0: Neil Sheehy

The only No. 0 in modern NHL history was a decent player and went on to become a better agent. He was also way too into getting his teammates to do weird lip-synch videos, both in Calgary and later in Washington. He even got a producer credit. I’ll leave it to the reader as the whether that’s a good thing.

00: Martin Biron

This is such a good number for a goaltender, but only Biron and John Davidson ever wore it. Biron lasted just three games and posted a 5.05 GAA, so maybe switching wasn’t the worst idea.

1: Rick DiPietro

Here’s the thing about DiPietro’s career: It was better than you remember it. He obviously never lived up to the crazy contract, but he played for over a decade and had some good years, including one where he finished in the top ten in Vezina voting. He did all that wearing No. 39, though; it was only his rookie season where the Islanders had him wear No. 1, apparently to remind everyone that they’d just used the first overall pick on him. No pressure, kid. He went 3-15-1, which seems like a bad sign, before switching numbers early in his second season.

2: Gilles Marotte

Marotte was a solid defenceman who bounced around the NHL for 12 seasons (and one monster trade), playing for five teams and wearing five different numbers in the process. But it was while he was wearing No. 2 in Chicago in 1967-68 that he set a dubious single-season record that still stands by taking 154 shots on goal without scoring once.

3. Bennett Wolf

Wolf played two partial seasons with the Penguins in the early 80s while wearing No. 6, and that was apparently enough to earn him a promotion to the more traditional defenceman’s No. 3. He lasted five games, had zero points, got in a crazy fight with John Wensink in which he both pulled his hair and punched him in the package, and was never seen in the NHL again.

4. Bill Mikkelson

Some records will never be broken. Gretzky’s 92 goals. Brodeur’s 691 wins. Mikkelson’s -82 in just 59 games for the 1974-75 Caps. Good news: He switched numbers and wore No. 3 for the rest of his NHL career. Bad news: That lasted one game.

5. Yan Golubovsky

You may remember Yan from our “worst players ever traded straight-up for a Hall-of-Famer” post. In his case, that was Igor Larionov, who went from Florida to Detroit for Golubovsky in 2000. The Wings got three seasons of Larionov, including a triple-overtime winner in the Stanley Cup final. The Panthers got six games of Golubovsky before he headed back to Russia. Slight edge Detroit.

6. Martin Strbak

He lasted one NHL season and the most memorable thing about him is that his name looks like what would happen if your hand slipped while trying to type “Martin Straka.” Here’s the thing: He was once actually traded for Martin Straka. This bothers me more than it should.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Puck Soup: Neutral sites, barn fights and game shows

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The NHL might have to resume its season at a neutral site
- Is there a 68-game solution to playoff seeding?
- Brian Burke is ready to fight another GM
- An interview with David Carle
- Thoughts on those super-weird Wrestlemania matches
- We somehow end up creating an NHL/Jurassic Park mashup
- We rank our favorite (and least favorite) game shows

>> 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.

My Favorite Player: Wendel Clark

The Athletic is asking us to write about our all-time favorite players, and I’m going to save you the suspense: I chose Wendel Clark.

That may not be a surprise to you if you’ve been reading my stuff since the very early days over a decade ago when I did a gushing 17-part tribute to him. Or if you’ve read me more recently and noticed that I keep finding ways to link to the All Heart video for the 10,000th time. Or if you live near The Athletic’s Toronto headquarters and have seen me marching outside holding a sign reading “Wendel Was Robbed” and loudly demanding to speak to the manager. Or if you’ve ever met my two lovely children, Wendel and Also Wendel.

OK, that last one isn’t true. (My wife vetoed it.) But you get the point. Wendel Clark was my first favorite player as a kid, arriving in Toronto not long after I was old enough to enter life as a real sports fan. And in 35 years since, nobody’s really come close to knocking him off the throne.

If you’re a Leafs fan, you get it. Wendel might be your favorite player too. And even if he isn’t, you understand why he could be. To this day, if you go to a Leafs game in Toronto and watch the various hype-up videos that play on the scoreboard before the game, the biggest cheer still comes when Wendel shows up. Leafs fans know.

But if you’re a fan of some other team, you might be confused by this decades-long cult of Wendel Worship. It’s not like the guy made the Hall of Fame, or was even a serious candidate. He never scored 50 goals or won a major award. He’s a modern-day Maple Leafs icon, so we know he didn’t win the Cup. He wasn’t especially fast or good in the defensive zone or much of a playmaker and he always seemed to be hurt. We’re talking about a team that’s been around for over a century and has produced more Hall of Famers than any other franchise – how does this guy show up near the top of every list of most beloved Maple Leafs? Is it just because he punched a lot of people?

No. Well, yes, the punching is part of it. But there’s a lot more to it than that, and to understand, you have to know the history.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Remembering some of the NHL’s greatest one-hit wonders

I love a good one-hit wonder.

Honestly, I don’t even really need the “good” qualifier. One-hit wonders are one of my favorite genres of music, and they don’t even have to be all that good. My playlist is clogged with these things, especially from the 80s and 90s.

Some people would make the argument that this is because I’m “old” and “uncool” and “have bad taste in music.” None of that rings especially untrue. But those people can criticize me as much as they want. I get knocked down, but I get up again. You can’t steal my sunshine.

I also love a good one-hit wonder story when it comes to sports, especially the NHL. A lot of fans seem to want to look down on a player who only managed one memorable season as if the rest of their career was a disappointment. But the odds of even making the big leagues are so slim that it seems like getting all the way there, and then having it all come together for one magical season, is a story worth celebrating.

That’s what we’re doing this week at The Athletic. Today we’re looking at the NHL, with features on players like Guillaume Latendresse, Dave Hindmarch, Joe Juneau and Kjell Dahlin. I’m going to cover a few of my favorites, with a twist: I’m going to raid my awful playlist and try to find a musical one-hit wonder that best matches the NHL version.

Can we make beautiful music together? Not really, no, but we can find a few hits. Let’s do this.

Jim Carey

The player: Carey was an American goaltender who debuted for the Capitals with a very good rookie showing in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. He seemed set for big things, and we didn’t have to wait long.

The season: In his first full season, Carey played 71 games for the Caps, winning 35 while also leading the league in shutouts. He won the Vezina and was voted a first-team All-Star. He even finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting.

The one-hit wonder: “Informer” by Snow.

Why it fits: Two reasons. First, because Carey’s more famous namesake pretty much ended Snow’s career with one of the most vicious parodies in music history. Good lord, Jim, the man has a family. There was no coming back from that.

But more importantly, Carey’s Vezina season is Snow-like in that it doesn’t hold up well in hindsight. Sure, he won a lot of games, ranking second in the league, and he was third in goals-against average. But his .906 save percentage was well outside the top ten, so even by what would be considered basic metrics, he wasn’t close to being the best goalie in the league.

Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that Carey’s success didn’t last. What was shocking was how quickly it all fell apart. The Penguins lit him up in the playoffs — one version of the story says that they realized he couldn’t go side-to-side and made sure to make cross-ice passes before shooting — and the book was out. One season later, he was traded to the Bruins. A season after that, he played 10 games. A season after that, he was back in the minors before being cut altogether. By the end of the 1998-99 season, just three years after his Vezina win, his NHL career was over.

Ken Hodge

The player: No, not that Ken Hodge. The two-time Cup winner and first-team All-Star who scored over 300 goals for the Hawks, Bruins and Rangers wasn’t a one-hit wonder. But his son was. Ken Hodge Jr. was drafted by the North Stars but only managed to crack the NHL for five games before he was traded to the Bruins for a fourth-round pick in 1990. (Fun fact: The Stars used the pick on franchise mainstay Jere Lehtinen.)

The season: Hodge Jr. stepped into the Boston lineup almost immediately. He didn’t score as a Bruin until his 10th game, but once the goals started coming they didn’t stop. He had two goals on the season’s final night to hit the 30-goal mark, an impressive enough total that he finished third in Calder voting, ahead of Hall of Famers Rob Blake, Mats Sundin and Jaromir Jagr.

The one-hit wonder: “She’s So High” by Tal Bachman.

Why it fits: Both Bachman and Hodge Jr. did some solid work in their career. But when dad is a legend, it can be tough to live up to expectations.

Hodge Jr. went on to cap off his strong season with a decent playoff run. But he followed that year up with just six goals in 1991-92, spending half the year in the minors, and was traded to the expansion Lightning (whose GM, Phil Esposito, had been a longtime teammate of his father). Even on an expansion roster, Hodge Jr. couldn’t regain his touch; he scored two goals in 25 games and never saw the NHL again.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Friday, April 3, 2020

Grab Bag: More jersey number trivia, an awards idea and Foligno swings at a fan

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A follow-up to the jersey number trivia post, in which I answer some of your many questions
- An idea for how the NHL should announce this year's awards
- An obscure player who shared the net with two Hall-of-Famers in one game
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at Mike Foligno using his dad-vision to try to murder a Bruins fan

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Puck Soup: Who is this guy playing for?

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We break down what the NHLPA got right and wrong in their player poll
- Our thoughts on The Athletic's Top 100 sports movie ranking
- How this year's draft might work
- Zdeno Chara overshares about Tuukka Rask
- A new quiz called "Who is this guy playing for?"
- 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, April 1, 2020

Remembering the dramatic tying goals that went to waste (aka the Zelepukins)

With no new NHL action these days, the league’s broadcast partners have been dipping into their archives to fill airtime with memorable games from the past. And it’s been pretty cool. We all miss live hockey, but getting to rewatch some old classics isn’t a bad way to spend an evening.

For example, over the weekend Canadian viewers were treated to replays of a pair of classic Canucks Game 7s: their showdown against the Flames in 2004 and their grudge match against the Blackhawks in 2011. A few days earlier, both Sportsnet and Fox Sports West showed the Kerry Fraser game between the Leafs and Kings from 1993.

All memorable games. But they had something else in common, and you may have noticed it. They all featured a very specific type of goal. They all had a Zelepukin.

OK, I’m guessing you don’t call it that, since that’s a label I’ve been using in my own head over the years. But you know the moment. A Zelepukin is when a team scores a dramatic goal to tie a crucial game at the end of regulation but then goes on to lose that game in overtime.

A Zelepukin goal is always a weird moment in hindsight. When the tying goal happens, it’s euphoric for one fan base and crushing for the other. But then the script gets flipped in overtime, and you realize that the Zelepukin just prolonged the misery. Sometimes, the tying goal itself is all but forgotten, replaced in the collective memory by the overtime goal it spawned.

And that’s where the paradox of the Zelepukin kicks in – if your team scored it, you might end up wondering if you’d rather it had never happened at all.

That question has always kind of fascinated me. So today, let’s look at those three Zelepukin goals we’ve been able to relive in recent days, as well as a few more famous ones from hockey history. We’ll start with the one that might have been the most memorable in NHL history. If you’re not sure which one that is, well, the name might give you a hint.

May 27, 1994: Devils vs. Rangers

The setup: It’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, with the Rangers hosting the Devils at Madison Square Garden. New York has won the Presidents’ Trophy and is looking to punch a ticket to the final and a chance to end a 54-year Cup drought. But the underdog Devils are giving them all they can handle. The series is already legendary, having featured Mark Messier’s infamous Guarantee that kept the Rangers alive in Game 6. Now it all comes down to one winner-take-all showdown.

The situation: Game 7 turns into a fierce defensive battle, with Mike Richter and Martin Brodeur trading saves in a 0-0 tie until Brian Leetch gets the Rangers on the board midway through the second. As the third period ticks away, it starts to look like that goal will hold up as the winner.

The Zelepukin: With Brodeur on the bench and 18 seconds left, the teams line up for a faceoff in the Rangers’ end. Messier wins the draw but the Rangers can’t clear, and a goalmouth scramble leads to a golden scoring opportunity. Richter makes what seems like an impossible save, but a certain Devil is there to hack away at the rebound: Tom Chorske!

No, just kidding. It is, of course, Valeri Zelepukin.

And just like that, 18,000 delirious Rangers fans go dead quiet. For at least a little while.

But then: In arguably the most famous overtime of the era, the two teams don’t score through one period before Stephane Matteau’s harmless-looking wraparound attempt ends it. The goal isn’t especially pretty, but the call will live forever.

Do you wish it never happened? If you’re a Devils fan, it’s quite possible that Zelepukin’s goal, at the moment it happened, was the highlight of your entire life as a sports fan. But in hindsight, if you could wave a magic wand and make it disappear, I think you’d have to. Sure, losing 1-0 on a Brian Leetch goal would have been painful. But if you never had to hear Stephane Matteau’s name screamed at you ever again, I think it would be worth it.

April 26, 2011: Blackhawks vs. Canucks

The setup: By 2011, the Hawks and Canucks had managed to brew up a surprisingly heated inter-division rivalry, one that had seen Chicago eliminate very good Vancouver teams in both 2009 and 2010. The Hawks had gone on to win the Cup after that second series, but the Canucks were the favorites heading into their 2011 rematch after a franchise-record 117-point season. All they had to do was slay the dragon.

And through three games, they did. The Canucks built a 3-0 series lead, one that the history books said should be all but insurmountable. But then the Hawks fought back with a blowout win, and then another, and then an overtime win in Game 6 to tie the series. That set up a Game 7 in Vancouver where the Canucks would either fight back with one of the biggest wins in franchise history, or suffer a loss so devastating that they’d have no choice but to detonate the roster. No middle ground.

The situation: Alex Burrows opened the scoring early in the first, and it seemed like that might be enough as Roberto Luongo held off a surprisingly toothless Chicago attack. Late in the third, the Hawks’ chances went from bad to worse when Duncan Keith took a tripping penalty to leave them shorthanded. All the Canucks had to do was play keep away for two minutes, then take it home.

The Zelepukin: A neutral zone turnover led to a harmless looking 2-on-4 rush for the Hawks. But as it turns out, Jonathan Toews is pretty dangerous, even from all fours.

And just like that, the Canucks were headed to sudden death on the verge of what would have been viewed as one of the most epic chokes in NHL history.

But then: Five minutes into overtime Chris Campoli’s failed clearing attempt wound up in Burrows’ glove, and he hammered one past Corey Crawford for the winner.

Do you wish it never happened? Watch that overtime winner again. Do you see how happy Burrows is? It’s the highlight of his entire career. If you were a Hawks fans, would you want to take that away from him? Of course you would. It’s not even a hard question. This Zelepukin clearly needs to go.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free 90-day trial.)