Monday, June 29, 2020

Puck Soup: Placehold my beer

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

>> 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.

Call for mailbag questions

Hey folks...

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


Saturday, June 27, 2020

The winners and losers from the NHL Draft lottery

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

Did I mention this gets weird? It gets weird.

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

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

Loser: Detroit Red Wings

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

Detroit… ouch, man.

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

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

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

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

Winner: Team Chaos

We asked for chaos. We got it.

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

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

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

>> 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, June 26, 2020

The 2020 draft lottery power rankings

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

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

Part… one?

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

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

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

The ‘Who Actually Deserves It?’ Ranking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Which Team Needs It Most?’ Ranking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> 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, June 25, 2020

Puck Soup: Hall of Fame highs and lowes

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

>> Stream it now:

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

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

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

Wait, twenty-five?

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

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

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

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

Jarome Iginla

The case for: He’s Jarome Iginla.

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

Daniel Alfredsson

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

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

Pierre Turgeon

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

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

Doug Wilson

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

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

Theo Fleury

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

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

>> 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, June 22, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenario: Carey Price single-handedly wins the Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> 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, June 19, 2020

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

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

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Puck Soup: Sabre rattling

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

>> Stream it now:

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

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

The Pessimist

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

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

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

The Format Proposer

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

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

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

The Binger

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

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

The Asterisk

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

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

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

>> 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, June 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> 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, June 12, 2020

Puck Soup: And now we wait

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

>> Stream it now:

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

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

Thursday, June 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three important ground rules to keep in mind:

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

Let’s meet our Off-Brand All-Stars!

First line

Wayne Grotski

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor Hall

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

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

Conor McDavitt

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

>> 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, June 9, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>> 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, June 8, 2020

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

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

Great. Will it count?

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

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

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

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

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

Tier 2: The dynasty

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

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

Tier 3: The quasi-dynasty

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

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

Tier 4: The two-time winner

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

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

Tier 5: The dominant one-and-done

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

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

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

>> 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, June 5, 2020

Mailbag: Relegation, Toronto expansion and my ideal hockey broadcast

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

– Mitch J.

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

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

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

– Tyler A.

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

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

>> 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, June 4, 2020

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

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

>> Stream it now:


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

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Which player can make the best starting lineup of guys he was traded for?

Trading has returned to the NHL. Kind of.

As Pierre LeBrun reported last week, the seven teams whose seasons are over can now resume trading with each other. That doesn’t go far enough – the league should reopen trading for everyone – but it’s all we’re going to get for the next few months, so we’ll take it.

To welcome trading back into our lives, let’s have some fun with another roster-building game: What’s the best starting six you can make out of players who were all once traded for the same guy?

We’ve done version of this before with GMs, both for players acquired and those traded away. Fair warning: This is going to be a lot tougher. A typical GM has dozens of trades to work with, while no individual player’s trade total even hits double digits. Finding players who can give us a full lineup will be tough enough, let alone an especially good one.

Still, that’s no reason not to try. As always with this sort of thing, we need some arbitrary rules:

  • Each player needs to be able to find three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie that he was involved in a trade for. We won’t worry about position beyond that, and we’ll let a few guys get away with dipping into the minors if we have to. But if you can’t fill all six spots, you’re out.
  • If a player was traded for a draft pick that turned into a star player, that counts. But if a player was drafted with a pick that had previously been traded for someone, that doesn’t. In other words, you don’t get credit for trades that happened before you were even NHL property.
  • Getting traded with somebody – i.e. on the same side of the trade – doesn’t put that player on your roster. They have to have been going the other way in the deal.
  • A player must use at least three different trades to fill out their roster. That prevents someone like Eric Lindros from using one blockbuster for all their spots, which would go against the spirit of the thing. We want the guys who were traded more than once or twice.

One last note: This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list. I’m sure there are some good candidates who slipped by me. After all, the only way to consider everyone would be to literally spend weeks clicking on every single player link on hockey-reference, and who would do that? (Feels like everyone is staring at him.) Yes, OK, that does sound like something I would do. But this time I didn’t. So if you can come up with a player I missed, post it in the comments.

We’re still roughly 60 days away from possibly watching hockey again. Let’s waste one of those days building some weird rosters …

Team Mark Recchi

Forwards: Rick Tocchet, John LeClair, Dainius Zubrus

Defense: Eric Desjardins, Kjell Samuelsson

Goaltender: Ken Wregget

We’re going to find some decent rosters built around relatively obscure players, but let’s start with a Hall of Famer. Recchi was traded five times in his career, but most of this roster comes from the first two – the controversial 1992 swap that sent him from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and the 1995 trade that saw him go to Montreal in a deal that backfired badly on the Habs.

It all adds up to a strong entry; we don’t have any Hall of Famers, but every position is solid. Team Recchi also features decent depth, as we could also draw on Matt Carkner and Matt Lashoff, among others. It’s not bad. But is it the best? Let’s see what else we can find …

Team Craig Berube

Forwards: Jari Kurri, Doug Gilmour, Vincent Damphousse

Defense: Luke Richardson, Jamie Macoun

Goaltender: Rick Wamsley

I’m not sure Berube will end up being our best roster, but it’s definitely going to be my favorite, because I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a trading resume quite like his. He was an honest role player who served a purpose back in the enforcer days – I was a big fan, which didn’t work out well for me – but he was miles away from being a star. And yet, he somehow managed to be involved in three blockbuster trades in a wild eight-month span back in the early ’90s. And despite playing in the NHL for 17 years, those were his only three trades involving other players.

For our purposes, he gives us a forward line that features two Hall of Famers and combines for over 4,000 points, two solid defensive defensemen and a dependable goaltender (backed up by Peter Ing). That’s not bad for a guy who played 17 seasons and never cracked 20 points in any of them.

Team Bret Hedican

Forwards: Craig Janney, Dave Gagner, Byron Ritchie

Defense: Ed Jovanovski, Sandis Ozolinsh

Goaltender: Kevin Weekes

Two things I know about Bred Hedican. He’s one of the only NHL players who married somebody who could skate better than he could and he was really good at getting traded for big names who were kind of past their prime. Still, it’s a decent squad, especially that blue line. And we can probably get them some skating lessons at a discount.

>> 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.)