Friday, July 31, 2020

Ready for the weirdest playoffs ever? Take the quiz and find out.

The NHL postseason starts for real tomorrow, and nobody knows what to expect. Will the quality of play be high, thanks to healthy, well-rested stars, or a disaster due to rust, bad ice and barren arenas? Will it be chaos, or will the favorites have the advantage? Will the eventual winner feel like a real Stanley Cup champion? Will they even make it that far?

We don’t know. But we know one thing: It’s going to be weird.

Like, super weird. This will almost certainly be remembered as the strangest postseason in NHL history. And that’s saying something, because man, the NHL has a habit of serving up bizarre moments when the games matter most.

Today, let’s get ready for tomorrow’s madness by revisiting some of NHL history’s weirdest playoff moments. I’ve created a 19-question quiz to see how many postseason oddities you remember. Why 19? It seemed fitting since it’s going to take 19 wins to capture this year’s Cup. Well, for some teams it will. Other teams will only need 16. Although come to think of it, there’s also a round-robin for them so they’ll probably end up winning more, but 16 is the minimum so I guess we should say 19. See, as I said, it’s weird.

Enough with the preamble, let’s remember some goofy stuff.

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Puck Soup: The playoff prediction episode

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We make our predictions for all eight play-in series plus the round robin
- Our reactions to the first exhibitions games
- On week in the bubble, and it's so far so good
- The John Chayka mess
- Debating the best and worst bakery products
- And more...

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

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

Who to cheer for (or against) if your team wasn't invited to the postseason

Hockey fans have finally had their first taste of NHL action in four months, sort of, thanks to this week’s exhibition action. But the main event doesn’t start until the weekend when the most bizarre postseason in history kicks off. And every fan will be on the edge of their seat watching it all play out.

Well, unless you’re a fan of one of the seven teams that didn’t get invited. It’s been a rough year for you folks. First, you had to watch your teams suffer through miserable seasons. Then came the unprecedented pause, which was awful for everyone. But now, while the rest of us are getting amped up for a wild postseason, those seven fan bases are trudging towards month five of what could end up being a nine-month offseason. Also, you somehow all lost the draft lottery. As I said, rough.

Today, we’re going to make an extra effort to include those teams, with a playoff rooting guide that’s designed especially for them. For each team, we’re going to do three things. We’ll suggest a team they could definitely root for. We’ll offer up a backup team, one that might be a little tougher case to make but should still work. And then we’ll close out with one team that the fan base can actively root against, because let’s face it, spite-watching the playoffs is usually the best way to enjoy them.

We’ll use a different team for each of the three slots with no repeats, which (spoiler warning) is going to ramp up the difficultly more than a little for certain teams. Let’s see where this goes.

San Jose Sharks

You could cheer for: The Penguins. It’s the Patrick Marleau factor. Sharks fans got to watch him try to win a Cup for 20 years, plus one brief comeback that seemed like a good idea at the time. The relationship had its ups and downs, but surely any Sharks fan would love to see him get his first Cup. (You could say the same for Joe Pavelski and the Stars, by the way. The Sharks are the league’s leading exporters of OGWAC stories.)

Or you could try: The Capitals. First, they’re all sorts of fun to watch. Second, they employ Ilya Kovalchuk, and if he had a great run and won his first Cup, it would probably annoy Kings fans. And third, there was a time when the Caps were the Sharks – the team with a ton of talent that never quite broke through, then fell apart and missed the playoffs to signal that their window was closed. That was back in 2014, and they bounced back so quickly that everyone just kind of forgot about writing them off. If you’re still holding out hope that this version of the Sharks can win a Cup without a total teardown, the Caps aren’t bad inspiration.

While rooting against: The Bruins. Look, not to beat a dead horse, but the Sharks should have traded Joe Thornton to Boston at the deadline. They didn’t, and both sides had their reasons, but Thornton was bummed out, and if Boston just goes and wins without him, it just makes it even worse.

Also, Brad Marchand.

Detroit Red Wings

You could cheer for: The Lightning. Yes, there’s a recent playoff history here, with the Lightning beating the Red Wings in each of Detroit’s last two trips to the playoffs. But when you just finished one of the worst seasons in modern NHL history, anything that reminds you of what it feels like to be in the playoffs is a good thing. Both teams know the pain of racking up a monster regular season and then crashing and burning in the first round. And maybe most importantly, the Lightning are just a really good, exciting team to watch and they should go deep into the playoffs, and Detroit fans deserve that after what they just went through. Red Wings fans can have a little winning, as a treat.

Or you could try: The Canadiens. I’m no math wizard, but if a team wins the Stanley Cup and you beat that team four straight times during the season, I’m pretty sure that means you’re the champion.

While rooting against: The Avalanche. I know time heals all wounds and they’re not even in the same conference anymore, but if there’s a world where the Red Wings and Avalanche can be friends, then I don’t want to live in it.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The 2020 Old Guy Without a Cup rankings

With the playoffs starting this weekend, its time to break out an annual tradition: The yearly OGWAC rankings, in which we honor the noble tale of the Old Guy Without a Cup. The OGWAC is always a great story, and the sight of one finally getting his hands on the big trophy is guaranteed to tug at any fan’s heartstrings. Whether it’s Ray Bourque, Lanny McDonald, Teemu Selanne or last season’s Jay Bouwmeester, the grizzled OGWAC is a playoff tradition, and a concept we like to revisit every year around this time.

Well, not really “around this time,” because we usually do all this in April. Things are somewhat different this year, as you may have noticed. And that means that in addition to being three months late with this year’s column, we’ve also got a much larger field of teams to contend with. And you know what that means: More OGWACs! We’ll bump the list up to 25 names this year, just to make sure we don’t leave any of the best candidates out.

To qualify for this year’s list a player must be at least 33 years old by the time the Cup is awarded in October, have played in the league for at least 10 years and be expected to play in this year’s tournament. That leaves several teams without an OGWAC and a few others whose best options won’t make the cut. Other teams have a ton of candidates, so we’re going to limit each team to a max of two entries on this year’s list. As always, preference will be given to older players that have a realistic shot at winning this year and have suffered through painful near-misses or otherwise have some sort of dramatic story to draw on.

Competition is tight this year, especially since a certain OGWAC mainstay didn’t get traded at the deadline like he was supposed to and it made him sad and everyone involved in that decision should be sent to jail. But it’s fine, don’t worry about, we’re not holding any grudges here at OGWAC headquarters.

As the old saying goes, first place on the OGWAC list is the hardest trophy to win in all of sports. I think that’s what the saying is, I wasn’t really paying attention. On to this year’s list …

25. Mats Zuccarello, Wild

It feels weird to think of him as old, but this is his 10th season and he turns 33 in September. He’s also a popular player who had a close call with the Rangers in 2014 and some recent adversity with last year’s broken arm. There’s also a good chance that you’d completely forgotten he plays for the Wild now, so I can’t rank him too highly, but he deserves a mention.

24. Braydon Coburn, Lightning

Coburn may not be a star, but he’d make for a classic OGWAC story. At 35, he’s been around for 15 seasons and has had plenty of deep playoff runs, including trips to the Final with the 2010 Flyers and 2015 Lightning. The big question is whether he’ll see enough ice time to be an important part of this year’s Lightning push.

23. Carey Price, Canadiens

I know there’s a few of you double-checking right now, but yes, Price qualifies this year — the 13-season veteran turns 33 in a few weeks. We’ll see if the Habs are even still playing then, but for now, he barely makes the cut as the only former MVP on our list. I can’t rank him very high, in part because the Habs are a longshot to go very far. But if he proves all those scared GMs right and turns into the monster behind the diner, he’d be a fun story. If not, well, according to his contract he still has at least six more years of elite goaltending ahead of him, so it’s fine.

22. Marc Staal, Rangers

Staal just turned 33 this year, and his 13 seasons in New York include a near-miss in the 2014 Final. On most teams, that would make him a strong candidate. He’s still a solid pick for the Rangers, but there’s a better one we’ll meet a little further down the list.

21. Keith Yandle, Panthers

Yandle feels like one of those guys where you could tell me he’s 27 or that he’s 36 and I’d believe you. He’s actually 33, and 14 years into an NHL career that’s included a trip to the conference finals with the 2015 Rangers. He’s only won one playoff game since then, and the Panthers have a long road ahead of them, so don’t get too attached, but he makes the list.

20. Nathan Gerbe, Blue Jackets

The diminutive center has always been a great story, and he just barely qualifies for OGWAC status this year, having turned 33 last week in his 10th NHL season. The Blue Jackets are a long-shot to win it all, and Gerbe has some work to do to earn a regular spot in the lineup, but admit it — you’d love to see Nick Foligno turn and hand the Cup to him. Or just hold it over his head and make him jump for it.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

One sentence to get hyped for all 64 possible round-one matchups

We’re just a few days away from the return of the NHL, with the start of a play-in round to determine which four teams in each conference will advance to the first round of the playoffs, plus a round robin to determine seeding for the remaining teams. It’s a tournament format we’ve never seen before, and after four months without hockey, nobody would blame you if you find yourself desperately looking forward to that first week.

Where people might blame you would be if you were already looking even further ahead, and trying to figure out who’s going to play who in the round of 16. After all, we’ve got sixteen teams playing for survival and eight more playing for their seeding, and no idea how it might all shake out. Do the math, and we wind up with 64 possible matchups for what will officially be considered round one. If you really wanted to start thinking ahead, you’d have to consider every one of them.

Would that be crazy? No! But would it be? Yeah, a little, sure, but I’m doing it anyway. Look, you’ve seen what I’ve been up to for the last few months, it’s possible that I’m just a little bit too excited to have actual hockey to write about again. We’re doing this.

And by “this,” I mean coming up with one single sentence to pump the tires of all 64 potential first-round matchups. It probably goes without saying that this will be easier for some matchups than others, but that’s fine. Got to get those creativity muscles back into game shape, after all. Let’s start thinking positive and figure out why each of these 64 matchups is worth looking forward to.

Canadiens vs. Bruins

Quite possibly the greatest rivalry in hockey history, and it has a way of transforming even run-of-the-mill stuff like too-many-men penalties and handshake lines into something dramatic, so you don’t need my help to sell this one.

Canadiens vs. Lightning

The last time they met in the playoffs, they gave us a controversial overtime goal that spawned offside review, so whatever this series produced couldn’t possibly be any worse.

Canadiens vs. Capitals

It would be a 10th anniversary rematch of the only playoff meeting between the teams, which was one of the most memorable upsets of the cap era (with an added dose of Ilya Kovalchuk intrigue).

Canadiens vs. Flyers

They’ve had a couple of meetings in the cap era, but the real memories come from the 1980s, when the rivalry was so intense that the NHL had to make up new rules to get them to stop pummeling each other.

Coyotes vs. Blues

This series would feature the top two pending UFAs in Taylor Hall and Alex Pietrangelo, and there might only be enough money left in a flat cap world for whoever wins.

Coyotes vs. Avalanche

Sometimes the story of a series is a simple one, like when the highest-scoring roster in a conference faces the second-stingiest defensive team and we get to test that whole “defense is what wins in the playoffs” theory.

Coyotes vs. Golden Knights

This was the desert-based rivalry the NHL had in mind when the Golden Knights first arrived, before they wandered off and decided to feud with the California teams instead.

Coyotes vs. Stars

Phil Kessel vs. Tyler Seguin has never not been fun.

Hurricanes vs. Bruins

It would be a rematch from last year’s Eastern Conference finals that should have been so much better than it actually was, plus it would be fun when the Canes showed up in Whaler uniforms just to confuse everyone.

Hurricanes vs. Lightning

Admit it, two Cup-winning Southern contenders having a playoff series in an empty arena in Canada would be pretty hilarious.

Hurricanes vs. Capitals

Last year’s opening round series was amazing and this one could be a ton of fun, with a ready-made revenge narrative for the Capitals (but maybe also Andrei Svechnikov?).

Hurricanes vs. Flyers

Get ready for roughly a million photos of a 20-something Rod Brind’Amour with his shirt off.

Blackhawks vs. Blues

One of the oldest and best rivalries in hockey would be rekindled, and having it play out in August lowers the risk of any holiday-themed massacres.

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Friday, July 24, 2020

Puck Soup: Release the Kraken

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to Seattle's big reveal
- The best and worst team names in NHL history
- Rounding up the NHL awards snubs
- Another list raises eyebrows
- What life in the bubble might look like for players
- And a new quiz format debuts...

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

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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Ranking all 59 team names in NHL history, including the Seattle Kraken

So now we know: It’s the Seattle Kraken. After months of rumors, speculation, fakeouts and fan feedback, the NHL’s newest team officially has a name. Let’s welcome them to the league by figuring out where the Seattle Kraken lands in a ranking of NHL team names.

As in, all of them.

Through NHL history, there have been 59 different team names, and we’re ranking all of them. That list includes Seattle and the other 31 current teams, plus several defunct franchises from the league’s earliest days, many more teams that changed names after moving cities and a few that evolved while staying put. (It does not include teams that changed just their city name but not the team name, which we’ll make a note of but won’t count separately.)

Let’s be clear what we’re doing here. This is a ranking of team names, and team names only. We don’t care if the name lends itself to a cool logo. We don’t care if it looked good on a uniform. And we certainly don’t care about all the history and memories that have become attached to it over the years, decades or even a century. Instead, imagine you’re brand new to the sport, or a little kid, or an alien from another planet. Would you think this was a cool name for a hockey team? That’s all we’re worried about.

And to go one step further, we’re just interested in the name itself, without any fancy backstory about how it came to be. If your team is called The Rainbow Unicorns, then that’s how it will be judged, regardless of whether Jedediah “The Rainbow Unicorn” Brickenback was actually the name of some local war hero or the owner’s great grandfather or whatever. You are what your name says you are. (And for the record, Rainbow Unicorns would be a fantastic team name. Top five for sure.)

Tradition would say we go from worst-to-best on this sort of thing, counting our way down to No. 1. But I’m going to flip the script on this one because I know my readers, and you all just want to see which names I’m going to dump on. Also, you’re going to be cranky at me for not picking your favorite team as the very bestest name ever, and I want to get that out of the way early because if that’s the way you feel after this is all over, you’ll hit the “meh” button and then Mirtle drives up to Ottawa and kicks my dog. So we’ll begin at the beginning, starting with the best name ever and working down to the worst.

Is all of this just one guy’s opinion? Yes, of course. Is it some sort of objectively correct ranking that’s exactly right in every single spot from one all the way through to 59? Also yes. Here we go.

1. Quebec Nordiques
This is just a phenomenal team name. They basically named the team the Northmen, which makes sense geographically and sounds intimidating without being too over-the-top. Then they went with the French version, which is a rare case of being true to your roots rather than your marketing department.

But the key here is that you don’t need to know French or to even know what the name means for it to work. It just sounds great. Que-BEC Nor-DIQUES. It sounds like somebody is punching you in the face. Which for a 1970s hockey team is pretty much perfect.

Yeah, I know, you’re already mad at me. Pace yourself, we’ve got 58 more of these to go.

2. Minnesota North Stars
Maybe I’m leaning too heavily on the northern-based names or my nostalgia for the clubs we lost in the ’90s. But “North Stars” is just a fantastic name, and so much better than what the watered-down names we got from the move to Dallas or the resurrected team in Minnesota.

3. San Jose Sharks
This is just an excellent sports name. Even Al Pacino agrees. He claws with his fingernails for that inch! OK, Sharks don’t have fingernails. I didn’t say it was a perfect metaphor. Still, Sharks are cool. Do you know what would have been cooler? North Sharks, but nobody asked me, so here we are.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates
Simple, intimidating, and brimming with fun possibilities for fans. The Pittsburgh Pirates only lasted five seasons in the NHL’s early days, and they have the misfortune of sharing the name with a baseball team that’s largely become a joke. Still, this is a cool name and we should find a way to bring it back. Somebody get on that. I recommend Yaaaaaar-mo Kekalainen.

5. Quebec Bulldogs
There’s a reason half the high schools and colleges out there seem to go by “Bulldogs,” it’s a great name. And we can’t even complain about the lack of originality, because this team dates back to the 1800s. The WHA stalwart and (kind of) charter member of the fledgling NHL lasted until 1920 before moving to Hamilton. Say this about Quebec, they’re not very good at keeping their teams but they damn sure know how to name them.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Ranking the best playoff openers of the cap era

Among hockey fans, it’s become almost cliché to say that the first round of the postseason is the best time of the year. It’s also indisputably true. With 16 teams in action and hockey on pretty much all the time, you can be virtually guaranteed that something wild will happen somewhere. The first round is pretty great.

In fact, I’ll go one further: My favorite time to be a hockey fan is during the first 48 hours of the playoffs. Every series is a blank canvas at that point, and it feels like anything can happen. You don’t know which of the favorites are for real, and which are about to be exposed. You don’t know which of the underdogs might be starting their miracle run. It’s early enough that nothing feels like a total disaster for anyone, but everything is important. Add on to that, the several-day waiting period between the end of the regular season and playoff puck drop, which increases the demand. It’s so much fun.

This year’s postseason is going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and there’s no guarantee we’ll even get to see it finish. But we’re going to get an opening 48 hours that has the potential to be absolutely amazing. In just two days next weekend, on (man this feels weird to write) Aug. 1 and 2, we’ll see all eight play-in openers, plus two bonus games as part of the round-robin, with the action starting early in the afternoon and going all day long. There’s still confusion over whether any of this formally counts as the “playoffs” or postseason or something else, but I’m not sure that’s going to matter to fans once the puck drops. Mix in more uncertainty than we’ve ever had heading into a postseason, and the seemingly endless drought of four months without hockey suddenly coming to an end via a firehose, and next weekend might end up being just about the best thing ever.

Or maybe it will be a bust. You never know, especially these days. As we count down the days to the NHL’s return, let’s get into the right mindset with a ranking of the best opening 48 hours of playoff action in the cap era.

To qualify for this list, there are a few factors that I’m looking for to be considered a great first 48. You want to have every series starting, without any weird stragglers that show up a few days late and throw off the rhythm. I want to be surprised by a few upsets. It goes without saying that you want as much overtime as possible. And ideally, you’ll have a few intriguing storylines pop up that will pay off down the road, even if you don’t quite know it yet.

Give me all of that, and I won’t regret the fact that I didn’t leave my couch or speak to my family for two straight days. Of course, some years have been better than others, so let’s dive into the ranking.

14. 2009

The Bruins and Sharks went in as the top seeds, with the Wings and Caps also looking strong, and young teams in Chicago and Pittsburgh lurking. The playoffs started on April 15 and 16 with all eight series openers.

Upsets: Maybe none? Home teams won six of the eight openers, and the only two who lost were the Capitals (to the Rangers) and Sharks (to the Ducks). Remember, this was back in 2009, so seeing the Caps or Sharks choke wasn’t really anything you’d consider a surprise.

Overtime: Just one game, and it only lasted 12 seconds thanks to Martin Havlat’s quick winner for the Hawks over the Flames.

Emerging story: That Hawks win was their first in a playoff game since 2002 and just their second since 1997, and served as a signal that this young team might be for real. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh and Detroit both posted impressive 4-1 wins to start their road to a Stanley Cup final rematch that eventually happened.

Overall: No real upsets and just 12 seconds overtime? Pass. The only good thing about this opener was that they gave us eight games. Then again, how can you screw up something as simple as having every series open over the first two nights? Let me take a big sip of water as we scroll to the next entry …

13. 2013

The playoffs start late due to the lockout, with games on April 30 and May 1. Even worse, the first two nights saw just six games, as Sens/Habs and Rangers/Caps had to wait on the sidelines. Six games! This was, it goes without saying, completely unacceptable.

Upsets: Only one, and it barely counted, with the visiting Sharks beating a Canucks team that finished two points ahead of them.

Overtime: A pair of games on opening night, with the Hawks beating the Wild on a Bryan Bickell goal and the Blues beating the Kings on a rare overtime shorthanded goal by Alex Steen that Jonathan Quick would like to forget.

Emerging story: The Maple Leafs made their return to the playoffs after nearly a decade, but they lost to the Bruins by a final score of 4-1 because that is an insurmountable lead.

Overall: Some of the moments were fun, but come on, only six games over the first two nights of action? Don’t ever do this again, NHL.

12. 2008

The playoffs began on April 9 and 10 with four games each night, but there was a twist: the Flames and Sharks double-dipped with two games, while the Flyers and Capitals sat out.

Upsets: Visitors took three of four on opening night, with only the Penguins holding serve against the Senators. The favorites did better on night two, with only the Stars pulling off the only road win with a 4-0 decision over the Ducks.

Overtime: Just one, with the Avs beating the Wild on a Joe Sakic winner.

Emerging story: The openers featured three shutouts, and none of the games had more than five goals. Wait, I thought we fixed scoring back in 2006?

Overall: Another weird schedule, low-scoring games and only one overtime add up to a pretty lackluster start.

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Monday, July 20, 2020

Which team’s history can build the best six-country lineup?

The NHL is headed back to the Olympics, thanks to the new CBA. Assuming they can work out a deal with the IOC, we’ll finally see the return of best-on-best international play on the sports world’s biggest stage.

To celebrate, let’s spend some time on an international-themed question: Which NHL team can build the best six-man starting lineup of players from six different hockey nations?

Specifically, we’re going to be looking for one player each from Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland and Russia/the old Soviet Union. We’ll round out the lineup with one player from somewhere else, such as the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia, etc. The team with the best six guys wins.

Simple, right? After all, most of these teams have been around for decades, and have had players from all around the world. How hard can it be to find six stars from different countries who’ve all suited up for the same team?

Well, hold that thought, because this is going to get trickier than you might think. But first, as always, some ground rules:

  • A player’s country will be the one he played for internationally or, if we don’t have that, where he was born.
  • We want three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie, but otherwise we don’t care about who plays where. This will be tough enough for some teams without having to worry about matching up wingers or which way a defenseman shoots.
  • Teams can use any player who played for them, but they only get credit for those seasons, not his whole career. If we put Wayne Gretzky on the Blues roster, they’re getting 21 regular-season points and a neutral zone turnover in overtime and that’s it.

Make sense? Take a minute to try to come up with a starting six for your own favorite team. We won’t do all 31 teams here, but we’ll carve off enough of the league to give us a good sense of how this works. And we’ll start with one example that illustrates just how challenging this can be …

Edmonton Oilers

Forwards: Wayne Gretzky (CAN), Jarri Kurri (FIN), Leon Draisaitl (GER)

Defense: Boris Mironov (RUS), Lee Fogolin (USA)

Goalie: Tommy Salo (SWE)

Admit, that’s not anywhere near as good a lineup as you expected, right? The Oilers, for all their ups and downs, have been blessed with some of the very best players in NHL history. But almost all of them have been Canadians, so once you slot Gretzky into the forward ranks you’ve wiped out a ton of talent. No Connor McDavid, no Mark Messier, no Pual Coffey or Grant Fuhr or Taylor Hall.

We do have some relatively easy calls for the other forwards, since Kurri might be the best Finnish player ever, and Draisaitl seems like a slam dunk to fill the “other” slot. But that leads to another problem: The Oilers’ best Americans have all been forwards, including Doug Weight and Todd Marchant. We’ve run out of room to use them now, so we’re stuck with Lee Fogolin on the blue line. He’s paired with Mironov because the Oilers have never had many Russian players and if we don’t use him then we might be stuck with Nail Yakupov.

Salo isn’t a bad option to round out the team – he’s actually third all-time in games played in net for the franchise – but it’s not a great lineup top-to-bottom, even with a couple of all-time greats. This might not be so easy after all. Let’s see if we can find a team that does a little better.

St. Louis Blues

Forwards: Brett Hull (USA), Vladimir Tarasenko (RUS), Jori Lehtera (FIN)

Defense: Chris Pronger (CAN), Carl Gunnarsson (SWE)

Goalie: Jaroslav Halak (SVK)

Another mixed bag. We’ve got two Hall-of-Famers; Hull’s international resume puts him on Team USA even though he was born in Canada, meaning we can use Pronger too (or Al MacInnis if you’d prefer). Tarasenko is an easy choice up front. Things fall off a bit from there, since the Blues don’t have much history with Finnish or Swedish stars. Lehtera is pretty much mandatory as the only Finn to even hit triple digits in games played for the franchise, which fills out the forwards and bumps Patrik Berglund out of the running for the Swedish spot, forcing us to pick Gunnarsson for the back end. Halak’s no Cujo or even Mike Liut, but he’s good enough to beat out Roman Turek for the goaltending job.

The Blues give us a bit more balance than the Oilers could offer, but there must be better options out there. Now that we’ve got the hang of this, let’s level up to the Original Six and see what we can find when we have a full century of history to work with.

Montreal Canadiens

Forwards: Saku Koivu (FIN), Mats Naslund (SWE), Tomas Plekanec (CZE)

Defense: Andrei Markov (RUS), Chris Chelios (USA)

Goalie: Jacques Plante (CAN)


So here’s the thing. Typically when we do these sort of team-building exercises, the Original Six teams have a big advantage, because they’ve got so much more history to draw on. But this time, that really doesn’t matter, because the first half of the NHL’s history is almost exclusively Canadians and a handful of Americans. Those extra few decades of existence don’t really help.

You can see that play out with the Habs — they have a rich history of legendary stars, but they’re almost all Canadian. I toyed with slipping in Halak as the goaltender so that I could get a Maurice Richard or Larry Robinson onto the roster, but I think we pretty much have to use our Canadian spot in net. I went with Plante, but you could slot in Patrick Roy or Ken Dryden if you want.

Still, even without the Rocket, this is a reasonably strong lineup, with two Hall-of-Famers and nobody that really jumps out as an obvious weak spot. Let’s see what some of the other Original Six teams can do.

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Friday, July 17, 2020

Grab Bag: CBA details, prerecorded fans, and an 80s montage about friendship

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- My spies have dug up key details from the new CBA
- A debate about how to broadcast games in empty arenas
- An obscure player with great initials
- Comedy stars
- And a YouTube trip back to the 80s, where we learn about the power of friendship

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Thursday, July 16, 2020

Puck Soup: Unfit to podcast

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- It's official, we have a new CBA and a return-to-play plan
- The NHL's new injury/illness disclosure rule is, uh, they won't
- Thoughts on recorded cheers
- Brock Boeser trade talk which somehow turns into making up Connor McDavid trades
- Another round of Name Pat Falloon
- 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, July 15, 2020

Which fans have lived both the highest highs and lowest lows?

The playoffs are just around the corner, which means it’s time to remember what it feels like to be a fan. If you root for one of the 24 teams that will be taking the ice, you can expect to experience some crushing lows and (maybe) some thrilling highs. It’s the nature of being a hockey fan, and most of us know both sides of the experience well – some of us more than others.

Today, we’re going to warm up for those feelings by trying to answer a simple question: Which NHL fan base has experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows?

Every fan base has its ups and downs, often in the same shift. But there’s being bummed out about a tough loss, and then there’s the soul-destroying misery that comes with seeing your team become a laughingstock. And, at least according to what I’ve been told, sometimes it works the other way, and you get to watch your team ascend to the very top of the sport, winning a championship or even several.

Some fan bases know both feelings well. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure it’s either, but at least it’s not boring. Like the old saying goes, may you live in interesting times.

Here’s how this will work. We’ll go back to the modern era (post-1967) for the Original Six teams, and the life of the team for everyone else. For franchises that have moved, we’ll start the clock on when they arrived in the new city, since if you were a diehard Hartford Whalers fan I’m guessing your low was when the team pulled out of town. Winnipeg gets credit for both version of the Jets, because we are not heathens here.

The fun part about this idea is that every fan base is convinced that their personal highs and lows are more extreme than everyone else’s, meaning everyone is going to be mad at me. Awesome, let’s do this. Let’s figure out which teams have covered the entire spectrum of the fan experience, good and bad, with a ranking that starts with the smallest gap and works up to the largest.

31. Vegas Golden Knights

Easy call here. They skipped the whole “miserable expansion years” thing and went to the final in Year 1. Sure, there was a controversial call that helped cost them a playoff round against the Sharks. But they’ve basically been really good every single year of their existence, and it’s OK to hate their fans for it just a little bit.

30. Minnesota Wild

They’ve made one trip to the conference final, had one pick in the top three in franchise history and have had between 81-106 points in every full season since 2002. Even these last few years when their fans made it sound like they were terrible, you look at the standings and inevitably find them hanging around the wild card race. They’re so middle-of-the-road that their logo should be a highway divider. On the bright side, this is the first time I’ve ever made any kind of ranking of all 31 teams and not had the Wild finish 16th.

29. Columbus Blue Jackets

The early days weren’t great, although they never embarrassed themselves. The last decade or so has seen them bounce from respectable to quite good, although it’s only resulted in one playoff round win. Waiting 20 years for a breakthrough wears on you, for sure, but Columbus fans haven’t been too low and have barely ever been high.

28. Nashville Predators

They were bad but not embarrassing as an expansion team, then embarked on nearly two decades of being pretty good most years, culminating with a trip to the final in 2017 that was followed by a Presidents’ Trophy. Without a Cup or any truly terrible seasons, they can’t rank all that high.

27. Winnipeg Jets

Even giving them credit for both versions of the franchise … man, there’s not a lot here at either extreme. We’re not counting the WHA days, so those titles don’t help. The Original Jets had one legitimately terrible season back in 1980-81 (that resulted in Dale Hawerchuk) and a few others that weren’t very good, but otherwise they were a solid 80ish point team that consistently made the playoffs and then politely went out in the first round. The updated version has been better, including the city’s only trip to a conference final, but still pretty middle-of-the-road. I’ll give Winnipeg fans credit for the highs and lows of watching their team leave and return, but in terms of what happens on the ice, they’ve mostly avoided the extremes.

26. Arizona Coyotes

Speaking of the Jets, it’s been nearly a quarter-century since the original franchise arrived in Arizona, and they’ve only made it out of the first round once while averaging less than one playoff game win per season. They’ve also never been especially awful, except for the one year they tried to be and then got burned by the lottery gods. We’ll give their fans some credit for all the off-ice drama they’ve had to endure, though, because it’s been constant.

25. Florida Panthers

The lows include multiple seasons in which they finished in last place overall, with the added bonus that they traded away those first overall picks. Mix in uncertainty over the franchise’s long-term future and non-stop snark from more seasoned markets, and Panthers fans have that end of the scale covered reasonably well. The other half of the equation is dicier, though, with one surprise trip to the final in 1996 and not so much as a single playoff round win since.

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Monday, July 13, 2020

Five memorable NHL moments that wouldn’t have been the same without fans

The NHL is on the way back, and we’re just days away from seeing meaningful hockey played for the first time since March. Everything about the situation is deeply weird, from the hubs to the bubbles to the format. But once they actually get out onto the ice and drop the puck, there’s a chance that it might all feel normal.

Well, almost. There’s the small matter of playing without any fans in the building. Is that going to matter? We’ve had this argument before, and no doubt fans around the world will be having it over the next few weeks. For some of us, those empty arenas will be a big distraction. While others will barely notice it at all. Maybe we’ll get a better insight into what’s happening on the ice because we’ll be able to hear the players, coaches and officials more clearly. Or maybe TV will throw a bunch of weird sound effects and CGI into the mix to try to compensate.

Nobody knows what the future holds. And that’s OK because I’m not really the “future” guy around here. But I do know a thing or two about the past, which got me to thinking about some famous and not-so-famous games in NHL history that just wouldn’t have been the same without fans in the building. Today, let’s pay tribute to those die-hards who show up to cheer, boo, pound the glass, wave frantically at the camera and sometimes do a whole lot more than that. Here are five games from NHL history that wouldn’t be as memorable without the fans.

April 19, 2004: Flames at Canucks

The setup: The first-round playoff series between the two rivals had been a classic, and after the Canucks had survived a triple-overtime cliffhanger in Game 6, we headed back to Vancouver for a deciding game.

All of this would have been the same: We would have had a classic from the genre of tight, low-scoring games that defined the era. Jarome Iginla would have still opened the scoring in the first, Matt Cooke would have tied it midway through the third, and Iginla would have restored the lead minutes later. The Flames would have led 2-1 in the final minute, and after a controversial late call against Ed Jovanovski, would have had a chance to ice the game with the goalie out when Iginla got to a loose puck in the neutral zone with seconds left and nobody between him and the open net.

But without fans, we wouldn’t have seen: A fan fire their Canucks jersey on the ice just as Iginla took the shot, nearly landing on the puck and potentially distracting the Flames captain at the game’s most crucial moment.

The shot went just wide, the Canucks scored the tying goal seconds later, and we headed to overtime.

What it would have meant: Quite possibly, nothing. There’s a good case to be made that the toss came just slightly too late for Iginla to see it. Besides, NHL players can get so locked in with a game on the line that they wouldn’t notice a live bear on the ice with then, let alone somebody tossing a jersey on the ice.

Still … I mean, how crazy was that? It’s hard not to play what-if with that moment. What if the jersey had landed on the puck, or blocked it from heading towards the net? I’m not even sure what the rule would be there, and knowing obscure rules is pretty much my beat.

For the record, Iginla didn’t blame the jersey toss for missing the open net, although he was suspiciously noncommittal — his answer was “I don’t know, I was focused.” Since we all know he’s too classy to make excuses, I’m just going to go ahead and interpret that as “I 100 percent missed that empty net because some fan chucked a jersey at me.”

To make matters even crazier, just a few seconds later Iginla had his stick chopped out of his hand by Brendan Morrison, taking him out of the play just before the Canucks tied the game. It was a clear penalty that wasn’t called, and while officials often ignore stuff late, look what the ref is doing at that exact moment: picking up the stray jersey instead of watching Morrison’s hack.

It all could have added up to one of the most controversial moments in playoff history. Instead, the Flames ended up winning in overtime, so Cooke’s tying goal was a Zelepukin and everyone just kind of laughed it off. And the hockey gods got to work plotting a different way to screw over the 2004 Flames.

March 29, 2001: Maple Leafs at Flyers

The setup: Two good teams faced off in a late-season battle with playoff seeding implications, not to mention a rematch of a 1999 playoff meeting and a potential preview of a series that could happen in a few weeks.

All of this would have been the same: The two teams would have played a tight, hard-nosed game. Dan McGillis would have still opened the scoring in the first, with Gary Roberts answering for Toronto in the second. Early in the third, Luke Richardson still would have hit Darcy Tucker, who sold it like he was dead. Tie Domi would have still tried to get at Richardson. Kevin Collins would have intervened because Kevin Collins always intervened. And once things were under control, Domi and Richardson would have headed to the penalty box to serve matching minors for unsportsmanlike conduct.

But without fans, we wouldn’t have seen: Domi presumably wouldn’t have felt the need to squirt his water bottle into the empty stands. That wouldn’t have led to a Flyers fan deciding to get involved, leaning over the glass in the process. And we wouldn’t have all learned a valuable lesson about just how strong that glass actually is.

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Friday, July 10, 2020

The NHL has its new CBA. What will it mean for fans?

p>The NHL has a new collective bargaining agreement. With the results of this week’s vote now in and approval from nearly 79 percent of players, per reports, the league can move forward with its return-to-play plan for a summer playoffs paired with a new deal that will last through 2026. A new CBA, let alone one reached with little in the way of animosity, would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago, but pandemics have a way of shifting priorities.

By now, you’ve probably already seen plenty of smart breakdowns about what this all means for the owners, for the players, for Gary Bettman’s legacy and for the bottom line. But I want to look at it from a slightly different angle: What does this mean for the fans? What does it mean for you and me, who don’t really care where every single dollar winds up as long as we get to watch our favorite team chase a Stanley Cup?

Let’s try to figure that out. I’m going to focus on the actual CBA – the return-to-play agreement is its own separate category, and we’ve already looked at what that might be like for fans and whether we should even want it to happen in the first place. Today, let’s worry about the new CBA itself, and what it might mean for us over the years to come.

And we can start with the obvious.

Just getting a deal done is a big win for fans …

Let’s start with the important thing, and we can just cut to the chase: This is good news for fans. There’s no need to go looking for a contrarian angle here. For the first time in the Gary Bettman era, and in fact, the first time since the players briefly went on strike late in the 1991-92 season, the NHL is going to get a new CBA without a work stoppage. That’s good news, full stop.

I’ll admit, I didn’t think it was going to happen, and maybe it wouldn’t have if the world hadn’t been hit by a global pandemic that upset everything we thought we knew about pro sports economics. Or maybe it would have happened anyway, because there are only so many times that smart people can try to pull the same act on their customers. We’ll never know. But the point is they made a deal without locking the doors, and now we’ve got another six years before we have to wonder about this stuff again.

Should it have taken a global catastrophe for the NHL to do what every other league seems to have already figured out a way to do? No, but it did, and here we are. If you’ve spent the last quarter-century ripping on the league for always needing a lockout to get a deal (raises hand), you have to applaud them for finally getting it right this time.

… as long as you don’t cheer for a team that’s up against the cap

A flat cap for several years, until revenue returns to pre-pandemic projections? Hoo boy. Sorry, fans of the Maple Leafs, Lightning, Blues and all the other capped out teams who only a few months ago were told that next year’s cap could be as high as $88 million. This might get ugly.

That’s not to say there was any way to avoid a flat cap, and in fact, having it stay where it is might be a victory of sorts. If the league had insisted on the cap remaining tied directly to revenues, the wreckage of the 2019-20 season would have meant the cap dropping, maybe significantly. That would have been a nightmare, as teams scrambled to cut wherever they could to stay compliant. Nobody would have won in that scenario – not fans, not players, not the teams who’d have to frantically gut their rosters – so avoiding it is a win of sorts.

That said, there were options available to mitigate the pain for capped out teams. The league could have thrown in a compliance buyout or two. They could have borrowed cap-bending measures from other sports, like a Larry Bird exception or variable cap hits. They could have got really creative, allowing teams to trade for cap space or borrow from future years.

They didn’t do any of that. Instead, they basically served up the same format we’ve had for years. Given the urgency to get a deal done as quickly as possible, you can understand why they didn’t do anything crazy. But if you’re a fan that’s used to defending your team’s budget crunch by saying “It’s OK, the cap always goes up,” then you’re about to see what life’s like when it doesn’t.

At a more granular level, the same concerns apply to fans of teams with one or more bad contracts. Sorry Blackhawks fans, there’s no get-out-of-jail-free card coming for Brent Seabrook. Same with the Sharks and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. We could name plenty of others. If you cheer for those teams, it’s time to shift your thinking from “compliance buyouts will save us” to “the expansion draft will (somehow?) save us.”

So yeah, tough times for a lot of teams in the league. Of course, that could present an opportunity for others. If you root for one of the few teams with lots of caps space, you’re about to see how creative your GM wants to get.

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Thursday, July 9, 2020

Puck Soup: Ruff landing

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Devils hire Lindy Ruff and Greg has thoughts
- We break down the new CBA and return-to-play plan
- Is this actually going to work?
- Chris Pronger leaves the Panthers, an organization you definitely knew he was working for
- We talk about Supermarket Sweep for some reason
- A new quiz debuts
- And we give the OUFL treatment to Tom Cruise 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.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Playing "what if?" with five draft scenarios from NHL history

We’ve spent a good part of the last week sorting through the fallout of the draft lottery, which certainly gave us plenty to talk about. But we weren’t supposed to be doing this. Before the pandemic hit, the draft lottery was scheduled for April, and we were supposed to have spent the last week talking about the draft itself. The same Friday night the league was drawing ping pong balls and Bill Daly was flipping over generic logos, the NHL was supposed to be gathered in Montreal for Round 1 of the draft.

What if they had been? It’s impossible to know how it would have played out, although we’ll get some indication when the delayed draft is held, well, whenever they get around to it this fall. In the meantime, we’re left with that question: What if?

Alternate realities don’t sound like a bad option right now, so let’s do this. Here are five draft-themed what-if scenarios from modern NHL history and how they might have changed everything.

What if Eric Lindros had just put on the jersey?

The arbitration-mandated trade that sent Eric Lindros from Quebec to Philadelphia for a massive package that included Peter Forsberg is probably one of the most what-if’d transactions in NHL history. Most of those alternate realities revolve around the arbitrator making the decision he’d been expected to make at the time and awarding Lindros to the Rangers instead, for a package that was reported to include names like Tony Amonte, Alexei Kovalev and (maybe) Mike Richter. Lindros could have wound up somewhere like Chicago, Detroit or Montreal. I’ve offered up my own version where he lands in Toronto, and everything changes.

But there’s a simpler scenario that often gets overlooked: What if Lindros had just put on that Nordiques jersey? What if he’d never decided he didn’t want to play in Quebec or had been talked out of his stance or had backed down once training camp arrived and decided to report?

For one thing, Lindros would have arrived in the NHL in 1991 instead of heading back to junior. That might mean he adds a Calder Trophy to his resume instead of finishing miles behind Teemu Selanne in 1992-1993. It also means he misses the 1992 Olympics, which might cost Canada a medal.

Instead, he’d have been in Quebec, playing on a team that already had Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan. But they didn’t have much else – the real 91-92 Nordiques’ leading scorers included names like Mike Hough, Greg Paslawski and Mikhail Tatarinov, and starting goalie Stephane Fiset went into the season with nine career games on his NHL resume. Add Lindros, who scored 40 goals in his real-world rookie season, and they’d be a lot better than the 52-point team they were, but we won’t get silly and suggest they’d be a playoff team. Meanwhile, would the Flyers have had the patience to wait for Forsberg to arrive, or would they have used him as a trade chip to land some other big-name star?

But those aren’t the big questions. Instead, we want to know two things about our what-if Nordiques: Do they still move to Colorado and do they still go on to win multiple Stanley Cups?

I think the answer to the first question is yes, they do still end up moving. The NHL’s economics in the early ’90s were just about impossible for small-market Canadian teams to manage, and the clock was already ticking on the Nordiques by 1991. It’s possible that Lindros bursting onto the scene would have meant a reinvigorated fan base, a new arena and a team that puts down firmer roots that remain to this day. But it feels unlikely.

Still, Lindros might at least have bought them another season or two, which puts everything about their Colorado days in question, even if we assume they still wind up there eventually. Having Lindros instead of Forsberg might be close to a wash, although plenty of fans would tell you Forsberg was better, and there were plenty of other pieces from that trade tree that ended up being crucial. But more importantly, what if those Lindros-led Nordiques haven’t moved in time for the 1995-96 season? There’s no way the Habs trade Patrick Roy to their provincial rivals, and without him the Sakic-era Cups seem a lot less likely.

We never found out, which is good news for hockey fans in Colorado and bad news for those in Quebec.

What if there hadn’t been so much confusion over Pavel Bure’s draft eligibility?

The saga of Pavel Bure’s draft remains confusing to this day. Heading into the 1989 draft, Bure was considered one of hockey’s most dynamic prospects, but back in those days teams were hesitant to invest high picks in Soviet players who may have taken years to come to North America, if they ever did at all. Soviet players were almost always taken as late-round flyers, and the rules of the day said that an 18-year-old Bure was only eligible to be picked in the first three rounds because he hadn’t played two full pro seasons back home.

Or had he? While the threshold for a season was 11 games and Bure’s official records only listed five with CSKA Moscow in 1987-88 (and still do), the Canucks believed they’d uncovered evidence of six more. They believe Bure was eligible to be picked. And depending on who you believe, they weren’t the only ones.

According to Brian Burke, who helped the Canucks build their legal case, the only other team that knew about Bure’s mystery games was the Edmonton Oilers. But years later, a story emerged that the Red Wings were in the loop too, and that’s where the confusion really kicks in. According to Jim Lites, an executive with Detroit at the time, the Wings were ready to take Bure in the fifth round but were specifically told by the league that he wasn’t eligible. The Canucks called his name in the sixth round, other teams immediately objected, and everything went to hell.

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Monday, July 6, 2020

The Leafs are the Best: An oral history of ‘The Passion Returns’ VHS video

“This has been… an unbelievable… turn of events!”

If you’re a Maple Leafs fan of a certain age, you know the moment. Those words conjure it instantly. They belong to Bob Cole, and they came from the immediate aftermath of Nikolai Borschevsky’s Game 7 overtime goal against the Red Wings on May 1, 1993. You can hear Cole’s voice, probably picture Borschevsky getting bear-hugged by Wendel Clark, or Cliff Fletcher’s ear-to-ear grin, or Brian Papineau going nuts with a water bottle. You’re right back in the moment, all these years later.

If you’re not a Leafs fan, your eyes have already rolled deep into the back of your head.

Look, I hear you. That 1993 run didn’t end with a Stanley Cup, or even a trip to the Final. But Leaf fans won’t shut up about it. Almost three decades later, they – ok fine, we – still go on and on about that season. It’s the most beloved Leafs team since the Original Six days, and it’s not even close. If you’re a fan of another team, you might be completely confused.

But if you’re a Leafs fan, you get it. And here is something else you almost certainly got: A copy of a VHS tape called The Passion Returns that came out later that year. You probably got it for Christmas, and had watched it a dozen times by New Years. And you know, to this day, that it is a masterpiece.

Everything about The Passion Returns is just about perfect, from the overly dramatic opening credits, to the heavy dose of early-90s dance music, to the heartstring-tugging epilogue after they lose to the Kings. It’s so over the top. The Leafs weren’t the only team to make a season-in-review tape in the ‘80s and ‘90s to commemorate a season where they didn’t even win anything (no really, save your punchlines, your team probably had one too). They were just the only team to reach the absolute peak of the art form.

It really was, as a wise man once said, an unbelievable turn of events. But how did this thing get made? And why? And why does it still resonate with so many Leafs fans, even almost three decades later?

We decided to find out, by talking to the people who made the tape, the faces that appeared on it, and the fans who loved every minute of it. And along the way, we’re also going to talk about a very unfortunate haircut, and, yes, whatever the hell that music video was.


The Toronto sports and media landscape in October 1992 would be unrecognizable to many fans today. The Argonauts were a year removed from playing home games in front of 50,000 people at SkyDome. The Raptors didn’t exist. The Blue Jays — who before the month’s end would claim their first World Series championship — were unquestionably the toast of the town, if not the entire country.

The Maple Leafs? After missing the playoffs earlier that spring, expectations were low entering the 1992-93 NHL season, despite the addition of Pat Burns behind the bench and the prospect of a full season with Doug Gilmour as their No. 1 centre.

Damien Cox, Toronto Star Maple Leafs beat reporter in ’92-’93, author, The Last Good Year: Seven Games that ended An Era: My expectations were not very high. It’s hard to explain to people now, but they really weren’t even a consideration to be a playoff team… we’re not even talking Stanley Cup. When the season started that year, they still didn’t have Dave Andreychuk. They had Grant Fuhr. Bits and pieces, but not anything solid. Gilmour wasn’t a superstar at that time. I don’t think there were any expectations at all.

Sean McIndoe, high school student in ’92-’93: I remember there being a little bit of optimism at the start of the season because they’d been OK down the stretch after the Gilmour trade. And more importantly, Pat Burns was going to come in and finally teach them how to play defense. Then they went out for the home opener and lost 6-5 and it was like, OK, yep, same old Leafs.

On television, every Maple Leafs game was produced by Molstar Communications, a subsidiary of Molson Brewery, who owned both the NHL’s national Canadian broadcast rights and the Maple Leafs regional rights. Regional games were aired on the Global Television Network across southern Ontario, while CBC carried national Leafs games on Hockey Night in Canada.

One Molstar employee in the fall of 1992 was 34-year-old, Mark Askin. Entering his seventh year producing games for Molstar on both CBC and Global, and as a lifelong, long-suffering Leafs fan, the Toronto native would bring a unique perspective to his work during the season, and in the summer of ’93 once tasked with a special assignment…

Mark Askin, senior producer with Molstar in ’92-’93: I grew up a Leafs fans. I remembered the night the Leafs won in ‘67. I remember the night Bobby Baun scored, I watched it on TV with my dad. My uncle and dad kept payments on season tickets. We’d go down in section 67, row B, seats 11 and 12. Fifteen-to-20 times a year. They were the highlights of my year.

In 1992, pre-internet, newspapers were at the peak of their power in terms of their ability to shape opinion and distribute information. TSN was the only 24/7 sports network in town. Toronto’s first all-sports radio station, The Fan 1430, was a month old when the Leafs season began.

Cox: There was a bit of rivalry between the baseball media and the hockey media and the baseball media were riding high. The CFL was looking south (for expansion), Rocket Ismail had come north. A lot of attention was on the States and in some people’s minds, baseball had become the preeminent sport (in Toronto). (Harold) Ballard had only recently died. By then you were 15 years of (the Leafs) being run into the ground and the Blue Jays were this professional organization with the biggest payroll in baseball. The Leafs were in a lot of ways, a joke.

McIndoe: I know it sounds crazy to today’s fans, but it’s true. The Leafs mattered, but the Blue Jays ruled. They weren’t just winning, they were signing all the top free agents and making the Yankees and Red Sox cry about how unfair it was that Toronto had all the money. And the town was going crazy for all of it. Then you looked at the Leafs and thought “Man, what if they got good too?”

Led by Doug Gilmour’s Leafs record 127 points, and a Jack Adams-winning performance from Burns behind the bench, the Leafs exceeded every pre-season prognostication by posting 99-points, good for third in the Norris Division behind the Chicago Blackhawks (106 points) and Detroit Red Wings (103). Despite finishing just four points back of Detroit, the Leafs were big underdogs entering their first-round series against the Red Wings and the league’s No. 1 offence.

Doug Gilmour, Maple Leafs forward in ’92-’93: People forget what you did in the regular season. People remember what you do in the playoffs.

Mark Osborne, Maple Leafs forward in ’92-’93: We were the underdogs. And yet there was a belief that because of Burnsie and our style of play that something positive would result of it.

Cox: Detroit was such a powerhouse or an evolving powerhouse. Toronto was not in the same class back then. Once the Leafs won Games 3 and 4, you went ‘holy shit.’ Even in Game 7, nobody thought they were going to win. Maybe they did, I don’t know. But once they beat Detroit, everything changed.

McIndoe: On paper, beating a team that was four points ahead of you shouldn’t feel like a giant upset. But these were the Leafs, so we all knew they weren’t going to pull it off. Then they did, and suddenly you looked around and the Hawks were out, the Smythe didn’t have a powerhouse for once, and you were like, ‘Wait a second, something could happen here.’

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Friday, July 3, 2020

Mailbag: Could a team of 20 Zdeno Charas beat a team of 20 Johnny Gaudreaus, and other important questions

Welcome to another edition of the mailbag, in which you ask me very strange questions and I put way too much thought into coming up with the right answer. This week, we’re going to figure out how to trade Jack Eichel, rank the teams that had the most luck picking first overall, induct a placeholder into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and figure out whether a team full of Zdeno Charas could beat a team full of Johnny Gaudreaus. No, I don’t desperately need hockey to come back, why do you ask?

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity.

What franchise has gotten the most value out of the first overall pick in NHL history? It has to be the Penguins, correct? They chose the second-best player ever, the best player of the 2000s, and a goalie that took two teams from worst to first. – Michael O.

Oh yeah, it’s the Penguins for sure. I can’t even come up with a contrarian take here. In fact, you could make a decent case that the two best first overall picks in history both went to the Penguins. Mix in a decent goaltender and the fact we all know they’re getting Lafreniere this year and it’s a no-brainer.

But you got me thinking about who would be next on the list. So let’s rephrase the question as “Which team other than the Penguins got the most value out of the first overall pick?” Here’s my top five:

Not ranked: Montreal Canadiens – They’ve actually had more first overall picks than anyone with five, but only ever hit on one of them. That was Guy Lafleur with the Seals’ pick in 1971, and he was a legend, but the other four guys were Garry Monahan, Michel Plasse, Rejean Houle and Doug Wickenheiser.

Also not ranked: Ottawa Senators – Three first overall picks in four years, and they turned them into a bust (Alexandre Daigle), a guy who refused to play for them (Bryan Berard) and a solid stay-at-home defenseman (Chris Phillips). When the guy who didn’t crack 300 points is easily your top pick, that’s rough.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning/Toronto Maple Leafs (tie) – The Lightning have had the top pick three times and got a solid defenseman in Roman Hamrlik, a guy who looked like a Hall of Famer for the first decade of his career in Vincent Lecavalier, and a legit franchise player in Steven Stamkos. The Leafs have somehow only had it twice, but they used them on Auston Matthews (who’s been one of the most productive young goal scorers in NHL history) and Wendel Clark (who was this guy).

4. Buffalo Sabres – They’ve had three, and they produced one slam dunk Hall of Famer (Gilbert Perrault), one guy who has a borderline case (Pierre Turgeon) and a kid who might be on the way (Rasmus Dahlin).

3. Edmonton Oilers – I thought they’d be higher, but despite four top picks in six years, they didn’t end up with as much as you’d hope. They’ve got the very best player in the world in Connor McDavid, so they have to crack the top three, but other than that they got a future MVP they gave up on too early (Taylor Hall), a solid player who’s never been elite (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) and an all-time bust (Nail Yakupov).

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What’s the best roster you could make out of NHL stars who were clearly not the best player in history to have those initials?

What’s the best possible roster you could make out of NHL stars who were clearly not the best player in league history to have those initials? Let’s find out!

A few ground rules:

  • We’re going to let be our guide on the question of the “best” players. This turns out to be deceptively simple since their search engine defaults to sorting by a player’s importance. I think this is based largely (but not entirely) on point shares, which isn’t a perfect stat but will work well enough for our purposes. We search for a set of initials, and the first result that matches them is the best player and can’t be on our roster.
  • Except … I know this is all subjective, but I did run into a few cases where the search engine was just wrong, or at least where it felt like the top two guys were too close to call. When that happens, I reserve the right to overrule the site and disqualify a player we could otherwise use. This will make things harder, but it also means I won’t have to wade through 100 comments from people who think I took the easy way out because Mats Sundin is clearly better than Martin St. Louis no matter what some computer says. Remember, we said “clearly not the best,” so we only want guys where there’s no real case to be made that they could be at the top of their list.
  • Active players are in play, but we only get credit for what they’ve done in their careers so far. Connor McDavid has two Art Ross trophies, but with less than 500 career points might not make the roster yet. (And he’s already the best C.M. in league history, so we couldn’t use him anyway.)
  • We’re using whatever was considered a player’s most common name during their playing days.
  • We’re filling out a 20-man roster with four centers, four right wings, four left wings, six defensemen and a goalie.

Sounds like fun? (Crickets chirp.) Awesome, let’s do this!

We’ll start with the obvious problem: By definition, we’re not going to be able to use any of the NHL’s true all-time greats. Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux … they’re all out.

That applies to pretty much all of the second tier too. It would be nice if a pair of top 10 players had been considerate enough to double up on initials, but that doesn’t really happen. There isn’t an NHL equivalent to the NBA’s Michael Jordan/Magic Johnson combo.

Well, except for maybe one: Who’s the best player in NHL history to have the initials D.H.?

That’s a tough one. You could make a case for Dominik Hasek, who might be the best goaltender of all-time. But there’s also Doug Harvey, who won seven Norris Trophies in eight years and was almost universally ranked as the best defenseman ever during the pre-Bobby Orr era.

I’d lean to Hasek, but the hockey-reference results go with Harvey. It’s a tough one because whichever way I go I’m going to have a big chunk of hockey fans mad at me. So I’m not going to pick at all, and instead, declare this one a tie – neither Hasek nor Harvey clearly fit our criteria, so neither can make our team.

The good news is that the D.H. listing still offers some possibilities, including Dany Heatley and Dale Hunter. But I’m going to go with 1980s legend Dale Hawerchuk, who can’t lay claim to a place in Hasek or Harvey’s tier but will slot in nicely as one of our centers.

And while we’re building from the middle, we should grab another obvious choice: Adam Oates, who brings us 1,400 points and a reputation as one of the greatest setup men of all time but still can’t get near the A.O. title when Alexander Ovechkin is around.

Let’s fill in a few more forward spots. Jean Beliveau is a consensus top-10 player of all-time, which means we can safely grab 500-goal man Johnny Bucyk at LW. And we find another strong LW choice in former MVP Taylor Hall, who’s available thanks to the 24-year career of Hall-of-Famer Tim Horton.

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