Monday, August 31, 2020

Which NHL team wins the hockey sudoku challenge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edmonton Oilers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goalie: Bill Ranford (30)

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

Pittsburgh Penguins

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

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

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

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

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