Monday, November 30, 2020

Let’s make a deal, with our 20-question NHL trade quiz

We just finished one of the biggest shopping weekends of the year, which means a lot of you have spent the last few days scouring offers, furiously hunting for bargains, and hoping that your expensive new additions will live up to the hype and not become the source of long-lasting regret.

Hey, you’re just like an NHL GM!

Sort of. Maybe not. Look, sometimes these current event tie-ins work and sometimes they don’t, but we’ve come too far now. So let’s celebrate a weekend spent chasing deals with a quiz about NHL trades.

We’ll cover a few decades of history here, with a focus on both the big blockbusters and the smaller, weirder stuff, and maybe even a few trades that were on the table but didn’t end up happening. As always, you’ll have an advantage if you’ve been reading my stuff for the last decade, because that means that a) you’ll have heard some of these stories before, and b) you’re just a smarter, better person than everyone else.

If you have any trouble getting the quiz to scroll properly, especially on your phone, then go yell at Google instead of me, and then try this direct link. Once you’ve submitted your answers, scroll back up to see how you did using this handy guide:

03 right answers: The Milbury zone. Your fellow GMs put you on speakerphone so everyone in the office can laugh at you.

4-7 right answers: The Chiarelli zone. You don’t always miss, but when you do, you miss big.

8-11 right answers: The Poile zone. You have your share of strong moments, just not often enough to win the big one.

12-15 right answers: The Fletcher zone. You’re not perfect, but you’re not afraid to swing for the fences.

16-19 right answers: The Torrey zone. You almost never miss, making you the architect of a near-perfect score.

20 right answers: The Pollock zone. You’re a cheat code, and nobody should ever take your calls.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Friday, November 27, 2020

The Bizarro-meter’s Eastern Conference offseason rankings

Welcome to part two of the annual Bizarro-meter column, in which we grade each team based on just how weird their summer has been. Except this year, the offseason wasn’t in the summer, because it’s 2020 and nothing about the sports world makes sense. Should we just say “weirdest year ever”, give every team a 10/10 and be done with it? Probably, but doing things the straightforward way wouldn’t be on-brand for me, so we’ll grade on a curve.

On Wednesday we did the Western Conference, with Arizona landing the highest score thanks to front office drama, a big name on the trade block and a commitment to finding creative ways to forfeit draft picks. Today’s it’s on to East, as we see whether anyone can wrestle the crown away from the Coyotes.

Metropolitan Division

Columbus Blue Jackets

The offseason so far: The flipped Josh Anderson for Max Domi in a deal that made sense, as did making a cheap bet that Mikko Koivu still has something left. Buying out Alex Wennberg and shipping Ryan Murray to the Devils for next to nothing was less impressive, but necessary to clear salary.

But their strangest story was: You knew that a new Pierre-Luc Dubois deal was going to be a tricky negotiation, but the near total silence on that front is at least a little unnerving.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.6/10. There’s also an apparent COVID-19 outbreak, although these days that’s not all that bizarre. Other than that, it was a busy offseason, but nothing too out of the ordinary until the Dubois offer sheet lands.

Carolina Hurricanes

The offseason so far: The big news was the retirement of Justin Williams, which we knew was coming someday but will leave a leadership hole. Other than that, it was pretty quiet, with a nice pickup of Jesper Fast and a handful of veteran departures that won’t move the needle all that much.

But their strangest story was: Not adding a goalie. It will be yet another year of relying on Petr Mrazek, James Reimer, and any random arena workers who happen to be around when needed. On the one hand, you can see why – not many of the goalies who changed teams this year were guaranteed to be better than what they already have. Still, weren’t the Hurricanes pretty high on your pre-offseason list of teams that would be looking for a change here?

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.9/10. A quiet offseason makes sense for a team on the rise, but there’s going to be plenty of second-guessing if the goaltending lets them down, especially with both Mrazek and Reimer unsigned after this year.

Washington Capitals

The offseason so far: The biggest story was the firing of Todd Reirden after an embarrassing loss to former boss Barry Trotz. Peter Laviolette will inherit a roster that won’t look all that different, although they did add Justin Schultz and Trevor van Riemsdyk to the blueline.

But their strangest story was: Signing Henrik Lundqvist to replace Braden Holtby, because man it’s going to be weird to see him in a different uniform.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.6/10. Not that you’d expect it to happen amidst all the financial turmoil, but can we point out that Alexander Ovechkin is eligible for an extension that he hasn’t signed yet?

New York Islanders

The offseason so far: It’s been a rough one, as they’ve had to clear space for an eventual Mathew Barzal contract that still hasn’t come. That’s cost them some veteran depth, and more importantly it meant that they had to move Devon Toews for a disappointing return.

But their strangest story was: Signing Cory Schneider… we think? It was reported everywhere, but doesn’t seem to have officially happened, and there are rumors of handshake deals for Andy Greene and Matt Martin too. Did we mention that the Islanders don’t seem to need a goalie?

Bizarro-meter ranking: 5.2/10. The phantom signings are weird, but I’m deducting a point for the Islanders’ reverse retro jerseys, because Lou Lamoriello refusing to let anyone have fun is the least bizarre thing ever.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Bizarro-meter’s Western Conference offseason rankings

One of the tough parts of writing about hockey is adjusting for era. A 50-goal season is a very different thing today than it was in the high-scoring 1980s, which was very different than it was when Rocket Richard was doing it in a 50-game season in the 1940s. It makes it a challenge to compare one season to another. Some years are just different than other years.

Which brings us to trying to figure out what qualifies as bizarre in 2020.

This is my seventh year of doing a bizarro-meter column that covers every team in the league, and it’s usually good fun. The idea is to figure out which teams had the strangest offseasons – not the best or the worst, but the most confusing, odd or unexpected. Most years, that makes for a pretty straightforward concept.

But now it’s 2020, the dog days of the offseason are in November, and we don’t even know when camp will start because nobody’s figured out how next season will work. Every team in the league is having their weirdest offseason ever.

So what do we do? I guess we adjust for era and judge every team by 2020 standards, if only because giving every team a 10/10 rating would feel like it was too easy. We’ll do this by conference, with the West up today and the East on Friday. We’ll also break it down by division, even though we don’t know what division anyone will actually be in, because it’s 2020 and nothing makes sense. Screw it, let’s get weird.

Central Division

Dallas Stars

The offseason so far: They mainly seemed to want to keep the band together, locking up Rick Bowness and Anton Khudobin but not (so far) Corey Perry.

But their strangest story was: Losing Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop for a reported five months. We knew both guys were hurt, but not that Seguin would be out so long.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 2.5/10. When you almost win the Cup, you try to stay the course, get everyone healthy and come back for another shot. It rarely works, but it’s really the only reasonable way forward, and it’s not remotely bizarre.

Nashville Predators

The offseason so far: Plenty of guys moved in and out, although none were major names. Losing Craig Smith and Mikael Granlund hurts, while the Kyle Turris buyout was a tough pill to swallow but probably inevitable.

But their strangest story was: Not giving $8-million to a second-line center for a change. (Although there’s still time.)

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.1/10. The Predators still feel like a team that’s built to win now, or at least thinks it is, but they’re coming off a disappointing year and I’m not sure they’re any better.

Colorado Avalanche

The offseason so far: Joe Sakic made a good trade to land Brandon Saad and a better one to add Devon Toews, without losing anyone who was especially important.

But their strangest story was: The emergence of Sakic a a near-consensus pick as one of the best GMs in the league, just three years after he had a terrible trade deadline with a terrible team and looked completely overwhelmed as a former GM campaigned for his job. Were we all wrong back then? Are we all wrong now? Were we right both times, and Sakic has just improved so much in a few years? Nobody knows, but history suggests it’s the probably one of the options where I’m wrong.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.4/10. I’m still kind of bummed that they didn’t use their limited cap space to chase a big-name free agent, but Sakic probably knows what he’s doing.

Winnipeg Jets

The offseason so far: They kept Dylan DeMelo, signed some cheap depth, and added Paul Stastny for next-to-nothing beyond cap space. They also hired a player’s dad as assistant coach, because what could go wrong.

But their strangest story was: The whole Patrik Laine saga, where he went into the offseason as the biggest name on the trade block, churned up all sorts of intriguing rumors, then ultimately didn’t get moved even though it still feels like he eventually will.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 5.4/10. The Laine rumors got all the attention, but the lack of work on the blueline was also weird.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Thursday, November 19, 2020

Puck Soup: Wait, that's an igloo?

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Our thoughts on the best and worst of the NHL's new "reverse retro" jerseys
- The NHL wants to change the deal they agreed to with the players
- Updates on what the new season might look like
- NCAA hockey is in rough shape
- Too much NBA talk, honestly, sorry about that
- The debut of a new quiz called "Surely that's gotta be it"
- 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, November 18, 2020

Why the 10 teams we all think are bad could actually be good

I kind of like it when preseason predictions are really wrong. That’s partly because mine are usually terrible, and I like to have company. But I’ve always ben fascinated by a specific type of surprise, the one that sees a team that everyone thinks will be terrible suddenly emerge as a legitimate Cup contender.

The most famous recent example would have to be the Golden Knights, who were supposed to be a typically awful expansion mess but went straight to the final. Two years ago, we saw the Islanders go from consensus pick for last overall to a 100-point team that did playoff damage. A few years before that, the Avalanche went from one of the worst seasons in cap era history to Central powerhouse.

We didn’t really get that last year; a few teams did outperform expectations, but nobody really made The Leap from bottom-feeder all the way to contending. Maybe that means the experts are getting better at this. I’d like to think it means we’re due, especially heading into an uncertain season that will be unlike anything we’ve seen.

So today, let’s take a crack at making the case for the league’s ten worst teams, based on Dom’s offseason power rankings. That list is based on both his statistical model and our writers’ personal picks, so it should cover the consensus pretty well. Our goal will be to take the ten most hopeless teams, based on those rankings, and come up plausible reasons why they’re going to be not just respectable, but actually good.

We did this last year, and if you revisit that piece you’ll find a handful of arguments that hold up reasonably well, including that the Blue Jackets goaltending may be better than we think, that the Canucks could be ready for a jump thanks to young talent and additions like J.T. Miller, and that Dave Tippett may be able to work some early magic to get the Oilers into the mix in a weak Pacific. I’m not sure that going 3-for-10 is all that impressive, but we’ll take what we can get.

The good news is that one season later, those three teams have all escaped the bottom ten. But the other seven teams from last year’s post are all back this year, reminding us that clawing your way out of the league’s cellar is no easy task, even in the era of parity.

So yeah, hope is hard to come by. But that’s where we come in, so let’s crank up the optimism and, in a few cases, turn off our brain cells as we try to get the NHL’s ten worst teams into the contention. We’ll start with the easiest case to make, and work our way down to the real dregs.

10. Minnesota Wild

The rankings say: About a quarter of The Athletics’ writers thought the Wild would be in the playoff mix, with the rest having them on the outside looking in. Dom’s model was a little bit more optimistic than that, but only a little, and the overall message was a familiar one for Wild fans: They won’t be good enough to contend, or bad enough to land a high pick. They’ll just kind of be… there.

Why they’re probably right: The Wild finished sixth in the Central last year, and a busy offseason from Bill Guerin probably made them worse, at least in the short term. They lost Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu, so they’ll be weak down the middle, and there’s no guarantee that Cam Talbot is an improvement in goal.

But hear me out … : Last year’s team wasn’t as bad as you might remember; they were on pace for 92 points, and were heating up down the stretch with 12 wins in 19 when everything paused. And they did that despite 30 games of ugly goaltending from Devan Dubnyk. You never know in net, but Talbot was pretty solid last year and will almost certainly be better than Dubnyk, and probably better than Alex Stalock. A goaltending upgrade fixes a lot of problems, and the Wild look like they’ve found one.

As for those veterans up front, it hurts to lose a franchise icon like Koivu, but he had 21 points last year, and Staal just turned 36. Guerin was trying a little addition-by-subtraction here, clearing space for some of the team’s younger players to move up the lineup and take over the dressing room. That’s always a risky play, but if it works, the Wild could take another step forward. If so, they’re not that far away from being dangerous.

9. Buffalo Sabres

The rankings say: What they pretty much always say, that the Sabres will be bad. In this case, the writing staff is nearly unanimous on that, although there’s one outlier who think the Sabres can be dark horse contenders. But everyone else is bearish, and Dom’s model is even more pessimistic.

Why they’re probably right: It’s been nine years since the Sabres made the playoffs, and seven since they even came close, so we all know the drill by now. They’ve got Jack Eichel and one year of Taylor Hall, and Kevyn Adams made a nice move to land Eric Staal. But the goaltending and blueline aren’t any better than they were last year. And last year, they weren’t anywhere close to good enough.

But hear me out … : First of all, let’s remember that last year’s Sabres were one point away from tying the Canadiens for the last spot in the expanded postseason, and everyone seems to think Montreal is in reasonably good shape to make a playoff run.

But we’re supposed to be aiming higher than just a playoff spot here, so let’s see if we can get the Sabres into the top third of the league. That path starts with Eichel having one of those years where he finds a new level, sort of like Leon Draisaitl did last season. Mix in a Miro Heiskanen-style breakthrough from Rasmus Dahlin, add a healthy and focused Hall having a contract year for the ages, then finish it with a boost from Staal and maybe even one of the occasional Jeff Skinner years where he looks like a legitimate star. There’s some talent here.

If all of that happens, they still need above-average goaltending. But Linus Ullmark is only 27 and was decent last year, so it’s not out of the question that he either has a breakout year or at least one of those weird outlier seasons that even bad goalies sometimes have. Either way, the pieces are here, and there’s a really good coach in place to figure out how to put them together.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Monday, November 16, 2020

Building an ultra-exclusive Hall of Fame, one player at a time

Today should be a big day in the hockey world. It was supposed to be induction night at the Hockey Hall of Fame, with Jarome Iginla, Marian Hossa, Doug Wilson, Kevin Lowe, Kim St-Pierre and Ken Holland getting their moment in the spotlight to receive the highest individual honor the sport has to offer.

Instead, nothing. Thanks to the pandemic, tonight’s induction ceremony has been postponed, and the class of 2020 will have to wait a year. As part of that delay, we also won’t be getting a class of 2021, as the Hall has decided to hold off on any new inductions until this year’s class has been recognized.

That was a strange decision, but it will probably be popular with a certain segment of fans. Whenever I write about the Hall of Fame, I hear from readers who insist that the whole thing should be far more exclusive. It’s not supposed to be an honor for very good players, they argue, or even great ones. Only the very best of the best should earn a spot. On the men’s side, at least, the typical three or four inductions a year is too many.

I don’t necessarily agree, but I’m willing to play along. So today, let’s take that concept to an extreme. What would the Hockey Hall of Fame look like if we could only induct one player each year?

Just one. That’s all we get. Each year, we recognize one and only one player from the men’s side. The best of the best, and everyone else has to wait.

A few ground rules:

– We’re not worried about builders or officials here. And the women have the opposite problem, with not enough representation, which is a topic for another column. Today, we’re only worried about paring down that list of men’s players that so many of you seem to think is inflated.

– The real-world Hall has always had a weird relationship with international players and stars from other leagues, often acting like a de facto NHL Hall of Fame while occasionally remembering that they’re supposed to be honoring stars from elsewhere. For our purposes today, we’re just looking for inductees based on what they did in the NHL. Apologies to Vaclav Nedomansky.

– Because our version of the Hall is so exclusive, nobody can be inducted until they made it into the real thing, even if they were eligible.

Can we do it? I don’t see why not. I’m not a small Hall guy, but even I can admit that there’s some room to trim. So let’s get to work and see where we end up. We’ll do this by decade, starting when Hall inductions became a regular thing.

The early years

The Hockey Hall of Fame’s first class came in 1945, but inductions were sporadic. The second class came in 1947, followed by 1949, 1951 and 1952. Then there was a six-year gap until a huge class of 1958, at which point new Hall classes finally became an annual event.

In theory, I could argue that our “one per year” limit means I should get 15 slots for those early years, or even more if we’re counting every NHL season. But honestly, I’m not even sure I want to, because a lot of those early names aren’t especially well-known today. Instead, I’ll give myself the same seven pre-1960 inductions that the real Hall had, covering off the very best of the best of the NHL’s early years.

A few picks are obvious. I’ll start with Howie Morenz, Newsly Lalonde, Phantom Joe Malone and Eddie Shore. I’ll also add Georges Vezina and King Clancy, which leaves me with one spot and more than a few worthy candidates. That list includes Hart Trophy winners Aurel Joliat and Nels Stewart, as well as Dit Clapper, Sprague Cleghorn, Cy Denneny and Frank Nighbor. It’s a tough call, but I’m going to give the last of our early spots to two-time MVP Nels Stewart, and work on the assumption that I’ll be able to sneak in some of the other names as we get into the 1960s.


The real class of 1960 was highlighted by Frank Boucher and Sylvio Mantha, two good players who’ll have to wait their turn behind some of the other name on our list. I’ll use my 1960 slot on Dit Clapper, a six-time all-star and two-time Hart finalist on the blueline, in part because it’s just such a great hockey name.

Our first sign of a problem comes with the class if 1961, which featured 11 players. We only get one, and it’s a pretty easy call, as we induct Rocket Richard. But that leaves out names like Syl Apps, George Hainsworth, Charlie Conacher and Milt Schmidt, so our backlog is already growing.

Things get even worse in 1962, which featured 26 player inductions. No, that’s not a typo. The Hall really announced 26 additions in one year, and while many of them were old-timers from the pre-NHL days, we do see some recognizable names like Sweeney Schriner and Punch Broadbent that we’ll have to think about.

They’ll have to wait as we work through our backlog by inducting three-time Vezina winner George Hainsworth in 1962, and five-time goals king Charlie Conacher in 1963. The class of 1964 offers up one must-have candidate in goalie Bill Durnan, and we can find room for Milt Schmidt in 1965 at the expense of goaltending legend Clint Benedict.

There’s bad news for our backlog in 1966, as we run into three apparent slam dunks in the same real-world class: Ted Lindsay, Toe Blake and Teeder Kennedy. I’m going to cheat a little bit here, because we’re from the future and know that Blake is going to finish with eight Cups as a coach, more than enough to get him in as a builder. Instead, our 1966 slot goes to Ted Lindsay.

We have to use our next spot on the NHL’s first 300-game winner, Turk Broda; who retired in 1952 but somehow wasn’t inducted into the real HHOF until 1967. The 1968 class only had one player, Bill Cowley, so we can use that to dip into our waiting list for Ted Kennedy. And we’ll close out the decade with another sure thing in 1969 inductee Red Kelly.

One decade in, and while we’ve certainly had to squeeze out some big names, I don’t think we’re in bad shape. This might not be so bad!


We start a new decade with another thin real-world class, which means we can reach way back for our 1970 spot and induct Clint Benedict, followed by an easy one in 1971 with Terry Sawchuk.

And then we run into the class of 1972. Hoo boy.

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Friday, November 13, 2020

Grab Bag: Offseason winners and losers, Pavel Bure and a perfect goalie

In the return of the Friday Grab Bag:
- Offseason winners and losers
- Pleas tell me I'm not the only one having this offseason problem
- An obscure NHL goalie, barely
- This month's comedy stars
- And an awkward Pavel Bure interview about backgammon, tennis, and being god

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Monday, November 9, 2020

Which team makes the best current lineup out of ex-players?

Have you ever had an ex that, for whatever reason, you had to move on from, but then you find out that they’re doing well in their new life without you and you feel genuinely happy for them?

No, of course you haven’t, nobody wants that. Seeing an ex go on to bigger and better things is miserable. And that’s especially true for hockey fans, who hate to see a player that used to be part of their favorite team go on to success somewhere else.

So today, let’s all feel that misery together, as we try to answer the question: Which team could build the best six-man starting lineup of players who used to play for them?

But first, a few ground rules:

– Let’s be clear on something important: We’re trying to make teams that are good right now. Imagine we’re trying to build the best team for a single season played this year. If a player was an elite superstar years ago but no longer is, he won’t be a strong choice. (Call this the Joe Thornton rule.) And it should go without saying, anyone who’s retired or otherwise inactive isn’t an option, because this isn’t an all-time team. (Call that the Jaromir Jagr rule.)

– We want three forwards, two defenseman and a goalie, and a team has to have a decent option at all six spots to qualify. But otherwise, we don’t care about specific positions.

– Players who’ve changed teams during this offseason count, but free agents who remain unsigned do not. You’re not officially an ex until you’ve found a new home. That’s the Zdeno Chara rule.

– Players that were traded away as prospects count, even if they never played a game for the team. But we’re not including players who were drafted with picks a team traded away. Your rights have to have belonged to the team at some point before you can be an ex.

As always, I’ll try to cover about half the league, then turn it over to you in the comments to fill in the rest, improve on my choices, and tell me about which obvious player from one team I forgot that will ruin my whole day. And we’ll start with a team that seems like it could be the favorite…

Ottawa Senators

Forwards: Mark Stone, Mika Zibanejad, Matt Duchene

Defense: Erik Karlsson, Zdeno Chara

Goalie: Robin Lehner

Man, the last few years have done a number.

The Senators were probably one of the first teams you thought of when you saw the premise, and rightly so – they’ve executed a full-scale rebuild, which means they’ve parted with a lot of good players. The forward line is stacked, and they could even run out a Jean-Gabriel Pageau/Mike Hoffman/Ryan Dzingel second line. They might want to trade one of those guys for a defenseman, because a 43-year-old Chara is the only thing close to a weak spot here (but still good enough to beat out Cody Ceci and Mark Borowiecki).

It’s a very good lineup, as you probably expected. Can anyone beat it? Let’s try a few division rivals and find out.

Buffalo Sabres

Forwards: Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis

Defense: Tyler Myers, Marco Scandella

Goalie: Robin Lehner

O’Reilly is the big name, based on a disastrous trade that still aggravates Sabres fans. Ennis narrowly beats out Conor Sheary as the third forward, and I went with Scandella over Zach Bogosian and Andrej Sekera as the second blueliner based on where he is right now. Meanwhile, Lehner beats out Ryan Miller to already make a second appearance on the list, reminding us that he’s somehow already on his fifth NHL team.

Montreal Canadiens

Forwards: Max Pacioretty, Max Domi, Alex Radulov

Defense: Ryan McDonagh, P.K. Subban

Goalie: Jaroslav Halak

That’s not a bad lineup, although it would have looked better a few years ago when the blueline would have been a major strength. McDonagh’s status has dipped, but he’s still a solid player, while Subban has seen his stock plunge. If you wanted to make the argument that Jordie Benn would be a better choice at this exact moment, it might not be completely crazy.

Speaking of Subban and stacked bluelines, let’s head to the Western Conference…

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Thursday, November 5, 2020

Six NHL teams that have me stumped right now

It’s been a confusing year. There are a lot of things in the world I’m not sure about these days, including what month it is and whether I’m actually muted on this Zoom call. If you ask me a direct question these days, I will look you straight in the eye and flat-out guess, followed by immediately forgetting what I just told you.

But when it comes to the NHL, there are at least a few teams I feel … well, not sure about, but at least vaguely confident. The Lightning are good. The Avalanche and Golden Knights should be, too. The Red Wings are not good, and the Senators and Kings are still a year or two away from breaking through. The Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl but not enough depth or goaltending, and will stay that way until the end of time. And a whole bunch of teams are stuck in the middle, close enough to the playoff race but not really scaring anyone, just the way the league likes it.

But every year, there are a few teams that I just can’t figure out. So as we all wander around in a haze of confusion, let’s break out my annual attempt to argue with myself about the half-dozen teams that have me stumped heading into the (whatever year it is next year) season.

Philadelphia Flyers

They’ll be good because: They were good last year. Like, really good. They were on pace for 105 points if we’d played a full season, and even that might be underselling it. In early January, the Flyers were muddling along with about as many wins as losses. They were fine. But over what turned out to be the last 26 games of the season, the Flyers went 19-6-1, earning a playoff bye and planting their flag as a legitimate contender.

That was last year. So what’s changed heading into a new season? Not much. The retirement of Matt Niskanen was a surprise, but you could argue that helped more in terms of cap space than it hurt in terms of blue line quality. They lost a few depth pieces, like every team does. But all the key names are back, so there’s no reason to expect a dropoff.

They’ll be bad because: Virtually nobody had the Flyers pegged as an elite team last year; they’d missed the playoffs in 2019. That doesn’t mean they were a mirage, since we’re wrong about plenty of teams all the time, but you’d probably like to see it for more than one season before you nudge anyone into the sure thing column.

Beyond that, the Flyers didn’t look all that great in the postseason. They struggled with a Canadiens team that, on paper, they should have rolled over. And they lost to an Islanders team that imposed their will on the series. It’s hard to know what to make of that whole deeply weird playoff tournament, and maybe the answer is that we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at all. But at the very least, you could piece together an argument that the Flyers are an above-average team that got hot for two months in the second half, but don’t deserve top-contender status yet.

But they’ll probably be fine because: The most important player on the team is Carter Hart, and he’s 22. Goaltending is impossible to predict, especially younger guys, but if you had to make a bet you’d think Hart is going to be even better over the next few years. He’s also on the last year of his entry-level deal, which means the Flyers have a nice window here with some extra cap space to work with.

Unless they’re not because: So far, they haven’t really done anything with that space. They were quiet in free agency, and while they’ve been rumored to be in on a few names on the trade market, nothing has happened yet. And that cap space window only lasts for this year, because both Hart and Travis Sanheim will need new deals.

Meanwhile, they’re on the hook for over $16 million in annual cap hit to Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, who have been good, plus another $7 million to James van Riemsdyk, who hasn’t, and all three of those guys are over 30. The Flyers aren’t an old team by any stretch, with Hart, Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov all entering their prime. But if the older guys take even a small step back and/or Hart has the sort of rough year that good young goalies sometimes endure, it’s not hard to imagine the Flyers falling back to the middle-of-the-pack.

The verdict: In theory, the Atlantic features two perennial contenders (Caps and Pens), one good team that’s especially tough in the playoffs (Islanders) and two teams on their way up (Hurricanes and Rangers). There aren’t enough playoff spots for everyone, and that’s before factoring in a temporary realignment that might shuffle things around and drop someone like the Bruins into the mix. I still think the Flyers will be good, but I’m not sure they’ll be any better, and they might not have as room to work with as they’d like.

Calgary Flames

They’ll be good because: They aggressively addressed their most-discussed weakness in the offseason, paying up to land Jacob Markstrom in free agency. We can debate whether that was a smart contract, and maybe it looks bad in a few years. But today, it should be a nice upgrade over Cam Talbot (who’s now in Minnesota) and David Rittich.

They’ll be bad because: Talbot and Rittich weren’t actually a bad combo; they were pretty much a middle-of-the-pack duo, so it’s not like goaltending was the reason the Flames took a step back. And even if they’ve upgraded the position, losing two top-four defenseman in T.J. Brodie and (probably) Travis Hamonic will cancel some of that out. The Markstrom signing made headlines, but it’s no sure thing that the offseason has made the Flames any better.

But they’ll probably be at least OK because: As easy as it is to forget now, this was a 107-point team only one year ago. Granted, they followed that up with a disappointing season, but it’s proof that the core is capable of contending. And remember, last year’s team had to deal with a bizarre midseason coaching switch from Bill Peters to Geoff Ward, one that nobody saw coming based on performance. Ward did a good job under tough circumstances, but like most coaches, you’d expect him to do a better job with a full season (including a training camp) to put his system in place.

Unless they’re not because: Hmm, a Canadian team that has a breakthrough season followed by a letdown, where we’re wondering if they should get credit for how they looked at their best. If that sounds familiar, it’s a lot like what we went through last year with the Jets, another team that confused me. And it turned out that the recent, mediocre season was a more accurate predictor than the 100-plus point days. Sometimes, you don’t need to overthink it when a good team takes a step back to mediocrity. That’s just what they are now.

The verdict: I’m lost. And to make things even more complicated, we don’t even know what division the Flames will be in. Home ice in the Pacific seems up for grabs, with the Golden Knights looking strong but nobody else really looking unbeatable. But would a temporary all-Canadian division present an easier path, or a tougher one?

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Monday, November 2, 2020

Every all-Canadian playoff series of the modern era, ranked

While nothing is official, it sure sounds like there’s a good chance we’re going to get a temporary all-Canadian division this season. That would be pretty crazy, giving us a one-time opportunity to see all seven of the country’s teams fight it out for national bragging rights.

It would also presumably mean we’d be guaranteed to see four Canadian playoff teams, who’d face each other over the first two rounds. That would make for three all-Canadian series, the first time since 1987 that we’ve had that many in one year.

That’s going to be a lot of fun, right up until we all strangle each other. So today, let’s get hyped for some national rivalries with a ranking of every all-Canadian playoff matchup of the modern post-1967 era. There have been 44 such matchups, which sounds like a lot until you realize that it averages out to less than one per season. And as you’d expect, some have been better than others.

We’re looking for all the things that add up to an entertaining series: A close matchup, big star power, as many games as possible, at least a few overtimes, and a dramatic twist or two. We’ll start from the bottom and work our way up to the best all-Canadian matchup in modern history.

(And I’ll give you fair warning: I’m a little surprised about where I wound up.)

44. Oilers 4, Jets 0 – 1987 division final
43. Oilers 4, Jets 0 – 1985 division final
42. Oilers 3, Jets 0 – 1983 division semifinal
41. Oilers 3, Jets 0 – 1984 division semifinal

We’ll start with a recurring genre that fans became way too familiar with during the 1980s: The plucky Winnipeg Jets facing the powerhouse Oilers and just straight-up getting their doors kicked in.

Seriously, look at those results. Four straight series, played over a span of five years, with the Oilers sweeping all four. That’s 14 straight wins, if you’re keeping count. The Jets often kept it close – two of those 14 Oilers wins came into overtime, and more than half were by one or two goals. But that just made it worse. The Jets always seemed like they were this close to having a chance. Then they’d lose, again, like always. By the end, you just wanted this matchup to stop.

40. Oilers 3, Canucks 0 – 1986 division semifinal

The Oilers took a temporary break from embarrassing the Jets to embarrass the Canucks instead. Vancouver was outscored 17-5, then responded by trading point-less winger Cam Neely to the Bruins for Barry Pederson.

39. Flames 3, Jets 0 – 1986 preliminary round

I know, it feels like we’re picking on the Jets. I promise, they have won a playoff game before. Just not in this series, which saw Winnipeg waste a five-point performance by defensive defenseman Mario Marois. Did I mention that the mid-80s Smythe Division produced a lot of mismatches? It did.

38. Oilers 3, Canadiens 0 – 1981 preliminary round

In theory, this should have been legendary. You had the Canadiens, just two year removed from winning four straight Cups, facing an Oilers teams on the verge of something special. Gretzky, Messier and Coffey vs. Lafleur, Robinson and Shutt. But the series was a bust, with the Oilers rolling to an easy sweep. The entire Canadiens team combined for 12 points in the three games while Gretzky on his own had 11.

37. Canucks 3, Flames 0 – 1982 division semifinal

Both teams were under .500 and there wasn’t much in the way of star power, but the retroactive fun factor of it being the start of the Canucks’ unlikely run to the final is enough to keep it out of the running for last spot.

36. Oilers 4, Flames 0 – 1988 division final

Even the best rivalry of the era can produce the occasional dud, as what turned out to be the last Battle of Alberta of the Gretzky era ended in a disappointing whitewash. Fun fact, this was the last all-Canadian series to end in a sweep for 23 years, until our next entry …

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