Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Muzzin vs. Tkachuk

In this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- Ian and I try to figure out what just happened in Pittsburgh
- My thoughts on Muzzin vs. Tkachuk
- The NFL has a marquee fin al matchup, why are they so rare in the NHL?
- Could any NHL team be a feel-good Buffalo Bills story everyone roots for?
- Granger Things checks in with betting talk
- This week in history, listener questions and more...

The Athletic Hockey Show runs most days of the week during the season, with Ian and I hosting every Thursday. There are two versions of each episode available:
- An ad-free version for subscribers that you can find here
- An ad-supported version you can get for free wherever you normally find your podcasts (like Apple or Spotify)

Mailbag: Hockey trades, rivalry overkill and expansion near misses

Welcome back to the mailbag. The last time we were here, the season was a month away from starting and we were just figuring out what it might look like. Now we’re two weeks in, which is apparently more than enough time to have already given up on a few teams. Hockey is fun. Let’s get to this week’s batch of questions.

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and style.

You touched on the subject of “hockey trades” in your power rankings article. It could be entertaining to impose on the hockey world a definition for what qualifies as a hockey trade. What’s allowed to be a motivation or a piece in a hockey trade? Prospects? Draft picks? Disgruntlement? Trading old for young in a rebuild? Surely not cash and cap concerns? — Pekka L.

I like this question because it’s simple, but a lot harder than it seems. “Hockey trade” is one of those phrases that gets thrown around a lot, and my guess is everyone has a different view of what it actually means. Let’s see if we can figure this out.

First up, I think a true hockey trade can’t be about two teams working with different timelines. Trading a veteran on an expiring deal for a prospect in a deadline rental situation isn’t a hockey trade. It’s worth doing, and it’s a perfectly valid way for two teams to improve their outlook, but it’s not the same category. A hockey trade is veteran for veteran, or prospect for prospect, or top-three picks in the 2016 draft for top-three pick in the 2016 draft.

The second key criteria is that the teams have to make the deal because they want to, not because they’ve been forced into it. A trade demand or a holdout doesn’t count. A trade request is a little trickier, which is where the Laine/Dubois thing gets into a grey area. Laine wanted out, but he was still showing up and playing hard. Dubois didn’t go home, but his effort level was questioned, and after he was benched you could argue that he couldn’t play for the Blue Jackets again. Maybe it could have been ironed out, but we’ll never know.

I think there’s a third checkbox that’s a more recent addition to the list, which is that the deal can’t be primarily about cap space. Every transaction made these days is at least a little bit about dollars, and even in the pre-cap days the bottom line was always in the picture. But if a team is clearly making a deal just to shed cap, that’s a financial decision, not a hockey trade.

To sum it all up: A true “hockey trade” is one that both teams are making because they think it makes them better on roughly the same timeline. They’re not being forced into a deal, by finances or circumstance. They’re doing it because they think the guys they’re getting get them closer to winning than the guys they’re giving up, period.

That rules out most trades these days, but not all of them. Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen was a hockey trade. Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson was too, even if it was a lopsided one. Smaller trades like the Tyson Barrie/Nazem Kadri deal would qualify, as would Eric Staal for Marcus Johansson. They’re certainly not unheard of, but they’re becoming increasingly rare. Most hockey trades aren’t hockey trades, if that makes sense.

All games this year are in the division. So when we get to the semifinals, no one will have played each other yet, and we won’t know which divisions are better than others. So wouldn’t betting on the underdogs at least in theory be easy money? — Tom K.

I don’t know about easy money — I’ll leave the betting advice to Granger Things. But it’s going to be interesting, because we haven’t had a situation quite like this before.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Does the Hockey Hall of Fame need to change?

It’s Hall of Fame time in the world or pro sports, with baseball announcing who’ll head to Cooperstown today and pro football following with its own announcement in early February. It’s a cool time to be a sports fan, with plenty of debate over who should make it, who got snubbed, and who should never have been inducted in the first place.

Hockey fans won’t get to do that this year, since the Hockey Hall of Fame has already announced that there won’t be a class of 2021. But when it comes to the sport’s highest honor, maybe hockey fans can take this time to have a different debate: Are we even doing this right?

The Hockey Hall of Fame process is, to put it mildly, an opaque one. It’s also not especially well understood by most hockey fans, although we here at The Athletic did our best to shine some light on how it all works last summer. The hockey hall has a committee of 18 members who meet in private once per year, and each member can nominate one name in each of four categories. (There’s also a process for members of the public to submit a nomination.) The committee discusses and debates each candidate, then holds one or more rounds of secret ballot votes. It takes support from 14 of the 18 members for a candidate to earn induction, and neither the vote totals, the discussions surrounding them, or even the names of the nominees being considered are ever revealed to the public.

Is that the right way to do it? Maybe. But it’s certainly not the only way, as we’ll be reminded in the coming days by our baseball and football colleagues. So today, let’s take a look at some other ways that the Hockey Hall of Fame could make its selections, and see if we think any of them would be an improvement over what we have now.

The baseball method

The process: Ballots go out to selected members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, and the voting pool is a big one; last year, just under 400 votes were cast. A player needs 75% to make the Hall. Players who don’t make the 75% threshold but get more than 5% of the vote can stay on the ballot for up to ten years. (There’s also a path through a veteran’s committee for players who aren’t voted in by writers.)

Writers are allowed to make their ballots public, and many do, although it’s not mandatory. The full vote totals for all players are released publicly at the end of the process.

The case for: The key here is the release of the voting totals, which gives fans a sense for how candidates are tracking over time. There’s a big difference between Bobby Abreu barely staying on last year’s ballot with 5.5% and Curt Schilling falling just short of induction with 70%, and those numbers can change over time as candidates come and go and the writers reconsider individual cases.

At its best, you can get situations like Larry Walker or Tim Raines, who see their support grow over the years until they’re left with a dramatic final few chances to make the Hall. Fans always know who’s close and who’s not, and which players are tracking towards induction. There’s suspense, but rarely anything truly shocking. Compare that to hockey, where the induction of long-time candidates like Kevin Lowe or Mark Howe can catch fans off guard, and there’s no way to know whether somebody like Alexander Mogilny or Daniel Alfredsson is narrowly missing out, or even being discussed at all.

As an added bonus, having hundreds of voters means that no one voice is especially powerful, and no longstanding friendships (or grudges) are going to decide who gets in and who doesn’t.

The case against: The first objection here might be that it’s writers doing the voting, and hockey fans might not want that. I think the PHWA does a pretty good job on the annual awards, but we’re certainly not perfect, and maybe you’d prefer to have someone else doing the voting. There’s also the related question of whether journalists should have a role in creating the news they’re going to report on, and the risk that some attention-starved hack will decide to cast a bad ballot just to get a few hate-clicks out of it.

But the bigger objection would be that all the focus on precise vote totals can lose the forest for the trees. Maybe a player is either a Hall-of-Famer or they’re not. If you’re a candidate and you don’t get the call, do you really want to know exactly where you rank compared to everyone else, or just how bleak your odds might be for the future? And if someone does get in, do we really need to argue over whether they were left off some stray ballot somewhere? Just give us the name of the successful candidates so we can celebrate them without obsessing on exact totals.

(Also, while this wouldn’t be as much of a concern in the hockey world at this point, it’s worth mentioning that the baseball hall has really struggled with reckoning with the steroid era, and there’s been plenty of drama around that.)

Would it be better?: I think it would be, for all its flaws. While baseball doesn’t have total transparency – remember, writers can refuse to reveal their ballots – it comes far closer than hockey does, and that matters. And it’s just more fun for fans to debate this stuff when they have some idea of who’s trending where, as opposed to being shocked by announcements that sometimes feel almost random.

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Monday, January 25, 2021

Weekend rankings: We have a trade to announce

We’ll get to the games in a bit, but this was one of those weekends where the wins and losses weren’t the big story. Instead, we had a trade to announce. And not just any trade, but a legitimate blockbuster that was also an old-fashioned hockey trade.

Sort of. We’ll get to that.

First, the details, just in case you somehow missed them:

It’s not quite a one-for-one, but with apologies to a good young player in Jack Roslovic and whoever gets drafted with that pick, it will probably be perceived that way, at least initially. And that’s where it gets a little bit tricky, because Laine had expressed a desire to move on from Winnipeg and Dubois had made it very clear that he was done in Columbus. Even Roslovic didn’t want to sign with the Jets. Is it really a hockey trade if the main pieces wanted out?

Maybe not, but that’s where the “old-fashioned” part comes in, because the NHL used to have trades like this all the time. Mark Messier went home on the eve of a season to force his exit from Edmonton. Doug Gilmour walked out on the Flames days before the moved him to Toronto. Pavel Bure sat out half a season to get out of Vancouver. Eric Lindros went even further to get out of Philadelphia.

One pattern you may notice in those trades: The team whose hand was forced rarely makes out well in the long run. That’s bad news for Columbus and good news for the Jets, who managed to take a Laine situation that seemed to be on shaky ground and turn it into a deal where they were working from a position of strength. It’s no sure thing that this turns into a steal for Winnipeg, because Laine is no Gary Leeman or Pavel Brendl, but two-way centers are hard to find and they just landed one with a chip on his shoulder.

As for Laine in Columbus, well, it will certainly be interesting to see how he fits in with John Tortorella. You have to be a certain type of guy to succeed in a Tortorella world, and first impressions are that Laine doesn’t exactly give off that vibe. But that’s probably too simplistic. Tortorella has coached plenty of stars who’d have success under him, including offensive wingers like Martin St. Louis, Marian Gaborik and Artemi Panarin. If Laine does his job, however that’s defined for him, he should be fine.

Which leads to the next question: What does his next contract look like? He’ll be an RFA this offseason, so there’s plenty of time and the Blue Jackets control his rights. But long-time readers will know where I’m going with this: The dreaded “shiny new toy” syndrome, in which a team makes a big trade for a pending free agent and then has to figure out what kind of contract to give him. It’s a tough spot for a team to be in, since you can’t exactly play hardball with a guy you just gave up major assets to acquire. And it almost never works out well. Jarmo Kekalainen will have his work cut out for him on this one.

But that’s for down the line. For now, we’ve got two young stars in their prime with new homes and something to prove, and two fan bases who’ll spend the next few years arguing over who got the better of the deal. That’s going to be all sorts of old-fashioned fun.

On to the weekend’s games, which included the Dubois-less Blue Jackets beating the Lightning and the Laine-less Jets taking yet another from the Senators before coughing up last night’s stunner against the Oilers. Yes, it’s still way too early for this, but if NHL GMs can do their jobs then we can too.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that with the best chances of becoming the first team in history to win a Stanley Cup in July.

One team I have no idea what to do with this week: Dallas. They didn’t make their season debut until Friday, and looked scary good in beating the Predators 7-0, a win that gave them the division’s best goals differential despite only playing one game. Last night’s win in the rematch wasn’t as impressive, but they still took the two points.

Last week, we talked about how hard it is to rank teams when everyone has only played two or three games. What do you do with a team that’s played twice while everyone else is four games ahead? I have no idea, which is why the Stars (and 2-0-0 Panthers) aren’t in the top five mix this week. We’ll see where things stand a week from now.

5. Boston Bruins (3-1-1, +3 true goals differential*) – It was feeling pretty dicey through three games, as the Bruins struggled to create anything offensively. That changed against the Flyers, and 11 goals and two wins later, the Bruins feel like contenders again. The Flyers, meanwhile, do not, which opens up a spot from last week’s list.

4. Washington Capitals (3-0-3, +2) – We’ll give that extra spot to the Caps, who are holding down first in the East and have points in every game, including yesterday’s loss to the Sabres. The big story this week was the whole COVID mess that cost them four key players, but that’s a temporary situation that shouldn’t have a long-term impact. It’s still tempting to slip the Islanders into this slot, and maybe we would have if they’d handled the Devils last night. Instead we’ll wait and see how this week goes, as the shorthanded Caps face the Isles twice

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Friday, January 22, 2021

Grab Bag: We're back it's weird

In the return of the Friday Grab Bag:
- Wait how does this work again?
- The one COVID-related change we should "forget" to undo
- An obscure player who still holds a surprising record
- Comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at a Leafs trade that contains a major twist ending...

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Wake me when it's over

In this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- That Oilers/Leafs game was awful and it could only happen in hockey
- The Capitals run into COVID problems
- Thoughts on Mike Babcock
- Ian has a crazy idea for new divisions
- This week in history, gambling trends with Jesse Granger, and lots more

The Athletic Hockey Show runs most days of the week during the season, with Ian and I hosting every Thursday. There are two versions of each episode available:
- An ad-free version for subscribers that you can find here
- An ad-supported version you can get for free wherever you normally find your podcasts (like Apple or Spotify)

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Puck Soup: It's been one week

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to week one
- The COVID situation gets worse
- Mike Babcock breaks his silence
- Also the pucks are broken?
- Jakub Voracek goes after a reporter
- Plus Dungeons and Dragons, NBA talk and our favorite TV theme songs

>> 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.

The Leafs’ best win and worst loss against each Canadian team

We’re a week into the season. How are you feeling about the all-Canadian schedule so far, Leafs fans?

I’m guessing you’re enjoying it, because right now it still feels new. Sure, there may come a point where seeing the same teams over and over starts to lose some lustre, and Leafs fans find themselves missing the occasional meeting with rivals like the Red Wings, Sabres or even the Bruins. But for now, it’s been pretty great.

So today, let’s remember some of the best and worst of the Leafs’ history in all-Canadian matchups. We’ll go through each of the six opponents in this year’s North Division, and come up with both the Leafs’ best win and worst loss against those teams.

These picks are subjective, obviously, and I’m sure a few of you will have your own picks for some of them. That’s half the fun, since we can use the comment section to Remember Some Games. But here are my picks for the best and worst of the Leafs against Canadian opponents.

Leafs vs. Senators

We’ll start with what’s probably the easiest team to find games for. The Leafs and Senators have both the least history (because it only dates back to 1992) and the most (because of all those Quinn-era playoff matchups), and plenty of it has been memorable.

Best win: Leafs 4, Senators 1 – April 20, 2004

There’s no shortage of candidates for the best game when you’re talking about an opponent you’re 4-0 against in the postseason, but I think this one is the clear winner. It wasn’t the closest game or even the most entertaining, but it’s the one that’s come to symbolize the pre-cap Battle of Ontario. Joe Nieuwendyk’s pair of softies turned what figured to be a tense Game 7 showdown into a relatively easy Leafs win, spelling the end of the Jacques Martin era in Ottawa. It remains the Leafs’ last playoff series win, against Ottawa or anyone else.

Worst loss: Senators 8, Leafs 0 – October 29, 2005

One of the weird postscripts to the four-part playoff arc was that while the two teams have never met in the postseason after the lockout, there was a period when the Senators would consistently embarrass the Leafs in regular season meetings. I went with this 8-0 rout in Toronto, but we could also go with a 7-0 loss in Ottawa a few months later, or a pair of 8-2 options. Did it erase the pain of losing four straight in the playoffs for Sens fans? Not really, but every little bit helps.

Other candidates: Any number of memorable playoff moments, including wins like the triple-OT Gary Roberts game, the 2002 Game 7, the comeback in Game 6 of that same series, or sudden death winners from Mats Sundin, Cory Cross, Stumpy Thomas. On the loss side of the ledger, there was a 5-0 blowout in the 2002 opener, and the NHL’s first-ever shootout defeat. There was that awful Bryan Berard game. And the rivalry has also given us memorable moments like the flu game, the fake stick throw, Chara vs. McCabe, and Tucker vs. the bench, plus a more recent memory in Auston Matthews’ record-breaking four-goal debut, which I’m going to just go ahead and say the Leafs must have won.

Leafs vs. Oilers

They’ve never met in the playoffs, but did almost pull off the biggest trade in sports history. They also may be the two most neurotic fan bases in the league, so hockey gods help us if they actually do get a postseason matchup this year.

Best win: Leafs 11, Oilers 9 – January 8, 1986

For pretty much all of the 1980s, the Oilers were good and the Leafs were awful and the games between them went pretty much exactly the way you’d expect them to. The decade saw the Oilers beat the Leafs by scores of 9-1, 8-3 (twice), 8-2, 9-2, 8-5, 9-5, 7-1 (twice) and 9-4. And in most of those games, you felt like Edmonton was going easy on them.

So it was a remarkable night in 1986 when the Leafs not only got a rare win against the Gretzky-era Oilers, but did it by beating them at their own game. In what still stands as the highest-scoring Leafs game ever (and just one goal away from the record for highest-scoring game in NHL history), the Leafs jumped out to a 3-0 lead and then went up and down the ice with a dynasty. Gretzky finished with six points, but the Leafs got three from Russ Courtnall, Steve Thomas and rookie Wendel Clark, and a four-goal night from Miro Frycer.

A personal note on this game: The kids in my school were losing their minds the next day. It was right up there with the discovery of the Super Mario warp trick, and met with just as much skepticism. Even at that young age, we knew not to believe in good things happening to the Leafs.

Worst loss: Oilers 7, Leafs 5 – December 18, 1991

We could pick any of those 1980s blowouts, but I’m going with an only slightly more recent option. In 1991, Cliff Fletcher had just arrived, and his first major blockbuster was a seven-player blockbuster with the Oilers that brought Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson to Toronto. This was the first game between the two teams after that deal, and a chance for the rebuilt Leafs to serve notice that they were for real. But then Fuhr got shelled, Vince Damphousse had two points in his return to Toronto, and Peter Ing didn’t just beat his former team, he earned one more point than Anderson while doing it.

Other candidates: The recent game where Kris Russell scored the winner into his own net and Nazem Kadri laughed at him. Wendel Clark’s four straight goals in 1996. It doesn’t count because it wasn’t a game, but we have to mention the Leafs “losing” the McDavid lottery to the Oilers on the final ball. And while the infamous waffle game didn’t come against the Oilers, they get partial credit because the guy who threw them was apparently wearing an old school Gretzky jersey.

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Monday, January 18, 2021

Weekend rankings: It’s way too early for these. Or is it?

We’re back. After over 300 days, the regular season has returned, and so have the weekend rankings. And if you’ve followed this column over the years, you know what that means: It’s time for what’s become an annual tradition, in which we go overboard throwing out all sorts of caveats about how the very first weekend of the season is obviously way too early to take this sort of thing seriously.

Only, this year … is it?

The 2021 season, it’s fair to say, is going to be unique. The shortened season of just 56 games upends everything – get ready to hear the word “sprint” a lot. And in a sprint, you can’t win if you stumble out of the blocks.

Think of it this way: Every year, we get into November and start hearing scary stats about how a bad start can doom a team. There’s Elliotte Friedman’s old find about how teams that are four points out on Nov. 1 rarely make the playoffs. Others are a little more kind to the stragglers, giving them until American Thanksgiving before declaring them dead in the water. But the point remains: Once there’s about four months left, you’d better not be on the outside looking in, because in the age of hyper-parity and loser points, there just isn’t enough time left to make up much ground.

But this year, there were four months left before we even started. So what happens if your team gets off to a slow start, and ends up three wins back of the playoff bubble before the season is two weeks old? It will have only been a few games, but relative to a regular 82-game season, it will already be mid-December. That’s well past panic time.

For this year’s especially slow starters, the outlook may actually be even worse. Remember, there’s no wild card this time, so if the top of your division is pulling away, there’s potentially one less spot available to chase. And while a normal year would allow struggling teams to consider making big midseason changes to turn things around, we’re still not sure how trading will work in a quarantine world, especially for the Canadian teams. Factor in the flat cap, and there isn’t much room to overhaul what you’ve already got. If that mix isn’t working and time is ticking, well, you might just be screwed.

Or maybe not. We’ve never had a season like this, so maybe the old expectations don’t apply. We might see more instability in the standings than we’re used to, especially if COVID-19 hits hard and we see teams missing key players or rescheduling big chunks of games. It’s possible that we’ll look back in the first month and realize it didn’t tell us much of anything.

If that happens, then yeah, this will all have been way too early. But we’re doing it anyway, because hockey’s back and we’ve waited long enough. Let’s make some rankings.

If you’re new here or could use a refresher, an important reminder: The idea of these weekly rankings is to figure out which teams are headed for a Stanley Cup, or toward the bottom of the standings, by the end of things. These are not meant to be a snapshot of what’s happening right now, or just over the last few games. That means we’ll try not to overreact to short streaks or temporary circumstances. (Narrator voice: We will still overreact to that.) It also means that just because your favorite team beats the Lightning or Avalanche or whoever in a given game, they won’t necessarily push past them in the rankings. Last year, the Lightning held down top spot for the season’s first three weeks even as they started slowly, while red-hot starts didn’t get teams like Buffalo or Anaheim into the top five. In hindsight, those were the right calls. (Others, not so much.)

There are lots of rankings out there that try to capture which teams are playing the best and worst today, and that’s a perfectly valid way to do it. But we’re focused on where we’re going to wind up at the end of the road. Even if this year, it’s a shorter road than we’re used to.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that with the best chances of becoming the first team in history to win a Stanley Cup in July.

One more question to wrestle with: With no exhibition schedule, how much is rust going to be a factor early on? Especially for the teams that hadn’t played since last March, it’s possible that it’s going to take a few weeks for teams to settle into being whatever they really are. I’m not completely convinced that will be a major factor, since in theory it should affect most teams equally. But it’s at least possible that we’ll look back on the start of this season and, with benefit of hindsight, realize it told us even less the first few weeks normally do.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (2-0-0, +6 true goals differential*) – The East is a bit of a mess. I’m sure there are some of you who’d put the Flyers ahead of the Bruins, and I can see that. Others would want the first-place Capitals here instead, and sure, maybe. For now, I’ll go with the Flyers, who I wasn’t completely sold on heading into the season but who looked strong putting 11 goals past the Penguins in two games.

4. Boston Bruins (1-0-1, even) – Winning one of two against the Devils isn’t exactly impressive, but the Bruins put some points in the bank and may have even deserved a better fate on Saturday. The East is the toughest division to predict right now, and it won’t take much of a wobble to knock a preseason favorite like the Bruins out of the top five. But yeah, it will take more than only getting three points in a series instead of four.

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Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Opening night

In this week's first-ever episode of my new podcast with Ian Mendes:
- We react to opening night, including an entertaining Leafs win over the Habs
- Should we expect more goals as teams shake off the rust?
- Playoff matchups we're hoping to see
- Is it too soon to worry about the Penguins?
- Jesse Granger joins us to talk betting
- Listen questions, this week in history, and more

The Athletic Hockey Show runs most days of the week during the season, with Ian and I hosting every Thursday. There are two versions of each episode available:
- An ad-free version for subscribers that you can find here
- An ad-supported version you can get for free wherever you normally find your podcasts (like Apple or Spotify)

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Oddly specific 2021 predictions for every NHL team

We’re hours away from the start of the 2021 season, which means it’s last call on predictions. Everyone is doing them. Our hockey staff got to together on these, Dom’s model-based team-by-team breakdowns are here, and various beat writers have put together detailed lists for their teams. And that’s just at The Athletic. Every outlet everywhere is doing their own version.

But everyone else is smart enough to keep it at least plausibly vague. I am not smart. So let’s break out one of my favorite annual traditions: The way-too-specific predictions for each team.

Here’s a prediction about these predictions: Almost all of them will be wrong. Some will be embarrassingly wrong. If you’re a few days late in getting caught up, some of these might already be wrong by the time you read this. But that’s half the fun. Anyone can predict the easy stuff, and besides, we all did that yesterday.

Will any of these actually come true? Maybe! Like anyone who gets the bat off their shoulder enough times, I usually swing-and-miss and barely make contact on a few others, but every once in a while, I catch one just right and put it in the upper deck. And when that happens, I try really hard not to look too surprised.

You know the drill by now. One prediction per team, in no particular order. Let’s get oddly specific.

Minnesota Wild – The Wild had the worst start in the league last year, going 0-4-0 while giving up 21 goals and not recording their second win until their eighth game. They’ll flip the script this year and come out of the gate hot, racking up a dozen points in their first eight games. (Please be impressed with this prediction, and don’t bother looking up who their first eight games are against.)

Florida Panthers – Here’s a fun fact about Sergei Bobrovsky: He’s had two seasons in his career where his save percentage was .900 or worse. One was last year. The other was in 2011-12, and he followed that up by winning the Vezina in a shortened season. So am I predicting a repeat? No way, because in 2012 he was 23 years old and had just switched teams. But I do think he rebounds from last year’s disaster, so let’s say he finishes this year with a more respectable .910.

Calgary Flames – Jacob Markstrom has a shutout in his first start against his former Canucks teammates. Don’t doubt me, I’ve summoned Markstrom shutouts before.

Vancouver Canucks – Speaking of Markstrom shutouts, his 49-save performance against the Hawks on the Sedin banner-raising night stood as the year’s league-high for most shots faced without allowing a goal. This year, the hockey gods turn the tables, as it’s the Canucks who record the most shots in a game in which they’re shut out.

Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes were the only team in the league to make it all the way through last season without suffering a regulation loss in a game they lead after one period, going 19-0-1. So it goes without saying that they’ll snap that streak in the very first game of the season, when they lose to … wait, they’re playing the Red Wings? Good lord. Ah what the hell, let’s do this, the Wings come back to beat the Hurricanes in regulation after trailing through one.

Philadelphia Flyers – Carter Hart has already accomplished a lot in his brief NHL career, but here are two things he’s never done: Recorded a point, or recorded a PIM. Look, kid, you’re not going to follow in the footsteps of Ron Hextall like that. This year, I’m saying he does both — and at least once, he does them in the same week.

Colorado Avalanche – The Avs had the fewest shootouts in the league last year at two, and hockey gods bless them for it. But they’ll make up for lost time when they’re part of the longest shootout in the league at some point this season.

Detroit Red Wings – New starter Thomas Greiss has had a solid 11-year career and won a Jennings with the Islanders, but he’s never seen his name appear on a single award ballot. I’m not convinced he’ll get any love from Vezina voters this year, since those are the GMs and they tend to just sort by wins and well, Red Wings. But I’m going to go even further. In the spirit of the immortal Al Rollins, who was named league MVP in 1954 despite going a woeful 12-47-7 for a truly terrible Chicago team, I think Greiss plays well enough to earn at least one sympathy vote for the Hart Trophy.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Puck Soup: Our 2021 predictions

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We each make our playoff picks for all four divisions
- We also wager an imaginary $100 on division winners and the Stanley Cup
- NBC drops Milbury, hires Babcock
- Why Canada is so much more excited for this season than the US
- And lots 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.

Predict the NHL season in a contest that’s easy until it isn’t

The NHL season is about to start, and this year features more unknowns than any we’ve ever seen. We’ve got a shortened season in the middle of a pandemic with new divisions and a messed up salary cap. Who knows what might happen?

Well, you do. You always do. Not everything, of course, but some of it. Every year, every hockey fan knows at least a few things that obviously will or won’t happen. You might not be able to predict every playoff team, but you know a few of them, and a few more that definitely won’t make it. Some jobs are completely safe. Some rookies are sure things. We all have our list of obvious calls, every season, and we’re always right.

Except when we’re not. Last year, I thought the Sharks would be contenders, Jack Hughes was a lock to contend for the Calder, and Gerard Gallant had the most secure coaching job in the league. Oops. You probably made a few mistakes too. And then, chances are, you forgot all about them. That’s the beauty of being a fan with a new season on the horizon. We can feel like the questions are way too easy in advance, and then ignore any wrong answers we come up with.

So today, we’re going to get you to put your predictions out there. I’m going to ask you eight questions that, on the surface, should be pretty easy. You tell me what you think the obvious answers are. And then we wait and see who actually got it right. Yes, there will be a prize.

It’s all going to be super easy, because the answers are all so obvious. The only catch: you can’t get any wrong.

Here’s how this will work:

  • For each question, you must post at least one answer or as many as five, or anything in between. It’s up to you.
  • Your first right answer on a given question is worth one point. A second right answer is worth two more points, a third right answer is worth three more, and so on. In other words, getting just one right answer is worth one point, two right answers add up to three (1+2), three right answers is worth six (1+2+3). Four answers gets you ten points, while going five-for-five is worth the maximum score of 15. There’s an incentive here to go for as many answers as you can.
  • But … and this is the big one … having even one wrong answer means you get nothing for that question. Each question is all-or-nothing, meaning going four-for-five is the same as going zero-for-five. So how many answers do you try? Just how confident are you? That’s where the strategy comes in.
  • Make sure to read the questions carefully; if you list a guy who wasn’t eligible, he won’t earn you any points (but won’t negate the rest of your answer).
  • The winner is the person with the most points across all eight questions. Feel free to discuss these wherever you want, tweet at me, or whatever else, but to be eligible to win a prize, you must post your answers in the comments section of this post before 5:30 p.m. ET on January 13. If you change your mind or post multiple answers, your most recent one will be considered your official entry.
  • If the season is cancelled or something happens that makes it impossible to have a winner, well, at least it was a cool idea.

After the first day of 2021 free agency, whenever that is, we’ll look back and figure out who won and laugh at everyone else’s dumb predictions. The winner will earn two signed copies of my book: One for them, and one for a friend or family member which I will sign with whatever you want, including something insulting about their favorite team. Honestly, the second book is a way more valuable prize than the first.

Simple enough. Here come your questions. Remember, this test is so easy that any dummy should be able to ace it … or at least we’ll all feel that way in hindsight.

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Monday, January 11, 2021

NHL bottom feeders to contenders, where each team will end up

Seven years ago, the NHL made big changes in advance of the 2013-14 season, shifting teams around and going from having six divisions back to a traditional four. It was a major realignment, and you probably remember it as being the year we all spent going “No really, it’s can’t be called the Metropolitan, what’s the real name going to be?”

Back then, I thought it would be cute to build my season preview around the concept of new divisions. But instead of the NHL’s versions, the twist was that I’d divide the league up into four groups that made more sense to me: The bottom-feeders, the middle-of-the-pack, the true contenders, and then a “your guess is as good as mine” divisions for the teams I couldn’t figure out. It was a bit of a silly concept, but it stuck, and I’ve been using the format for my previews ever since.

Then came this year, and suddenly the NHL is stealing my schtick by making up weird division on the fly, and slapping ridiculous names on them to boot. They didn’t really have a choice, and the all-Canadian thing is cool, but you will never be able to convince me that the league isn’t secretly shifting new teams in and out of the Central every morning and waiting to see if anyone notices.

In these difficult times, I know you’re counting on me for some stability, so we’ll stick with our traditional divisions as we take a look around the league and try to figure out who lands where. We’ll start from the bottom and divide the league into groups of seven or eight (with no particular order within those divisions). Then we’ll wait and see how it all turns out, and come back here in a few months to laugh about how wrong I was.

Bottom-feeders, middle-of-the-pack, contenders and [shrug emoji], let’s do this.

The Bottom-Feeder Division

It’s never been more dangerous to declare a team a bottom-feeder than in today’s NHL, because the gap between the truly bad and the merely mediocre is so thin. That will be especially true in a short season. Is that going to keep me from inevitably embarrassing myself here? Of course not.

Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 32-30-8, -6 goals differential (not counting shootouts), lost in the first round

Their offseason in one sentence: Corey Crawford and Brandon Saad are gone, Kirby Dach is out, and now so is Jonathan Toews, although we’re not sure for how long.

Why they’re here: The rebuild sure seems to be on, whether the veteran core likes it or not. That’s probably the right call, but the Hawks are still raising some eyebrows by heading into the season without any NHL-proven goaltenders. Maybe we’re all making too much out of that, since goaltending is unpredictable and maybe one of the kids steps up and proves they can handle the job. But even if that happens, the rest of the roster is looking shaky, especially if Toews is out long-term.

Ottawa Senators

Last season: 25-34-12, -48, missed the postseason

Their offseason in one sentence: They used all the draft picks, added Matt Murray and went bargain-hunting with their cap space.

Why they’re here: I liked their offseason, at least apart from the Murray contract, and the prospect pipeline is close to overflowing. There’s plenty of optimism for the future in Ottawa, and it’s been well-earned. But even their owner is saying that this isn’t their year, so we don’t need to overthink this.

Los Angeles Kings

Last season: 29-35-6, -32, missed the postseason

Their offseason in one sentence: The rebuild mostly stayed the course, getting some lottery help to add Quinton Byfield along the way.

Why they’re here: Because they’re doing a fairly traditional tear-it-down rebuild, albeit one that hasn’t touched any of the core veterans quite yet. It’s a plan, and so far it’s working, as the Kings have put together a nice pipeline of young talent. As I’ve written before, there’s at least an outside chance that the Kings eventually have one of those “all the kid show up at the same time” breakout years like the Leafs did back in 2016-17. It doesn’t sound like it will be this year, though.

New Jersey Devils

Last season: 28-29-12, -39, missed the postseason

Their offseason in one sentence: They brought in Ryan Murray and Andreas Johnsson without giving up all that much, and thought they’d added Corey Crawford too before his surprise retirement.

Why they’re here: Remember last year when they drafted Jack Hughes and added P.K. Subban and everyone put them in the playoffs and I was like “wait are we sure about that?” and people yelled at me? Those were good times.

I don’t hold grudges. But there’s unlikely to be enough improvement here to push for the playoffs, or come all that close, and I felt that way before Crawford’s announcement, which obviously hurts. Mackenzie Blackwood is one of the better young goalies in the league, so goaltending isn’t likely to be the big problem, but it needed to be absolutely great for the Devils to have a shot and the odds of that are lower now than they were a week ago.

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Thursday, January 7, 2021

Which team makes the best lineup of stolen late-career stars?

It’s been a wild offseason, and one of the themes has been players who’ve been with one team forever signing somewhere else. Joe Thornton in Toronto. Mikko Koivu in Columbus. Henrik Lundqvist in Washington, briefly. And then the biggest shocker of them all — Zdeno Chara leaving Boston after 14 years to sign with Washington.

It’s been pretty stunning. But it’s not unheard of in the NHL, a league where veteran stars occasionally end their careers with a short stint with a new team. And some teams seem to get in on that action more than others. So today, let’s go around the league and try to answer a question: Which NHL team could build the best starting lineup of legendary players they acquired at the very end of their careers?

But first, a few ground rules:

– We’re building a roster of three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie. To qualify, a player must have joined a team having already established themselves as a star somewhere else, and spent no more than the last 100 games of their NHL career with a team.

– Teams are getting credit for a guy’s entire career, not just what he did with that team. We’re rewarding teams for going out and getting big names, even if they were completely washed up by the time they arrived. We’re here for a good time, not for a long time. And honestly, this late in a star’s career, the part about being good is pretty optional.

– It’s the last team a player actually played for. Trading for an inactive guy’s rights to work the salary cap doesn’t count (sorry Coyotes). This of course includes ceremonial one-day contracts for retiring players, because that’s dumb. It also doesn’t include players who didn’t end up playing for health reasons.

– Active players aren’t eligible, since we don’t know how the rest of their career will play out. Koivu, Chara and Thornton will have to wait.

– A team reacquiring a former player is OK, but only if the player spent less than half their career on a team and had been gone for at least five years. Luc Robitaille doesn’t qualify as a King, but we’ll allow Brendan Shanahan coming back to the Devils.

We all assume the Red Wings are going to win, right? Me too, although I have a feeling it might be closer than you think. But yeah, we might as well start there:

Detroit Red Wings

Forwards: Darryl Sittler, Mike Modano, Bernie Federko

Defense: Borje Salming, Earl Siebert

Goalie: Ed Giacomin

Yeah, this is a really good lineup, with depth that includes Daniel Alfredsson and Reggie Leach (and near-misses thanks to too many games played by Mark Howe and Brad Park). Goaltending is really the only weak spot, and we still get a Hall of Famer there. We’re not even using Dominik Hasek, who didn’t arrive in Detroit until he was 37 but then stuck around for parts of four seasons (with a stopover in Ottawa).

There’s a reason why the Red Wings are known as the team that manages to steal away your favorite player for one last year. They’re our first entry, so we’re not really sure how they’ll measure up to other teams out there, but I think it’s fair to say the bar has been set fairly high.

As always with these sorts of things the Original Six teams should have an advantage. Let’s test that theory.

Boston Bruins

Forwards: Cy Denneny, Babe Pratt, Bun Cook

Defense: Paul Coffey, Brian Leetch

Goalie: Jacques Plante

Yep, that’s another very good roster, and in keeping with Bruins tradition they’re very deep on the blue line; they could also call on Guy Lapointe and Wade Redden and narrowly miss out on Sprague Cleghorn. The forward group can’t match the Wings, though, even as it features three old-time Hall of Famers. If you wanted a more modern option up front, you could look to Alex Zhamnov, Brian Gionta, Butch Goring and Rick Nash. Still, the goaltending is excellent, and even if you want to disqualify Plante because he went on to continue his career in the WHA, they can still turn to Rogie Vachon.

The Wings aren’t going to run away with this thing after all. Let’s try one more Original Six option.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

22 of my most intriguing NHL names to watch this season

We’re a week away from the start of one of the most fascinating seasons in NHL history. We’ve got one-time-only divisions where teams will only play each other, an old school playoff format, and a 56-game schedule, we hope. No All-Star Game, no bye weeks, and at least to start with, no fans in most of the buildings. How it’s all going to play out? I have no idea, and neither do you, and that’s what’s going to make it great. Or horrible. We’ll see.

It all makes for one of the most intriguing seasons in modern NHL history. So today, I’m going to celebrate the unknown by building a roster of the most intriguing players heading into this season. We’ll go 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies, then add a coach and a GM, with a limit of one selection per team. That’s pretty much it as far as the rules here; if you’re looking for a more thought-out selection criteria than my going, “Oh yeah, that guy, I wonder how that’s going to go” then I’m not sure what to tell you. It’s early, manage your expectations.

We’ll do this like any well-constructed roster, and build from the net out.


Marc-Andre Fleury, Golden Knights

We’ll start with an entry that would have surprised anyone who just time-travelled ahead from last summer — not because Fleury is on this list, but because he’s there as a Golden Knight. There was a time when a divorce between Vegas and their first franchise player seemed inevitable, what with the whole “my agent is commissioning artwork of my team stabbing me in the back” story. If they were being honest, both sides might have preferred that. But with two years of a $7 million cap hit left on his deal, there were no takers. And so, even with Robin Lehner back as the presumed starter, everyone is apparently going to turn the page and start the season as friends.

Will it stay that way? And if not, how does it play out? Fleury’s been one of the most popular players in the league for the better part of a decade, and it would be kind of fascinating to see him go for the full heel turn. But even if the situation is decidedly less dramatic, there’s still some volatility here for a team that starts the year among the Stanley Cup favorites.

Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Malcolm Subban, Blackhawks

OK, that’s three guys instead of one, so I’m already cheating. But this spot is really going to whichever one of the Hawks’ goalies emerges as a legitimate starter. If any of them do.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a team go into a season without a single established NHL goalie on the roster, and it seems like a recipe for disaster, especially after an offseason in which goaltenders were switching teams all across the league. Then again, the closest recent comparison may be last year’s Blue Jackets, and that worked out pretty well. That team had Joonas Korpisalo, who’d been in the league for four years, so it wasn’t as extreme as what the Hawks are doing, but if you’re a Hawks fan looking for optimism, it’s a decent start. And decent starts might be in short supply in Chicago this year.

Honorable mentions: Thomas Griess arrives in Detroit to test the theory of just how much of a difference a solid goaltender can make to a bad team; the Ilya Sorokin era begins for the Islanders, even as we’re not sure how much he’ll play or how long it might take him to push theoretical mentor Semyon Varlamov into a timeshare, if not a role as his backup (or trade bait).

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Monday, January 4, 2021

Reader survey

Hey everyone...

As we head into the new season, I'd love to get some quick feedback from users about what you'd like to see more of, what you'd prefer less of, and how I can make sure you're getting the type of coverage you want. Your answers will be anonymous and I'm not collecting any personal information here.

(If you have problems with the embedded form, you can also use this direct link.)