Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Puck Soup: Trade deadline preview

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Sabres go for the losing streak record
- And yes it is a losing streak, no matter what the NHL says
- We react to Shayne Gostisbehere being waived, then find out he wasn't claimed as the show goes off the air
- Our thoughts on the 30 names on The Athletic's trade deadline board
- The Aaron Ekblad injury
- OUFL monkeys and lizards
- The new Might Ducks show, the NFL adds a game, 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.

Pull off a blockbuster by acing our NHL trade deadline quiz

We’re less than two weeks from the trade deadline, and you can feel the excitement.

(Crickets chirp.)

OK, fine, not much is happening yet. We had an Eric Staal trade and a few smaller deals, but that’s about it. But you can feel the anticipation of the excitement, and that counts too. As we wait for NHL GMs to start pulling the trigger on all the blockbusters that are surely right around the corner, let’s get into game shape with a quiz.

These 20 questions will test your knowledge of the best, worst and most memorable moves of the cap era’s trade deadlines. If you have any trouble getting the quiz to scroll properly, especially on your phone, try this direct link. Once you’ve submitted your answers, scroll back up to see how you did with this handy guide:

0–3 right answers: You believe that the salary cap has made trading too hard.

4-7 right answers: You’re not going to make a move just for the sake of making a move.

8-11 right answers: You’re not shopping, but you are listening.

12-15 right answers: You just traded your first for the final piece of the Cup puzzle. You think.

16-19 right answers: You just traded for Butch Goring.

20 right answers: You are Butch Goring.

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Monday, March 29, 2021

Weekend Rankings: Are 14 of the 16 playoff teams already locked in?

We’re going to flip the calendar over to April later this week, which in a typical year means the regular season is almost done. This isn’t a typical year, so we’ve still got about six weeks to go, and maybe more if rescheduled games keep pushing the finish line out. But with the trade deadline in two weeks and some teams having only 20 games left to play, we’re certainly headed down the homestretch. It’s time to get ready for a thrilling playoff race.

Only… what if there isn’t one?

It’s too early to write off any of the division races, but we’re getting close on a few of them. It’s not hard to imagine some scenarios where we could soon wind up with only one or two decent races to watch down the stretch. And when you take a look at Dom’s projections, you wonder if we’ll even get that much.

Let’s start in the North. The Leafs, Jets and Oilers are jockeying for top spot, with all three looking like reasonably safe playoff bets. A quick glance at the standings shows a tight race for the last spot between Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary, but that glance has to be quick enough that you don’t notice how many games in hand the Habs have – five on the Flames and six on the Canucks. As of yesterday, Dom’s model had the Canadiens with a 92% chance of getting that last spot, meaning the North has four teams with playoff odds over 90%. That’s not over, but it’s definitely in the ballpark.

The East was supposed to be the toughest race, with five or six playoff-worthy teams fighting for four spots. But one of those teams was the Flyers, who are currently spiraling out of contention; Dom had their odds down to 7% yesterday. The Rangers have clawed back into the race, but are still underdogs, with just a 13% chance before their loss to the Caps. That leaves us, once again, with four teams all sitting over 90%. Not done, but getting there.

The Central does have a real race for the last spot, but only that last spot, because the Lightning, Hurricanes and Panthers are all basically locks. That leaves us with the Stars, Blackhawks, Blue Jackets and Predators in the mix for that last berth, which makes for a decent race. We’ll see if any of those teams throw in their cards by selling at the deadline, but for now we’ve got one race to watch.

Then there’s the West, which looked like the easiest race to figure on opening night. You had three elite teams in the Golden Knights, Avalanche and Blues, and one spot that would probably come down to the Wild and Coyotes. But the Wild ran away with that race quickly, and Dom already has them as basically a lock, meaning the West is all over unless one of the three good teams collapses. That might actually be happening in St. Louis, and we’ll get to that in a bit, so let’s call this one an open race for one spot.

That’s it. That’s the whole league, in terms of playoff spots – remember, there’s no wild card or crossover spots this year, so if you’re not in a division’s top four, you’re nowhere. And right now, the races for those four spots aren’t much to look at. Dom has 14 different teams already sitting with playoff odds better than 90%, meaning only two spots up for grabs over the next six weeks unless somebody falls apart.

For what it’s worth, Dom’s model is a little more pessimistic about an exciting stretch run than others out there. If you check out Money Puck, you’ll find they agree that the North is close to over but aren’t quite as confident in the East, and their model thinks that the last spots in the West and Central are wide open. Dom’s not wrong often, but for the sake of entertainment value we’ll have to hope he is here.

Of course, there’s 20+ games to go, and lots of time for things to shift. Of those 14 teams that seemed locked in, at least one or two might completely collapse – 90% is a lot, but it’s not 100%. Some bad team that we’re close to writing off will probably go on a heater and at least make it interesting. And it’s worth noting that the races for seeding in all four divisions could be fantastic, with top spot up for grabs in all four. We don’t know how much that really matters, since home ice in a half-empty building might not be much of a factor, but it will give us some races to track.

But for those last playoff spots? Let’s cross our fingers that things tighten up, because we may be headed towards an anti-climactic finish in at least a few divisions. And maybe even in all four of them.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Friday, March 26, 2021

Mailbag: Is Jack Eichel overrated? Plus Tim Peel thoughts, a retro deadline blockbuster, and more

We’re two weeks from the deadline, the Sabres are imploding, games are being cancelled, and there’s an officiating scandal. Other than that, slow week. Let’s get to the mailbag.

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity.

Is Jack Eichel overrated?

I was looking at the number one centers for various teams recently and there are at least 11 teams where I would take their guy over Eichel for the next one to three years. I’d take the top center from Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Islanders, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Florida, Tampa, Colorado, LA, and St. Louis before Eichel right now. I might even put Washington and maybe Dallas on that list.

How can he be valued so highly if he isn’t even in the top 10 among first-line centers in the league?

Am I overrating the above centers? Am I underrating Eichel? – Michael G.

Hoo boy. Let’s really twist the knife on Sabres fans, those people have been riding high for too long.

First things first, from your list of teams I think the only ones where you absolutely put the top center ahead of Eichel without even thinking about it would be Edmonton, Colorado, Toronto and probably still Pittsburgh. The rest are varying degrees of borderline. (Also, I’m going to choose to believe that Michael left the Bruins off his list just because he’s trying to make Jack Edwards cry, and the Canucks because he wants to see my car set on fire.)

So we end up with Eichel being a guy who’s likely somewhere in the back half of the top ten, maybe just outside it if you want to be negative, maybe borderline top five if you want the glass to be half full. That’s… a pretty valuable player, right? An elite center is pretty much the most important piece an NHL contender can have, and Eichel’s at least in the conversation.

And that’s if we’re only looking at your timeline of the next three years. That’s reasonable, because that’s as far as most GMs are ever looking, but we have to factor in that Eichel is still just 24 and has a lot of runway left. If you reset the league and held a draft today, he goes ahead of anyone who’s already over 30, which moves him up your list. (When we did our everything draft in the offseason, Eichel was the ninth player and fifth center taken.)

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Tim Peel, draft lottery, hot mic moments and more

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- More fallout from the Tim Peel fiasco
- Where this ranks among NHL history's greatest officiating scandals
- Would this have happened if the league wasn't getting into the gambling business?
- We react to the new draft lottery rules
- Jess Grangers talks about which backup goalies you can trust
- This week in hockey history cover the NHL's first 50-goal/200-PIM player
- We ask listeners: Which hockey moment do you wish had a hot mic?
- Plus I come up with a brilliant idea for what the NHL should do with teams that are out of the playoff race...

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, March 24, 2021

Puck Soup: When the referee gets ejected

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to breaking news about the Tim Peel story
- Wysh remembers his controversial night drinking with Peel
- Are the Flyers terrible?
- Debating the top ten wingers
- Canadian border issues heat up
- The Snyder Cut, gross cereal, an OUFL we apparently already did before, 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.

12 excuses to have ready for when your NHL team makes a bad trade

We’re weeks away from the trade deadline, which is just about the best time of year for a hockey fan. Right now, everyone has hope. It comes in different forms, depending on how things are going for your favorite team, but it’s there. Whether your team is looking to start a rebuild or add some key pieces or just find that one last player that will make them Cup favorites, this is the moment. Any day now, they can make the trade that turns it all around.

Unless they screw it all up.

That’s the downside of trading, right? When they work, there’s nothing better. But sometimes they don’t, and a deal becomes that one mistake that sets a franchise back years, or worse. Often, it can take years before we realize a team has messed up. But not always. Sometimes, we know right away, because a trade is just terrible. It gets announced, there’s immediate confusion that it can’t be right, the smart people start asking questions, the GM is doing deer-in-the-headlights interviews, and suddenly even the most loyal fans begin to realize things have gone horribly wrong.

That’s where the excuses come in. It’s a defense mechanism, mostly, with a little bit of homer self-preservation mixed in. When your team has screwed up and you know it, you really have two options. You can embrace the misery and start calling for everyone to be fired. Or you can start trying to convince yourself that it’s not so bad.

I’m a Leafs fan, so I have plenty of experience in this area. So today, in anticipation of the trades to come in the next few weeks, I want to walk you through some of the excuses that are available to you under different scenarios. Not all of these will apply to every team or every situation, but I’m pretty sure there’s something here for everyone.

Remember, it’s important to be prepared. Here’s hoping you won’t have to use any of these over the next few weeks. But given who’s in charge of some of your favorite teams, you’re going to want to be ready.

He Just Needs a Change of Scenery

Who says it: Every fan who just watched their team trade for a guy who’s been terrible this year.

It goes something like: “OK, sure, it seems like we gave up too much based on the season this guy is having. But maybe he just needs a change of scenery. Surely he’ll improve once he’s on a new team where he doesn’t know the system or have any chemistry with any teammates. Huh, that sounded better in my head.”

What it means: Nobody really knows, but that hasn’t hurt this one’s popularity. It’s basically included in the starter pack for fan excuses, and the nice thing is that it can even be used preemptively on players who are only rumored to be on the trade block.

Has it ever come true? Sure, like three times in NHL history, so you can’t rule it out. Just don’t get your hopes up.

Don’t mess it up by replying: “Is it really a change of scenery if it’s during a pandemic and nobody is allowed to leave the team hotel?”

Too Many Prospects

Who says it: A fan of a team who just seemed to give up way too many future assets for a rental who may not even be very good.

It goes something like: “On the surface it may seem like we gave up way too much. But here’s the thing, we can afford it because we have so many prospects. Too many, really.”

What it means: That the person knows how to Google the name of their team and “Pronman.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that every team has a lot of prospects. It would be almost impossible not to. There isn’t a single NHL team that’s icing an AHL lineup with 10 guys because that’s all they could find, or passing on every draft pick. You’re supposed to have prospects, and some of them will even be good.

But do you have too many? Or at least, so many that you can afford to part with them at a discount? It’s not impossible, and it’s a nice problem to have, but it won’t apply to roughly 90 percent of the teams this excuse gets made for.

Don’t mess it up by replying: “Hey, why does Pronman use the term ‘future ECHL depth piece upside’ six times on his top 10 list?”

The Veteran Presence in the Room

Who says it: The fan of any team that just gave up way too much for a guy who’s way too old. Also, that team’s coach and GM, probably.

It goes something like: “This guy might not be any good anymore … on the ice. But what about in the room? Got to have guys that are good in the room. This guy is good in the room.”

What it means: He’s old and bad but probably has a Cup ring.

Look, we all know the deal. NHL teams love their Gritty Veterans who have Lots Of Compete and who Just Know How To Win. They will absolutely pay a premium to add those guys at this time of year, even if they’ve spent the entire season skating around dragging a giant fork sticking out of the small of their back.

Sometimes there’s even some truth to it. I’m not going to knock it, because I’m the guy who writes love notes to OGWACs every season. But yeah, fans will overdo this one.

Side note: I love when old guys are described as a “presence in the room” because it makes it sound like they’ve died and are now haunting the rink.

Don’t mess it up by replying: “Do you mean the trainer’s room, because that’s where he’s spent pretty much this entire season.”

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Monday, March 22, 2021

Weekend rankings: It’s officially time to be scared of the Avalanche

We marked the season’s midway point last week, even as several teams hadn’t quite reached the mark yet. That’s no longer the case, with Dallas crossing the 28-game mark in the weekend’s final game to become the 31st member of the halfway-home club.

So… how are you feeling about this weird season?

I don’t mean about your team, because we can probably guess that by the standings and/or the Sabres tattoo that seems to have been recently scrubbed with a brillo pad. I mean this season in general, with all of its oddities. And specifically, where are we at with the division-only, baseball-style scheduling?

It’s been two months of seeing the same teams over and over again, usually several times in a row, and I think it’s fair to say that the novelty has worn off. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does put us at a point where we can start to figure out if this is working or not.

For a lot of fans, I’m guessing the answer is that it depends. When your team has three of four in a row against their biggest rival, it can almost feel like a playoff series. When it’s back-to-back against some team you don’t care about, not so much. It’s the same sort of vibe when you’re looking around at the rest of the league. It’s fun to watch the good teams and there’s a certain can’t-look-away appeal to the truly bad ones, but then you get to the mushy middle teams and there’s only so many Coyotes games you can think about.

That’s if you think about that stuff at all, which is another piece I’m wondering about. If you’re a diehard fan of one team in particular, are you even paying attention to the teams in the other divisions that you know you’ll never even see until three rounds into the playoffs? Or are you just kind of vaguely aware that there are other teams out there and that some are good and some are bad, but beyond a few highlights or star players the other divisions are all just kind of a shrug emoji?

I don’t know, because I’m a national writer which means that it’s my job to pretend to pay attention to all 31 teams. But I’m guessing that some of you are still loving all of this, while others have had just about enough and are ready to go back to the old way. Which apparently we are, according to Pierre’s latest, in which Gary Bettman all but puts an end to any hope that the all-Canadian division might stick around.

That’s a very NHL way to think about things – the gravitational pull from “sticking with how we did it in the past” feels overwhelming for this league. But maybe they’re right. I’m genuinely curious. Let me know in the comments where you’re at with this schedule with half a season to go. Are you still on board, or dreading your next four-game series with some team you don’t care about?

OK, enough philosophy questions, let’s get on to this week’s rankings, where an old friend is back in the top five…

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Friday, March 19, 2021

Friday Grab Bag: The worldwide leader returns

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- My spies have found some top secret details about the new ESPN TV deal
- Introducing the concpt of Fake .500
- An obscure player who was brieflythe Kirill Kaprizov of the mid-90s
- The three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at ESPN's attempt to hype on of the worst games in NHL history

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: It was 9-0

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- Things just keep getting worse in Buffalo
- Should anyone even want the Sabres coaching job?
- The Rangers destroy the Flyers and it's not good news for either coaching staff
- Is goaltending a problem in Philadelphia yet again?
- Robin Lehner publically addressing his concussion, and those mental health rumors
- The most profitable teams to bet on so far this year
- Listeners call in with a question about Seattle hockey history and a new/old idea for the Skills Competition
- This week in hockey history covers the Richard Riots and the St. Patrick's Day Massacre

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, March 17, 2021

Puck Soup: Worst. Team. Ever.

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Sabres fire Ralph Krueger a few moments before we start recording
- What does Buffalo do now? - We cast our midseason award votes
- Our picks for the best and worst surprises among teams and players
- A quiz about the worst teams ever
- 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.

The biggest trade involving each Canadian team combo, ranked

With less than a month to go until the trading deadline, the seven Canadian teams in the North Division are facing a dilemma. How do you work around a mandatory 14-day quarantine for players crossing the border from the United States?

Do you make your trades early so that you can still get some use out of a player down the stretch? Do you work on deadline day with an eye towards the playoffs, all but writing off the rest of the regular season? Reduce your offers to reflect that change in value? Resign yourself to riding out the year with what you already have, flaws and all, because at least those guys are already here?

Or maybe, you make the only sort of deal that won’t have to worry about quarantine. Maybe all the Canadian teams need to figure out a way to trade with each other.

That’s apparently what they may be doing, according to Craig Custance. That could create an interesting dynamic, because the history of all-Canadian trades is a decidedly mixed one. Some teams almost never trade with each other, while others have hooked up on multiple big moves. It’s all over the map.

That feels like the sort of thing that’s ripe for a ranking. So today, we’re going to go back and find the biggest trade between each of the existing Canadian teams, a total of 21 possible combinations. Then we’re going to rank them from least to most important. Along the way, we’ll meet a few of the bigger trades in NHL history, a few more that will trigger an “Oh yeah, I remember that one” moment, and some that you probably have no recollection of at all unless you were one of the players involved.

But first, a few ground rules. We’re only looking for trades involving players here, because draft pick swaps are boring. More importantly, this list is for the seven existing teams only – sorry Nordiques fans, as well as any old-timers hoping for some Montreal Wanderers content today. Did I make this rule specifically so that I wouldn’t have to relive the Wendel Clark trade? I cannot confirm or deny.

Finally, as always, we’re counting both versions of the Jets as one team, and ignoring anyone who wants to get pedantic about franchise lineages. (This also makes it possible to do a full list, since the post-Thrashers version of the Jets have yet to make any trades with a few Canadian teams.)

We’ll be digging into the NHL Trade Tracker database, with some support from Hockey Reference. Let’s start with the smallest biggest deal we can find and work our way up.

(Thanks to reader James for suggesting the idea.)

21. Calgary/Winnipeg: Akim Aliu for John Negrin

This midseason trade from 2012 didn’t get much notice at the time, because Aliu had yet to crack the NHL and Negrin had been there for just three games back in 2009. If you heard about the deal at all, it may have been because of a neat quirk: Aliu had previously been loaned to the Flames AHL affiliate that Negrin was already playing for, meaning this was technically a case of two teammates being traded for each other.

Aliu would debut for the Flames later that year, and played a total of seven games in Calgary. Negrin never made it back to the NHL.

So why does this deal make our list as the biggest ever player trade between the Jets and Flames? Because it appears to be the only one. The original Jets never made a deal with the Flames once they arrived in Calgary, and this deal is the only one they’ve made since the NHL returned to Winnipeg. I guess when these two teams get together they spend all their time taking about hockey not working in Atlanta and none of it talking trade.

20. Montreal/Ottawa: Mike Reilly for a fifth

The Habs and Senators have apparently only made three player trades in three decades. We’ve got this one from last year, the Matthew Peca deal, or Andreas Dackell for an eighth-round pick. Reilly’s at least a regular in Ottawa these days, so this one pretty much wins by default.

19. Calgary/Ottawa: The Sens get a second for Curtis Lazar

Lazar was a first-round pick who’d been hyped as a solid prospect, but by 2017 he was spinning his wheels in Ottawa. His name surfaced at the deadline, and reports that the Sens would want a high pick for him were mostly met with eyerolls – this was a guy with one point in 33 NHL games that year. Somehow, Pierre Dorion got the Flames to pay up, landing a second-round pick he turned into Alex Formenton. For their part, Calgary got 70 games and three goals out of Lazar. That’s not much, but it’s enough to nudge out a handful of even smaller Sens/Flames trades, like Nick Shore three years ago, Alex Chiasson in 2016 or the big Mark Osiecki/Chris Lindberg blockbuster from the early 90s.

18. Vancouver/Winnipeg: Ivan Hlinka for Brent Ashton

Do you know who Artur Oktyabrev or Dan Ratushny are? No? Then we’re pretty much left with this 1981 trade, which at least features two recognizable names. NHL fans probably remember Hlinka as the future coach of the Penguins, but he was a Czech legend who had a couple of 60-point seasons as a Canuck after the Jets sent his rights to Vancouver for Ashton, a useful journeyman who was immediately flipped to the Rockies for Lucien DeBlois.

17. Edmonton/Ottawa: Ales Hemsky for picks

These teams love to get together on classic “let’s remember some guys” deals involving names like Frantisek Musil, Brian Glynn and Eric Gryba. Their most recent deal was Tyler Ennis a year ago, but I’m going with the Sens’ 2014 deadline pickup of Hemsky, who was in his 11th year in Edmonton. He was OK down the stretch in Ottawa but couldn’t get them into the playoffs before departing as free agent; the Oilers got a third and a fifth for him but neither pick has played in the NHL.

16. Ottawa/Winnipeg: Dylan DeMelo for a third

Our only other option seems to be the 1993 Dmitri Filimonov trade, but this 2019 deal was a reasonably decent one that saw the Jets land a player who remains a key piece. The Senators used the pick on goalie Leevi Merilainen, who Scott Wheeler thought was a minor reach.

15. Edmonton/Vancouver: The Canucks get Gretzky’s wingman

Like most of the Smythe Division rivals, there isn’t as much of a trade history here as you might expect. There are a few deals, including the 2019 Ryan Spooner/Sam Gagner swap, but not many with an impact. I’ll go with a 1981 deadline deal that saw the Oilers send Blair MacDonald to Vancouver for Garry Lariviere and Ken Berry; none of those guys were stars, but they were three decent NHLers and MacDonald was just one year removed from a 94-point season that demonstrated the life-changing power of being Wayne Gretzky’s linemate. He couldn’t match those numbers in Vancouver, but was part of their surprise run to the 1982 final.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic.

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Monday, March 15, 2021

Weekend rankings: What we know and what we don’t at the midway mark

We’re halfway home. Mostly.

It’s kind of hard to pick a midway mark of this weird NHL season, with teams like Dallas and New Jersey still trailing behind in games played due to scheduling disruptions. But we’re close enough, with several teams crossing into their second half over the weekend.

So… do we know anything yet?

I think we do. We can start with the obvious: The Lightning are really good, and will get even better when Nikita Kucherov mysteriously heals just in time for the playoffs. We’re maybe a bit less sure about the Hurricanes and (especially) the Panthers, but those doubts are fading, and at the very least we can all but lock in those three teams for playoff spots, with the last Central spot coming down to the surprising Hawks, the disappointing Stars or (maybe) the fading Blue Jackets.

We know that the Golden Knights are the team to beat in the West, but that the Blues and Avs still loom as serious threats, pretty much the way we all expected. We didn’t necessarily think the Wild would be right there with them, but so far they have been, and we’re getting dangerously close to being able to at least pencil in all of the division’s playoff spots unless the Kings or Coyotes can find another gear.

Up in the North, we know the Maple Leafs are still the favorites, although they stubbornly refuse to pull away and end the suspense, and even if they do it’s not like anyone will be all that scared of facing them in the playoffs given recent history. We’re not sure of much else, although the Jets and Oilers are looking good right now. The Flames are still very much to be determined, although their first two games under Darryl Sutter have been promising.

And in the East… well, I don’t think we know much of anything about the East, at least as far as the playoffs go. Even if we write off the Rangers, we’ve got four spots for five very good teams and that match just doesn’t work for anyone except fans of Team Chaos.

Oh, and we really have no idea which of those divisions are good and which are bad, because we don’t have any cross-over games to go by. So that’s fun.

Things are a little more clear at the bottom of the standings, where Ottawa and Detroit are about as bad as expected and the Sabres might blow past both of them. The Ducks and Devils are done, and the Predators and Canucks probably don’t want to admit they are too. With an unusually high 12 teams at or below .500 right now, the deadline is shaping up to be a crowded market for sellers and a good one for buyers, but we still don’t know how any of that might play out under the current financial mess.

When it comes to individual performances, Kirill Kaprizov is pulling away in the Calder race and a healthy Connor McDavid will win the Art Ross, but most of the other awards are in flux. The Hart is going to be a mess of differing definitions, as always, and there’s still plenty of time for the Norris and Vezina fields to shift. There’s an outside shot that we could see someone hit 100 points or 50 goals in a shortened season, which would be cool, but we really have no idea what the condensed schedule will do to stars down the stretch.

All in all, we don’t know much. But we’re not supposed to, because we’re only halfway home, and it actually feels like we’ve got at least a little bit more clarity than usual around the bottom of the standings this year.

Also, we know that at least a few of this week’s power rankings picks will seem awful in hindsight. But we’re doing them anyways, so let’s get to it…

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: The NHL changes the channel

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- The NHL returns to ESPN for $400 million/year
- Does Gary Bettman deserve credit for saving the league's bottom line?
- We wonder if the trade deadline will end up being a bust
- Buffalo vs. Vancouver for hockey heartache, and which other fan bases are in the running
- How much does home-ice advantage matter when you have a few thousand fans?
- Marc-Andre Fleury, listener 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)

After 50 years and no Cups, whose fans have had it worse: Sabres or Canucks?

One of my favorite movie characters is Count Rugen from The Princess Bride. He’s the creepy bad guy who’s trying to write the definitive work on the subject of pain. He’s fascinated by how much can be endured, and just how bad it can get. The sports fan side of me kind of gets where he’s coming from. Misery is interesting to me.

I’m also a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. These two facts may be related.

With three decades of Maple Leafs pain under my belt, I’m getting close to self-appointed expert status on the subject. But these days, there isn’t a ton of Leafs-related agony to be found. Toronto is leading the North division, and has a shot at the first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history. They’ve been mostly… what’s the word for it? The one that’s the opposite of bad. It will come to me eventually, I’m a little rusty here.

But while my own team might be pain-deprived these days, at least temporarily, there’s still plenty to go around. And it’s possible that no two teams have experienced worse than the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres.

The two franchises are forever linked, expansion cousins who entered the league together in 1970 and have been experiencing the ups and downs of NHL existence ever since. Both have come agonizingly close to Stanley Cups without ever winning one. Both have seen stars come and go. They’ve both made some, uh, questionable fashion choices.

And right now, both teams are terrible. Despite the season opening with significant optimism in Vancouver and at least a little in Buffalo, both teams are already all but out of the playoff hunt. And last Friday, on what was for both franchises their 18,721st day of existence, the two teams that started together found themselves arriving in the exact same spot at the same moment: With a GM facing the media, offering answers and asking forgiveness for a season going down the drain.

Players are frustrated. Jobs are in jeopardy. Vultures are circling. And fans are miserable.

But which fan base is most miserable? And which one should be?

Like my pal Count Rugen, I had a deep and abiding interest in finding out. But I couldn’t do it on my own, because true NHL misery is the sort of thing you need to see up close to really understand. So I asked two of our beat writers, John Vogl of the Sabres and Thomas Drance of the Canucks, to help me understand. I came up with ten categories of NHL suffering, and asked Vogl and Drance to make the case that their fan base has it worst.

Remember, this is for posterity, so be honest. Sabres fans, Canucks fans… how do you feel?

Stanley Cup final scars

Let’s start with the big one. Both teams have had near-misses but no championships. Whose close call(s) hurt most?

Vogl’s case for the Sabres

It’s June 1999. With more than 20,000 fans gathered at the foot of City Hall, Lindy Ruff steps to the microphone with the final two words of the season.

“No goal!”

Those words still echo around town. Brett Hull put his skate in the crease and can’t show his face in Buffalo. His controversial triple-overtime goal in Game 6 ended the Cup final but merely started the misery. Sabres fans will forever believe they were cheated. Making it worse is Hull, Mike Modano and other Stars were so injured they might not have skated in a Game 7, giving Dominik Hasek and Company a real chance to celebrate.

Drance’s case for the Canucks

If you think Stanley Cup Final pain is your ally in a misery duel with Vancouver Canucks fans, you’re wrong. Canucks fans were born in the darkness.

Fun fact: no franchise in NHL history that hasn’t previously won a Stanley Cup has ever lost in the Stanley Cup Final more than twice. Except the Canucks.

Fun fact #2: No franchise in NHL history that hasn’t previously won a Stanley Cup has ever lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Except the Canucks. And the Canucks have done that twice. Twice!

Sean says: This one really comes down to what type of pain hurts worse. The Canucks have come closer to the Cup, getting within one win in both 1994 and 2011. But the Sabres have that single defining play that they can probably still see when they close their eyes at night. This one’s too close to call, and also I’m already sad. This may have been a bad idea.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Puck Soup: ESPN, Tom Wilson, Darryl Sutter and more

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The NHL returns to ESPN
- Why the last TV deal was a disaster, and why it's not (completely) Gary Bettman's fault
- A long argument about the Tom Wilson suspension
- Thoughts on Darryl Sutter resurfacing in Calgary
- The league reportedly wants to tweak the lottery rules
- OUFL on NHL team logos
- 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.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Assembling the NHL first half all-disappointment team

The Vancouver Canucks haven’t been first in too many categories this year, but they pulled it off over the weekend when they became the first team in the league to get to the halfway mark of the 56-game schedule. And it’s fair to say their first half didn’t go the way they’d hoped.

That’s bad news for Vancouver, but good news for us because it fits the theme of today’s post: Disappointment. There’s been plenty of it to go around this year, with a ton of teams looking pretty miserable these days. So this week, as more teams cross that halfway mark, let’s vent some frustration by building a roster out of the most disappointing players so far.

To be clear about what we’re going for, this isn’t a roster of the league’s worst or least-productive players. That would just be a bunch of depth guys you’ve never heard of and what would you even do with a roster like that? Right, probably beat the Sabres, but not much else. Nobody wants to read us picking on the no-names.

Instead, we’re factoring in the weight of expectations here. Whether it’s reputation, cap hit, recent performance or all of the above, these players came into the year with high expectations that they’ve struggled to meet. And sure, some will turn it around in the second half and make this look bad – that’s half the fun. So let’s celebrate some halves that weren’t fun.

In hockey, you build a good team from the net out, so it goes without saying that this roster needs to start up front.

First line

Taylor Hall, Sabres – The highest-profile forward on the free-agent market surprised us by signing with Buffalo, but it made a certain kind of sense. If he played well and the team was good, he could re-up on a long-term deal. If he played well and the team was mediocre, they’d flip him to a contender at the deadline. Either way, it would work… as long as he played well. Oops.

Hall hasn’t been the only problem in Buffalo, and he won’t be the only Sabre on this list, but a recent MVP going 19 games between goals while his team implodes around him is going to be a lock for this roster.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres – The other no-doubt-about-it Sabres pick didn’t come into the season with the same level of expectations as Hall, although he did have a bigger contract. He’s also had a far worse season, which is really saying something given what Hall’s been able to do. It took Skinner 20 games to get his first goal of the season, with all sorts of healthy scratch drama mixed in. When your head coach seems like he’d rather get fired than say anything nice about you, it’s probably a sign that the season isn’t going great.

Mika Zibanejad, Rangers – No, I’m not quite cruel enough to go all-Sabres on the top line. Instead, I’ll slip in Zibanejad, who was supposed to follow up last season’s breakout by taking another step toward elite status. Instead, his season has been a mess, with just three goals and nine points.

That’s been a disaster on two fronts – he’s costing himself a ton of money with a possible extension looming in the summer, and he’s forcing the Rangers to reconsider whether they really have a first-line center to build around. If Zibanjed isn’t that guy, do they have to figure out a way to trade for Jack Eichel? Oh cool, I did work a Sabre in here after all.

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Monday, March 8, 2021

Weekend rankings: Panic rising, Flames changes, Wilson’s suspension and more

We had a running joke around these parts in the opening weeks of the season: It was always too early. Nobody knew anything, no conclusions could be drawn, we probably shouldn’t have been ranking anyone but it was all in good fun.

We’re almost two full months in to the season and [looks around the flaming wreckage of the league] yeah, I think it’s safe to say it’s not too early anymore. And for a lot of teams, none of this is fun anymore.

Where to begin. Let’s start with some good news: The Canadiens had what may have been their first genuinely good game in a month, rolling the Jets 7-1 on Saturday. The win was their first in three weeks that didn’t feature somebody getting fired in the middle of it, so that’s progress.

Montreal’s week turned down the temperature slightly on a season that was in danger of falling apart. It also saw them lose their distinction as the only team to fire a coach during the season, as the Flames joined that club by icing Geoff Ward in favor of Darryl Sutter. Yes, that Darryl Sutter, the one who led the team to a Stanley Cup final back in the pre-cap days and won two rings in Los Angeles but hasn’t been behind a bench since 2017. This is GM Brad Treliving’s fifth coach of his tenure, and if the change doesn’t spark something, you have to wonder if it’s the last.

Sutter wasn’t behind the bench on the weekend due to COVID protocols, but is expected to join the team today. He presumably watched his new team cough up a 2-1 third period lead to lose to the Oilers in regulation on Saturday before getting a point in a shootout loss to Ottawa last night. He’ll inherit a team that hasn’t won two straight in four weeks, dropping X points back of a Montreal team that holds three games in hand for the North’s final playoff spot.

Here’s the thing: There are a lot of teams who’d look at the Flames right now and think “Man, I wish we had it that good.”

The weekend started with dueling GM press conferences in Buffalo and Vancouver, two teams that entered the league together five decades ago and have managed to wind up in virtually the same spot today. Two furious fan bases, two coaches on the hot seat, and now two GMs trying to buy some time. Kevyn Adams went with the “not good enough” approach, but his lukewarm defense of Ralph Krueger only made a change behind the bench feel even more inevitable. As for Jim Benning’s request for two more years of patience in Vancouver, well, I’ll let Thomas Drance take a carving knife to that performance.

Look around the league, and the hits keep on coming. The Devils have forgotten how to score. The Predators are ready to burn it all to the ground. It’s starting to fall apart in Columbus, and we’ll get to that down below. The Stars can’t get right, the Oilers are still trying to figure out what happened against the Leafs, the Sharks still can’t get a save… about a third of this league is a serious bummer right now.

History tells us that a few of those teams will find their footing and make something out of the season, even if that just means a failed playoff run. Others will make changes in the coming days and weeks. Some will insist on staying the course all the way to the bitter end. And they’ll be joined by others, the ones that save their collapse for the second half.

It’s depressing if you root for one of those teams, and maybe a certain kind of entertaining if you don’t. It’s a lot of things. But it’s not too early. Not anymore.

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Friday, March 5, 2021

Who wins today, 2016’s Team North America or Team Everyone Else?

Five years ago this week, hockey fans got their first look at the roster for what would become one of the most unique teams in international sports history. In organizing the 2016 World Cup tournament, the NHL went off the board with their decision to include a Team North America, an unprecedented combo platter of Canadian and American stars who were 23 or under.

Did it make sense to have two counties combining for an entry in an international tournament, let alone when those two nations were rivals? Not really. Was it fair to weaken those countries’ main rosters by ruling out some of the game’s best young stars? Probably not. Was the whole thing a good idea? It’s fair to say that the initial reaction was mixed.

But then we got a look at the first draft of the roster, and even a traditionalist had to be intrigued. That initial March 2016 list featured 16 names, including established stars like Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. They’d eventually be joined by a group that included Auston Matthews (who’d yet to play an NHL game) and Mark Scheifele.

We weren’t sure if they’d be all that good, but we knew they’d be fun. It turned out they were both, stealing the show at the tournament with a run-and-gun style and all sorts of skill. They failed to medal, but beat Finland and Sweden. In terms of NHL star power, the future looked bright.

Five years later, the future is here. So today, I want to tackle a question sent in by Puck Soup listener Manny: Could a reunited Team North America beat an all-star squad made up of everyone else in a series played right now?

It’s a big ask. We’ve got a huge swath of the league to choose from, including stars who were too old for Team North America consideration, guys who hadn’t entered the league yet, and a handful of snubs. And we’ve got the benefit of hindsight, because while most of the 2016 team holds up well, a few haven’t seen their pro careers pan out as well as we all expected. Team Everyone Else should have a big advantage. But Team North America has Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, so let’s do this.

One caveat: We’re doing North American players only. I originally thought about making it the kids against the world, but throwing names like Victor Hedman, David Pastrnak and Nikita Kucherov into the mix just tilts the scales too far in one direction. It’s Canadian and American stars only, and if you show up in the comments going “Uh, Leon Draisaitl?” then you have to do ten pushups and we all get to make fun of you. Let’s see where this takes us.


Let’s start with the main course, because the Team North America forwards are ridiculous. McDavid, Matthews and MacKinnon may be the three best players in the league right now, so we’re absolutely loaded with top-end star power. But we’re not completely top heavy, with some excellent options for all four lines. Some of the names aren’t exactly Hart candidates, like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. J.T. Miller or Vincent Trochek, but they’ve developed into very good players.

In fact, among the names on the final 2016 roster, there isn’t a single one that you’d describe as a bust five years down the road. And the only ones who’ve struggled to establish themselves as legitimate top-end players are Brandon Saad and maybe Jonathan Drouin.

Here’s how my Team North America lines would look in 2021:

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Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: When stars get benched

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- Zach Parise becomes the latest star to get benched
- Was this the right time for Dean Evason to play it tough?
- We both agree on the worst benching of all-time
- The Habs fire a coach during a game; did Carey Price know?
- The timing of a potential Jack Eichel trade
- The Leafs are running away with the North
- This week in history, featuring the night that Teemu's record-breaker was only the second best highlight
- Listener questions 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, March 3, 2021

Puck Soup: Hot seats and trade boards

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We do a temperature check on various coaches around the NHL, and some seats are hotter than others
- An early look at the trade deadline board
- Are the Leafs for real?
- The Wild are fun and it's weird
- An OUFL on Eddie Murphy movies
- Happy Gilmore, whether there's mini-golf in Canada, 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.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Every midseason coaching change of the cap era, ranked

The NHL had its first coaching change of the season last week, and it was big news for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, it was Montreal, and anything that happens in that market will reverberate around the league. But it also broke the seal on a year that had many of us wondering if there would be any midseason changes at all. With a pandemic still raging and a condensed schedule leaving little room to adjust, would teams be tempted to ride out the year and make their coaching decisions in the offseason?

Apparently not. Instead, we got what we almost always get – at least one team deciding that it had to make a change during the season, with more potentially on the way. Since the expansion era began in 1967, the 2017-18 season remains the only one which hasn’t had at least one midseason coaching change. Sometimes, the change works out brilliantly. Other times, a struggling team keeps spinning their wheels. Occasionally, a poorly thought-out switch makes a bad situation even worse.

So today, let’s look back at every midseason coaching change of the cap era. That’s a total of 67, by my count, not including brief interim stints or temporary absences. We can divide them into some familiar categories. And of course, we’ll rank them from the worst midseason change of the era to the very best, with the benefit of hindsight.

We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up. Anyone know the number for a cab?

The worst of the worst

I’m guessing there’s no big surprise with this pick…

#67. Nov. 27, 2016: Panthers replace Gerard Gallant with Tom Rowe

You at least can sort of see what the Panthers were going for. They’d recently transitioned the front office job from Dale Tallon to Rowe, and new GMs often want to bring in their own guy. Rowe was embracing a more analytics-based mindset – this was what would become derisively known in Florida as the era of the Computer Boys – and Gallant didn’t seem to be fully on board. So despite coming off a 103-point season in which Gallant was Jack Adams runner-up and a disappointing-but-not-awful 11-10-1 record through 22 games, Rowe pulled the trigger and named himself interim coach for the rest of the year.

Oh, and then they didn’t call Gallant a cab, which turned into a league-wide punch line and infuriated the old guard.

Presumably, the idea was for Rowe to make it through the season, see what his roster looked like up close, and then hire his own guy in the spring. Instead, the team missed the playoffs, Rowe lost a front office power struggle, and Tallon was put back in charge. Meanwhile, Gallant took the expansion Golden Knights job and won the Jack Adams in his first season in Vegas. Just a complete mess all around.

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Monday, March 1, 2021

Weekend rankings: Can the Canadiens season be saved?

How’s that for a dramatic headline? Look, it’s the Habs and they’re losing. Nobody’s going to do subtlety and nuance.

But I’ll blow the suspense by revealing the answer in the second paragraph. Can this season be saved? Yes, of course. They’re still holding down a playoff spot, we’ve already seen this lineup rack up wins early on, and they’re still one of the better possession teams at 5-on-5, which we’re told is a good predictor of future success. Nothing’s hopeless here.

Will it be saved? That gets dicier, because man, things are not good right now.

Let’s reset on a nightmare February. On Groundhog Day, the Habs beat the Canucks, ending a two-week stretch that saw them face Vancouver five times and take nine of 10 points, all while scoring at will. That ran their overall record to 7-1-2, and they were all but anointed the division’s best team. Marc Bergevin’s moves had all worked perfectly, and the relatively small number of skeptics had been proven wrong. (I was one of those offseason skeptics, but I bailed on it quickly, because even when I’m right I find a way to be wrong.) With four good lines and a smart system and nobody playing poorly, the team was so good it was getting boring.

Two nights after that win over the hapless Canucks, the Habs lost to the Senators. No big deal, it was a trap game against a bad team and they got their revenge in a rematch. But then came a loss to the Maple Leafs, and then another to the Oilers, and soon they’d lost seven of eight, including five straight. Last week, they fired coach Claude Julien, a move that would have seemed unthinkable just two weeks ago.

So now what?

New head coach Dominique Ducharme has already made some tweaks, but a pair of losses to the Jets means there won’t be an instant turnaround. Ducharme was Julien’s assistant, so he should be able to maintain that successful 5-on-5 system while concentrating on upgrading the lackluster special teams. But 5-on-5 possession only gets you so far if you can’t finish, and that’s where Bergevin’s decision to abandon his years-long pursuit of top-line talent in favor of a more balanced approach may not be the success it seemed like. The Canadiens can roll out three or four lines that can score, but who’s the go-to guy when you absolutely need a big goal? OK, Tyler Toffoli if it’s against the Canucks, but what about the rest of the time? Right now, the team’s leading scorer is 33-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry, which probably isn’t how Bergevin drew it up.

But maybe that doesn’t matter, because we haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room. Like so many other slumping teams, all the analysis in the world can just be boiled down to one short sentence: The goaltending is bad. That’s it. Bad goaltending sinks good teams, and that’s what Montreal’s been getting on too many nights.

In a weird way, that might be good news for Ducharme, because he has two established goaltenders and only one has been struggling. Jake Allen has played well, including in a Saturday loss in which Montreal was clearly the better team. Go with the hot hand for a little bit, and get the season back under control. Simple enough. But of course it isn’t, because the other goalie is Carey Price, a 33-year-old carrying the league’s highest cap hit for five more years after this one. The plan was that Allen wouldn’t just upgrade the backup slot, but that he’d give Price enough nights off that the starter would get back to the elite level of play that the league still insists he’s capable of, even if the last few years of numbers disagree. It hasn’t worked. Price is muddling through yet another shaky season.

Does Ducharme sit his star and go with the guy who’s playing better? That sounds like the obvious answer, and maybe it is, but where does that leave you next year and beyond? And does that even matter, when you’ve got one year to work with in a very winnable Canadian division before you presumably go back to sharing the Atlantic with the Bruins and Lightning? If this keeps going off the rails and the Habs miss the playoffs, it’s possible that neither Ducharme nor Bergevin are around to worry about the fallout. (And yes, the rest of us have our popcorn ready in case Patrick Roy’s music hits.)

Or maybe Price heats up, the special teams get a few bounces, the team plays like it did on Saturday but without the other team’s goalie stealing it, Montreal makes the playoffs and beats the Maple Leafs and everyone is happy. The turnaround would need to start soon, but they’ve got a winnable slate of games coming up, with the Senators tomorrow, two more against the Jets and then, like a shimmering oasis on the horizon, two more against the Washington Generals Canucks.

Can the season be saved? Yes, of course it can. Will it? We’ll find out, and maybe soon. And it’s Montreal, so whether you want to or not, you’ll hear all about it.

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