Monday, May 31, 2021

It’s a Game 7 nobody predicted and everyone expected from the NHL’s most exhausting team

Here we go again. Of course.

Who could have ever seen this coming? Well, everyone, but that’s the grind of being a Leafs fan. We all know the collapse is coming, but when it does we all have to pretend like it’s unexpected, because the story doesn’t work as well if we don’t. I laid out exactly how Games 5 and 6 would go on two different podcasts last week, and people still want to know if I’m surprised. Dude, this isn’t my first day here. A good rule of thumb is that anyone who tells you a joke about Leafs fans saying “plan the parade” has never met an actual Leafs fan. We all expected this, on some level.

The Toronto Maple Leafs experience is a world of contrasts, and you just kind of have to go with it even when it doesn’t make sense. The team sucks, except when they’re about to lose an upset, in which case they’re amazing and should be unbeatable, but also suck. The fans don’t demand a winner like they do in other cities, but they also drive players out of town with their unreasonable expectations. They’re too soft, but also dirty, and the refs are out to get them, but the league wants them to win.

Pick and choose whatever works for the narrative you want to push at any given moment. Nothing has to be consistent. Except one thing: This team is exhausting.

Always. When they’re winning or when they’re losing. When they matter and when they don’t. On opening night and in the playoffs and at the deadline and in August when nobody else is even paying attention. If you’re a Leafs fan, you get all the highs and lows that any other fan base gets, although it’s more of the latter. But the one thing you never get is a day off. This team can never just do what they’re supposed to do. There’s never a straight line between point A and point B, because that would be too easy, and this team never does easy.

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Friday, May 28, 2021

Mailbag: Is the refereeing getting worse? Plus fixing the Oilers, undoing the cap era’s greatest mistakes and more

Oiler fans are sad, everyone’s mad at the referees, Nazem Kadri is suspended and we’re all pretending we don’t understand goaltender interference. It must be the first round of the playoffs. Let’s head to the mailbag.

The inconsistency of the calls in the playoffs so far has been infuriating at times. Do you think that the root of this problem is simply the concept of “game management?” – Kevin J.

Hoo boy. Playoff refereeing, am I right?

It’s an annual tradition at this point, but the NHL is hearing it from fans and media about how the games are officiated. If you haven’t yet, be sure to read Dom’s epic rip job. For the record, I agree with most of it.

That said, I believe four things are true about NHL officiating, none of which are in conflict.

1. All the standard complaints are generally accurate. They let too much stuff go, it’s too inconsistent, there’s too big a change between what’s a penalty in the first and what’s called in the third. (Forget about overtime.) Stars take way too much abuse. Putting the whistle away because you don’t want to decide a game will often decide the game. All true.

2. I don’t think any of these problems actually get significantly worse during the playoffs. Rather, we pay way more attention during the playoffs, so all the stuff we can generally shrug off in January because who even cares now seem like huge issues. The games do get more physical, and the stars do get targeted more, but in general this is the same officiating we get during the season. (Penalty calls even tend to go up a bit during the playoffs.) The difference is that you’re watching every second of it, and one iffy call can change a season.

3. If they actually did what some of you seem to want and called the rulebook exactly as written, including late in close games, you would hate it. Too much game management is bad, I agree. But a little bit? Yes, I would like the referee to be a human being out there.

4. Most importantly: I don’t blame the referees for any of this, because they’re just calling the games the way the league wants.

We keep framing this as an officiating problem. It’s not. It’s a league problem. It’s a leadership problem. It’s a vision problem. We make it sound like the league wrote a rulebook that it wants followed, and the dumb/incompetent/evil referees refuse to call it. That’s not what’s happening. They’re doing exactly the job the league and its teams want them to do. To the extent that all of this is a problem, it’s a much bigger one that any of us want to admit.

Can we fix any of it? Yes, although not now. But we’ve seen this league try to course-correct on officiating in the past, with big changes (the 2005 shift on obstruction) and small (the more recent slashing crackdown). Those work. At first there’s too many powerplays and we all complain, but eventually the players adjust. Take a look at any NHL action from about 1996 through 2004. The hooking and holding makes it almost unrecognizable compared to today. The league made that happen. They can do it again, if they want to. Which means they probably won’t.

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Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Penguins out, a Game 7 in Vegas, and has Leafs/Habs been a bust?

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- Ian thinks Leafs/Habs has been boring, is he right?
- A short rant about goaltending interference reviews
- The Penguins are out, now what?
- The Knights and Wild head to Game 7
- What should the Panthers do with their goaltending?
- Playoff trends, Mark Messier's guarantee, coach vs. GMs and more...

Plus a special bonus segment: Ian hits me with one of his patented trivia questions

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, May 26, 2021

Puck Soup: It's not over

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg got bodychecked by Tom Wilson and died so Sean Gentille fills in
- Wayne Gretzky heads to TNT while Stephen A. Smith weighs in on the playoffs
- The Oilers get swept; what's next for Edmonton?
- The Blues and Caps are out too
- We run through the series that are still going on
- My thoughts on Leafs/Habs, which I want to make very clear is not over
- It's the playoffs so everyone's mad about the officiating
- Those weird MLB hats, OUFL Summer Olympic events 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.

Who wins, an all-time roster of stars who became coaches or stars who became GMs?

NHL teams sure do love to hire former players for important jobs. These days, if your favorite player retires, it’s probably not goodbye. Just give it a few years, and he’ll be back as coach or GM or to be determined.

Sometimes it works. Joe Sakic could win GM of the Year honors for his work in Colorado, while Rod Brind’Amour is the favorite for this year’s Jack Adams. Sometimes it doesn’t, like Wayne Gretzky’s coaching career or Mike Milbury as GM. Jim Benning and Travis Green, two former players, didn’t have a great year in Vancouver, but Bill Guerin and Dean Evason did pretty well in Minnesota. Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz never played a shift in the NHL, and neither did Julien BriseBoise or Jon Cooper, while Bob Murray and Dallas Eakins played plenty. It’s kind of all over the map.

Today, let’s come at the question from a different angle. Who’d win a head-to-head matchup, a team made up entirely of NHL stars who went on to become coaches, or those who went on to become GMs?

You’re already starting to come up with names for both teams, and that’s half the fun. But first, a few ground rules:

– We’ll build two full rosters of 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies, without worrying too much about position beyond that. We’ll go back over all of NHL history, but we’ll give priority to guys from the modern era, because I’m tod it’s more fun if reader know who I’m talking about.

– To be clear, we’re looking to build our two teams based on how good the player was, not necessarily what they did as coach or GM. You shouldn’t hire Wayne Gretzky to coach your favorite team, but you do want him on your Team Coach roster here.

– In the case of guys who spent time as both coach and GM, we’ll assign them to a team based on which job they held the longest. We’re looking for NHL jobs only, not WHA or other leagues. And assistants aren’t in play – you need to have held the real job.

– Finally, we’re going to limit this to guys who held the job for more than one full season. It turns out a lot of guys got hired for very short stints, especially on the coaching side, and we don’t want to fill our roster up with ringers.

Take a moment to see if you can figure out which side is going to win, and how many names your favorite team will supply. OK, let’s see how this plays out…

First lines

So yeah, let’s start with the obvious pick for Team Coach: the greatest player in NHL history, Wayne Gretzky. He never got the Coyotes into the playoffs in four years behind their bench, apparently because yelling “Just do what I used to do” isn’t really a strategy. That doesn’t matter here, as he gives Team Coach a huge head start.

For his wingers, we’ll reach back into history for Alex Delvecchio, who coached the Wings for parts of four seasons (and was their GM for three). On the other wing, let’s slot in Denis Savard, who’s top claim to fame behind the Blackhawks bench was being fired and replaced by Joel Quenneville. Gretzky, Savard and Delvecchio give us about 5,500 points worth of production, over half of which comes from Gretzky. Pretty good!

Team GM doesn’t have any Gretzky-level stars available, but they come pretty close. Let’s start them with Phil Esposito, who held the job with both the Rangers and Lightning and was a complete and certifiable madman the whole time. (Seriously, look at his trading record in just three years in New York.) We’ll give him Terrible Ted Lindsay on one wing, thanks to three seasons running the Red Wings in the late 70s.

The other pick for a spot on Team GM’s top line came with some controversy. I originally assumed that Brett Hull would be an easy pick, based on his two seasons in Dallas. But Hull shared the job with Les Jackson, with both listed as co-GMs. Should that count? The pair held the job for less that two seasons, meaning if we give Hull 50% credit he’ll fall just short of our one-year cut off. But I’m not an NHL replay official and I’m not here to pull goals off the board on a technicality, so Brett Hull is on the team.

The edge probably has to go to Team Coach here just based on having Gretzky, but it ends up being closer than you might expect – and maybe even tilts to Team GM if Lindsay catches anyone with their head down. Which he will.

Second lines

We’ll start Team Coach’s second line with another Hall-of-Fame center in Adam Oates. His brief stint as Devils co-coach with Scott Stevens was even weirder than the Brett Hull thing, but luckily he had a few years in Washington to make sure he qualifies. We’ll reach back into history to give him a pair of Hart Trophy winners as his linemates, in Milt Schmidt and Toe Blake. Schmidt had some strong seasons behind the bench in Boston and two more he’d rather forget in Washington, while Blake may be the only Hall-of-Fame player who actually went on to even more success as coach.

Team GM will stay in the modern era with a trio current GMs you were probably waiting to see. We’ll start with Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. Granted, it will feel a little bit weird to see them on the same line given that the Red Wings and Avalanche had a bit of a rivalry back in the day, but we’re figuring they can get along well enough to rack up some offense. We’ll round out the line with Ron Francis, giving us the fifth, seventh and ninth highest scoring players of all-time on one line. Yeah, that’s probably manageable.

It’s always tough to compare across eras, and Blake and Schmidt were legitimate stars in their day, but I think Team GM takes this one and it isn’t especially close.

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Monday, May 24, 2021

The 2021 OGWAC rankings

The playoffs are here, and longtime readers know what that means: It’s OGWAC ranking time.

The OGWAC is the Old Guy Without a Cup, and he’s one of the postseason’s greatest traditions. Almost every champion will have at least one OGWAC who’s been toiling away in the league forever without ever getting to lift the Cup. Sometimes he’s a grizzled depth guy, sometimes he’s a superstar and often he’s somewhere in between, and all those scenarios can work. Be warned: When an especially great OGWAC story plays out, you will cry a little.

The greatest OGWAC of all time was Ray Bourque in 2001, taking the crown away from Lanny McDonald in 1989. Teemu Selanne in 2007 was a great one, as was Kimmo Timonen in 2015, and more recently we had Jay Bouwmeester in 2019.

I love a good OGWAC, which is why I’ve been coming up with an annual ranking since the Grantland days. Needless to say, we have to do it again this year. We’ll use the same criteria as last season – to qualify for OGWAC status, a player needs to be at least 33 when the Cup is handed out, have at least ten seasons in the NHL, and be playing a regular role for his team (or in the case of injured players, expected to return during the playoffs). Anyone who meets those standards qualifies for consideration, but the higher spots on the lists will go to players who’ve waited the longest and/or been the biggest stars. Bonus points if a player has had to overcome significant adversity, or has come agonizingly close to winning in the past before missing out.

Can anyone give Bourque a run for his money? One guy might be able to, but we’ll get to that. Let’s set the cut-off at 20, which still rules out some solid honorable mentions like Cal Clutterbuck and Nick Holden. Keep getting older and not winning guys, and maybe you’ll crack the list next year.

20. Nate Thompson, Jets
A classic hard-nosed veteran, Thompson is 36 and has bounced around the league, playing for nine teams in his 14-season career. He’s a not a star, or even all that close, but but that’s fine and sometimes can even be part of the appeal. The question is how much love he can get on a Jets roster that’s crowded with OGWACs.

19. Jeff Petry, Canadiens
Petry barely clears the age bar, having turned 33 in December and played 11 seasons, but some of those were in Edmonton so they count double. He’s a decent candidate, but not the best OGWAC defenseman on his own team. Yes, I am going to be using some of these early entries to set up future ones, thanks for noticing.

18. Kris Russell, Oilers
I think we’ve safely reached the point where you can mention Russell’s name without immediately starting an analytics vs. old school bar brawl, so let’s all agree that he’s spent 14 seasons doing a lot thankless work for five different teams, and doesn’t have much playoff success to show for it. We’ll need him to get healthy in time for any kind of Oilers run before he can move up the list, and the way the Jets are playing that isn’t looking likely, so for now we’ll slot him in here.

17. Nick Foligno, Maple Leafs
There’s this narrative that the Leafs are swimming with OGWACs, which isn’t quite true – Wayne Simmonds is the fourth-oldest player on the team but he’s only 32. There are two other names we’ll get to a little further down, but for now let’s focus on Foligno, a 33-year-old who’s already 14 seasons into his career. He’s never had a near-miss, debuting in Ottawa the year after their run to the final, and has never played more than 10 playoff games in a postseason. Still, he’s an easy guy to root for, especially in Columbus, and the fact that his dad had a long career without a Cup adds some drama. The Maple Leafs’ OGWAC energy is focused elsewhere, though.

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Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Leafs/Habs preview, Kadri back in trouble, Ovechkin lashes out

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- Ian and I look ahead of Leafs/Habs
- Reacting to the playoffs so far
- Nazem Kadri is facing another suspension
- Alexander Ovechkin blows up at his teammates
- Jesse Granger on playoff betting trends
- Wait why there are commercial breaks in overtime now?
- What was the most important NHL goal ever scored outside the Cup final?
- 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)

Every team wants to win. Some teams have to win. It’s the playoff pressure rankings

Playoff pressure comes in different levels. Every game is crucial, and every team wants to win. But what if you don’t? After all, 15 teams are eliminated in every postseason, but the reactions can be very different. Some teams, if they’re being honest, might just be happy to be there, and consider any kind of postseason success as a bonus. Other teams absolutely need to go on a deep run or even win it all, or else the world will end and everyone will be fired, traded or jettisoned into the center of the sun.

So today, let’s go through the 16 teams that are still alive and rank them based on how much pressure they’re under to have a successful postseason. We’ll do this scientifically, assigning scores to some key categories.

Expectations factor: How far does everyone expect you to go? Everyone wants to be the favorite, but that brings extra attention and more pressure, while being an underdog takes some of the heat off.

Drought factor: How long has it been since a team has had postseason success? If your fan base is still working off the hangover from the last Cup celebration, you can’t be under that much pressure. But if its been a rough last few years (or decades), the temperature gets turned up.

Ticking clock factor: Some teams are built to last, while others are running out of chances. Is there reason to think that this might be a last chance for this team to contend, due to age, salary cap, pending departures or other factors? A closing window ratchets up the pressure significantly.

Special circumstances: A chance for me to cheat weight any additional factors that don’t fit into the previous three categories.

We’ll start from the bottom, which is to say the team facing the least pressure, and work our way up to a top spot selection that I’m sure will come as a jaw-dropping surprise to all of you. Let’s do this…

16. Nashville Predators

Expectations factor: 0/10. They weren’t even supposed to make the playoffs until they got hot in the second half. Now they’re facing a Presidents’ Trophy near-miss that may not even be the best team in the division.

Drought factor: 5/10. The Predators have never won a Cup. Neither has David Poile.

Ticking clock factor: 6/10. The core is getting up there, Filip Forsberg is one more year away from UFA status, and this is almost certainly the last chance to get a Cup for Pekka Rinne in Nashville.

Special circumstances: +1. Their late run meant they passed on a chance to be the deadline’s biggest sellers. It was the right call, but will feel like a missed opportunity if they just go out in four.

Pressure score: 12/30. They’re under the least pressure of any playoff team. Which is to say, still a ton of pressure.

15. St. Louis Blues

Expectations factor: 3/10. Expectations were reasonably high heading into the season. Now? Not so much, as the Blues will have to go through two of the best teams in the league just to get out of the division and look like enormous underdogs. Mix in an ongoing COVID situation, and the deck is stacked against them.

Drought factor: 1/10. Blues fans who waited five decades for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup shouldn’t even be paying attention to this season, because they’re still celebrating from two years ago.

Ticking clock factor: 7/10. There’s no imminent exodus coming, but the core of this team is almost entirely made up of guys in their late 20s and early 30s, and they look like they’ll lose a few key players to free agency.

Special circumstances: +2. Maybe this is just me, but it sure feels like there’s more pressure on the Blues than there should be, right? By all rights, they should still be paying with house money after 2019. But Doug Armstrong and Craig Berube aren’t exactly giving off the vibe.

Pressure score: 13/30. When your team finally wins a Cup after a long drought, does that lower the pressure in future years? No really, I’m asking, I have no way of knowing.

14. Minnesota Wild

Expectations factor: 1/10. Oh didn’t you hear, the Avalanche and Golden Knights are already scheduled to play for the Stanley Cup in round two.

Drought factor: 9/10. The Wild haven’t won a Cup in franchise history, and have only been out of the second round once, 18 years ago. And before that, the North Stars didn’t win in 26 seasons, including two trips to the final where they got to run into dynasties.

Ticking clock factor: 5/10. It’s Kirill Kaprizov’s team now, but guys like Ryan Suter and Zach Parise are winding down.

Special circumstances: -1. The Wild exceeded expectations and delivered arguably the most entertaining regular season in franchise history, so we’re kind of already into icing-on-the-cake territory here.

Pressure score: 14/30. But seriously, screw all those people raving about Knights/Avs, am I right?

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Puck Soup: Canada joins the party

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We preview the two North Division series
- Where the other six series are at
- The Canucks get set to make changes, maybe
- Jeff Blashill keeps his job, and what that means for the Wings
- Rick Tocchet and Gerard Gallant interviewing for vacancies
- Filling out Greg's awards ballot
- A new quiz 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.

Quiz: How well do you know the history of the Maple Leafs-Canadiens rivalry?

The Maple Leafs and Canadiens will finally meet in a playoff series for the first time in over four decades, renewing one of the NHL’s great rivalries. This will be the 14th playoff meeting between the two teams since Toronto’s team became the Maple Leafs in 1927.

The history between the two teams is one filled with epic feats, legendary players and enduring championships. It’s also had its fair share of bad trades, regrettable quotes and weird moments. Today, let’s celebrate all of that with a 20-question quiz that will test your knowledge of the rivalry.

Take the quiz below, and then scroll down to check your results and let us know how you did in the comments.

0 – 4 right: Harold Ballard thinks you may need to up your commitment to success.

5 – 8 right: Much like NHL teams, you think these questions would have been easier when there were only six.

9 – 12 right: You were mediocre, but don’t worry, you can still be on Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday.

13 – 16 right: Congratulations, you get a half-hour pregame ceremony before the next game.

17 – 20 right: You’re old.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Monday, May 17, 2021

Weekend rankings: Closing out another season of power rankings with a top 16 for the Stanley Cup

It was exactly 16 weeks ago today that the 2021 edition of this column launched, back when the season was a few games old and we were pretty sure it was way too early. Was it? Put it this way: The Flyers were in the top five that week. Yeah, it might have been a little early.

It’s not early anymore, as the regular season is over, except where it isn’t. With apologies to the Flames and Canucks, whose remaining two games are super important and will certainly not be completely ignored by everyone outside their immediate families, we can put a bow on the regular season right now, with one last set of rankings.

The weekend certainly gave us plenty to chew on, with four games, three overtimes, at least a few upsets depending on who you picked, and no early evidence that anyone is unbeatable. Should we be shifting teams around the rankings based on one game? Well, yeah — one loss in the playoffs puts you a quarter of the way to elimination. But every Stanley Cup champion loses a few along the way, and you always have to strike a balance without overreacting to the first games of Round 1.

So where did those first few games leave us? We’ll get there in a minute. But first, let’s wrap up with some regular season record-keeping. The season saw a total of 12 teams appear in the top five, with 11 more in the bottom five. For the first time in a few years, nobody crossed over to appear on both lists (although the Flyers certainly made a case). I’m going to attribute that to me getting better at this, and not to a shorter season giving me about 10 fewer columns to mess up with.

The Lightning and Golden Knights both appeared in the top five in all 17 weeks, and the Avalanche almost did, dropping out briefly in early March. Those were also the only three teams to appear in the No. 1 slot. Carolina didn’t crack the top five for a month, but then ended the season on a 13-week appearance streak. Other multiple appearances included the Bruins (eight times), Capitals (five), Leafs (five, all of which were followed by a losing streak) and Islanders (twice). Aside from that first-week Flyers pick, every team that made the top five went on to secure a playoff spot.

In the bottom five, Ottawa’s late-season hot streak and final weekend escape means that not a single team appeared on every list, which I think is a first. The Senators showed up 16 times while the Red Wings and Ducks both had 15, the Sabres ran the table over the final 12 and the Devils had eight. Only Detroit, Ottawa and Buffalo held down the top spot, and a single appearance by the Predators was the only one to feature an eventual playoff team. (Fun fact: That Nashville debut came in the same week that the Sabres first showed up for the first time, proving that not all bottom five appearances are created equal.)

As for that mushy middle, eight teams didn’t make either list all season long. That includes four that missed the playoffs (the Flames, Coyotes, Stars and Rangers) and four more that are still playing (Blues, Wild, Jets and Oilers). We declared the Coyotes the league’s most mediocre team a few weeks ago, and that probably holds up, although the Blues finishing with 27 wins and 29 losses and a dead-even goals differential makes a strong case.

Let’s get on to the rankings. There’s only one set this week, since at this point you can just look at the standings if you want to know which teams ended up at the bottom of the league. But rather than give you a half-column, let’s go out with a bang by going long on the Cup list. That’s right, it’s a season-ending top 16 ranking of the most likely Cup winners, featuring every playoff team …

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Friday, May 14, 2021

The Team Chaos fan’s guide to the 2021 playoffs

On Tuesday, I came up with a ranking of all 16 playoff teams based on how much fun they’d be as a bandwagon pick. After all, half of the league’s fan bases don’t have a team in this year’s playoffs, meaning we have a lot of fans with nothing to root for right now. If that’s you, I figured I could help by offering up a ranking of all the teams you have to choose from.

Except, I left one team off the list. And it was my favorite team. It’s probably yours too. We need to talk about Team Chaos.

Rooting for Team Chaos is way more fun than just cheering on one particular team, especially in the modern era of parity. Team Chaos never takes a night off. Team Chaos never gets sent home early. Team Chaos is always in it for the long haul, from the opening faceoff of game one until the final buzzer of the Cup final, and sometimes beyond. The best part of rooting for Team Chaos is that you never know when you’ll be surprised and delighted by some random bounce or bad break or missed call that turns the entire postseason into flaming Elmo dot jpg.

That doesn’t mean that a Team Chaos fan should just sit back and passively wait for the madness. No, we should focus our energy in certain directions, because some matchups create more potential for chaos than others.

What does that ideal scenario look like? That’s where I come in. I’ve run through all the possibilities, and come up with one vision of what could be the most chaotic possible path through the upcoming playoffs. This isn’t the only option – the beauty of Team Chaos is that they can beat you in so many ways – and if you have your own, feel free to dip into the comments and share it. But here’s how I could see it playing out…

First Round

Let’s start with what’s probably the most fertile ground for Team Chaos to do some work: the North Division. As you may have noticed, Canadians can be a little bit touchy when it comes to hockey, so everything that happens up here is magnified, amplified and nitpicked to death. It’s pretty great.

And this year, we’re finally going to get to see a Team Chaos dream matchup we haven’t seen since the 1970s. It’s Leafs vs. Habs, and you know something crazy is going to happen. I’m almost hesitant to ask the hockey gods for anything especially chaotic here, because they’ve no doubt already got something in store for us that’s far worse than anything we could imagine. If a Toronto/Montreal series goes seven, it will separate the country. No, I mean literally – Canadians will raid their toolsheds, saw a line along the Ontario/Quebec border, and then push.

But what result seems like it would be the most chaotic? As a reminder, we’re talking about a heavily favored Toronto team that features the best roster in modern Leafs history and, and that just traded every draft pick they have for deadline reinforcements. The Leafs could not be more all-in, and are under enormous pressure to at least win a round or two. By contrast, the Canadiens stumbled their way to being the last team to clinch a playoff spot, and they’ve looked awful for a month. On paper, this might be the most lopsided series there is.

So what do Team Chaos fans want to see? Come on.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Playoff preview, Jack Eichel trade talk and hockey's greatest photos

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- Craig Custance joins us to look ahead to the playoffs
- Jack Eichel trade talk
- More changes for the Rangers
- Jess Granger explains why the Knights had to play with 15 skaters
- Some playoff pool sleepers
- Faceoff rules, iconic hockey photos 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, May 12, 2021

Puck Soup: Eichel fallout + playoff preview

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to Jack Eichel wanting out
- Where will he land, and why it's the Rangers
- We each have a few darkhorse teams
- A one-week-late reaction to James Dolan firing everyone
- A partial playoff preview
- John Tortorella and Rick Tocchet are out, and news of David Quinn joining them breaks as we're recording
- Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame, summer blockbuster OUFL, and more...

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The bandwagon-hopper’s guide to the 2021 playoffs

It’s always a weird time to be an NHL fan when your team misses the postseason, he said, speaking from decades of personal experience. The playoffs are when the most exciting hockey of the year is played, when every moment is high-stakes and every game matters more than any that came before it. If your team is still alive, it’s all-consuming. But if they don’t make it… now what?

You really have two options. The first is to just stay neutral, maybe hope for the worst for a few hated rivals, and otherwise just root for lots of overtime and a few seventh games. But for some, there’s another possibility: a short-term fling with another team, one you’ll temporarily adopt for as long as their run lasts. They won’t really be your team, but if all goes well, they’ll be close enough to get you through the next two months.

Yes, we’re talking about the dreaded bandwagon hop. For some fans, it’s unacceptable, and if that’s you then you can tag out now and check back with my next column later this week, which will have something more your speed.

But if you’re willing to consider finding a bandwagon team for this year’s playoffs, you’ll at least want to make sure you choose wisely. An ideal bandwagon team will be good, because you want them to win it all. But they won’t be too good, because that would make you a shameless front-runner and they’re the worst. In a perfect world, they’ll play an exciting style, preferably with some elite stars, and an intriguing sub-plot or two. Ideally, they’ll have an existing fan base that’s paid their dues and that you’d want to see good things for, or at least one you don’t already hate. And it helps if they’re not going to get swept in round one.

So which of this year’s 16 candidates offers the best bandwagon experience? Let’s figure it out, with my annual attempt to rank the bandwagon potential of each of this year’s playoff teams from worst to best.

16. Tampa Bay Lightning

Why you should get on board: They’re really good, but over the last month of the season, they went from consensus Cup favorites to something a little less, so you wouldn’t just be picking the best possible team. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos should be returning from injury, and a good comeback story is always nice. And while the NHL’s marketing department loves parity more than you’ve every loved anything in your life, there’s something to be said for a mini-dynasty.

Why you shouldn’t: They won the Cup last year, and we almost always rank the reigning champ at 16, because there’s nothing worse than showing up to a party one year after all the cool kids did.

Bottom line: The Lightning are all sorts of fun to watch and to root for. Here’s hoping you did that last year, because this year it’s too late.

15. Washington Capitals

Why you should get on board: When they won in 2018, they had just about the best summer of Cup celebrations we’ve ever seen. If the sequel is even half as good as the original, that’s worth rooting for. Plus you’d get to cheer for Alexander Ovechkin, which is always fun, and for T.J. Oshie, who might be one of the best stories out there these days.

Also, they have Zdeno Chara, meaning if they win the Stanley Cup there’s a good chance we’ll get to hear him go “YAAAY” again.

Why you shouldn’t: Oh, you like the Capitals? Cool, you’re a Tom Wilson fan now. Enjoy spending the next few weeks using low-quality screen caps to yell at random strangers on twitter.

Bottom line: There’s definitely something to work with here, but Wilson combined with a recent Cup, some injuries and a difficult path out of the division make this one a tough sell. And that’s before we mention that a Caps win would be kind of weird for Henrik Lundqvist’s OGWAC status. Pass.

14. Montreal Canadiens

Why you should get on board: They’ll be underdogs, but the North isn’t exactly a murderer’s row, so they’ll have a shot. And the roster is a nice mix of veterans you’ve heard of and kids you’d fall in love with. Honestly, it’s worth considering for the Cole Caufield factor alone.

Also, you’ll probably get to root against the Leafs in the first round, which tends to work out well.

Why you shouldn’t: I mention this every year, but Montreal might be the least bandwagon-friendly market in the league. They’ve got such a large fan base and so much history that there isn’t a ton of room for newcomers, and you’re not going to be able to convincingly fake it. Some years, it’s worth the effort to fit in. Is a year where you’re probably going to go from facing Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl really the year to try? Maybe, especially if you’ve got a bit of a contrarian streak, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

Bottom line: Hey at least they finished strong, right? (Checks notes.) Yeah, you have better options.

13. St. Louis Blues

Why you should get on board: Their 2019 journey from dead last to the franchise’s first Cup was one of the all-time great bandwagon runs, one that we told you to get on board for. If you did, maybe you’ve got some loyalty here. If you didn’t, maybe this is your chance to make up for your mistake.

Why you shouldn’t: There may not be a team with a tougher path out of their division than the Blues, who’ll have to go through the heavily favored Golden Knights and then face whoever wins the Avalanche/Wild series. For a team that wasn’t all that good for long stretches this year, it feels like you’re just signing yourself up for disappointment.

Bottom line: They’re big underdogs this year but won a Cup recently enough that they can’t really claim any scrappy underdog street cred. For a bandwagon-hopper, it’s the worst of both worlds.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins

Why you should get on board: They have Sidney Crosby, and you’re running out of chances to cheer for the biggest star of his generation. They also have Brian Burke, and if you’ve never had the experience of following a team that he’s prominently involved with, you need to treat yourself. And of course, they’re a very good team that’s been hot down the stretch, so there’s a solid chance you’ll be able to root for a Cup winner.

Why you shouldn’t: Oh good, another Cup run for the Penguins, so nice to see this franchise finally get a break. Maybe long-suffering Pens fans can enjoy another championship or two before the hockey gods gift them with yet another generational franchise player in a few years.

Bottom line: You’ll get hammered by other fans for making this pick, but if you can handle that, you’ll at least enjoy the run. Unless they run into a hot goalie.

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Monday, May 10, 2021

Weekend rankings: Predators clinch, McDavid shines, Tortorella exits and Dolan Dolans

We’re 20 weekends into the season, and here’s where we’re at. The regular season is over for several teams, with the Penguins, Rangers, Sabres, Coyotes, Wings, Ducks and Blue Jackets all crossing the finish line of Saturday. The Stars, Hawks, Devils, Flyers, Hurricanes, Predators, Islanders, Lightning and Panthers will all join them tonight. We’re a couple of days away from the vast majority of the league being done. But the season still has well over a week to go, because the Canucks’ schedule drags until next Wednesday. But the playoffs will start before that, except in the North Division, we think, but maybe not, and the league hasn’t actually told us when the postseason will start yet, although their TV partner maybe did.

Makes sense? Sure it does.

Look, it’s been a weird season and we all knew what we were signing up for. Let’s focus on the positive, as the playoff picture comes into focus. The big news is that the last Central spot is settled, with Nashville taking care of business over the weekend to lock down a berth that seemed unlikely even a few weeks ago. They’ll face the Hurricanes in round one.

We know that we’re getting that Battle of Florida matchup that we were all hoping for, and the two teams served up a preview on Saturday that has some genuine nastiness on the way to a 5-1 Panthers win. They’ll meet again tonight in both teams’ season finales, meaning we could get nine straight Panther/Lightning games by the time this is done.

In the East, we know it’s Penguins first and Capitals second, meaning we’ll have to wait for round two to get the next chapter of Crosby vs. Ovechkin. We’re not sure who’ll play who yet, as the Bruins and Islanders have to sort out who’ll finish third. The West still has the top three seeds up for grabs, and will be the last division to finish its schedule.

In the North, the Leafs are locked in at number one but we don’t know for sure that they’ll get the dream matchup with the Habs, although it’s looking a little more likely thanks to Montreal dropping three straight in regulation to close the week. Update with whether Calgary stayed alive.

And finally, about the dramatic Connor McDavid chase for 100 points… yeah, never mind. He’s apparently not big into suspense, hitting the mark on Saturday with several games to spare.

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Good luck to whichever contenders have to try to stop that guy in the playoffs. Oh hey, speaking of which…

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Friday, May 7, 2021

Grab Bag: The 12 fans you have to meet in every suspension debate

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The 12 fans you meet in every suspension debate
- Something weird the NHL has started doing with its stats
- An obscure player who shares a major record with Wayne Gretzky
- Three comedy stars
- And remembering the Hampton Roads Rhinos, the most unlikely expansion team ever

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Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Fight night at MSG

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- Ian and I react to a gong show at the Garden
- James Dolan shocks the hockey world, twice
- Do we buy that that statement and those firings were unrelated
- How we would fix the Department of Player Safety
- Jesse joins us to talk Stanley Cup value bets
- This week in history, listener mail 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, May 5, 2021

Puck Soup: Tom Wilson starts another fight

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We have to talk about Tom Wilson, and it goes about exactly the way you'd expect it to
- A discussion about Greg's "triggered" tweet
- What each of us would have done if we were the DoPS
- What might happen in tonight's rematch
- The Sabres gives us a feel-good story
- Award favorites, McDavid's chase, the top 100 sitcoms and a Star Wars-themed OUFL
- Also, no Gorton/Davidson talk because that broke after we recorded, sorry...

>> Stream it now:

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

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Finding positive thoughts for the 15 non-playoff teams

We’re almost done with the regular season, and the playoff race was a bit of a bust. That means that there are a lot of teams that already know they’re not going to the playoffs, and most of them can’t even say they came close. And that means a whole lot of fan bases that aren’t happy right now.

But it shouldn’t be that way, because optimism is always a better outlook than pessimism. (Note to long-time readers: Please ignore everything I’ve ever said or written about this league and just go with me on this.) A positive outlook is the way to go, both in hockey and in life.

So today, we’re going to break out a gimmick I’ve tried a few times in the past, and see if we can come up with three positive thoughts for each of the 15 teams that will miss the playoffs. That’s it – no nitpicking, no complaining, just three nice things to say about each team.

Of course, some teams will be more of a challenge than others, and we may have to stretch a bit on a few of these. Then somebody will complain, and then somebody else will complain about the complaint, and the comments section will be a disaster, and this is a bad idea and I’m going to hate myself for it and…

No. Stay positive. We can do this. Let’s look on the bright side. It’s rainbows and puppies only from here on out, whether you damn well like it or not.

Chicago Blackhawks

The negative: After briefly seeming like they could pull off a surprise playoff push, the Blackhawks quickly fell out of the race down the stretch.

Positive thought #1: All in all, that season went way better than most of us expected. The Hawks were a trendy pick to be in the running for dead last, and instead they made it interesting. Overachieving is always a good thing, and that’s especially true in a draft class year where bottoming out for a high pick won’t matter as much as it normally would.

Positive thought #2: Hey, remember that thing about the team not having any NHL-caliber goalies? Kevin Lankinen proved them wrong. We think. We don’t really know, because it’s goaltending, and we never know anything. But even after a rough April, his season still went a lot better than anyone expected.

Positive thought #3: While we still don’t know the details around Jonathan Toews missing the season, some recent reports have sounded optimistic about a potential return next year. Even at 33, he brings a ton to the table and the team clearly missed him this year.

Get the idea? The Hawks are one of the easier teams to try this with, but it’s important to warm up a bit before you get serious.

Detroit Red Wings

The negative: They’re going to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year, and while their record will be better than it was during last year’s disaster, it’s on pace to be worse than in any of the first three years of the rebuild.

Positive thought #1: They finally escaped the bottom five! That was good, right? (Please don’t read this week’s rankings, where they might be right back in.)

Positive thought #2: The whole Yzerplan thing is going slowly, sure, but progress is being made. They’ve got some prospect help on the way, a ton of picks this year, lots of cap room to work with, and (maybe) a new set of eyes behind the bench to help it all along. The pain isn’t over yet, but you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and Red Wings fans seem like they’re willing to be patient.

Positive thought #3: The new draft lottery system means they’ll only drop two spots this year instead of the customary three.

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Monday, May 3, 2021

Weekend rankings: Predators up, Jets down, and getting excited about potential matchups

So about those furious playoff races down the stretch. Uh, never mind.

As far back as the final rankings of March, we worried about whether most of the races would be already decided by now. And sure enough, that’s pretty much what’s happened. Ten teams have mathematically clinched, and a few more are solidly in “unless there’s a miracle” territory. The East is done, with four teams locked in and only seeding to play for. The Blues’ surge combined with a Coyotes cold streak has all but ended the West race. In the North, the Habs’ late-season wobble opened the door, but the Flames and Canucks said “No thanks, we’re fine”, meaning we’re pretty much set there too.

If you enjoy a good late-season bubble watch, you’re down to the Stars and Predators in the Central. That’s pretty much it. And even that race could be done within days.

Ah well. This is hockey, and all we can do is adjust on the fly. So let’s do that, by turning our attention to the matchups we might get in round one. There’s some good news there, because man, the first round might be amazing.

Emphasis on “might”, because if you’ve been a fan long enough you know how this goes. A matchup looks like a sure thing, you let yourself get hyped for it, and then something weird happens on the season’s final week that blows it. We’ve all been there. I’ve sure been there. And I am ready to get hurt again, so let’s do this.

We covered a few of the matchups we should be rooting for last week, including the potential for the first-ever Battle of Florida. That one’s looking more likely, as the Hurricanes are in good shape to run out the clock on the division title. That would give us a Florida/Tampa matchup that would be all sorts of fun, not to mention pairing Carolina with either Dallas or Nashville, both of which would be sneaky cool matchups of non-traditional markets that we normally couldn’t get in a conference-based format. The Central looks good.

The West seeding might come down to the wire, and there’s a temptation to view their first round as the undercard to an inevitable Knights/Avs showdown in round two. Maybe it works out that way, but we know enough not to get ahead of ourselves, so let’s focus on the appetizer of one of those powerhouses facing a very good Wild team while the other tries to figure out a Blues team that looked awful for most of the season but has recently flipped the switch. By the way, the Blues have never played the Knights in the playoffs and somehow haven’t faced the Avalanche in 20 years, so if you’re a “fresh matchup” sort of fan, you’ll get your wish.

The East matchups remain up in the air, but there really aren’t any bad ones in play. We’re rooting for that Pens/Caps matchup, although that’s looking a little less likely now than it did a few days ago. No worries, though, because even if it doesn’t happen, we’ll get something cool. Caps/Bruins? It’s the Zdeno Chara revenge series. Penguins/Islanders? All sorts of Patrick Division baggage, plus some cap era bad blood. Penguins/Bruins? One of the most underrated rivalries in modern history. You can do this for just about any series that’s in play. OK, maybe Bruins/Islanders doesn’t have a ton of history, but we could at least make fun of Mike Milbury. The East should be great.

And then we get to the North, and the big one: the first Leafs/Canadiens matchup in over 40 years. We’re not locked in yet, because the Jets have decided to put third place back in play (and honestly, having the one team nobody in Canada hates be the one to blow a Toronto/Montreal series would be a great heel turn). But at this point, it’s at least likely that we’ll finally get the first Leafs/Habs series in a generation, which will splinter families and end friendships, the way all great hockey rivalries should. Mix in an Oilers/Jets reunion three decades after their one-sided Smythe rivalry, as we get to see if Connor McDavid can break the postseason scoring record in one series, and the North will be must-see TV unless they figure out a way to blow this.

I mean, just about all of that sounds pretty great. And sure, some of it might fall through, or end up being pushed back to the second round. Like we said, don’t get too invested. But it’s OK to start looking forward a little, if only because outside of Dallas and Nashville, we don’t have much to get excited about over the final two weeks.

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