Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Intrigue, hopelessness, and dress codes

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- Running through some of the league's most intriguing names heading into the new season
- Finding hope for the league's most hopeless teams
- The Coyotes push back on the league's official dress code
- How you can compete against Ian and I in a new hockey pool
- Listener mail about renaming trophies and a 2006 what-if
- Remembering the ridiculous 1991 outdoor game in Las Vegas 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)

Finding hope for the NHL’s ten most hopeless teams

Dom Luszczyszyn’s season previews have been rolling out since last week, as he counts down from the league’s worst projected teams to the best. He’s still got a ways to go before he gets to the top contenders, but we now know his model’s bottom ten. And that means it’s time for our annual attempt to argue that he’s wrong, and these teams could actually be good. And not just “fringe playoff good”, but actually against-all-odds really good.

There’s always some mixed feelings around this one. On the one hand, this is a post that’s all positivity. I don’t do a lot of that, and it’s a nice change. We’ll have most of the season to complain about this or criticize that, but not today. Today, we’re being as kind as possible.

On the other hand… well, let’s just say this is tougher for some teams than others. It’s one thing to be flattering, it’s another thing to cross over into condescension and delusion. For a few of these teams, we’ll be tip-toeing right up to that line, and maybe barrelling over it. It’s worth pointing out that last year’s list ended up having only one playoff team, and that was the tenth-place Wild, so that was a whole lot of wasted optimism. But we’ve seen teams come out of nowhere before, like the expansion Golden Knights or the 2018-19 Islanders, and that’s what we’re looking for here.

We’ll start with Dom’s tenth worst team based on points projection and work our way down until we get to the very bottom of the barrel. At what point will we hit the tipping point between plausible and ridiculous? It’s possible we’re already there, but it’s never stopped us before. Let’s put on our rose-colored glasses and do this.

10. Vancouver Canucks

The projections say: About 87 points, which would leave them fifth in the Pacific. The model gives them just under a one-in-three chance at making the playoffs.

Why they’re probably right: The Canucks were very bad last year, maybe even the league’s most disappointing team if we’re weighing expectations. They had a busy offseason, and did fill a few holes, but haven’t done enough to move out of the murky playoff bubble.

But hear me out … : First of all, the murky playoff bubble isn’t a bad place to be compared to some of the other teams we’re going to get to. The path to the postseason is wide open in the Pacific, which will be a theme of this post, and it’s possible that Canucks could get in even without significantly overshooting their 87-point projection. And as we learned last year, once you’re in the playoffs, even a mediocre team can get hot and do some damage.

Let’s assume that Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are signed and in the lineup for opening night. That leaves the top end of the lineup looking a lot like the one from 2019-20, when the Canucks made the playoffs and then knocked off the defending champs. Sure, it’s also a lot like last year’s disaster, but sometimes everything just goes wrong for a year. The Canucks can bounce back, especially now that they’ve added a young difference-maker up front in Conor Garland. Oliver Ekman-Larsson may be overpaid and even overrated, but that doesn’t mean he can’t improve the blueline. Add in another year of experience for emerging star Thatcher Demko, and it’s not hard at all to picture the Canucks getting back to the level we thought they were at last year. If Hughes and/or Pettersson make the leap into the true Hart-Norris-level elite, maybe this team can go even further.

(Fair warning: If that paragraph felt overly optimistic to you, you might want to bail out on the rest of this list now.)

9. Nashville Predators

The projections say: About 87 points, good for seventh in the Central, and a one-in-four chance of making the playoffs.

Why they’re probably right: The Predators aren’t quite rebuilding, but they did move Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson, so it’s hard to see how they’ll be much better than last year, when they snuck into the playoffs but didn’t last long.

But hear me out … : The Predators’ strength last year was goaltending, especially the strong play of Juuse Saros. With Pekka Rinne gone, Saros is now the unquestioned starter and could see significantly more action that last year’s 60/40 split. When your best player plays more, that’s good, right?

Well, maybe. As Dom points out, goaltending is notoriously volatile, and it’s hard to bank on it being consistent year-to-year. But Sarros is only 26 and was good enough last year to show up on a few Hart ballots, so it’s not wild to suggest he could match his play or even improve. And if he does, the Predators will be in good shape for a playoff spot, and a dangerous opponent once the postseason arrived. Mix in a bounceback from Filip Forsberg and maybe even high-priced expansion bait Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen, and maybe another Norris season from Roman Josi, and the Predators are right in the mix.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free trial.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

22 of my most intriguing NHL names to watch this season

Training camp is here, everyone is in the best shape of their lives, reporters are tweeting practice lines and you’re already sick of exhibition games. Real NHL hockey is almost back. Let’s build out our annual all-intrigue team.

We tried this last year, back when we were headed into a season unlike any other. This year should be closer to normal, with a full 82 games, the usual divisions, and mostly full buildings. In theory, that return to normalcy means we can shift the focus back onto the ice, and draw our intrigue from the league’s players and personalities rather than the circumstances they’re performing under.

We’ll see if it works out that way. But for today, I’m going to lay out my roster of the most intriguing names I’m looking forward to watching as the season unfolds. There’s no firm criteria beyond that, and this isn’t meant to be a list of the biggest stars or the best players. It’s just 22 guys plus some honorable mentions, with a limit of one name per team, that I’m especially interested to keep an eye on this year, for various reasons.

Some of these picks will be obvious, while others might be surprises. As always, we’ll build from the net out. Goalies are easy to predict, right?


Carter Hart, Flyers

Now what?

That’s the question with Hart, who went into last season looking like a guy who’d rack up an armful of Vezinas before he was done, and now isn’t a sure thing to even be an above-average starter. That’s what one bad year can do when you’re still only 23, an age where most goalies haven’t even established themselves as NHLers yet. The Flyers are still banking on Hart, and that’s surely the right call. But while one bad year can be a fluke, two can be a pattern, and everyone will be watching to see if the kid can get back to looking like the real deal for a team that expects to make the playoffs. (And with Martin Jones as the backup, there isn’t really a Plan B.)

Robin Lehner, Golden Knights

It’s hard not to like Lehner, if only because he’s one of the few NHL stars who’ll say what’s on his mind. He’s wanted to be an undisputed starter for years, and now he is. His track record says he’ll be more than good enough for the Knights to contend. But if he struggles, after the way the front office stuck a sword in Marc-Andre Fleury’s back, it’s going to raise all kinds of questions.

Honorable mentions: There’s a lot of optimism for the future in Ottawa, but for this year the difference between staying in the playoff race and flirting with dead last might come down to whether Matt Murray is really as bad as he looked for most of the last two years (and what that would mean for a franchise that doesn’t like to carry bad contracts). Meanwhile, Murray’s former team in Pittsburgh needs Tristan Jarry to bounce back after betting one of the few remaining seasons of the Crosby/Malkin era on standing pat in goal.


Seth Jones, Blackhawks

Here’s the thing about the massive extension Jones signed in the summer: It hasn’t even kicked in yet. That won’t happen until next season, which means two things. First, Jones is still carrying a reasonably cap-friendly $5.4 million hit this year. And second, if he struggles in Chicago like he did last year in Columbus, Hawks fans will be fully justified in freaking out over that looming contract. That scenario feels possible. So does a return to Norris form. The Hawks have a huge chunk of their future hopes riding on the answer.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free trial.)

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Eichel loses his C

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- Reactions to breaking news about Jack Eichel
- Running through the league's most bizarre offseasons
- Jim Hughson retires, and we debate his status among hockey's all-time announcers
- Jesse Granger joins us to talk about some award longshots who may be worth a bet
- A listener wants us to talk about the Ducks
- Remembering a 1991 Habs/Devils blockbuster that worked for both teams
- 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)

The Bizarro-meter’s Eastern Conference offseason rankings

We’ve fired up the bizarro-meter for our annual attempt to figure out which NHL teams had the strangest offseason. Not the best or the worst or the busiest, mind you, but just the strangest.

Yesterday, we looked at the Western Conference, with top scores going to Golden Knights and Blackhawks, and the buyout-happy Minnesota Wild leading the way with a score of 8.6. Can anyone from the East compete with that score? [Remembers what the East teams were up to this year.] Yeah, I feel like a few of them can, but let’s see where this goes…

Atlantic Division

Tampa Bay Lightning

The offseason so far: We knew that cap Armageddon was coming, and it wasn’t pretty. The Lightning lost an entire line in Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, plus David Savard and Tyler Johnson. They offset those losses with a few cheap veteran signings, highlighted by Corey Perry, but overall it was a whole lot of talent hitting the road.

But their strangest story was: Losing all those good players and still looking like every bit like an elite Cup-worthy roster. These guys are annoying.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 2.5/10. Newsworthy, sure, but not especially bizarre. Maybe the only weird part for Julien BriseBoise is that he didn’t have to do this last year.

Detroit Red Wings

The offseason so far: It was basically the Alex Nedeljkovic trade and then a handful of depth moves.

But their strangest story was: If Nedeljkovic turns out to be the answer in goal, Steve Yzerman will have added a key piece at a low price.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.4/10. Yzerman continues his slow-but-steady rebuild. Every year, we say that he’ll eventually have to get more aggressive, but apparently that point hasn’t arrived yet. The Wings are on track, but it’s hard to see how they’ll be all that much better this year unless Nedeljkovic goes full superstar.

Florida Panthers

The offseason so far: The big news was landing Sam Reinhart from the Sabres at a reasonable price. They lost Chris Driedger and Alex Wennberg to Seattle, the former through the expansion draft and the latter as a UFA, and also said goodbye to veteran defensemen Keith Yandle and Anton Stralman.

But their strangest story was: The Panthers once again losing two good players to an expansion team was pretty funny after the whole Vegas disaster, even though they pretty much played this one fine.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.1/10. It feels like this could be nearing make-or-break time in Florida, with Aleksander Barkov in the last year of his deal and Jonathan Huberdeau a year behind him, so maybe there’s an argument that the Panthers should have been more aggressive. But they landed a big player and didn’t lose anyone crucial, so they should be better.

Boston Bruins

The offseason so far: The Bruins didn’t pull off any blockbuster moves, but they certainly churned through a big chunk of the roster, with lots of names moving in and out. The biggest change is in goal, where Linus Ullmark takes over from Tuukka Rask, at least until we know if and when Rask is coming back. They signed Nick Foligno but lost David Krejci, who was more important than most of us gave him credit for. And they re-signed deadline acquisition Taylor Hall to a fairly reasonable deal.

But their strangest story was: Probably the whole Rask/Ullmark thing, since it feels like we could be headed for anything from Rask being done in the NHL to him returning midway through the season to reclaim his starter’s job (at which point Ullmark’s contract feels onerous).

Bizarro-meter ranking: 5.2/10. The Bruins were busy, and it’s rare to see a contender have his much uncertainty about their goaltending heading into a season, but nothing they did seemed especially surprising under the circumstances.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free trial.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Bizarro-meter’s Western Conference offseason rankings

With camps opening around the league this week, we can officially declare the offseason over. And long-time readers know what that means: It’s time to fire up the trusty Bizarro-meter, and go through all 32 teams to see who had the strangest summer.

To be clear, we’re looking at which NHL teams’ offseason were the weirdest. That doesn’t necessarily mean the busiest, and it certainly doesn’t mean the best or worst. We want the team that made us go “Wait, what?”, preferably more than once. That could mean a trade, a signing, a coaching or front office change, or even doing nothing at all when everyone assumed that they would.

We start the clock on the offseason as soon as a team is eliminated from the playoffs, so some teams have more runway to work with than others. We’ll go division-by-division, working our way up from the teams that basically followed the consensus expectations to the ones that went way off the board.

Today, we start with the Western Conference, with the East on deck for tomorrow. Let’s get weird.

Pacific Division

Los Angeles Kings

The offseason so far: They landed Philip Danault as a UFA, traded for Viktor Arvidsson and signed Alex Edler. And they did it without really losing anyone.

But their strangest story was: Not trading for Jack Eichel, or any other elite difference-makers. Stupid patient rebuilds, we want fireworks now.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.4/10. The Kings are making slow and steady progress, which might even be enough in the Pacific.

Anaheim Ducks

The offseason so far: Yeah, about that. Put it this way, Dom’s review of their offseason work was 25 words long, and five of those words were “Not much to see here”.

But their strangest story was: It felt like Dallas Eakins and Bob Murray were on the hot seat all year, but then the offseason arrived and the status quo remained in place.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.8/10. The team did make changes with Eakins’ assistants, which is often the sign of a head coach on his very last chance, but for the most part the theme of the offseason was staying the course. Maybe it’s the right call, although the fans sure don’t seem to think so.

Arizona Coyotes

The offseason so far: If there was any doubt before, the offseason signalled that the full-scale rebuild has arrived in Arizona. In addition to hiring a rookie coach in Andre Tourigny (not to mention John Ferguson Jr. as assistant GM), a team that already didn’t have enough talent to push for a playoff spot unloaded Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, Christian Dvorak and both goaltenders, among other departures. They added some valuable draft capital and cleared cap space, and they’ve rolled the dice on a reclamation project in Shayne Gostisbehere that could pay off, so it all added up to some reasonably tidy work by Bill Armstrong. But man, they look like they’re going to be bad this year.

But their strangest story was: Despite years of rumors, it was weird to see the Coyotes finally pull the trigger on an Ekman-Larsson trade. They didn’t get as much for him as they would have a season or two ago, but given how his value has dropped they did pretty well.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 5.1/10. I’m subtracting a point because the Coyotes are having arena problems, which at this point is just about the least bizarre thing they could possibly do.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free trial.)

Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: In Rod we trust

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- A Penguins surprise as Sidney Crosby will miss the start of the season
- Is the Pens' playoff spot in danger?
- The most intriguing players for this coming season
- With an Olympics return on the horizon, should we keep the World Cup?
- Pierre Dorion gets an extension and declares the Senators' rebuid over
- Jesse Granger on which teams have seen their Cup odds change the most since July
- A look back on one of the weirdest and most underrated blockusters in NHL history, the Rod Langway trade
- Plus listener mail and more...

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Celebrating five of the NHL’s most breakable records (while we still can)

The NHL’s record book is pretty thick, as you might expect from a league with over 100 years of history. Get your hands on a copy, and you can spend hours learning about the players who set all-time marks in scoring, goaltending, and just about anything else you can imagine.

But as most fans know, a lot of those records are unbreakable. Some of them literally so – nobody will ever top Ken Dorarty’s record of three overtime goals in a single game (from back when the extra periods weren’t sudden death). Others are unbreakable from a practical perspective due to changes in how the game is played, like Glenn Hall’s 502 consecutive starts for a goaltender from the bygone era where backups were rarely used. And others, like Wayne Gretzky’s 2,857 career points or Bobby Orr’s +124 or even Dave Schultz’s 472 PIM in a season are all-but unbreakable unless the game reverts to the way it was played in previous eras.

Those unbreakable records are fun. But there’s another category that I like to kick around every now and then: the breakable record. As in, the marks that just don’t seem that impressive, and feel like they should be broken any day now.

Today, let’s celebrate those records while we still can, with five of my favorite breakable NHL records.

Now we could get cute here with overly obscure marks – hey, this guy holds the all-time record for most shot attempts by a left-handed Scorpio on February 29, that sort of thing. We’ll try not to do that here, although we’ll obviously have to dig a little bit beyond that standard records we all know. Let’s see if we can find five reasonably straightforward records that feel like they should be easy enough for somebody to break – then see if anyone in this coming season can prove us right.

Most assists in a season by a left winger

The single-season record for assists by any player is, not surprisingly, held by Wayne Gretzky. He had an unfathomable 163 in 1985-86, plus 10 other years with over 100. Next up for the centers is Mario Lemieux with 114 in 1988-89, and seven other centers have had at least 90 in a season (with Joe Thornton being the most recent). Among defenseman, the assists record is held by Bobby Orr, with 102. For the right-wingers, it’s a tie between Jaromir Jagr and Nikita Kucherov, who both had seasons of 87.

And then, there are the left wingers.

If you’ve followed my various roster-building quests over the years, you know that left wing has historically been the NHL’s weakest position. But it’s not like there haven’t been some legitimate legends who’ve played the position. Bobby Hull was a left winger. So were Frank Mahovlich, Ted Lindsay and Johnny Bucyk. So were members of the 600-goal club like Luc Robitaille, Brendan Shanahan and of course Alexander Ovechkin. And today’s left-wingers include perennial Hart candidates like Artemi Panarin and Bran Marchand.

So it may surprise you to learn that the record for assists in a season by a left-winger isn’t held by any of those guys. The record-holder isn’t a Hall-of-Famer, or even much of a star.

According to most sources, including the NHL itself, the record is held by Joe Juneau, who had 70 assists as a rookie in 1992-93. That was the year he played on a line with Adam Oates and (when healthy) Cam Neely. It was also his only full season in Boston; he’d be traded to the Capitals at the 1994 trade deadline. To give you an idea of how impressed the hockey world was by his record-breaking feat as a rookie, he didn’t receive a single first-place Calder vote that year, and was left off of 11 of the 50 ballots entirely.

You could also make an argument for Bob MacMillan of the Atlanta Flames in 1978-79, as he’s the guy who heads up the hockey-reference list. MacMillan was mostly a right winger in his career, but apparently played the left side for much of that season. He had 71 assists, so whether you give the nod to him or Juneau, the point remains: Left wingers just don’t get many helpers. Despite leading the position, neither Juneau or MacMillan ranks in the overall top-100 for assists in a single season. Connor McDavid had more assists last year, and the season was only 56 games long.

Will the record be broken soon? It’s starting to feel likely. Several active players have come close, including Marchand (64 in 2018-19), Claude Giroux (68 in 2017-18), and a pair of 60+ seasons from Johnny Gaudreau. But the biggest near-miss was Artemi Panarin, who was well on the way to breaking the record in 2019-20 when the season was cut short by the pandemic. He was on pace for 74 assists that year, and last year he was racking up helpers at a record-shattering pace of almost one-per-game. There’s a decent chance he breaks the record this year if he plays close to 82 games.

If so, it would be the first major position-based season scoring record to be broken in decades. But for now, the record remains with a guy you may not even have heard of.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free trial.)

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Oh sheet

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- Thoughts on the Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet, and where it goes from here
- Still no Jack Eichel trade, and is there any good way out for the Sabres?
- Lots of listener feedback on our August debate episodes
- Is Patrik Elias a Hall-of-Famer?
- The 30-year anniversary of the Scott Stevens/Brendan Shanahan ruling
- Plus Lundqvist's popularity, McSorley's high-stick, the 1972 Summit Series opener 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)