Monday, October 25, 2021

Weekend rankings: Panthers keep rolling, Hawks keep losing, and the Maple Leafs get embarrassed

It’s week two, it’s still too early, and some of the power rankings out there are already losing their minds.

OK, Sean and Dom didn’t quite phrase it that way. They went with “embracing the chaos”. But the Sabres as the league’s second-best team? The Sharks in the top five? The Red Wings ahead of the Lightning? The Senators and Blue Jackets ahead of the Avalanche and Islanders? Vegas at 25? The Habs in dead last?

Well, yeah, maybe that last one works. But the rest of it is madness. It’s been two weeks! You can’t overreact to two weeks.

Except… what do you do, then?

It’s one thing to hand-wave away the occasional weird early-season results. But two weeks into this year, it feels like nothing makes sense. Hardly anyone is playing the way we expected, and the standings look like somebody took a snow globe full of little hockey logos and gave it a good shake. Not all of it will matter. Most of it won’t. But some of this has to mean something, right?

I’m not sure. And that’s a problem, since I’m the guy who does the “let’s think long-term” rankings, meaning I’m in way more danger of embarrassing myself than Sean and Dom are. If the Sabres don’t win another game the rest of the year, well, they were still 3-0-0, so maybe they deserved that ranking, if only briefly. I’m trying to predict the future here, so if I jump on a bandwagon too quickly then I have to wear it all year long.

It’s very possible that we’ll look back on a snapshot of the week two standings in a few months and laugh at how none of it held up. Welcome to the parity era, where anyone can beat anyone and it takes months to get any idea of what’s really happening, am I right? But maybe we look back and see that some of it was real, and some of those surprise teams on either side of the ledger were trying to tell us something.

Fair warning: For this week’s rankings, I’m still going to mostly stay conservative, and continue to lean more on preseason expectations than what’s happened on the ice so far. If that’s going to bother you, then hit up the Friday rankings and embrace that chaos. For now, I’m going to (mostly) step carefully for one more week. But after that, it will be time to start considering some bigger moves for the team’s that are surprising us, and things might get weird

Road to the Cup

The five teams with the best chances of becoming the first franchise in three years to win a Stanley Cup that we have to admit probably counts

We got an early-season Avs/Lightning matchup on Saturday, and in true pro wrestling style they left us wanting more by delivering a non-finish. Well, we call them shootouts in the hockey world, but it’s the same thing. Colorado took the extra point in the coin flip contest, and we’ll have to wait for December for the rematch – and then maybe June for the big showdown.

OK, seriously, final warning, a couple of the teams in this week’s top five have bad records – if you can’t get your head around the whole “long term” concept, this is your last chance to bail out while you can.

5. Edmonton Oilers (5-0-0, +10 true goals differential*) – Two reasons. First, and most obviously, they’re 5-0-0, and even with a weakish schedule that’s impressive. But they also get a boost because Vegas is struggling. We all kind of penciled the Knights in as the Pacific winner before they even dropped the puck, but the Oilers have already yanked that status away from them. It’s Edmonton, so of course we’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop, but maybe this is the year that it doesn’t. Just a team with two superstars, enough supporting talent, adequate goaltending, and a path to winning a weak division. Add it all up, and start looking way too far ahead, and it could at least get them to home ice in the second round.

4. Carolina Hurricanes (4-0-0, +11) – I’ve only got one spot for the Metro this week, and I’m giving it to the undefeated Hurricanes, who’ve won four straight plus tonight’s guaranteed Freddie Andersen shutout against the Leafs. But with the Penguins, Rangers, and Caps all looking strong, it won’t take much of a wobble to put this spot up for grabs.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning (2-2-1, -4) – In hindsight, the early schedule was tough, but this week brings the Sabres and Coyotes so we should see the Lightning remind us of what they can do. Still, the long-term loss of Nikita Kucherov means we have to bump them down at least one slot.

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Friday, October 22, 2021

Grab Bag: Yes we know it’s too early, Gritty meets a puppy, Gretzky and Messier get weird and more

Welcome back to the Grab Bag, a feature that runs weekly monthly whenever I get around to it during the season. If you’ve been around over the years, you know the drill. If you’re new, you can expect NHL personalities trying to be funny, obscure players, weird rants, unworkable ideas, and breakdowns of old YouTube clips that go into way too much detail. Will you learn anything important? You will not. Look, it’s Friday and we all deserve some occasional empty calories. Let’s get to it.

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Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Those unbeatable Sabres

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- The Sabres start off hot, and you're a bad person if you're not rooting for them
- How worried should fans in Chicago and Montreal be?
- Teeing up Jesperi Kotkaniemi's return to Montreal
- A caller has an interesting point about some history that will be made next week
- A listener applies for the intern job
- This week in hockey history 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, October 20, 2021

Puck Soup: Early season panic

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Wait, is Buffalo good now?
- We debate just how worried Montreal and Chicago fans should be
- The Evander Kane mess
- More Jack Eichel trade talk
- Does the Leafs backup goalie prove the salary cap is broken?
- NHL dress codes, wrestling finishers during hockey fights, OUFL Halloween costumes 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.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Weekend rankings: It’s way too early but we still have a top five, a bottom five, and your second-favorite team

We’re back. And as per tradition, we’re back way too early.

The season isn’t even a week old. That’s too soon to know anything about anyone, which means it’s too soon to do power rankings. I mean, sure, we’re not doing them after three days like some people we could mention, but this is still pretty silly.

So why bother? Two reasons. First, it’s fun. You can read my rankings now and think that I’m wrong, then wait six months until you find out that I was really super-wrong. Then you can laugh at me. I’m told people enjoy that.

But maybe more importantly, every once in a great while we really do learn something from the first few days of the season. Sometimes there is a very faint signal hidden in all of the noise; the challenge is to find it. That’s the tricky part, and most of us aren’t very good at it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth at least trying.

These rankings have been running for close to a decade now, and some of you know the drill. If you’re new or could use a refresher, here’s the key thing you need to know: These rankings are trying to predict the future, which is a very different goal than looking for a snapshot of the present. We want to answer two questions here every week. We want to know which teams are most likely to win the Stanley Cup, and which ones are the most likely to finish dead last. We do that by considering what’s happened in the last week, but we try not to overreact to it. If the Sabres beat the Lightning on some random Friday night, cool, that’s hockey. It doesn’t necessarily mean the Sabres shoot up the rankings.

It’s a bit different than most of the many rankings out there, which tend to be more focused on immediate events. That’s a perfectly valid way to do it, of course, but it’s not what we’re going for here. If seeing a ranking where a team is ahead of an opponent who just beat them is going to bother you, this might not be your thing, because we try very hard not to overreact to single games or small sample sizes. Remember: Big picture.

Makes sense? Cool, let’s get to some way-too-early rankings that are going to end up being very wrong.

Road to the Cup

The five teams with the best chances of becoming the first franchise in three years to win a Stanley Cup that we have to admit probably counts.

The story of University of Toronto goalie Alex Bishop was pretty cool. He didn’t get into the game, which was good news for the Leafs and maybe also for any Senator fans wondering if two years’ worth of David Ayres jokes were going to come back to haunt them. The Leafs only had to play a goalie short for one game before they could use an emergency callup on Michael Hutchinson, so Bishop’s brief NHL career appears over, at least until he inevitably ends up starting a Game 7 for some reason.

5. Carolina Hurricanes (2-0-0, +4 true goals differential*) – They took a lot of criticism for their weird offseason, and it wasn’t undeserved. But a big part of that was around goaltending, and a few more strong starts by Frederik Andersen will start to alleviate that. Getting a convincing win on opening night against their main competition for the top spot in the Metro also doesn’t hurt.

4. Florida Panthers (2-0-0, +5) – Tell me if I’m wrong here, but it feels like the Panthers are this year’s team that we’re all kind of rooting for, right?

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Friday, October 15, 2021

Mailbag: Matthews/Marner vs. McDavid, Team Canada vs. the World, and Messier vs. Canucks fans

The season is three days old, and if your team is currently outside of a playoff spot then their season is over. I know that sounds harsh. I realize some teams haven’t even played yet. But I don’t make the rules, and it’s better that you hear it from me now than have to sit through six months just to find out the hard way.

Let’s open up the mailbag and see what’s on your mind this month…

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

Hypothetical: As a Leafs fan, would you rather have won the McDavid lottery in 2015? You have to figure that we don’t finish 30th with Connor in lineup so we don’t get Matthews in 2016, or obviously Marner in 2015. Are the Leafs better with 16/34 or 97 and some other guy from ’16 draft? At this point in this hypothetical do we have more playoff success? – Adam T.

Do we have more playoff success than… none? Yeah, I like our odds.

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Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Opening Night(s)

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- The Kraken debut, but did they get screwed by a bad call?
- The Knights object to a goal celebration
- No fireworks in the much-hyped Caps/Rangers showdown
- Reviewing my oddly specific predictions
- Planting the seeds for the world's worst intern program
- Our surprise picks for the Stanley Cup final
- Opening the mailbag, this day in hockey 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)

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Oddly specific 2021-22 predictions for all 32 NHL teams

Are you all predictioned out yet?

By now you’ve read our staff picks. You’ve waded through Dom’s detailed projections. You’ve seen my attempt to figure out who’ll end up where. Hopefully you’ve even made your own picks in the annual contest. And by now, you may have hit your limit. Just drop the puck already.

If so, too bad, because there’s one last list of predictions to go, and long-time readers know what it is. Yes, it’s my annual attempt to nail a way-too-specific prediction for each team. This is the column where I don’t just tell you who’ll be good and bad, but exactly how it will happen. Like, in way too much detail, to the point where my odds of actually being right about anything are close to zero.

Why? Well, my predictions are always wrong anyway, so I might as well score some style points. It’s also fun when the occasional pick does come true, which has happened a few times over the years. And mostly, this is an excuse for me to dig up some weird stats on a few teams, troll a few others, and just have some fun with this whole prediction business.

Sound good? Let’s do this. We’ve got 32 teams, 32 predictions, and (maybe) even a correct call or two buried somewhere in here.

New York Rangers
We set it up a few weeks ago, so let’s make it official: This is the year that Artemi Panarin breaks my cherished record for most assists in a season by a left winger. And since that’s not oddly specific enough, let’s also give him a date to do it. How about April 23, when the Rangers visit record-holder Joey Juneau’s old team in Boston.

Washington Capitals
Speaking of New York, the Caps are featured in one of opening week’s most anticipated games as they face the Rangers tomorrow night in what many of us assume will be some sort of Tom Wilson Revenge Game. If the last few years have taught us anything it’s that the villains always win, so let’s go ahead and pencil Wilson in for his inevitable winning goal in that contest.

Anaheim Ducks
One of the most amazing stats of the 2020-21 season is that the Ducks only scored seven goals all season at 5-on-4. That seems like it should be impossible – it was less than half of the next worst team’s total – and it shows what you can do when you combine ranking 31st in powerplay efficiency and 30th in penalty minutes drawn. Will they be better this year? I think they pretty much have to be, so let’s predict that the manage to match those seven 5-on-4 goals by the time their season is one month old.

New York Islanders
The Islanders didn’t allow a single shorthanded goal against last year, the only team in the league that was true for. Meanwhile, the Red Wings were the only team in the league that never scored a shorthanded goal. They play each other three times this year, so of course Detroit will get a shorty in one of those games.

Buffalo Sabres
Remember when the Sabres and Coyotes were very bad back in 2014-15, and they met in Buffalo and Sabres fan cheered when the Coyotes won? That was fun. Both teams seem to be back to blatantly tanking aggressively rebuilding this year, and they face each other in Buffalo on Saturday. This time, the Sabres get some revenge by doing something they were the only team in the league to never do last year: Winning in overtime.

Ottawa Senators
The Senators first game against the Flames comes on November 14, and the winning goal will be scored by a Tkachuk brother. But which one? Well, the only one of them that’s playing in the game, obviously.

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Sunday, October 10, 2021

Predict the NHL season with the return of the contest that’s so easy it’s almost impossible

With opening night almost here, you’ve probably had your fill of predictions, projections and prognostication. After wading through all of the hockey world’s best efforts to figure out what’s going to happen, you know that some things are completely up in the air, while others are absolutely obvious.

OK, but how obvious?

That’s the point of this prediction contest, making its second appearance after last year’s unexpectedly popular debut. The idea is simple – I ask you some very easy questions, and you give me the very obvious answers. The more answers you give, the more points you’re playing for. Then we wait and see how it all plays out, and find out if any of those easy questions turned out not to have such obvious answers after all.

Last year, everyone was pretty good at picking which teams would and wouldn’t make the playoffs, as long as you weren’t all-in on the Flyers. But we weren’t very good at picking workhorse goalies or MVP candidates, and almost all of us knew that Alexis Lafreniere was an absolute slam dunk Calder favorite. Oops. Sometimes this stuff is harder than it looks. And of course, that’s the whole point.

If you played last year, you have a pretty good idea how this works (although a few things have been tweaked, including the date cutoffs for the coach and GM questions, and there’s a major new wrinkle, so read carefully). If you’re new, you may want to spend a few minutes checking the results of last year’s contest, which will give you an idea of how this works and what sort of strategies are in play.

The rules

  • This year features nine questions, plus one bonus which we’ll get to in a minute. For each of the nine regular questions, you can give a minimum of one answer and a maximum of five. That part’s up to you.
  • For each question, you get one point for your first right answer, two points for the second (for a total of three), and so on up to a maximum of fifteen points if you run the table with five correct answers. More right answers, more points.
  • But, and this is the key, even one wrong answer gives you a zero for the entire question. Going one-for-one for a single point is better than four-for-five and taking a zero, so just how confident do you want to be?
  • The deadline for entries is 7:30 PM ET on October 12. The winner gets signed copies of my book and (far more importantly) bragging rights for the year, and is the entry that racks up the most total points. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get points on every answer. Last year, there was just one perfect entry, and it didn’t end up winning because it played it a little too safe and didn’t bank enough points. There’s a balance here between aggression and safety, and it’s up to you to find it.
  • Finally, the new bonus question. This one is completely optional, and you’re free to leave it blank. If you choose to answer, you’ll give one and only one response, and earn 15 bonus points if you’re right. But if you’re wrong, you’ll receive a zero for your entire entry. Not just the question – your whole entry is wiped out.

Are you willing to risk it all on the bonus? Can you score enough points to win if you don’t? Will the bonus question even have a right answer? I’m not actually sure, which is what should make this interesting.

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Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: Sabres, Islanders, fantasy sleepers and more

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- We talk through my New Season's Resolutions post
- John Vogl has all the key updates on Jack Eichel and where the Sabres go from here
- What happens if Eichel just gets the surgery with the Sabres' permission?
- Arthur Staple on the Islanders
- What's the deal with Lou not telling us who he signed all summer?
- Jess Granger joins us to talk fantasy sleepers
- Checking in on how our OfficePools teams are shaping up
- We react to the Carey Price news breaking as we record
- Remembering the huge impact of the Mark Messier trade 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)

Streaks, spoilers, and other suggested New Season’s resolutions

With opening night of the 2021-22 now less than a week away, it’s time for one of my favorite annual traditions: the New Season’s Resolutions column, in which I offer up a few suggestions for how we could all be a little bit better at this hockey fan thing.

That’s all these are – just ideas, not commandments. As always, you’re welcome to try out all of them, or pick and choose one or two, or roll your eyes and tell me to get lost. But we all have room for improvement, and now’s as good a time as any to think about how we can make that happen.

We’ll start with what might be the most important resolution we can all make this year, because it touches on one of the worst parts of hockey fandom…

Let’s not gatekeep these new fans (especially in Seattle)

With a new expansion team in place, the NHL has a rare opportunity to do something it’s struggled with over the decades and add a significant number of new fans. That’s a good thing, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it by how the rest of us treat the newbies. It feels like so many of us want to descend on the rookies and test them, making sure that they’re worthy of joining our club. Some of us just seem to be waiting for them to make a mistake, so we can declare that they’re fakers and exile them from the kingdom of True Hockey Fans.

I’ll go ahead and give us the benefit of the doubt and say that this all comes from a good place. We love this sport, and we know that means we’re in the minority. We’ve all seen the cheap punch lines and lazy coverage, and we think hockey deserves better. There’s an old joke that hockey isn’t anyone’s second favorite sport, because you’re either obsessed or you don’t care, and whether that’s true or not we’ve kind of internalized the idea. If you’re not obsessed then you must not care, and if you don’t care you’re probably going to do more harm than good, so get lost and let the real fans enjoy what we enjoy.

OK, fine. But that can’t work when it comes to new fans, and new markets. There is a learning curve with this sport, and it’s a steeper one that we’d like to admit. And stereotypes aside, nobody actually goes from being a non-fan to an obsessive overnight. Maybe they get there eventually, but there’s going to be some time where they’re still figuring things out. And that means they might not understand a rule, or get a name wrong, or cheer at the wrong time, or tweet something dumb. If all of us in the old guard are racing to pile on every time that happens, we’re just driving potential fans away from a league that desperately needs them.

To be clear, that doesn’t make it our job to sell the league to a new audience. The NHL has its own PR department, and if you don’t work there then you don’t have to pretend that everything is wonderful all the time. But you also don’t have to actively drive potential fans away by sending them the message that they don’t belong, or that they aren’t welcome. Give them a chance to try the sport on for size. Some will like what they see and stick around, others won’t, and that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Maybe a few of those new fans will even become the next generation of embittered diehards, complaining about the refs and hating the loser point and booing Gary Bettman. If so, awesome. But until then, save the pop quizzes and eye rolls and give them a chance to get settled in.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Puck Soup: The season preview episode

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We go division-by-division and make some picks for this year
- Robin Lehner drops some bombs on NHL culture
- More Jack Eichel drama
- A new Evander Kane accusation
- GM's on the hot seat
- A round of "Who he play for?" 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.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

From the bottom-feeders to the true contenders, finding a spot for all 32 teams

The NHL is back to its old divisions this year, with the Coyotes shifting to the Central just to make sure we’re all confused. I don’t want to confuse anyone, so I’m going to stick with my traditional four groups for my annual attempt at figuring out who’ll end up where. That means we’ll have eight teams each representing the bottom-feeders, the middle-of-the-pack, the real contenders, and then a bonus division of teams I just can’t figure out.

If you’re looking for a detailed analytic model, you’re in the wrong spot. (Try here.) No, this is just me mixing the numbers with the recent history, adjusting based on offseason action, then adding a little bit of gut feeling and topping it all off with simmering grudges over your fan base being mean to me. Mostly that last one, if we’re being honest.

We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up, just so we don’t make Sabres fans wait around all day.

The Bottom-Feeder Division

My first thought when putting this list together is that it was easier than most years. I’m used to having to squeeze in three or four teams that I’m worried might be actually good, but this year I think almost all of these teams are reasonably easy calls. Does that guarantee that at least three of them will make the playoffs? It does actually, thanks for noticing.

Buffalo Sabres

Last season: 15-34-7, -62 true goals differential, finished dead last.

Their offseason in one sentence: They traded Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen for futures but did not trade Jack Eichel, who still hasn’t had surgery and may not be moved anytime soon.

Why they’re here: They’re the Sabres. Look, I did the whole attempted optimism bit with these guys last week, so my credibility is already shot. With Eichel in limbo, no goaltending and yet another rebuild under way, no reasonable person thinks they’re going to be even vaguely competitive this year.

Arizona Coyotes

Last season: 24-26-6, -24, missed playoffs.

Their offseason in one sentence: They shipped out all their goaltending, plus Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Connor Garland, and didn’t add anyone good other than maybe Shayne Gostisbehere.

Why they’re here: Because they sure seem to want to be. The Coyotes have launched a full-scale rebuild, one that’s apparently going to see them move anyone with a pulse for future assets while they coast towards the best possible lottery odds. Honestly, it’s not a bad plan, especially with this year’s move to the Central.

San Jose Sharks

Last season: 21-28-7, -50, missed playoffs.

Their offseason in one sentence: They upgraded the goaltending, albeit probably not by much, and eventually there were so many Evander Kane stories that they told him not to come to camp.

Why they’re here: Because I’m tired of being the guy who’s always talking himself into the Sharks. Sure, there’s still plenty of name-value talent, and you can imagine a scenario where all the veterans suddenly have one last gasp of success together. That just seems incredibly unlikely after two miserable seasons, especially if Kane isn’t part of the plan going forward and/or Tomas Hertl is traded. The Sharks are the first team we’ve hit where I wouldn’t be completely shocked if they stuck around the race, but I’m not getting suckered in again.

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