Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The return of Cap Court, with a twist: Which NHL stars have great contracts?

We’re into late July, and with apologies to Vladimir Tarasenko and Matt Dumba, the free agent frenzy is pretty much done. And this year, I think we can all agree that it was… fine? That’s about it, right? There weren’t many big names available, and the flat cap meant that there weren’t as many big deals flying around as we’re used to seeing.

That’s probably good news for the 32 teams, who tend to make the worst mistakes when the UFA market opens. Looking back at this year’s deals, there were certainly a few overpays, but nothing that seems outrageous. Maybe GMs are finally learning. Or maybe the flat cap meant they just didn’t have enough to spend, and will be right back to setting piles of money on fire next summer.

Either way, this sudden burst of thriftiness feels like something worth recognizing. So this week, I’m breaking out an old gimmick with the return of Cap Court. That’s the feature where we pick five contracts and put them on trial, judging the deals based only on the years that are left and the cap hit they carry. We’ve done five of these over the years, meaning 25 verdicts have been handed down, and it’s fair to say that every reader agreed with 100% of them.

But this time, there’s a twist: We’re not looking for bad contracts. This time, we’re looking for great ones.

As always, we’re viewing this from a team’s perspective, meaning we want to know which contracts are “great” the way Nathan MacKinnon’s was for the Avalanche for all those years. MacKinnon himself might disagree with the idea that that was an especially great contract, since it ultimately cost him tens of millions of dollars. Or maybe not, and he’d tell you that he was happy to leave some cap room for his team to build a winner around him. Players always say that when their contract is tossed into the “great” pile. Some of them might even mean it.

I’ve picked five contracts that I think you could argue are great ones from a team perspective, but could also fall into the range of merely good. That doesn’t mean that I think these are the only five deals on the league that could qualify, and in fact I’ve left some off the list that are pretty obviously huge bargains. Leon Draisaitl, Cale Makar, Brad Marchand and Jason Robertson are all underpaid, relative to what they bring to the table. So is Connor McDavid, even though he carries the second highest cap hit in the league. Jack Hughes might be one more big season away from becoming the new MacKinnon as far bargains go. I’m not sure anyone would argue any of those, which means we don’t need to waste time putting them on the docket.

The five names I’ve chosen should be at least a little tougher. So court is now in session: Are these good contracts, are do any of them rise to the level of being great ones?

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Wednesday, July 19, 2023

The story behind the best player to play exactly one game for your favorite team (Western edition)

This week’s dog days of summer project is to try to find the best player who played exactly one game for every NHL team. Yesterday we covered the Eastern Conference, coming up with a list that included a 300-game winner, a celebrity divorcee, a member of the legendary 1972 Team Canada squad, and a pro wrestling legend’s dad. It was an eclectic group, is what I’m saying, and today should be more of the same. Let’s head west and seek out the best one-and-done players in each team’s history.

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks have got some fun names on their list. Remember Trevor Gillies, the mustachioed Islanders enforcer who went wild against the Penguins in 2011? He played one game for the Ducks back in 2005, racking up 21 PIM in 2:40 of ice time. The Ducks’ one-game club can also claim recent Sabres’ signing Dustin Tokarski, as well as the record-holder for the longest Stanley Cup suspension in Aaron Rome.

We’ll give the nod to journeyman blueliner Ian Moran, who endured “Get a Brain” jokes long enough to have an 11-season career, almost all of it split between the Penguins and Bruins. (Fun fact: The Pens traded him to Boston for the draft pick that they turned into Paul Bissonnette.) He signed with the Ducks in 2006, dressed for one game, and spent the rest of the next two seasons in Europe and the AHL before retiring.

Arizona Coyotes

The Coyotes would absolutely dominate the "stars who were acquired but played zero games" list, but they don’t give us much to work with as far as one-gamers. That said, we can at least turn to a guy who was once traded one-for-one for an MVP. That would be David Aebischer, the Swiss goalie who won a Cup as a rookie with the 2001 Avalanche, played in two Olympics, and was traded to Montreal for Jose Theodore in 2006. He signed with the Coyotes the year after, and started their third game of the 2007-08 season. One loss to the Blue Jackets later, he was waived and demoted, and headed back to Europe.

Calgary Flames

First things first: Shoutout to Jarrod Skalde, who qualifies for this exercise for three different teams thanks to one-game stints with Calgary, Dallas and Philadelphia. We’ll be nice to Flames fans and not go with Morgan Klimchuk, the first-round pick from the Jarome Iginla deal that didn’t quite pay off. And while Gerry O'Flaherty was a solid 70s scorer, his one Flames game came for Atlanta, so we’ll look elsewhere.

That probably leaves us with Mark Lamb, Calgary’s fourth-round pick in 1982 who made his debut midway through the 1985-86 season before heading back down to the minors. The Flames would let him walk as a free agent that summer, and he’d go on to bounce around the league for another decade, most memorably in a five-year stint with the Oilers, where he’d win a Cup in 1990. Later, he’d get Selke votes while captaining the expansion Senators before ending his career with the Flyers and Habs.

Chicago Blackhawks

On the goalie side, the Hawks could give us the very start of Carter Hutton’s career and (presumably) the very end of Anton Khudobin’s. For skaters, we could use old-school veterans like Rick Lanz if we need a defenseman, or Jeff Jackson if we need a soundbite. But instead, I’m going to draw on the full power of an Original Six team to go way back to the earliest days of the NHL itself. Our Hawks picks is a Hall-of-Famer named Barney Stanley, who made his name in other pro leagues but got into a single NHL game with the Hawks.

Maybe my favorite part of the story is the identity of the coach who put him in the lineup: Barney Stanley, who apparently looked at this underperforming team and figured that if you needed something done right then you had to do it yourself.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2023

The story behind the best player to play exactly one game for your favorite team (Eastern edition)

Your favorite team has had some players who stuck around forever. They’re probably stars, but not necessarily. They’re just the guys who never left, or maybe did and kept coming back. You check the team record books for games played, and there they are, right near the top. And every single fan from that era has a memory of watching them do their thing.

And then, there are the guys at the other end of that games played list. The guys who played exactly one game for your team, and that’s it.

I’ve always been kind of fascinated by these guys. There are lots of players who only got into one NHL game, period – Sportsnet’s Ken Reid wrote a very fun book about them. But what about the guys who had longer NHL careers, enough to at least make a name for themselves, but still managed a one-game stop with a team along the way? When you think about, it’s not easy to do. And when it happens, there’s often a story behind it.

So this week, we’re going to look at all 32 NHL teams and ask a simple question: Who’s the best player to ever play one (and only one) game for them? We’re obviously getting a little bit subjective with “best” here – spoiler alert, there aren’t going to be a lot of Hall-of-Famers on the list – but we’ll try to at least find some names you know. I’m hoping you’ll learn a few things. And along the way, we’ll get to remember some guys, which is pretty much the best thing a hockey fan can do in mid-July.

We’ll start with the Eastern conference, before moving west tomorrow.

Boston Bruins

In theory, the Original Six teams should give us lots to work with. That doesn’t really turn out to be the case in Boston, although they do offer up a young Aaron Downey and the lost Pronovost brother. There’s not much question about who their most famous one-gamer would be, although that guy didn’t really make an NHL name for himself until he tried his hand at coaching and broadcasting.

So instead, let’s go with Ted Irvine, a winger who put together a long career in the 1960s and 70s. He was Bruins’ property in the Original Six days, but only cracked the lineup for a single game at the age of 19. (The fact that he went -2 in a game his team won 6-3 might give us a hint as to why it was his only game.) Like a lot of the era’s fringe players, he got his break when expansion arrived; he was claimed by the Kings, then had his best years as a Ranger before finishing off with the Blues. In all, he played over 700 games, scoring over 150 goals. And yes, despite all that, today he’s probably best known for his bratty kid.

Buffalo Sabres

This one’s a relatively easy call for now, although Joel Armia is making a run at the title. For now, he’ll have to take a back seat to one of the most prolific offensive defensemen of all-time, one who scored over 200 goals and nearly 700 points while earning all-star votes in eight straight seasons and topping the 20-goal mark six times. That would be Reed Larson, who’s scoring exploits have been somewhat forgotten in the decades since, but who was a steady scoring threat for the Red Wings from 1976 to 1986. He went on to play for the Bruins, Oilers, Islanders and North Stars before landing in Buffalo as a late-season UFA addition in 1990. He played one game for the Sabres, the last of his NHL, before retiring and being a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Very Good.

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Friday, July 14, 2023

Grab Bag: What the NHL GMs are up to, a possible celebrity sighting and more

In the Friday Grab Bag
- What various NHL GMs are up to these days
- We're using the word "clinch" wrong
- Comedy stars
- An obscure player who'll help you with Immaculate Gord
- And I'm pretty sure I found a three-year old future celebrity in a Macarena-themed HNIC intro

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Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Every GM class of the cap era, ranked from worst to best

It’s the middle of July, and we’re getting dangerously close to that time of year when the NHL essentially shuts down. Not officially, of course, but there’s about a six-week stretch where we don’t get much in the way of big signings or trades. It’s almost like the GMs all go on vacation.

Great, that makes this a perfect time to rank them.

Specifically, we’re going to rank each of the GM classes of the cap era. That means we’re going back to 2005 and judging each calendar year based on which full-time GMs were hired (with a glove tap to our friends at NHL Trade Tracker).

The ground rules are simple. We’re judging based only on what a GM did with that team, not anywhere else before or after. Interim GMs don’t count. And each hire in a given year gets equal weighting – if a year saw five guys hired and one of them was a modern-day Sam Pollock, that will boost the ranking but only to a point; the other guys matter just as much.

Each class gets ranked based on their impact, their success, and their entertainment value, based on a strict system of me pulling a number out of the air and running with it. Highest total wins.

We’ve got 19 years to work with, and we’re ranking all of them. Well, almost all of them, because…

Not ranked: Class of 2023

GMs: Barry Trotz (NSH), Kyle Dubas (PIT), Brad Treliving (TOR), Craig Conroy (CGY), Danny Briere (PHI)

Look, I think I've shown over the years that I’m willing to be entirely unreasonable when it comes to a ranking, but even I have my limits. These guys have been on the job for a few weeks, most of them have barely done anything newsworthy yet, and I'm not even sure Conroy knows that free agency has started. I can’t sit here and pretend that I can pass judgement on any of them yet. (But check back in August, when my 6,500-word Dubas vs. Treliving scorecard should be ready to go.)

#18. Class of 2017

GMs: Rob Blake (LAK), Jason Botterill (BUF), Dale Tallon (FLA)

I like the work Blake has done in L.A., even though he hasn’t won anything yet. The good news is that he’s easily the best GM of the class of 2017. The bad news is that it would be just about impossible not to be, since Botterill didn’t really work out in Buffalo and Tallon 2.0 in Florida was so busy vanquishing the Computer Boys that he ended up doing more for the Golden Knights than the Panthers.

Impact: 3/10

Success: 2/10

Entertainment: 2/10

Total: 7/30

#17. Class of 2022

GMs: Chris MacFarland (COL), Mike Grier (SJS), Pat Verbeek (ANA), Kent Hughes (MTL), Patrick Allvin (VAN)

It’s far too early to rank last year’s class with any degree of fairness, but life’s not fair so here we are. Only one year in, this group isn’t exactly crushing it; aside from MacFarlard, who took over a Cup champion, it’s been a whole lot of wheel-spinning for this group. Hughes at least gave us a great draft moment in Montreal, and Grier might be about to drop an Erik Karlsson blockbuster. But for now, it’s been a lot of talk and not much action – which is probably about right when three of the five teams are rebuilding, and one of them probably should be. Let's call this class a work in progress and slot them in here for now.

Impact: 2/10

Success: 2/10

Entertainment: 4/10

Total: 8/30

#16. Class of 2009

GMs: Stan Bowman (CHI), Greg Sherman (COL), Joe Nieuwendyk (DAL), Chuck Fletcher (MIN), Randy Sexton (FLA)

First things first: I cover the NHL for a living and I have zero recollection of Randy Sexton returning to the league to be the Panthers GM for less than a year. I do remember Nieuwendyk’s unsuccessful stint in Dallas, and poor Sherman being GM in title only while Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic did his job for him. Bowman won three Cups in Chicago with Dale Tallon’s roster, but ultimately left in disgrace. And that leaves us with Chuck Fletcher, who lasted almost a decade in Minnesota and was responsible for some of the most thrilling moments in franchise history like, uh…

Impact: 3/10

Success: 5/10, basically all from Bowman

Entertainment: 2/10

Total: 10/30

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Friday, July 7, 2023

Building the cap era’s All Buyout Team

It’s the summer, which means I start taking requests. That doesn’t always work out well for me, but you guys tend to have some good ideas. And over the last week, there’s one that keeps coming up: In the wake of another window for teams to disappear their contract mistakes, a whole lot of you seem to want to know what an All Buyout Team would look like.

Sounds good, let’s do it. But first, a few ground rules™:

  • We’re going to build a 23-man roster, with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and three goalies.
  • This is cap-era only.
  • All flavors of buyouts count, including the standard version, the compliance version, and an odd one we’ll get to.
  • We’re basing the selections on the player’s entire career, with an emphasis on their peak – not on what they were by the time the buyout arrived. The actual buyout number isn't the main factor, but when in doubt we won't be able to resist it.

Can we find enough good players to fill a roster? And if so, what does that say about the job NHL GMs have been doing over the years? Let’s find out.


Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers, 2020

Right off the bat, we start with a guy who you may not remembering being bought out, even though it only happened a few years ago. The Rangers bought out the final year of Lundqvist’s contract in 2020, splitting from their franchise goalie after a 15-year career (and 20 years in the organization). At the time, Lundqvist intended to keep playing and went on to sign with Washington, although a heart condition kept him off the ice. The Rangers ate a $5.5 million cap hit in 2020-21, but they gave the All Buyout Team a Hall-of-Fame starter, so we thank them for it.

Years bought out: 1 x $8.5 million cap hit

Braden Holtby, Canucks, 2021

We’ll add just about the only thing our roster doesn't get from Lundqvist in a Cup ring thanks to Holtby. You don’t see a lot of guy sign two-year UFA deals and then get bought out after one season. Then again, the Canucks have a knack for thinking different.

Years bought out: 1 x $4.3 million cap hit

Ilya Bryzgalov, Flyers, 2013

We’ve got other goaltending options to look at, including Cory Schneider and Martin Jones, and even Rick DiPietro (who played his last game ten years ago but is still on the Islanders’ payroll until 2029). But we simply can’t build this team without Bryzgalov, who cost the Flyers a whopping $23 million to buy out back in 2013, just two years into a nine-year deal. It was a post-lockout compliance buyout, so there was no cap hit, but still – imagine asking your boss to cut a $23-million check to make a mistake go away. Luckily it was the last roster management error the Flyers ever made.

Years bought out: 7 x $5.667 million cap hit*

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Thursday, July 6, 2023

The Athletic Hockey Show: Gull you know it's true

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- Ian gives us an update on Alex DeBrincat
- My theory on what's really going on here
- Should teams trade within their own division?
- Vladimir Tarasenko switches agents
- Father-son combos on the same team
- The 1991-92 San Diego Gulls for some reason, 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 2022-23 predicion contest results (or, how Auston Matthews ruined everything)

Every year, right before the season starts, one of my favorite things to do is run a simple contest. Simple, in the sense that it’s not very complicated. But more importantly, simple as in easy. All you have to do is answer the most obvious set of questions about the coming NHL season. Which teams are locks for the playoffs, which coaches are definitely safe, which goalies will be their team’s undisputed starter, that sort of thing. Dead simple.

You guys are terrible at it.

That’s the beauty of it. While the questions always seem easy in hindsight, they’re a little tougher when you have to lock your answers in before the season starts.

We first ran the contest two years ago, and you did poorly. Last year we upped the difficulty just a bit, and you did even worse. And that brings us to this year.

The good news is that for the second straight year, we shattered the record for entries. This seasons’ contest had over 2,100 entries. Surely at least a few of you would knock it out of the park.

Well, let’s see about that. If you’re new to this, the idea behind the contest is that there are ten regular questions and one optional bonus. For each of the first ten, I ask you a basic question and you give me anywhere from one to five answers. Each answer scores points on a scale that increase with the more answers you give, so there’s an incentive to go big. But even one wrong answer wipes out all the points for a question, so you have to get strategic. Sure, it seems easy, but how confident are you? Will you play it safe with the true sure things, or risk it all to squeeze in one more answer?

That’s where it gets tricky. Let’s see how you all did this year.

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Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Puck Soup: UFA winners and losers

On this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Free agency winners and losers
- Small trades that have been made
- Big ones that haven't (yet/)
- Changes in the women's pro game
- And more...

>> Listen on The Athletic
>> Subscribe on iTunes
>> Listen on Spotify

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Ryan Reaves to the Maple Leafs: What it says about Brad Treliving’s mindset

There are two ways to look at the Maple Leafs signing Ryan Reaves to a three-year deal, after apparently making him one of their top priorities in free agency.

The first is that it’s a low-risk bet on a veteran who has a defined role and knows how to fill it. Reaves is as close as today’s NHL comes to an old-school enforcer, the guy who’s there to make sure the other team stays in line. He doesn’t have to fight to do that job, but he will, and opponents know it. The Maple Leafs have plenty of skill at the top of the lineup but they can be pushed around, and traditional hockey thinking says that means there needs to be snarl at the bottom.

At three years and a $1.35 million cap hit, Reaves won’t crush the Leafs’ salary cap, especially as the ceiling rises over the next few years. And while he’s 36 years old, the skillset the Leafs are buying isn’t one that will diminish with age. If it doesn’t work, he didn’t cost all that much. If it does work, he could be one of the most popular players in Toronto, the Tie Domi for a new era.

That’s the positive spin. Are you buying it?

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