Friday, December 29, 2023

A history of the Bourque Trophy for best final season, another fake award

Last week, we wasted your valuable time and attention with a made-up award. And as often happens, you readers responded with “Yes, OK, but what if it we made it even weirder?”

Specifically, reader Stan D. saw our piece on the Carson Trophy, a fake award for best sophomore player, and wanted to know what an annual award would look like for the player with the best final season.

Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce the Bourque Trophy. Named in honor of Phil for some reason Ray Bourque, and his final season in Colorado that saw him put up 59 points while finishing as a first-team all-star and Norris runner-up and the age of 40. I can’t remember how the playoffs went but hopefully those ended well for him too.

The rules: We’re looking for players who played their final season in a given year, although this is an NHL award, so players who subsequently head to Europe or elsewhere are fine. And while this award is very specifically for the best final season and not intended as a lifetime achievement award, voters will probably ignore this and factor in career accomplishments in close races. Stupid hockey writers, they’re the worst.

Finally, you may be wondering how the voters at the time would have known who had actually played their final season, given that some of these guys later attempted comebacks or went down to the AHL or tried to rehab injuries after what turned out to be their final season. Great point, and if this really bothers you, I’m going to suggest you take this whole thing a lot less seriously.

As with last time, we’ll head back to 2005 and cover the cap era. We probably won’t see as many great seasons as the Carson served up, but let’s see where this goes.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2023

A rooting guide to the PWHL's six teams

The PWHL is days away from its debut, and plenty of us are rooting for the league to succeed. That’s all well and good, but it’s not enough – to really get the full fan experience, you also need to pick a team to cheer for.

But which one? It’s an important decision, and we’re here to help. You can find detailed previews of each team here. But if you’re still on the fence when it comes to picking a bandwagon, let’s see if we can nudge you towards a well-informed decision.

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Sunday, December 24, 2023

NHL weekend rankings: Flyers, Senators, and all my mistakes that nobody will see

Happy holidays, everyone. I’m pretty sure there’s some sort of sportswriter law that says I’m supposed to do some vaguely themed Christmas post today. But at the risk of losing my license, I’m going to take this in a different direction.

After all, everybody is off today, meaning I don’t have to worry about the (disturbingly large) percentage of my readers who tell me they read me when they’re supposed to be working. If you are reading, there’s a decent chance you’re distracted, either by screaming kids or arguing in-laws. And if you do happen to be enjoying a quiet day off, snuggled under a blanket with your screen and a cup of coffee, you’re probably in a good mood.

A smaller, distracted, generally chill audience? Feels like the perfect time to recap all the ways I’m terrible at my job.

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Thursday, December 21, 2023

A modern history of the NHL’s sophomore of the year award, which does not exist

It doesn’t seem like we’re going to get much of a Calder race this year. Barring an injury or something very unexpected, the trophy for Rookie of the Year is going to go first overall pick Connor Bedard. He’s a huge favorite at all the sportsbooks, and our own writers had him as a unanimous pick in our most recent prediction panel. Do you know how much of a favorite you have to be for not even one writer to play the contrarian card? A big one. The race is all but over.

But forget the Calder. What about the Carson, the trophy awarded to the best second-year player in the NHL? It’s named after Jimmy Carson, who put up 55 goals and 107 points as a 19-year-old sophomore back in 1987-88, and it’s possible you’ve never heard of it before because I just made it up.

But it would be a cool award, right? And if it existed, we’d be watching a solid race play out. A so-so start by Matty Beniers would have opened the door to names like Wyatt Johnston, Kirill Marchenko and Andrei Kuzmenko up front, plus Jake Sanderson and Owen Power as blueline candidates. We could argue about that race all day, and arguing all day is lots of fun, according to the people who comment on my articles.

So today, let’s go back through the cap era and hand out the Carson Trophy to the best sophomore player, which is to say the best guy who’s one year removed from his final Calder-eligible season. Make some room in those trophy cases, gentlemen, there’s a new award in town.

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Monday, December 18, 2023

Weekend rankings: Sharks move up, Hurricanes don’t, and the most mediocre teams

We’re usually all about the top and bottom five here, but what about the stuck-in-the-middle brigade? Which teams have been the most mediocre so far this season?

We did this right around this time last year, and I kind of like it was a pre-holiday tradition. So before we get to the good and the bad, let’s spend some time on the merely meh.

It can be a tougher question than it sounds like. To start with, unlike just about every other league in the world, being .500 doesn’t make you mediocre in the NHL. Thanks to the loser point, being .500 in terms of points percentage is often pretty bad. Instead, I like to just look at wins and losses. Mix in goals differential, a few underlying stats, and bonus points for teams that rarely go streaking, and we can get a good sense of which team is muddling along the best. Or worst. Or in between. You get it.

And if you see your team on this list and feel insulted, well, remember that this time last year, the most middling team in the league was the Florida Panthers, and their season turned out pretty OK.

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Friday, December 15, 2023

In 2018, I ranked every team’s chances of a Cup in the next five years. How’d I do?

Which NHL team has the best odds of winning a Stanley Cup in the next five years?

It’s a question I asked at Grantland in 2015, and again after joining The Athletic in 2018. That second column came exactly five years ago this month, meaning it’s a good time to look back and see just how wrong I was.

I know I’ll be wrong, because one of the things you learn when you do an exercise like this is that predicting the future in today’s NHL is difficult, bordering on the impossible. There’s so much more randomness than we realize, and maybe even more than our fan brains wants to really process.

You also learn that when you’re trying to squeeze 32 teams into a five-year window, the odds for everyone get way smaller than you’d imagine, and that the margins get even smaller than that. You’ll see that in the rankings below.

Is it time for a brand new five-year window ranking? I’d say it is… soon. First, let’s look back at that 2018 list and see which teams I called reasonably well, and how many I whiffed on completely.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Six times NHL fans thought their teams were getting a superstar, and were wrong

It’s hockey season, and Toronto sports fans are sad, as usual. But for once, it’s not the Maple Leafs’ fault.

After weeks of speculation turned into a whirlwind few days of hype, the Toronto Blue Jays did not sign Shohei Ohtani. The world’s greatest baseball player, an unprecedented unicorn who can both hit and pitch like a superstar, chose Los Angeles over Toronto in a record-shattering $700-million deal.

Ohtani joining the Dodgers isn’t much of a surprise, and in fact was the expected outcome all along. But where things get cruel for Blue Jays fans is in terms of expectations. As the process played out, they went from underdogs to dark horse to legitimate contender. And then, on Friday, fans were told that the deal was all but done, with private planes and celebratory dinner reservations already booked; they’d landed the biggest name to ever hit baseball free agent market. But the reports were wrong, and the fan base was duped, their expectations raised up only to be shattered.

Here's where hockey comes in.

While no NHL player can touch Ohtani’s price tag – there are a few teams with full rosters that can’t – that doesn’t mean that hockey fans can’t appreciate getting their hopes up only to have the rug pulled out from under them. So today, we’re going to go back and remember six times that an entire NHL fan base thought they were getting a superstar, only to find out that they weren’t.

To be clear, we’re not talking about the blockbusters that were close in hindsight, like Steve Yzerman to Ottawa or the infamous Vincent Lecavalier to Montreal rumors. Those moves were whispered about at the time, but we didn’t learn just how close they came until after the fact. We’re looking for moments in NHL history where a fan base thought they had a star signed and sealed, then were disappointed.

It happens more often than you might think. Here are six examples, starting with maybe the most famous of them all.

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Monday, December 11, 2023

NHL weekend rankings: Penguins, Sabres, and how much should consistency matter?

When it comes to power rankings, does consistency matter?

(Pauses so everyone can make their own “Yeah, consistently wrong” jokes.)

I think it’s a fair question, and it’s one that’s come up a few times over the last few weeks. I leave a team out of the Top 5, or maybe don’t rank them quite as highly as their fans think I should. Inevitably, somebody points to a team in a better spot and demands to know how I can think so highly of them. After all, they’re just so… inconsistent.

The Avalanche get this treatment a lot. And… sure, it’s hard to argue. The Avs started the season 6-0-0, then lost five of seven, then won seven of eight, and then lost three in a row before their current homestand. They’re a lot of things, but consistent isn’t one of them. You could say the same for the Stars, who started great but haven't won two straight in weeks.

Then you have teams like the Kings or Rangers. L.A. hasn't gone pointless in two straight all year, and the Rangers hadn't either until Saturday. Those teams have been chugging along, racking up wins and avoiding the tough stretch. Anyone can get hot, the argument goes, but consistency is the sign of a winner that’s built for the long haul.

It makes sense. And there’s certainly at least some truth to it. But when I’m putting my rankings together, I tend not to get too caught up in consistency. Given how often it comes up as a criticism, maybe I should explain why that is.

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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Ranking 20 Battle of Ontario moments that would have exploded in the social media era

The Senators host the Maple Leafs tonight, the second of four meetings in a season that marks 20 years since the rivalry's last playoff series. It's fair to say that the Battle of Ontario isn't what it used to be, dampened by extended stretches of futility by Toronto and now Ottawa. In fact, if you're a new or younger fan, you might now remember much of it at all.

That's a shame, because there was a time when the Battle of Ontario used to be one of the sport's greatest rivalries. From 2000 until 2004, the two teams met in the playoffs four times in five years to go along with dozens of regular season matchups that always seemed to produce some sort of controversy or bad blood. Fans ate it up, and then took the arguments to the water cooler, the sports bar, the random street corner, and even the family dinner table.

One thing we didn't do: Post about it on social media. It didn't exist back then. And that leads to the question: Which of the rivalry's moments would have blown up social media? To figure it out, Sean McIndoe and Ian Mendes put their heads together and came up with a Top 20 ranking of Battle of Ontario moments from 2000 to 2004, as viewed from the (very different) Toronto and Ottawa perspectives.

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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Let’s get old: Six small details I miss from the ancient days of the NHL

I am old.

You may have picked up on that, based on literally everything about me. That’s fine. I accept it. In fact, I embrace it. Somebody has to stand up for us fossils, and I’m doing that now.

(Struggles to get up out of chair while making pathetic grunting noises.)

There, I’m up. Let’s get old, with the debut of a new feature in which us relics get to reminisce about the largely meaningless things we miss about old-time hockey.

But first, let’s be crystal clear about what this feature will be – and what it isn’t. This is a place for us old folks to remember how the game used to be, and the subtle things we’ve lost along the way. It is not for waving our canes in the air about how everything stinks today and was better decades ago like some stereotypical curmudgeon. And it’s very much not for debating the big changes. If you want to argue that the salary cap ruined hockey, or shootouts and loser points are bad, or that the game was more honorable when there was respect and a code and guys breaking sticks over each other’s heads, or that Gary Bettman is a secret spy sent by the NBA to ruin everything, you’ll need to find a different venue. We don’t have the energy for that around here.

No, this is about the small things that we miss. Some of you whippersnappers won’t even know about this stuff, which is half the point, because it’s always fun to teach some punk kid something new.

Sound good? Groovy. Let’s get old.

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Monday, December 4, 2023

Weekend rankings: How are this many teams under .500?

If you’ve been following this column over the season, you may have a sense of where this is going, but let’s lay it out: The bottom five is becoming an issue.

Not most of it. Three teams have been regulars, usually in the top three spots, and they’ll be there again this week. There’s a fourth team that usually makes it and one that escaped for a while but is making a big push to return, and one of them has a spot secured this time around. And then there’s the five-spot, which has been a rotating cast of teams all year long. We’ve had a newbie show up in each of the last three weeks.

So who deserves a spot this week? There’s no shortage of candidates; right now, we’ve got 11 teams that are under .500 in a league where the standings are specifically rigged to make sure that doesn’t happen. And almost all of those teams could make a solid claim to a bottom-five spot.

Almost all of them. The exception is the Oilers, who are 9-12-1 but just got the whole contender treatment in the last section. I’ve stayed on the bandwagon all year, even when things were going off the rails, so you know I’m not turning on them now that they’re hot.

Beyond that? I think everyone has a case. So today, I’m going to work through those other 10 teams and try to talk myself out of some bottom-five candidates, one by one. We’ll see how convincing I can be, but one way or another we’ll narrow the field of 10 down to a true bottom five.

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Friday, December 1, 2023

Mailbag: December trades, a roster challenge, and more

Which team would win this 3-on-3 tournament?

  • All goalies with a regular goalie in net (e.g. Oettinger, Shesterkin and Samsonov, with Vasilevsky in net)
  • All forwards (e.g. McDavid, Pastrnak, Draisaitl with Matthews in net)
  • All defensemen (e.g. Makar, Fox and McAvoy with Josi in net)

Note: Each team’s one designated goalie has to stay in net, and only those goalies get goalie equipment.

I'm leaning defensemen. Goalies have massive advantage having a real goalie, but I don't think they would have the puck much. – Josh D.

I’m with you on the goaltenders – they just wouldn’t be able to keep up. The average NHL goalie is a far better hockey player than you’d think, and plenty of beer leaguers have stories of pro goalies wanting to play out and just skating circles around everyone. But these wouldn’t be beer leaugers they’re playing against. They might never touch the puck. Give them the bronze.

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