Friday, October 21, 2016

Grab bag: When is it OK to cheer injuries?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Sometimes, it really is OK to cheer for injuries
- The Oilers cancelled day off creates a CBA mess
- An obscure player who got off to a hot start and went nowhere
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a classic YouTube breakdown of opening night from the last time the NHL celebrated a major anniversary...

>> Read the full post at Vice

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ranking every NHL outdoor game

We’re a little over a week into the NHL regular season, so you know what that means: It must be time for an outdoor game.

OK, that may have been harsh. We’ve waited a long time for an outdoor game in Winnipeg, and this weekend’s Heritage Classic between the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers should be all sorts of fun.

But it’s probably fair to say that while most fans still love the spectacle of an outdoor game, some of the novelty has worn off over the years, thanks to the league overdoing the concept.

This year’s schedule features four outdoor games — up from last year’s three, but still well under the record six games that the NHL served up in 2013-14.

Counting a handful of exhibitions, Sunday's game will mark the 22nd outdoor game in NHL history. Some of those have been memorable. Others, not so much.

Today, let's look back at those 21 outdoor games that are already in the books and count them down from worst to best. It's a subjective list, obviously, but we'll be looking at a few criteria, including the novelty factor, the venue, the buildup, and the quality of the game itself.

Oh, and games will get bonus points for actually being played outside. That's bad news for the first game on our list...

#21: March 2, 2014 – Senators 4, Canucks 2 (BC Place)

Let's see if we can list all the problems with the league's worst-ever outdoor game.

It featured two teams with no history or rivalry of any kind. The novelty factor was close to zero, given that it was the sixth outdoor game in nine weeks and the second one played that weekend. The game itself was only marginally entertaining, and is probably best remembered for John Tortorella's decision to nuke the team's relationship with Roberto Luongo for no particular reason.

And, oh yeah, it wasn't actually played outdoors – rain forced the stadium's retractable roof to be closed. The only argument against this game being dead last on our list is that it technically shouldn't be on here at all.

#20: April 9, 1956 – Bruins vs. Bay Roberts local teams (Conception Bay Sports Arena)

This was a weird one. As part of an exhibition series played after the Boston Bruins' regular season had ended, the team made a series of stops through Newfoundland to face local teams.

That included a stop in Conception Bay for what was supposed to be a fairly standard game against three local squads. But the local arena wasn’t finished yet, so the event ended up being played outdoors in fog and drizzle.

At one point, according to legend, Bruins' goalie Terry Sawchuk was spotted holding an umbrella.

#19: January 1, 2011 – Capitals 3, Penguins 1 (Heinz Field)

You could make a strong case that the fourth Winter Classic was the most-anticipated outdoor hockey game ever played.

The novelty hadn't worn off yet, the matchup featured the league's two biggest stars in Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and the buildup included the debut of HBO's 24/7 documentary mini-series, which helped turn the game into something that felt like an epic confrontation straight out of Hollywood.

But then the actual game arrived, and things went off the rails.

Warm weather, wind and the threat of rain put the entire event in jeopardy. They eventually got the game started seven hours late, pushing it out of its scheduled afternoon slot. And despite all the star power, the game ended up being a low-scoring affair in which Eric Fehr played the hero.

Then, of course, there was the game's only truly memorable moment: David Steckel's blindside hit on Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins' star was allowed to remain in the game, played four nights later, took another hard hit and missed the rest of the season (and beyond) with a concussion.

Based on the buildup, this one should have been an easy top-ten pick. But the enduring image from the game will always be the sport's best player doubled over and facing an uncertain future.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Five GMs on the hot seat

We're a week into the NHL season, which is nowhere near enough time for any reasonable person to start talking about anyone's job being on the line. Luckily, we're hockey fans and reasonable has nothing to do with it, so let's get to the speculation.

Usually when we talk about hot seats, we look at the league's coaches. After all, as the old saying goes, they're hired to be fired, and as Todd Richards found out last year, it doesn't take too many losses at the start of the season to cost a coach his job. But today, let's aim a level higher. NHL GMs tend to have a little more job security, and most get at least a few years to show progress before they come under fire. And when things get bad, they can often offer up their coach as a scapegoat first. But through all that, at some point, the buck stops with the boss.

Plenty of GMs around the league are probably safe no matter what happens. Guys like Jeff Gorton and Peter Chiarelli have only been on the job for a little over a year. Dean Lombardi and Stan Bowman both have a handful of Stanley Cup rings to ward off any criticism. And John Chayka can't legally be fired due to child labor laws. But others are facing more uncertainty.

I've already singled out on GM for hot seat honors – in Sportsnet's preseason predictions, I chose Chuck Fletcher as being on the shakiest ground, given that the Wild were old, expensive, hadn't made a conference final under his watch and had already fired their coach. I won't pick on him again today, so here are five more GMs who could use a strong season to take some of the heat off.

Jarmo Kekalainen, Blue Jackets

On the one hand, you could argue that Kekalainen hasn't been given enough time in Columbus. He's only been on the job since February 2013, and while that actually puts him in the upper half of the league's GMs in terms of seniority, it's still less time than you'd ideally give a GM.

On the other hand… well, how much time have you got? The Blue Jackets haven't won a playoff round under Kekalainen (or anyone else), and they missed the playoffs in each of the last two years. The roster is clogged with bad contracts. Kekalainen made a controversial decision at the draft, grabbing Pierre-Luc Dubois instead of Jesse Puljujarvi. And he's already played his coaching card, having replaced Todd Richards with John Tortorella around this time last year.

Add it all up, and the Blue Jackets are under plenty of pressure to get off to a good start this year. Instead, Tortorella is telling the media that they're not even close. That's not a good combination, and you have to wonder how long it might be before president of hockey ops John Davidson gets the urge to clean house and start all over again.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Six early trends that won't continue because that would be fun

We’ve now got almost a full week of the NHL regular season in the books. So what conclusions can we draw for the first few games?

The most likely answer: None. We can’t conclude anything. It’s only been a few games, and apart from a few injuries, chances are nothing that’s happened so far will really end up mattering. After all, we’re 36 games into a 1,230-game season. There’s more than enough time left for all of the early oddities and outliers to even out, and it won’t be long before we’ll probably have settled into a season that feels just like any other.

So yes, we can all agree that overreacting to the early results is foolish. But that’s too bad, because the first week has given us a handful of trends that it would be really cool to see continue over the rest of the season. We know it’s unlikely. But it’s hard not to hold out at least a little bit of hope that some of these temporary storylines will find a way to stick around.

So today, let’s look at a half-dozen early trends from the first week of the season that hockey fans should be hoping will continue, even though we know they probably won’t. At least we’ll be able to say we enjoyed them while they lasted.

Scoring is up

The NHL has spent the better part of two decades wringing its hands over an ongoing decline in scoring, without ever actually doing all that much about it. That continued this year when the league announced that they'd introduce smaller goaltending equipment, only to fail to have it ready in time for the season.

Maybe we didn't need it after all. Through the first few games, average scoring is up by roughly half-a-goal per team. We've seen scores like 7-4, 6-5, 6-4 and then 7-4 again, and so far there hasn't been a single shutout on the season (kind of).

Best of all, the increase hasn't simply been caused by more power plays, like the 2005-06 spike that turned out not to last. And it's all adding up an unusually high number of big comebacks. So what's going on? It's tempting to shrug it all off as just a quirk of small sample size, but that doesn't seem to tell the whole story.

One theory points to the World Cup, which gave the league's elite players a head start on playing meaningful games and let them hit the ground running. That makes sense, although it implies that the rest of the league should catch up relatively quickly. Or maybe we're just seeing the next wave of young talent land on the league with a thud, bringing more speed and creativity than today's defensive systems can handle.

That last one would be nice, but it seems overly optimistic.

NHL coaches have shown a frustrating ability to adapt their defence-at-all-costs approach to just about everything – if they could figure out a way to suck the life out of 3-on-3 overtime, it won't take them long to work their way around whatever's happening right now. But in the meantime, bring on the goals, and let's consider it a preview of what the league might look like if it ever got around to the sort of changes that really could make the increase permanent.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, October 17, 2016

Weekend wrap: It's still early. So, so early.

Opening faceoff: Yes, it’s early

Welcome to the NHL Weekend Wrap.

Every Monday, we’ll dive in on some of the key stories that emerged over the past few days of NHL action. We’ll take a look at some of the weekend’s best, worst and strangest plays. And we’ll also include weekly power rankings at both the top and the bottom of the league, focusing in on the five teams who’ve staked out a claim at each end of spectrum.

That last part is going to be a little tricky today, and for the next few weeks at least. With no team having played more than three games, we don't have all that much to work with here. On the one hand, we don't want to completely discount what we've seen happen on the ice. Pre-season predictions are nice, and we've all made ours, but they go out the window once the real action starts.

On the other hand, right now we're talking about two or three games – if we start overreacting based on that, an enraged analytics guy will burst through the wall and start screaming "small sample size" until he hyperventilates. And he'd be right.

So we'll try to walk a line. And we'll probably walk it wrong, at least in a few spots.

Around this time last year, the Canadiens were unbeatable, the Penguins looked awful, and some morons were even wondering where Sidney Crosby had disappeared to. Then again, sometimes the first week or two can tell you a lot about where the pre-season consensus has gone wrong. Last year, a strong start by the Capitals was the first signal that they'd made the leap to the league's top tier, and you can ask any Blue Jackets fan what a rough opening week can reveal.

For now, when in doubt we'll err on the side of the pre-season consensus. That's why we weren't going to see any shockers in the top five, and why we won't be sticking winless teams like the Kings and Ducks in the cellar. But as October creeps towards November, the scales will tip more and more to what the season seems to be trying to say, even if what it's telling us is that we were all dead wrong about a few teams.

So yeah, it's still very early, and some of this will end up looking awful in hindsight. But that's half the fun, so let's give it a shot. Don't forget to bookmark this page so you can call me an idiot in six months. OK, days.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.

5. Washington Capitals (1-0-1, +1 true goals differential*) – Last year's top regular season team hasn't looked great yet, but taking three points out of four against division rivals isn't a bad start.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (2-0-0, +3) – You could make a case for the Panthers to claim this spot; they also went 2-0-0 while facing the same two teams the Lightning played. Luckily, the two teams can sort it out themselves when they face each other tomorrow.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet