Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A brief history of the waiver draft

This time last week, NHL teams were preparing for the start of the regular season in all the usual ways. Final cuts were being made. Last-minute contracts were being signed. Opening-night starting goalies were being named.

And, in what’s become an annual tradition, we got one last flurry of moves on the waiver wire. Since the collective bargaining agreement dictates that some players can’t be sent to the minors without passing through waivers, the final days before the regular season always sees a bunch of last-minute attempts to sneak guys through. This year was no different, with a handful of players switching teams and many more passing through unclaimed.

And that’s all well and good. But there used to be a better way. It ran from 1977 to 2003, and it was called the waiver draft. And it was great, because anything involving a draft is by definition going to be fun. The entry draft is fun; your fantasy hockey draft is fun; expansion drafts are just about the most fun thing ever. And the waiver draft was fun, too, which is presumably why it had to die.

But for 27 years, hockey fans could look forward to an (almost) annual leaguewide draft of has-beens and never-weres, all held just a few days before the start of the regular season. And it was magic — a world of wasted picks, shady backroom deals, and “I didn’t know that guy was still playing” wonder. Let’s take a look back at some of the highlights.

(Much of the research for this piece comes from a wonderful blog called Historical Hockey Stats & Trivia, which appears to no longer be active but is a great site to visit if you’re a hockey fan looking to have your productivity for the day shot to hell.)

The 1970s: An Origin Story

From the mid-’50s until 1975, the NHL had what it called the intra-league draft. It typically took place in June and was meant to promote competitive balance by forcing the league’s better teams to make some of their talent available to the bottom-feeders. Each team could protect a set number of players, with the rest being available to the rest of the league in a draft format, with picks going in reverse order of the standings.

The intra-league draft was occasionally busy, but by the mid-’70s it had become an afterthought, largely due to a financial crisis brought on by the advent of the rival WHA. The draft was finally scrapped in 1976. But the need for something similar lingered, as the league’s competitive-balance issues only got worse. That was bad for the NHL, because nobody wants to buy tickets to watch cannon fodder, and bad for certain players, because depth guys on the top teams couldn’t get ice time.

And so, in 1977, the waiver draft was born. Teams could protect 18 skaters and two goalies, with first-year pros exempted. Teams would draft in reverse order of the previous year’s standings, and would pay a fee for each player they took.

The new draft didn’t exactly get off to a hot start; only three players were taken in 1977, none especially notable. The 1978 draft wasn’t much better, with only five selections, although the day was notable for a series of controversies surrounding the Canadiens. The reigning champs, in the middle of a four-year Cup streak, were accused of using loopholes to protect players, and also tried to work a sneaky trade-back deal involving the draft’s top pick, Pierre Bouchard, that was overruled by the league.

The WHA merger wiped out the 1979 draft, but everyone agreed to give the whole thing another try in the ’80s, so long as the Habs would promise to stop screwing around.

The 1980s: Demise of the Dynasties

Over the course of the 1980s, the waiver draft went from a novelty that had been tried only a couple of times to a standard part of the hockey calendar, and NHL GMs got more comfortable with the format as the decade wore on. This was the era when we started to see some recognizable names showing up on the drafted list, although it was rarely because of what the player was accomplishing on the ice.

For example, future Rangers coach and (after that) controversial head disciplinarian Colin Campbell was plucked in the 1980 draft, going from the Oilers to the Canucks, which made him a member of the presumably exclusive club of players to be picked in four different types of drafts: the NHL entry draft, the WHA amateur draft, an expansion draft, and a waiver draft.

Boston’s John Wensink and Quebec’s Curt Brackenbury were taken that year, too, establishing what would eventually become a theme: teams using the waiver draft to replenish their enforcer ranks. Wensink was taken again in 1981, along with another future NHL head coach: Terry Murray, who went from one team he’d someday coach, the Flyers, to another, the Capitals. (Murray famously got the job in Washington in 1989-90 as a replacement for his fired brother, Bryan.) But the biggest names taken that year were two members of the Canadiens dynasty. Yvon Lambert was picked by the Sabres, while future Hall of Famer Serge Savard had his 15-year career in Montreal ended by a waiver-wire selection by the Jets; he’d play two years in Winnipeg before retiring.

While those guys were all key picks in their own right, the undisputed MVP of the early-’80s waiver draft was winger Jeff Brubaker, who was taken four times in four drafts between 1981 and 1984, part of a nine-year NHL career that saw him play for seven teams, presumably because chanting “BRRRUUUUU” was so much fun. The 1984 draft also saw the Penguins use the first overall pick on former 50-goal scorer — and charter member of the NHL’s Brady Andersons club — Wayne Babych; needless to say, that would not end up being the most successful first overall draft pick the Pens used that year.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 9, 2015

Grab bag: Return of the Mullet

It's the return of the grab bag. This week:
- The three comedy stars of the offseason
- A simple change to fix the PIM stat
- Don Cherry switches sport
- An obscure player with a great name, and two cool connections to this offseason
- And grab a curtain rod as the Senators' make an awkward debut...

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Seven opening night story lines to overreact to

The NHL drops the puck on its regular season tonight with four games, followed by seven more tomorrow. By Sunday, every team will have played at least once, which means we’ll be in a position to draw firm conclusions about how the rest of the season will turn out.

Oh, we’ll be told not to. We’ll be admonished and scolded and constantly reminded not to overreact to one or two games. But where’s the fun in that? We’re hockey fans. Overreacting to every little thing is what we do.

But it’s important to be prepared. So here are seven story lines to keep an eye on this week, along with prepackaged overreaction you should have ready to go, just in case.

Did this happen? Connor McDavid fails to register a hat trick in his NHL debut tomorrow in St. Louis.

Then that can only mean … : BUST!

Or maybe not: McDavid is the most heavily hyped prospect to enter the league since Sidney Crosby, and when you factor in the explosion of media coverage over the last 10 years, he may be the most hyped ever. He’ll be under a microscope every time he takes the ice, with fans looking for signs that he can somehow live up to it all.

And he almost certainly will … eventually. But this seems like a good time to remember that teenage rookies rarely take the league by storm. In fact, in the two decades since the onset of the dead puck era, only one such player has managed a better season that Patrick Kane’s 72 points in 2007-08.

That would be Crosby, who totaled an impressive 102 in 2005-06, and that’s where some will want to peg the McDavid comparisons. But that was the first year after the season-long lockout, and scoring was way up thanks to a leaguewide mandate to make sure the entire game was spent on the power play. Scoring is down more than 10 percent from that peak, and there’s far less power-play time for the stars to divvy up, so Crosby’s total is almost certainly out of reach.

Since Crosby and Kane, no teenage rookie has had more than 63 points. McDavid isn’t your average rookie, but it’s not hard to see him topping out around that mark. And if he does, lots of fans will call it a disappointment. We shouldn’t. McDavid will be challenging Crosby for the Art Ross within three or four years; there’s no need to crank up the comparisons in Year 1.

Did this happen? One of the teams in tomorrow’s Dallas-Pittsburgh game ends up losing.

Then that can only mean … : The fancy-pants winger you traded for might score a lot of goals, but you can’t win in this league with a bunch of All-Star forwards if they’re supported by an average blue line and questionable goaltending!

Or maybe not: Before we go any further, let’s offer up some thanks to the league for providing this fantastic matchup on opening night. The Stars and Penguins may well be the two most entertaining teams in the league, and both spent the offseason loading up on even more offense. Seeing them pair off is a gift from the NHL, and I’m so grateful that I’m going to go an entire paragraph without criticizing the league for anything.

Yep. Sure will.

With that out of the way, I’m pretty sure one of these teams will indeed lose, since the league hasn’t quite reached its ultimate goal of giving everyone two points for every game played and hoping we won’t notice. That will give a head start to all the naysayers who’ll be lining up to criticize a team for daring to build around offense. And that will be especially true if we get blessed with the sort of 6-5 barn burner we’re all hoping for.

Look on the bright side, Stars or Penguins fans: You’re going to hear this stuff all year long. Might as well get used to it early.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

NHL awards favorites and longshots

These days, the NHL loves Las Vegas. The league has spent the past year openly flirting with giving the city its first major pro sports team, with everyone expecting a team to begin play there by 2017. And that’s in addition to the league holding its annual awards show in Vegas, which it has already been doing for years.

If it’s good enough for the league, it should be good enough for us, so let’s use those same awards to get a taste of some Vegas action. With the preseason schedule mercifully wrapped up and real hockey just days away, it’s time to hit the sportsbook for our annual attempt to predict the coming season’s award winners. And since anyone can pick the obvious candidates, we’re going to take it a step further. For each award, we’ll pick one favorite, one long shot (defined as 10-1 or longer), and one off-the-board pick. We’ll be using the latest odds from Bovada as of Tuesday morning.

A look back at last season’s award winners reveals a mix of preseason favorites (Erik Karlsson was the top pick for the Norris, Alexander Ovechkin was listed second for the Rocket Richard, and Carey Price was third for the Vezina), one quasi-long shot (Aaron Ekblad was 7-1 for the Calder), and two big long shots (Price was listed at 50-1 for the Hart, and Jamie Benn was at 50-1 for the Art Ross).

If this season follows suit, there should be a chance to hit on at least a few surprises. Will I be able to find them? Looking back on past history, it’s fair to say I don’t love my odds. But if the NHL is willing to gamble on sticking another team in the desert, I can stick my neck out on a few underdogs. Hey, I’m probably due, right?

Art Ross Trophy (most points)

The favorite: Sidney Crosby sits alone at 7-4, ahead of Ovechkin at 6-1. But I’ll take the 5-1 choice: Islanders captain John Tavares, who narrowly missed out last season and seems like a guy who’ll win one or two of these over the course of his career. Might as well be this season.

The long shot: Defending champ Benn is listed at 15-1, and teammate Tyler Seguin is at 6-1. Former winner Evgeni Malkin is available at 20-1, and last season’s fourth-place finisher, Jakub Voracek, looks like a bargain all the way down at 50-1. But my favorite two picks here are a pair of guys who’ve had recent near misses. Ryan Getzlaf (25-1) was the runner-up in 2013-14, and Claude Giroux (30-1) was third in both 2011-12 and 2013-14. I’ll take Giroux, and hope he continues that every-second-year magic.

Off the board: Neither Sedin brother is listed here even though both have won the award since 2010, but given my pessimism on the Canucks, I’ll pass. Besides, another missing name jumps out here: Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom, who’s finished in the top 10 four times and led the league in assists last season. He’ll need to keep being an elite playmaker while nudging his goal scoring back up over the 20 mark to have a shot, but with an improved Caps team around him, that’s a decent bet to happen. He’s the pick.

Hart Trophy (MVP)

The favorite: It’s Crosby again, which makes sense — more often than not, the Hart goes to whoever wins the scoring title. Of course, 2014-15 was one of the “not” years, so we’ll have to keep our eye on the goalies here. There aren’t any at the top end of the list, though, with Crosby joined by Ovechkin (6-1) and Tavares (17-2). I’m already in on Tavares for the Art Ross, so I’ll stick with him here.

The long shot: We’ve got a big list to work with, with 18 players left on the board, including reigning champ Price at 10-1. The only other two goalies are Henrik Lundqvist (28-1) and Jonathan Quick (40-1), and Lundqvist is tempting.

But if we’re going to go out on a limb with our last pick, let’s go all the way out — down to the very bottom of the list, where we find Erik Karlsson at 50-1. The Ottawa defenseman has already won two Norris Trophies; maybe voters are getting tired of handing him that award and want to think a little bigger. True, defensemen almost never win the Hart — Chris Pronger in 1999-2000 was the last to pull it off — but we could have said something similar about goalies this time last season. I’m not high on the Senators this season, but if they surprise, it will be because of the player who’s far and away their best. At 50-1, I’ll roll those dice.

Off the board: Jakub Voracek is a notable omission here, and I could make a case for P.K. Subban under the same logic as Karlsson. There are also some decent goalie options, including Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask, and you know I’m fighting the urge to go with Phil Kessel, because trading a guy the year before he’s the MVP would be the most Leafs thing ever. But in the end we’ll go with Backstrom again; if he does come through and win the Art Ross, history says he’s the Hart favorite.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, October 2, 2015

Season preview, part four: The Contenders

Today marks the end of the last week without regular-season hockey until the playoffs arrive in April. It also marks the end of Grantland’s season preview week. On Tuesday, we shook our heads sadly at the Bottom-Feeder Division. On Wednesday, we shrugged our shoulders at the Middle-of-the-Pack Division. And yesterday, we threw our hands in the air over the confounding No-Clue Division.

That leaves only one group left to go: the Contenders Division. The seven teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Other teams will spend the year talking about progress and moral victories and finding something positive to take out of that loss. Not these guys. It’s Cup or bust, right out of the gate. And the odds are good one of them will get it.

If you’ve been checking off the teams throughout the week, you may have noticed something interesting about today’s list: It’s going to be heavily tilted to the East, with five of the seven teams coming from the Eastern Conference. What’s up with that? Has the historically weaker conference finally caught up?

Maybe, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. A more likely explanation is that this year’s East is up for grabs, with up to a half-dozen teams that could realistically take the top spot without it being considered a surprise. Meanwhile, the West is somewhat more top-heavy, with the Hawks and the Ducks and (maybe) the Kings settling in as the consensus picks. It’s tough to be a Cup favorite if there’s a team in your conference that’s a solid step or two ahead of you, so the West ends up with fewer top-tier teams even though it may well be the better conference yet again.

With that out of the way, on to the contenders …

Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 48-28-6, 102 points, third in the Central and seventh overall, won the Stanley Cup.

Offseason report: Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman got back from the parade, finished off his beer, and then blew the dust off the “How to retool after a Cup win” manual he’s spent the past few years writing. Once again, cap pressure forced the Hawks to part with some valued pieces, including Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya (both of whom ended up in Dallas), Brad Richards (Detroit), and Brandon Saad (Columbus). Most teams would have a tough time withstanding that sort of exodus. Most teams aren’t the Blackhawks.

Outlook: Losing Sharp, Saad, and others will hurt. But the core is still in place, and as long as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith are playing at their peak, the Blackhawks will be contenders. That’s not a sure thing — Kane’s sexual assault investigation is ongoing and could still result in charges that could take him out of the lineup — and every team eventually runs into bad luck with injuries or off years. But as long as those three are in the lineup and playing well, the Hawks are close to playoff locks.

Key number: 65 — Number of playoff games the Blackhawks have played over the last three years. That’s one more than the 64 the Kings played from 2012 to 2014, a number everyone latched on to as the prime culprit in their disappointing 2014-15 season. That’s not to say the Hawks will miss the playoffs, but at some point fatigue has to be a concern.

Watchability index: 9/10. If you don’t like watching Keith play hockey, there’s either something seriously wrong with you or you’re cheering for Chicago’s opponents.

Best case: There hasn’t been a repeat Cup winner in the salary-cap era, and nobody’s even made it back to the final since the 2009 Penguins–Red Wings rematch. But the Hawks could absolutely pull it off, and with so much of the Central in flux, their first division title in three years is there for the taking too.

Worst case: Kane’s situation drags on, Keith and Marian Hossa occasionally look like guys in their thirties instead of cyborgs, the top six misses Sharp more than expected, and the accumulated weight of the last three postseasons drags everyone down into an off year. They still make the playoffs but bow out early.

Suggested slogan: We almost made it through an entire preview without anyone mentioning that Corey Crawford might be overrated.

Bold prediction: The Hawks have a typical Hawks year, cruising through the regular season before slamming on the gas once the playoffs arrive. But this time, there’s not enough left in the tank for a full trip; they don’t make it out of Round 2.

New York Rangers

Last season: 53-22-7, 113 points, first in the Metro and first overall, lost in the conference finals.

Offseason report: The Rangers dealt backup goalie Cam Talbot to the Oilers and lost Martin St. Louis to retirement. They also swapped Carl Hagelin for Emerson Etem in a cap-inspired move. But the biggest change came in the front office, where longtime GM Glen Sather stepped aside. Jeff Gorton replaces him.

Outlook: The Rangers are one of only two teams (joining the Hawks) to have been to the final four in each of the last two seasons. They’ve been knocking on the door; the question is how much time they have left to step through.

The Rangers aren’t exactly an old team, but they’ve got several key players on the wrong side of 30, including Dan Boyle (39), Rick Nash (31), Dan Girardi (31), and, most importantly, Henrik Lundqvist (33). There’s also some cap pressure on the way, with Chris Kreider needing a new deal next year and Keith Yandle likely to depart as a free agent next summer.

There’s no sense of panic in New York, nor should there be. But a sense of urgency? Probably, yeah.

Key number: 2 — Consecutive years in which Rick Nash has led the league in shots taken during the postseason. The actual production hasn’t quite been there, although last year’s 14 points in 19 games was reasonable. And sure, he’s paid big bucks to score, so results matter. But when a guy is generating that many chances, it’s time to drop the “Nash disappears in the playoffs” narrative.

Watchability index: 7/10. Just don’t gaze too long into Lundqvist’s eyes. Uh, no reason.

Best case: While everyone’s waiting to anoint the Caps or Islanders as the Metro’s Next Big Thing, the Rangers just keep winning, all the way back to the final.

Worst case: The worst possible scenario is that Lundqvist starts to slow down; at 33, he’s reached the age when that typically happens to most goalies. He’s not most goalies, and some guys continue to excel for years into their mid- or even late thirties. But this guy is the franchise, and if he does start to falter, the Rangers’ short-term Cup chances will plummet.

Suggested slogan: Your 2014-15 Presidents’ Trophy champions! We think. Wait, didn’t the Ducks end up catching us? You know what, even we don’t care.

Bold prediction: The Rangers’ streak of Metro dominance ends thanks to a seven-game upset at the hands of the Islanders.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Season preview, part three: The No-Clue Division

We’re now six sleeps away from the start of the NHL season, not to mention halfway through our preview week. On Tuesday we looked at the league’s bottom-feeders; yesterday it was the middle of the pack.

That leaves us with the best of the best, the league’s true contenders. So if your favorite team wasn’t mentioned in either of the last two articles, congratulations! You guys are in for a great … oh, wait. The Contenders Division doesn’t come until tomorrow. We’ve got one more division to go before we get there, and it’s the group that’s usually the most fun: the No-Clue Division.

These are the eight teams that are the hardest to figure out and have the widest range of possible outcomes. Out of the playoffs by Christmas? Sure. Stanley Cup contenders? Why not. Traded to the KHL for future considerations? Highly unlikely and technically illegal, but nobody’s entirely ruling it out.

This is always my favorite article to write, because it’s the only one where I can’t end up being embarrassingly wrong. Lower those expectations far enough and you won’t be disappointed. Gosh, this must be how the Oilers feel every year. Speaking of whom …

Edmonton Oilers

Last season: 24-44-14, 62 points, sixth in the Pacific and 28th overall.

Offseason report: They traded for Cam Talbot, the latest in a long line of candidates who’ll try to provide passable goaltending behind the Oilers’ leaky blue line. They tried to address that blue line by signing Andrej Sekera to a big free-agent deal. They said goodbye to Martin Marincin and Viktor Fasth.

What else, what else … oh, right, they won the draft lottery and picked the best player to enter the NHL in a decade. Connor McDavid changed everything in Edmonton, so much so that the team quickly cleaned house and brought in Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan.

Outlook: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but it really does feel like a new era in Edmonton. McDavid is as close to a sure thing as any prospect could be, the sort of franchise player that usually results in a Stanley Cup or two down the road. That road may be a long one for the Oilers, who still have plenty of the same holes that plagued last year’s team, but McDavid, Sekera, and Talbot alone should be enough to move the team out of the league’s basement district. And if McDavid stars right away and Talbot is a legit starter, a playoff hunt isn’t entirely out of the question.

Key number: 5-14-6-1 — Recognize this? No? Oilers fans do.

Watchability index: 8/10. McDavid will be must-see TV as a rookie, but there’s other talent on display here. This could be the year Taylor Hall finally breaks through into the “best wingers in the league” conversation, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also seems poised for a big year. With that blue line and a question mark in goal, the Oilers should produce plenty of highlights at both ends of the ice.

Best case: McDavid has a rookie year like Sidney Crosby’s in 2005-06, Hall cracks the 30-goal mark for the first time and then pushes for 40, Talbot is the real deal, and Sekera stabilizes the defense. The Oilers grab the last playoff spot and host a postseason game for the first time in a decade.

Worst case: McDavid has a 50-point season that’s perfectly reasonable but feels like a letdown, Talbot is this year’s Dubnyk/Scrivens/Fasth-style goaltending disappointment, and the rest of the roster reminds us all why they were terrible last year. The Oilers are a bottom-five team yet again, as their fans rock back and forth in the fetal position on the floor.

Suggested slogan: Hey, what’s the worst that could happen? Don’t answer that.

Bold prediction: The Oilers are better, but the playoffs have to wait. They post their best point total since 2006, but that tops out at a whopping 89.

Nashville Predators

Last season: 47-25-10, 104 points, second in the Central and sixth overall, lost in the first round.

Offseason report: The Predators made a series of minor moves, but the roster won’t look all that much different than last year’s. Centers Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro both re-signed, and free agents Barret Jackman and Cody Hodgson were added.

Outlook: The Predators were last season’s biggest surprise, making the leap from also-ran to Presidents’ Trophy contender seemingly overnight. Maybe we should have seen that coming; good goaltending can fix just about anything, and Pekka Rinne returned to full health after missing most of 2013-14. Rinne’s return, the addition of James Neal, a breakout season from rookie Filip Forsberg, and a very good young blue line propelled the Preds to one of the league’s best season-long stories.

So can they do it again? A lot of that will ride on Rinne, and there are some concerning signs the big Finn could be wearing down. He missed three weeks with a knee injury suffered in January, and his numbers were down substantially after he returned — he posted save percentages of .927, .938, and .935 in the first three months of the season, but he went .910, .919, .914, and .863 in the four months after that. At 32, he’s not what you would call an old goalie, but he’s at that age where guys tend to start their decline.

If Rinne falters, the Predators could find it tough to produce enough offense to make up the difference. Their reputation as a low-scoring team isn’t exactly fair — they were 13th in goals last year — but there’s not much in way of star power up front. You’d have to think Neal will do better than his 37-point campaign, and Forsberg and Roman Josi are young enough to expect improvement. But when you’re counting on a 35-year-old Ribeiro as your no. 1 center, you’re not exactly working with a huge margin for error.

Key number: 28 — Home wins by the Predators, the second-highest total in the league. They’ll get an extra chance to play host this season, as the All-Star Game comes to Nashville in January.

Watchability index: 7/10. We haven’t mentioned Shea Weber yet, but the captain is often worth the price of admission on his own. Mix in a little Seth Jones, and you’re golden. Or mustard-colored, or whatever that’s supposed to be.

Best case: The offense gets a little better, Rinne is back to his usual self (and healthy), Forsberg picks up where he left off, and the Predators challenge for the division title again. And this time, they don’t cough it up in the final week.

Worst case: Rinne declines, the kids are inconsistent, and the offense just can’t produce enough to keep up. The Predators don’t plummet, but they follow in the footsteps of last year’s Avalanche as Central Division one-year wonders.

Suggested slogan: We apologize in advance for subjecting our fans to an NHL All-Star Game.

Bold prediction: The Predators produce a Norris finalist yet again, but this time it’s Josi, not Weber.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Season preview, part two: Stuck-in-the-Middle

Yesterday, we kicked off NHL season preview week with a look at the Bottom-Feeder Division, the seven teams that aren’t likely to contend for anything beyond a high draft pick. Today, we move on to the Middle-of-the-Pack Division, featuring eight teams that should be good but aren’t likely to be much more than that.

The mushy middle is the NHL’s equivalent of a sketchy neighborhood — you can pass through on your way to where you’re going, but you don’t want to linger. Some of the teams below are headed in the wrong direction, perhaps on their way to bottoming out. Others may crack the league’s elite and become true contenders in the near future. But the ones that get stuck here — never really contending, but never earning the chance to draft a game-changer — are the ones that deserve our deepest sympathies. Time will tell whether any of these teams meet that fate.

On to today’s list …

Florida Panthers

Last season: 38-29-15, 91 points, sixth in the Atlantic, 20th overall.

Offseason report: The Panthers didn’t do much over the summer, which would normally be a bad sign for a team that missed the playoffs by seven points. But with a young core in place that should improve through experience, it may not be the worst approach.

Outlook: The Panthers are a fascinating mix of young and old. The back end is anchored by defensemen Brian Campbell, who’s 36, and Aaron Ekblad, who’s 19, in front of goaltender Roberto Luongo, who’s 36. The top line could feature Jonathan Huberdeau (22), Aleksander Barkov (20), and Jaromir Jagr (84). It’s so crazy, it just might work. But it hasn’t yet — the Panthers haven’t made the playoffs since 2012, and that was their first appearance since 2000.

Key number: 41 — Points by Bobby Orr in 1966-67, the most ever by an NHL defenseman who was 18 on opening night. Ekblad had 39 last season. He’s good.

Watchability index: 6/10. You saw the part about them having Jaromir Jagr, right?

Best case: Other than Jagr regrowing the mullet — which we’re not ruling out — Panthers fans will be looking for progress from the team’s young players. If it happens, it may be enough to get them back into the playoffs in a weak Atlantic.

Worst case: While few teams could withstand a long-term injury to a starting goaltender, it would probably be more devastating to the Panthers than most. Luongo has stayed mostly healthy over the course of his career, but most goalies eventually find at least one stray puck or rut in the ice.

Suggested slogan: Come see the superstar with the awesome hair who plays like he’s been in the league for 25 years! Oh, and when you’re done watching Ekblad, we have Jagr too.

Bold prediction: The Panthers surge all the way up to fourth in the Atlantic but still miss the playoffs when the Metro grabs both wild cards.

Winnipeg Jets

Last season: 43-26-13, 99 points, fifth in the Central and 14th overall, lost in the first round.

Offseason report: It was a quiet offseason in Winnipeg, which wasn’t much of a surprise — with the exception of last season’s Evander Kane trade with the Sabres, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has preferred to stay conservative. Winnipeg lost free agent Michael Frolik to the Flames but did bring back intriguing talent Alexander Burmistrov from the KHL.

The bigger story was what the Jets haven’t done, at least not yet: sign Andrew Ladd or Dustin Byfuglien to extensions. There’s still time — neither hits free agency until after this season — but it’s tough to predict the Jets’ future without knowing whether it includes their captain and best player.

Outlook: Everyone spent last season waiting for the Jets’ feel-good story to run out of gas, and it never did — at least until they ran into the Ducks in the playoffs. But with a stacked farm system, there’s every reason to count last season as a moral victory that could serve as a stepping-stone on the way to bigger things. Now they just have to build on it, which admittedly is easier said than done in the Central.

Key number: 521:46 — Minutes spent on the penalty kill by the Jets last season, the worst mark in the league; only one team was even within 50 minutes. It’s fair to say discipline was an issue.

Watchability index: 5/10. Unless it’s a playoff game, in which case they become a must-watch (because all other senses will be rendered useless by the noise).

Best case: They build on last season thanks to the continuing development of their young players. Byfuglien and Ladd sign reasonable deals. The goaltending is good enough, which probably means it features somebody other than Ondrej Pavelec. Jets fans get to cheer another playoff appearance, and this time it even includes some wins.

Worst case: It wouldn’t take much of a step back for the Jets to miss the postseason. It might not even take a step back at all — it’s not hard to see them making modest improvement while still getting passed by a team like the Stars or someone in the Pacific.

Suggested slogan: Uh, any chance we could go back to the Southeast Division?

Bold prediction: The Jets miss the playoffs in a tough Central. Given how many times I predicted that last season, Winnipeg fans should be high-fiving right now.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Season preview, part one: The Bottom Feeders

With NHL training camps winding down and the regular season opening a week from tomorrow, it’s season preview time in the hockey world. Over the rest of the week, we’ll be breaking the league’s 30 teams into four divisions. We’ll look at the Contenders Division, featuring the teams that have the best shot at the Stanley Cup. We’ll cover the Middle-of-the-Pack Division, which in today’s NHL may be the worst possible place to be. And, of course, we’ll need a No Clue Division, one that covers that handful of teams that seem to defy easy categorization while offering the widest range of possible outcomes.

But we start off today with the Bottom-Feeder Division. These are the seven teams that figure to be much closer to contending for the first overall pick in next summer’s draft than for a playoff spot.

Of course, a lot can change over an 82-game season. Last year, this section contained the two worst teams in the league, as the Sabres and Coyotes were every bit as bad as expected, perhaps even intentionally. But it also contained three teams that made the playoffs, including one, the Nashville Predators, that very nearly won the league’s best division. Chalk it up as further proof that I’m an idiot and that the NHL is harder to predict than ever in the age of salary-cap-induced parity.

Much like the NHL, we want to keep the divisions balanced, which means seven or eight teams in each one. Last year, with Connor McDavid waiting at the entry draft, that meant narrowing down the list of plausibly bad teams. But this year, with a few of those long-term also-rans moving up, we’re left with a shortage of truly terrible outlooks.

So is there a Predators on this year’s list? Quite possibly — while a few of these teams are just about sure things to be awful, some could surprise if enough factors break just right. Let’s dive in.

Arizona Coyotes

Last season: 24-50-8, 56 points, last in the Pacific and 29th overall.

Offseason report: The Coyotes’ offseason looked a lot like a typical rebuilding team’s. They drafted a stud with a high pick, in this case Dylan Strome at no. 3 overall. They shuffled a few veterans out and added a few more, none of whom are likely to have a major impact. And, in an added twist, they re-signed two free agents they’d dealt at the deadline, Antoine Vermette and Zbynek Michalek. That’s a nice trick if you can pull it off.

Oh, and they traded for Chris Pronger. So there’s that.

Outlook: The Coyotes have amassed a decent haul of prospects to go with some good young NHL talent like defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. They’re going to be good someday. That day is not today.

Key number: Minus-68 — Even-strength goal differential for the Coyotes last year, the worst in the league. (Yes, even worse than Buffalo.)

Watchability index: 3/10. Watching a team in clear rebuilding mode always sounds like more fun that it really is. You think, Cool, a bunch of young guys, let’s see how they’re doing. Then five minutes later, you go I want to watch a good team now and reach for the remote.

Best case: Auston Matthews. I mean, it’s almost too perfect, right? An honest-to-goodness future superstar, born and raised in Arizona, and he comes along right as the Coyotes are hitting rock bottom. Even the most die-hard anti-tanking zealot would be OK with the Coyotes punting the season to build their franchise around Matthews, right?

Worst case: The NHL changes the draft lottery rules to make it much harder for teams to tank for the top pick. Oh, wait, it already did.

Suggested slogan: Auston .316* says you just whupped our ass. (*That’s our projected win percentage.)

Bold prediction: The Coyotes finish last, win the lottery, and the Earth is jolted off its axis by the strength of every hockey fan yelling “Conspiracy!” in Gary Bettman’s direction all at once.

New Jersey Devils

Last season: 32-36-14, 78 points, seventh in the Metro and 25th overall.

Offseason report: Remember the end of Cocoon when all the old people pile onto a boat and sail off so they can be picked up by a friendly alien spaceship? That was pretty much the Devils’ offseason, as a long list of veterans either retired, went unsigned, or were bought out. All of that added up to the Devils now being merely “too old,” instead of “depressingly old.”

Outlook: The Devils are quite possibly in the worst shape of any team; last week, we gave them the longest odds of winning a championship in the next five years. They’re not expected to be good, either this year or in the near future, but they don’t have the sort of prospect pipeline that eases the pain of losing. That said, there is some youth here, specifically on a decent blue line built around Adam Larsson. The Devils may be starting over, but they’re not quite starting from scratch.

Key number: First — Ranking of Cory Schneider’s save percentage and goals-against average among goaltenders with at least 100 games played since 2010. Better than Henrik Lundqvist, better than Carey Price, better than Tuukka Rask. They say you build from the crease out; in at least this one area, consider the Devils built.

Watchability index: 2/10. A bad team with a goaltender good enough to keep it from getting embarrassed? Pass.

Best case: Schneider is good enough to keep them competitive, rookie coach John Hynes looks like he belongs, and new GM Ray Shero flips enough veterans for future assets that this time next year, Devils fans can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Worst case: Schneider is good enough to keep them from adding a desperately needed top prospect at the draft, but they still miss the playoffs by a mile.

Suggested slogan: Smile, Devils fans! (Since for the first time since 1987, it will not immediately result in being stabbed by our GM.)

Bold prediction: With the remaining veterans in decline and the youngsters still finding their game, the Devils finish last in goals scored.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, September 25, 2015

Which teams have the odds for a Cup in the next five years? Part three.

And then there were 10 …

This is Part 3 of our attempt to rank all 30 NHL teams based on their odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years. Part 1, which covered the bottom 10 (and contains a more detailed explanation of the ground rules), can be found here. Part 2, featuring the league’s mushy middle, is here.

The 10 teams on yesterday’s list didn’t provoke all that much in the way of howling outrage, although I heard from fans of teams like the Stars (no. 13), Flames (no. 15), and even Blue Jackets (no. 18) who felt they deserved a spot in the top 10. And nobody agreed with the Kings at no. 11 — they’re either an active dynasty that should be way higher or a washed-up shell of themselves who should be far lower. But the biggest pushback came for a few of the teams that didn’t make yesterday’s post at all, or the one before that, meaning they’ve found a spot somewhere on today’s. Hey, no point doing a list like this without taking a few big swings, right?

And that brings us to the top 10. A reminder: We’re trying to rank teams based on their chances of winning a Cup at any point in our five-year window, which means that this is not a list of the teams with the best chance at winning during the 2015-16 season. In fact, a few of the teams on this list will probably miss the playoffs entirely this year. The future is hazy and hard to predict, but for our purposes it counts every bit as much as what happens this season.

The 10 teams on today’s list won’t be a surprise, at least to anyone who understands the process of elimination, but the order in which they appear probably will be. Yesterday’s middle-of-the-pack rankings were noticeably tight, with only a few percentage points separating the teams. That’s life in the age of parity, and it continues through the first half of today’s list. But we’ll see a little more separation as we get near the top, as current powerhouses try to defend their turf from teams on the verge of joining the elite, not to mention a pair of rebuilding teams looking toward the future.

No. 10 — Montreal Canadiens

Led by an MVP goaltender and one of the league’s best defensemen, both still in their prime, the Habs just slip into the top 10. The current roster is very good, their cap has been reasonably well managed, and the farm system is solid if not spectacular. Even assuming Carey Price regresses a bit back to mere mortal status, they should be contenders for years to come.

Can that translate to the franchise’s first trip to the final in 23 years? They’ve been close in recent years, and may have been there in 2014 if Price hadn’t gotten hurt in the conference final. And while they’re not what you’d call a young team, they have enough youth at the NHL level or close to it that you could see them getting better with time — if Alex Galchenyuk can be the player he’s shown flashes of becoming, the Habs could have a future star just entering his prime.

As odd as it seems to suggest it, the one major hurdle to Montreal’s return to glory may be behind the bench. There may not be a coach in the league who’s combined for more on-ice success and off-ice criticism than Michel Therrien, and there are plenty of Montreal fans who don’t think the team can take the next step until he’s gone. That may be true, but it’s far from a fatal flaw — it’s a lot easier to change coaches than it is to find a franchise goaltender or build up a blue line.

There’s no sign that a change behind the bench is imminent in Montreal, but it’s worth remembering that the last team to fire Therrien was the 2008-09 Penguins, who did so midway through a disappointing regular season. They went on to win the Stanley Cup a few months later. Hmm …

Odds of a Cup in five years: 20 percent

No. 9 — New York Rangers

Here’s the good news if you’re a Rangers fan: They have plenty of talent, they can always spend to the cap, they have arguably the best goaltender in the world, they play in a division that’s very much up for grabs, and they’re bringing back largely the same core that’s been to at least the conference final three times in four seasons. They’ve spent years knocking on the door. There’s no good reason to think this won’t be the year they finally kick it down.

Here’s the bad news: If it’s not this year, then when? This is a veteran team — not old, but veteran, in the sense that most of these guys are what they are by now — with lots of cap space tied up in long-term deals, many of which are questionable. The prospect pipeline is mostly barren thanks to a recent series of trades that have sent picks and young players elsewhere. And that all-world goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, is now 33, right around the age when goalies often start to see a sharp decline in performance.

Maybe new GM Jeff Gorton will work some magic, some unexpected prospects will burst through, and Lundqvist will turn out to be another Martin Brodeur or Dominik Hasek and have five more years of All-Star magic ahead of him. But much like the next team on our list, it sure seems like the Rangers’ window may be closed after another season or two. Two years of realistic contention is still two more than most teams in this league have, though.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 21 percent

No. 8 — Pittsburgh Penguins

All the warning signs on the dashboard are flashing in Pittsburgh. The farm system is bare, quite possibly the worst in the NHL. The salary cap is jammed with big-dollar, long-term contracts, including four that last until 2022 or longer and carry a combined annual average cap hit of more than $32 million. The roster isn’t old, but it’s not young either, and again, there’s little in the way of help on the horizon.

The bottom line: This team better win now, because it’s going to get ugly real soon.

So, can they win now? It sure looks like it, thanks to a stacked top six highlighted by the arrival of Phil Kessel. The Penguins are going to be an awfully tough team to keep off the scoreboard. They’ll need to be, because the blue line isn’t good and Marc-Andre Fleury is always a question mark in goal. But for all the hockey world’s talk about grit and heart and character, this is increasingly a league where elite talent carries the day, and the Penguins have tons of it — maybe more than anyone else.

If it’s not enough to win this year or next, it will be fascinating to see what their next move looks like. You can’t really go into a full-scale, multi-season rebuild when you’re riding the last years of Sidney Crosby’s prime, but something would have to give. Would it be the long-rumored Evgeni Malkin trade? That’s a possibility, but it’s one for another day. The Penguins’ calendar is squarely focused on right now. And for now, they’re a very good team that has as good a shot as just about anyone. For now.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 21 percent

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Which teams have the odds for a Cup in the next five years? Part two.

In Part 2 of a three-part series, we continue attempting to answer the seemingly simple question: Which NHL teams have the best odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years?

In Part 1, we counted down from nos. 30 to 21, covering the 10 teams with the worst odds of getting their hands on a Cup in the foreseeable future. If you missed that article, you can find the basic ground rules of what we’re trying to do there.

The reaction to Tuesday’s article was interesting. I don’t think I heard from a single Devils fan who had any problem with them being ranked no. 30, and for the most part, fans of the Canucks (no. 28), Leafs (no. 26), and Senators (no. 24) kept the outrage to a minimum. On the other hand, some felt like the Panthers (no. 27) and Coyotes (no. 25) deserved better, and that I had too much faith in the Flyers, even down at no. 23.

The most controversial team listed was the Predators, at no. 21. I see a team that needs to take another step but will have to do it with an aging franchise goaltender, an underwhelming group of forwards, and a good but not great prospect pipeline. Others see a strong, young blue line and more than enough upside to catch the league’s elite. Either way, if there’s a team in the bottom 10 that could prove me wrong with a Cup win this season, the Preds are probably it.

Today, we’re onto the mushy middle — 10 teams that each have a realistic chance at glory but wouldn’t necessarily be considered the favorites. There’s not much to choose from among this group, as the narrow gap in their odds shows. If you want a catchy subtitle to go with today’s article, I’d suggest “parity.”

No. 20 — Boston Bruins

Does Don Sweeney have a plan? That’s the big question in Boston, and nobody’s figured out the answer yet. Sweeney took over the GM’s chair from Peter Chiarelli this summer, and he went on to guide the Bruins to one of the most confusing offseasons of any NHL team. His moves ranged from “this guy is incompetent” to “he might be a misunderstood genius,” without many stops in between.

The end result is that the Bruins are old and expensive, and the farm system is merely OK. But they still have one of the game’s best two-way players in Patrice Bergeron and one of the best goaltenders in Tuukka Rask, which makes for a pretty solid foundation. They’ve also got Zdeno Chara, who may not have much gas left in the tank but isn’t ready to move into the “washed-up” column quite yet. They had three first-round picks this year and still have Malcolm Subban as a future starter/trade bait. And they’ve still got most of the core that formed a championship team just a few years ago. And we haven’t even mentioned future Norris winner Dougie Hamilton, who can be the team’s franchise player once …

Oh, right. We’re back to that oddball summer again. Maybe all of those changes will help a team that was reportedly divided last year, but the bottom line is that the Bruins seem to be headed in the wrong direction. They’re no sure thing to make the playoffs this season. But if they do make it, at least for now, I’m not sure I’d want to play them.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 12 percent

No. 19 — Colorado Avalanche

There may not be a more polarizing team on today’s list than the Avalanche, who are absolutely stacked with young talent after spending a few years racking up top-five picks. Their farm system dried up after that haul, but they replenished some of it with this summer’s Ryan O’Reilly trade. And they’re still just one season removed from a 112-point season.

Of course, that 2013-14 year had every analytics guy screaming “fraud.” and nobody who paid attention to the numbers was remotely surprised when the Avs plummeted all the way out of the playoffs last season. And there’s a bigger issue hanging over the club’s future: the nagging feeling that team management might not know what it’s doing. Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic know a thing or two about winning Cups in Colorado, but in an era in which every team seems to be moving toward a more modern approach to thinking about the game, the Avs are still defiantly old school. If the analytics movement is wrong, the Avalanche will be in great shape. But the analytics movement isn’t wrong, so … yeah.

And yet, in a league where strength down the middle is key, it’s not hard to imagine a team led by Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon doing some damage. There’s enough talent here to make a run or two. And if and when they eventually smarten up, maybe even more than that.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 13 percent

No. 18 — Columbus Blue Jackets

OK, maybe we spoke too soon when handing the Avalanche today’s “most polarizing” crown. On the one hand, the Blue Jackets weren’t very good last year, finishing 11th in the East. On the other, they had atrocious luck, and almost everyone agrees they were probably a better team than their record indicated. On the one hand, any talk of a Stanley Cup seems awfully ambitious for a franchise that has still never won so much as a playoff round. On the other, this is a look at the next five years, not the previous 15. On the one hand, there’s a solid case being made that they’ve screwed up their long-term cap by overpaying mediocre players. On the other, there’s a solid case that their young stars and strong prospect pipeline could make them one of the very best teams in the league within three years.

All of this is to say that plenty of readers won’t think the Jackets belong on today’s list at all. They should obviously have been on yesterday’s, with the other also-rans. Or maybe they should obviously be on tomorrow’s, with the other elites.

I still think they’re closer to the former than the latter, as their ranking indicates. But after years of being cannon fodder for the rest of the league, the Blue Jackets have a chance to start making some noise of their own very soon.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 15 percent

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