Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Coaches on the cold seat: Who are the NHL's unfireable five?

Hearing about the hot seat is a fact of life for NHL coaches. From pretty much the moment you’re hired, somebody somewhere is already trying to figure out how close you are to getting fired. We already got a head start on this season’s hot-seat watch over the weekend, based on what the oddsmakers were forecasting.

It always feels a little bit awkward to dig into those kinds of discussions. Sure, hiring and firing is a part of the game, but you’re still dealing with people’s livelihoods. Speculating over who might be next to lose their job isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time.

So today, let’s stay positive by coming at the question from the other side: Who are the five NHL coaches who come into the season with the coldest seat? In other words, who are the five guys who are the least likely to get fired this year?

It’s a tougher task than you might think, especially since we’re going to tack on one important caveat that none of the people who are already complaining in the comment section will bother to read: Anyone who was hired in the 2017 off-season doesn’t count. After all, that would be too easy. Aside from the occasional Barry Melrose or John Maclean situation, virtually nobody gets fired during their very first season with a team. So the seven guys who were hired over the summer are off the board.

That still leaves 24 coaches with at least a little bit of tenure. Surely we can find five of them that are stone-cold locks to keep their jobs until next season, right? I think we can. And if not, at least it should be fun for all of you to send me the link to this post in a few months when one of these guys gets a pink slip. Either way, here we go.

Mike Babcock, Maple Leafs

Why he’s completely safe: Babcock is one of the most respected coaches in the league, and he worked a near-miracle by taking the Maple Leafs from a dead-last laughingstock into a playoff team in one season. This year, he’s got the team playing well enough to look like an early contender for the Atlantic Division title.

But as impressive as all that may be, it’s not why Babcock is one of the easiest cold-seat picks. That has more to do with his contract, which makes him the highest-paid coach in hockey and runs until just after the Sun explodes. Granted, the Maple Leafs have all the money, and Babcock wouldn’t be the first Leafs coach to walk the plank with time left on his deal. But Brendan Shanahan didn’t sign Babcock to this sort of deal because he was thinking of firing him three years in. Even if the Leafs wobble off the playoff path, Babcock’s not going anywhere, at least not any time soon.

Well, unless…: I mean, this is a Lou Lamoriello team, so we can’t completely rule out a day when Babcock shows up at practice with sideburns and gets fired just on principle. But other than that, or some sort of major off-ice scandal, Babcock is as safe as they come, even in a market where weird stuff seems to happen to coaches.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet




Monday, October 16, 2017

Weekend wrap: Senator six-packs

So that was a pretty decent road trip for the Senators.

Facing back-to-back weekend games in Alberta, Ottawa put an even dozen goals on the board against the Flames and Oilers. Combined with Tuesday’s shootout win over the Canucks, that earned Ottawa the first sweep of a three-game Western road trip in franchise history.

In the process, they gave both of their opponents plenty to think about. Friday’s 6–0 win over the Flames saw them light up Mike Smith, putting the first serious dent in his Calgary resume. The good news is that the schedule served up a quick chance to bounce back, and the Flames eschewed conventional wisdom by sending Smith right back out there on Saturday to face the Canucks. It paid off with a 5–2 win, one that should wipe away at least a little of the bad taste from Friday’s beatdown.

The Oilers weren’t so lucky; they get to dwell on their loss until tomorrow night. And there will be plenty of tough questions for the team in the meantime, especially given how last week played out. The team hadn’t played since Monday, and had spent most of the time in between vowing to be better after a pair of losses. Coach Todd McLellan was publicly scolding his team — “There wasn’t a lot of hugging going on,” he’d explained, “there was a lot of kicking” – and even raised some eyebrows by taking aim at the team’s stars. They were at home and well-rested against a team that had played the night before. And then they laid an egg, leaving them at a disappointing 1-3-0 on the year. It’s not good enough.

Meanwhile, the Senators are heading home at 3-0-2 on the year, making them one of only two teams in the league (along with the Kings) without a regulation loss. Their eight points leaves them in a four-way logjam on top of the Atlantic, and at +11, they’ve got the Eastern Conference’s best goals differential. The penalty kill remains perfect on the year. And the power play is finally clicking, connecting five times in Alberta after shooting blanks for the season’s first three games.

Oh, and they did it all without Erik Karlsson, whose absence was supposed to be a deal-breaker. He could be back as soon as tomorrow, by the way. Not bad at all for a team that just about everyone was ready to write off as a playoff contender, even after last year’s deep run.

Is it enough to get them into our weekly top five? Let’s find out.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (4-1-0, +7 true goals differential*): They barely hold onto a spot after a tough loss to the surprising Devils, but Saturday’s OT win in Montreal offered some redemption.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (4-1-0, +5): They’re in Winnipeg tomorrow, and then get four straight at home. That sets up the possibility of a rare hot start for a franchise that usually specializes in the opposite.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet




Saturday, October 14, 2017

Saturday storylines: Leafs vs. Habs

Welcome to our weekly look ahead to the Saturday slate of games. Last week, we told you all about how unstoppable Connor McDavid was. Since then, he’s had no goals, one assist and is a minus-three and the Oilers haven’t won a game.

Whose career will we curse this week? Read on to find out.

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Canadiens

Not exactly a tough call here. Any time the Leafs and Habs meet, it’s something special, especially if it’s on a Saturday night. And if the matchup comes at a time when the two teams can offer up some particularly interesting storylines to chew on, all the better.

That’s the case tonight, as we’ll have plenty of subplots to work with. For example: Offence. The Canadiens can’t score, and the Leafs can’t stop scoring. Not counting the shootout, the Canadiens have scored just four goals all year. Through four games, they’ve yet to manage a multi-goal period.

Meanwhile, the Leafs have already scored three or more in a period four times. The Canadiens got shut out by Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers on Sunday; the night before, the Leafs scored more goals against Lundqvist in the first period than the Habs have in their entire season.

So yes, that would seem to tilt things in Toronto’s favour. But then there’s a second subplot: Goaltending. The Canadiens have the best goalie in the world, while the Maple Leafs still aren’t quite sure what they have. Frederik Andersen looked sharp against the Jets in the opener, but he’s been iffy ever since. He’s not getting a ton of help from a young team that still struggles in its own end, but his .871 save percentage has to have Leaf fans worried (and checking up on Calvin Pickard scouting reports).

Carey Price hasn’t exactly been on fire either – he’s clocking in at .899 – but his track record is just slightly better than Andersen’s, and he’s been the least of Montreal’s concerns so far.

These games have always been fun over the years, even when one team (or both) wasn’t very good. We’ve seen bad blood, sudden death and unfortunate singalongs. Mix in the fact that this year’s meeting could be a first-round playoff preview – no it’s not too early to talk about that; we’re just one good Lightning season away from it finally happening – along with what’s sure to be a vocal Montreal crowd, 14 straight wins for the Habs in the rivalry, the ongoing Alex Galchenyuk drama, and all the Maple Leafs’ best players calling Jonathan Drouin “grandpa,” and you’ve got a matchup that should be all sorts of fun.

It’s the first of four Leafs/Habs meetings this year, and all of them come on Saturday night. We’ll try not to put each and every one in the feature spot of this column, but no promises.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet




Friday, October 13, 2017

Grab bag: What the hell was going on in 1917?

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- What's the deal with all these NHL scoring records that were set in 1917?
- Thoughts on the Golden Knights' home opener
- Paraguay's all-time greatest NHLer takes home obscure player honors
- The three comedy stars feature a player describing his butt to a world leader
- And we celebrate Friday the 13th by watching a maniac in a goalie mask hack and slash innocent people

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports




Wednesday, October 11, 2017

10 things we've learned from the NHL's first week

The NHL regular season is now one week old, and I think it’s fair to say that we’ve got everything figured out.

I mean, it’s been a week. That’s plenty of time. The next 80 games or so shouldn’t bring many surprises, so we can pretty much pencil in the final standings, ride out the last few months and start looking forward to the playoffs.

Or maybe not. On the off chance that we don’t quite have it all sorted out quite yet, it might be worth a moment to take stock of where we are after week one. Here are 10 things we’ve learned so far, and how likely they are to continue to be true.

What we learned: The Golden Knights don’t look like an expansion team at all.

Nobody expected the Knights to be all that competitive this year, especially when they unveiled their expansion-draft strategy of “take all the defencemen and then figure it out later.” But through their first week of meaningful action, they’re a perfect 3-0-0, and have even shown up near the top of some power rankings.

Sure, those three wins have included one against a beleaguered backup goalie and two against the Coyotes, who are the beleaguered backup goalie of NHL teams. Still, wins are wins.

Will it continue? That depends what the “it” is here. Can they continue to exceed expectations? Sure. They’re the first expansion team of the parity-infested salary-cap era, so it shouldn’t shock anyone if they’re more competitive than we thought.

But do they make the playoffs? Sorry, Vegas. Some long shots are just too far-fetched, and this might be one of them. It still seems as if the most likely outcome here is that the Knights will be selling by mid-season, and will be better in the long-term for having done so.

What we learned: The Canadiens can’t score.

Through four games, they’ve scored four goals, which ties them with Alex Ovechkin for most goals scored in games involving the Canadiens. Not surprisingly, it’s added up to just one win, and that one came in a shootout against the Sabres.

Will it continue? It might. They’ll average more than a goal per game, of course, and they’re not going to shoot 2.6 per cent forever. But we knew heading into the season that scoring would be a concern for this team. They had just 226 goals last year, ranking ahead of only Ottawa among Eastern playoff teams. That was before losing Alexander Radulov to Dallas, not to mention Andrei Markov to the KHL.

Marc Bergevin didn’t sit back, trading for Jonathan Drouin and signing Ales Hemsky, so there was room for optimism. But so far, it’s not clicking.

The question here may be how long the Habs get to find their firepower before Bergevin feels the need to do it for them. He took a lot of heat during the summer for not finding experienced help down the middle, and at some point he might have to just go out and pay the price for Matt Duchene, or somebody who looks like him.

We’re not quite there yet, but patience isn’t exactly a virtue Montreal fans are known for.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet