Friday, January 20, 2017

Podcast: New York state of mind

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- The NHL had a bunch of high-scoring games this week and they were great
- With Henrik Lundqvist struggling, are the Rangers a team in crisis?
- How is Garth Snow still employed? (Dave has an intriguing theory.)
- Reader questions
- More debate over the NHL's top 100
- More hints about something interesting that's happening next week
... and lots more.

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Grab bag: Let's go Canes

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL royally screws up an intent-to-blow call that more people should be talking about
- Introducing "the Skate of Shame", and why every defenseman should fear it
- An obscure Donald who went to Washington but didn't stay for four years because that would have been too long
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a musical tribute to your new favorite underdog, the Carolina Hurricanes

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Auston Matthews' letter to his younger self

If you spend much time reading about sports online, you’ve no doubt encountered The Players’ Tribune, a website that features articles written by athletes. That unique hook, paired with a smart social media strategy, means that the site’s content tends to be unavoidable.

That’s never more true that when the site produces its signature piece: the “Letter To My Younger Self”, in which an athlete sits down to pen some words of wisdom to themselves from days gone by. It’s a fascinating feature that gives us valuable insight into the lives of professional athletes, such as the fact that they all write in exactly the same voice. Even Brendan Shanahan did one.

Apparently, he’s not alone. Top secret sources inform me that Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews has been asked to contribute a letter of his own for an upcoming edition. And as luck would have it, DGB spies were able to get their hands on the first draft…


Dear younger Auston,

Man, it seems like it was only a year ago that you were just a wide-eyed kid, sitting around dreaming about going first overall in the entry draft and wondering where your NHL journey would begin.

That’s because it was only a year ago. Look, don’t be a wiseass. This is why nobody likes teenagers.

Anyway, the point is that I’m your older and wiser self, and I’m here to give you some good news. It all works out pretty well.

It turns out you do go first overall at the draft, just like you’d always hoped. And that means you end up playing for the team that wins the lottery: The Toronto Maple Leafs. I know that comes as a surprise because you assumed that the whole thing was rigged so that only the Edmonton Oilers ever won, since that’s what Connor McDavid told you that one time you met him and he shook your hand while blinking “help me” in morse code.

But nope… you’re going to be a Maple Leaf.

That means you get to move to Toronto, which is a cool place. As best you can tell, the city’s baseball, basketball and soccer teams have always been really good, so there’s a lot of pressure on you to help the Maple Leafs get there too. But the whole town is really behind you. Everyone offers advice, from the cab drivers to the waiters to the hot dog vendors. Well, one hot dog vendor in particular. He keeps trying to hand you a note that he says is from “a friend” and which just has the word “RUN!” finger-painted in mustard. Still, I think that counts as being helpful.

>> Read the full post at TheAthletic

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Ranking 50 years' worth of fun Maple Leafs teams

The 2016–17 Toronto Maple Leafs season has the team’s fans spewing the f-word. But for once, it’s the positive version: These guys are… fun.

We don’t really know if they’re good yet. They’re certainly better than they’ve been in years, and probably far better than just about anyone predicted. They’re holding down a playoff spot, sure, but have also lost more games than they’ve won, so the jury’s still out.

But fun? There’s really no debate. This year’s Leafs are young, fast and play high-event hockey, even when their coach doesn’t want them to. Love them or hate them, there may not be a team in the league right now that’s more entertaining to watch.

Maple Leafs fans haven’t had many great teams to cheer on over the last half-century. The team hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, which is a fact that you might be familiar with if you’ve studied your history and/or ever spoken to anyone who doesn’t like the Leafs for more than three seconds. Since then, Leafs Nation hasn’t even had a trip to the final to cheer about.

But when it comes to fun teams, Leafs fans have enjoyed a few. Not as many as other teams, maybe but enough to fill up an arbitrary list.

So today, let's make that list, by counting down the top 10 fun Maple Leafs teams since that 1967 championship.

No. 10: 2012–13

Fun is relative. When a team is consistently good, fans can start to get a little spoiled, somehow finding things to complain about even as their team rumbles its way to yet another 100-point season. (Yes, we're all looking at you right now, Blackhawk fans.)

The flip side is that when things are bad, you take whatever fun you can get.

That's why this season cracks the list, if only barely. Sure, finishing third in your division in a lockout-shortened season isn't much to brag about. But when you've suffered through seven straight years without a playoff appearance, you'll take it. And this really was an entertaining team, one that had Phil Kessel doing Phil Kessel things, a breakout season by Nazim Kadri, strong goaltending from the perpetually chipper James Reimer, and a lineup full of face-punchers who were always doing face-punchy things.

It all added up to a rare playoff berth. And despite going into their matchup with the Bruins as underdogs and falling behind 3–1 in the series, the Leafs scrapped back with a pair of hard-fought wins to force a seventh game.

I PVR'ed that game and haven't watched it yet, so nobody tell me how it ends.

No. 9: 1989–90

A rare appearance on our list by a season from the 1980s comes from the only Leafs team of the decade to so much as finish .500. But this team was a sneakily entertaining entry, one that finished third in the league in both goals scored and goals allowed.

They were still the Maple Leafs, so I don't need to tell you that it ended badly. They went out meekly in the first round of the playoffs, losing in five to the Blues in a series best remembered for Allan Bester giving up Sergei Momesso's overtime goal from outside the blueline. Far worse, this was the season that GM Floyd Smith decided it would be a good idea to trade a future first-round pick for journeyman defenceman Tom Kurvers, costing the team a shot at Eric Lindros and Scott Niedermayer.

But there was a bright side. The season's breakout star was winger Gary Leeman, who became the second player in franchise history to score 50 goals. He'd never come close to that total again, but that temporary boost in value would pay big dividends for the team in a few years.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

With the Selke race wide open, who could emerge as the favorite?

When it comes to handing out hardware at the NHL Awards, the Selke hasn't been all that tough to figure out in recent seasons. For the last five years, the same three players have dominated the voting. Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews have accounted for all five wins, as well as eleven of the fifteen finalist spots.

But this year is shaping up like it could be different, with all three players slumping offensively. Maybe that shouldn't matter, since the Selke is supposed to be a defensive award. But over the years, it's morphed into a trophy that recognizes two-way play, which means you need to be scoring to get much consideration. If you pro-rate the lockout year, nobody has won the Selke with fewer than 55 points in the salary cap era. None of the Big Three are on pace to get there this year.

With half a season left to play, that could still change. And it's always possible that in the absence of a slam dunk candidate emerging somewhere else, voters could opt to play it safe and go back to one of the old familiars. But for the first time in years, the Selke really does seem up for grabs.

So who has a shot? Assuming that Bergeron, Toews or Kopitar don't take the trophy home this time, here are the five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.

Ryan Kesler, Ducks

The case for: The veteran is having his best season since 2011, and is on pace for about 65 points while playing tough minutes for a first-place Ducks team. His advanced stats won't blow anyone away, but they're good enough that the analytics guys shouldn't push back too hard, and everyone loves a good comeback narrative.

The case against: While it wouldn't be held against him by voters, Kesler doesn't really fit our "new blood" theme; he was the last player to win the award before the Bergeron/Toews/Kopitar trinity took over, and he finished third in the voting last year.

More importantly, there's at least an argument to be made that linemate Andrew Cogliano deserves the award, too. If that line of thinking catches on, the two could end up splitting votes and knocking each other out of the running.

Mikko Koivu, Wild

The case for: While it's meant as a single-season award, voters tend to like to treat the Selke as more of a career achievement; it's rare for somebody to win the award without having built up a resume over the years. That works in Koivu's favor, as he's been considered a strong defensive forward for a decade now, finishing as high as fourth in the Selke voting back in 2009. He hasn't come especially close since, but he's had votes every year.

New coach Bruce Boudreau has leaned heavily on Koivu in the defensive zone, and his ability to handle the duties has been a big part of Minnesota's unexpected success. With the Wild emerging as one of the one of the year's best surprises, voters will be paying attention.

The case against: Koivu's all-around numbers are good but not great, and he's benefitting from a sky-high on-ice save percentage and PDO that's unlikely to continue. With Devan Dubnyk looking like the Vezina favorite and Boudreau having a shot at the Jack Adams, voters might figure that their ballots are already getting crowded with Wild names.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News