Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Friday live blog

The NHL has a packed schedule today, and since everyone else who works for ESPN is American and has the day off, I decided to take over their hockey site with a live blog. I'll be updating throughout the day. Drop by, and feel free to jump into the comments section, since I'm guessing I'll need the backup.

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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Grab Bag: I was saying "Booo-ruce"

In this week's Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL needs to stop making terrible rule changes that won't fix the scoring problem
- An obscure player is used as a pawn in one of the great shady trades of all-time
- Comedy stars, in which Ryan Kesler defrauds someone other than the Ducks' cap consultant
- Why the NHL all-star game should be like Survivor
- And a YouTube breakdown of the most awkward interview in the career of Gary Bruce Bettman. Wait, "Bruce"?

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Who's better, Habs or Rangers? It might be the Capitals

The highlight of Wednesday night's packed schedule was a showdown between the two teams sitting on top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers faced off in New York, with the Canadiens earning an emphatic 5-1 win in what felt very much like a statement game.

And so, on the morning after, we can all agree on who now deserves the title of the East's best team.

The Washington Capitals.

Well, OK, I might be getting a bit ahead of myself here. The Canadiens deserve full credit for Wednesday night's impressive win, even if it might have cost them Carey Price, who left after two periods with another apparent leg injury. And nobody's going to write off the Rangers based on one game, even though their fans must be at least a little worried about how easily the Habs' speedsters exposed them all night.

But while all this was going on in New York, the Capitals were earning a tidy 5-3 home win over the Winnipeg Jets, drawing within three points of the Rangers for first in the Metro, with Washington holding a game in hand. Both teams have been hot in November. And putting aside the (embarrassing, inexcusable) presence of the loser point, the Rangers woke up Thursday with a 16-6 record, while the Caps are 15-6. Not much to choose from there.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A brief history of the NHL pretending it's going to do something about scoring

The 1992-93 NHL season is often seen as among the best ever. Mario Lemieux beat cancer and had 160 points in 60 games. Teemu Selanne obliterated the rookie scoring record with 76 goals. A new wave of Russian stars like Sergei Federov, Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure were dazzling fans. And the league saw 14 players hit the 50-goal mark, and 20 reach 100 points.

The season also featured 7.26 goals per game. That was well down from the high-flying 80s, which at their peak had topped the 8.00 mark, but it was the highest offensive output in four years. And, although we didn’t know it at the time, it was the highest mark we’d see for another 22 years and counting.

The following year, which happened to be the first full season under the watchful eye of a new commissioner named Gary Bettman, scoring dropped to its lowest level in two decades. While some were confident that the plunge was a temporary blip, there was general agreement that something should be done. The only question was: What? And so the debate began.

If that sounds a lot like the sort of conversation we’re having right now, well, that’s because it is. This has been kind of a thing for the NHL ever since Bettman arrived. Scoring drops, the league scratches its head, and then someone announces that they’ve come up with a solution.

The whole thing can start to feel repetitive. So I went back over the last 22 years of NHL history, and found articles from each and every season in which somebody is expressing concern about plunging scoring rates, and the league is assuring us that it has it all figured out. Just for fun, we’ll also look at what (if any) rules actually did change that year, and keep track of the overall league-wide scoring rate.

So yes, today’s NHL may feature scoring levels that are headed towards historical lows, and have been for decades. But don’t worry, everyone: the NHL is on this. They’ve got it all figured out. And they’ve got a plan to get scoring back to where it needs to be…

The season: 1993-94
The headline: Scoring is down but fights are flourishing (January 12, 1994)
The proposed changes: Among a long list of complaints and grievances, the referees are singled out for allowing too much obstruction.
What actually happened: Not much. The league made one minor change, slightly loosening the rules around goals scored with a high stick.
Money quote: “Last season at this point, each game averaged 7.30 goals. So far this year, the average is 6.06.” Don’t worry, I’m sure it won’t last.
Average goals/game: The final goals-per-game average settled in at 6.48, making 93-94 the lowest scoring season since 1973-74. Or, as we call it now: “the good old days”.

The season: 1994-95
The headline: Neutral-zone trap to champagne pop (June 26, 1995)
The proposed changes: A crackdown on obstruction “so that skilled players aren't nullified”. Also mentioned is a “more radical suggestion”: eliminating the two-line offside.
What actually happened: Neither of those changes would actually be made for a decade.
Money quote: “Claude Lemieux of the Devils, who won the Conn Smythe trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs, seemed insulted when asked about critics of the team's efficient neutral-zone trap. ‘Well, too bad,’ he said. ‘Go watch a show somewhere else.’” Which they did, according to weeping TV executives.
Average goals/game: 5.98. This was the first time the league had been below the 6-goal mark since 1970.

The season: 1995-96
The headline: League hopes anti-trap rules lead to more excitement (Sept 30, 1995)
The proposed changes: This article covers the NHL’s attempt to crackdown on obstruction, especially in the neutral zone. Nobody seems to really like it, with Mike Milbury complaining that “Hockey as we know it has ceased to exist”.
What actually happened: The crackdown resulted in a temporary boost to powerplays and overall scoring. Then the season ended with a triple overtime 1-0 game.
Money quote: “Labour troubles will be a thing of the past – and the controversial neutral zone trap may be doomed too…” Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and call that an 0-for-2.
Average goals/game: 6.28, which remains the highest mark of the last two decades and counting.

The season: 1996-97
The headline: Nice spin, but quality is answer (January 21, 1997)
The proposed changes: Bettman shrugs off plunging scoring rates by pointing to better goaltending, although director of officiation Bryan Lewis admits that referees need to do a better job of calling the rulebook.
What actually happened: No major changes.
Money quote: “In his annual state-of-the-league address during last weekend's All-Star festivities, Commissioner Gary Bettman sounded like Mr. Rogers.” Seriously, this whole article is just the legendary Helene Elliott going full B.S. detector on Bettman. By this point, the media was officially turning on the new commissioner.
Average goals/game: 5.84.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Things just got interesting in Winnipeg

In a league where the best of the best monopolize most of the attention, there aren’t many sixth-place teams that could be described as “fascinating.” The Winnipeg Jets are becoming the exception that proves the rule.

The Jets are a deep team, one that’s stacked with young players at both the NHL level and beyond. They have an excellent blue line and an underrated cast of forwards. They have the talent to beat any team in the league on any given night, and they’ve already notched wins over the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. They’re a darn good team.

They’re also in the Central Division, where “darn good” isn’t good enough. At 10-9-2, they’ve banked 10 ROWs and 22 points, which would be good for third in the Pacific. In the Central, that leaves them sixth, looking up at five excellent teams, none of whom seem likely to have the sort of extended cold streak that would allow a team chasing them to gain big ground. A recent six-game losing streak appeared to have the Jets in danger of falling out of the hunt entirely, even before the calendar flipped to December.

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