Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Which holdovers could make the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2016?

The Hockey Hall of Fame announced its class of 2015 yesterday, and it’s a big one. The Hall will welcome seven new members this winter: five players and two inductees in the builder’s category.

The big name is Nicklas Lidstrom, the seven-time Norris Trophy winner who’d been considered an absolute first-ballot lock since well before he retired. He’ll be joined by former teammate Sergei Fedorov, who also gets in on the first try. Fedorov wasn’t quite a slam dunk, but he was close, and certainly deserves the honor.

Two other picks will cause at least a little bit of discussion, although for very different reasons. Phil Housley finally gets the call after waiting since 2006. He’s the fourth-highest-scoring defenseman of all time and had nearly 400 points more than the next-highest-scoring blueliner who wasn’t in, but his defensive shortcomings had hurt his candidacy — he’ll be one of a very small group of HOF defensemen with a minus rating over the course of his career.

And then there’s Chris Pronger. On merit, there’s no doubt Pronger belongs in the Hall — he was arguably the best non-Lidstrom defenseman of his era, and is the only blueliner since Bobby Orr to win the MVP. He’s also technically still an active player, despite suffering a career-ending injury in 2011, and that’s where this gets messy. He’s still under contract, and was even traded just a few days ago. But the Hall had already ruled him eligible months ago, so he was going to get in.

The Hall also welcomed three other inductees: builders Bill Hay and Peter Karmanos Jr., and longtime Team USA defenseman (and gold-medal winner) Angela Ruggiero, who becomes the fourth woman honored.

The seven honorees will be inducted in November. In the meantime, it’s time to start picking through the snubs and near misses as we try to figure out who has the inside track on the class of 2016. There aren’t any especially impressive candidates coming into the pool next year, which opens up the field for some players who missed the cut this time.

Here are 10 players who were passed over this year who may have the best case for induction in 2016.

Mark Recchi

Eligible since: 2014

The numbers: 577 goals and 1,533 points over a 22-year career. He won three Cups, played in seven All-Star Games, and was a second-team All-Star once.

The case for: The 1,533-point total ranks 12th all time, and everyone else in the top 25 is either already in or will go in on the first ballot as soon as they’re eligible (Teemu Selanne and Jaromir Jagr). Offensive production has always been the key criteria for induction, so seeing a guy with Recchi’s massive career totals left out seems bizarre.

The case against: Recchi is the classic example of a player who was good for a long time but was never really considered elite. He was very good in the early ’90s, and was a consistent producer well into his forties, but he was never in the conversation for best player in the league, or even close to it.

If I had a vote: If we were picking between guys with a high peak vs. guys who were very good for a long time, I’d take the peak over longevity. But Recchi’s top years were pretty good, and there does come a point when a guy’s career numbers get so high that he has to get in. I think Recchi is right around that zone, so while I don’t mind seeing him wait a bit, he’d get my vote to go in eventually.

Bottom line: Everyone seems to assume Recchi will get in someday. Maybe next year is the year.

Dave Andreychuk

Eligible since: 2009

The numbers: 640 goals, 1,338 points, two All-Star Games.

The case for: He scored the 14th-most goals in NHL history, and every eligible player ahead of him was a slam dunk. In fact, other than Recchi, Andreychuk has over 100 more goals than any other eligible player. That’s stunning, and feels like it should be enough to get him in on its own. He’s also one of the few players to have lifted the Stanley Cup as a captain, having done so in 2004 as the veteran leader on an otherwise young Lightning team.

The case against: Along with Recchi, Andreychuk is the poster child for the “long career, big totals, good but never great” class of player. He played in an All-Star Game only twice and never got significant votes for any major award, and it’s fair to say that nobody ever dragged their kids to the rink to see Andreychuk play. He also racked up most of those goals playing in the high-flying ’80s and early ’90s (although that’s not as big a factor as you might think; on an era-adjusted basis he still ranks 18th all time).

If I had a vote: I’ve lobbied for Andreychuk’s name to be featured more prominently in the HOF discussion; that he rarely generates any sort of buzz is baffling to me. That said, I’m not sure I’d vote for him, for the same reason I wouldn’t have voted for Dino Ciccarelli and would at least hesitate on Recchi.

Bottom line: It doesn’t seem like Andreychuk will ever get in, and if that’s the case, that record of 640 goals for a non-Hall-of-Famer will probably stand forever.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, June 29, 2015

The most (and least) surprising moments from NHL draft weekend

The NHL’s draft weekend is, in theory, a pretty straightforward affair. It’s the annual chance to divide up all the incoming young talent, with teams making their picks, posing for a few photos, and heading home.

In reality, draft weekend often ends up feeling like 90 percent of the league’s offseason crammed into a few days. The combination of having all 30 front offices in one city, incoming cap space, and free agency looming just days away builds up into a whirlwind of rumors, speculation, and (eventually) action.

Some of it works out the way we expect. Some of it doesn’t. So let’s take a look back at this year’s just-concluded draft weekend in stifling Sunrise, Florida, by breaking down all the major moves based on just how surprising they were.

Connor McDavid going first overall: 0/100 — No surprise here; we’ve known that McDavid would be the first overall pick of the 2015 draft for the last three years. He’s the most heavily hyped prospect since Sidney Crosby, and his ridiculous numbers in junior this year — he had 120 points in just 47 games — just reaffirmed his status as the game’s Next Big Thing.

The question now is this: How big? And how quickly? McDavid goes to an Oilers franchise that hasn’t been good at anything other than winning draft lotteries in almost a decade. His arrival, and the front office overhaul the franchise underwent while anticipating it, should spell the end of the Oilers’ misery. The question is how quickly he can get them into the playoffs, and then into Cup contention.

We have some history to look back on. Crosby had 102 points as a rookie in the high-scoring post-lockout 2005-06 season, but Pittsburgh didn’t return to the playoffs until the following year. The Penguins went to the Cup final the year after that, and then won it all in 2009. Alexander Ovechkin debuted the same year as Crosby, but the Caps didn’t make the playoffs until his third season, and they still haven’t been to a final. The Blackhawks debuted the double whammy of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in 2007-08, missed the playoffs, and had won their first Stanley Cup by 2010.

So if you’re an Oilers fan, there’s your realistic window: one more tough season, playoff favorite status the year after that, and Stanley Cup contention soon after. It’s no sure thing, of course, but I’m guessing long-suffering Oilers fans will take it.

McDavid’s selection was the least surprising moment of the entire weekend. Well, except for this one …

This whole thing being a disaster: 0/100 — Let’s play a game called “How the hell did this happen?”

Scene: League headquarters.

NHL executive: “So, Connor McDavid has finally arrived in the NHL. How can we make the best possible first impression with this incredibly marketable new asset?”

Intern: “Hey, has anyone checked to see if the owner of the Oilers would want to awkwardly corner him on live television, then babble on about how wonderful his terrible organization is while blatantly reading off a cue card?”

NHL executive: “Great idea. Did anyone check it with Connor?”

Intern: “Sure did. He said he’d spend the entire segment visibly trying to swallow his own tongue.”

NHL executive: “Awesome, let’s do it!”

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 26, 2015

2105 NHL draft preview

The history of the NHL draft has been, to use a polite term, inconsistent. In the 1970s, when the whole concept was still relatively new, nothing made the slightest bit of sense. Things had stabilized a bit by the 1980s, although there were still wide disparities in approaches and every now and then a team would just decide not to show up. The 1990s were filled with draft floor intrigue and costly busts, and even at the turn of the century, it was still fairly common to see the no. 1 pick traded away.

But by the time this current decade arrived, we were well into the cap era and most teams were approaching things in pretty much the same way. “Build through the draft” is every team’s mantra, top picks are almost never traded, the days of the overseas sleeper are long past, and everyone seems to be working from essentially the same information. The bad news is that all of this makes the draft a lot less fun. The good news is that, in theory at least, it should make things a little bit easier to predict.

This year’s draft is in Sunrise, Florida, with Round 1 happening tonight in prime time and everything else squished into a few hours tomorrow. In an attempt to figure out what might happen, let’s take a look at some pieces of conventional wisdom that have emerged over the years, and how they could apply to some of the top prospects who’ll be hearing their names called.

Conventional wisdom no. 1: Sure-thing franchise players are gold

In the cap era, there’s been at least some vague sense of uncertainty over the top pick in every year with the exception of 2005 (Sidney Crosby) and maybe 2008 (Steven Stamkos). Other than that, we’ve always had some degree of suspense over whose name would be called first.

That ends this year. Breaking: The Oilers are going to take Connor McDavid with the no. 1 overall pick. And after that, inside sources indicate that the Sabres are leaning toward Jack Eichel.

And that makes perfect sense, because McDavid and Eichel are two of the most highly regarded draft prospects the league has ever seen. McDavid has been hyped as the next Crosby for years, and he’s considered such a sure thing that there was plenty of speculation certain teams were tanking the 2014-15 season to increase their odds of landing him. (But don’t worry, the NHL assured us this never happens.)

Ironically, after all of that intentional losing, the draft lottery was won by the one terrible team in the league that really was trying its very best. While the Oilers’ lottery win wasn’t the ideal outcome for the league, it certainly shook up a franchise that’s been mired in misery for almost a decade. McDavid has the talent to single-handedly make the Oilers an instant playoff possibility, and he probably makes them Stanley Cup contenders sooner or later. He’s that good.

Eichel is good, too, and in any other year he would be a lock to go no. 1. This isn’t any other year, though, so when the Sabres lost the lottery and GM Tim Murray didn’t try especially hard to mask his disappointment, it was natural to view Eichel as a consolation prize. True as that may be, he’s one hell of a Plan B, and the few Sabres fans who haven’t already moved into the “We never wanted McDavid anyway” denial stage will get there pretty quickly once they get to watch him up close.

So McDavid will go first and Eichel will go second. That much we know. After that, things get interesting.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, June 25, 2015

My NHL Awards ballot

The NHL awards took place last night, broadcast from their traditional home (and, let’s be honest, soon-to-be expansion city) in Las Vegas. There wasn’t much suspense over the MVP, but a handful of other awards were tough calls. Who’d take home the Norris? What about the Calder? Would Rob Riggle be able to get a decent laugh out of this crowd?

This was my second time having a vote as a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Last year, filling out my ballot was a struggle. This year’s ended up being similar: a fairly straightforward vote for the Hart, an extremely tight race for the Norris, and everything else sort of spread out in between.

Here’s a look at who won what, as well as my own ballot for the awards that the PHWA votes on.

Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player)

Winner: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

No surprise here. Price was the heavy favorite, having produced one of the better goaltending seasons in recent memory for a Canadiens team that was otherwise good-but-not-especially-great. There will always be some resistance to the idea of a goalie winning MVP — similar to pitchers in baseball, because some voters just can’t get past the “they already have their own award” hurdle — but it does happen, and as the season wore on, a solid consensus emerged that the award was Price’s to lose. (Price also won the Ted Lindsay Award, the player of the year as voted on by fellow players.)

My ballot:

1. Carey Price, Canadiens

2. Sidney Crosby, Penguins

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals

4. John Tavares, Islanders

5. Devan Dubnyk, Wild

I had Crosby higher than most, but I’m fine with that. As you can see, I have no issue giving my vote to a goaltender, but the Dubnyk pick was the one I went back and forth on the most, since it’s basically based on a half-season. But it was one hell of a half-season, and if saving a team’s entire campaign doesn’t qualify as valuable, then I guess I’m missing something.

Vezina Trophy (Best Goaltender)

Winner: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Again, no shock here. If Price was considered the league’s most valuable player, it would be tough to make the case he wasn’t also the best goalie. The only surprise was that it wasn’t unanimous, with three voters going with someone else as their first pick.

My ballot: None. The Vezina is picked by the GMs, but I would have voted for Price.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What five of the smartest moves of the 2014 offseason can teach us about 2015

We’re now officially a few days into the 2015 offseason, which means we’re also just a year or so away from knowing how badly everyone screwed it up.

After all, that’s the way NHL offseasons usually go. There’s lots of excitement as the moves are being made, with plenty of blind optimism countered by an occasional unexplained sense of dread. And then, after enough time has passed, the benefit of hindsight kicks in and we realize that most of what happened was a mistake.

Take last year. We saw a busy summer of trades, signings, re-signings, and others deals, and as with most years, the majority of the big moves didn’t work out. Some seemed fine at the time, but turned out to be busts. Some were widely panned by everyone from the beginning, and everyone turned out to be right. And some moves worked out reasonably well, but for various reasons didn’t quite provide the contender-making boost that teams were hoping for — we can file the acquisition of big names like Jason Spezza, Paul Stastny, Ryan Miller, and Jarome Iginla into that category.

But there are always a few exceptions, and some of last year’s moves did work out — brilliantly in some cases. So today, let’s put on our 20/20 hindsight glasses and take a look at five of the best transactions of the 2014 offseason to see what we can learn from them heading into this summer.

1. The Islanders Bolster the Blue Line

The move: OK, we’re cheating a bit here, since we’re actually looking at two moves, but they were similar enough in timing and intent that we’ll lump them together.

Coming off a brutal 2013-14 season, the Islanders were reasonably well stocked with offensive talent, but needed big help in goal and on the blue line. They addressed the former by trading for the rights to Jaroslav Halak and then signing him before free agency, which is a move that we could also include on this list if you’re willing to count May as the offseason.

That still left the defense, and as the summer wore on it looked like GM Garth Snow had struck out. Then, less than a week before opening night, the rumor mill churned to life with reports that the Isles had acquired a defenseman. It was Boston’s Johnny Boychuk. No, wait, scratch that, it was Chicago’s Nick Leddy. Eventually, the source of the confusion became clear: The Islanders had actually landed both guys on the same day. The moves addressed a need, the price was reasonable, and the Isles went on to post their first 100-point season in more than 30 years.

The lesson: In addition to the timing and the position, both trades had another factor in common: They involved teams that would have liked to have kept the players, but were forced to make tough choices because of looming salary-cap crunches. It’s not hard to see how that lesson could apply to this coming offseason, as several teams will once again be tight against a cap that could come in lower than projected. That includes both the Bruins and Blackhawks yet again, but they’re far from the only ones.

With the cap not rising much this year, teams may be under more pressure than ever to cut contracts, and they probably won’t be able to wait until October to do it. As the Islanders showed, some available cap room, a few inexpensive assets to dangle, and a little bit of patience can add up to a nice little bargain or two.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 19, 2015

The 2015 offseason guide

The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup four days ago, but you could be forgiven if you’ve already forgotten about that. Based on their reports from Wednesday’s media event, even the Chicago players are a little fuzzy on the details at this point.

As for the rest of us, we’re just doing what hockey fans do: forgetting all about the just-concluded playoffs and immediately moving into offseason mode. And that’s probably a good thing, since the NHL doesn’t exactly give us much of a breather. The offseason has already arrived, with buyout and arbitration windows opening up and just more than one week until the entry draft. Here’s a look at everything you need to know to get you through the next few days and weeks.

The Draft

The entry draft happens next Friday and Saturday at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, and unlike recent years there won’t be much suspense over the top picks. The first round will open with the official coronation of Connor McDavid as the league’s Next Big Thing, not to mention the latest savior of the Edmonton Oilers. After that, the Sabres will pick Jack Eichel, and GM Tim Murray will try really, really hard to seem happy about it.

That’s when things will get unpredictable, as the next tier of top prospects could go in any order. The Coyotes hold the third pick and could opt for defensemen Noah Hanifin or Ivan Provorov, or take one of the top forwards, like Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner. Their choice will dictate what the Maple Leafs, Hurricanes, and Devils do with the next picks, and whether any other teams want to swoop in and move up. It should lead to an interesting opening round of a draft class that’s considered reasonably strong if not top-heavy. We’ll have a full preview next week.

Of course, as has become tradition, the actual picks may be overshadowed by the wheeling and dealing that goes on down on the draft floor. Which brings us to …

The Trade Market

You remember blockbuster trades. They were those things that used to happen all the time and were amazing fun for fans to argue about, right up until every GM in the league got timid and decided the salary cap gave them plausible cover to stop doing their jobs. Ringing any bells? Vaguely?

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup... again

One of those odd unwritten rules of pro hockey is that your entire life revolves around winning the Stanley Cup, but when you’re one game away from actually doing it, you have to pretend like you haven’t noticed. You have to claim it’s just another game, and maybe even feign some degree of surprise that anyone would treat it any other way.

So Monday, hours away from a chance at capturing their third Stanley Cup in six years, that’s what the Blackhawks did. After their morning skate, player after player swore that the night would be like any other game. They repeated it like a mantra, almost robotically. Just another game. No big deal. It’s only a championship on the line. For their part, the Lightning were just as coy, shrugging off any suggestions that having their very playoff lives on the line made this game any sort of big deal.

The charade lasted all morning, right up until Lightning coach Jon Cooper addressed the media. He was asked whether this was, indeed, just another game.

“No chance,” he replied, incredulous. “The Stanley Cup’s in the building. I can’t believe they would say, ‘Oh, it’s just another game.’”

“We know it’s just not another game,” he continued, gaining steam as he went. “This is much different than Game 1. You got to win or you go home. On the other side, you know what happens if they win.”

“No. I don’t like to sugarcoat anything. This is the reality of the business we’re in.”

He’s right, of course, even if he’s not supposed to say it. This wasn’t just another game. As it turns out, it would be the last game of the series and the season, and the one that saw a new dynasty crowned. And it would be the night the reality Cooper spoke of finally caught up with the Lightning.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Stanley Cup final gets weird

“To me, this series has been expect the unexpected.”

That was Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on Saturday night, after his team had dropped a 2-1 decision on home ice in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final. He was offering the observation in response to a question about whether back-to-back 2-1 final scores meant that the series had settled into a defensive struggle, but it was probably a comforting message to deliver in the bigger picture right now. That’s because today, with the Blackhawks leading the series 3-2 and holding home ice for Monday’s Game 6, the expectation is that Chicago is about to win the Stanley Cup.

Tonight marks the first time in the modern era that the Blackhawks will have a chance to skate the Cup on home ice. Given their well-documented excess of talent, experience, and, yes, resiliency, blowing it now to a Lightning team that’s young and hurting would seem to go against the script.

And that’s where the good news for Tampa Bay kicks in, because so far this matchup hasn’t much gone according to plan. Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos can’t score, but Cedric Paquette and Antoine Vermette can. The series has been the closest we’ve ever seen — it’s the first time in final history that no team has held a two-goal lead at any point through five games — yet we’ve somehow avoided any overtime. And every now and then, an injured goalie who sometimes seems like he can barely stand decides to charge out of his net to body check his own defenseman. (More on that last bit in a second, since it turns out to be important.)

Given all that, it made a certain sort of sense when the hockey world arrived back in Tampa last weekend to find that the downtown had been taken over by an anime convention, with the streets full of cosplaying fans dressed as superheroes and cartoon characters. When you’ve got a Stanley Cup that refuses to make much sense, why not mix in a few grown men dressed as Pikachu?

Somehow, it all worked together. Over here is an enthusiastic 16-year-old with a lightsaber getting dropped off at the entrance by his mom. Over there is an unheralded 21-year-old rookie going head-to-head with All-Stars and winning. This lady is pretending she can cast magic spells. That guy is pretending he didn’t bite anyone. Here’s Captain America, there’s Captain Everything, and the whole time you’re just thinking, Why not? Why the hell not? Who ever said any of this should make sense?

And so, it goes without saying, the big moment from Saturday’s game didn’t come off of a brilliant rush or a sterling defensive effort. No, it came six minutes into a scoreless game, on a seemingly harmless Blackhawks clearing attempt into the Lightning zone that defenseman Victor Hedman was heading back to handle. Patrick Sharp was on him, but not in any sort of dangerous way, and Hedman was ready to chip the puck off the boards to send Stamkos off on a breakout when … well, see for yourself.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Friday, June 12, 2015

Grab bag: The case of the disappearing Cup winner

In this week's grab bag:
- Should playoff beards be banned?
- An obscure player with a bizarre claim to fame
- Don Cherry struggles with pronunciation, chapter infinity
- Comedy stars
- And a YouTube breakdown of the time that the Stanley Cup winning goal was scored in overtime, and we all missed it.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Is Marian Hossa a future Hall of Famer?

There’s a conversation about the Chicago Blackhawks that seems to repeat itself as their playoff run rolls on. It goes something like this: Somebody wonders out loud how many future Hall of Famers are on the roster. Someone else immediately rattles off the names of the team’s big three — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. And someone else points out that head coach Joel Quenneville will be an obvious choice.

Then there’s a pause, the question hangs in the air for a bit, and finally someone hesitantly adds “ … and maybe Marian Hossa?”

At 36, Hossa has spent this latest playoff run doing what Hossa does: a little bit of everything, often quietly, and usually from just outside the spotlight. Last night he had an assist on Toews’s opening goal, giving him four points in the series. With the Hawks now deploying him on a line with Toews and Patrick Sharp, he figures to be a key figure over the second half of the series.

He also makes for the subject of an interesting HOF debate. My experience has been that people say it’s a relatively easy call — they just can’t agree on the call. To some, he’s a slam dunk. To others, he’s a respected player who falls solidly into the “Hall of Very Good” but just doesn’t have the résumé to deserve more than that.

So as Hossa makes what by now has become his near-annual appearance in the Stanley Cup final, it’s fair to ask: Are we watching a future Hall of Famer? Let’s walk through the pros and cons.

The Numbers

Hossa crossed the 1,000-point mark early in the season, and with 486 goals he should get to 500 next year. Those tend to be the big milestones for HOF candidates, at least among forwards, so by crossing them Hossa guarantees himself a spot in the discussion.

But that’s about all it guarantees, because those milestones don’t carry the same weight that they once did. There are plenty of guys in the 500/1,000 club whose HOF candidacy never gained serious traction. That includes players like Pierre Turgeon (515/1,327), Pat Verbeek (522/1,063), Keith Tkachuk (538/1,065), and, for reasons that nobody has ever fully explained, Dave Andreychuk (640/1,338). Jeremy Roenick (513/1,216) hasn’t been inducted and looks like he may never be, and even Mark Recchi (577/1,533) didn’t get in on the first try, although virtually everyone agrees he will eventually. So Hossa’s number are good, but they’re well short of making him any kind of a sure thing.

Of course, unlike all those guys mentioned above, Hossa played his entire career in the dead puck era. But even on an era-adjusted basis, he’s still trailing Roenick and Turgeon, and he’s miles behind Andreychuk and Recchi.

On the other hand, all those numbers are for the regular season only — mix in his 143 career playoff points, second only to Jaromir Jagr among active players, and Hossa gets a boost.

The Honors

This may be the strongest argument for the “good but not great” side of the debate. Hossa has never won a major award and was a finalist only once (for the Calder as Rookie of the Year in 1999; he came in second to Chris Drury). He has one postseason All-Star selection, making the second team in 2009. And that’s pretty much it. His best finish in Hart Trophy voting for MVP was 10th; his only other top-five finishes for any award came for the Lady Byng in 2003 and the Selke last year.

He did appear in five All-Star Games, which isn’t bad in a league where that game is often wiped out by lockouts and Olympics. But the lack of any significant hardware, or even all that many near misses, paints a picture of a very good player who was never in the conversation as being among the league’s best.

>> Read the full post on Grantland