Everything Else

Been meaning to get to this for a week, so not even sure if it’s relevant now. But hey, that’s never stopped me before! Hey, here’s another Zeppelin reference!

Last week, there was a ton of debate about replay in various sports, and whether it’s already gotten out of control or become something we can do without. There was the disallowed goal in the Man City-Tottenham semifinal that swung the result from one side to the other (one which I certainly didn’t find gratifying and hilarious at all!). There have been various reviews in the NHL Playoffs that have sent fans into orbit, be it goalie interference or an offside call or high-sticks and whatever else. While hardly the same stakes, last night’s Cubs game was an excellent argument for robot umps for the strike zone. We can agree that these kinds of debates aren’t new, just how hot the discussion is that week and how many incidents are bunched together.

By now, you know the argument from the anti-replay crowd. It takes too long, interrupts the rhythm, and they prefer the “human element.” But all of these are terribly flawed arguments, and let’s start with the last one first. What you’re saying with “human element,” is that you like mistakes. That’s it. You’re probably trying to show compassion for the arbiters of the game, and fair enough, but that’s what you’re saying. No person can get every call right, so we just have to understand that the people in charge are doing the best they can.

That’s fine and dandy when there isn’t a better way. But there is. When these rules were drawn up long ago for whatever sport or game is your favorite, they weren’t written as, “as close as you can get it.” Or “this is how this rule works, at least as often as it’s called that way but hey sometimes you’re going to miss one and that’s cool.” The rules were written with hard lines (except for maybe basketball?), and the only reason humans were charged with enforcing those rules and hard lines is that there wasn’t another option in 1884 or 1921 or even 1956. This was the best we can do.

You’ll get some who will tell you that Raheem Sterling’s chalked-off goal due to Sergio Aguero being fractionally offside isn’t “the spirit of the rule.” (They’re named Adam Hess). Or you’ll hear that in a bevy of other situations. Yeah? How do you know? How do you know the inventors of the game didn’t want everything black or white? If you could go back in time and offer them the technology that would enforce their rules pretty much perfectly, what do you think they would say? The rules are almost always cut and dried, and should be enforced as such.

It’s the last part, and the other parts of the argument against, where it gets murkier. Because at the moment, most sports are trying to blend technology and the human eye where technology can’t get to yet. But what we’re living through is the trial-and-error stage, the evolution of it. It was never going to be a turn-key, overnight success. These things have a process, and sometimes the process isn’t fun or it goes off the wrong way and we try something else.

Each sport has its own unique issues that make this harder. The main one to me is that the NFL introduced this borked challenge system, but because everyone wants to be the NFL, hockey soon followed suit and so did baseball. And that’s ridiculous. The NFL has been trying to get away from this slowly for a while, making every scoring play and turnover reviewable. Which has led to the imperfect solution of refs on the field calling pretty much everything a turnover or touchdown knowing they have the safety net of a review afterwards. You see this in hockey where I’m sure linesmen take razor thin decisions to the side of not calling it hoping a challenge will bail them out. Soccer linesmen have been instructed to do this in line with VAR.

Obviously, this leads to the problem of watching something and wondering, “Does this count?” The impulsiveness and suddenness of the emotions of sports gets clouded. And that is something to notice and be concerned about. But is it such a problem? Is this not something we could become accustomed to in time? And as the tech gets better and quicker, might this be something that’s solved at the time? Certainly offsides calls can be.

There are those who will tell you, in the case of the City-Spurs match, that we’ve lost the elation of the ball hitting the back of the net. Maybe, but try telling Spurs supporters they should go without the jubilation of having that goal against rightly chalked off. They’re not the same, but they’re not so different either.

Where technology and replay are struggling to forge acceptable levels is where the rules are not all that well defined. The NFL is going to try and it’s going to make this worse, because first it couldn’t decide what was a catch and now it’s going to try and define what’s pass interference and that’s a mess. And then maybe they’ll back off of it, and try something else that will work.

The length of time to get to these decisions is something we’ll all agree on. Until the tech is better, and we may never live to see it, no review should take more than 30 seconds. It’s either obvious or it’s not, and if it’s the latter let’s stick with the call and move on. We could speed that up by having a dedicated official in a replay booth, like soccer is doing with VAR, who simply radioes to the relevant head official on the field or ice. I don’t mind soccer having the main ref come take a look for himself, because it would dull his authority a bit if he’s getting overruled by a voice in the sky we can’t see. And for the most part, this process has been pretty quick.

There will always be calls that are just too hard to get instantly. A fumble in football. Until they define goalie interference clearly, we won’t have that either. Penalties in soccer. But we’re getting closer. It’s just unfortunate timing for us that we’re here for the kinks stage, the developmental one. In the long run though, it will almost certainly be better for everyone. As long as we accept going backwards would be worse.

Everything Else

As the Lightning sit on the precipice tonight, I haven’t been able to shake this stat ESPN presented on Sunday night when they went down 3-0:

This would seem an excellent time for me to get on my European soccer high horse and proclaim it to be superior because it has no playoffs (at least in a league season), and thus excellence is always rewarded. But let’s save that for another time (you know I’m going to at some point though). It’s just the most curious thing.

All of those teams are considered some kind of footnote, or shrouded in what came before and after, or an outright failure. If you were asked what was the best all-time regular season record in baseball, you’d probably remember the Mariners just because of Ichiro. But it would take you a second. And if you were asked the best baseball team of all-time, you’d probably refer to an “era” of the Yankees in the late 90s, without picking one out individually. And none of them managed the 108 wins the Red Sox did last year. There isn’t one that sticks out.  You wouldn’t say the Mariners of 2001, but factually they are.

The Patriots’ “failure” gets shrouded in that they won three Super Bowls before that and then three after that. So their 16 wins just join a list of secondary yet impressive accomplishments, somewhere above their run of AFC East titles. They also did something unique, in that no team has won six Super Bowls in what you’d call one stretch. The Steelers are broken up between the 70s and then a couple more recently. And yet shouldn’t the 16-0 stand out more? We haven’t seen it since, and we might not see it again (until the Bears this year of course, my frent). But it doesn’t, because it didn’t come with the crown on top.

The Warriors are almost certainly the greatest team ever to play (sorry Jordan fans, but deep in your heart you know it’s true), and even after last night they’re going to waltz to their fourth title in five years and probably barely breathe hard to do so. Yet everyone still tries to beat them over the head with 2016, even though they did something no team has done and it took the greatest player of all-time (this time I’m not apologizing to Bulls fans) at the peak of his powers to thwart them at the absolute final hurdle. And yet for me, the 73 wins is what I’ll remember, but most don’t or even use it as a cudgel. That’s the team that wowed you on a nightly basis instead of bored you with their efficient greatness.

It’s even murkier in hockey, where the best team rarely wins. Of course, thanks to the goofy standings system, it’s hard to discern clearly who the best team is most of the time. Not this year, obviously, and look how that’s going. If you’d asked me the best team I’d seen or best team of the NHL’s history, again I’d probably wave at an era of Wings teams in the 90s or Canadiens in the 70s, without one sticking out. When the Hawks won their first Cup, they were third in the league that year standings-wise. Their third Cup saw them finish third in their own division. And yet no one points it out because of course, they won their last game. And they knew as well as anyone else that seeding didn’t really matter to them that much.

Only the ’13 team is seen as an all-conquering force that scorched the Earth behind it, and even that’s derided a bit because it was only a 48-game season. And it’s hard to think of another team that comes close to that label. The Penguins didn’t win their own division in their last two Cup runs. The Caps did, but that was mostly considered a footnote or outright fluke as no one else was any good in that division. The Kings never did either. Are we really going all the way back to ’13? ’10 before that? The ’08 Wings? And even the latter is considered something flat because they only had the one out of three or four truly great teams.

I suppose that’s the oddity of North American sports. Hell, people my age probably remember the 103-win Giants that didn’t even make the playoffs in 1993 than we do most champs (I have a certain friend who is going to murder me for mentioning that). Never mind that the ’93 Braves and their 104 wins were then stomach-punched by the drunk and hairy Phillies at the first jump. Did you immediately remember that the Jays won the Series that year?

So it’s kind of funny to me that teams like the Warriors now, one or two other NBA teams, the Hawks teams of a few years ago or Penguins now or whoever else get shit for taking some regular season games off. All of them have the scars of great teams that didn’t win, whose regular season accomplishments are labeled meaningless, and yet when they put the playoffs and titles over everything else they’re “cheating the fans.” It’s an impossible needle to thread.

I can’t help but think sports have become to binary. You either won the title or you failed, no matter if you did something literally no one else had done before. After all, the regular season is the largest sample we have of what teams are, and sometimes historic accomplishments are wiped away or dismissed because of a bad week? Seems strange.

Then again, maybe that’s what makes it special. We have this slog of a regular season in every sport, find out who the best is, and then ask them to survive this pressurized crucible right after it. It makes for a better story at times when these teams fall.

Still, it does make it feel pointless. We spent six months or more being wowed by all of these teams, having it proven they were five steps ahead of everyone else. And then it’s gone. So why did we bother? If those results don’t mean anything, why have them? On the other side, if the playoffs were just a confirmation of what we’d seen, there wouldn’t be much drama (the current complaint about recent NBA playoffs, which is easy to understand). Doesn’t seem to hurt the NBA’s popularity though.

I’m on the side of always rooting for greatness, for things I haven’t seen before. The Warriors winning four of five and 73 games in the one they didn’t is the kind of thing I’ll remember forever. Hell, it was only two days ago a lot of us were willing the greatest golfer of all-time to another victory, because he does things we hadn’t seen before. At least where I’m not emotionally involved, that is (so you can fuck off with all your City remarks, Hess).

Maybe it’s just a quirk. And yet we keep racking these up.

Everything Else

A few days ago, a major story broke that the CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) would be folding in total. That leaves the NWHL as the only women’s professional hockey league running in North America, and leaves a lot more questions than answers.

I’ve never really known where to stand when these discussions. On one side, at the end of the day all of sports are a business, or entertainment if you prefer, and a given league or team either succeeds in the market place or it doesn’t. There’s either interest or there isn’t.

On the other, that really only works in a completely fair marketplace, or in a vacuum one. Women’s sports as a whole deal with a lot of prejudice or myopia or fallacies, and hence has more to overcome than others. Although to counter that, we just watched the AAF turn into dust nearly instantly and it’s not like this nation has a small appetite for football.

Triangulating this debate, I guess, is that while sports and leagues are not and should not be a charity, there is something beyond dollars and cents to the continued growth, promotion, and coverage of women’s sports. As we know, in every facet of society, representation matters.

On the other side, having a job or being professional in whatever your chose vocation is not a right, and you can ask thousands if not millions of bloggers about that. Just because you happen to be among the best in the world at something doesn’t mean you’re entitled to make a living at it, even if your male counterparts do. That’s a harsh reality, but it’s kind of the way things are.

I can’t seem to do anything but stand at the nexus of where all these things meet, never leaning to one side or angle of it.

Women’s hockey has greater challenges than basketball or soccer. Women’s basketball has been in the nations consciousness longer, and both of those sports have greater participation at the youth level (though hockey continues to grow). While some would point to the popularity of the US and Canadian women’s team during the Olympics, even the men’s side can’t turn viewing numbers and following during the Olympics into something tangible for the league in which these players play afterward. What chance would the women have?

Another sharp end of these kinds of debates is where the NHL fits in and how involved or not involved it should be with a women’s league. It’s easy to point to the NBA’s involvement in the WNBA, but the NBA has a lot more money to play with and again, women’s basketball has a stronger base from which to work from. Women’s hockey’s base is getting stronger, but may never approach that.

Without getting a look at their books, it’s hard to know how much money the NHL has to set aside to either help, or totally fund, a WNHL as it were. Or just to do the same with the existing NWHL. What I do know is it’s probably more than this:

That’s $100K. That’s a little over $3,000 per team. In a league that just got $650M in expansion fees from Seattle, and isn’t too far removed from just about the same from Vegas, both totals the league didn’t have to share with the players in anything other than maybe salary. Except those fees weren’t included in the league’s revenue that’s subject to players salaries. Curious, no?

I don’t even know if this would qualify as a token gesture. This feels almost like the dude throwing a quarter out of his moving BMW at the homeless person next to the underpass off the Stevenson.

Again, I have no idea what NHL teams would have to give to a women’s league. This is a league where the Hawks still claim to lose money, but hey check out that new scoreboard next year! What I do know is that if you’re going to wade in and say you’re going to help, you have to do a lot better than this. Do or do not, there is no try.

What the NHL probably has to figure out is how much of an investment a women’s league is. Would cultivating a generation of young girls as fans help in 10-15 years? That might sound cold, but the correct things done for selfish reasons are certainly better than nothing at all. You have to believe that was the calculation, or in part was, the NBA made with the WNBA. And it’s been able to hang around long enough to be in a fairly strong position. Or much stronger than it was.

It’s hard to see where that kind of investment could hurt. Part of the NBA’s calculation wouldn’t work for the NHL, I don’t think, which is that they can run a WNBA season when the NBA isn’t playing and then maybe catch new fans in the fall and winter. Or give idling NBA fans something to do in the summer. Maybe hockey can work in the summer, but I tend to doubt it. And that’s based on nothing but feel.

Let’s just say you asked every NHL team for $500K. I’m just going to go ahead and say they have it. And I would imagine $15M for the NWHL would make a difference. Maybe not as much as I’d first guess, but a difference. Surely the publicity and the appearance is worth that to teams that are all valued at several hundred million?

Maybe that’s not enough, maybe the NHL doesn’t have that to give, maybe women’s hockey just isn’t going to work anytime soon. But I’m fairly sure we can do better than this.

Everything Else

Boy, controversy seems to follow Kyle Dubas around.

Nothing will come of Morgan Rielly’s escape of being labeled a homophobe officially, though some will never forget. It would have been hard to miss the story, but if you did, on Monday night, on-ice mics caught Rielly saying something that sure sounded like “faggot” at an official. The NHL launched an investigation, and yesterday it cleared Rielly after talking to him and the ref, Brad Meier. Still, Rielly’s defense of, “I’m 100% confident I did not use that word” makes it sound like he as an observer rather than the center of this story. It doesn’t instill 100% confidence in anyone else who has anything of a skeptical eye. Whatever, here we are.

What’s frustrating, or one of the frustrating aspects, is that the NHL, Rielly, Meier, or anyone hasn’t been forced or compelled to tell us what he did say. When seeing and hearing the footage, it’s hard to conclude he said anything else. And the fact that no one has sought to clarify what it was that did escape his lips, it raises a lot of doubt. Because this being the NHL, and we know their favorite tactic when dealing with anything controversial is to imitate an ostrich. And just wait until Don Cherry gets his grubby paws on this on Saturday. At least when Andrew Shaw went through this for the second time, he or someone was allowed to show what he was actually saying and what amateur lip-reading would have mistaken for that slur. There’s been no such impetus from the Leafs.

Brad Meier saying nothing was directed at him certainly is encouraging, but if Rielly were using that word simply as an expletive or exclamation, that’s no better. But we’ll never get there, so let’s deal with what we can.

What the NHL can do is empower its refs to eject and report any player they hear using that word or anything like it. It is purely farcical to believe that slur has only made an appearance on NHL ice on Monday and caught by a mic. This is a league populated by barely 7th-grade educated peons who have grown up and spent a great majority of their lives in one of the most closed and poisonous cultures we know. Surely something is getting said in scrums, and yet NHL refs have never ejected or penalized anyone for that kind of use. At least that we know of.

What’s likely here is that Meier doesn’t really want to start a furor, hears that word enough, and much like the rest of hockey culture thinks it’s ok to just muscle through it. Or that it’s not a big deal. Until someone proves what Rielly said or meant, there’s going to be a heavy level of doubt.

While it does share characteristics of victim-blaming, the NHL could use the opportunity to empower its refs to start penalizing and ejecting any type of inappropriate and offensive language on the ice. That doesn’t mean swear words obviously, but racist and homophobic slurs for sure. And they’re there. We know they are.

If nothing else, on the lowest level, the NHL might want to look at just how much abuse it wants its officials to deal with every game. Think about how many unsportsmanlike conducts springing from yelling at a ref calls you’ve seen this year. One? Two? Compare that with flags in the NFL, technicals in the NBA, or ejections in MLB (ok, that last one is probably too much, given that most MLB umps are babies). NHL refs hear it from every angle while reffing by far the fastest game there is. Perhaps allowing officials to throw a few more minors at coaches and players who get particularly yappy, and you may indirectly shrink the area where much more ugly stuff tends to slither out.

Game #70 Preview Suite



Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built



Everything Else

I guess it’s because NHL writers love the thought of going to Vegas on the company dime in the spring so much that no one ever bothers to question what George McPhee is doing. It’s kind of the same thing with Nashville, but to an even greater degree. And yet, if you look underneath the hood that NHL media is so happy to just settle for, you’ll see that this is one of the dumber contracts around and that in less than two seasons, George McPhee has completely throat-fucked a completely blank salary cap situation. That’s not easy to do!

So let’s go one at a time. While it hasn’t been made official, it was reported as soon as Stone was traded that he will ink an eight-year, $9.5M per extension with the Knights. Mark Stone is a fine player. Better than that, he’s a good player. Probably the highest-end second-line player you can find. Can even fill out your top line as he had to do in Ottawa for most of his career. All well and good.

Mark Stone has never scored more than 30 goals, and he’s likely to just barely scratch it this year for the first time. In a season when a bunch more are scoring 30 goals. Mark Stone has never bested 64 points, though he might, might get to 70 this year. But he’s never been anywhere near a point-per-game.

I suppose the arguments would be that Mark Stone’s metrics have been other-worldly, especially this season. and especially considering the team he’s been on. And I guess if you want to make the argument that those metrics on a team with better talent like Vegas will result in the numbers that would make $9.5M seem a good deal. It would also make Stone the first “analytic” contract in the sport’s history, and you’ll have to pardon me if I don’t think George “Punchy” McPhee is capable of that. Just a hunch.

Here’s just a smattering of forwards that Stone’s cap hit will be higher than: Sidney Crosby, Leon Draisaitl, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Vladimir Tarasenko. Yes, grated, those players signed deals at different points in their careers or in different times. But you also would take any of them over Stone in a heartbeat.

Now, you may say that it’s the Knights, it’s an expansion team, and they can overpay guys. Here’s the thing, they can’t! For next year, the Knights have about $10M in space and that’s without an extension for William Karlsson, supposedly their #1 center. While he’s not shooting 25% anymore, he’s also their third-leading scorer, and on their top line, and you’d have to figure he’s going to gobble up at least 60% of that $10M in space. Fuck, if Stone gets $9.5M then why can’t Karlsson ask for that? After all, he actually does have a 30-goal season on his resume.

Depending on what Karlsson cashes in for, the four highest cap hits next year in Vegas will be to players over 30. Because that’s a solid strategy! Works out for everyone! And you may say they can jettison some salary. Except straight salary dumps don’t tend to benefit the team making them and would also erode the depth that the Knights’ success is built on, so I’m told. I guess you could move out Eakin and Tuch for a combined $8M, maybe throw in Colin Miller and Brayden McNabb for another $5.5M, and then sign Erik Karlsson, to give you five contracts to players over 30 that are your highest. Maybe that works for a season, maybe even two, and then what. And what does it matter if Marc-Andre Fleury suddenly starts playing like he’s 35 (which he kind of already is, unless you want to believe that three March games–two of which came against the Ducks and Canucks–undue his .892 February)? Now you’d have no third line or second pairing or goalie. The Sharks have Karlsson, four lines, three pairings, but because of their goaltending might be a second-round washout. So you’re going to do it with less but better than the Sharks next year there, McPhee baby?

I feel like I’m taking crazy pills! And hey, maybe they spasm another run in the spring while beating the Sharks and Flames and maybe even on to the Final again and all the writers get what they’re after anyway. Or maybe they get clubbed by San Jose in the first round and then have a top-heavy and old roster next year, with no cap space. In their third season. That’s some trick.


Everything Else

If you didn’t see the news on Wednesday, let me help. And if you just want the summary, I can do that as well. Basically, David Backes went to Bruce Cassidy, they talked, both discovered he’s been a lumbering drainage ditch for a couple seasons now, and tried to figure out where to go from there. What they really discovered is that he has no place in the Bruins lineup, because he’s slow and chrome-handed now–along with his brain being a quarry–so they came up with this “role” of enforcer.

There is a lot to peel off here to get to its rotten and rancid core, but I’ll try. By declaring himself an enforcer, Backes is basically saying he has no place in the league anymore. That’s a role, or “role,” that is quickly phasing out of the game, and essentially giving himself this title is a way to duck being waived or save some esteem with muttonheads (of which there’s a healthy population in Boston, admittedly) instead of just retiring. The Bruins don’t have to scratch their $6M paperweight until the playoffs, which will save them having to answer questions that might make some uncomfortable. They’ll still have to buy him out in the summer, because you can’t have someone making $6M only playing three minutes on the roster. That’s a fourth-line spot a kid could use and be productive with. Backes can’t. Really, it’s about saving face here.

Still, the questions with this are no more comfortable. There is just nothing that lies easy about a team either being ok with, or straight up telling, a player that to stay in the lineup they’re going to have to just fight and cheapshot every shift. It’s a black mark on the game and harkens back to an era the league has been trying to forget for decades and long ago died its deserved, ugly death. On a lower level, the Bruins don’t need this, because there’s no one on the team who needs “protecting.” And if there were, Zdeno Chara is around and available to play at least 15 minutes a night in other capacities, and Chara’s grinning face is the last thing you see before you die, as Deadspin told us. The Bruins may think they’re doing Backes a favor by at least letting him go off into the woods to die with a label that conveys at least some heroism, but really they’re making themselves out to be cruel masters, or at least spineless enablers. Then again, this kind of thing can only happen in Boston and a few other locales.

As for Backes himself, we understand that professional athletes are just a different type, and there’s nothing wrong with hanging on as long as you can. But his grip slipped a while ago, and he isn’t some overgrown gnome with a 7th-grade education at best who had to bludgeon his way through juniors and the AHL just to make an NHL paycheck, because there was simply no other path. He is a former All-Star (no, really), Olympian, and Selke finalist. By the time this contract is up with the Bruins, whether he serves it out in their uniform or not, Backes will have made over $60 million. While he may love it, and he may not conceive of what he would do next (though I would bet the Blues would have him on their television coverage tomorrow), there is simply no call for him to put himself in greater danger and jeopardize what comes next for him. While he may fear the abyss of retirement, he certainly has enough money to take the time and training for whatever he might come up with (and he is already a pilot). He has a young family, and in some ways he frankly owes them better than going out there and putting his face in front of fists on a nightly basis.

A real league would have never let the Bruins or Backes use this kind of language, but this is a league that is still utterly terrified of crossing swords with anyone in the “Cherry Army.” But you can’t see any other place allowing a team and player to announce they’re going to spend the rest of the season/career (could be the same) essentially breaking the rules and partaking in actions the league wants to be done with. Who looks good here?

In the end, Backes won’t be at that great of a risk because of the way the game is played now and the time of year. With games that mean something, rare is the player who is going to put his team’s seeding/playoff chances at risk by engaging in bullshit with Backes. He’ll spend most of his time chirping from the bench, which is what he was always best at anyway.

The end is here for David Backes. There are far better ways to accept that than holding onto some warrior badge that no longer exists.

Everything Else

It was hard to take your eyes off of the Leafs-Islanders tilt last night. Or more to the point, it was hard to take your ears off of it. What the cameras showed was second to the sheer noise throughout the game, which vacillated between pure bile, utter ecstasy, and the very definition of schadenfreude. All of it served at a volume to that kept you looking up every few seconds and seemed to ooze from your TV into something physical. It was the kind of atmosphere that drew us to this silly little game in the first place, the kind probably only possible in a downsized dump like Nassau Coliseum that’s still something excavated out of the 70s or 80s. And yes, I realize it’s been redone in the recent past but it’s always going to be a dump, and that’s true to those who hold it dearest. That’s kind of the point.

I wouldn’t expect Islanders fans, or really anyone on Long Island, capable of rational thought, especially on a night like yesterday. This was a date they had circled since July 1st. Their team’s face–the one most responsible for their fortunes for near a decade–had left and there’s no way to not feel stilted by it. He wasn’t forced out (at least not intentionally), but had a simple choice and didn’t choose them. You could hear the pains of rejection spicing every chant and yell last night, because no one in any capacity wants to be told they’re not good enough. In sports, and sometimes in life, it becomes an inward coil to celebrate, defend, and even attack outward with what you are, what makes you unique, and why you don’t have to apologize to anyone. Fuck, half of being a New Yorker is not apologizing to anyone, and carrying that attitude as far as it will go.

And yet I couldn’t watch last night without contrasting it to Mark Lazerus’s recent article in The Athletic about how players are no longer fans. To summarize, basically professional athletes work too hard and are too busy to follow the teams they did as kids, no matter how strong that fandom was (and for the most part, they were the same fans you and I were at that age). In addition, being inside the ropes means they know what really goes on, and they don’t feel comfortable adding to what their colleagues in the sport or others go through. They just can’t see it the same way we do, which is obvious but also easily forgettable.

Most fans, if you catch them on the right day, know that players don’t feel the same way we do. Hockey still holds onto that fantasy tightest, and perhaps Jonathan Toews hated dealing with David Backes regularly as much as we did (we know he hated dealing with Ryan Kesler as much). The way hockey pushes “rivalries” shows you how desperate the game and league are to make you believe that it matters to them differently than those in other sports. But to Toews, those were professional concerns. That would have happened whatever color those players were wearing. We want to believe they feel the same emotions about opponents or victories or losses as we do, but we know they don’t. We know they can’t. Their job would be near impossible if they did. We live with that most of the time, but at a given time in the right circumstances and it can rankle some. Maybe all.

Maybe I’m suckered in by the press campaign, but it’s hard not to see this picture that Tavares himself tweeted out when he signed in Toronto and not feel something:

Maybe it was just pandering to a new fanbase. Maybe Tavares’s fandom died out long ago after nine years an Islander and a couple before that as a big-time prospect. But still, if you’re playing a kid’s game, the kid within you can’t have died out completely. And that kid dreamed of being a Leaf all his life, every day. For once, we got to see a player live out the dream we probably still have within us but know will never come true. We know it, but we don’t entirely feel it, and I know this because even in my mid-30s (barely) I still hope to play second base for the Cubs one day, with the tiniest shred. And yes, every so often you’ll catch me at home alone, still working on my stance, because you just never know. To completely erase it means yet another part of childhood is gone and soon forgotten, and who the fuck wants to do that?

Sure, you could look at it coldly and see the Leafs offered a ton of money, and though they weren’t the only ones, they were probably the best team doing so (the Sharks didn’t have Karlsson yet). Perhaps the affinity in his past didn’t matter. And yet it’s hard to conclude that totally. Something within Tavares lured him home, even with all the perils of playing in Toronto offers. For once, even for a glimpse, a player felt like we did. Sure, it only really benefitted Leafs fans, which is awful, but we all understood on some level.

Islanders fans, whether they like it or not, understand that on some level. They understand that for Tavares, even their best, even the connections they’d made over nine years, weren’t enough. There was nothing they could do to compare. And that probably made it worse, which is what made last night probably so cathartic. There is no comfort in the things you can’t change, and the temporary relief of lashing out at them seems like the only choice.

Everything Else

Piggybacking off our look at Patrick Kane’s season, it’s always fun to see how scoring has jumped up in the league this year. By now you know this, but let’s add some detail to it.

Last year, only three players broke 100 points, topping out with Connor McDavid’s 108. This year, nine players are on track to hit the century mark. As we discussed with Kane, he and Kucherov are on the way to over 110 points, No one’s cracked that since Henrik Sedin in 2010 (which totally went well for him after that). Last year, no one topped 50 goals. This year, five guys have a chance at it, with Ovechkin and Kane being almost locks and Skinner, Draisaitl, and Point having a chance if they get on their horse.

Everyone would love to know the reason, and it seems pretty obvious. But follow my work and we’ll get there in the end. Where I’m kind of fascinated is that there are 13 players this season who have played over 30 games that are shooting over 20%. Last year there were four. So you see where this going.

The league-save percentage has dropped from .912 last year to .908 this year, which is the biggest drop seen since the season before and after the lockout. But as we know, back then there was a 30% increase in power plays, which led to a lower SV% simply because teams were killing off nearly six penalties per game (what?!). This year has actually seen a decrease in power play opportunities per team, from 3.04 last year to 3.03 this year. There’s basically no difference.

Which is why we don’t see a huge spike in power play production. Ok, Kucherov is in a class by himself with 39 power play points already, with the next highest total being 31. Last year, two players finished with more than 40 power play points (Kessel and Wheeler). Kucherov is obviously going to do so unless he has a stroke (and even then), and beyond that really only his teammates Stamkos and Point have a good shot at coming along for the ride.

So it seems most of the improvement is at evens. Last year, McDavid led the league in ES points with 84, and no one else had more than 66 (yeah ok he probably should have won the Hart again, huh?). This year, McDavid, Kane, and Kucherov are averaging just about an even-strength point per game, and a further four are on track to score more than 70 even-strength points per game.

So basically the argument comes down to whether it’s the new goalie pads leading to more holes for the league’s best snipers to find, or the crack down on slashing to open up more space and make it easier for players to get where they want to go. The fact that teams are averaging less shots per game this season than last (31.3 to 31.8 last year) would lean it more toward the goalies. And the fact that attempts per team, and scoring chances per team are a shade/tick down from last year would point to that as well. However, high-danger chances per team have gone up from 10.6 per 60 to 10.9. It’s about a 3% rise.

Which doesn’t sound like a lot. Teams averaged 9-10 high-danger chances per game last year, which means getting another one this year just about every three games, which if you carry it out it is another four to five goals per season.

So yeah, it’s the pads. But hey, it’s fun!


Everything Else

Time to check in on what the NHL individual awards should be. If you’re new, first of all what are you doing here this place is nuts!, and second every so often I like to look at what the NHL awards should be if voters actually paid attention to what matters. There isn’t as much deviation as you’d think from how it will go, but there is some. So let’s get in up to the elbow.

Hart Trophy – Nikita Kucherov

This will seem simple. Again, an MVP award always settles into an annoying debate about whether it’s simply a “Player Of The Year” award, which it should be, or a “Most Valuable To His Team” as if you could somehow measure that. To me, it’s the former. And even that can end in debate, because in hockey it’s hard to separate what a player is doing himself from what linemates might be helping him with.

And then you see Kucherov is on pace for 135 points this year and the whole discussion seems kind of dumb.

Sure, he’s on a line with Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos, and that doesn’t hurt. It would also be the problem with handing it to Mikko Rantanen or Nathan MacKinnon, who play with each other. Johnny Gaudreau has Sean Monahan. I’m not sure any of this matters, as the production is the production.

Again, 135 points. Seems pretty clear.

Honorable Mentions – Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane

I have this feeling that before the year is out, Run CMD is going to make some insane run to try and drag his scrapyard-constructed Oilers team into the playoffs, and might end up with 130 points himself. And he probably won’t have nearly the help that the others do, unless Leon Draisaitl ends up on his line again. And that didn’t prevent his first Hart Trophy. If you need someone who’s doing it by himself, and we’ll write about this more tomorrow, it’s the local option. Kane has spent most of his year playing with either Nick Schmaltz, who was royally fucking up his free agent year, or Dylan Strome who is still below 80 NHL games and is very much finding his way, or the totem pole that is Artem Anisimov. And he’s sixth in scoring on his way to 100 points. So he has a serious case.

Calder Trophy – Elias Pettersson

I’m only putting this in here because the only Canucks fan in my life hasn’t stopped bitching that I didn’t include this in our quarter season assessment, and I’m hoping doing it now will get him off my goddamn back. Also, there isn’t any debate here and this is easy. Everyone gets to walk with this Elias, although I suppose if Collin Delia maintains a .940 SV% the rest of the season, maybe we’ll be assholes and try and build him up.

Also Elias allows for even more jokes besides wrestling ones…no seriously, Dude, he’s a Pettersson with a record.

Honorable Mention – fuck off, there’s no one else

Selke Trophy – Anthony Cirelli

Yes, this is where we get weird. This is where we try and find our Jacob deGrom/Felix Hernandez Cy Young, where a victory for the metrics punches through the old guard. It won’t ever happen, and Patrice Bergeron is going to win this again especially as he’s been a point-per-game, and you can’t win this award without scoring. Which is annoyingly dumb, because nowhere is scoring mentioned in the term, “Best Defensive Forward.” The idea is to play defense.

So we’re opting for Cirelli, who is top-five in relative attempts-against, shots-against, and scoring-chances against, and that’s relative to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who don’t give up any chances and shots anyway. So he’s basically muzzling everything across from him to the point of zesting it. Sure, he’s not taking the hardest assignments and his zone starts have him kind of in the middle of the pack, but no one gets anything going against him and his line.

And he’ll be no closer to winning this award than I am.

Honorable Mention – Fredric Gaudreau, David Kampf

Totally serious on the last one. All the Hawks do is bleed high-danger chances against, and Kampf somehow prevents them. He’s in the top five in relative high-danger chances against.

Norris Trophy – Erik Karlsson

There are plenty of reasons that E.K. is wonderful, and one of them is that he sits comfortably at the nexus of crusty hockey thinking and forward hockey thinking, as oxymoronic of a term as that might be. Generally this goes to the d-man who scores the most, and Karlsson is currently fifth in the league in that and has been zooming up the charts. Don’t be shocked if he ends up leading before too long. He also has glowing metrics, in the top five in attempts-share and shots-share and chance-share. He’s utterly dominating play, but you wouldn’t know it from all the people bitching about the Sharks perceived lack of success because their goaltending sucks. You don’t have to overthink this. He’s the best d-man on the planet and he’s who the Hawks should be planning to throw a monster truck of money at this summer instead of Artemi “I’ll Wait Over Here” Panarin.

Honorable Mention – Dougie Hamilton

Rod Langway Award – Niklas Hjalmarsson

This is what the award would be if it was just about defense, which I don’t think it has to be but if you were to split it. And it hurts to put this, because Connor Murphy has been good here this year with little help. But Hammer starts more shifts than just about anyone in his own zone, and is far and away getting the play up the ice more than anyone who starts as often in his own end than he does. Sure, it helps to play with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but let’s not punish.

Honorable Mention – Josh Manson

Vezina Trophy – John Gibson

The Ducks are just as terrible of a defensive team as the Hawks. They give up just about the same amount of scoring chances and high-danger chances per game. Whereas the Hawks have already broken two goalies, Gibson is carrying a .923. The Ducks suck on the penalty kill too, and Gibson is maintaining a .904 SV% there. He’s somehow kept a decrepit Ducks squad being piloted by an actual undercooked ham around the playoff picture. It’s his to lose.

Honorable Mention – Ben Bishop, Freddie Andersen

Everything Else

I doubt John Tortorella was as angry about the state of things after his team torched the St. Louis Blues last night, but here he was at the morning skate yesterday:

Now, if you’ve been here for any length of time, you know I’m a tree-hugging socialist that does only what St. Vincent and Shirley Manson tell me to do and have pissed myself at the outset of every confrontation I’ve ever had (this isn’t entirely untrue, but due to inebriation rather than fear). So you probably expect me to once again lambast one of our favorite targets, no matter how much he loves dogs (or was right about Ryan Johansen and Brandon Saad).

Hockey being hockey, this is a complaint we’re hearing now about five years or more after we’ve heard it in other sports. I remember complaints like this in all the other major sports, and it usually starts out criticizing those not from these shores. Hell, you remember Bruce Boudreau getting salty about Alex Ovechkin laughing it up with fellow Russian players on the other team that had just steamrolled the Capitals that night. In baseball, it was the Latin players who were too chummy. Then basketball and and football followed suit with players being nice to each other on and off the court (fuck, Isiah and Magic were kissing each other in the 80s!).

And the reasons for this in hockey are pretty much the same as they were in the other sports. With the continued growth of player movement, a lot of these guys have already played together before. If they haven’t, they might have the same agent and work out together in the summer instead of retreating to whatever farm or factory older players used to work at to grunt, sweat, and stew for months while staring at a picture of some drunken punter who was the third center on Montreal before getting on the ice again. Specialization at younger ages plays a role, as a lot of these guys were probably at the same hockey camps as kids and developmental systems. They’ve played on youth national and older national teams together. There’s just more familiarity.

At the top level, the shit-disturbers have been moved out for players that can actually play. Your third line is less and less diligent checkers and pests. They’re moved to the fourth or off the roster completely, in favor of guys who can still skate and score. Look at the third lines of teams that are contenders this year. Just a brief snippet: When Nylander signs, Toronto will have Kapanen-Kadri-Lindholm (maybe Kadri is a bad example). Winnipeg has Copp-Lowry-Tanev, and has/could feature Roslovic and Perreault. Joonas Donskoi and Kevin Labanc are on the third line in San Jose. Basically, a lot of the guys whose main job it was to raise the temperature are being phased out. We’ve heard this all before in the NBA, NFL, and MLB. Bill Laimbeer wouldn’t get anywhere near an NBA court today. The “Baseball Police” are heavily mocked.

And yet, on some level, I see what Torts is getting at. And on that level, I’m with him in that I miss it, too. One of the appeals of hockey, as I’ve written here and other places before, when I got into it was the feeling of danger you got when walking into an arena. It’s what you tried to channel when you watched it on TV. You didn’t know what you might see, both on the ice and in the stands. It was fast and furious and what made it special was that utter art could be created out of utter mayhem.

Missing it doesn’t mean longing for it to be back, though. The feeling of danger in the stands washed away long ago, as every arena has a more homogenized and stale feel with game presentations almost exactly the same and everything catered to the glitterati and aristocracy. It’s not as fun, but that doesn’t mean I long to be thrown up on again by Tony from Oswego or have bags of piss tossed around (this was more a soccer thing but you wouldn’t have put it past the creatures of the Old Stadium either). And as we all agree, I certainly don’t miss standing in two inches of what I could only hope was water in the bathroom.

As far as the product on the ice, it’s different but that doesn’t mean it’s worse. It’s way better, actually. Take this from Torts’s own team last night:

Ok, maybe I take more joy in this than most because it was the P.A.T. on the Blues, but look at that pass! And that’s to Seth Jones, a 6-4 d-man who skates like the goddamn wind and effortlessly puts this away. 10 years ago everyone would complain that Jones didn’t “play to his size,” or something equally ridiculous and his game would have mutated. Isn’t this way better?

And this kind of thing is happening every night, especially this season. We can bemoan that hockey isn’t nearly as vitriol-filled as it was, but it doesn’t have time to be. Go on, try and be physical with Nathan MacKinnon or Connor McDavid or a dozen or more other players. You can’t catch them to do so. You can send your knuckle-draggers out there if you want, and you’ll get slaughtered every night.

It’s a different product, but it’s a better one. We’ve heard all these complaints in the NFL too, and some of the roughing the passer rules now are laughable. But no one’s complaining when their QB is racking up 400 yards again (please do this soon, Mitch). And finally there are more than like, four decent quarterbacks. It’s just a more watchable product.

Yes, Torts, sometimes I sit back and reminisce about the actual fear I felt when walking into 1800 W. Madison for a Wings-Hawks game, because I didn’t know if the chaos would happen on the ice or in the row in front of me. Or even Hawks-Canucks games between 2009-2012. I miss actual emotion, too. Which is a reason I watch the Premier League, and if that doesn’t square up for you I can’t help you. But that’s also hard to generate in October. I’m fairly sure there’s a decent amount in April, still.

But that doesn’t mean I want to back there. Maybe some things are best left in the past.