Lots of interesting news has come about in the NHL over the past few days. The return-to-play structure, hub cities, hotel choices, schedules and all, have been set in as firm a stone as you can in these times. The Collective Bargaining Agreement has been restructured and extended for six more years, ushering in an era of labour peace that usually requires a purposeful play stoppage rather than an inadvertent one. For better or worse, we’re venturing into the wilderness (no, not Banff or Jasper) in the next few weeks.
However, a key part of this agreement, much like in the other sports pushing forward, is the ability for individual players to opt out of the postseason should they not feel comfortable with playing. Players have until Monday to opt out without any form of reprocussions. So far, we’ve see two cases, both from Western Canadian teams: Travis Hamonic in Calgary, and Sven Baertschi in Vancouver.
Hamonic’s statement spoke to prior experience, as his first child suffered a respiratory virus shortly after being born. While she survived, the Hamonic family just brought their second child into the world, and they don’t see the risk of repeating that life-or-death moment again. Baertschi, at the time of me publishing this piece, has yet to put out a statement, but Canucks general manager Jim Benning has stated that “It was a difficult decision, but ultimately one we respect and understand”, according to Vancouver Province reporter Patrick Johnston.
Hamonic and Baertschi are the first two to opt out, but they likely won’t be the last. With COVID-19’s global impact, and the common nature of pre-existing conditions that make the virus worse, players are likely to have experiences that will make them have second thoughts about playing in a tournament that is, in a lot of ways, significantly different from the Stanley Cup they’ve signed up for and dreamed of. Even if one feels comfortable with their own odds, there is a certain degree of helplessness at play when you’re in a firm bubble for weeks and months, not being able to come to assistance if your family, friends, neighbours, etc fall victim in a particularly harsh way – not to mention the general mental drain of being nowhere but at work or in a solitary hotel room.
Hockey’s culture will, of course, combat this, and likely lead to a lower percentage of opt-outs than in other leagues. We’ve all been conditioned for years to play through physical and mental adversity, even when it is objectively a bad idea, because anything else would be not showing the toughness of a real hockey player, or not showing the camaraderie of being a real teammate. I’ve already seen reporters talk about hiding injuries or trying to keep contract statuses safe in regards to the currently opted-out duo, and fans talking about the players “giving up” on the their teams.
To me, that’s grossly unfair to the players, and is one part of our ecosystem that requires change for the good of the sport. In Hamonic’s case, the reason he gave for wanting to stay behind is extremely legitimate. For Baertschi, we don’t know for sure what his reason is. Both of these should be treated equally, however, and treated with respect. The pressure we put on these players to suck up their fears and concerns often leaves them physically and mentally broken when their careers are over – extending that treatment to their concern about a global pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and derailed millions, one that we haven’t quite defeated yet, is super unfair. The decision to return to play is still an incredibly polarizing one, even amongst people who’s lives are centred around the game – so it’s important that we treat the feelings and decisions of these individuals who aren’t comfortable with respect and understanding, no matter who ends up backing out.
Every so often, you see a silly tweet that sparks just enough inspiration to give it more thought than necessary, last night was one of those for me – Nashville Predators blogger / personality @statsrespecter dropped this dime:
Now, as everyone on Hockey Twitter knows, I hate every team in the NHL, especially yours. You know that last bit to be true especially, since you only see me in your timeline once every few months, but when you do, it’s always because someone you know is pointing out how much I hate your team.
In seriousness, hockey is hockey at the end of the day, and I enjoy every team the league has to offer. But yes, when there’s 31 of them on the table, some get thought about less than others. I gave it some thought last night and here’s who I had to struggle the most to show real interest in.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets
I’ve obviously had to pay a lot more mind to the Blue Jackets of late, given that they’ll be facing my Local Sports Team (TM) in the play-in round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a few weeks, assuming all stays on track. I also really like Cam Atkinson and Seth Jones. It was also really cool when they upset the Lightning last year.
But generally speaking, we’re talking about a team that lost both it’s marketable superstars last summer, and while they’re built pretty well, there’s just not a lot of interesting things you can say about the roster. I forgot Gustav Nyquist played for them before typing this out, and that’s with multiple recent looks at the roster. Nick Foligno is one of the lower-talent captains in the league, and their story of the season is that a goaltender took the reigns as this years EA Sports create-a-player who suddenly became good. Also, I’m convinced they have Riley Nash for no reason other than to convince out-of-the-loop fans that he’s Rick. They’ve even managed to tone down John Tortorella!
4. St. Louis Blues
“The defending Stanley Cup Champions? GLORIA? How do they end up on this list?”
Here’s the thing. The Blues were a perfectly reasonable team to pick to win the Stanley Cup at the start of last year, until they weren’t, and then they were again. That story itself, within its vacuum, was very interesting.
But even still, it still kind of feels weird and random that they went through with winning. Their roster’s allure is in the quantity of above-average, instead of individuals who captivate you (Vladimir Tarasenko can at times – but I feel like even he’s fallen off the highlight film in recent years). Frankly, now that the dust has settled on their win, the shine has kind of gone, and they’ve returned to being that team that you just kind of assume are always good enough to be praised but not great enough to be excited for.
I guess it comes down to this – if the Blues didn’t see their luck yo-yo in the way it did last year, if it didn’t culminate in them winning the last game in the season, how often would you remember their existence?
3. Detroit Red Wings
We pivot from last year’s best to this year’s worst. The Red Wings wouldn’t have taken this spot just a few years ago, and I’m not making that distinction with the end of their playoff streak either – even some of those first few post-playoff teams were interesting in the way that people slow down to look at accidents on the highway.
The issue with the Red Wings today is that their traditional scorched earth rebuild has left them with next to nothing to be excited about; their defence has gone from “at least they remind me that Mike Green is still playing” to one of the worst corps of our time, and the Dylan Larkin & Anthony Mantha duo aren’t exciting enough to make that forward corps seem interesting, especially now that there isn’t a Red Wings executive showing public disappointment in Mantha every three months any more.
Steve Yzerman has a pretty good idea of what he’s doing, but that’s a part of the problem here – Yzerman’s style of management isn’t particularly risky or innovative, and is mostly centred around avoiding unforced errors and safely marching forward with skilled, but not overly one-dimensional assets. That’s a fine way to build a team, but it’s not particularly motivating. With the team failing to win any of the three lottery selections at this year’s draft, it’s hard to believe they’ll be driving excitement into our homes for at least a few more years.
2. Minnesota Wild
The only thing saving the Minnesota Wild from being the least interesting team in hockey is the fact that they are so widely known as the Least Interesting Team In Hockey (TM). Their two highest paid players are a pair of local guys that signed broken contracts two CBA’s ago, and have largely faded from stardom to extreme “guy”-ness. Their captain has grown up to be both the best and the least interesting Koivu. I still can’t imagine Mats Zuccarello as anything but a Ranger, and while Eric Staal seems to have rediscovered his groove there, it’s still easy to forget that he’s still playing until you look up his numbers.
The Wild thrive on defensive hockey, and by thrive, I mean routinely end up somewhere between the middle and the lower-middle. No team has ever had more recognizable names while giving you zero reason to care about them. Jared Spurgeon, as good as he is, is probably the least exciting star in the NHL, and the only reason the team has a foothold on social media is because two (very talented) brothers feed us hockey stats. The organization got rid of most of it’s smartest and most interesting staff members, from the analytics cupboard to the bench, and even their uniforms essentially boil down to “what if we took our interesting inaugural design and made it more boring”.
Again, the Wild’s only saving grace here is that actively seeking to be disinteresting, which has to be what they’re doing at this point, is, in itself, slightly interesting.
1. Anaheim Ducks
This is the Disney team? This is Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne’s team? This is the team that bullied their way to a cup in 2007?
The Ducks, Mighty or not, used to be continuously fascinating. But looking at them today shows a shell of their former selves. Now that Ryan Getzlaf has seen better days, and Rickard Rakell appears to have lost his goal-scoring touch. I’m not sure that there’s a single forward on that roster worth pointing out. The Boston trade means there’s no Ondrej Kase to point to as an “underrated” player (that everyone likes), there’s no Corey Perry to give us a controversial hit to argue about every few months.
Their defence isn’t much better. Josh Manson is fine, but hasn’t really become the bulldozer that people thought he would, and is apparently already 28 years old (when did that happen?). Hampus Lindholm gets great results, but isn’t particularly dazzling.
The Ducks are the least relevant of the California Teams at a time where the California teams are at an all time low in joint ability. They didn’t get a high-end pick to build around like the Kings, and they don’t have chaos in the sense that San Jose has with losing their 3rd overall pick to the Erik Karlsson trade.
The Ducks currently exist to give John Gibson a crash course in goaltending drills, and sell “close, but not quite” recreations of their Disney jerseys. They are irrelevant to the standings, irrelevant to the conversation, and they aren’t even relevant to irrelevance. This, to me, makes the the least interesting team in the NHL right now.
“The plan is to play three games per day, both in Edmonton and Toronto, and the timetable template, if you will, in terms of local times, is to schedule those games for 12:00 Noon, 4:00 PM, and 8:00 PM,” said McKenzie. “Now keep in mind the two hour time difference between Edmonton and Toronto – it means, basically, there’s going to be six games a day spread over a 15 hour window, if not longer”
Such a format would look like this:
At first, this sounds incredible. Whether or not you’re 100% comfortable with the league coming back, one can’t help but be curious about what happens if the puck does, indeed, drop – and this looks really fun. As McKenzie, points out, this is 15+ hours of consistent hockey to get us back underway – that’s amazing, right?
Sort of. There is a catch, though – a couple of them, in fact. The first, and perhaps most obvious one, comes in the art of sudden death. Should these games be tied after regulation, playoff rules suggest that teams keep going until the next goal is scored – and as we’ve seen year after year, that can take a while. It would only take a game to get into the late stages of the second overtime to push back the clock on the game that follows.
Thankfully, the NHL can mostly breathe easy in that respect; the league’s four-year drought without a triple overtime game is the longest it has seen since the early 1990s, with the game of such a length ending after 51 additional minutes courtesy of Mike Fisher in May 2016. Since then, only about 21% of all playoff games have gone to overtime (54 of 258), and 76% (43) of those finished in the first overtime. The average length of overtime has been around 12:50, and in only one of those 13 double overtime games did it get into the final five minutes.
In other words, we’re talking about something that doesn’t have a significant chance of happening particularly often in the opening round, in which a maximum of 40 play-in games will occur, along with 12 round-robin games.
Strategically, the round-robin games will use regular season overtime (5 minutes 3-on-3 followed by a shootout), and will be the middle (4:00PM local) games in each city’s schedule. This means that time overage is only a concern for the twenty noon play-in games, leaving a reasonable expectation that this will only cause a couple of collar tugs and might cause one, maybe two actual push-backs of the schedule. Or maybe none or maybe a bunch, if the hockey gods say otherwise. At it’s core, though, the risk is negligible.
If we have to push a round-robin game back because every series went to five, and a couple play-in games went to triple or quadruple overtime – I’m sure that’s a sacrifice most of us will be willing to make.
I do wonder a little about some other issues that the cramped schedule holds, though. From what we’re made to understand, these will all be played in the same arena – Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Rogers Place in Edmonton – and the combination of summer heat and heavy elite hockey use seems like a recipe for disaster – particularly when Toronto is looking a little heat-wavy right now. This wouldn’t be so bad had the hubs borrowed multi-rink facilities in their cities, but amenities and broadcast features likely take a priority there.
Speaking of facilities – I wonder how that plays out with six teams needing to use the rink on any given day. Scotiabank Arena has often had double-game days (World Juniors, World Cup, Marlies/Leafs doubleheaders, etc), but I can’t imagine the setup they’d have for six teams – particularly if Toronto doesn’t want to give up their room to anyone.
The same goes for Edmonton, who hasn’t been tapped on the shoulder as much for this sort of thing, but likely built with doubleheaders in mind – I wonder where their capacity is to hold six besides themselves. Teams not only have to switch around, but in an extremely sanitary fashion given the circumstances, and that seems like it’ll be very difficult without some clever dressing room trickery that keeps everyone safe but also game-ready at an elite level.
Either way, it’s exciting to get some clarity, and an expectation of not leaving my desk in August – so long as this all happens.
Happy Monday! I hope you all had a fantastic weekend – and to my American friends, I hope the fireworks have stopped by now, and that you’ve gotten some sleep. Let’s kick this week off in the usual way – by looking back at some content and answering some questions.
In Case You Missed It
Before we get started, here’s what I got up to last week:
Building A Superstar: Another variant of the dollar game comes to the hockey world, and I unpack a few archetypes that would be fun to see on the ice.
An Ode To David Clarkson: “I’m not worried about six and seven,” rings in our memory as David Clarkson’s contract hits Year 8 on a technicality. I look back on the moment of signing the gritty winger, and look to revise his legacy into something a little more positive on the individual level.
This might be a bit of an uncomfortable take, but I think we’re starting to move past the point of declaring windows as inherently open or closed in today’s game. Parity has consumed most of the league, and to be an elite or terrible regular season team has become an outlier, not it’s own tier. The post season is, for all intents and purposes, a weighted coin toss. There are windows for being the among the favourites to win, and there are timeframes for being in a scorched-earth rebuild, but in a league where 19 teams finished within eight wins of each other this year, it’s difficult to commit to anyone as firmly “out” unless they openly pull the plug.
San Jose and Chicago are likely the closest to those descriptions, but both could easily get themselves back into the middle-ground in a couple of years and neither are committing to an implosion.
Is it a good idea to play Marner behind the net on the pp?
This is one of those answers that falls into “couldn’t hurt”. I’d like to see more variety in powerplay schemes in general; that is to say, teams should have 4-5 schemes that they rotate through to fool opposing penalty kills, not just one or two set plays. A behind-the-net based system with a high-vision playmaker is among those concepts that could be integrated; we haven’t seen many of those in North America post-Gretzky, though they remain somewhat popular in Europe.
North American powerplay schematics are very inclined towards maximizing how many open shots you have, while a behind the net-based strategy pulls your shape closer to the net and increases shot quality for the options you do have. Sacrificing a second point shot to pull your best scorers into threatening areas is an option that deserves more weight than currently given.
Will the Leafs have to move a forward for cap room? If so, who?
I don’t think they’ll “have to”, in the sense that I don’t see this upcoming offseason as a back-against-the-wall scenario. The two big LTIR contracts come off the books, as does Cody Ceci; that should give Toronto enough flexibility on the fact to take care of extending Dermott and Mikheyev.
Now, as far as upgrades go, that’s a different story; they’ll likely have to clear salary to bring in substantial salary. I imagine their ambitions will be in the mid-tier here, though; think players like Alexander Kerfoot and Andreas Johnsson.
who’s a better winger for matthews marner or nylander? if you tackled this in the past then just fire me the link id love to read it
This is similar to the powerplay question for me; I don’t think there’s a direct answer to this question. Historically, Matthews has had better shares of shot attempts (Corsi) or on-ice goals (a slightly improved +/-) with Nylander, but has a better share of the Expected Goals (shots weighted by location and type) with Marner. He produces a higher rate of points per hour with Nylander, but scores a higher rate of goals per hour with Marner.
Both wingers are able to get some of the best qualities out of Matthews through their own strengths, and in a sense, there is a real value in the fact that you can rotate between the two based on what style of team you’re facing, what game situation you’re in, etc. The numbers above tend to mesh with what our eyes often tell us. Matthews and Nylander are the stronger duo when it comes to things like cycling or tandem breakouts, chaining together multiple passes and plays to get to a scoring opportunity. Matthews and Marner are a better duo at making something out of direct plays, creating fast counter-attack rushes and threading single passes into dangerous areas.
This is a benefit of having both Marner and Nylander on the roster that cannot be understated, and one that many in the hockey world glance over. We treat skilled wingers as one archetype, when in reality, there is so much more nuance available than that – while the nucleus of their games is the same, the methods are much different – they create versatility, not redundance.
Just how bad has Anaheim’s de-evolution of their blue line been over the last few years?
They’ve managed to not lose Hampus Lindholm, so they aren’t totally at a loss yet. But losing so many other functioning pieces, particularly emerging talents like Shea Theodore, is definitely a sign of misevaluation – I’m still not totally sure how Cam Fowler earned himself his deal.
Which Leafs player opting out of the NHL play-in would create the most havoc on Twitter?
Honestly, there are so many compelling arguments here. If its one of the Big Four, they’ll be called out by the old-school for “giving up on the team” while the “new-school” crowd back the players’ right to make the decision (unless it’s Mitch Marner, in which case, it’ll be weirdly reversed). Supplementary players would lead to more nuanced (but still not very nuanced) discussions about the validity of the tournament. Bottom tier depth that isn’t particularly liked would likely get dumped on as attention-seeking.
Frederik Andersen may be the best answer, though, because he would be the one who would give people an actual fear of losing. You need a starting goaltender in the playoffs, after all. With his contract up after next year, he’d likely also get the abandonment angle, with more permanence speculated.
Of course, all of these outcomes would be questionable. Every player has the right to opt-out, and given the complexity and threat of this virus and the absurdity of this playoff format, it might be the smartest decision one can make. We’ll see what happens, I guess.
The NHL is taking it’s sweet time to announce it’s hub cities for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Perhaps that’s for the best – maybe it means they’re taking precautions seriously. Or at least, a little bit closer to seriously than they were when they started the chase favouring a hotspot in the middle of a pandemic.
It seems all but confirmed, though, that the hub cities will be Toronto – specifically, the Exhibition complex and Scotiabank Arena, and Edmonton – specifically, uhh, who knows, but likely relying heavily on the ICE District. While I’m firmly on team “why are we doing this at all, cancel the season”, this seems to be the most logical outcome available – neither Alberta nor Ontario is out of the woods with this virus by any means, but both appear to be in better shape than any of the American states associated with hub bids, and while Vancouver was another Canadian favourite earlier in the process, government officials have decided to play it safe rather than sorry, to the point of the NHL backing out. Both Edmonton and Toronto can provide amenities and facilities that are either attached to the main arena, or in their own bubble, which again, isn’t a perfect solution, but is preferable to the alternatives. Both cities are expected to exhibitions, play-ins, and rounds 1 and 2, while the Conference Finals and Final will likely be played in Edmonton.
Another revelation that’s come with the news is that the conferences won’t cross over in terms of who they host – previously, it was thought that the Western teams would play in the East, and vice-versa, in order to eliminate a potential “home-ice advantage” for the host team.
While home advantage is likely overstated to an extent in the sporting world, there are definitely factors that can give the local team the advantage – some of which are cancelled out by these circumstances, some of which can be cancelled out if the league “schedules” things fairly, and some of which are unavoidable.
The most obvious loss comes in the stands, via the fans. No, the guy in Section 318, Row 10, Seat 6 hasn’t been controlling your team’s powerplay by yelling “shoooooooot” at the right moments over the years – no individual carries the weight here – but there is undeniably a psychological benefit to knowing you’ve got people in the crowd rooting for you. An early look at the German Bundesliga (their top soccer league) suggests that empty stadiums have had a significant impact on the performance of home teams, ranging from win percentage, to goal rate, shot rate, to expected goal quality, and even fewer attempts at dribbles (similar to dekes in hockey).
The sample is small and correlation doesn’t always equal causation, but it makes intuitive sense. As that Times article dives into It’s not even just the support, but the absence of a tense atmosphere. It’s easier for players to hang back if they don’t feel under pressure, and they’re less likely to try something flashy if there isn’t a crowd to entertain.
Another big local edge comes in terms of travel and amenity. Home teams are presumably better rested and better mentally prepared, being the game’s hosts and communicating from their house or condo, not another state or province. That also gets mitigated by the Hub City plans – the Leafs and Oilers will be members of the same complexes as every other team. Competition is actually a very significant factor in that decision – while it might help make the argument, the real reasoning that the hosts must join their opponents is because anything else would disrupt the “bubble” that the NHL is trying to build here, separating the players from society so they don’t bring in or spread out a COVID-19 outbreak. One team being able to go from the rink to their house invalidates the entire purpose of a bubble.
From there, we move on from the intangible to the tangible, and the tangible suggests that home teams do, in fact, have a little bit going in their favour. A quick sweep of 5-on-5 data this year shows that home teams in the NHL enjoy a 0.597 points percentage, with only Montreal (0.459) and Detroit (0.351) not at least punting at home. Moved to win percentage, and that number shrinks, but still remains at 0.533, with 21 of 31 teams having won at least half of their home games (Toronto and Edmonton among them, but closer to the bottom than the top).
The impact goes beyond record, though – the home team got over 51% of the shots (both attempted and on goal), 52% of the goals and expected goals, and 53% of the high-danger scoring chances. Maintaining that slight but solid amount of control over the game is important – 18 of 31 teams had positive Corsi differentials at home at 5-on-5, as did 21 of 31 for Expected Goals – and some of it can be more tangibly tied to being the home team, and more specifically, due to the way the sport works:
Due to hockey’s ability to change on-ice players on-the-fly, and the off-centre, side-by-side layout that most arenas build for team benches, the home team is typically closer to the offensive zone for two periods. Given that you are more likely to make a change while you have possession, this requires more patience and distance travelled for the opposing team to change on-the-fly over the course of the game, by having to “long change” for two periods instead of one.
Similarly, home teams also get to send out their players after a whistle after the road team does. This allows them to see what players are being sent out and “match up” in ways that they believe to be favourable, be it stylistically, in terms of stamina, or just a hunch.
While the rule isn’t as encompassing as it was a few years prior, there is still a degree of favorability towards the home team in terms of taking faceoffs, as they get the last placement of their stick before the puck is dropped. This rule is mostly enforced in the neutral zone these days, but still remains as a general practice. A look at this year’s data shows that the home team has a 51% faceoff victory rate at home, with 23 teams winning over 50% of their home draws.
One last on-ice advantage that the home teams have is a particularly interesting one, because its one that none of us likes to admit. That would be the tilted ice that comes from officiating – while they do their best to keep things even over the long run, very likely to an exploitable fault, home teams tend to be given fewer penalties than road teams, across all sports. The Bundesliga data shows that this phenomenon has changed significantly without fans, perhaps suggesting that officials are just as prone to psychological impact from the home crowd – in their case a negative pressure – as the players are. Not needing to please an audience may lead to a better-called game come the postseason.
All of this is to say that a lot of these advantages seem to either go away without fans (psychological edge, officiating bias), won’t be actionable (travel & accommodation), or are more geared to the game sheet designation of home and away than the geographical designation (long change, last change, faceoff rules).
That isn’t, however, to say that there aren’t short and long term advantages for Toronto (and Edmonton) to be the hosts here. The host teams will be able to “control” the amenities, so to speak, making sure that their players get to use the equipment that they’re used to, roam the halls that they’re used to, play on the ice that they’re used to, get the meals that they’re used to, so on and so forth. Some of that will get cancelled out quickly as teams acclimate, particularly the in-conference ones who have been in your rink before, but even if it just gets the snowball rolling, that can be a difference-maker.
Long term, and thinking more from a Toronto perspective, this is a great opportunity to pitch the experience of being in the Leafs organization to opponents. Deep down, I think that’s the edge that MLSE is looking the most at while putting this together. The Maple Leafs are headed to a stage in their build where talent acquisition won’t be done through pitching the highest salary, but by pitching the most rewarding experience; a strategy that won them the John Tavares sweepstakes two years ago yesterday despite the Islanders and Sharks pitching higher salaries.
A good way to plant the seed with players who might have a decision to make down the road is to treat them well in a situation like this Pandemic Tournament – make sure they’re protected, make sure their family is taken care of, and make sure the bubble gives them everything they can muster up. The Exhibition Grounds bubble gives them a lot of flexibility to “tamper without tampering”, with the vast majority of the complex being run by either the City of Toronto or MLSE themselves, including three MLSE-run sports facilities that will likely be made available to the players for training and leisure (BMO Field for Soccer & Football, Coca Cola Coliseum for hockey, and the OVO Athletic Centre for basketball).
At the end of the day, I still have serious doubts that this should all be happening, and at a personal level, I couldn’t care less about Toronto being a Hub City; my only priority on that front is that the players don’t cause another outbreak. But it’s fascinating to think about what advantages the team may have, and which ones will be minimized either subconsciously or intentionally.