Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

July 1, 2020

An Ode To David Clarkson 

Today marks the seven-year anniversary of one of the single worst contracts ever given out in the history of hockey. On July 1st, 2013, the Toronto Maple Leafs brought Mimico native David Clarkson back to the city he calls home with a 7-year, $36,750,000 contract. It carried an annual average value of $5,250,000, had unprecedented protection against a buyout integrated into its bonus-vs-salary structure, and gave a forward with 170 career points at Age 29 an unprecedented amount of control over his destination.

It was an insane overpayment by a team desperate for a specific identity, and technically speaking, it should have ended today. For all intents and purposes, it probably has; the signing bonuses area ll paid, base salaries are based on a completed regular season, and to my knowledge, if Clarkson were to announce his retirement now, it wouldn’t create much cause for concern from a salary cap perspective. Of course, the COVID-19 related pause to the NHL season has pushed this year’s contract schedule back several months, meaning that the symbolism behind seeing that contract expire will have to wait.

Pretty funny, really, when you consider Dave Nonis’ quote when asked about the signing. “I’m not worried about [year] six or seven right now,” the then-GM of the Leafs said. “I’m worried about year one, and year one, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.”

In the end, Year 1 was a disaster from before it started – Clarkson was suspended for the first ten games of the year for leaving the bench in a pre-season brawl – and his production fell off a cliff from already middling results. By the middle of year two, he was traded for Nathan Horton, who’s career was over but who’s contract could be used as a salary cap loophole. Horton shared a similar contract signed on the same date for the same amount of time, and soon Clarkson’s similar chronic back issues led him to an identical fate. Clarkson then became the LTIR contract who didn’t play, “moving” to Vegas at the end of Year 4, and “returning” to Toronto at the beginning of Year 7.

Now we bear witness to this weird moment of hockey purgatory. Clarkson had zero valuable years out of seven, ended up with just 17 goals and 30 points in that stretch, and now, due to a completely unforeseen sequence of real-world events, enters “Year 8” – not according to the NHL schedule, but the calendar.

Honestly, It’s a pretty fitting end to the whole saga, that he would come back, and that the world would keep him around for longer than expected. In a weird way, in fact, I kind of like it. Not the circumstances that led to the outcome, obviously – but the outcome itself.

Again, it cannot be overstated how bad this contract was from day one. While the analytics movement was still far from mainstream in the summer of 2013 – in fact, probably at it’s most polarizing within the context of the Toronto market at that point – most who were on board with the numbers were keen to the fact that Clarkson didn’t seem like a wise bet. As my Managing Editor at The Leafs Nation at the time, and long-time-since Leafs R&D staffer Cam Charron put it at the time, Clarkson was a good hockey player with positive traits both tangible and not, but was likely to fall apart with age due to his style of play and the team was likely best served by taking a player they already had and evolving their playstyle.

Free agency is difficult like that, and it’s important to remember the risks involved, especially when talking about physical players. Injuries beget injuries, as does age, and it’s really not a good idea to give a long-term deal to any player on the open market who isn’t a bonafide star. There is a difference between John Tavares two years ago, a superstar talent who has stayed healthy for most of his career, and Clarkson, a support player who was already showing signs of a degrading back while he was in New Jersey.

Philosophically, it was a massive miss by Leafs management, and in a weird, twisted way, that may have been to the team’s long-term gain. Several years of a shift away from the skilled nucleus of Toronto’s roster, who had inched the Leafs back towards success, had been thrown out the window in hopes of creating a poor man’s version of the 2007 Anaheim Ducks – with all the character and intimidation but significantly less Hall of Fame talent. An unlikely, percentage-driven and half-season aided qualification for the 2013 playoffs gave the impression that the shift towards brawns was working, even when it lacked the talent to match, and losing their first-round series in dramatic fashion inexplicably led to the conclusion that they were still right, but needed to get even grittier.

Many decisions were made that offseason to double down on that image, including a six-day run in June that might be one of the most incompetent stretches a management team has ever had. On June 30th, the Leafs traded three draft picks to the Chicago Blackhawks to get David Bolland, who played 23 games for the team. They used a first-round pick to draft Frederik Gauthier, knowing his ceiling was likely on the third line, and while the Goat remains a cult-hero in Toronto, we can all acknowledge the fact that he has yet to clear 15 points in a season and will be shown the door the moment he makes a penny more than the league minimum. Four days later, they used a compliance buyout on Mikhail Grabovski (who managed to get an identical contract to the one he lost a year later), instead of John-Michael Liles (who had concussion issues while he signed his contract extension, and would go on to be traded for a worse player and contract in Tim Gleason). The next day, they re-signed Tyler Bozak for five years (which admittedly went better than skeptics expected, but still not as good as the team did), and Clarkson, while Clarke MacArthur, another piece of the “MGK” line that was being broken up in the plan to go from controlling the ice to controlling the hit count, went to a division rival for free.

A week before this six days of terror, the Leafs traded two prospects and a 2nd round pick for Jonathan Bernier – a perfectly fine goalie who was plenty serviceable for 2 of the next 3 years, but a curious choice given James Reimer’s fantastic prior year, and the reasoning given of the new CEO liking Bernier’s mental makeup.

Astonishing, really. But that was the state of the Leafs at the time, and the Clarkson deal was their crown jewel, to show that they could get the big fish – even if in one of the smallest ponds in years – and that they’d play the game their way. We all know what came next; the 2013/14 Leafs started strong, but being one of the worst defensive teams in NHL history was only going to overlap with wins for so long, and a crater that would last the next three seasons began.

There’s perhaps a benefit to that, though – that a signing like Clarkson’s was such an explosive exclamation point on disastrous direction, that it caused the reflection and re-imagination in the organization a lot faster than advertised. It’s one thing to go back to losing after a fortunate season – it’s another to do so in a way that shorts your available assets, costs you tens of millions of dollars in cash, and burns trust. Clarkson became the main symbol of a failed regime, in that regard.

Interestingly, though, the collateral damage wasn’t much to the Leafs in the end. One disastrous season, a relatively decent half-season, and from that point on, the remaining five and a half years, be it via Horton or via bringing his contract back, were mostly just an accounting pain in the ass. You could almost argue that the deal worked out to their long-term benefit, as it became a warning sign when it was time to talk about extending Bolland (who went to Florida and was a similar disaster) or other players of his ilk. Clarkson’s contract became both a warning shot and a roadblock to making another mistake in the middle of the lineup, that lasted until a front office that seems to be more cognizant about what tiers and traits you pay premiums for was in place to avoid a repeat without needing the reminder.

In a weird way, we can almost thank Clarkson for signing the deal, and maybe we should. Now 36 years old, Clarkson’s name has become toxic in this city, but really, that’s by no fault of his own. Clarkson really, really wanted to be a Leaf – the “tea leaves” in town suggested he was circling the signing date for years prior – and it’s been reported on several occasions that the Edmonton Oilers offered him an even more ridiculous deal on that day, that he rejected to go home.

David Clarkson really did “bleed blue”, and he really did want to live up to the idea of being a replica Wendel Clark. Perhaps that was why it didn’t work out for him on an individual note on the ice – a lack of effort never appeared to be the problem, but rather that too much expectation was placed on him, and he felt an obligation to try to live up to it. To the bench incident to the countless near-missed shots to the tripping over himself while trying to bag skate to the next zone, it always felt like he was overwhelmed, rather than mailing it in.

In that sense, Clarkson taught me to start looking at contracts more from the perspective of management, rather than blaming the players. This was simply a guy who wanted to live out his dream, who was given too much of the pie for him to chew on his own. But he still tried his best to do so, and left when it was clear it wasn’t going to work out, and while the team could still find a way out.

After that, the team appeared to learn their lessons, and moved forward to build one of the organizations best assemblies of talent in the modern era almost fast as they gutted their previous core, boosted further by pulling in “big fish” in free agency in consecutive years – something that Toronto had struggled with for years before that day in 2013. Clarkson proceeded to play 26 more games and score 2 more goals in his NHL career before his body gave up on him, as originally feared.

Now, he gets to retire as a Toronto Maple Leaf, and Year 8 is an inconsequential technicality. So let’s let him have it, and, while never forgetting the incompetence of his bosses, raise our sticks to a player who came back to his hometown in hopes of changing the fabric of the organization, and in a very convoluted way, did just that.

July 1, 2020 20 views 0

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Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

June 30, 2020

Building A Superstar 

One of the best time-killing and argument-inducing activities we’ve got on sports social media is the dollar game. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, it usually involves having a budget to build a roster of players given various costs. Those who know what they’re doing can usually exploit them pretty easily.

For example, take this Sportsnet graphic from this week. $15 to spend on a lineup of five legendary forwards. Well, you can quickly figure out that from a peak perspective, Eric Lindros and Peter Forsberg are bargains in the $3 bucket, as is Mike Modano at $1. $7 in with $8 remaining, and you’ve already started to build a big, fast grinding team, which makes going for the fastest player in the list (Pavel Bure) and the most gifted big man on the list (Mario Lemieux) seem pretty easy. There are other fun combinations you can make, but there’s a pretty easy pathway to the most bang-for-buck.

It’s great when you can find a version of this challenge that actually encourages you to go beyond one optimal list. So when I stumbled on Ryan Allen’s $18 challenge of player traits on the EA Sports NHL subreddit, I was very excited. Unfortunately, this list fell flat for Ryan on Twitter when he posted it a few weeks ago – but let’s try to give it some new life because I think it makes for some fun conversations.

The Nucleus

While this list does a much better job than most at making sure people come up with unique combinations, there are a few buys that showed some overlap in my builds.

Puck Skills: TJ Oshie, $1 – This one isn’t so much praise of Oshie’s talents as it is a realization that this isn’t a high-focus category – most high-end NHL players have incredible hands, but their shortcomings when it comes to other traits means that they don’t get the opportunities to use them. If I can create a player who finds more natural separation through his brains, brawns, and feet, for example, the phonebooth he has to stickhandle through becomes a lot more spacious. With that said, Oshie does have incredibly filthy mitts, to the point that I don’t think the gap between him and the absolute best in the league needs to take up 5-20% of my budget.

Senses: Erik Karlsson, $2 – While Karlsson is starting to see some regression due to natural aging and all sorts of injuries, one cannot deny his absolute brilliance in parsing the game, both offensively and defensively. I really think that him and Marner at $4 should have been reversed; less a knock on the latter than a praise of the former. Since they weren’t, we’ll use his brain to improve our all-around game on the cheap.

Defence: Patrice Bergeron, $3 – Patrice Bergeron is one of the best two-way forwards of our time, and possibly of any time. He’s also the only forward on this list, and while I looked at defensive builds, this makes him a lock for my forwards. The middling price also gives us some wiggle room.

Skating: Connor McDavid, $5 – You might find it weird that a highest-price item is considered a “must”, but in this format, that often rings true for at least one item. The need to have evenly-sized tiers tends to means that generational items can get lumped in with every good ones, which can simultaneously make them both a premium and a bargain. The Sportsnet example I mentioned earlier is a good case study in this – the gap between Gretzky, Lemieux, and the rest isn’t nearly big enough – and in some cases, is equal!

Being a great skater is so important in today’s high-pace game, and McDavid is for all intents and purposes the best skater we’ve ever seen play the sport. There are great wheels on all five guys given here, but that tool is a “god mode” add. You probably shouldn’t miss it unless you’re looking to build something very specific or make the challenge harder for yourself.

Size & Physicality: Tom Wilson, $4 – Look, at his worst, Tom Wilson is a blight on the game and a legitimate threat to player safety. He’s shown many moments of sheer recklessness that actively set the sport back as it tries to find the balance between physical, competitive, and safe. But, there’s no denying that he’s an absolute ox at 6’4, 220 pounds, and while you don’t get quite to the size of Dustin Byfuglien, you also don’t have to worry about him showing up to camp looking like he spent six months on a fishing trip. Wilson’s build and edge are more than enough to be intimidating in today’s game, so long as you can tone him down.

Five Builds

Using this chart, I came up with five different builds, that almost carry an NES “Ice Hockey” vibe to them. They are as follows:

The little, shifty forward:

  • Puck Skills: $4, Johnny Gaudreau
  • Hockey Senses: $3, Jack Eichel
  • Shooting: $4, Auston Matthews
  • Defence: $3, Patrice Bergeron
  • Skating: $2, Jeff Skinner
  • Size & Physicality: $2, Brad Marchand

My first build here will probably show the most variety of the bunch, which is funny in the sense that it’s also the most similar to an already existing player – who is among the players selected. What we’re doing here is making an optimal Brad Marchand, something he himself has worked towards over the past few years en route to his evolution from superpest to superstar.

I made a couple of different opts here based on player build. Rather than go for the Oshie/McDavid combo, I decided that Gaudreau would be a better stickhandling fit given how his moves are more tailored to his build and that Skinner’s edgework would help a smaller player make up ground more than explosive strides. Since we have a playmaker’s hands, I opted for Eichel’s brain, and since I want this player helping out near the slot, I felt that Matthews’ shot set was the most valuable if they end up playing cleanup. Having Bergeron’s ability in the defensive zone is probably something he’s already familiar with, even if he hasn’t perfected it in himself.

The well-balanced forward:

  • Puck Skills: $1, TJ Oshie
  • Hockey Senses: $2, Erik Karlsson
  • Shooting: $4, Auston Matthews
  • Defence: $3, Patrice Bergeron
  • Skating: $5, Connor McDavid
  • Size & Physicality: $3, Matthew Tkachuk

This, I think, is your best all-around player. Like I mentioned before, Oshie’s hands are more than enough, and Karlsson’s brains are going to help you on both sides of the puck, as is Bergeron’s two-way ability. Separation speed is a massive asset and Matthews’ shot set gives you a generational wrister, a high-end one-timer, and very good options on the other end. Springing for Ovechkin in the shooting department is an intriguing opinion if you want to dock something else, but it needs to be 2009 Ovechkin; with tools like this, you can’t really waste the player in the Ovi spot.

The big, dominant forward:

  • Puck Skills: $1, TJ Oshie
  • Hockey Senses: $2, Erik Karlsson
  • Shooting: $3, Phil Kessel
  • Defence: $3, Patrice Bergeron
  • Skating: $5, Connor McDavid
  • Size & Physicality: $4, Tom Wilson

“So, uhh, how do we make Eric Lindros in 2020?” is the question you’re asking yourself as you make this player. I’m pretty satisfied with how it looks. An absolute freight train with that combination of Tom Wilson’s size and belligerence, paired with Connor McDavid’s speed. The smart 200-foot play created by moulding the best-two way forward and best play-driving defenceman of our era. A little bit of dipsie doodle from Oshie, and the best snapshot of the game from Kessel for when you break free in close. Just might need more than a 65 flex with this body, though.

The imposing defenceman:

  • Puck Skills: $1, TJ Oshie
  • Hockey Senses: $5, Sidney Crosby
  • Shooting: $1, Zdeno Chara
  • Defence: $2, Drew Doughty
  • Skating: $5, Connor McDavid
  • Size & Physicality: $4, Tom Wilson

Here, we’re trying to create a relentless pain in the ass for other teams to face. I don’t think you actually need to spend a premium on the defensive trait for either defenceman due to some of the found value at the bottom of that table; I’d rather be Victor Hedman than Drew Doughty, but I’ll take Drew Doughty’s best at 40% cost over Victor Hedman’s best at 100% cost. Crosby’s hockey senses come up huge here both for his ability to make outlet passes and for the fact that Crosby is probably the most talented grinder-style player to ever play the sport, meaning this player would be an absolute pain along the boards. Since this defenceman would likely hang back a little more, we’ll give him the blistering power of Chara’s shot to create goalmouth opportunities.

The puck-moving defenceman:

  • Puck Skills: $1, TJ Oshie
  • Hockey Senses: $2, Erik Karlsson
  • Shooting: $5, Alex Ovechkin
  • Defence: $1, Duncan Keith
  • Skating: $5, Connor McDavid
  • Size & Physicality: $4, Tom Wilson

If we’re looking for someone to push the pace and direction of play, we simply need to re-arrange three categories. We’ll drop a dollar further to get prime Duncan Keith instead of prime Doughty; which isn’t a huge dropoff, if any at all, in terms of total talent, but gives us a stylistic change. Since this player will be involved more in breakouts and dictating the direction of his pair, we’ll give him the mind of a generational offensive defenceman in Karlsson, giving us plenty of surplus for shooting.

In this case, we can afford to toss it all into Ovechkin, making this juggernaut of an offensive defenceman a scoring threat from anywhere in the offensive zone. This player can essentially be used as a rover, activating at will to be a scoring threat. Just like the little forward is “what if we made Brad Marchand even better”, this is probably the equivalent for someone like Karlsson or Keith.

June 30, 2020 9 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

June 29, 2020

Despite potential lottery rewards, the Stanley Cup should remain the Ultimate Goal 

As any hockey fan paying attention knows, the best-case scenario for chaos happened on Friday night when Placeholder Team E won the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, meaning that the 1st overall pick in this draft, likely to be spent on phenom winger prospect Alexis Lafreniere, will go to a team that plays post-season hockey this year.

More specifically, it’ll go to a team that plays in a fake round that wouldn’t exist in any other circumstance, and loses that round. More specifically, the eight teams that this applies to will get a 12.5% chance in the second lottery to win that pick.

In other words, a lot of weird hoops to maintain the illusion of control in this playoff of pandemic, while further opening up the field in a way that benefits the most mediocre of teams, rather than the best or the worst.

But this has a lot of people wondering – why should their team bother to win the Stanley Cup at all? Why not just go for the pick? After all, it’s a fake cup in a fake format, and…

Okay, I can’t do this with a straight face.

Tanking vs. Giving Up

Firstly, it would be unfair for me to acknowledge this conversation from an “anti-tank” standpoint without acknowledging that I have repeatedly defended the idea of cheering for a tanking team. I’ve also done said cheering many times in my hockey fandom, and will likely do so again. If I ever end up crossing over fully into a higher level of hockey operations, I will probably earnestly suggest something along the lines of tanking a team in my lifetime.

But there is a distinct difference between going into a season with this philosophy and pulling the wind out of sails that are already headed in the right direction. This is because a proper tank isn’t carried out by the players and the coaching staff, but by upper management. A tank is not accomplished by players throwing games, but by parlaying your best present assets into future assets and tasking an underwhelming roster with trying to win every night.

You still send your coaches out to win the games, even if you generally encourage giving minutes to the younger players. You still want your players playing at 110%, honing their craft and keeping the environment optimistic. Your goal is never directly to lose but to put yourself in a position of harvest that happens to come with low odds of success. The second you have a group that is okay with losing is the second that those parts become expendable to the long-term vision.

In this case, though, we’re not talking about a vision at the start of the season, though – we’re talking about already having an X beside your name and seeing how far that takes you the rest of the way. To lose this round isn’t accomplished by traditional tanking – the playoff matchups are set and success comes largely from fortune from this point forward – meaning the only way to “tank” from this point on would be to insist the team itself give up. That should never be accepted from any organization.

You Play To Win The Game

“Okay, so maybe tanking is the right term”, you might say. “But what if I really just don’t mind if the team loses?”

That’s a little more fair – more so as you go further down the ladder of teams in the dance. After all, it’s important to be realistic about how good your team is before you go making bold, rash, decisions about their future.

But this isn’t really a one or the other sort of situation; it’s a low percentage at one end, or a higher but still low chance at the other. There is no cost to trying to win besides likely forgoing a 1-in-8 shot at upping your draft pick.

Just as importantly, how good you do does matter in the postseason, but it still doesn’t guarantee order. Since the President’s Trophy was first awarded in 1985/86, the regular-season leader in points has won the Stanley Cup (8) just one more time than they’ve been eliminated in Round 1 (7). The best team in the regular-season wins about 25% of the time. Significantly better odds than being the worst team in the postseason, but it’s still decidedly a league and a sport where there are no guarantees for anyone. The hottest goalie and key shooters for a few weeks stretch usually take on the prizes, and while the teams with the best talent have the best chance of reflecting that, it’s still a slightly weighted coin toss.

Which means that a playoff elimination typically comes from either getting out-lucked by a team that was worse than you, or out-played by a team that was better than you – maybe even out-lucked by a team that was better than you too. None of these are preferable outcomes! You don’t want your players to be demoralized by misfortune, or to be proven to be lesser talents than you hoped they were. The idea of a loss as a preferable outcome is inherently flawed, in this respect.

What Does It Get You?

An important question here as well comes within the reward.

For one, it cannot be stressed enough that there is an 87.5% chance that the reward for blowing “Round 0” is negligible: Not winning the placeholder lottery, and instead falling into the middle of the round, which for all intents and purposes is only slightly more valuable than picking later in the first round.

But say that all goes well, and you win. You’ve secured Alexis Lafreniere, who we expect to be a superstar. Short of the low percentage chance that he ends up not panning out, that’s a big boost to your roster for several years moving forward – there is zero denying that. This is a cost-controlled player who should be close to a high-end player as a rookie and one of the best wingers in the world by the end of his ELC, and you’ll still have control of him beyond that. He’s a player you build a franchise around.

There is no denying that level of talent injection. Adding him without moving a key player makes 31 teams instantly better. The big question, however, is at what point is that improvement worth willingly throwing away a year?

I think back to this piece that Dom Luszczyszyn wrote on The Athletic after the 2018 trade deadline, where he outlines the impact that acquisitions make to a team’s playoff and Stanley Cup odds. He found that adding a player worth a win above replacement typically adds about 2.5-3% to a favourite’s Stanley Cup odds, with a percentage of as low as 1% per win being added to a team on the cusp. Looking at Evolving-Hockey’s WAR tables, you figure that a top 25-50 player in the league is worth about 2.5-3 wins, and a Top 10 player about 4-5. There is potential for Lafrienere to seriously boost an elite team in the play-in bubble if he lives 100% up to the hype right away, but it is it enough of a boost to the following few years to throw away one season of going for it?

In a league of five-year rebuilds and fluid contention windows, a year tossed to the side is a long time. Even for the greatest dynasties in history, that’s 20-25% of their story that would’ve been cancelled out to get that extra piece to ensure the rest worked out. For most of the teams “in the middle”, gaining Lafreniere is still a huge coup, but has the byproduct of securing you in that same very good, but not contender status. The most leverage he brings are to the teams who really expected to not be here (see: The Rangers or the Blackhawks) or are more talented up top than their wildcard positions (Pittsburgh, Toronto, Edmonton types), and those latter teams are already designed to be wasting any round they’re not winning as it is.

When the argument is “would you rather have this year’s cup, or 1st overall”, it’s not even close; a cup is far from a guaranteed cup, so you take any cup you can get. If it’s 12.5% chance at either, though, I think you still push towards the end goal, rather than pushing towards the means to help for the end goal. Think of the difference between tanks/aggressive rebuilds and losing the play-in for a lottery chance with a football analogy: no one likes to punt, but there are plenty of situations where it’s the only logical play for a coach to call for. But no coach is going to call for a punt in scoring position, and any team in the playoffs is in scoring position.

Legitimacy

The last point here to be made is on the legitimacy of this year’s Stanley Cup, and it’s an argument I can’t believe we’re having.

If it were up to me, there wouldn’t be a Stanley Cup at all, and we’d just cancel this season and wait until it’s safe to be a society again before we worry about playing sports for television ratings. But that’s not because the trophy would be fraudulent to win this year – rather just because it’s the safe and logical thing to do.

The play-in teams are a ridiculous add to the mix, but if we’re talking about the validity of the journey, five rounds won, no matter how they’re won, is more difficult than four. If it’s a non-play-in team that wins, well, they’re still winning the four rounds they would have anyway. Every team played nearly, exactly, or in excess of 70 games; all playing at least 20 more than the winners of the 1995 and 2013 Stanley Cups.

Those cups were won by the New Jersey Devils, who won again in 2000 and 2003, and the Chicago Blackhawks, who also won in 2010 and 2015. They’re just one piece of a trilogy, and they come with an abnormal path to victory. But before you ask yourself whether the 2020 Stanley Cup champion is a fake, meaningless winner, ask those fans how meaningless those two wins were. The answer is almost always going to be “not at all” – they were still the last team standing under the agreed-upon format.

The Stanley Cup isn’t an exact science. Winning it often relies on luck and fortune, the bracketing and seeding has changed over the years, the regular season format that leads into it has changed over the years, the amount of teams vying for it has changed over the years, and even the leagues involved have changed. Its purpose is to give glory to the team we feel is the best in that given year, however we may feel to define best. That we’ve changed the definition under extenuating circumstances doesn’t change that. The banner won’t have an asterisk, the ring won’t have an asterisk, the engravements won’t have asterisks. It won’t feel like an asterisk when that 35-pound piece of metal is hoisted above the players’ shoulders, it won’t feel like an asterisk when you’re counting down the seconds to the final buzzer.

It feels like an asterisk now because most of us know that this is deep down a bad idea, and we’ve had some time away from hockey to realize that we aren’t reliant on the Stanley Cup. But when the puck drops, emotion will set in, we’ll remember that the object of the game is to win, and that every one of these teams now has a real shot, and that real shot is what you play the post-season for, not for a 12.5% chance at a new teammate. Alexis Lafreniere is going to be a hell of a player, and a huge haul for the team who’s misfortune turns into a great fortune in a few weeks, but he’s not the trophy one should be chasing once they’ve gotten this far.

June 29, 2020 7 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

June 29, 2020

The Mailbag: June 29th 

Last week’s mailbag is gone, but not forgotten. My mind was elsewhere earlier last week, but fear not – the questions remain and we’re going to spin back and answer the ones that our still applicable. Let’s get to it!

In Case You Missed It

Before we get started, here’s what I got around to writing last week:

  • If I Had A Vote: Hall Of Fame Edition: My selections for this year’s Hall of Fame Class, which ended up 2/4 on the Men’s players, 0/1 on the Women’s, and 0/1 on the Builders. I think I’m going to come back to this topic again at some point because there are people in the latter two categories that both I and the Hall glanced over, but for now, this outlines a few people who deserve their looks, and two who got them.
  • The NHL and the Pursuit of Mediocrity: We got the chaos result at the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery. It’s fun in a vacuum, but when you look at it amongst the bigger picture, you see a league that incentivizes being in the middle more than any other spot. So, I did just that, and put all it in context.

The Mailbag

While some might brush this off as optimism, I don’t think that a stagnating cap really hurts Toronto as much as people think it will. It won’t be the market value of superstars that crashes in this time – premium players will always get premium payment – but the support talent will be what drops.

That could almost be opportunistic for Toronto, as it will create more Jason Spezza-type situations in the free agent market, allowing them to stock the “scrub” part of the Stars & Scrubs strategy with better talent per dollar than they would have before.

The risk for Toronto now comes in the sense that they can’t afford to miss on a medium to high range, second layer type contract – they can’t overpay on a Frederik Andersen or Zach Hyman extension, for example – but beyond that, I see the Leafs as one of the teams in the best shape to get through to the other side of this salary freeze, rather than the worst – their most important hits have already been taken.

It would be immensely difficult, right? That’s one of the reasons I’ve given in recent weeks to argue against the NHL trying to figure out this year – so many players in teams’ umbrellas are assigned to other leagues that will likely move on a mutually similar, but vastly different to the NHL return-to-play plan, focusing on when it’s safe for them to open up with fans rather than planning for bubbles at the like. This is because the other leagues tend to rely on gate revenue as their driving force rather than TV and streaming, making a gated return unviable.

So if the NHL isn’t on the same schedule, what happens with prospects that you would normally have at training camp before deciding whether they play in the minors, in major junior, or in Europe? Do top CHL prospects get pulled away from their leagues, brought to NHL camps, and then maybe get sent immediately back, serving no purpose besides derailing their junior season?

There will a lot of complications that arise here, perhaps more than what we’re already seeing with the 2019/20 RTP. That’s, of course, if September/October look feasible for the other leagues to begin with; the NHL could get lucky enough that the other leagues’ window of opportunity pushes back to where they already project to be.

https://twitter.com/265Kilometres/status/1274871478564110338

I think it’s important to keep expectations on the tempered side. I know everyone is excited for the big Leafs’ semi-prospect because he’s a 6’6 winger and he was able to put up a bunch of points in his first pro year with the Growlers this year, but it’s worth remembering that the Growlers had ten players (!!!) in the point-per-game bubble this year; though him and Riely Woods were the youngest.

It would be nice if Brazeau pans out; skill in a large frame is hard to find, after all, but as a 22-year-old with just one AHL game to his credit so far, he’s still at the stage where even just drawing into more games than not would be a win next year. We can shift expectation once we get a bigger sample of him with the Marlies, but for now, let’s wait for the egg to hatch before we count it as a chicken.

This is a pretty creative question, and I’m going to cheat a little with guys who really shouldn’t be making what they make right now.

  1. Kevin Shattenkirk ($1,750,000) – Shattenkirk got a bit of a raw deal over the past few years, as his hype balloon over-inflated due to a lack of other good puck-moving defencemen in the market. It allowed him to pick his venue and practically his salary, and the Rangers, as much as they were his childhood preference, weren’t a great hockey fit for him. His bounce-back in Tampa Bay was entirely expected and everyone with a brain outside of Florida groaned mightily when he signed his prove-it deal, but he’s more than lived up to it.
  2. Ilya Kovalchuk ($700,000) – The man still has the sauce, as he’s shown in his post-termination spurts in Montreal and Washington. The release is still deadly and he’s still got strength, and once he escaped Los Angeles, he began to use the body and drive play again. He’ll get a raise next year for sure, but he fits the qualifications.
  3. Blake Coleman ($1,800,000) – I like Coleman a lot, and clearly the Lightning did as well given the price they paid for him. Part of that is because of his salary extending into next year, but he also plays a hard-nosed, in-your-face style of game while putting up decent middle-six production. He’s probably the best player who fits this description and whose contract bleeds into next year.

The Thunder. Silver will be their primary colour. Their arena will seat 18,538 people. Yes, I’m petty.

June 29, 2020 7 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

June 27, 2020

The NHL and the pursuit of mediocrity 

Friday night was our first taste of National Hockey League activity in months, via the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery. In a lot of ways, it felt comforting to have something to talk about, but little did we all know that we were about to get more than we bargained for.

But yet, more than we bargained for was everything we expected, because it is what the league has conditioned us for moments like these over the past few years. The league would be nothing without chaos and nothing without overvaluing the middle.

That is to say, the end of the night brought us a chaotic lottery result. The Detroit Red Wings, the worst team in the league by a mile – one of the single worst in modern history by both results and total talent – lost out on all three lottery spots and will pick 4th overall. The Ottawa Senators, the second-worst team, also struck out and will pick fifth; but a second first-round pick acquired from a hiccuping San Jose keeps them in third. The Los Angeles Kings hopped up to second, and the first overall pick went to…

A place holder, forcing a second draft lottery.

Yes, just as I griped out under a slightly different proposal in early May, we now have a pathway where sixteen NHL teams now have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup or getting the First Overall Pick. The eight teams who lose the play-in series – a slapped together ploy to get more teams involved in the playoffs and more games on TV – will all be rewarded for their loss with a 12.5% chance at the first overall pick. That reward, for being a 7th to 24th place team who blows up on arrival in their hub city, comes with odds of winning in between what the 30th and 31st place team had going into last night.

Should the NHL not return to play, a distinct possibility due to COVID-19’s continued spread in the United States, the lottery won’t include all 16 teams currently in the pool, but just the bottom four teams in each conference that weren’t in pre-change playoff spots. Those teams, to my understanding, would be the Canadiens (24th), Blackhawks (23rd), Coyotes (22nd), Wild (21st), Canucks (20th) Panthers (18th), Rangers (16th), Islanders (14th), for an average position of 20th overall.

In other words – the lottery balls gave a cold shoulder to the league’s worst teams, gave the biggest prize to a team that doesn’t exist, and the teams most likely to take the held place are on the lower end of mediocre.

But that’s not surprising. After all, this is fitting for what has been described as the most luck-driven of the pro sports. A game where the scoring plays are few, and the best players spend more time off the playing surface than on, affords a lot of opportunities for crazy circumstances to happen, particularly in the short term.

That’s how you end up with a team expected to be not quite a contender, but still very good, hitting a wall of bad luck and finding themselves in last place at the 45% mark of the regular season – and then going on to win the Stanley Cup. That’s how you end up with a team of other teams’ middle-ground rejects going on to the Stanley Cup Final in their first year. That’s how you end up with a league where the best team over seven months only ends up as the best team of the following ten weeks about 20-25% of the time; and sometimes, they don’t even survive ten days. That’s how you end up with a league where, thanks to the point system and the fact that teams play so conservatively around it, you end up with two-thirds to three-quarters of the league being able to claim a 0.500 record every year.

But then, on top of that, you end up with a league where we’ve spent the last fifteen years arguing that the most outstanding player can’t be the most valuable player because his team wasn’t good enough, or because his team was too good. You end up with a league where the best players at their position don’t get the recognition because someone else was overdue for a pat on the back. You end up with a league where the best coach is decided by who has the most improved goaltender.

You end up with a league where every team’s payroll is bunched up close to each other to avoid one or two teams taking all the top talent and then see teams’ flexibility get decimated not by massing too many riches but making bad gambles on the middle of the lineup talent, who can often make nearly as much money as the stars carrying the respective cities on their backs.  You end up with a league where the stars, in essence, become the worst compensated, least important, and least allowed to express themselves of all the major sports; lest they hurt the feelings of a minor league call-up or the beer league hero watching on TV. You end up with a league where the team builders aren’t even necessarily picked on merit, but are often either re-treads who have previously failed, someone important’s kid, or an ex-player who has gotten bored post-retirement.

When you look at the big picture of the National Hockey League in its present state, it doesn’t really value talent or effort, or any semblance of being the best on the ice or off of it. That makes it unpredictable, and unpredictability can be fun, but it takes away the incentive to try. After all, being a great team gives you only a slightly better chance at a reward of greatness than it does for a slightly above average team. Sacrificing a year to attempt to get to the fastest pathway of acquiring star talent gives you less of a chance of doing so than it does for a field of teams that were at the cusp of making the playoffs, even in a non-expanded season. Being the best at your job as an individual comes with no guarantee that you’ll get acknowledged for it since the voters will judge you based on the success of your surroundings more than they will what you’ve done yourself.

Randomness is great, but when it supersedes performance, it makes the league feel more like a roulette wheel and less like a competition, and isn’t competition what we come here for? When the most lucrative place to be in a 31 team league is 10th to 20th, and when the most rewarding (relative to talent) place to be on a roster is the third line or the second pair, and when the best place to be unique is anywhere but here, what are we even doing? So long as everything is meaningless, being in the middle is the best place to be, as it gives you the chance to siphon fortune from both the rich and the poor at any given time, and that’s a big problem if this league is to be taken seriously as a competition.

June 27, 2020 20 views 0
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