When losing means winning

It seems goofy to point out that no one likes to lose. It’s obvious.

If you lose a game, a competition, a debate… Anything. When you feel defeat and you’ve been bettered by an opponent it irks you beyond belief. Even more so if you’re wired with a competitive streak that drives you to keep going until you succeed and then continue coming out on top.

That ability is what drives most professionals in their career. That wont to be the best at what you do and to stand at the top of the hypothetical mountain above everyone. Others may want to go about life peacefully and not deal with the rat race a competition can be, but a lot of people, especially professional athletes, feed off the desire to win.

Winning is the ultimate high and the euphoria that goes along with it is intoxicating. Winning is the dragon everyone chases and that’s what makes everything about the race to the bottom of the NHL standings so bizarre.

Whether it’s team executives, fans, or both, the goal for teams out of the playoffs is to secure the best shot at getting Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. For teams like the Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes, and Edmonton Oilers that means finishing dead last in the league guarantees your team of landing one of them. Both are generational talents and both will make whatever team they land on vastly improved next season and beyond.

To win this race it means losing. A lot.

For the Sabres and Coyotes, they’ve done that the most this season. Now they’re five points apart with Arizona sitting 29th and the race for 30th essentially hanging in the balance based on what happens when they face each other twice in five days.

What’s twisted about all this is that being the ultimate loser this season may reap the biggest reward, the thought of benefiting from defeat is abhorrent to the players and coaches. The Sabres and Coyotes both practiced in Buffalo on Wednesday and couldn’t be more crystal clear about how they felt.

“The guys in this room are proud guys,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said. “We battle hard and we’re not content with where we are. No one is happy with it. But each day you’ve got to try to bring something better and improve in different areas.”

Gionta is in an awkward position because he’s won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils. He was captain of the Montreal Canadiens for five season before he signed with Buffalo in July. His counterpart in Arizona, Shane Doan, has spent his career with the Jets/Coyotes organization. Losing doesn’t sit any better with him.

“It’s difficult. Like I said, if you’re a player and you’re competitive you don’t like to lose,” Doan said. “When you lose, that makes things not near as enjoyable. But at the same time you’re getting to compete in the NHL which is, I think every, I mean it was my dream growing up and as long as you get to do it it’s going to be fun.

“By no means am I enjoying the losing at all. It’s awful, it’s disgusting, and you hate it, but at the same time you love the fact you get to play in the NHL. You love the NHL and you love the game of hockey and so you want to keep playing.”

It’s a grounded perspective from a guy who’s seen the ultimate in highs and lows with the Coyotes. From starting his career in Winnipeg with the original Jets and moving to Phoenix followed by three years of ownership-based drama to an appearance in the Western Conference Final in 2012, it’s been an unbelievable ride. But the losing and the desire by many for the team to lose is something he won’t accept.

“Nobody wants to be in the position that our two teams are in,” Doan said. “Not one player. Not one player. It’s… You’re embarrassed, you have to be. Nobody ever wants to be considered the worst and obviously both teams are being considered the two worst teams in the league. That’s not encouraging.”

Fans in Arizona have warmed up to the thought of landing McDavid or Eichel at the draft, but in Buffalo it’s something that’s seemingly been in the sights of management going back to 2013 when former GM, and current Coyotes assistant GM, Darcy Regier told Sabres fans, “there’s going to be some suffering” as the team began a rebuild.

That rebuild began in earnest when the Sabres traded captain Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild. Now there’s a new regime in charge with GM Tim Murray and coach Ted Nolan. With the fan base whipped into a fever pitch about landing McDavid or Eichel thanks to Regier’s fateful words and the constant discussion of what it would mean to Buffalo to land one of them, it’s fallen on Nolan to lead the Sabres through this.

“Every once in a while you go through years like this,” Nolan said. “The only thing I can control, and what I talk to the players about every day, is what they can control was: They can play as hard as they want, they’ve got to practice, and they’ve got to work on some of the things. And as a coach, that’s what I do every day. I can only do what’s humanly possible to get the team ready and hopefully it’s enough and that’s all we do.”

Nolan has frustrated many fans by sticking with a hot goalie, be it Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth, or now Anders Lindback, as they’ve withstood a historic barrage of shot attempts and somehow helped the Sabres win 20 games this season. At the rate they’ve been outshot and outscored, it’s a wonder they’ve won that much. Yet still, some haven’t been happy that Nolan wants to put his best team on the ice.

“I can’t control what other people think and what other people do,” Nolan said. “The only thing I know is what I feel. And I’m not speaking for anybody else, I’m just speaking for myself. Who wants to finish last? I never went into anything in my entire life wanting to finish last. You go into it with the right intentions and it’s the integrity of the game. That’s the line for me. So you just do what you have to do and feel the way you feel and if someone wants to finish last, then good for them.”

Weirdly, and perhaps prophetically, enough Nolan’s been down this road before in the OHL.

“My first coaching experience in Sault Ste. Marie we finished last, I believe, two years in a row,” Nolan said. “And one of the years Eric Lindros was up for the prize of the first pick. He didn’t show up to Sault Ste. Marie so we didn’t end up having him, but I think here because there’s so much media hype and there’s so much attention put to the National Hockey League, there’s a little bit more talk about it.

“I’ve been through it before and, like I said, nothing’s changed as far as the approach which hockey teams go through. I never met a player that wants to lose.”

When losing means perhaps getting the next generational talent, it all depends on your point of view is when it comes to winning. For the players and coaches who might see their future altered because of the desire by some (many?) to lose, they’ve about had enough of the talk about the positive parts of finishing last.

“You don’t accept losing,” Gionta said. “You’re not content game in and game out coming up short. No matter how close it is or what you’re doing, you’ve got to find ways to get wins. That’s what this game is about. That’s our main focus game in and game out – trying to get a win. It’s not good enough to be close.”

Throwback Rant

I got inspired today.

I read this piece by Igor Larionov at The Players Tribune and it made me feel a lot of things.

It made me feel like I care too much at times about hockey and the state of the game. It made me feel like spouting off a bit on Twitter. Which I did.

To sum up Larionov, he lamented how creativity in hockey was being virtually eliminated in favor of playing the perfect North American system. Part of his critique was how the majority of coaches these days are guys who were grinders when they played and that’s the sort of hockey they’re making the next generation learn how to play.

Not coincidentally, the NHL is having one of the lowest-scoring seasons in a long, long time. With the great play of some individuals (Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos) and the brilliant play of some teams over the past few seasons, this alarming statistic has gone almost ignored. Someone on Twitter graphed out how dire things have been.

If there’s something that seems to chap fans asses, it’s complaints about penalties. Take a look at Twitter or Facebook on any night and you’ll see fans of all kinds up in arms about it. It’s not for nothing now though, calls aren’t being made and teams aren’t getting the opportunity to make their opponents pay for their misdeeds.

Larionov’s observations are tied to this decline in calls being made. After all, the North American game is about being tough and playing the blue collar way and that means doing whatever is necessary to make sure the elite players don’t beat you.

It seems the mantra every year from everyone is that they want the players to settle it on the ice without the help of officials. Well that’s great in theory, except that players will do whatever it takes to get an edge. Hook, hold, interfere, obstruct. All of it. Before, it was only the playoffs where calls would stop getting made. Now it’s happening all season long and the NHL is as successful as it’s ever been.

Anyone else having a bad case of déjà vu?

We’ve seen this happen before in the mid-90s, only this time there’s not the Neutral Zone Trap bogeyman to point at and curse. Instead, it’s the same problem that allowed “The Trap Era” to take root. Calls aren’t being made and the inmates (the players) are running the asylum while the wardens (officials) let them hash it out. Meanwhile, offense has dried up and goals are at a premium.

Only Ovechkin and Rick Nash have a true shot at scoring 50 goals this season. Ovechkin has 38 and Nash has 37. Stamkos is third with 32. Patrick Kane and Nicklas Backstrom lead the league with 64 points. Can they get 36 points in the final 22 and 21 games respectively to break 100? They could, they’re universal talents, but they’re not going to.

The last season in which the NHL points leader had fewer than 100 was, not coincidentally, 2003-2004 before the season-killing lockout when Martin St. Louis had 94 for Tampa Bay. Do Kane or Backstrom even get to 94 this season? Maybe, but the prospects look grim.

Even going back to last season, Sidney Crosby was above and beyond the league’s best player and still had just 104 points. He was 17 points better than Ryan Getzlaf. Ovechkin scored 51 goals and only two other players broke 40 (Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski).

This is a big problem.

The NHL has perhaps the greatest level of talent the league has ever seen and these guys can’t score goals like they did after the lockout in 2005-2006. Don’t you want your elite players looking the part? Don’t you want to be dazzled by Kane, Ovechkin, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, and the growing list of other brilliantly talented players? Of course you do. So why aren’t they allowed to flourish?

Make the calls. Open the game back up. Let the players be elite instead of dragging them down to be like everyone else.

Witness missives on losing

It’s incredible to cover a team that loses as much as the Buffalo Sabres do.

I mean that. Something that’s been said often amongst fellow writers in Buffalo is if you’re going to be following a team you want to have a championship squad or the absolute worst because you’ll never be without a story. And really, when you’re a writer that’s all you’re looking for is the story. Something of interest.

When covering a team that’s lost as much as the Sabres have the past two seasons, it felt like I’d reached that Twilight Zone moment where it dawns on you that, yes, you’re covering the best hockey league in the world after the Sabres dropped a 5-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Friday night.

It was Buffalo’s 14th straight loss, all in regulation. Their last win came on Dec. 27, 2014 against the New York Islanders in a shootout. Let’s flash back to that game, shall we? The Sabres were down 3-0 in the third period but stormed back with a three-goal third to force overtime and then went on to win in the shootout. It’s the kind of win a team can rally around and be beyond proud of. It was also a win that ended a four-game losing streak.

Think about that. If they’d gone on to meekly lose that game to the Islanders, this losing streak could’ve been at 19 straight. They would’ve broke the NHL record for consecutive losses, 17, held by the 1974-1975 Washington Capitals and 1992-1993 San Jose Sharks. It’s gotten to the point now where they’re the butt of jokes while the season is still going on.

When I got to Buffalo before the start of last season, I knew they weren’t going to be a great team. That wasn’t the point of this after all. The point was I needed another gig to help make money and I wanted to do more reporting. Win-win situation and the experience has been incredible.

But this year is different. This season, fans want to see the Sabres falter and finish dead last in the league. I get why. Generational players don’t come along much and the only way to guarantee the best shot at getting Connor McDavid is to be the absolute worst.

Last season, Buffalo was bad. They finished 21-51-10, the worst record in the league, and then added one more loss when the Florida Panthers won the NHL Draft Lottery. That didn’t hurt because the Sabres still got the guy at the top of their board at No. 2 in Sam Reinhart.

Still, watching a team you see day in and day out as part of your beat solely in Buffalo lose is hard.

The Sabres went 12-20-5 at First Niagara Center with me in attendance as I split my duties between Buffalo and Toronto in 2013-2014. They also lost 3-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins on my one road visit (outside of Toronto) on Jan. 27, 2014. Buffalo scored 150 goals last season, less than two goals per game. Their goal differential was minus-93 and they dressed nine different goalies during the year.

This season somehow has been worse and incredibly I haven’t seen the worst of it in Buffalo proper. The Sabres are 10-13-2 at home and an astonishing in the shootout era 4-20-1 on the road. They’re the worst team in the league and yet they’re 6-1 in shootouts. They could be that much worse.

They’ve played 50 games and have 88 goals. Their goal differential is already minus-90. They’ve nearly caught last season’s abysmal total and there are 32 games left to go. They have the NHL’s worst power play and penalty kill. They give up an average of 35 shots per game and take 22.9. They’re outgunned in all aspects and no matter how well the goalies play, they have to be perfect.

It’s astounding. I get that it’s a blessing as a writer to get a situation like this to witness, especially when there might be a big payoff with McDavid or Jack Eichel in the end, but it doesn’t make the part about paying witness to the process any easier. It’s like the old cliché about not wanting to see how the sausage is made, but we’re right smack on the killing floor watching it happen anyway.

Harvey Dent would say the “night is darkest just before the dawn” but you can’t help but feel that maybe you’re stuck in an Alaskan winter.

Like a drug

When I got back into writing, blogging was the way to do it. I did a bit of beat work at my college newspaper and also wrote an occasional column about… Anything really.

After college it was about finding whatever job you could lock down so you could get your career underway. For me, that was radio. The writing stopped and my chops as a producer were more necessary, but the itch to write came back as my frustration in radio grew. An outlet was needed and off to Blogspot I went to write and, well, you can see plenty of that stuff here with other more tersely worded things I spit out while trying to figure out what to do with my life.

But the blogging you know all about. That helped fire up a dormant sensation inside of me. I wanted to be more in the know. More on the scene of what was happening. I wanted to report more.

Blogging is/was fine work, but the desire to do something that’s more your own is a strong one. I got to do a little bit of that at NBC when on location for events or other games. I’ve done nothing but report for the NHL since I started there last year and all it’s done is made me want it more. Like a drug, once you get a taste the urge for more can take you over.

Of the things I’ve gotten to write over the past five years or so, it’s the ones I’ve dug in and talked with players, GMs, and other executives that have felt the most rewarding and remain to this day the pieces I am most proud of.

One of my biggest frustrations now being in a rotten kind of limbo is that what you think you’re best at or do the best work with isn’t what’s asked of you – for whatever reason that is.

It’s hard not to get frustrated when “news” like a referee vomiting during play or some sort of wacky occurrence is what produces the web hits and viral attention companies so desire. Hell, even when you wrote something about a team or player only to have a drop in production or a losing streak make what you just wrote look foolish, it makes it all seem like a Sisyphean task.

It’s all a drug of some kind and it all produces a high of some sort. The thing I hope for my future is the opportunity to keep chasing the stories myself.

I don’t know if this is a crossroads moment for me or not, but this college reporter turned blogger turned hybrid writer monster wants to keep chasing the dragon.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and finally the light bulb went on over my head after a recent discussion with Florida Panthers captain Willie Mitchell. I asked two questions to him and got over three minutes worth of thoughts on the record. I could’ve done so much more with that, but for what is asked of me at the sites I’m writing for, most of it wasn’t necessary and it made me instantly frustrated.

Sometimes you get really good stuff from players because they’re earnest, honest, and love the game that much. As some jerk that’s never played but loves the sport immensely, helping to share that feeling is a good thing.

There are great stories to be told and it can be frustrating to not be asked to help tell them for one reason or another. But hey, at least we can get a GIF of a referee with food poisoning out there everywhere.

 

Pent up

It’s a weird feeling when you lose a job you’ve had for so long. After doing something you’ve genuinely enjoyed for multiple years, it’s like losing part of yourself.

All the time spent, the effort put into it, the constant stress of wondering whether or not anything you’ve done is good enough – all of that is gone and while that might seem like a relief, it’s not.

Instead, you’re left on your own to find another gig as soon as you can because, in this day and age, you’re either working freelance or in a deal that means getting unemployment isn’t an option available to you. It also means you have too much time to sit around and do self-analysis.

“Am I any good at this?”

“Have I ever been a good writer?”

“Am I out of touch?”

“Is it time to just pack it up and get out?”

With all the time now afforded to you, those questions never stop and neither does the comparing. You compare yourself to others still dutifully chugging along and wondering what it is you do that makes you not good enough to continue doing what you love. That kind of self-analysis doesn’t do a lot of good when you’re already feeling low about being cut loose.

***

The strange part about going through all this is keeping track of how often your own identity gets lost in being part of something else. You cease being just your own person – you’re the main guy for that group.

When that happens, it makes scouting around for other work when you know your own foundation is crumbling beneath you a lot more difficult.

It’s something I didn’t really think about in that particular way at the time, but while interviewing for another position the first question I was asked was, “Why in the world do you want to work here?”

Whether it was because they viewed their position as me taking a step down or they thought since I was with the Peacock that I’d be crazy to leave there I don’t know – but it’s that connection with the latter that made me wonder if places who saw that on my résumé figured it meant I’d ask the world of them in salary talks and figured it’s easier to just pass and say “No.”

These are the idle thoughts left behind now that my future is undecided and it’s unpleasant. Something has to fill the void eventually, right?

***

That’s essentially where I’m at now. A guy with a lot of free time to write and report and not enough outlets to do that. When you’re a writer all you want to do is write. Same goes for reporting. You hear great things being said and you’re busting at the seams to get that out there – you just don’t have a place to do that.

I could do that here but that’s not helping me pay bills. Perhaps it could eventually if it grabs someone’s attention but then it’s back to square one:

“What if I’m not good enough?”

It takes equal parts shameless self-promotion and ability but there’s also a massive amount of good forture, too. That’s how I wound up with the Peacock in the first place after all. Luck can run out and maybe I’ve used all of mine up in other situations and areas of life. I mean, it’s fortunate I’m even here to write this, never mind everything else life offers up.

It probably doesn’t help that I don’t really belong to any particular group. It’s not an unfamiliar way of being for me. In high school there wasn’t a particular clique I belonged to – I was just there. In college, I spent so much time in the media center that that was my social circle. It made sense and it was natural and so many of those people are dear friends to this day.

In the professional world, it’s different. You have a lot of colleagues and plenty of people you’re more friendly with than others. There’s even some people you just can’t stand though and the feeling is likely mutual, but that’s never a hindrance, it just is.

There are cliques though and that’s just not really something I’ve fallen into. Maybe that’s to my own detriment, but it is what it is. Maybe that comes from not being as open as others, but something it does do is limits your support system.

Being a writer means always doing things on your own, but there are days where you have to escape your own headspace and breathe. Not having that go-to group makes it harder when you’re trying to escape your own brain. I guess that’s when some people will turn to the bottle or to drugs to just get away from themselves, but that’s never been my means of relief. Being stubborn to myself sometimes comes in handy I suppose.

***

I’m not asking for compliments and “atta-boys” for what I do. I’m just trying to sort through my very frustrated headspace. To have something you love doing and, for one reason or another, not being able to do it is the kind of thing that gives you ulcers and makes you feel 20 years older than you really are.

I keep saying, “This too shall pass” and “Things will get better” but those mantras get worn out and the reality keeps swarming day-by-day.

I’ve chosen this path and I know I can deviate from it anytime I want to, but sometimes you’re just caught up in knowing that this is what you’re meant to do. It’s the thrill of doing something you love to do and knowing deep down, despite the self-doubt and the anxious mind, that this is what you’re good at.

It’s like I’ve made myself into Sisyphus and damn it all, that boulder is going to get all the way up the mountain even if I die trying.

The season starts next week and then I can feel more normal, but for now it’s tough.

2014 NHL Mocked Draft

2014 draft logoEvery year, picking the NHL Draft is like a semi-educated game of darts after a few pitchers of your favorite beer. You have an idea of what you’re aiming for but whatever you hit you have to own it whether you like it or not.

This year’s draft is almost certainly like that. After feebly throwing together a mock draft in the past (in which I think I missed on all 30 picks) I figured I’d give it another go to see how terrible I could do again.

Here are my semi-educated guesses as to how this year’s draft will shake out, trades be damned. If you want my reasoning behind any of the picks here it is: “Why not? Get a life, nerd.”

1. Florida Panthers: Aaron Ekblad – D – Barrie (OHL)
2. Buffalo Sabres: Sam Reinhart – C – Kootenay (WHL)
3. Edmonton Oilers: Leon Draisaitl – F – Prince Albert (WHL)
4. Calgary Flames: Sam Bennett – C – Kingston (OHL)
5. New York Islanders: Kasperi Kapanen – RW – Kalpa (SM-liiga)
6. Vancouver Canucks: Michael Dal Colle – LW – Oshawa (OHL)
7. Carolina Hurricanes: William Nylander – RW – MODO (SHL)
8. Toronto Maple Leafs: Nikolaj Ehlers – LW – Halifax (QMJHL)
9. Winnipeg Jets: Brendan Perlini – LW – Niagara (OHL)
10. Anaheim Ducks (via Ottawa): Nick Ritchie – LW – Peterborough (OHL)
11. Nashville Predators: Sonny Milano – LW – USA U-18 (USHL)
12. Arizona Coyotes: Jared McCann – C – Sault Ste-Marie (OHL)
13. Washington Capitals: Haydn Fleury – D – Red Deer (WHL)
14. Dallas Stars: Jake Virtanen – RW – Calgary (WHL)
15. Detroit Red Wings: Kevin Fiala – LW – HV71 (SHL)
16. Columbus Blue Jackets: Dylan Larkin – C – USA U-18 (USHL)
17. Philadelphia Flyers: Alex Tuch – RW – USA U-18 (USHL)
18. Minnesota Wild: David Pastrnak – C – Sodertalje (SHL)
19. Tampa Bay Lightning: Julius Honka – D – Swift Current (WHL)
20. San Jose Sharks: Thatcher Demko – G – Boston College (Hockey East)
21. St. Louis Blues: Josh Ho-Sang – F – Windsor (OHL)
22. Pittsburgh Penguins: Jakub Vrana – RW – Linkoping (SHL)
23. Colorado Avalanche: Robby Fabbri – C – Guelph (OHL)
24. Anaheim Ducks: Adrian Kempe – LW – MODO (SHL)
25. Boston Bruins: Ivan Barbashev – LW – Moncton (QMJHL)
26. Montreal Canadiens: Roland McKeown – D – Kingston (OHL)
27. Chicago Blackhawks: Conner Bleackley – C – Red Deer (WHL)
28. Tampa Bay Lightning (via NY Rangers): Travis Sanheim – D – Calgary (WHL)
29. Los Angeles Kings: Nick Schmaltz – C – Green Bay (USHL)
30. New Jersey Devils: Nikita Scherbak – RW – Saskatoon (WHL)

Lottery outrage rankings

2014 draft logoDon’t ask why, but I love sports draft lotteries. When you grow up with the NBA Draft Lottery and the wild conspiracy theories that abounded with the Patrick Ewing draft, you can’t help but get sucked into the hype and hysteria.

The NHL Draft Lottery isn’t quite as adventurous as the NBAs, but it has its own quirks. Every year we seem to get the Edmonton Oilers lucking out and winning while the Florida Panthers are left to claim the booby prize.

We’ve seen the New York Islanders and Colorado Avalanche come away with the No. 1 pick in recent seasons when Edmonton wasn’t scoring it and this season it’s the Buffalo Sabres who have the best chance to win it after they finished with the league’s worst record.

The fun of a lottery is, of course, that the best chance of winning means having just a 25-percent chance of doing so.

Anyhow, I’m rambling and that’s stupid. There are 13 different teams that could come away with the No. 1 pick (New Jersey can win the lottery but can’t move up – thanks Ilya!) and I’m going to rank out how the outrage would go on the Internet depending on who won.

14. Buffalo (25% chance to win) — Let’s face it, if the Sabres win the lottery, no one is going to grumble about it. They were the worst team in the league and need all the help they can get. If they win, all will be right in the world.

13. New Jersey (1.5% chance) — This would provide a lot of schadenfreude if the Devils won the lottery. They can’t claim the first pick, so Devils fans would be pissed and have more reason to be mad at Ilya Kovalchuk, but this keeps the draft order in tact as it is meaning Buffalo picks first, Florida second, etc. If the Devils win it’ll be the second time they’ve done that in the past five years. They moved up to fourth overall in 2011 when they won and selected Adam Larsson. That was before they changed lottery rules so anyone in the pool could get the top pick. Skunked again, Jersey!

12. Phoenix/Arizona (0.8% chance) — Bet you’re thinking I’ll go with the cheap joke about the team not having fans or enemies enough to care, right? Wrong. Let’s face fact though, after missing the playoffs two years in a row, the Coyotes just aren’t on anyone’s “Give A Crap” meter. If there’s a team that could use a happy ping pong ball to get a franchise forward though, it’s the Coyotes.

11. Nashville (1.1% chance) — The Preds had lady luck on their side last year when Seth Jones fell to them at fourth overall. Now they need a new coach and lots of skill up front. If the Preds hit the lottery, chances are you’ll read a lot of things that start with, “Good for them!”

10. Winnipeg (2.7% chance) — The Jets hitting the lottery might cause the rest of  Canada to grumble, but on the whole they just don’t punch the collective conscience of NHL fans in the head the way, say, the Maple Leafs do. Things are trending up for the Jets and getting the top pick would speed that up. Maybe then they’ll start drawing more ire.

9. Carolina (4.7% chance) — Much like the other teams that rank out low on this list, Carolina just doesn’t make people angry on the whole. The caveat here if the ‘Canes won the lottery? Fans in Buffalo will have all the more reason to hate them. Yes, memories of the 2006 Eastern Conference Final still run deep in Buffalo and misery in this case would hate company.

8. Calgary (10.7% chance) — Calgary has been bad for a while and haven’t had a No. 1 overall pick in their history. Seeing the Flames jump over Edmonton would be worth it on its own and the Flames have enough former Sabres on the roster to be considered Buffalo’s Western Canada outpost. So why are they this high up? Easy: Everyone seems to hate Brian Burke despite him being the best quote in the business.

7. Florida (18.8% chance) — No one really hates the Panthers, with the exception of some old school Pittsburgh Penguins fans. The Panthers have been bad for a while and have been consistently landing in the Top 5 of the draft, but haven’t picked No. 1 overall since 1994 when they took Ed Jovanovski. Now, Jovo is the team captain and the team has some hopeful youth. Problem with the Panthers is they’re always in the lottery and, as you’ll see as this goes on, being a repeat lottery team means people are probably rooting against you.

6. Anaheim (via Ottawa) (2.1% chance) — Teams that are already the best in the conference tend to not get any sympathy and if the Ducks came away with the No. 1 pick, chances are Western fans would be up in arms that a team that’s already loaded gets to add another big piece. Only question here is whether fans would be more annoyed with Anaheim or Ottawa for forking over their first-round pick for Bobby Ryan.

5. Washington (0.5% chance) — The Capitals have the lowest odds in the lottery and yet… All my mind goes back to is when the Orlando Magic hit the lottery twice and got to snag Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. If the Caps won the top pick, how quickly do Flyers/Penguins/Rangers fans start crying foul? Immediately? Probably, because they’d announce picking defenseman Aaron Ekblad on the spot.

4. Vancouver (6.2% chance) — The Canucks had a bad year, no doubt, but they’ve still got a lot of (aging) talent and after years of thumping on everyone, seeing them get to reload their youthful prospects with a top forward like Sam Reinhart or Sam Bennett would cause much consternation. Of course we don’t know who the GM will be or maybe even who the coach will be, but that’s beside the point for outrage. Anger here comes from a great team that many people dislike that finally went bad getting the chance to turn it around immediately.

3. New York Islanders (8.1% chance) — The Isles’ one year away to make the playoffs turned into a mess. Fans on the whole are pretty sick of the Islanders always winding up in the lottery and getting the chance to pick first again (they did previously in 2009 and got John Tavares) will make people wonder when the hell things are going to change. Shame for the Isles there isn’t a must-have goaltending prospect at the top of the draft this year.

2. Toronto (3.6% chance) — The Leafs are back in the lottery and they rank out this high because of a few reasons. First off, they were pretty good for most of the season. It would seem “unfair” by some fans if they got the top pick. Secondly, the Leafs are a hated team and their failure to make the playoffs caused much joy. Seeing them rewarded for just missing out would make heads explode. Finally, the Leafs hiring Brendan Shanahan away from the NHL would have conspiracy theory nuts losing their minds. You’ll hear junk about a fixed lottery, frozen envelopes, weighted ping pong balls, and voodoo witch doctors being involved in helping make it all possible.

I’m almost rooting for this to happen just to bathe in the conspiratorial mayhem, but there’s one team that most everyone will be rooting against in this lottery…

1. Edmonton (14.2% chance) — The Oilers have had the No. 1 overall pick in three of the past four drafts. They’ve been supposedly rebuilding their team “the right way” for years now and have yet to make the playoffs because of it. They haven’t been to the postseason since they made the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. They’re teeming over with young talent up front and would have a shot to pick Ekblad if they land the top pick.

Problem is, most everyone is worn out with seeing a team that continues to shoot itself in the foot get rewarded with the best player available every year. If the Oilers come away with the lottery win, “AGAIN?!?!” might start trending on Twitter because of it. At this point in the rebuild, fans are in the “Figure it out already” part of it while the rest just wants them to go away.

My 2013 ECAC preseason poll: Trying hard to not be a homer and failing

ECACHockeyKen Schott of the Schenectady Gazette again asked me to fill out a media ballot for the preseason ECAC rankings as well as my picks for the preseason all-conference team.

With a noted RPI bias like I have here, I’ve always tried to play it cool with expectations. I don’t know that I can do that this year.

  1. RPI
  2. Yale
  3. Dartmouth
  4. Quinnipiac
  5. Union
  6. Cornell
  7. St. Lawrence
  8. Brown
  9. Colgate
  10. Harvard
  11. Princeton
  12. Clarkson
Preseason All-Conference Team
Goalie: Jason Kasdorf – RPI
Defensemen:  Shayne Gostisbehere – Union — Tommy Fallen – Yale
Forwards:  Greg Carey – St. Lawrence — Kenny Agostino – Yale — Matt Lorito – Brown
As usual with this conference, you can take the top four, five, or six teams and arrange them however you want at the top and then draw names out of a hat for the bottom.
I’m sure you’re wondering why/how I put Rensselaer ahead of both of last year’s national finalists.
Quinnipiac was easy enough because they graduated essentially half of last year’s team. That’s hard to overcome but coach Rand Pecknold gets a ton of credit for what he’s done with this team already and what guys are returning can score.
Yale will be very good again this year. I know they’ve got questions in goal thanks to Jeff Malcolm graduating, but when haven’t the Bulldogs had questions there? I’m sure there will be some brand of let down and everyone will question if they can do it again. I think they’ll be fine.
As for RPI though, there’s a couple reasons for going with them at No. 1:
1. Goaltending
Jason Kasdorf would’ve been the ECAC’s top goalie had it not been for QU’s Eric Hartzell and his out-of-this-world season. Kasdorf is just heading into his sophomore year and provided there’s no namely letdown this year (and no injuries) he should be at the top of the league again.
2.  Lack of roster turnover
Know how many seniors the Engineers had last season? Five. One of them was their top scorer in defenseman Nick Bailen. Losing his production on the power play could be a big issue for RPI, but they’ve got other guys ready to jump into his shoes.
The other four players weren’t burning the house down in production last year. Captain C.J. Lee was 11th on the team in points while Greg Burgdoerfer was a grinder and Marty O’Grady had injury problems. Goalie Bryce Merriam was, for all intents and purposes, the team’s third goalie by the end of the year.
Who’s back? Everyone that made RPI one of the hottest teams at the end of last season. Juniors Matt Neal, Jacob Laliberte, and Ryan Haggerty lead the forwards while sophomore forwards Mike Zalewski and Milos Bubela provide the second wave with senior Brock Higgs, junior Mark McGowan, and sophomore Mark Miller.
RPI will score plenty and they’ve got perhaps the best goalie in the conference. The only question comes on defense, but even there things are looking good with guys like Curtis Leonard, Guy Leboeuf, and Chris Bradley providing stability. Freshman Parker Reno will jump into the defensive fire and help toughen things up as well.
Speaking of their freshmen, there’s not many coming in (just five) and three are forwards with high offensive upside. Like Yale, RPI could  prove to be one of the most fun teams to watch in the ECAC.
As for explaining the rest of the rankings, let’s do that quickly:
I know I’ll catch hell for putting my faith in Dartmouth again, but at some point they’re going to get over the hump in conference, right? They have to.
Quinnipiac will still be good. Go ahead and think they won’t be and then they’ll wind up surprising you in the face.
Union’s been bitten by the departure bug, but like the New Jersey Devils in the NHL, counting them out is foolhardy. Rick Bennett will find a way to make it work. They’re virtually a system team at this point, just not head-bangingly boring the way…
Cornell still is. At least now with a lack of scoring the Big Red are (somewhat) justified in playing the most awful brand of hockey going. If you can’t score, at least make sure no one else can have fun at your expense, right? Ugh.
Some of you might be surprised not to see Brown at the very bottom. Forward Matt Lorito makes that possible. He’ll be hotly pursued as a free agent when he’s done with the Bears in 2015.
St. Lawrence could be a surprise if Greg Carey keeps doing what he’s been doing and filling the net at will. He’s worth seeing on his own

Summer report cards (Part 2)

Seth JonesIf you missed Part 1, I am ashamed of you. Also you can just find that here. You’ll find Anaheim through Montreal there.

As for the rest of the teams…

Nashville: They made plenty of splashes this summer. American superhero kid Seth Jones fell into their lap at the draft and then they signed four free agents (Viktor Stalberg, Matt Cullen, Matt Hendricks, and Eric Nystrom). Sound and fury signifying nothing? Maybe not. Those players all strike me as prototypical Predators players. Is that a good thing? Maybe not, but jeez they’re going to be annoying to play against. (B-minus)

New Jersey: David Clarkson and Ilya Kovalchuk leave town and take a good chunk of their offense with them. Sounds bad, right? Adding Ryane Clowe (on a bad contract), Michael Ryder, and Rostislav Olesz won’t make up for that loss. At least they figured out their “life after Marty” dealing for Cory Schneider. All things considered, it’s a terrible summer player and talent-wise but if it leads to the team being sold with hopes of better spending in the near future, it’s not all bad. It’s just business in Jersey. (B-minus)

NY Islanders: I’ll say it here and now: Garth Snow is pretty damn great at his job. The team is free of the hideous DiPietro contract, he dealt Mark Streit to Philly while signing Cal Clutterbuck, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Peter Regin. Not to mention he re-signed Travis Hamonic and Josh Bailey. Only Bailey’s deal is worthy of cringing but he got John Tavares extended on a super sweetheart deal during the season. One thing he didn’t do? Improved team goaltending. That was the one thing that held them back against Pittsburgh in the playoffs and they brought the same old guy (Evgeni Nabokov) back in a summer that was teeming over with goaltending possibilities. You take the good with the bad, yada yada, the facts of life on Long Island. (B-minus)

NY Rangers: Their report card is still a tad incomplete. Getting Ryan McDonagh’s deal done was huge but Derek Stepan still awaits. Re-signing Carl Hagelin was a smooth move and bringing back Mats Zuccarello would be wise as well. Giving Brad Richards a chance to show what he’s got to Alain Vigneault was logical. If he stinks next season it’s buyout time. Aaron Johnson and Benoit Pouliot are depth filler for what should be a better team. (C for blandness)

Ottawa: An awkward and acrimonious good-bye with Daniel Alfredsson didn’t stop GM Bryan Murray. Dealing Jakob Silfverberg and more for Bobby Ryan while signing Clarke MacArthur (cheers) and Joe Corvo (groan) helped make sure the Sens didn’t lose much of anything offensively. Image-wise they lose the face of their team. Here’s to hoping they don’t mind embracing an American in Canada’s capital city. (A-minus)

Philadelphia: It’s never dull in Philly. Danny Briere and Ilya Bryzgalov were bought out, Mark Streit was traded for, and Vinny Lecavalier and Ray Emery were signed as free agents. Meanwhile, the same questions that lingered around their defense are STILL there and the goalie situation may or may not improve. But hey, at least the offense will stay strong! In other words, it’s another year of the same ole’, same ole’ in the City of Liberty. (C-minus)

Phoenix: Mike Ribeiro’s arrival gives the Coyotes a playmaker the organization hasn’t seen since… The washed up husk of Craig Janney? Sure, why not. A team loaded with guys oozing with goal-scoring potential and power forwards needs someone that can get ‘em the puck. Ribeiro is it. Swapping out Jason LaBarbera for Thomas Greiss is a lateral move. Landing Max Domi in the draft gives their prospect pipeline a real offensive threat for the first time since… Radim Vrbata? Mikkel Boedker? Take your pick. All this along with the franchise getting to put ownership questions away (for at least five years) makes it a great summer in the desert. (B-plus)

Pittsburgh: The Pens’ veteran “go for it all” lineup last year didn’t pay off and now most of the team sees a dramatic change. Out go Tyler Kennedy, Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Matt Cooke and in returns Rob Scuderi. Their biggest job was re-signing Pascal Dupuis and extending Kris Letang, the latter to a semi-dubious deal. They’re still going to have to ride it out with Marc-Andre Fleury and see if he snaps out of it. Good luck on that. They’ll also need to hope their prospects can jump in seamlessly. (C)

San Jose: They didn’t really have to do much. After their deadline chaff-cutting deals they figured their business out just fine. Acquiring Tyler Kennedy from Pittsburgh gives them better depth at forward and that’s maybe the one thing they really needed. Letting Thomas Greiss go in favor of giving Alex Stalock his shot at backing up Antti Niemi is just them giving the younger guy his opportunity.  (B)

St. Louis: Their summer was mostly about making sure no one poached their RFAs. With guys like Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Chris Stewart needed to be signed, that left a few possible bullseyes out there for poop-stirring GMs. Of course, no one has jumped at the chance (yet) but GM Doug Armstrong says they’ll match anything. Of course he did. And they probably will too so, just whatever. Anyhow, trading David Perron for Magnus Paajarvi is interesting and adding Derek Roy in free agency gives them a nice playmaker while Maxim Lapierre gives them yet another irritating player. Their possible three-headed goalie circus could cause problems if not fixed. (B-minus)

Tampa Bay: Essentially traded Vinny Lecavalier (buyout) for Valtteri Filppula (UFA) and didn’t do much else. Whatever Steve Yzerman is cooking up here had best center around first-round pick Jonathan Drouin and their AHL stars. Their defense still stinks and their goaltending is riddled with questions. Hey, wait, are they just Flyers of the south? Somehow they managed to do even less than they did. (D)

Toronto: Not a fan of buying out Mikhail Grabovski at all but if he’s not fitting in with the coach, you have to draw a line somewhere. Sadly for the Leafs, they picked the coach. Out goes Grabbo, in comes David Clarkson on a bloated deal that won’t end well and Tyler Bozak gets extended. Adding Jonathan Bernier to the goalie mix while buying out Mike Komisarek instead of say John-Michael Liles just piles on the question marks over what exactly Dave Nonis is doing. They needed defensive help and didn’t get any while adding tons of cash to the payroll. (D)

Vancouver: Dumping Cory Schneider to draft Bo Horvat is the move that makes me unable to give them a grade. How will Roberto Luongo handle having to stay in Vancouver after pining for an exit for two seasons? Adding Mike Santorelli as your one big signing while buying out Keith Ballard says John Tortorella will have a group of guys that know each other well to browbeat into a Cup-winning team.

Washington: They didn’t go hard after keeping Mike Ribeiro and let Matt Hendricks go without a fight. They bought out Jeff Schultz and signed Tyson Strachan for what amounts to a lateral move on defense. GM George McPhee has never been a big free agent guy and wisely stayed away from this year’s crop. Of course, deciding to go with Brooks Laich as your No. 2 center doesn’t sound like the move of a team “dying” to win a Stanley Cup. Much like Calgary, I’ll ask again here: Why aren’t they pursuing Grabovski? It makes too much sense. I agree with staying out of this free agent frenzy, I don’t agree with not (yet?) taking a shot on a guy who can make you better right away. (C-minus)

Winnipeg: They’re busy getting some RFAs signed including two top-line players in Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler. Throw in top defenseman Zach Bogosian and the Jets are busy taking care of their own… Unless that’s Alex Burmistrov who they let go to the KHL. Adding Michael Frolik and Devin Setoguchi helps make them deeper on the wings and a possible full season from Jacob Trouba makes them a bit deeper on defense. Things could be better and they shouldn’t play hardball with their RFAs the way they are. Bad free agent year I know, but not even checking in on say Rob Scuderi? C’mon now. Maybe they’re just playing it cheap to thank the boss (Gary Bettman) for getting them a team again. Owner David Thomson is loaded and yet they’ve got the lowest payroll in the league. At least Ondrej Pavelec is getting paid though, right? Yeesh. (D)

Summer report cards (Part 1)

Report-Card-1It still feels like the season just ended. I guess it was just a few weeks ago so that’s fine, but free agency started with a super-sized bang and fizzled almost instantaneously so now we all feel like summer is still taking forever when in fact training camp is really just a few weeks away.

Great news, right? Well not unless your team spent the summer either farting around and doing nothing or spending their money like drunken fools.

With only a handful of good free agents still out there and my inability to predict trades, it’s safe to start assigning grades and blame to everyone. I’m anal so I’m doing it alphabetically. Also, I ramble so Anaheim to Montreal will be in this post. Nashville-Winnipeg in the one that comes later on. My grades are in parenthesis.

Anaheim: Dustin Penner is a nice pickup. No, really he is. Do you think a guy who gets top-six minutes is going to have single-digit shot percentages with a run-and-gun-like team in the Ducks the way he did with the grind ‘em up Kings the last three seasons? Heck no. Now just re-sign Teemu and team him up with Jakob Silfverberg and get down to business with the rest of the kids. (B-minus)

Boston: Hoo boy, what a summer. They’ve dumped so many people this summer you’ll have to get a program opening night. Basically they’ve swapped out Nathan Horton, Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, Jaromir Jagr and Andrew Ference for Loui Eriksson, Jarome Iginla, and going with their kids on the blue line (Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski). That’s more than a facelift. Their AHL kids did well last season and having faith in them to do it at the NHL level next year says a lot. GM Peter Chiarelli has done enough to be trusted but he’s got to hope everyone else picks up the offensive slack. (C)

Buffalo: What should’ve happened is Ville Leino got bought out and they found ways to deal Thomas Vanek and/or Ryan Miller. Instead, Leino is recovering from surgery so he couldn’t be bought out and Nathan Gerbe was sent paid-packing and (as of now) neither superstar on the final year of their deal has a new address. Perfect! Swapping Andrej Sekera for Jamie McBain was a nice change-of-address deal but all the same issues and headaches from last season are still here. Buffalo? More like Barf-alo, am I right?!?!?! (F)

Calgary: Yuck. Why hasn’t this team signed Mikhail Grabovski yet? Karri Ramo is going to be their No. 1 goalie too? What a mess this team and organization is. (F-minus)

Carolina: Swinging a deal with Buffalo is worth… Something. Signing Mike Komisarek is interesting as a reclamation project. Parting ways with Chad LaRose seems odd as Carolina never really seems to let anyone go. Signing Anton Khudobin to backup Cam Ward is more than reasonable. They’re reportedly also sniffing around at Jaromir Jagr. Cool, I guess. They didn’t seem to improve so… (C-minus)

Chicago: Just like 2010 they won the Stanley Cup and then cleared the decks of heavy money. Out goes Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik, Dan Carcillo and Ray Emery and in comes… Well… The kids? Nikolai Khabibulin returns to take Emery’s backup job but the other positions could be filled by AHL youngsters like blog-favorite Brandon Pirri (can’t spell “Pirri” without “RPI after all), re-committing to Marcus Kruger, and handing the annoyance keys off to Brandon Bollig. Keeping Bryan Bickell as comparatively reasonable money turned out looking smart in the end. Like Chiarelli, Stan Bowman has earned a pass on his decisions. (B)

Colorado: Drafting Nathan MacKinnon first overall will be debated for years to come. Bringing back all sorts of old Avs players for different roles (even Alex Tanguay to play) is nice for the whole nostalgia thing they’ve got going on. They’re going with their kids on defense but didn’t add to it and also locked up Matt Duchene. After playing hardball with him, giving him $6 million a season is a nice thank-you card. With Patrick Roy at the helm they were already going to be worth keeping an eye on. They could sneak in as a playoff team if Roy focuses them. If not… Get the popcorn ready because the fireworks will be awesome. Yes, Greg Sherman will bring the popcorn to your seat. (C)

Columbus: They set out to make one big splash and did inking Nathan Horton. Everything else they’ve done this summer is internal housekeeping. Horton’s deal doesn’t come without questions. Seven years and big money for a guy with injury problems and who won’t suit up until perhaps December thanks to shoulder surgery means Jarmo Kekalainen will hear about it if he doesn’t bounce back well. Life will be A LOT harder in their new division with the old Patrick Division pals. Are they good enough to slog it out with them all year? Hmm.. (B for “wow” factor, C for overall)

Dallas: Give it up to Jim Nill for doing some work as the new GM. Sending Eriksson out for Seguin and Peverley was ballsy and adding Shawn Horcoff helped make them stronger instantly up the middle. Their forwards needed more depth badly and that’s what he’s done. The D is young and Kari Lehtonen’s always tenuous injury situation made them go get Dan Ellis as a backup. Their grade hinges on whether or not Seguin can put the beer bong down long enough to score 30-40 goals. Hmm… (B-minus)

Detroit: Leave it to the Wings to go ahead and just lure away one team’s long-time captain and another’s should’ve-been captain. Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss help make it a great summer for Ken Holland. Letting Valtteri Filppula walk was a smart move as was buying out Carlo Colaiacovo. Like it or not, they’re going with kids on defense. They’ve still got a move (or two or three) left to make to thin out their forwards and re-sign key RFAs but Detroit appears more than ready to attack the East. (A-minus)

Edmonton: The Oilers frustrate me. I see all the talent on the roster and I instantly believe they should be a playoff team. I want to believe the few moves they made this summer will make that happen. Their defense needed help badly and Boyd Gordon will help with that amongst the forwards while Andrew Ference and Denis Grebeshkov can help the blue line figure themselves out. Devan Dubnyk is more than OK in goal. Dealing Magnus Paajarvi for David Perron is curious but for whatever reason the Oilers seemed to lose faith in him. C’est la vie. They’re not flashy moves but, God help me, I like them. (B)

Florida: So, uh, hey… Panthers. What’s happening? Oh right, nothing. Just building through the draft I see. They didn’t get anything going for Roberto Luongo and now they’re going to basically run with an insanely young team next season. Aleksander Barkov will be a star the same way Jonathan Huberdeau will. Erik Gudbranson came along late last year and I’m not selling out Jacob Markstrom as he’s still a freakin’ kid. That said, they didn’t do anything free agent or trade-wise of significance this summer. (D)

Los Angeles: Losing Rob Scuderi stinks for LA, but that’s why they have Robyn Regehr now. And added Jeff Schultz. And re-signed Keaton Ellerby, Alec Martinez, Jake Muzzin and anyone else who plays defense there. Losing Brad Richardson and Dustin Penner may hurt early on, but it seemed clear that Tyler Toffoli was going to get more ice time one way or another. This clears the decks a bit. Dan Carcillo will help give the Kings someone to make really bad decisions and someone for Darryl Sutter to point at. Hey, at least Jeff Carter and Mike Richards have a running buddy again. (C)

Minnesota: Another team with youth waiting in the wings that will get a chance to show what they have… Or else. Out went Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck and Devin Setoguchi. Dany Heatley would’ve been bought out but had that late season injury and surgery preventing that. In comes Matt Cooke to draw the ire of opponents (and locals!) while killing penalties on the ice (NOT PEOPLE). If Wild fans didn’t get enough of a look at Charlie Coyle, Jeff Zucker, and Mikael Granlund last year, they’re going to get A LOT of them next season. Being tight against the cap sure is fun! (C)

Montreal: Adding George Parros to help make Brandon Prust’s life easier? Sounds stupid but it might actually work. Prust was far more important to his rookie linemates Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Gallagher as a physical force rather than a face-puncher. Daniel Briere is *thisclose* to being done as an offensive weapon in the league but he’ll do good PR in Quebec. None of these moves matter a lick if Carey Price can’t return to form and the Habs defense doesn’t reappear magically.  (C)