Category Archives: NHL

NHL (and Devils) Playoff Preview

Heading into the MLB and NFL playoffs, I did not write much in the way of previews.  I figured that the other esteemed writers of the “Below the Belt Sports” staff had done a stellar enough job on their own.  Shockingly though, I am the only one on the blog writing about this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Go figure!  Therefore, allow me to cover two topics – how I expect the Devils, my favorite team, to do and how I expect the playoffs to turn out.

First of all, I am extremely pumped that the Devils are back in the playoffs.  In a sport in which more than half the league (16 out of 31 teams this year, 16 out of 30 teams before this year) makes the playoffs, six years out of the playoffs is an eternity.  Making the stretch feel worse was the fact that, from 1990 through 2012, the Devils missed the playoffs exactly twice.  That is all in the past now.

This year’s Devils team has been a thrill to watch.  Whenever the team is down by a goal or even two goals, I fully expect the team to come back.  No, the Devils’ defense is not amazing.  Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Brian Rafalski are not playing back there, but the defense – led by the smooth-skating Sami Vatanen – is solid enough to back an excellent offense.  Taylor Hall has been a Hart Trophy candidate (for MVP), racking up 39 goals and 93 points.  If one looks at the Devils’ stats, one will see a large drop off from Hall to everyone else, but that does not mean that the team lacked offense behind Hall.  Nico Hischier put up 52 points in a rookie season in which he played like a veteran from Day 1.  Will Butcher earned 44 points, an excellent total for a rookie defenseman, and Kyle Palmieri tallied 44 points as well (but missed 20 games to injury).

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All season long but especially down the stretch, the Devils found plenty of depth scoring.  While there were no gaudy numbers beyond Hall’s, 9 other Devils did reach double figures in goals.  Many of those goals were huge.  Down the stretch, the Devils played several weeks of playoff-like games, and the team received huge goals from the likes of Blake Coleman, Stefan Noesen, Miles Wood, and Pavel Zacha.  Patrick Maroon, acquired at the trade deadline from Edmonton, has been a physical beast and has settled nicely onto a line with Wood and Zacha.  Michael Grabner, also acquired before the deadline, has provided great speed and countless breakaways.  Of course, he never ever ever scores on those breakaways, but he is due.  Throw in the steady two-way play of Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle, and the Devils have a great offensive corps.

While the Devils finished the season with 97 points and the #8 seed in the East, I think these numbers undervalue the current Devils team.  The Devils’ worst stretches of the season coincided greatly with games that Taylor Hall missed and games in which the team’s goaltending was downright abysmal.  Keith Kinkaid was underwhelming early in the season; Corey Schneider has been underwhelming in 2018; but Keith Kinkaid has been on fire since ascending to the #1 role in late February.

In fact, for most of this season, I repeated, “The Devils could be a Cup contender if I had any faith in the team’s goaltending holding up for 4 rounds.”  Of course, I did not have that faith for much of the season.  I do now.

To be clear, I am not saying that the Devils will win the Stanley Cup.  They will be underdogs in every series that they play, and they will have home-ice advantage in none of those series.  That said, when I say “underdogs”, I do not mean “#16 vs. #1 in NCAA Tournament” “underdogs”.  I mean that the Devils will likely be given a 40% chance of winning each series.  Yes, that makes the Devils underdogs, but it also means that they could legitimately win any series in which they play.  Therefore, without further ado, I shall now unveil my playoff predictions:

First Round:

Devils over Tampa Bay in 7: The Devils went 3-0-0 (OK, 1-2-0-0 by my 3-2-1-0 points system) against Tampa Bay this year.  Both teams are fast teams with strong offenses.  The Lightning have a stronger defense, led by Victor Hedman, but the Devils can win this series if Kinkaid keeps up his strong play.

Boston over Toronto in 7: This should be a delightful series between two evenly-matched teams.  I give Boston the edge because of Tuukka Rask and having Game 7 at home.

Washington over Columbus in 5: You know how I feel about the value of non-regulation wins.  Columbus had 15 of them and would have finished 6 points behind Florida and outside the playoffs with a 3-2-1-0 system.  That means Columbus is a “paper tiger, Champ” in this year’s playoffs.  This spells an early exit for the Jackets.

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Pittsburgh over Philadelphia in 5: In the NHL, it is tough to have a team pull a Lebron James-memorial “Coast through most of the regular season and turn it on in the playoffs” routine, but I am pretty sure we are seeing it with Pittsburgh.  The Penguins actually turned things on during the last few months of the season, and the playoffs are a much different animal than the regular season.  Plus, after back-to-back Cups, the Pens should actually feel relaxed as if they are playing with house money.  Bye bye, Philly.  No more greased poles for you.

Nashville over Colorado in 5: Colorado is similar to the Devils in that an MVP candidate (Nathan MacKinnon for the Avs) has led a team to a surprise run to end a playoff drought.  The only difference is that Nashville awaits the Avs.  I am not a homer here.  I would expect the Devils to lose to Nashville in 5 as well.  Nashville’s defense is stacked; its offense is deep; it has Pekka Rinne; and it is playoff-tested.

Winnipeg over Minnesota in 5: Winnipeg is the second-best team in the league.  The Jets are fast, have a strong defense, and have the most underrated goalie in the league in Connor Hellebuyck.  In fact, Hellebuyck is the best goalie I saw this year.  He has the form and calm of a young Martin Brodeur.  No, I am not saying this guy is tied with Brodeur for being the GOAT, but I do believe he is the closest to a Brodeur prototype I have seen.  Minnesota, minus Ryan Suter, will not have enough to beat the Jets.

Los Angeles over Vegas in 7: Just a hunch here.  Everything on the ice has been a breeze for Vegas this year.  The Golden Knights have exceeded expectations all season long and thus have felt no pressure.  All of a sudden, Vegas is now the favorite in a playoff matchup.  I expect nerves and for Vegas to lose its first two games at home.  The Knights will recover to extend the series to 7 games, but Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, and Anze Kopitar will pull out their first clutch playoff win in a few years in Game 7.

San Jose over Anaheim in 7: Honestly, I have no idea about this one.  Both are regular playoff teams who have often disappointed in the spring.  I am flipping a coin on this one.

Second Round:

Boston over Devils in 6: Sorry, Devils fans.  Boston has been more physical with the Devils than other teams have been this year.  The Devils have not looked great against Boston.  I give Boston the series win.

Washington over Pittsburgh in 7: It is time.  Washington is finally going to get over the Pittsburgh hump.  Washington has been better than Pittsburgh in the regular season (again), and here is a hunch that Washington finally takes care of business.

Nashville over Winnipeg in 7: Look, many people have said that they do not like this playoff format.  I agree.  This is yet another year in which the best two teams in the conference will meet before the Conference Finals.  My solution: Return to the old format in which the #1 and #2 seeds are division champs, while #3-#8 are given to the next six-best teams in the conference, regardless of division.  This scenario alone would have saved Washington-Pittsburgh for the 2016 and 2017 Conference Finals and would save Nashville-Winnipeg for the 2018 Conference Finals.  I know that the NHL likes having a bracket, so I would be OK with not re-seeding the second round.  I would rather have re-seeding, but I can live without it.  Anyway, I wrote this long thing to hide the fact that I do not have a good reason for picking Nashville other than “Game 7 is in Nashville.”

Los Angeles over San Jose in 6: Unfortunately, Peter DeBoer is taken down as he was in 2012 by the Kings.

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Conference Finals:

Washington over Boston in 6: Now that Ovechkin has gotten over the Pittsburgh hump, the Capitals confidently roll past Boston and into the Stanley Cup Finals.

Nashville over San Jose in 6: Nashville is the deepest and most balanced team in the West, and this fact reappears against the Sharks.

Stanley Cup Finals:

Washington over Nashville in 6: Sure, Carrie Underwood is easy on the eyes, but karma comes back to bite her for changing “I’ve been waitin’ all night for Sunday night” (a wonderful, albeit factually completely incorrect song) into “Oooooooh, Sunday night” (a brutal song, aside from the fact that she is in the video).  Meanwhile, the Ovechkin train keeps rolling, and #8 finally hoists his first Stanley Cup.

 

That is what I think.  Hopefully, I am wrong, and the New Jersey Devils end up winning the Cup!

No, Points Are Not Always at a Premium Down the Stretch

Often in March and April, we hear hockey announcers say, “Points are at a premium this time of year” or “It’s always tougher to get points this time of year with all teams playing so hard.”  Nope!  This is yet another hockey cliché that has no backing.

Sure, when an NHL team faces a playoff team or a team fighting for a playoff berth in March, the former can expect a tough battle.  On the other hand, what about when teams play against teams “playing out the string” in March and April?  Those are the easiest points to earn!!!  In fact, it is far easier to play against bad teams in March and April than it is earlier in the year.  In March and April, bad teams have already unloaded their best players and have sometimes shut down injured players for the season.  Therefore, games against these teams should be walks in the park down the stretch….and don’t give me any “But those bad teams play extra-hard and are extra-motivated to win those games.”   (Don’t even gimme that, Biz Markie).  Guess who else plays “extra-hard and is extra-motivated to win those games”?  Good teams who are in the playoffs or in the thick of the playoff race.  As I mentioned earlier in the season, only in the NHL do people applaud effort game in and game out.  Effort should be an expectation, not something to be commended!  In fact, the only game I have ever watched and been compelled to think, “Wow, these players are not trying”, was a Devils/Sabres game in April 2016.  Both teams were playing as if they knew they were three games away from a 6-month offseason…which was actually the case.  But I digress…

On Saturday, a thrilling battle for the last four playoff spots in the Eastern Conference came to an end.  The Devils, Blue Jackets, and Flyers made their way into the playoffs, while the Panthers were left on the outside.  Furthermore, the Penguins did not clinch a playoff spot until two days prior.  Anyway, how do you think these five teams performed down the stretch against teams who were clearly out of the playoff race?  Really, really, ridiculously well!  In a moment, I will show you these teams’ records against out-of-playoff-contention teams from March 1 until the end of the season.  Because I am passionate about the NHL converting to a 3-2-1-0 points system, I have put the records in this format (regulation wins – non-regulation wins – non-regulation losses – regulation losses).  Please note that, in the actual standings, the first two figures are summed in a composite “Wins” category in which all wins are worth 2 points.

 

New Jersey Devils: 5-0-0-0

Florida Panthers: 8-1-2-1

Pittsburgh Penguins: 4-1-2-1

Philadelphia Flyers: 3-0-1-1

Columbus Blue Jackets: 4-3-0-1

 

As you can see, these five teams “cleaned up” on bad teams.  Therefore, no, points are not always “at a premium” down the stretch.

Also, for you non-hockey fans out there – first off, I am glad that you made it this deep into a hockey article.  That makes me feel proud.  Secondly, please note that this rule extends to other sports as well.  Take it from a Mets fan who watched the Mets wipe the floor with bad teams (who had unloaded many of their good players) in August/September runs in 2015 and 2016, only for the Mets to change from “mopper” to “moppee” down the stretch in 2017.  No, in MLB, wins are not always “at a premium” down the stretch either.

Bring Back “The ‘Hey’ Song”

To all the Devils fans out there, this is a letter that I have mailed to Hugh Weber, “President – Prudential Center and the New Jersey Devils.

Dear Mr. Weber,

 

Please bring back “The ‘Hey’ Song” (“Rock and Roll Part II”) after Devils goals.  I know that you are always looking for ways to improve the fan experience, and this is the #1 way that you can achieve this objective for hard-core Devils fans.  All of our greatest moments as Devils fans involve this song.  From “Henrique, It’s Over!!!” to Jeff Friesen’s two goals in Game 7 against Anaheim to Neal Broten’s and Randy McKay’s overtime goals in the 1995 playoffs, this is the song to which we celebrated.  Thus, this is the song to which I – and most other Devils fans – would love to celebrate future Devils goals.  If you could bring back this song for this year’s playoffs (in an ideal world in which the Devils make the playoffs) or for next year’s opener (in a less-than-ideal world), I – and many, many other Devils fans -would be very grateful.

At the same time, I understand why you scrapped this song a few years ago.  You did not like that many fans would chant, “You suck”, while cheering.  I agree with you on that one. The “You suck” is juvenile, and it actually devalues the Devils’ accomplishments, in that anyone should be able to score against someone who “sucks”.  That said, the people who chanted “You suck” during “The Hey Song” now do it twice as often.  They chant it during the current goal song, and they also chant it a few minutes later when the crowd sings “The Hey Song” on its own (with accompaniment from a horn).  Therefore, by bringing back “The Hey Song” as the official goal song, you would actually cut the amount of “You suck”s in half, which is a good thing.

Anyway, I am a simple man.  I love coming to Devils games, and I love hearing “The ‘Hey’ Song” after goals.  That is all I want.  I am jealous when I hear fans of the Rangers, Blackhawks, Isles, and countless other fans get to cheer along with their true goal songs.  I, along with many other Devils fans, wish to hear the Devils’ true goal song played once again after goals as well.

Thank you for your time.

 

Sincerely,

Michael Walker

A Player Deserves a Point for a Screen

I am writing this post to answer a question once and for all.  The question is, “If I write a post, and nobody reads it; did I still write the post?”  I figure, what better way is there to accomplish this than by posting that the NHL should award points to players for screens.  What topic is sexier than that?

This thought enters my head a few times per NHL season, and last night was one of those instances.  Recent Devils acquisition Patrick Maroon had a perfect screen on a Travis Zajac goal, but he did not receive a point for his efforts.  To me, that is silly.  The screen was the #1 reason for the goal.  Sure, Zajac had to make a good shot, which he did.  However, Canadiens goalie Charlie Lindgren likely makes the save if he sees the puck.  In fact, when an NHL player takes an unscreened first shot (as opposed to a rebound), an NHL goalie saves it nearly every time.

In hockey, a forward often finds himself parked in front of the opposing net while his teammates pass the puck around the zone.  As soon as one of his teammates prepares to shoot, this forward has three offensive responsibilities: screen the goalie, try to deflect the puck, and look for the rebound.  If the player successfully deflects the puck into the net or puts a rebound into the net, the player earns a point (a goal).  However, if the player successfully screens the goalie to allow for a goal, this player is unrewarded statistically?  This seems quite incongruent to me.

Image result for screening a goalie

Therefore, I feel that the official scorer should have the right to award a point for a screen.  In this case, the person who would – under current rules – earn the secondary assist would not earn a point.  I am OK with that though.  Sure, the second-to-last pass setting up a goal is important to the goal, but it is not as important as the screen.  The screen more directly contributes to the goal than the secondary pass.  Therefore, the screener deserves the point.

Hopefully, I have now answered my question, “If I write a post, and nobody reads it; did I still write the post?”

Olympic Hockey is So Much Better Without NHL Players!

I have not been this pumped for Olympic hockey since 1994, the last time that NHL players were not allowed in the Olympics.  I realize that I am in the minority with this opinion, but I do not mind being in the minority on sports opinions. (See “Eli Manning”)

There are three major reasons why I dislike having NHL players in the Olympics.  I will list them now in declining order of importance.

  • I associate players with their current NHL teams. I cannot stop on a dime and change the players for whom I root for two random weeks in February, only for me to change back at the end of those two weeks.  This issue became most pronounced in the 2002 Gold Medal Game.  In that game, two players were on the ice for the full 60 minutes – Mike Richter and Martin Brodeur.  Yes, Ranger Mike Richter and Devil Martin Brodeur.  Yes, American Mike Richter and Canadian Martin Brodeur.

While I have written in the past about my strong dislike for the Yankees, I despise the Rangers a thousand times more.  I cannot stand the Rangers.  I loathe the Rangers.  Anyway, from 1993 through 2002, I watched countless Devils/Rangers games featuring Martin Brodeur and Mike Richter.  To that point, I had always rooted for Brodeur, my all-time favorite athlete, to come out on top over Richter.  However, now that the players were wearing different uniforms for two weeks, I was suddenly supposed to change for whom I am supposed to root?  Look, I agree with Jerry Seinfeld that, in sports, we are really always just rooting for laundry.  (Sidebar: I love Todd Frazier now!)  However, expecting me to overhaul my rooting habits for a mere two weeks in the heat of the NHL season (and then overhaul them back again) seemed patently ridiculous. Thus, I found myself rooting for Team Canada on that day in 2002.  I am not proud of that, but, given the circumstances, I find my actions defensible.  Meanwhile, this issue did not disappear after 2002.

Image result for brodeur vs richter olympics

In subsequent Olympics (2006, 2010, and 2014), I have rooted for Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Patrik Elias on other countries’ teams.  Meanwhile, I have rooted against Rangers, Flyers, and Penguins on the American team.  In fact, there was no post-1994 Olympics – until this year’s – in which I found myself pouring all of my heart into the US Olympic men’s hockey team.  Once a player is playing for an NHL team, I associate him with that team, not with his country.   (Do not get me started on the World Baseball Classic, which will not “happen” until long after “fetch” “happens”.  Also, I would never root for Bryce Harper, Chipper Jones, or Derek Jeter!)  Plain and simple, my emotions are too fragile and my loyalty too deep to root for players one week, against them the next two weeks, and for them again afterward (and vice versa).

  • Having NHL players in the Olympics makes zero economic sense for the NHL.   Can you imagine Adam Silver, Roger Goodell, or Rob Manfred stopping his respective season at the ¾ mark so that his top players can play in an intense, physical tournament for which his league receives ZERO revenue???  That is comical….and I am sure that all three of these commissioners and their predecessors have laughed at Gary Bettman because of it.  Interestingly, Islanders GM Garth Snow took flak four years ago for blasting the practice of having NHL players in the Olympics.  Snow spoke out after Islanders star John Tavares hurt his knee in the Olympics and thus missed the remainder of the NHL season.  Snow complained that a player under an NHL contract should not play for another team, risking major injury and/or fatigue, during an NHL season.  Somehow, many people thought Snow was out of line for his comments, which confounds me.  Snow was absolutely right.  (Fittingly, Garth Snow was a goalie on the 1994 US Olympic team, the last edition comprised solely of amateurs.)

Of course, some people counter my economic argument by saying that the NHL draws more interest following the Olympics.  Well, my friends, that argument is baloney.  It is Grade-A baloney.  There is not a single person who watches Olympic hockey and thinks to him/herself, “You know, I did not watch the NHL before, but now I am definitely tuning into the Flyers/Stars game next week.”  That does not happen.  The NHL does not get a ratings bump off the Olympics.  People who would have watched the NHL continue to watch the NHL; people who would not have watched it continue not to watch the NHL.  It is no different than the situations with most other Olympics sports and me.  I love watching Olympic skiing, speed skating, luge, bobsledding, figure skating, curling, swimming, gymnastics, track and field, and slalom-kayaking.  What is the key word in that sentence?  “Olympic”.  That is all I am watching.  The week after the Olympics, those sports are all dead to me, as they are to many Olympic fans.  Likewise, this is how hockey is for Olympic, non-NHL fans.  These individuals tune in for Olympic hockey and then wait four years to watch hockey again.

Image result for olympic winter games

Given all that logic, why the heck should NHL teams be expected to expose their players to major injury and fatigue 5-7 weeks before the NHL playoffs?  It is asinine.  It is a major cost with no benefit for the NHL.  Sure, I know that players really want to be able to play in the Olympics, but that is life.  These players cannot have their cake and eat it too.  Plus, many of you know that I think the MLB season is too long.  Well, I certainly feel the same way about the NHL season, and having the players go to the Olympics makes the season even longer!  Craziness.  I am very glad that is not the case this season.

  • Lastly, I do not feel much American pride watching a team that has had all of one or two practices together suddenly play together in the Olympics. I do not feel much American pride watching a team that flies to the Olympics 3 days after the Opening Ceremonies and now plays 3 to 6 games together.  Both of these afore-mentioned scenarios describe the American teams of the previous five Olympics.  Meanwhile, if you have seen Miracle, you know that one of the joys of the 1980 American gold medal came from the adversity the team had to overcome over more than a year’s worth of training.  “A bunch of guys from Minnesota and Massachusetts” spent months getting over their differences and individuality to realize that they were playing for one team.  These players committed themselves every day for over a year to their teammates and to winning a gold medal for the United States.

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On the other hand, let us look at 2014. During the Sochi Opening Ceremonies, I was at The Rock, watching the Devils beat the Oilers in overtime.  Patrik Elias, Jaromir Jagr, and Marek Zidlicky suited up for the Devils that night, which is interesting considering that they were on the Czech Olympic team.  Similarly, the next night, I went to a bar in Hoboken.  On one TV, I saw the Olympics; on the neighboring TV, I watched the Capitals and US Olympic defenseman John Carlson defeat the Devils.  Thus, the Olympics had begun, yet most of the players on the top-8 Olympic hockey teams were still focused on their NHL teams.  Only a day or two later did the NHL Olympic players finally fly to Sochi, Russia, to commence their participation in the Olympic games.

It is very hard to get psyched to watch an Olympic team full of guys who were still playing NHL games during the first few days of the Olympics.  These NHL/Olympic hockey players spend little thought on their Olympic teams and gold medals before boarding those planes three days into the Games.  This does not exactly evoke memories of “Mike Eruzione…I play for the United States of America!!!”  Plus, some people claim that it is better to have NHL players in the Olympics, because Olympic medals are meant to reward the best players and best teams in the world.  However, in reality, it takes months for a hockey team to jell and for the cream to rise to the top.  The probability is relatively slim that the best hockey team will win the gold medal, given that the players have essentially no practice time, play three games, and then enter a single-elimination tournament.

Anyway, I have now listed and explained my three reasons why I do not like having NHL players in the Olympics.  Granted, I realize that many of the American players this year are not amateurs like we used in all of the Olympic Games through 1994.  Many of these players, like captain and Devils single-season goal-scoring leader Brian Gionta, have played in the NHL at some point.  Also, these players have not trained together for a full year or longer.

That said, at least these players been practicing together – as a team – in pursuit of a gold medal for a few months.  That is enough for me.  Plus, even if some of these players – like Matt Gilroy and Bobby Sanguinetti – did once play for the Rangers, it was a few years ago….not right now.  After a few years away from the Garden, I am able to erase the Rangers “stink” from a player, as I have with Devils Brian Boyle and John Moore.

This leads me to my last point.  In 1994, I had the pleasure of watching both the Devils and Olympic hockey on the same days.  That was one of the greatest thrills of my sports-watching life.  Throw in the facts that the 1993-4 Devils had their best season in history to that point and that the current Devils are now having their best season since 2012, and I am very excited to have a sports repeat of February 1994…minus Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, and a messed-up shoelace.

One Problem the NHL Faces in Today’s World/The Difficulty of Being an NHL Beat Writer

“Though there are skilled players (on the New Jersey Devils), the players have bought into the notion that they are not skilled enough as a group to rely on that talent to win games and, instead, must outcompete their opponents for the puck.” – Devils’ beat reporter, Andrew Gross, on December 29.

Never mind that this quote is a blatant rip-off of Herb Brooks, this quote is also completely ridiculous in today’s NHL.  Literally zero NHL teams since 1995 have taken the approach not to outcompete opponents for the puck.  Zero.  Look at the most talented players in the NHL – Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, Kane, Toews, Karlsson, Tarasenko to name a few.  All these players always try to outcompete opponents for the puck, and these players are usually successful at this endeavor.  After all, they are great players.  In November, I wrote that hockey is the only sport where the “result retroactively becomes the strategy”.  This dumb quote by Gross is a perfect example of this.

I watched most of the Devils’ games from 2012-3 through 2016-7, during which the Devils spent five seasons as one of the worst teams in the NHL.  The Devils of these seasons always competed hard, but they lost much more often than they won.  Why?  A combination of lack of speed and lack of talent.  Way too often over those five seasons, I would see over-the-hill veterans or never-will-be young players send soft, unscreened wrist shots from the point to the goalie.  I saw these guys come down the wing and take low-percentage shot after low-percentage shot with no teammate in reasonable position for a pass or rebound.  I saw the Devils pass the puck around the perimeter for large chunks of power plays, but the puck would never make its way with authority to the net.  All of this was not because of bad strategy but instead because of a lack of talent.

Image result for nj devils 2013

Meanwhile, I would watch other teams send multiple players to the Devils’ net with speed.  I would lament that this is how you score goals but that the Devils lacked this requisite speed.  Yes, rebound goals are considered “garbage goals”, but they usually happen because a puck carrier enters the zone with speed, takes a hard shot, and sees the rebound go to a teammate with speed.  I would see opposing teams make quick passes behind the Devils’ net and quick passes from the corner to the blue line.  I would see opposing players hungry to take shots, as opposed to the Devils who seemed intent to pass the puck around the perimeter.  Lastly, I would see opposing players win more puck battles than the Devils because the opposing players were faster, stronger, and more talented.

Well, finally this year, the Devils are doing all those wonderful things I saw opponents do to the Devils for five years.  It is amazing how much more successful an NHL team can be with an influx of offensive talent – Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Brian Boyle, and Taylor Hall (albeit a second-year Devil) – and fast, puck-moving defensemen (Will Butcher and Sami Vatanen).  This has been a delight for me.  I woke up this morning with the Devils essentially in first place in the Metropolitan Division (if first place is considered the team with the most points per game).  Coming into this season, I would have been ecstatic if the Devils were to enter New Year’s Day within 3 points of the last playoff spot.  This has been quite a turnaround.

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That said, you do not hear much buzz about the Devils in most sports-media circles.  Much of that is because a) the Devils are always an afterthought in this metro area, and b) the NHL is the fourth-most popular professional sports league here.  However, the Rangers are a much bigger media draw than the Devils, yet they do not generate the buzz that teams from other sports do either.  Most of us know that a main reason for this is that most Americans do not grow up playing hockey like they do baseball, football, and basketball.  That is probably the biggest factor.  However, there is another factor in play.

With the proliferation of media – from TV to radio to social media, etc. – people in this country love debating sports every bit as much as they love watching sports.  As maligned as baseball can be for its “boring” and slow pace, has there ever been a time when individual baseball games get more discussion?  I think not.  The Mets and Yankees both play 162 games, yet we all dissect decisions made in April games for hours on end.  It is very easy to do.  Because of baseball’s slow pace, there is plenty of time for us fans to play “manager” and decide if we agree with what Joe Girardi or Terry Collins (RIP to both of them) have done.  In every game, there are probably five or six managerial/player decisions that are controversial enough for fans to discuss.  This is baseball.  As for football, every game is dissected like it is the Super Bowl.  With playcalling, personnel decisions, and “go for it”-versus-“kick it” conundrums, each game provides fifty big discussion points.

You are probably now wondering, “Wait, I thought he was talking about hockey’s problems.”  Precisely.  What hockey actions or strategies are there for fans and media to discuss?  Hockey is my favorite sport because it is fast-paced, and there are few breaks in the action.  For the “ADHD” aspect of today’s American population, this is a good thing.  However, for the “Let’s vilify people for every decision they make” aspect, it is a horrible thing.  In today’s NHL, every player must be responsible offensively and defensively.  Every player must be in peak physical condition.  Every player competes very hard on every shift.  Hockey is the ultimate team game, and no player could look his teammates in the eye if he were not to do one of these afore-mentioned things.  Really bad NHL teams do all these things.  Really good NHL teams do them too.  The only difference between good teams and bad teams is talent.  Therefore, fans cannot realistically criticize players for their work ethic, “compete level” (God do I hate this new-age term), or heart.

Strategically, fans have nothing about which to complain either.  Sure, it was revolutionary when the 1993-5 New Jersey Devils rolled four lines and three defensive pairs and had all players be responsible defensively.  However, by 1996, the whole league had caught up to that.  The 1995 Devils were vilified for playing the “neutral-zone trap”, which I always found silly.  The league was simply adjusting to a team that had all of its players playing solid defense in all zones.  Nowadays, all teams play some variation on a trap.  Really, the “trap” is the ideal defensive approach, but it happens only if a team has appropriate talent.  This strategy requires simply that players are responsible positionally in all zones, but all players are fine with this and have played some degree of a “trap” their whole organized-hockey lives.

Watching an NHL team is like clockwork.  Breakouts, cycling, and forecheck strategies are all virtually the same premise for all teams.  Players and reporters act like teams have vastly different “systems”, but that too is silly.  John Hynes, coach of the Devils, preaches that he wants the Devils to play a “puck-possession game”, and reporters often act like this quote is akin to hearing The Beatles for the first time.  News flash – all teams want to play a “puck-possession game”.  This brings me back to the original quote.

I do not fault Andrew Gross for making a stupid statement.  The fact is that hockey writers have the toughest job in the beat-reporting profession.  There are too few times where players or coaches have the time to make decisions that we can scrutinize.  Sure, we all get frustrated when a player passes when he should shoot (like the Devils historically do way too often on 2-on-1s) or when a goalie allows a soft goal.  However, the mistakes happen, and there is not too much debate to be had here.

As a result, hockey reporters must fabricate silly stories like Gross’s comment.  Deep down, he probably realizes that all teams in today’s NHL try to outcompete opponents for the puck, but, deep down, he is probably also thinking, “Man, what the heck am I going to write about every day for the next three months, or five months if the Devils go deep into the playoffs?”

Speaking of playoffs, it is always funny to read the “Keys to the Game” that are often printed in the lead-up to playoff games.  The keys usually include “Be strong on the power play”, “Be good even-strength”, “Have strong goaltending”, “Stay out of the penalty box”, or “Play Hard”.  Those are some bold strategies, Cotton.  Let’s see if they pay off for them.

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Of course, my favorite playoff lines are “The team needs to show more heart” or “The team that wanted it more won.”  These are just ridiculous.  In the playoffs, hockey players play through broken jaws, broken legs, broken arms, and so on because they want so badly to win the Stanley Cup and to support their teammates.  It is impossible for hockey players to show more heart or to “want it more”.  It turns out that the reason why teams lose games is that somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose……and, in the playoffs, when both teams are good, it means that good teams lose games and series.  Yes, it does happen – even when players are showing maximum “heart” and “wanting it to the max”.  Oh, and if you ever hear a reporter say that a player “is not a good fit for the team’s system”, the reporter means to say, “This guy sucks.”  Every team has the system of playing hard in all zones, getting traffic in front of the opposing goalie, not playing too fancy, looking for rebounds, and deflections, playing fast, playing big, being aggressive, and being positionally sound.  If a player is bad for one NHL team’s system, chances are he is bad for the other thirty teams’ systems as well.

That said, if I were the Devils’ beat reporter this year, I would have probably already written 30 pieces on how the Devils are faster than last year and how they are better shooters and passers.  Plus, I would have written a piece on how Cory Schneider should play no more than 80% of the games, because I have that belief for all NHL goalies.  I probably would rewrite that same piece once every two weeks to fill space.  However, I would like to think that I would avoid writing frivolous cliches just to fill space, but I cannot say for certain.  I have not been in that position.

In the end though, I love hockey.  It is my favorite sport.  However, it is not the sport for Monday-morning quarterbacks.  Those people can stick to baseball, football, basketball, and now politics.

Expansion Teams are Supposed to be Terrible.

Expansion teams are supposed to stink.  This is one of the basic principles of sports.  The New York Mets, the Houston Texans, the Ottawa Senators, the Vancouver Grizzlies, etc.  I could list bad expansion teams all day long, but that would be silly.  Therefore, I will stop.  Just know that, before 2017, every single expansion team in the history of the four major North American sports leagues had been bad.

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This whole premise makes perfect sense.  Fans of expansion teams are ecstatic to have a team.  These fans do not need a good team.  Having a bad team is better than having no team at all.  Therefore, a league can milk several years of good attendance out of bad expansion teams.  It is a tried and true formula.  Nobody would be dumb enough to mess with it….except of course the man who continues to value an overtime/shootout win the same as a regulation win, the same man who stopped letting teams skate around the ice before the beginnings of periods (because it would make sooooo much of a difference in terms of keeping the ice slick).  Yes, the man is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

During Mike Francesa’s last few radio shows, he interviewed Bettman.  During the interview, I heard Bettman say that the league deliberately let this year’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights build a great team because he did not want to deprive their fans of playoff hockey.  If ever there were an NHL version of an “Occupy Wall Street” protest, he probably heard this idiotic short-sighted idea there.  OK, OK, I do not want to get too political here, so I will use a different analogy.  Bettman essentially said that the 30-year-old guy who has been rejected by women all his life should now be handed a supermodel girlfriend.  That is ridiculous.  That guy is going to be happy being in a relationship with any woman.  As a society, we do not need to waste a supermodel (in limited supply) on this “happy to be with any woman” guy.

Well, in reality, the Vegas hockey fans are this 30-year-old guy, and the Golden Knights – currently in first place in the Pacific Division – are the supermodel.  Meanwhile, standard terrible expansion teams represent the “any woman”.  Golden Knights fans would have been perfectly happy rooting for teams of this low caliber, just as “the 30-year-old guy” would have been happy in a relationship with any woman.

You might be wondering how the NHL set Vegas up to have such a strong expansion team.  In the expansion drafts, teams were allowed to protect no more than 11 players.  This was different from the last expansion draft of 2000, when teams were allowed to protect at most 15 players.  This might seem like a minimal difference, but the change meant that many more quality players were available for Vegas to draft than for previous expansion teams to draft.  I do not like this.

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To me, it was a great story when the Ottawa Senators finally made the playoffs in their fifth season or when the Nashville Predators finally made the playoffs in their sixth season.  I was excited for their loyal fans to finally experience playoff hockey.  However, I am not pumped for Vegas’s fans to get playoff action in the team’s first season while loyal fans of teams like Carolina, Buffalo, Florida, Arizona, and Colorado must suffer through yet another playoffs-less season.

Moreover, when the supermodel eventually breaks up with the 30-year-old guy, that guy is going to be disappointed by all future girlfriends.  The same goes for Vegas’s fans, when the team regresses and misses the playoff next season.  Instead of Vegas’s fans getting 4-5 seasons of joy by watching a bad team grow into a good one, the fans get immediate gratification followed by inevitable years of disappointment when the team misses the playoffs.  Therefore, instead of 4-5 seasons of guaranteed large crowds, Vegas is guaranteed 1 season of a large crowd.

Classic short-sighted move by the NHL.  Expansion teams are supposed to be terrible.  This allows for expansion teams to do well financially for their first 4-5 years instead of their first 1-2 years.