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Hear me out here: What if Jack Capuano isn’t a good coach?

(This post is part of a fundraiser for the ACLU and SPLC, two great causes that need our help in these, umm, trying political times. For a donation of $50 or more on Giving Tuesday, readers got me to write about whatever they wanted. So I wrote the nonsense below, which was requested by Dave Skurnik.)

Not really going out on a limb here, but I’m starting to get the feeling that Jack Capuano isn’t exactly working out as the coach of the Islanders.

That’s not new thinking or anything like that, but like, man he’s just not good at this, and hasn’t been for most of the time he’s been there. It would be tough to put him in the lower rung of NHL coaches just because he seems not to be actively harmful to his team — for reasons we’ll discuss in a second — but certainly he does not help them in any real way.

The Islanders aren’t really a well-run organization in the first place. One need only look at the amount of talent they allow to leave for any number of reasons, or the quality of the players they spend a lot of money to retain or acquire. They’re certainly not giving John Tavares much of an incentive to stick around once his contract is up after next year.

And Jack Capuano kind of personifies the Islander tendency toward the mediocre; big-market team that doesn’t (or at least hasn’t) spent money in a way that they otherwise could, and suffers as a result. The Islanders have made the playoffs three times in Capuano’s six seasons behind the bench and it doesn’t look like that number will improve this time out.

Under Capuano, they’re a 49.8 percent team in expected goals at 5-on-5, and I guess that sounds just about right. In terms of actual goals they’re at 47.6 percent, because they don’t usually have good goaltending (future All-Star JF Berube excluded). Or good depth talent. Or good systems. Or good coaching.

It’s fine to be mediocre in the NHL because even if you are, the Islanders clearly demonstrate you can still make the playoffs about half the time. But the Islanders at least should have greater aspirations in this league if only because Tavares is a singular talent and they ought to be building toward something with him, rather than wasting their time.

In retrospect, the Isles just weren’t great last year, barring a roughly six-week stretch in which they were, which petered out before the playoffs started. And the only reason they got to the second round is that they 2014-Calgary-Flames’d their way there: Beating a weak opponent in the first round then getting annihilated in the second by an actual good team.

Over 470 games, Capuano has the Islanders playing at a pace for about 88 points every 82 games. Most of the time you need to be in the low 90s. So that tells you plenty about where this team is, was, and has been headed.

They won’t be able to truly get ahead until they truly invest in competent management and coaching. Spending money just to spend it (i.e. on five years of Cal Clutterbuck) isn’t getting you anywhere.

Coaches’ salaries aren’t generally published in the NHL. Sometimes the figures get out and sometimes they don’t. Capuano’s seems not to have gotten out, but one expects he is pretty far down the list; some NHL coaches don’t even make seven figures, which seems crazy to me. Anyway, since the Leafs figured out you can get good coaches to improve your team without hurting your salary cap in any way, maybe it’s time the Islanders learned that lesson. One fewer season of Cal Clutterbuck (or hell, five) might have freed up the money they need to get a better coach. Just a thought.

Wisconsin is getting it together pretty quick here

(This post is part of a fundraiser for the ACLU and SPLC, two great causes that need our help in these, umm, trying political times. For a donation of $50 or more on Giving Tuesday, readers got me to write about whatever they wanted. So I wrote the nonsense below, which was requested by Ken Walters.)

When people think Wisconsin Hockey the first thing that probably comes to mind is Good Program. That hasn’t been the case the past few years.

Under Mike Eaves, they lost in the national title game in 2009, then missed the NCAA tournament two years straight. But then hey, they’re Wisconsin, so they made it through two straight league titles in 2013 and ’14. And then disaster.

And if you looked close enough, you could see the cracks developing a while before that. Losing recruiting battles here and there doesn’t always show up in the results — at least not for bigger-name programs — until it’s five years later and you have four wins at the end of the season, as the Badgers did in 2014-15, and you’re like, “What the hell just happened?” Wisconsin’s brass didn’t really see it coming, so they gave Eaves another shot. He doubled his win total, but that’s still only eight, which sucks and got him canned.

To deal with the problem Wisconsin did what big-name programs always do: They threw money at it. Tony Granato is the coach now. His brother Don is an assistant alongside Mark Osiecki and Jeff Sanger. And maybe that was all the team needed: A new voice in the room, a new face of the franchise. Certainly, that’s reflected in the recruiting they’ve done since coming aboard this summer; they’re back to killing it, which is what Wisconsin should do.

It also seems to have translated in terms of wins and losses. The Badgers already have eight wins in 16 games, which is better than their eight in 35 they had last year. By a pretty good amount, actually. Like, mathematically speaking.

Not that eight right now is good or anything. It’s fine. But what’s interesting is how they’re getting to those wins. This isn’t a particularly talented team, especially as you work your way down the lineup. The high-end guys they have can play. It’s Wisconsin. Of course they can. But this team had a 49.7 CF% last season, which was obviously in the lower half of college hockey. This year it’s 58.2 percent.

So what’s happening here seems to be that the Badgers are now getting better coaching and even if the talent still isn’t there, when you’re up around 58 percent it really doesn’t matter. You’re going to win a lot almost no matter how bad your goalies are. And folks, at .858 for the season — I am dead f’n serious that’s the real number — Wisconsin’s goalies are absolute garbage. I don’t care if every shot they face is right in the slot and they’re screened out on all of them, you’d have at least stop 87 percent of the shots you face even by accident. It’s like they’re trying not to make saves. Amazing.

So frankly the fact that they’re even close to .500 with sub-.860 goaltending tells you an awful lot about how much their process has improved. Those Granato guys know what they’re doing, apparently.

Once they start attracting actual good players again — or hell, like one good goalie — they’re gonna start winning a whole lot of games. Which they should. It’s Wisconsin.

Trying not to remember the time Steve Ott licked Jeff Halpern

(This post is part of a fundraiser for the ACLU and SPLC, two great causes that need our help in these, umm, trying political times. For a donation of $50 or more on Giving Tuesday, readers got me to write about whatever they wanted. So I wrote the nonsense below, which was requested by several people.)

A thing I didn’t remember but which doesn’t surprise me even a little is that Steve Ott once licked — or tried to lick — Jeff Halpern.

This isn’t necessarily because Ott is a gross weirdo, though obviously it’s not NOT because of that. But for sure there’s clear evidence that this is a thing which happened. Here’s video if you don’t remember this happening either:

I’m gonna say this: I don’t think Ott licks him. I think he tries, but doesn’t accomplish it. So close and yet so far.

But like, let’s get into the psychology of why Steve Ott — remember when Jack Edwards called him “Brave Steve?” — would even TRY to lick someone, right? Because if you’re trying to mess with someone and get into their head and so on, how is licking something you think to do, rather than, say, put your glove in his face without touching him, or making a big show of trying to get your stick under his skate blade while you wait for the draw? Just little annoying stuff. Maybe move your foot in front of his. You know, regular annoying pest stuff.

Licking, or attempted licking, has to be a sign of sociopathy. Because, as they point out in the video, Halpern and Ott — who is inexplicably still an NHL player — were teammates with Dallas prior to this incident which I do not remember and seems incredibly farfetched even though there’s video evidence to support that it definitely happened. I have to accept that. Even if I don’t want to. Which I do not.

So anyway, Steve Ott — who is objectively slimy as a hockey player even though I’m sure he’s so so nice in real life — is like “Hey I used to be friends with this guy. How will I mess with one of my friends? I know, I’ll try to lick his visor.” Who thinks like this? How do they do it? I cannot know the mind of a madman but it seems to me that there can only be a deranged logic here which for the sake of decorum and indeed my own sanity must not be explored.

So I refuse to write an oral history, or even a made-up oral history, of this transpiring. It is gross and bad, so of course Steve Ott is involved. To try to glean some kind of logic from it tilting at windmills. I do not accept the challenge.

The only person whose reaction in all this that I can even try to approximate is Halpern’s. Because I know what my personal reaction would be if my friend tried to lick an article of my clothing. I would say, “What’s wrong with you dude? Get away from me.”

This is the only reasonable reaction to any human being — let alone Steve Ott — trying to lick your visor. Revulsion. Perhaps even a dimmed view of humanity as a whole. Definitely something to do with rethinking your friendship in the first place.

And by the way, that’s just the announcers (and me) reading into “They used to be teammates so this is good-natured.” For all I know, Halpern can’t stand Ott because Ott is always trying to lick his stuff. Wouldn’t surprise me, anyway. Not at all.

The Ducks aren’t going to pay a lot for that blue line. Just kidding they are.

(This post is part of a fundraiser for the ACLU and SPLC, two great causes that need our help in these, umm, trying political times. For a donation of $50 or more on Giving Tuesday, readers got me to write about whatever they wanted. So I wrote the nonsense below, which was requested by J. Kaz.)

Remember all that drama this summer about how the Ducks were going to be able to get all their restricted free agents signed?

They were always a budget team to begin with and they just didn’t have the money to spend on Rickard Rakell, Hampus Lindholm, and Sami Vatanen. On some level you got it, but at the same time it was like, “How are you going to not-sign these three guys?” They’re all solid or better contributors, and Lindholm in particular is an elite defender.

And that’s why it was weird to see Vatanen sign first, back in June. And then Rakell shortly before the season started. Leaving Lindholm(?) as the final addition in late October, well after the season got under way.

How could a responsible NHL team let this happen? How did they get into this mess? Well the answer, not surprisingly, comes down to cap mismanagement, just like it always does.

In addition to not having Lindholm and Vatanen locked down for about $9.5 million combined, they’re also spending $4 million on Cam Fowler (a deal that’s vaguely worth it), $4 million on Kevin Bieksa (not worth it), and $3.25 million on Clayton Stoner (might as well just light $3.25 million on fire and flush the ashes down the toilet).

Bieksa and Stoner are obviously two very bad bets, as is forward Ryan Kesler at $6.875 million. And whether you’re a budget team or capped out (which the Ducks now are), every dollar counts and so on and so forth. Every dollar you give those guys — old and broken down as they mostly are — is one you can’t give to your 22-year-old superstar defender.

Now, to be fair, the Ducks got Lindholm to bend on his ask and locked him in at an incredibly good deal that takes him all the way through his prime and out the other side. That’s the advantage of having a CBA designed to screw young players at every opportunity, especially if they’re good. But honestly, it’s because NHL GMs can’t help themselves when it comes to signing 33-year-old physical defensemen that it’s a discussion to begin with. Imagine if that money were spent wisely, rather than wasted on guys on the wrong side of 30 who couldn’t play that effectively even when they were on the right side of it?

In the end it all kinda-sorta worked out for the Ducks but there shouldn’t have been that much drama in the first place. Everyone’s signed now, and the Ducks are chugging along near the top of their division (despite firing an excellent coach and replacing him with a borderline-incompetent one).

But the kinds of decisions Bob Murray makes about how he pays the guys he’ll be putting deeper in the lineup don’t exactly give you hope that everything is going to be figured out, long-term.

You can say that about a lot of GMs, though. And those GMs don’t have as much elite talent as Murray does in the first place.

What’s next for Detroit?

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(This post is part of a fundraiser for 826 Boston, a non-profit tutoring and writing center that provides free help to kids at underserved schools. For a donation of $50 or more, readers can get me to write anything about hockey they want, so donate today to make me say stuff by clicking here. I probably don’t believe the nonsense below, which was requested by Eric Phillips.)

The Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the Detroit Red Wings from the NHL postseason last night. It was the second year in a row they lost in the first round to the Bolts, and also the third year in a row they lost in general.

That’s bad, and if you ask me (someone did) you’d almost rather miss the playoffs than just make it and lose in the first round every year. Fortunately, it might not be something the Wings have to worry much about next year.

After all, there’s a very distinct possibility that Pavel Datsyuk hops a jet back to Russia and never suits up for the Wings again, and we all saw early in the season how bad Detroit was in his absence. Probably that overstates things, but the Wings are barely making the postseason with a guy who can still reliably drive possession (and is just about the only guy on the team that can do so on a level that actually makes a big difference for the team). No Datsyuk, plus an extra year of miles on Zetterberg and Kronwall, and so on. Yeah, they’re developing young talent, but it’s tough to develop guys who can replace Hall of Fame talent.

And yeah, that’s the kind of doom and gloom Wings fans have gotten sick of hearing for years, but we’ve been looking at diminishing returns for years since Nick Lidstrom retired. At some point they diminish to the point the team needs to really consider its long-term future.

If you routinely draft in the mid-teens or later, you’re not usually getting  difference-making talent. NHL talent? Sure, absolutely. Reliably so. I would note that the Wings’ drafting prowess is often overstated but they do routinely get guys to the bigs, and that’s not nothing. That helps. But it doesn’t get you back to the point where you can reasonably expect to, say, compete for a Stanley Cup or even, probably, a division title.

Let’s put it this way: With all the talent on the roster, and Petr Mrazek (probably) punching well above his weight class for a good chunk of the season, they still only ended up with 93 points in a soft-as-heck division. I don’t see them getting better than that next year, that’s for sure. Yeah they can PDO their way to a better point total, but in terms of actual quality, you kind of have to feel like they’re topped out right now.

Who’s in the pipeline that’s gonna put the puck in the net next year? Anthony Mantha maybe, then who? Tough to say with any certainty. Sure, they can spend money on the free agent market, but when’s the last time the Red Wings got someone actually good via UFA? Mike Green? Yeah okay. There are certainly guys worth acquiring this summer. It’s a good UFA class for once. But that still feels like putting a bandaid on the problem, rather than addressing it directly.

I dunno. If it were up to me, and I were running just about any team in Detroit’s position, I’d start selling hard and get a few years’ worth of high picks. They’re a rich team, moving into a new building soon. Do what Toronto did and use your resources to take bad contracts and prospects from teams in dire cap positions. Let someone take the Datsyuk cap hit. And so on. You have enough young talent on hand that you don’t have to tear it all the way down, but a few years of missing the playoffs probably does everyone some good in the long run.

Thank you for reading and supporting 826 Boston. Don’t forget to donate!

Whither Patrik Elias’s future?

(This post is part of a fundraiser for 826 Boston, a non-profit tutoring and writing center. For a donation of $50 or more, readers can get me to write anything about hockey they want, so donate today to make me say stuff by clicking here. I probably don’t believe the nonsense below, which was requested by Brendan Porto.)

There is no question at all that Patrik Elias is one of the Devils’ best players of all time. He is the only one to break 1,000 points in a Devils uniform (and in fact the only one to break 702). He won two Stanley Cups. He has the team’s single-season points record (97) as well as two more in the top 20 all-time. No Devil has scored more goals, no Devil has set up more goals.

I’ve argued this before: he’s a borderline Hockey Hall of Famer. He certainly deserves to have his number retired.

But he’s also 38, and the Devils are rebuilding (maybe?). His points per game this season came in at the lowest level since 1996-97, and his possession numbers were, umm, wanting. And so you have to wonder if this is it.

But what’s interesting is that the Devils use him in much the same way (and to much lesser effect) than the Bruins do Patrice Bergeron. Toughest assignments on the team in terms of quality of competition, and some rather unfavorable zone starts as well. So it seems that while he’s not producing in the 50-65 points range like he did for almost a decade and a half — seriously, his lowest non-lockout point total from 1998 to 2014 was 45, and that was because he only played 38 games that year — he’s still decent enough at beating back the opposition that he’s trusted in that role against the iron of the league. (This may, however, relate back to New Jersey just not having the horses to let anyone else do it for him.)

He has only one year left on his current deal, which pays him $5.5 million, and even if he wasn’t great this year — he wasn’t — that’s a lot of money to leave sitting on the table if he were to retire this summer, which he won’t.

So you get the feeling that, y’know, this coming 2015-16 season is going to be something of a victory lap for him, and it’s well-earned. It’s also well-timed. Because the Devils are about to fall on some very difficult circumstances — that is, if you don’t think they’ve done so already — in terms of roster turnover, management shifts, and basically getting the dead weight off the roster. Elias, weirdly, might be in that mix, because he’s probably seen as a veteran who can help another team, and he might be worth some picks or prospects or something. It’ll be weird to see him in another uniform (like Brodeur-on-the-Blues weird), but that’s probably what’s going to happen.

For two damn decades, only having to face the reality of a trade once in your career means you had a pretty damn good run.

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Another comic

Recently, there was a comic by my friend Matt Lubchansky (drawing) and I (words), posted over at Flames Nation. You can look at it here. I promise it’s good.

Well, we did another one. This one is about the hockey media’s view of Russians.

Okay have fun and please like and share and all that stuff. If you do it enough, we might be able to justify the effort of making more and getting them published somewhere.


Sports fans and complicity

[one of only two sports i currently watch is hockey, and it also happens to be the one about which i write professionally. as such, i am posting this, which is only a little bit about hockey and mostly about the nfl (which i do not watch) here because i don’t have anywhere else to post it. i just felt like i had to type it all out or scream myself to death. read it if you want. whatever.]

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