Who could have foreseen a Leafs meltdown?

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So it’s come to this:

“The good fortune we had at the beginning of the year now seems to be piling up against us.”

Randy Carlyle, following a 3-2 loss to New Jersey, March 23, 2014

The Leafs have been going very conspicuously off the rails for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have lost five straight in regulation and have won only two wins in the first 60 minutes of a game since Feb. 27. Which is a long way of saying, “The Leafs have 10 points from their last 13 games, and are now at the point in the action movie where the hero is holding onto the very edge of a helicopter’s skids with one hand, while the laughing villain stomps gleefully on his fingers.

Except in this particular movie, it seems the good guy isn’t going to reach up with that free hand and grab onto the baddie’s ankle, and hurl him screaming to his death. It seems instead that the wind is picking up and heel is grinding ruthlessly into crushed finger bone. All that remains is for the inevitability of gravity to take effect, and leave this team with playoff pretensions a red pulpy mess on the ground.

As of this writing, they have 80 points from 73 games and technically hold the East’s eighth and final playoff spot. At the rate they’ve been going, though, it’s unlikely that they’re going to take the 12 or so points needed to ensure a playoff position from their final nine games. Not when those games include dates against St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, and Tampa, all of which are better than the Leafs by a pretty decent margin.

That the chickens have come home to roost for the Leafs, who lived on being outshot but counting on their goaltenders — and their goaltenders alone — to bail them out night after night, is not really a surprise. They’ve repeatedly denied that being outshot has any negative effect on their game, because after all they played like 100 straight of playoff-making hockey under Randy Carlyle, and every loss no matter how bad during that time has been explained away in easy fashion: blame injuries, blame a sudden lack of leadership, blame James Reimer being a huge piece of crap who sucks. Repeat.

That the Leafs are now bemoaning their lack of luck is in no way surprising but neither is the fact that the lack of luck exists. For the most part, you’re only going to get a finite amount of luck over the course of 100-plus hockey games, and while wins count just as much in, say, January 2013 as they do now, the fact of the matter is that the Leafs burned through their good bounces just to get to the point of being a borderline playoff team this season.

Carlyle’s “good fortune” provided the cover to even have them in the conversation for the postseason, and without the goaltending that has buoyed them far beyond where it logically should have, the Leafs look like what they are in actual practice, one of the 10-worst teams in the National Hockey League. There’s no mystery to it, and if you were paying any kind of attention at all you saw all this coming a long ways off. Carlyle and the Leafs brass, though, weren’t paying attention. So they’re trying to run James Reimer out of town rather than fix the problem they’ve faced for the last 15 months, which they think don’t exist.

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MELNYK!

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The Ottawa Senators are, just a season removed from being perhaps the biggest surprise success in the NHL, an unmitigated disaster for no readily apparent reason. In the 2013 season — which, granted, was shortened significantly by a lockout — they enjoyed significant puck possession and were one of the better teams in the East down the stretch even if they were only able to barely squeeze into the postseason.

While no one in particular thought Craig Anderson would be able to repeat the incredible performance he posted in that campaign (.941 in 24 games), the general consensus was that they’d be able to improve on a seventh-in-the-East finish mainly because of the fact that they actually got better in the offseason.

The general consensus, of course, was wrong. The Senators are woeful, tied for 12th in the conference with Carolina of all the bad teams in the league, and there doesn’t really seem to be a particularly good reason for it. They haven’t been hugely unlucky, with a 99.5 PDO, dragged down by a 7.2 percent shooting percentage. Their possession numbers are good (52.1, eighth in the league) but down from last year.

There has been one notable difference over the last year-plus that might lead the Senators to not be as good as they possibly could be: their owner.

Eugene Melnyk had quite the offseason, to put things mildly. Soon after the free agent period opened, he swore up and down that he was not in any kind of financial trouble. A little more than a month later, he said that the Senators have lost $94 million since he took over, and the team had to say he hasn’t in any way affected their payroll decisions in the past. But then about a month after that, he noted that he just found out the Senators were apparently over a self-imposed budget that would limit their spending significantly. In addition, financial issues may or may not be the reason they couldn’t come to terms on an extension for the forever-face of their franchise that same summer.

This after Melnyk spent what might have been significant amounts of money on a forensic investigation that could definitively prove Erik Karlsson’s catastrophic injury last season was the direct result of intent on Matt Cooke’s part. This around the same time that a writer reporting on the various financial difficulties under which the Sens were laboring had his account on the site hacked, and the articles deleted, by someone that may or may not have been tenuously connected to Melnyk in some way. Melnyk, by the way, denies the reporting of what he called the “random useless blogger” (friend of TLP Travis Yost) is in any way factual.

It’s all very cloak and dagger stuff, obviously, but the thrust of it is that Eugene Melnyk, in possibly having significant money troubles but absolutely and admittedly placing a budget on the team’s payroll, has held back the Senators from being as good as they could have been this season. You don’t need to dig into the numbers to see that.

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Torey Krug bucks a trend

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Generally, in the immediate wake of the end of any given NCAA team’s season, one can expect a rush to sign some of the more promising players from that roster. This is a pretty cheap and easy way to stock a farm system and, theoretically, get a kid who can contribute to your NHL team for years to come for nothing but the cost of the signing bonus and what is often a relatively meager annual salary.

However, while the signing of college free agents is often hailed as a great move by any given general manager — i.e. what happened when Don Maloney signed Hobey Baker winner Andy Miele a few years back, or likely runner-up Greg Carey just yesterday — the actual impact on the NHL team for which he ultimately works is often minimal; the number of college free agents who make it to the NHL and have any sort of impact similar to the one seen in college are extremely rare. More often, guys get cups of coffee and toil in the minors for a number of years, making a few hundred grand per, and it works out well enough for everyone.

But every so often, NCAA free agents can have major impacts on their NHL teams, and Torey Krug is one of them. The Bruins signed him just days after his Michigan State Spartans were eliminated from the NCAA tournament in 2011, after having beaten out bids from a number of different teams. He spent last season in the AHL, where he compiled 45 points in 63 games, and then made the big club out of camp this season.

His 14 goals in the NHL this season thrust him into fifth in the entire league behind only Dustin Byfuglien, Erik Karlsson, Shea Weber, and teammate Zdeno Chara. In short, that is good company to keep for any rookie defenseman. He’s drawn some flak, some of it due, for the fact that he is being extremely sheltered by Claude Julien because — get this — as a 22-year-old NHL rookie and second-year pro, his defensive game is a little wanting. Go figure. (Despite that, he also irrationally drew some attention from the Boston media as a potential Olympic candidate, which was and is ludicrous.)

What’s interesting about Krug is that he’s doing this despite not being what you’d consider a prototypical NHL defenseman. Insofar as he is listed as 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds.

What I guess I’m trying to say is that Krug is succeeding in the NHL despite a number of things being stacked against him, mitigated only by his coach having the luxury to deploy him in favorable situation. Which is pretty cool. But if the Bruins sign any other NCAA free agents this spring, I wouldn’t bet the farm on a repeat performance.

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Why’s Union good now? Possession

 

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For a very long time, Union was more or less an afterthought in college hockey, and with good reason. Up until the 2007-08 season, they’d posted just four seasons of .500 or better since going to Division 1 in 1991-92. You can see why many people would have written them off.

But since 2007, the program has taken off under the stewardship of two coaches: Nate Leaman and Rick Bennett. Leaman took over the program in 2003, when Kevin Sneddon moved on to Vermont, and suffered through a number of tough losing seasons. But then around 2008, all the program-building he did finally paid off. He won 19 games, then 21, then 26 in successive years, making the NCAA tournament in that final campaign for the first time in school history, and also capturing the ECAC regular-season title. Then Leaman moved on to Providence, and has done a nice job of building up that struggling program as well.

Since Bennett, who served as Leaman’s assistant all those years, took over, the team has won 74 games over three seasons, and made the NCAA tournament in each, including a trip to the Frozen Four in the first one. This has led some to wonder what makes Union so great. The answer is pretty simple: They always have the puck.

(Note: Available data for this goes back as far as 1999-2000, which was Sneddon’s second year on the job.)

Divided up into four-year chunks — reasonable because this is a system that moves players out every four years — we actually get a good delineation between coaches. We have data for four years of Sneddon, eight of Leaman, and the first three of Bennett. So here’s something about that:

As you can see, once Leaman got all of Sneddon’s guys, who to be fair were mixed in with the previous coach’s players, out of the system, this is a team that started taking over in possession. Leaman is a hell of a smart coach and clearly recognizes that winning is predicated upon having the puck. Once Leaman had nothing but his guys playing for him in 2007-08, Union’s possession numbers surged from 47.7 to 52.59, which is no small jump. And while you might be able to write that off as being a one-year quirk, the fact that they jumped to 53.2 percent the next season and haven’t slipped below 54 percent in the five years since tells you that this is the kind of player they look for, and the kind of game they play.

Bennett’s season isn’t over yet, and it should be noted that the guys he’s recruiting aren’t making up the entirety of the team’s roster yet. But with a .701 winning percentage under him, thanks to a 55.52 percent share of the shots taken in their games, one has to imagine that he’s not about to slow down any time soon.

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Sonnet for Joey Diamond

 

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Shall I remind thee to your sending-down?
Thou art more worthy and more treacherous;
From Bridgeport demoted to Stockton town,
And career’s cold hath grown more dangerous:
Sometimes too hot the head of Diamond grew,
And so often was he sent off for majors;
And ev’ry one assessed deserved too,
Not quite by chance or nature’s course were yours;
But thy eternal mem’ry shall not fade
Nor lose retention of space thou ownest;
For stomps and charges for thy Maine games played,
At every ref’ree’s call didst we groanest:
So long as men can breate or eyes can see,
So long lives this scumbag: Diamond, Joey.

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Are the Swiss good at hockey now?

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One would find it difficult to believe that any of the U.S., Canada, or Sweden are likely to be knocked off from being the three best hockey countries in the world any time soon. They are and have been juggernauts for a while.

But they might also be hearing footsteps. The problem, of course, is that it might be hard to discern them from those of Russia, which are fading, and Finland, which are always close to the pack but don’t seem especially likely to catch up to it at any point in the reasonable future. But the loudest echoes now seem to be coming not from Northern or even Eastern Europe, where the seat of hockey power outside North America has always been located. Now, it seems likely that the Swiss are about to start doing very well at this sport.

Yeah, I understand they lost to Latvia in the qualification games in the playoffs, and only won two of their three group games (they lost to Sweden, as you might expect), but you have to keep in mind two things: 1) They did it with a Calgary Flame as one of their goalies, and 2) They only lost to Latvia because of all the performance-enhancing drugs.

Let’s put it another way: in terms of possession, only two teams were ahead of Switzerland in the percentage of shots for in the tournament. Those were Canada and Russia, and Russia was only playing so well offensively because they knew that letting the puck come into their own zone would mean certain doom. The Swiss were also effectively somewhat unlucky, thanks to a PDO of less than 100 (that 2.4 percent sh% will do it every time).

The only thing really holding the tiny, neutral, clockmaking Swiss back from being a truly dominant hockey power is a good forward or three or six. The only guy on their roster who had a point that I’d even heard of was Martin Pluss. They scored three goals in the entire tournament for that reason. If they want to start getting a few more high-quality projects like Nino Niederreiter pushed through the development system before Pyongchang, that’d do ‘em a world of good. And if they want to kidnap Jonathan Toews and Steven Stamkos, and brainwash them into thinking his name is Simon and Martin Brunstein, and the sons of a well-known chocolatier, well then I’m not going to complain about that either.

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The ultimate stat

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Any proponent of the predictive power of things like corsi and PDO will tell you that you tend to get a lot of pushback from idiots who don’t know anything about how these statistics actually work. Such was the case over the weekend as I wrote on Friday, correctly I might add, that the Ducks were steering themselves toward some very rocky shores given the way they’ve played since about November or so: getting outshot but continuing to win at an improbable clip because their even-strength shooting percentage is, to this day, tops in the league.

The thing you hear most from these people is, as explained to me in an email this morning, that wins are “the ultimate stat.” This is, in some respects, true, because at the end of the season all you’re really judged on is how many games you won. But that is of course not the point of corsi or PDO or fenwick or any of the other things tracked by the people who like being able to make more educated guesses about the sport. These, ultimately, boil down to winning in a number of ways, and can be largely used to guess at the likelihood of future wins.

For example, the Ducks having won each of their two games since my article was published does not invalidate my concerns about their ability to be actually competitive in the Western Conference. In fact, it lends credence to them, as Anaheim was 76-53 across those two games, and managed to outscore their opponents 8-5. This is more or less exactly what I’m talking about with why Ducks fans should be so concerned: they got 41.1 percent of the shots on goal in those games, but scored 61.5 percent of the goals. Their shooting percentage was 15.1 percent. Their save percentage was .934. These were in back-to-back games. There is no way this kind of performance is sustainable, and they’ve been extraordinarily lucky.

One Ducks fan who was real cheesed by my post wrote that I did not understand how the concept of “luck” applied in hockey. They argued that luck essentially means a bounce here or there — which I’d agree with — but that it would only impact maybe two or three wins per team per season, and that it would probably even out during that time. So essentially the argument was “between zero and two points are added or subtracted from a team’s score due to luck,” which is of course ludicrous.

The average NHL shooting percentage this season is 8.94, and Anaheim’s is currently 10.16. That’s 216 goals on 2,120 shots. If the Ducks shot at the league average, they’d have about 190 goals, or 26 less than they currently do. That means that shooting percentage, all by itself, has added an additional five wins or so for the Ducks this season alone (the latest data showing that about 5.5 goals of differential equals two points in the standings this year, down a little bit from the six or so that has been the norm for most of the BTN era). The team’s save percentage being .916, three points above the league average of .913, has saved them roughly five goals, close to another full win. So let’s say it’s 5.5 wins added on by luck this year. That’s 11 standings points. All things being equal, they should be roughly fifth in the West, rather than second. That’s how important luck is.

Again, not that it really matters. Wins are wins and they don’t take them away from you because you shot 15 percent. But we’ve seen time and again that shooting even 10 percent over a long period of time is not a thing that teams can do. It’s not controllable. And thus the point of the article — that the Ducks are going to crash and burn in the playoffs — remains unchanged by two regular-season wins on consecutive days, one of which was against the Avalanche.

Not that I expect Ducks fans to get that. Like most others, they don’t understand a thing about these stats. And they don’t bother to learn because of what they’re afraid they might find.

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Norm Bazin is good at coaching

 

(This post is part of a fundraiser for 826 Boston, a non-profit tutoring and writing center. For $50, 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 Tony Patronick.)

It was the spring of 2010 and things in Lowell were bad, as far as their college’s hockey team went. They had just wrapped up a five-win season, the worst in program history at the Division 1 level, and fired the coach, and were consequently on the lookout for a new one. The usual names that come up every time there’s a coaching hire to be made came up, and none were especially realistic. In the end, Lowell turned to a former River Hawk to take over behind the bench.

That coach was Norm Bazin, late of Div. 3 Hamilton College, where he’d won his conference’s coach of the year award twice in a row, following a lengthy career as an assistant at Lowell, and then Colorado College. His was not the sexiest name in the mix, and most observers thought he’d do fine, but that these River Hawks would win something on the order of eight to 10 games in the 2010-11 season.

They won 24.

It was the single biggest turnaround by a new coach from one season to the next, 19 more wins, in NCAA history, and the River Hawks finished second in Hockey East, a league in which they’d closed 10th of 10 just a year before. They made the national tournament for the first time since 1996, knocking off Miami University in overtime before succumbing to Union in the regional final.

The next year, they improved on that performance across the board: 28 wins, the team’s first regular-season and playoff titles, and a trip to the Frozen Four for the first time ever. So far this season, they have 21 wins from 34 games, and would need basically every result to go against them over the next two weeks to miss the NCAAs. Lowell had never made the tournament twice in a row, let alone thrice.

The style of play Bazin’s Lowell teams play is active, to say nothing of its effectiveness. They can cycle like madmen when they’re effective, with mobile defensemen and forwards switching off at the points regularly and scoring a ludicrous amount of second- and third-opportunity goals. But they also score almost as many in transition, and that’s where they really kill teams. When they’re getting defensemen forward, there are likely few teams in the nation more lethal.

But with that having been said, this is a team that has been accused of playing “boring” and “defensive” hockey. Which is interesting because of how wrong it is. Over the last three seasons, Lowell has outshot opponents pretty handily (3634-3302 over 113 games, or 32.2-29.2 per game, which is 52.4 percent), but the reason they have this stigma attached, if you want to call it that, is they collapse their defense extremely well at even strength, their goalies are pretty much always fantastic (.929 in 113 games),  and block a pretty decent number of shots. However, even looking at their corsi numbers — with the acknowledgement that SOG don’t reflect possession 100 percent accurately — they’re still pretty comfortably above water.

As a result of this, the list of other Div. 1 coaches to win more games than Bazin’s 73 over the last three seasons is not very long at all, and this is for a program operates on what you can bet is a relatively shoestring budget among the traditional giants of college hockey. The fact is, this is a program that gets little in the way of national recognition and. Or did until he took over, at any rate.

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Mike Gillis is having a bad go

(This post is part of a fundraiser for 826 Boston, a non-profit tutoring and writing center. For $50, 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 Chris Cowan.)

I don’t, in general, think Mike Gillis is a bad general manager. I really don’t. I know the Canucks  are a tire fire right now and I know they’re not going to get better any time soon and I know he had very little or even nothing to do with acquiring the recent core of this team. He didn’t acquire Cory Schneider, or Alex Edler, or the Sedin twins, or Alex Burrows, or Roberto Luongo, or Kevin Bieksa, or Ryan Kesler. He acquired Dan Hamhuis and Chris Tanev, and that’s pretty much it, if memory serves.

But the thing that makes me think he’s not a bad general manager is that he was able to keep such together, pretty successfully, for a decent enough period of time. They won the league twice, then almost won a Stanley Cup. Most everyone was on affordable contracts (and only Luongo’s really and truly flew in the face of the CBA as it existed at that time). This was a team that looked like it could have succeeded for quite a while longer.

But then Ryan Kesler started spending half the season on the IR, and the protracted goaltender drama got seriously under way, and about 18 months later, it all fell apart. I’m not sure any general manager could have straightened things out given that this result also seemed at least somewhat inexorable. But I bet a lot of them could have at least handled it a lot better.

Okay, sure, you gotta fire Alain Vigneault after you let him piss off both of your goaltenders. That makes sense. But to replace him with John Tortorella was risky to start with, and disastrous in retrospect. It essentially necessitated the blowing-up of a team that should have at least been competitive in the Western Conference playoff picture (though not the Stanley Cup conversation) for another few seasons at least while the Sedins aged out of their supreme usefulness.

Now it’s turned to ash. I know a lot of pundits are preaching patience, but it seems to me he has to go. That’s the only real solution. He’s essentially responsible for accelerating the descent into mediocrity or worse, and bringing in a coach whose approach to the game was so antithetical to what made the Canucks so successful these last few years that it predictably led to his having lost the room in, what, four months?

I might have overstated things when I said a week or so ago that the Schneider trade is effectively what is going to cost him his job. It’s probably the biggest thing — because if he doesn’t, the goaltending tandem for next season absolutely isn’t Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom — but there are so many little things he’s done wrong (like drafting never-will-be players by the boatload) and making frankly bizarre trades that the cumulative effect essentially buried the franchise he oversees.

The Canucks are bad, he’s the biggest reason why, and that’s gotta just about enough reason for anyone at this point.

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Why the Beanpot is great

m4s0n501

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The Beanpot is a really great tournament that happens in Boston on the first two Mondays of every February, played between Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, and Harvard. It’s great because it gives fans of all those teams a big mid-season tournament to cheer about and for which they can get really excited and add to their trophy case.

The curious observer need look no deeper as to why this is a vital and important college hockey tradition, one stretching back a whopping 62 years by the way, than the attendance figures at TD Garden. BU, Northeastern, and Harvard have had some attendance issues of late — the latter two because they almost always have attendance issues unless they’re playing BC or BU, and the former is only doing so because they were dreadful this season — but there were plenty of students in particular in attendance for their Beanpot games. (Well, “plenty” is relative in Harvard’s case, and BU’s after they lost in the first round.) The Northeastern fans and BC fans hurling dueling chants back and forth from opposite ends of the balcony for this year’s final was delightful, to say nothing of the high quality of the game played on the ice, which as I mentioned, was quite high.

That high quality, of course, comes on the heels of high-quality games between Northeastern and Boston College earlier in the season, because they’re two teams whose styles, I think, offset each other in an attractive way. BC gets forward at all costs and balances that by getting back to defend with just about as much abandon. They have the puck a lot as a consequence, and their sky-high skill threshold is usually the difference in even tight games. Northeastern, meanwhile, lets teams come at them and absorbs an illogical number of shots, but uses its skill to shoot the lights out and win more often than not as a consequence (this is, it should be noted, not a way to play that typically leads to success, but to their credit it has this year because luck and variance continue to play a big role in the average hockey game).

Not that this has a lot to do with the overall greatness of the tournament, which is considerable. Teams really do get up for it in a way that they shouldn’t; BU in particular might as well shut down the season after the Beanpot, because little else besides it seems to matter nearly as much, and that includes when they won a national title in 2009. The NU/BC game I attended back at the start of the season was a delight (BC won in overtime after erasing a late deficit), but these Beanpot clashes had a lot more urgency to them than, say, your average regular-season game between any of these clubs. That’s just how it goes when there’s a trophy on the line.

Also, I love the Beanpot because parity is bad and anything other than a foregone conclusion is worse.

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