A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.
The Stats Guys Are Happy, So the Leafs Must be Losing
Early in the season, we presented the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs as the canary in the advanced-stats mine shaft — the ultimate test case of everything that hockey’s wave of new metrics and data-based analytics thought it knew about what drives success. We've learned the numbers point to the critical importance of possession. Teams that control the puck — and use that control to direct a lot of shots at the net — usually win. Teams that can’t do it usually lose.
But occasionally we see a short-term outlier, and last year’s Toronto team was one. The stats guys said they couldn’t keep winning that way. The Maple Leafs insisted that they could. And over the season’s first few weeks, it looked like Toronto was going to pull it off once again. Leafs fans rejoiced. Old-school media gloated. Celebratory T-shirts were, literally, printed up.
Those days suddenly feel like a very long time ago. The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a free fall.
Welcome to a weekly grab bag of thoughts and observations from the past few days and/or decades of NHL hockey.
The Three Stars of Comedy
Recognizing the NHL personalities from around the league who produced the most comedic fodder for fans.
The third star: Mike Milbury thinks somebody should be fired for putting terrible players on the ice Yeah. Let’s just let that sink in for a minute.
The second star: Jacob Trouba has some important advice
The Jets defenseman was injured when he went face-first into the endboards after missing a check. He took the opportunity to offer up a few helpful words for others who may find themselves in the same situation.
In case you were out enjoying a theatrical production of Moby-Dick in Space, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter returned from the DL in New York's 8-4 win over Kansas City, but his return might prove short-lived as he was forced to leave the game early with a quad injury. "Don't say a word," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman yelled to a backhoe parked outside of Yankee Stadium as he awaited the results of Jeter's MRI. "Do you think you're a big man, sitting there, laughing at me? Laughing at us? Laughing at the goddamned Yankees way? Do you? A big man, huh. A big ol' snorting man. Are you even a man? What do you got under the hood there? Boy parts or girl? And don't tell me gender's a fucking construct. I know what fucking constructs are. I built this ramshackle piece of shit team; I know what constructs are." Cashman then angrily threw the lobster bib he was wearing as a shirt to the ground. "You're a fucking machine, man. That's what you are. You didn't give birth to me. You don't get to tell me what to do. Unless " Cashman then paused, asking, "Mom? Are you my mother?"
Matt Moore struck out 10 for the Tampa Bay Rays en route to his 13th win in a 4-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins. "Playing the Twins is never easy for me," Moore explained after the game, "ever since I stayed with my parents at this hotel in Colorado as a kid. We were supposed to take care of the place through the winter, but then things got weird. There were these two girls that were always asking me to come play with them. I guess that isn't that weird, but it gave me the willies. I mean, why weren't they in school? Come to think of it, why wasn't I in school? My parents really dropped the ball on that one."
At the end of Andrew Wiggins's signing ceremony Tuesday afternoon, a good chunk of the college basketball world felt deprived. Fans of Kentucky, Florida State, and North Carolina were chief among them, their hopes dashed when the no. 1 recruit chose Kansas instead. It wasn't a great day for devotees of garish self-indulgence, either; Wiggins spoke briefly, without theatrics, and allowed just one local newspaper reporter to attend the actual announcement. He didn't even have multiple hats spread out before him, awaiting his benediction! That's like having a dance without music, or a Jim Boeheim press conference without passive-aggressive behavior. If you were hoping for this year's Tony Parker, you were disappointed.
Note 1: The local reporter in question, Grant Traylor of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, watched his Twitter followers balloon from fewer than 2,000 on Sunday night to just above 17,000 Tuesday at noon, and fall back down to 11,000 by 4 p.m. When I checked today, he was down to 9,197, but he at least has a sense of humor about the whole thing. Here's his feature on the event.
Note 2: If I ever have to make a recruiting announcement — and it seems like maybe I won't, at this point — I'd stage a choreographed production where I dance with five ladies decked out in spangled attire representing each school. It would last 40 minutes, with two intermissions because I'm out of shape, and at the end I'd be left with just one girl as confetti rained down from the rafters in the colors of whichever school I chose. Then I'd step forward, grab a microphone, and say, "Just kidding, I'm going to Duke." And then I'd dance with Coach K, if he was around and up for it. (And with a hyperrealistic Coach K doll if he was not.)
Fantasies aside, here's everything you need to know about the announcement, the reactions, and what it all means.
Playoff time in Toronto and Ottawa used to mean the Battle of Ontario. That was the creative nickname slapped onto the rivalry between the two teams who faced each other four years out of five from 2000 to 2004. Fans of either team don’t need to be reminded how that went: The Leafs won all four series, in increasingly cruel fashion.
This season marks the first time since 2004 that both teams are in the NHL playoffs, although this time they are not facing each other. This week, I dropped by Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place and Toronto’s Air Canada Centre to take in a pair of Game 4s.
Every team in the NHL has played at least 24 games. That means it’s time for a random collection of observations from the season’s first half, loosely held together by a common structure of oh, I don’t know, let’s go with “threes." Everyone good with threes? Cool, threes it is.
Three teams that have been unexpectedly good
The Ducks were supposed to be rebuilding after missing the playoffs by a mile last year. Instead, they’ve solidly established themselves as the West’s second-best team. It might not last (and if you’re into advanced stats, you’re convinced it won’t last), but Ducks fans are enjoying the ride. Things are going so well that the Ducks even got half of their soon-to-be UFA duo re-signed — Ryan Getzlaf down, Corey Perry still to go.
Call them the Anaheim Ducks of the East! (No, really, call them that; it will drive their fans insane.) The Habs have gone from 28th overall to the top of the Eastern Conference under newish coach Michel Therrien. Granted, it would be easier to get excited about them if the Bruins didn’t have roughly 19 games in hand — seriously, NHL schedule-maker, anytime you want to start giving Boston a game or two, it would be just fine with the rest of us — but they’re all but locked into a playoff spot that few predicted.
In case you were busy trying to remember Della Reese's name (it's Della Reese), here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
Despite an off night from LeBron James, his Miami Heat got their 18th consecutive win, 105-91, over the Indiana Pacers. After the game, diminutive Heat point guard Mario Chalmers, who led his team with 26 points, said, "Finally, it's my Miami Heat." Chalmers beamed and pointed at himself with both thumbs until Heat forward Chris Bosh patronizingly patted him on the head, saying, "Sure it is, little buddy." Chalmers sulked away as both Bosh and Dwyane Wade laughed at his expense. "Why won't they let me have this?" Chalmers asked himself while crouched inside of his locker.
Indiana won a thriller in Ann Arbor to take home the Big Ten championship, beating the Michigan Wolverines, 72-71. Michigan point guard Trey Burke's potential game-winning layup hung on the rim, bouncing three times before falling out, costing him and his team a share of the Big Ten title in what might be his last regular season game as a member of the Wolverines. So in case you find yourself talking to Trey Burke at some point in the next 20 years, now you'll know exactly what he's replaying in his mind while he stares off into the distance with a glazed-over look in his eye.
Why won’t anyone at this Bruins-Canadiens game talk to Will Smith? Can’t they see that Will Smith is perhaps a little insecure about being at this sporting event by himself? What about you, guy in the red-and-blue shirt? Why aren’t you talking to Will Smith? Did Will Smith insult Canada? If so, isn’t Canada used to that? Why is Will Smith in Canada anyway? Canada, can we have Will Smith back? Oh wait — turns out there’s more video of this?
The end of the hockey lockout couldn't have come soon enough for our friend Norm Macdonald. Here's his take, along with a retooling of his thoughts on the 1972 Summit Series, which ran in a slightly different form as a collection of tweets on his Twitter feed back in September of 2012.
“Our long national nightmare is over, Norm.”
They were a bunch of yahoos from Calgary in Vegas for the weekend. They must have spotted a Montreal Canadiens cap that I had forgotten was on my head. I was sipping coffee and waiting for football to start, just sitting at the back of the book. I got slapped on the back by a few of them. They were reading from their phones and telling me how Bettman had backed down, the sonofabitch, how they’d been up all night mediating, how they’d be playing 50 games starting in a couple of weeks, but how it didn’t matter much for my Habs, though. We all had a good laugh about that one.
“C’mon, Norm, let’s get you a Labatt's and do a little celebrating.”
“Never touch it, thanks.”
“C’mon, a Canadian without a beer?" said the biggest of the bunch. "That’s like an American without a handgun." He downed his Brador like it was a shot. We all had a good laugh about that one too.
Let’s start with the easy part: Brian Burke failed in Toronto.
There’s really no way to spin it otherwise. Some people will try, because that’s how these things always work, but it’s futile. Brian Burke failed.
He came to the Maple Leafs in 2008 when it seemed that the franchise had hit rock bottom, and, as general manager, he never made it significantly better. He missed the NHL playoffs all four years. He took over a team coming off an 83-point season that everyone agreed was a disaster and managed to top that total only once. He compiled a .490 winning percentage, which, in a league that gives out points for losing, is indisputably awful.
All of that might have been acceptable if Burke, who was fired Wednesday, could point to an organization stocked with can’t-miss prospects. But the Leafs don’t even have that. The farm system is in better shape than it was when he inherited it, because it would've been nearly impossible for it not to be. But not by much, and with the (optimistically) possible exception of defenseman Morgan Rielly, it’s lacking the sort of top-tier young talent that almost all of today’s winning NHL teams are built around.
No playoffs. No blue chips. No progress. And, increasingly, no hope. That’s failure, any way you cut it.
So that’s the easy part. Now the harder question: Why? Why did someone who seemed like such a perfect fit for the job fail so spectacularly?
July 1 is New Year’s Day in the NHL, the date when the league calendar officially turns over into a new season. Every contract in the league rolls forward another year — or expires altogether. And that means free agency. Sweet, wonderful, blessed free agency (as it’s presumably referred to among player agents).
In advance of the big day, here are some of the things you need to know about what tradition obligates us to refer to as the NHL free-agent frenzy.
The following is a list of things we here at The Triangle love to watch:
1. Shocking happenings on live TV.
2. Real life imitating The Simpsons.
3. Extremely... Canadian reactions to amazing news.
Friends, this clip offers seven minutes and fifty-six seconds of all of the above, as a local sports anchor finds out he won the lottery, on live TV. That he didn't pull a full Brockman is a testament to how unfailingly nice and polite we Canadians always strive to be.
Grantland's favorite Canadians, Jonah Keri and Chris Jones, return to The Triangle to discuss the Boston Red Sox. More specifically, Keri and Jones discuss the Boston Globe's bombshell story on the club. Over e-mail, they debated anonymous sources, journalism, and Boston baseball. Take it away, Canadians
So it seems we have something shiny and new to debate in the world of sports and sports journalism. Specifically this Globe article by investigative reporter Bob Hohler on the collapse of the 2011 Red Sox. A couple of choice snippets:
"Instead, Boston’s three elite starters went soft, their pitching as anemic as their work ethic. The indifference of Beckett, Lester, and Lackey in a time of crisis can be seen in what team sources say became their habit of drinking beer, eating fast-food fried chicken, and playing video games in the clubhouse during games while their teammates tried to salvage a once-promising season."
“Team sources also expressed concern that Francona's performance may have been affected by his use of pain medication, which he also vehemently denied. Francona said he has taken pain medicine for many years, particularly after multiple knee surgeries. He said he used painkillers after knee surgery last October and used them during the season to relieve the discomfort of doctors draining blood from his knee at least five times.”
You’ll note the mention of "team sources" in that second passage. We’ll get to the post hoc explanation for the Red Sox downfall in a minute. But it’s the sourcing of this story above all else that’s punching me in the face.