NHL (@NHL) November 22, 2015
I’d love to know Calvin Pickard‘s internal monologue here. “Hey, nice save by me. Huh. Something’s missing here. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but [goal horn] oh, right.”
Hey look, he even got Corey Perry to fall for the same “wear a disguise and ask for an autograph” trick that he used to get Bob Murray to sign that contract extension.
Obscure former player of the week
NHL history is filled with legendary players whose stories are passed down from generation to generation. This is not one of them.
Last week’s obscure player was Ralph Backstrom, a longtime Montreal Canadiens forward who spent almost 15 years in Montreal before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings. But as a few readers pointed out, I left out arguably the most important detail of that trade. So I’m going to fix that now, with the help of this week’s obscure player: Gord Labossiere.
Labossiere was a center who played for the Kings, Minnesota North Stars and New York Rangers during a six-year NHL career in the 1960s and ’70s. He’d been a minor league star, but was mostly a depth guy at the pro level. And he was also the main piece going to Montreal in the Backstrom trade, back in 1971.
And that’s where it gets interesting, because the Habs clearly didn’t get much in that deal; they didn’t even keep Labossiere, flipping him to Minnesota the same day for prospect Rey Comeau, who would play just four games with Montreal. Even given that Backstrom had asked for a trade, surely GM Sam Pollock could have done better for a multi-time All-Star, right? Wasn’t he supposed to be some sort of genius?
Instead, Pollock practically gave Backstrom away, then saw the veteran go to L.A. and rack up 27 points in 33 games. The Kings were a bad team, one that was battling with the Oakland Seals to stay out of last place overall, but adding Backstrom served as the turning point of their season, and they finished well clear of the basement. So Pollock traded a useful player for essentially nothing at all, then watched that player lift his new team in the standings. The Seals wound up with the top pick in that year’s draft. Except for one thing: They didn’t own their pick that year. They had traded it during the previous offseason to … Sam Pollock and the Montreal Canadiens. Yep. The Backstrom trade was just Pollock’s way of giving the Kings a little boost, an effort to ensure the Canadiens kept the top pick.
Montreal used that first overall pick to select a flashy winger named Guy Lafleur, who would score 518 goals and win five Stanley Cups as a Hab. And the rest of the hockey world learned, once again, a valuable lesson: Sam Pollock is smarter than you.
Be It Resolved
“Be it resolved” is a feature in which we will propose new rules and customs, which the rest of the hockey world will be expected to immediately embrace as official policy.
Be it resolved that we just start treating the NHL All-Star Game like the TV show “Survivor.”
Stay with me here, because the two have a lot in common. Both are competitions. Both highlight athleticism. Both have no actual competitive integrity. And both have been around for so long that when you turn on your TV and see them, you think, “I can’t believe they’re still doing this.”
Sure, there are differences. For example, the people competing on “Survivor” are actually trying. But they’re close enough that the NHL can learn something here.
And what they can learn is this: When your product is tired and played out, the only way to maintain interest is to change the format every single season. The NHL has already taken the first step, switching this year’s game to a 3-on-3 format. That might work. But even if it does, the league can’t get complacent. They need to just go ahead and start using a new format each and every year.
One year, it’s a family theme with Staals, Sedins, Sutters and Schenns. The next year, it’s returning players against first-timers. The next year, there are three teams, somehow. The next year, the players are decided by a fan vote. Wait, scrap that last one, it would probably go terribly.
But yeah, the All-Star Game needs to follow the “Survivor” blueprint. Get creative. Mix it up every year. Never get attached to any one format. And make sure that each and every year, you come up with a fresh approach that will get your fans excited.
(And then, three minutes into every game, Gary Bettman comes out, says “drop your buffs,” and everything goes back to the exact same way it’s always been.)
Trivial NHL-related annoyance of the week
In which I will complain about things that probably matter only to me.
Earlier this week, we looked at the NHL’s decades-long failure to boost scoring. For 21 years and counting, the league has been tweaking, tinkering and generally mucking around with everything from the rulebook to equipment to the playing surface, all in an attempt to bring offense back to life. And it never works.
Or does it? This year’s fix was a change to the faceoff rules. In previous seasons, the home-team player always got the advantage of putting his stick down after the visitor; this season, for all faceoffs in the offensive zone, the attacking team’s player gets that right. Give the offensive team a better chance at winning the faceoff, the thinking went, and it will lead to more goals.
So has it worked? Yes, according to this study. The change has boosted offensive-zone win rates for the attacking team by a small but statistically significant margin, and based on historical scoring rates off faceoff wins, we can estimate how many new goals have been created.
The result: three.
Three goals, as of two weeks ago. So that’s probably up to four by now, maybe even five if we’re lucky. At this rate, the study concludes, we’re looking at 20 goals over the course of a full season, or a boost in the overall scoring rate of roughly .016 per game.
I mean … it’s just … guys, what are we even doing here?
If we want to get scoring levels back to where they were in 1995-96 — not the high-flying ’80s, mind you, or the rocking ’70s, but just to the season after the trap became widespread — we need to add about 1,000 goals, maybe a bit more. That’s a lot. And we’re not going to get there 20 at a time.
If you believe that modern scoring rates are a problem — and the NHL seems to, based on years of public statements — then you’re not going to solve it by making minor changes. And yet the NHL took the time to consider, debate, vote on and eventually implement this new faceoff rule. They promoted it. They patted themselves on the back for doing something. And all for three measly goals.
This has to stop. Changing faceoffs, or moving the blueline a few feet, or allowing hand passes in the offensive zone, or loosening the rules around kicked-in goals — none of this is going to move the needle in any noticeable way. Either get serious and start making major changes, or throw up your hands and admit you can’t fix this, at which point we all just accept that we’re a few years away from crossing the 5.0 goals/game mark and we just have to live with it.
Either of those options would be better than what the NHL is doing today: watching its house slowly burn to the ground while debating where to pour this year’s thimbleful of water.
Awesome and/or horrific old YouTube clip of the week
In addition to being a great source of adorable pets and functionally illiterate commenters, YouTube is a goldmine for old hockey clips. In this section we find one and break it down in way too much detail.
So what’s behind the league’s long-term scoring woes? That’s a complicated question, but many fans blame the onset of the Dead Puck Era on two key factors: the New Jersey Devils using the neutral-zone trap to win the Stanley Cup in 1995, and Gary Bettman. So today, let’s combine those two factors, and look back on one of the most bizarre interviews in hockey history.
It’s June 24, 1995, and the Devils are hosting the Detroit Red Wings in game three of the Stanley Cup finals. They’re leading the game, 3-2, and the series, 3-0, which means they’re just one period away from the first championship in team history. You’d think their fans would be pretty happy. You would be wrong.
Before we can even get to the interview, we can hear the crowd going absolutely nuts. I can’t quite make out what they’re chanting, but it appears to be “Batman Sucks.” Weird. I guess New Jersey is Superman territory.
We cut to host James Brown, who’s with Dave Maloney and their special guest: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who’s here to shoot the breeze for a few minutes.
So here’s the deal: Back in 1995, it seemed all but certain that the Devils were on the verge of a move to Nashville. Even as they marched deep into the playoffs, rumors swirled that they were relocating, and Bettman didn’t do much to dispel them. Fairly or not, New Jersey fans blamed the new commissioner for the situation, and they were, uh, mildly displeased about it.
Brown doesn’t waste any time, cutting straight to the tough question. This throws Bettman off, and he can’t execute his patented “derail the interview by grabbing the reporter’s arm” move. So instead, he launches into a canned sound bite about NHL fans being passionate, which would become his go-to line whenever he faced a hostile crowd. Which ended up happening kind of a lot.
Wait, “Gary B. Bettman”? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him use his middle initial before. Now I want to know what the “B” stands for. “Boring hockey”? “Bankrupt franchises”? “Bob Goodenow must go”? “BOOOOOOO!!!!” ? Yeah. I’m betting it’s that last one.
Huh. Turns out it’s “Bruce.” Wait, have fans just been chanting “Bruce” at him this entire time? I feel like my whole life might have been a lie.
[New Jersey fan attempts to bean Bettman with a beach ball.] Yeah, no, I don’t think they’re saying “Bruce.”
Bettman finishes his non-answer, which we can’t hear because the fans have gotten hungry and are now loudly ordering a casserole.
By the way, this is Bettman’s first real experience in front of a truly hostile NHL crowd. He’s presented two Cups at this point, but both came in front of happy home crowds. At the time, this seemed intense. In hindsight, it was pretty tame, since nobody chucked a bottle at his head.
Brown hits Bettman with a strong follow-up, and we learn three things: 1) Whatever the league does, it will be constructive. 2) The media hasn’t been all that constructive. 3) Today’s entry on Bettman’s Word Of The Day desk calendar was “constructive.”
Anyone else distracted by the giant ice cube in front of the desk? No? Just me? OK, moving on.
Maloney tags in and asks about the infamous Sports Illustrated cover proclaiming the NHL hot and the NBA not. His question is kind of long, but basically boils down to, “So how did you screw that up?”
“We’re working very hard to increase our fan base. We had a work stoppage at the beginning of the season.” Yeah, those two sentences are literally opposites. Are you even listening to yourself right now, Bruce?
Maloney comes right back with a question about the trap. Bettman insists that the trap isn’t the problem, but obstruction might be. He then adds, “And if it’s still a problem over a decade from now, we might get around to doing something about it,” in an alternate universe where he tells the truth.
We get one more question about franchises moving, which Bettman deflects nicely as the hungry crowd chants for egg rolls.
We end with my favorite moment of the entire clip: Bettman, realizing he’s made it through the ordeal relatively intact, leaning back in his chair with a massive grin on his face. They cut away a second before he just puts his hand behind his head and his feet up on the desk. Smug Gary Bruce Bettman is my favorite Gary Bruce Bettman.
Roughly an hour after this interview, the Devils finished off their sweep and won the franchise’s first championship. Bettman showed up to present the Cup. It did not go well.
Have a question for Sean? Want to suggest an obscure player or a classic YouTube clip? Send all your grab bag-related emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.