Three Stars of Comedy
The third star: Things are going great in Ottawa – Honestly, in terms of targeted marketing, reaching out to Senators fans by dropping subliminal messages at the liquor store is pretty much perfect.
The second star: Stefan Noesen's new nickname – Big week for Noesen. He got married, got a new contract, and whether he likes it or not his nickname is now Poops. Thanks, Brian Boyle. I'm sure Poops sends his regards.
The first star: T.J. Oshie – And here we were worried that the NHL finally prying the Stanley Cup out of Alexander Ovechkin's vodka-soaked hands would spell the end of the Summer of Caps. Nope. Just like an Olympic shootout, T.J. is ready to take the whole thing over.
The NHL Actually Gets Something Right (Or at Least More Right Than the Competition, but That's Not Saying Much)
The NBA offseason is in full swing, and needless to say it's been a lot more fun than the NHL version. The best player switched teams, the best team responded by adding yet another star, and the Spurs and Raptors just pulled off a controversial blockbuster. NBA fans have all the offseason fun.
This happens every year, as we discussed last summer. But this summer, there's an elephant in the room: The NBA's competitive balance is so out of whack with super-teams that it feels like none of this matters. The Warriors are so good that they should roll over everyone. Lebron James and the Lakers might challenge them, but probably not until next year when even more star free agents flock to L.A. And the Raptors just made an all-or-nothing move to win the East and get to the Finals, where everyone assumes they'll immediately get slaughtered by whoever comes out of the West.
This has been an issue in the NBA for a while, and it's getting worse. The season hasn't even started, and it feels like only a few teams have any chance at all of winning the championship. Everyone else is either tanking, rebuilding, or just playing the role of cannon fodder. Even the commissioner thinks it's messed up.
Meanwhile, you've got the NHL, where nobody has any idea what's going to happen. Bad teams can suddenly be good, good teams can suddenly be bad, and expansion teams can almost win championships. Trying to predict it all feels useless. The NHL's competitive balance is basically one big shrug emoji.
So… Is that good?
Not everyone thinks so. I've made the case that this is all starting to feel like we're just flipping coins. The Golden Knights were a cool story, but for a lot of us it took the whole "anything can happen" concept too far. The NHL's age of parity is out of control, and it's dangerously close to the point where it feels like nothing that happens today really matters tomorrow. As a fan, it can be frustrating, and you kind of wish for the days of true dynasties.
But then you look at the NBA and go "Oh, right." If that's the alternative, a lot of us will take extreme parity any day.
I've had more than a few readers point that out over the last few weeks. And it's a fair argument. But I'm not sure we should let the NHL off the hook quite yet. There has to be a middle ground between "We all know who's going to win before the season even starts" and "Nobody knows anything about anyone."
I'd argue that the NFL is a good example. There are really good teams and really bad teams, and we can always count on the Patriots and Steelers being contenders and the Browns and Jets being terrible . But every year also serves up a few surprises, like last year's Rams and Eagles. You have a sense of what will happen, but it's only a starting point, and the surprises are just rare enough that they actually feel surprising. The NFL isn't a totally fair comparison, because they only play 16 games and that introduces a degree of randomness that other leagues can't match. But it still gives us a sense of where the middle ground can be.
So yes, in terms of competitive balance, hockey has basketball beat these days. But that doesn't mean that the NHL has this right. If you complain about the league's coin-flippy vibe these days, that doesn't mean that the NBA's set-in-stone world is the only other way to go. This stuff is tough to get right, as evidenced by the fact that two major pro leagues can't seem to figure it out.
Obscure Former Player of the Week
Today's a good day to be born if you want to be an incredibly skilled NHL player someday—it's the birthday of a pair of shifty Hall-of-Famers, Peter Forsberg and Pavel Datsyuk. It's also the birthday of a guy who was once traded for the best player ever, a very good current player who's probably about to get traded for not very much, as well as the top pick in next year's draft, Jack Hughes. (Checks notes.) Wait, sorry, it's the other Jack Hughes. Still, that's pretty good.
So today, let's bestow Obscure Player honors on another July 20 birthday: Slovak forward Jozef Stumpel.
Stumpel was the Bruins second-round pick in the 1991 draft, a few picks after longtime friend and international linemate Ziggy Palffy. He debuted that season, playing four games, and was playing full-time in the NHL by 1993. He didn't score much early on, but broke through with a 21-goal, 76-point season in 1996-97. That apparently caught the eye of the Kings, who traded Dmitri Khristich and Byron Dafoe to Boston for him.
Stumpel had a nearly identical first season in L.A., scoring 21 goals and 79 points. But his scoring fell off after that, and early in the 2001-02 season he was traded back to Boston with Glen Murray in a deal for for Jason Allison. He stuck around for two seasons before he was traded again, this time to—who else?—the Kings. Yes, Stumpel was traded three times in his career, and all three deals were between the same two teams. You know when you sim too far ahead in an NHL game's career mode and two teams glitch out and starting trading the same guy back and forth? That was Jozef Stumpel's career.
When the 2004 lockout arrived, Stumpel went back to Europe for a year before signing with the Florida Panthers. He had two decent seasons there, but by 2008 the team had become frustrated by their inability to figure out how to get him into a Bruins/Kings trade, so they bought him out. He'd play five more years in Europe before retiring. His NHL career included 957 games, 196 goals, 677 points and, one would hope, not many fights.
Also, you may not call him Stumpy. That was Steve Thomas. I will fight you about this.
Thing I Can Write Because it's Summer and Nobody's Paying Attention
As you may have noticed if for some reason you've tried going outside lately, it's summer. That means that nothing is really happening in the NHL world, and there isn't much to talk about. And even if you're a diehard hockey fan, you're probably finding it tough to concentrate these days.
Perfect. Welcome to a brand-new section of the Grab Bag, in which I take advantage of the calendar by unleashing the horrible ideas I have kicking around in my head while I know that nobody's paying attention.
To be clear, these are things that I sincerely believe. But I know you probably won't agree, which is fine, because in a few months, when training camp starts and our hockey brains wake up from hibernation, I'll just deny ever having said any of this.
Today's topics: 5-on-3 penalties are overpowered and we need to fix them.
I've always felt like the way penalties and power plays work in hockey is kind of cool. You do something wrong, you get sent off and your team plays a man down for two minutes, which gives the other team a better chance at scoring. It makes sense, and even a rookie fan can intuitively understand what's happening. Teams score on about 20 percent of their power plays, a bit more than twice the average at even strength, which feels about right—it's enough to make taking a penalty a bad idea, but not so much that the advantage feels unfair.
But then you run into the situation where a team goes down 5-on-3, and suddenly that balance falls apart. A team that goes up two men sees their scoring rate skyrocket by almost three times compared to 5-on-4, and about eight times more than at even strength. (Thanks to Jeff Veillette for helping with the math.) That's way too much. It would be like if committing run-of-the-mill fouls in basketball were sometimes worth ten free throws. The punishment no longer fits the crime.
More importantly, referees know that, so they change how they call penalties on a team that's shorthanded. When a team is already down a man, they can suddenly get away with all sorts of crosschecks and slashes, and pretty much anything that doesn't take away an obvious scoring chance. And to make matters worse, there are penalties in the rulebook that give the referee little choice, like the terrible puck-over-glass rule. So refs try to manage the game by allowing guys to get hacked on the arm or cross-checked in the back of the neck, but if a clearing attempt accidentally catches too much air then a team goes up 5-on-3 for a minute and probably scores because of it.
It's a mess. (And lord help us if we're in overtime when any of this happens.) But there's an easy solution. We just have to change how we call penalties when a team is already shorthanded.
Here's my proposal: When a team is down 5-on-4 and commits a penalty, the other team has a choice between taking the full two minutes added onto the end of the current powerplay, or a 30-second penalty that begins immediately. In other words, you can have an abbreviated 5-on-3, or extend your 5-on-4. But you're not going to get a 90-second two-man advantage because somebody coughed on your stick and it exploded.
Start doing it this way, and referees would be able to call normal penalties on shorthanded teams again. Powerplay rates would probably go up slightly, since teams killing them wouldn't be able to hack and slash with impunity. Those automatic calls wouldn't feel quite as unfair.
We'd still have some work to do—we'd have to figure out a way to handle major penalties, for example—but this would be a good start. Hopefully I've convinced you to at least think about it.
And if I haven't, well, don't worry. Go have a pint on a patio somewhere, and we'll never speak of this again.
Classic YouTube Clip Breakdown
Last week, the Winnipeg Jets signed goaltender Connor Hellebuyck to a six-year deal that will pay him over $6 million a year. That's a big contract at a position that's extremely tough to project, but you can hardly blame Jets management.
After all, Hellebuyck is coming off a breakout season, and even though he's only 25, you could make a decent case that he's already the best goaltender in Jets history. After all, who else would you go with? Ondrej Pavelec? Bob Essensa? Pokey Reddick? Man, the Jets have had mediocre goaltending for a long time. In fact, they've spent just about their entire NHL history trying to figure out how to get One More Save.
Wait, you may be thinking, was that whole preamble just an awkward way to introduce a terrible song? You know me too well.
- Yes, it's time for another batch of hockey music. Today we'll be enjoying some of the best moments from Hockey Rock Winnipeg Style, an actual album that came out in 1996. The concept was a simple one: Find as many Canadian rock bands as you can, then ask them to record new versions of their hits where they've changed one word to a Jets player's name. Was the result fantastic? You know it was.
- The song you're listening to right now is called "One More Save," by Winnipeg-based rock band Streetheart. It's a version of their 1982 hit "One More Time," only this time it's about Nikolai Khabibulin.
- It may not be the most brilliant lyric, but "Khabby made one more save" will be stuck in your head all day long. Also, the original version featured the singer chanting "get it up one more time." I think I like the Khabby version better.
- In case you're wondering about the timing on this album, yes, the Jets had already been sold and were on the way to Phoenix by the time it came out. My guess is it was originally conceived as part of some sort of "Save the Jets" campaign, but didn't make it out on time and got retconned into a farewell album. You can find some of the backstory here.
- Honestly this song is pretty good.
- OK, so now that you've enjoyed a song about Nikolai Khabibulin, can I interest you in some synth-rock about a defensive defenseman?
Have a question, suggestion, old YouTube clip, or anything else you'd like to see included in this column? Email Sean at email@example.com.