It’s almost that time of year again.
With the World Cup of Hockey done and the exhibition schedule wrapping up, we’re now just over a week away from opening night of the NHL’s regular season.
It’s a great time to be a fan. The real games are almost here, but today everyone is still tied for first, and there’s a sense of hope lingering over just about every team. Everyone’s best-case scenario is still on the table.
Of course, that won’t last — one bad shift in the first period of the first game will have you screaming at your TV and wondering why you ever bothered getting your hopes up.
But we’re not quite there yet. This is still the time of year when anything is possible.
Since this is the start of a new year on the hockey calendar, let’s take a moment to make some new year’s resolutions. After all, none of us are perfect, and every fan has room for some self-improvement.
We could all come up with an idea or two of our own, but if you’d like a few suggestions, I’m here to help.
Here are a half-dozen New Season’s Resolutions that it wouldn’t hurt some fans to make.
Let’s not rig the all-star game vote this year
Hey, remember the whole John Scott thing? That was fun, wasn’t it?
You may not have thought it was especially funny at first – the NHL sure didn’t – but you have to admit that it all worked out pretty well in the end. Seeing Scott win all-star MVP honors and get carried off the ice by his teammates was a moment worthy of Hollywood. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things.
It was great. So let’s not try to do it all over again this year.
Oh, it will be tempting. There was a long history of all-star vote rigging that led up to Scott; remember Vote For Rory in 2007, or when a small Baltic nation took over the vote in 2014 or whatever the heck it was that led to this happening?
We’ve been down this road before, and there’s going to be an urge to do it again. Somebody out there is probably setting up a wacky Twitter account right now.
But let’s not. Scott was too perfect. It was the walk-off home run of ballot-box stuffing. Trying to recreate it would just be lame.
Hopefully the NHL will remove the temptation by coming up with a way to avoid the problem in the first place. But this is a league that occasionally doesn’t get around to things in time, so we can’t count on them.
Instead, let’s just all agree that we had our laugh, and the joke is over.
Rory was funny. Scott was perfect. The concept has run its course. Let it rest.
Let’s change the way we think about penalties
Hockey fans love to complain about how the referees are out to get their team.
Deep down, we all know it’s not true, but it’s just so satisfying to point to a loss and say it was all the refs’ fault.
The easiest way to do that is to look at the penalty totals, and which team got however many power plays.
We’ve been conditioned to expect that those numbers should be roughly equal. If both teams get the same number of power-play chances, then that’s an evenly officiated game. If one has a big advantage, then the ref screwed up.
Come on, stripes, call it both ways, right?
There may have been some truth to that thinking a generation ago when there was blatant interference on almost every play and it really did feel like the officials could pick and choose what they’d call. But those days are largely gone.
Sure, there’s still stuff that goes uncalled in every NHL game, and there’s still the occasional phantom whistle over nothing. But today’s game is far different from what we saw 20 years ago. For the most part, the days where the rulebook was merely a suggestion are over.
And that means that if your team gets a lot of penalties, it’s probably their fault — not the refs’.
More than ever, in today’s NHL a power play is something you earn by forcing your opponent into a mistake. Maybe it’s through speed or positioning, or even by outworking the other guy, leaving him a half-step behind with no choice but to haul you down.
That’s not to say that referees can’t have bad games, or that teams won’t have nights where all the close calls seem to go against them. That’s hockey, and over a long season those games are going to happen to everyone.
But it does mean that we shouldn’t just scream “bias” when we get lopsided penalty totals. And we shouldn’t want the refs to enforce some sort of artificial fairness that keeps the numbers level — that’s where you get the sort of makeup calls (or non-calls) that can be so infuriating to watch. There’s nothing that says a well-officiated game has to even up the calls on both sides if it’s not deserved.
So this year, when we see that one team had eight power plays and the other only had two, let’s ditch the knee-jerk instinct to knock the officiating.
Instead, let’s start with the assumption that one team was just better that night, and their opponents had to keep bending the rules to keep up. Most of the time, we’ll be right.
Let’s go easy on the World Cup excuses
The tournament was fun. Not perfect by any stretch, but overall, it wasn’t bad. And now that it’s over, get ready to hear it used as an excuse for every team that gets off to a slow start.
In a handful of cases, they’ll have a point. Injuries are an unfortunate reality of any major tournament, and a few teams did get more than their share. (If the Dallas Stars want to grumble a little bit after losing half their roster to World Cup injuries, we can probably let it slide.)
Most teams came out of the tournament relatively unscathed, but you can bet that we’re still going to hear plenty of moaning from anyone who gets out of the gate slowly: training camp was disrupted; star players didn’t get a chance to gel with new teammates; that one guy seems a little tired; the coach didn’t have time to really drill home his new system.
It’s not our fault that we’re already out of the playoff race by October – it was that dastardly World Cup.
Don’t buy it. Struggling NHL teams love their cover stories, and the World Cup gives them a new one to play with. But more often the note, the best explanation is the simplest one: bad teams are just bad.
A two-week tournament isn’t going to ruin anyone’s chances, although a coach or GM who prefers making excuses to fixing problems just might.
Let’s stop saying “.500”
The loser point is one of the worst things about the modern NHL. It’s a dumb gimmick designed to create an artificial sense of parity and achievement, and years from now we’re going to look back and wonder why we let it ruin the standings for so long.
This has been well-established by the sport’s most-respected scholars, and everyone who isn’t an NHL GM already hates this thing.
It also seems to be here for good — at least as far as the game’s current leadership is concerned.
So while it’s tempting to fight back with a resolution like “Let’s all kidnap Gary Bettman’s dog and not give it back until he fixes the standings,” that would end up being a waste of time.
So let’s go with something simpler. Let’s all agree that if we’re stuck with this idiotic loser point, we’ll at least stop talking about teams being .500.
Being .500 used to mean something in hockey. It was the benchmark of mediocrity, an easy-to-understand concept that even new fans could grasp.
Being .500 meant you had earned as many points as you’d played games. It meant you were absolutely average. Being over .500 meant you were good, at least a little bit, and being under meant that it was OK to want to fire your coach.
And that’s still what it means in other sports, where the standings have integrity. But not in hockey, where we hand out bonus points for losing because… well, just because. Last year, 22 teams finished .500 or better. That was actually slightly down from previous years; there were 24 such teams in 2015, and 25 in 2014.
Needless to say, this is ridiculous. For the concept to have any meaning, you’d need to figure out the average number of points each team earned – if you’re wondering, last year it was a bit over 91 – and use that instead. But nobody wants to do math homework every time they want to make a basic point about sports. So let’s just scrap the term all together.
The NHL won’t like that, since the main reason we still have the loser point is so bad teams can pretend that they’re good. But we don’t need to play along.
So goodbye, .500. Maybe we’ll see you again someday when we get the real standings back.
Let’s just accept that Sidney Crosby is the best player in hockey
Right now, Sidney Crosby is a reigning Stanley Cup champion, Olympic gold medalist, and World Cup winner. No player has ever been able to say that.
He’s not the reigning Hart Trophy winner, because he finished all the way back in second place. But he is the defending Conn Smythe winner and World Cup MVP, not to mention a first-team all-star. He’s good.
And he’s been good for a long time. But for some reason, hockey fans and media like to pretend that there’s some sort of controversy over whether Crosby is the game’s best player.
Year after year, as good as Crosby has been, we like to pretend that it’s still an open question. At any given time, some other player will be held up as having passed Crosby for top-player honours. Jonathan Toews is a popular choice. Alex Ovechkin has his moments. For a few weeks there, Drew Doughty was the pick. Every now and then it’s a goalie.
That’s understandable. The “best player in hockey” debate is fun, but only if it really is a debate. When one player is clearly the best, there’s not much of an argument to have.
As a wise hockey mind once said, nobody remembers No. 2. So we find a way to make a case where there really isn’t one.
This would be a good year to stop doing that.
It’s Crosby’s last season before he hits his 30s, and while there’s no sign that he’ll slow down anytime soon, we’re probably towards the end of his peak years.
More importantly, we’re not far away from the day when Connor McDavid really will challenge Crosby for the honours. Based on how he looked at the World Cup, it won’t be long before McDavid will take the crown.
But until then, let’s just enjoy the Crosby era without feeling the need to constantly find someone — anyone — to nudge above him. Toews, Doughty, Ovechkin and all the rest are very, very good players.
They’re not the game’s best, and it’s OK to accept that.
Let’s not have a repeat of the great Karlsson/Doughty war of 2016
Speaking of Doughty, he finally won his Norris Trophy last season after years of near-misses (sort of), narrowly edging out Erik Karlsson in a close vote.
Some people agreed with the results, and others didn’t. And you probably knew that, because those people spent the three months leading up to the awards show hitting each other over the head with furniture.
That’s a slight exaggeration, but not much of one, because Doughty vs. Karlsson somehow became one of the most contentious debates of the season.
It wasn’t enough to think one guy or the other was slightly better, or had a somewhat better season. No, you had to pick a side, and then argue that the other guy was a bum.
Karlsson was a one-dimensional pylon who couldn’t play in his own zone. Doughty was merely a decent player who benefited from being on one of the league’s best teams. Karlsson was soft. Doughty was overrated.
On the one hand, you had the analytics. On the other hand, watch the games, nerd, if you east-coasters can even stay up that late.
You get the picture.
It went on like that for weeks, and it was dumb. They’re both great players. Any team in the league would do cartwheels to have either player as their top blueliner.
Both would have been fine choices for the Norris. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Not every “who’s better” argument has to be a zero-sum battle, or some sort of referendum on how the game should be played. Sometimes two guys are just very good, and that’s where it ends.
So let’s accept that there’s room for both Doughty and Karlsson in the Norris conversation. And more importantly, let’s not do this all over again in a few months with two other players.
When we get towards the end of the year and there’s a tight race brewing for the Norris or Vezina or whatever else, let’s just acknowledge that there can be more than one deserving candidate.
(Unless we’re talking about the best player in the league, because again, that’s obviously Crosby. You idiot.)