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What We’ve Been Watching In An Extra-Weird NHL Season

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): We’re about 40 percent of the way through the 2021 NHL season now, and it’s already had a lot of twists and turns — both on and off the ice. To talk about those shifts, we’re bringing together a bunch of people who love to watch and study hockey for our inaugural NHL Slack chat.

Today, I wanted to gather your first-half thoughts and also talk about what you’re looking forward to as we approach the trade deadline in about a month. First, let’s discuss the elephant in the room of this whole post-bubble NHL season: the impact of COVID-19 on the sport.


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After a really tough early stretch where about a third of (non-Canadian) teams were shut down at one point or another, the league hit a better milestone earlier this week — a season-low three players on the protocol list — before getting another big reminder that things still aren’t normal, when Sidney Crosby became the biggest star to join the list. (He’s since left the protocol.)

So where do you all think things stand with the virus in the game now? Has the league gotten past the worst of it, and did its changes in policy last month have anything to do with that? And should we still be worried about something like Crosby’s situation happening in the playoffs, where a star player could land on the list and totally change the course of the season? (Particularly if the Canadian teams need to relocate to the U.S. for the playoffs to get around quarantine rules between the countries?)

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julian.mckenzie (Julian McKenzie, contributor): This situation is so unpredictable. It’s hard to say if ANYONE has gotten through the worst of anything.

I can’t imagine what it’s been like for U.S. teams dealing with this. Canadian teams have been fortunate by comparison. As long as this virus is still out there, the NHL has to remain vigilant.

terrence.doyle (Terrence Doyle, contributor): Agree. I want to take the easy way out and say, “The season just shouldn’t have happened,” but it is happening, and so there’s no choice but to face up to it at this point. That said, I … have no idea what’s going to happen or if we’ve seen the worst of things just yet. And the playoff issue is a whole different can of worms wrt quarantine rules.

emily (Emily Scherer, designer): We have seen the worst of this over in women’s hockey, with the NWHL suspending their Lake Placid season/tournament after multiple positive COVID-19 tests. It’s worth noting, of course, that while it took place at a single site, it was never a true bubble situation.

julian.mckenzie: Bring back the Canadian bubble …

neil: Yeah, it’s a little distressing that they’re talking about essentially inverting that idea for the playoffs this time around.

emily: Hey, this might be the way to guarantee the Stanley Cup returns to a Canadian team!

terrence.doyle: A bubble(s) would certainly make things easier, but yea, idk, there’s still half the regular season to worry about.

neil: It might also be easy for the league to point to the timing of the new policies coinciding with the list slowly getting cut down and pat itself on the back. But I’m totally sure how much those changes really affected things. It could have been a combination of a wakeup call for the players but also a drop in cases generally in the U.S. (Where progress has slowed down recently.)

And the issue of potential on-ice spread in that Sabres-Devils game remains a big concern, I think.

terrence.doyle: Nineteen Devils in the protocol after that game. And the communication breakdown between the Devils, the Sabres and the league was the big issue, right? Buffalo requested info on New Jersey’s COVID-19 status but never got it before the game? And then … boom, they’re in the COVID-19 protocol. The league can implement as many changes as it likes re: distancing, bench configurations and air-cleansing techniques, but if no one’s sharing information, it’s a recipe for disaster.

That whole situation is why I’m not tooooooo confident about the NHL’s ability to prevent another similar situation, new regulations notwithstanding.

julian.mckenzie:

Should go without saying, but it’s totally affected some team performances.

terrence.doyle: The bad season is bad.

neil: That’s a great point, Julian. There’s been so much to inject extra chaos into the on-ice product this year as well, between the long layoffs for affected teams, constant taxi squad shuffling, imbalanced schedules, etc.

(And that’s on top of the usual chaos, like, idk, having to delay an outdoors game by eight hours because the ice melted.)

emily: Which was a shame because one solution to all of this is just make every game an outdoor game! So much airflow.

neil:

terrence.doyle: The bad season would immediately become the best season if every game was upscale pond hockey.

julian.mckenzie: Yeah, but then you’d have to account for the sun. And the NHL has already shown us that they aren’t necessarily the best at dealing with that. 😂

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terrence.doyle: It was hilarious that the ice melted. Sun melts ice, who knew?

neil: Haha. Yeah, you had to think Gary Bettman was like, “Damn! You said we had thought of everything!”

julian.mckenzie: “What do you mean, the sun?!”

terrence.doyle: I have a joke about Bettman and thinking, but I’m going to keep it to myself.

julian.mckenzie: Don’t block yourself from getting any NHL credentials, Terrence. Don’t do it!

terrence.doyle: 🙂

neil: Lol. That whole snafu did actually make the season feel MORE normal, for what it’s worth.

terrence.doyle: Honestly, it’s hard not to be very cynical re: the league’s ability to deal with COVID-19 — or its willingness, even — given how blatantly it tried to hose the players on the memorandum of understanding this summer. It’s age-old owners vs. workers stuff, and we know how that goes: poorly for workers. So yeah, that’s my final thought on that.

neil: All right, well it sounds like we will just have to keep an eye on the league’s COVID-19 situation on a daily basis, like the rest of the sports world. Let’s pivot to what we’ve seen on the (non-melted) ice over the first seven weeks of the season. Which players and teams — for good or for bad — have surprised you the most so far this year? And who do you most expect to keep their trend going in the second half?


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julian.mckenzie: I did not expect the Vancouver Canucks to be this bad. They had a great time in last year’s postseason bubble, falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in a hard-fought second round series. Then, they let players like Tyler Toffoli go.

And now the Canucks are only 5 points ahead of an Ottawa Senators team that was supposed to suck. They have a bright young core, but they’ve heavily underperformed. And they have some salary cap troubles to deal with.

terrence.doyle: Oof, yea. Vancouver has had a nightmare season so far. They’re conceding goals for fun at this point.

neil: Totally agree, Julian. The Canucks have lost the most playoff probability of any team in our Elo odds from the preseason, and it’s not even close. They started at 66 percent and are now down to 11 percent — and 11 percent might be too high tbh. (Although they did slow down the red-hot Leafs on Thursday night.)

terrence.doyle: Giving up loads of high-danger scoring chances, getting terrible goaltending. That’s not a great combo.

julian.mckenzie: Aside from Ottawa, I thought Winnipeg’s defense would be the worst in its division. It’s Vancouver. After Quinn Hughes, it’s a huge drop-off.

Jalen Chatfield still doesn’t know where Auston Matthews went.

terrence.doyle: Three milk crates tied together with fishing line would have stood a better chance …

Vancouver is for sure the worst team of the teams I thought might be decent-to-good. But the Senators have to be the worst team in the league, right?

julian.mckenzie: Easily, but we knew they weren’t going to be good. That being said, they’ve made the Canadiens’ lives miserable.

terrence.doyle: Yea, fair. Still though: They’re giving up almost FOUR goals per game. It’s kind of head-spinning.

julian.mckenzie: And they have that comeback win over the Leafs.

neil: That was unbelievable. Even in a banner year for Toronto so far, naturally that kind of thing happens at least once.

julian.mckenzie: I didn’t see that coming. It was so awesome

neil: Is blowing a 5-1 lead to the worst team in hockey worse than losing to the Zamboni driver goalie? Tough to say, lol.

julian.mckenzie: No.

No way.

neil: Haha

julian.mckenzie: Teams blow leads all the time. Losing to a *clears throat* “42-YEAR OLD ZAMBONI DRIVER WHO WORKS FOR THE TEAM” is something no one can live down.

terrence.doyle: Losing to an amateur when you’re a pro has got to be worse.

emily: Obligatory “It was 4-1!” mention as well.

julian.mckenzie:

And the Zamboni driver works/worked for their minor league affiliate.

neil: I think that^^ was the best part.

terrence.doyle: I’ve been watching hockey since 1990, which is about as far back as my memory goes, and I gotta say — I’m still stunned that this is a thing.

“What do we do in the case our starter and backup both go down?”

emily: “Lay the groundwork for an inspirational sports movie, obviously.”

julian.mckenzie: The Leafs pretty much need to win out to make us forget about any of this.

terrence.doyle: Julian, I appreciate your Leafs hate.

julian.mckenzie: I wouldn’t say I hate the Leafs, or any team. But I definitely take pleasure in this story.

Also, I think there is a movie coming based on that Zamboni driver.

emily: Alongside the John Scott, All-Star Game MVP movie!

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terrence.doyle: Mitch Albom would write that script.

The use of “slaying” in that headline, as if David Ayres’s performance canceled the entire franchise. I like it.

julian.mckenzie: I’m still stunned at how it happened. It’s an incredible story.

Also, back to the original question, I’ll also add that the Minnesota Wild surprised me. They had a six-game winning streak going before dropping their last two. They have a Rookie of the Year candidate in Kirill Kaprizov. And they’re sitting pretty alongside some of the best teams in the league in their division (Vegas, St. Louis, Colorado).

emily: I agree! They came out of their COVID-19 pause in February with six decisive wins (after a rusty first game back). Just look at that big increase, according to The Athletic, in their playoff chances!

julian.mckenzie: Minnesota has been mired in this weird hell for the last few years: not good enough to truly be a contending team, not bad enough to get the No. 1 pick every year. So it’s cool to see them be successful, at least to this point in the year.

neil: Kaprizov was really an outstanding find — 135th overall pick in 2015.

terrence.doyle: The biggest surprise for me, at least in terms of the current standings, has been the Panthers. They’re not prolific scorers, they’re not the stingiest team, their goaltending is just above average, and yet they have the fourth-best points percentage in the league. What they seem to do very well is limit scoring chances, especially from dangerous areas.

I don’t think Florida’s ceiling is all that high, for what it’s worth, but they’re clearly doing something right in Sunrise.

neil: I would also add you could probably put the Leafs in the category of “Surprise Teams,” ironically enough. Yes, we knew they have talent, but not many would have necessarily expected them to have the most points in the standings of any team right now. Of course, their last three losses have been:

So we’ll see how things play out for them. But their defensive performance against McDavid and Co. in that recent three-game set was undeniably impressive.

terrence.doyle: Agree, Neil. Matthews is having one of those 1980s goals-per-game-type seasons.

The Leafs have been especially good 5-on-5 (they’ve got the most expected goals for and actual goals for at even strength), which is how most of the game is played, so that bodes well going forward.

emily: Nashville has surprised me in a bad way this year. Lots of big losses (0-7, 2-5 (twice), 1-4, 1-6 and failed comebacks, but I don’t think they’re willing to commit to a full rebuild yet.

julian.mckenzie: They’re going to have to soon. That team’s window is closing fast.

neil: Emily, the Preds are what ranking on your fan priority list? Second? (Behind the Bruins?)

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emily: Second!

terrence.doyle: It might just be me, but I feel like the Preds’ window has been closing for 15 years now.


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julian.mckenzie: That 2017 final loss. Man.

neil: And now some of those contracts — talking about you, Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene — are not looking too good.

emily: They’re a little like the Wild (third on my fan priority list!) — never quite got to the top but never bad enough either.

terrence.doyle: Until this season, when they’ve been bad to very bad, they’re always sorta there, sniffing around greatness, one player away from a Cup.

Emily, the “never bad enough” point is an excellent one. Why rebuild when you can finish, like, seventh, and maybe steal one playoff series.

emily: A team willing to hang giant banners for the Presidents’ Trophy and being Regular Season Western Conference Champions does not seem like a team willing to rebuild.

terrence.doyle: hahaha

julian.mckenzie: Damn hahahaha

neil: Curse of the Presidents’ Trophy (Banner)

terrence.doyle: 😂

neil: OK, finally, before we finish up: We have to talk about the reverse retro uniforms we’ve seen teams break out this year. Emily, you are our resident design expert, so I’d love to know your thoughts — and everyone else’s too — about what your favorite and least-favorite new looks have been this year.

(I personally LOVE the Avalanche’s Nordiques-inspired one.)

terrence.doyle: Seconded, Neil.

julian.mckenzie: Colorado and Los Angeles have the best ones. Minnesota’s own is great, too. Montreal looks good in theirs (but they haven’t won a game in them, so EVERYONE hates them).

terrence.doyle: And because I haven’t gone full homer yet, I gotta say I reallllllly love the banana yellow Bruins jerseys. They brought the 1980s/early ’90s shoulder patch bear back, which is the best design element in Bruins history, period.

(I may or may not have a tattoo of that bear on my right biceps.)

julian.mckenzie: Pittsburgh has a great one. Arizona, too. I love the purple.

terrence.doyle: I love the Habs one, Julian, even if I’m not allowed to admit that to literally anyone I know and love.

julian.mckenzie: I bet you do. Like I said, the Canadiens haven’t won in them. 😂

neil: LOL

emily: Related, 👏 relax 👏 the 👏 dress 👏 code 👏

terrence.doyle: Sweet Pat, the best player on the planet. 😍

julian.mckenzie: Huh? I love Patrice as much as the next guy but…

Connor, Auston, Leon, and Sidney would like a word lol

terrence.doyle: lolol, i’m joking. (But only sorta …)

julian.mckenzie: Yeah, sure 😂

emily: I’m also a big fan of the Ducks and Coyotes throwbacks. Embrace the weird.

terrence.doyle: The Yotes throwback is great.

julian.mckenzie: Can I just say Chicago’s sucks?

terrence.doyle: Chi and Vegas’s jerseys, which look a bit like the original Panthers uniforms for whatever reason, are garbage.

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julian.mckenzie: Their offensive logo.

The fact that they tried to hide it in their reveal. I won’t even bother rating them.

The Red Wings’ and the Islanders’ jerseys are too safe.

emily: If you have to avoid showing a normal angle for the jersey in the reveal, maybe you just shouldn’t use that logo anymore!

neil: This. ^

julian.mckenzie: Thank you!!!!!!

terrence.doyle: yup!

emily: It’s really blatant on the NHL.com lineup of them all.

neil: One of these is not like the others….

julian.mckenzie: Oh, i have to shout out the Flames.

terrence.doyle: And obviously Carolina.

Because that’s the best logo in the history of the world.

neil: Hartford fans: Still salty, though.

julian.mckenzie: Alexa, play Brass Bonanza.

terrence.doyle: lol

neil:

julian.mckenzie: THERE WE GO.


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Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Emily Scherer is FiveThirtyEight’s designer.

Julian McKenzie is a freelance journalist based in Montreal. His work can be found in the Canadian Press, the Montreal Gazette, Yahoo Sports, the Sporting News and elsewhere, and he is a co-host of The Scrum Podcast.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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