It turns out that Antti Niemi never changed the world.
In 2010, the 26-year-old Finnish import played 39 games in the regular season and then 22 in the postseason, where he went 16-6 with a .910 save percentage and a 2.63 goals-against average as the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. He made $827,000 against the salary cap, much less than Cristobal Huet ($5.625 million) and Nikolai Khabibulin ($6.750 million), the two veteran goalies he rendered obsolete.
That he beat Michael Leighton of the Philadelphia Flyers — who made $600,000 — in the Stanley Cup Final made some around the league openly question whether investment in the goaltending position was really worth it. A free agent from Europe and a sixth-round pick faced off for the Stanley Cup, and both made peanuts. Anyone could do this!
Well, not really. After that season came Tim Thomas, who made $5 million for the Boston Bruins, followed by a parade of goalies who had been drafted and cultivated: Jonathan Quick, Corey Crawford, Matt Murray and Braden Holtby. The 2010 postseason was an anomaly. If it reinforced anything, it’s that you can have Chris Osgood if you have Nicklas Lidstrom and Hall of Fame defensive centers, just like you can have Antti Niemi if you have Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews. At least for one postseason.
One of the eternal truths of the NHL is that it’s a copycat league, which is a polite way of saying that general managers are essentially cowards who need to see something bold pay off for someone else before adopting it as their own strategy. That goes for analytics or contract structures or what kind of coach to hire and from where.
But copying from the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs is like copying from the dumbest kid in your math class (aka “me”). It’s an incongruity. It’s a glitch. It will be remembered the same way we remember the 2006 postseason, which is to say for its eccentricity rather than its trendsetting.
Oh, they’ll try to mine it for meaning. Witness the Western Conference executive who noted to Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic that no player on the four conference finalists makes more than the $8 million that Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks makes.
To state two rather obvious things here: Of course there’s an NHL executive noting a trend that would encourage the stagnation of wages in the name of championship contention; and, lest we forget, three of the four teams in the conference final round would have happily paid John Tavares more than $8 million annually, even if only two of them (Boston and San Jose) were invited to speak with him. (Better luck next mega free agent, St. Louis.)
To state another: This “trend” isn’t supported by recent history.
Of the players who helped their teams to the final four in the preview two postseasons, eight of them made more than $8 million: Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, P.K. Subban, Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Phil Kessel. Two more of them signed deals worth $8 million or more per year in the summers after their conference final appearances: John Carlson and Ryan Johansen. After this postseason, several players could (or will) crest over that mark: Logan Couture, whose new contract pays him $8 million annually, and free agents Joe Pavelski, Erik Karlsson and Sebastian Aho.
So yes, as a rule, you’re going to need those $8 million players. And if they don’t make $8 million, they will, as you’ll end up doing what the Blackhawks and Kings did, and pay them $10 million for previous accomplishments.
Then there’s the notion of how to build a team, regarding how this year’s final four were built. As my Puck Soup colleague Sean McIndoe noted, only the Carolina Hurricanes have a “recent” top-five pick, with Andrei Svechnikov landing at No. 2 overall last summer to the Canes. Anyone else selected in the top five was selected ages ago, like Alex Pietrangelo in 2008 or Joe Thornton all the way back in 1997.
“After years of the Cup going to teams, like the Penguins and Hawks, who were built around top picks, this year is a reminder that the lottery isn’t the only way,” he writes.
I don’t know. … Is it? The Blackhawks, Kings, Penguins and Capitals didn’t just have foundational players who were selected in the top five, they had players who were acquired by going down that most nefarious path: stripping down the roster to acquire a top draft choice. Sure, in some cases the bonds didn’t mature until several years later (or in the Capitals’ case, 14 years), but that’s still how the foundation was set.
These playoffs have been perhaps the most unpredictable of my lifetime, what with the Tampa Bay Lightning‘s first-round exit, the Hurricanes’ run to the Eastern Conference final and the Sharks and Blues — by no means teams on whom one assumes postseason success — as the final two in the Western Conference. It has been great for gratification, probably not the best for blood pressure and certainly not anything that should shift the paradigm for team construction. Which, come to think of it, has been the best advice for any overreaction to what happens in a short-sprint tournament.
In 2010, Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton threatened to redefine the necessity for a franchise goalie. In 2019, Tuukka Rask — of the eight-year, $56 million contract — could follow Braden Holtby of the five-year, $30 million contract as Stanley Cup-winning goalies.
Overreact to the postseason at your own risk.
The week in Gritty
The only thing keeping the Philadelphia Flyers relevant won a major award this week. OK, Gritty actually won the Webby Award for “People’s Voice Award for Social: Athletes and Sports Teams (Social)” a few weeks back, but he physically picked up the award this week while wearing a suit and firing a confetti cannon. He even gave a speech.
But the big news for our orange nightmare is the apparent invitation he received to become a “Not Ready For Prime Time Player,” as NHL Awards host Kenan Thompson of “Saturday Night Live” sang his praises.
“Leave it up to Philly to come up with a crazy mascot like that. Just those eyes. I don’t know man, he haunts a lot of people’s dreams, I know that,” said Thompson, before suggesting that Gritty should go on “SNL” and would be “awesome for a cold open with Trump or something” like that.
“Gritty, please, come to SNL. I’ll take care of you. It’s on me, trust me,” said Thompson.
Thompson as David Ortiz meets Gritty on Weekend Update. Ratings record would fall.
On playoff officiating (again)
Earlier this week I counted down the various officiating controversies in the postseason, and little did I know that 48 hours after publication we discovered yet another delightful nuance of the rulebook.
The notion that a hand pass that leads to a goal, like the one the Sharks scored on in Game 3 against St. Louis on Wednesday night, isn’t somehow reviewable — either by the officials that might have missed it, the Toronto War Room that caught it or by a coach who can challenge it — is palpably insane. We review offside plays in which a skate is a pixel over the line or some dude is just meandering at the bench. We review goalie interference calls in which the attacking player looks at the netminder the wrong way. What is the sense of having video review if not to allow the on-ice officials every mechanism at their disposal to get the call correct?
The next general managers meeting is going to make a UFC news conference sound like a gathering of librarians by comparison.
Jersey foul of the week
From Hoodie Joe:
Not only is it a foul, but it’s a classic foul for the Carolina Hurricanes, one that’s been seen in Raleigh for years. Clever? Yes. But how dare this fan besmirch the good names of classic No. 5 bearers like Marek Malik and Noah Hanifin!
In 2015, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was on his fifth coach in five years with the Edmonton Oilers, a trend that sadly hasn’t really changed all that much four years later. But there was one coach in this disposable cycle of whom he was rather fond, and lamented that he didn’t get more time with the team.
That coach was Ralph Krueger.
“We all really liked Ralph,” he said. “Super intelligent guy. Really knew how to handle the players well, and we only had a short season with him. It was tough to lose him.”
Krueger was hired in 2012, coached 48 games in the lockout-shortened season, and then was fired (over Skype!) by the team. In 2014, he became director of Southampton of the Premier League and eventually its chairman. But then, in a surprise, he split with the team and returned to the NHL this week as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres.
I’m a Ralph Krueger fan. I respect his intelligence and I respect an outside-the-box hire. The jury’s out on what a Krueger team looks like in the NHL in 2020, but I can’t wait to see it. Sabres fans are understandably skeptical. I’d love nothing more than to see Krueger prove those fears unfounded. (And in the process, save Jason Botterill‘s job.)
Listen to ESPN On Ice
Following Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, we talked about the rolling Bruins. Are they this good (4:30)? Emily Kaplan catches up with Finnish reporters Tommi Seppala and Sami Hoffrén to discuss their coverage of Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask (17:43). Former NHL goaltender and current broadcaster Darren Pang talks about the Blues’ success, particularly the play of goalie Jordan Binnington (37:13). Plus, “Phil Kessel Loves Hot Dogs” features two victims this week (44:21). Catch it here on iTunes.
Every team needs ‘Snackwards’
For all of its giggle-worthy antics, the Kiss-Cam is a problematic mess. But that doesn’t mean all JumboTron candid camera bits aren’t worthy of our attention. In fact, one of them should be adopted by every team, everywhere, immediately.
This is an example of the bit from a Dallas Stars game, where video of fans eating is reversed so it looks like their food and beverages are reconstituting. Another example:
Enjoy some Snackwards cam action pic.twitter.com/vPv8fXX8E8 – Tanner Giles (@tannerlennon) February 1, 2017
The St. Louis Blues do this bit at their home games, too, and let it be said I’ve not laughed harder at anything in the arena that wasn’t mascot-related or the Nashville Predators‘ power play. Every team in the league should do this. It’s so wonderfully gross.
Sad news from the minor leagues: The Manchester Monarchs are no more.
The bad boys of podcasting (aka DJ Bean and Peter Blackburn of “BRUNCH”) decided the Boston Bruins needed a victory song. So they stole “Gloria” from the St. Louis Blues, and then recorded another “Gloria” for the Blues.
Stick-tap to Bud Light for an ingenious use of the “Gloria” thing for their own promotional purposes.
Meet the greatest hockey name ever, T-Bone Codd.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
SABRES GM Jason Botterill puts his job on the line with out-of-the-box hiring of Ralph Krueger … and that’s a good thing. (Side note: Why does The Hockey News do the all-caps headline thing?)
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
How the NHL trade deadline shaped the final four playoff teams.