I’ve been dawdling about writing a season preview. Not the writing part, the thinking about it part. I just can’t bring myself to even look at the other teams’ rosters or try to imagine their place in the rankings. I laid out the process in my mind the other day, and it was something like this:
- collect the rosters of the Atlantic teams
- decide on a measure of individual value to use to get a numerical ranking
- go off on a tangent for a while where I consider the pros and mostly cons of GAR vs an expected measure
- consider just using points!!
- ruminate for a moment on the idea that any simple heuristic beats biased opinion
- wonder what to do with the rookies or players with no history
- say the word goalies in the same tone Gary Bettman uses to say Canada
And then I got out of the shower and said, “Why the hell am I building a model to predict team strength?” Because that’s what all that was, it was just going to be a bad one. You know, the sort of back of the envelope thing you can use when you’ve started out deciding to publish a hot take that the Sabres are in and the Leafs are out.
And that moment of clarity — laughing at someone else’s burning desire to get attention clears the mind — brought me here. Well, Matt Murray did too. Because any real model, or even a simple heuristic that predicts team points, has to reckon with Matt Murray and all the others of his ilk — which in the Atlantic is basically everyone in goalie pads not wearing 88. And I just refuse to do that reckoning. To confidently state the quality of a goalie’s future performance is to stand in front of everyone, strip naked, and expect compliments on your tuxedo.
So here we are: I am opinionless on goalie performance, and I am not making a bad model when good ones exist. This is my season preview, and I begin with the one thing I have thought about, do know things about, and have genuine opinions about:
The Toronto Maple Leafs, Bane of Our Existence
The Maple Leafs are an excellent team with extremely good skater quality all down the lineup, a genuine superstar, more actual bona fide NHL players of value than they actually need, and I’m really tired of the whining about this team.
Look, this is the deal, which you should know by now unless your roof is 100% rock: Everyone is a Leafs fan. Everyone. Every single hockey fan either wants the Leafs to fail or to win — there are no agnostics, and there never will be. When the Leafs win the Cup, there will be no respect, grudging or otherwise. There will be conspiracy theories, fantastical claims of corruption and convoluted theories of illegitimacy that will make any election analysis in recent years seem rational.
This is a problem because, when the Leafs are truly excellent as they are right now, there is no one to tell you you’re being an idjit when you are in fact being an idjit and claiming the team is bad. The Leafs fans all want you to do keep going, so they can wallow in their masochism-brag about how hard it is to be a Leafs fan, and the rest of the hockey world just laughs. So if your goal is to brighten the dark heart of a Jets fan, by all means say the following:
- but the playoffs, though
- but Matthews chokes, or Marner or Nylander or...
- but Tavares is so washed
- but Kerfoot that one time
- but the fourth line
- but that one time Kyle Clifford played
- but they’re short, soft, slow, old or...
- but Morgan Rielly
- but Nylander!!!! MY GOD HE HAS BLOND HAIR AND MY WIFE LIKES HIM!!!!!
Stop it. No, really, stop it.
Are the Maple Leafs perfect? Well, not even the Red Wings or the Habs in their decades of glory were perfect. What’s that? Are Chicago and Los Angeles fans claiming that same status as those two teams? Go away. You too, Pittsburgh.
The Maple Leafs are so good, that when they were in a scoring trough and blowing holes in their quality with Tyson Barrie on the top pair all while being sick to death of Mike Babcock, they still had the best offence in the NHL. They are now a much, much better team.
And I have no opinion on the goalies, who will play more or what their performance will look like. I just refuse.
But this is the best Maple Leafs team to ever play the game. No, really, shut up about the part time players in the 1960s who stubbed out cigarettes before they went on the ice and thought working out meant getting an in-season job to pay the bills. This team is excellent.
The Atlantic Division, Also Known as Hell
Three of four teams will make the playoffs directly, and the four are Boston, Florida, Tampa and Toronto. The most likely team to have trouble is Boston because of injuries, followed by Florida and Toronto because they don’t have Tampa’s goalie. Tampa is so old and jaded about the regular season now that they will be ready for playoff payback, but don’t expect them to be in the thick of the race for first until February.
The rest won’t make the playoffs. Sorry, Sabres fans who think improving out of years of suckitude guarantees you a playoff spot. The Leafs got there in year one — mostly by accident — and looked like little kids up against the Capitals, and that’s why I say you won’t make it, not because I hate you. You won’t believe that, but I can’t help that.
Oh, right, Ottawa is super good now. You know, they could have been, but nope. They didn’t add enough, the division is too tough, and there’s one little problem with this idea that the better teams in the Atlantic will rise to new heights and topple one of the objectively much better teams ahead of them:
The goalie not wearing 88.
The Metro, Where Life Is Easy (Just Not as Easy as in the West)
Igor Shesterkin is going to have an outsized effect on the Eastern Conference standings. Again. He can drag a team of middling quality — Sabres-esque, even — into the playoffs, and that means that, while a lot of the teams in the Metro aren’t very good, it’s entirely possible they will send four teams to the playoffs again, locking out any wannabe in the Atlantic.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but while the Flyers are terrible, the Blue Jackets are bad, the Islanders are... lurking with a goalie who occasionally does terrible things like win a lot, it’s Carolina, Pittsburgh, the Rangers and Washington, and they will likely all make it.
Does that sound exactly like last year’s Metro predictions? Well it is, barring the strange meme this time last year that the Flyers were good. I think Friedman started that, and it was really weird.
The Mild, Mild West
Once Colorado sobers up, I think they will dominate again. They did a good job of retooling given the cap circumstances. I think Seattle is better, the Canucks are serious now, good, but not great in the larger context, the Oilers are... well, whatever they’re doing, they’re a playoff team. The Jets are terrible, but have the third most reliable goalie in the world, and Vegas is the wild card again. Minnesota is what they were, so is Calgary overall, so are most of the rest of the teams, and LA won’t have to work so hard to make the playoffs. The Ducks, the Sharks and the Coyotes and Chicago are not really putting genuine hockey teams on the ice, which makes getting points in the West a different proposition to the East.
If you, and let me tell you that tuxedo is smashing, but it you believe you know that the Leafs goalies will be bad, well the team will lose a lot. That’s just how it is. If you believe (still smashing, particularly the satin lapels) that the Leafs goalies will net out to average, then the Leafs are capable of making the playoffs (if you need to ask me how I know that, you’ve forgotten last year). If you believe that the Leafs goalies will be abysmal and Kyle Dubas will choose “Don’t Stop Believing” as the new goal song rather than do anything about it, then you are likely a Leafs fan.