Down Goes Brown's Grab Bag: NHL Needs to Stop Awarding Points for Losses
The league's loser point system is terrible and should die. We also debate which team Canadians should cheer for in an all-American playoffs.
Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Three stars of comedy
The third star: The Jagr Selfie—The "Jaromir Jagr can do no wrong tour" continues.
Best Jagr selfie ever! (OK, fine, second best.)
The second star: RIP Snizzbone—Leafs prospect William Nylander deleted his Twitter account after the organization determined that his handle represented a derogatory term. His handle was "Snizzbone." Is Snizzbone derogatory? I'm told that Snizzbone is indeed derogatory. I don't actually know what Snizzbone means, and I'm pretty sure I don't want to. Honestly, I just like saying Snizzbone.
The first star: The return of the Bryz—OK, yes, technically we gave Ilya Bryzgalov the Three Stars of Comedy Lifetime Achievement Award almost five years ago, banning him from future appearances in order to give everyone else a fighting chance. But when he makes an unexpected return to Twitter after a three-year absence, we have to make an exception. Especially if he does it with an epic callback to his infamous bear phobia.
Obscure former player of the week
Wednesday's final game at Rexall Place was attended by various beloved Oilers legends. And no two legends are more beloved in Edmonton than Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, the two Hall of Famers who defined the team's glory years. Not invited to the festivities: Chris Pronger, another former Oiler who is, uh, not quite so beloved.
So here's a fun bit of trivia: In addition to their many other accolades, Gretzky, Messier and Pronger can all claim to have officially captained three different NHL teams. As best I can tell, only one other NHL player can say that. Can you name him? Hint: There's a reason this question is appearing in the Obscure Player section.
The answer: Journeyman sparkplug Terry Ruskowski.
In fact, Ruskowski actually did those Hall of Famers one better. He captained four pro teams: the Blackhawks, Kings, Penguins, and the WHA's Houston Aeros. Not bad for a former fourth-round pick who only managed 113 goals over a 630-game NHL career, one that spanned from 1979 to 1989 and saw him make stops in Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Minnesota. Ruskowski was a small but feisty forward who wasn't afraid to drop the gloves with just about anyone.
He retired in 1989, and went on to a long and colorful minor league coaching career. He didn't mellow much with age; here he is getting suspended for throwing sticks at a referee. Why? Because leadership, that's why.
Debating the issues
This week's debate: With no teams north of the border qualifying for the first time since 1970, who should be Canada's Team for this year's playoffs?
In favor: Hmm, tough one. Lots of good candidates here. Let's start with the Penguins. Canadians love Sidney Crosby, right? They'd be a good choice.
Opposed: No. The Penguins are not Canada's team.
In favor: Huh. OK. Maybe the Kings? They've got Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter, plus a Sutter behind the bench.
Opposed: No, the Kings don't work either.
In favor: OK, what about the Panthers? They're a fun team, and their key player is Team Canada mainstay and former Canuck Roberto Luongo. That pick has been getting some love lately.
Opposed: No. Not the Panthers.
In favor: The Lightning? You've got Steven Stamkos when he comes back, plus Steve Yzerman, the same GM who built those gold-medal winning Canadian teams.
Opposed: No. Not the Lightning either.
In favor: How about the Blackhawks? Original Six tradition, plus Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and former Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd.
Opposed: No, not the Blackhawks.
In favor: Yeah, that's a little front-runnery. Oh, I've got a good one: The Wild. Minnesota is practically part of Canada already!
Opposed: Not the Wild.
In favor: The Ducks? Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and...
In favor: John Tavares and the Islanders could make for a...
In favor: Detroit is right across the border from...
In favor: OK, fine. You've shot down every team I've mentioned. So what's your pick? Who gets to be Canada's Team once the playoffs start?
Opposed: Nobody does, because this whole concept is stupid. There is no Canada's Team. And nobody wants there to be one. Canadian hockey fans cheer for one team and one team only: their own. Once that team is out, we want everyone else to be just as miserable as we are. We don't throw out support behind anyone. We sit in a dark room, cross our arms and sulk.
In favor: Sounds fun.
Opposed: We go through this every year as soon as there's one Canadian team left in the playoffs, and everyone pretends that the country is uniting behind them. It's ridiculous, and it's even worse this year with no Canadian teams to choose from. But we don't jump on some other team's bandwagon and we never will.
In favor: OK, fine. But then who should Canadian fans cheer for?
Opposed: Whoever they want! Pick a team that's fun. Pick a team with a chance to win. Pick a team that your uncle once cheered for. Pick a team you just like watching. Or, and here's the best option of all, don't pick anyone. Just watch the playoffs unfold, enjoying the twists and turns and drama of every series, without feeling like you have to pick sides. Bandwagon fans are the worst anyway.
In favor: A novel approach.
Opposed: Watch the playoffs however you want. Just don't feel any pressure to do so based on your passport. There is no Canada's Team, and there never has been.
The final verdict: Except for the World Cup. Which we're winning easily, by the way.
Trivial annoyance of the week
The NHL loser point is terrible and needs to die. On this, all decent human being agree. The New York Times accused it of "ruining the NHL" almost a decade ago, and even Nate Silver took a break from forecasting elections to call it "the dumbest rule in sports."
The issue was back in the news recently thanks to the NHL's leaked email dump, one that revealed that even the players hate this stupid thing and want to get rid of it:
And yet, it's still here, so we have to keep talking about it even though I assure you that I'm as sick of the topic as you are. And the reason it's still around is that the league keeps hauling out its standard rationale for the system: That it makes the playoff races closer. That's Gary Bettman's go-to defense, and sure enough it shows up in the leaked email linked above: "GMs did not want the playoff races to stop on Feb. 1." So yeah. Closer playoff races.
Fun fact: Here's what the Western Conference wildcard standings looked like on Wednesday morning, after the Avalanche were eliminated from playoff contention.
You're looking at a 40-win team, a 39-win team and a 38-win team. Not much to choose from with those records, especially with two games left and both wild cards in play. But thanks to the loser point, the race had been all but over for weeks.
Was that more exciting for you as a fan? Was it fun to see three teams with virtually identical records separated by huge gaps in the standings because the league arbitrarily rewards some losses but not others?
And sure, that's just one example, and cherry-picking to make a point is bad form. The Flyers are still alive in the Eastern race in part thanks to 13 loser points, so sometimes the system works. But that's just it—it's only sometimes, because loser points are largely random. They can't make the playoff races any closer when everyone is getting them and the team you're chasing is just as likely to get the extra point as you are.
To be clear: The playoff races really are closer these days than ever before. But that's because we're in the era of parity. The loser point has been around since 1999, but the races only tightened up in 2006, after the lockout ushered in the salary cap. The league may as well try to credit the tighter races to the trapezoid; at least the timing would fit.
And yet people still believe the "closer races" myth because the league has repeated it so often that it just has to be true. I've spent a few days asking various smart hockey folks whether anyone has ever seen a decent study backing the league's claim, and nobody has. That's because there's barely any truth to it, if any at all. It's a cover story.
So let's cut the crap and state the obvious: The NHL has a loser point because the GMs like inflating the standings and letting three quarters of the league finish over .500. It's good for their job security. That's it. The rest is just the marketing spin they've decided to layer on top of it. And smart fans need to stop falling for it.
And yes, I realize you probably know this already. On some level, we all do, and we're worn out from arguing about it. But today's terrible system will never change unless fans keep calling B.S. So the next time you hear someone—a fan, a broadcaster, a radio host, a sportswriter on Twitter—cite the "closer playoff races" line, call them on it. Send them one of the dozens of articles explaining how dumb the concept is.
And if they still don't believe you, have them talk to an Avalanche fan.
Classic YouTube clip breakdown
We're reached the final weekend of the NHL season. It's honestly a bit of an anti-climax, with a full slate of games but just one playoff spot still up for grabs. If you're the type of fan who loves a dramatic finish, this hasn't really been your year.
So today, let's look back at a year that really did come right down to the wire: The 1987-88 season, as the Patrick Division's last remaining spot comes down to the season's final seconds.
- It's April 3, 1988, the last day of the regular season, and the Devils are visiting Chicago. As we join our clip, the Devils are sitting in last place in the Patrick with 80 points. After a desperate late-season charge, they're one point back of the Penguins and two behind the Rangers, and could leapfrog into fourth with a win. But with regulation in the books and only minutes remaining in overtime, they need it soon.
- Oh, and just to ratchet up the drama: The Devils have never made the playoffs in the history of the franchise. No pressure, boys.
- A few things here that might be confusing to modern fans. One: There was no loser point back in 1988 and overtime is five-on-five, so sudden death goals are relatively rare. Two: The Devils are the road team even though they're wearing their dark uniforms. And three: As always, this is the 80s and defense hadn't been invented yet. Roll tape!
- "You have to find some way to relieve it, and the only way to is to just bend over and rock." Uh, maybe roll tape a bit further.
- Man, I wish I loved anything in my life as much as 1980s organists loved breaking out Hava Nagila.
- The Hawks send the puck down the ice, where it rolls in on Devils rookie goaltender Sean Burke. He was playing just his 13th NHL game, having taken over the starting duties with a late-season hot streak. Also, we all thought he was freakishly massive because he was 6'4"—it was a simpler time.
- New Jersey collects the puck, then take it blueline-to-blueline with no trouble whatsoever because nobody has figured out how to clog up the neutral zone and make hockey unwatchable. Sure hope nobody cracks that code any time soon, right Devils fans?
- They create some pressure, and the puck comes to Patrik Sundstrom. Watch the pass he makes back to Joe Cirella—it's maybe one inch from being picked off by Steve Larmer, who would have had a 130-foot clean breakaway to end the dream. Instead, Cirella gathers it, fights off a tractor pull from Larmer, and gets it on net.
- Darren Pang makes the save, but kicks it out to John MacLean. He buries it, the Devils are in the playoffs, and everyone goes freaking nuts.
- Well, not "everyone" since the game is in Chicago and half the fans seem confused by what the big deal is. But everyone on the Devils is, as they unleash an epic end-to-end celebration. Again, they've never made the playoffs and Wayne Gretzky once called them a "Mickey Mouse organization." They've earned this.
- I've always loved the Hawks' reaction to all this, as they console Darren Pang like they've just been eliminated. For the record, the game was completely meaningless for them. I guess they just got caught up in the spirit.
- We get a shot of a jubilant Jim Schoenfeld. At the time, some hockey fans may have vaguely recognized him as a former journeyman player who was in his first year as the Devils' head coach. Within a few weeks, Schoenfeld would be well-known across the hockey world, thanks to the infamous "Have another donut" incident" with Don Koharski (which we broke down in a previous Grab Bag).
- The red and greens: Best Devils uniforms, or super-best Devils uniforms?
- "You have to feel terrible for the New York Rangers." Here's a weird and mostly forgotten side story: By dropping out of the playoffs, the Rangers ended up with the fifth overall pick in the 1988 draft. That was no small prize—remember, this was one of the best classes ever, with a top ten that included Teemu Selanne, Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Trevor Linden and Rod Brind'Amour. But the Rangers never got to use the pick. They had already traded it the previous summer for... well, it's kind of hard to explain.
- We get back-to-back mentions of Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan, and I'm immediately distracted by positive thoughts about the modern day Maple Leafs. Things are good. Everything is under control. What could possibly go wrong?
- Oh look at that, there's Tom Kurvers, now I'm sad again.
- Easily my favorite shot of this clip is injured forward Doug Sulliman running around just beating the crap out of everyone. Seriously, he's a lunatic. The 1980s Norris Division thinks Doug Sulliman needs to ease up with the punching of people. Happy Doug Sulliman forever.
- "They're chartering home tonight. I'd suggest a few of the wives be there to drive home." Indeed.
- We get one last shot of Schoenfeld congratulating players as they leave the ice and head down the stairs, which is a good time to remind you that the old Chicago Stadium made the visiting team use a flight of stairs. Yeah, let's have exhausted dudes on skates try to navigate a staircase, what could go wrong?
- The donut incident turned out to be the most memorable of what would go onto be a long Devils playoff run, one that featured upsets over the Islanders and Capitals and saw them come within one game of reaching the Cup final. It was crazy fun. The Devils would miss the playoffs twice in the next two decades, winning three Stanley Cups in the process.
- As for Lamoriello, he'd later regret his spur-of-the-moment promise to reward MacLean by giving him any job in the organization that he wanted.