The NHL Season That Was

The 2011-12 NHL season lasted 249 days starting with the Bruins-Flyers game on Oct. 6 and ending with the Kings’ Game 6 win over the Devils on June 11. With the season in the books it only seemed right to look back at what was learned over the last eight-plus months in an email exchange with good friend and also enemy Mike Hurley.

Keefe: The NHL Season started on Oct. 6. How do I know that? Well it was the night before the Yankees lost to the Tigers in Game 5 of the ALDS at the Stadium. Do you know long ago that was?!?! Forever ago. The NHL goes on and on and on and then when it ends, it starts up again just a couple months later, and I guess that’s why I love it so much. From the time the Bruins won the Cup a year ago until now, it’s felt like one long season. And when you consider that your Bruins were eliminated from the playoffs 59 days ago and the playoffs just ended on Monday it’s pretty insane.

We thought (along with just about everyone else) that the Rangers and Bruins would meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, but that idea didn’t exactly go according to plan. In the end it was the eighth-seeded Kings beating the sixth-seeded Devils in the Stanley Cup Final, which makes me asks whether or not the current NHL playoff format is the best possible format? I’m not saying this because the Rangers didn’t get by the Devils, but because it seems like there should be more incentive to win the conference. In 2012 with cookie-cutter rinks and luxurious travel for teams, home-ice advantage has become nonexistent.

Two years ago I proposed the idea that 10 teams in each conference make the playoffs with the bottom four teams (seeds 7, 8, 9 and 10) playing a three-game series (7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9) on consecutive days during the off days between the regular season and the start of the playoffs. All three games would be at the higher seed’s arena, and the two winners would become the seventh and eighth seeds in the playoffs.

I know it might be a little much and closer to the baseball postseason format, which we both hate, but I don’t think you can have byes in the NHL, and this is the closest thing to giving the top two seeds an advantage, while making the rest of the teams play to stay out of the three-game series.

Hurley: As someone who gets nauseous any time someone mentions the new baseball postseason format, I’m not sure I can fully endorse your plan. I do agree though that the NHL season and postseason shake out isn’t entirely fair and doesn’t make too much sense.

Basically, this year you had the Kings go 40-27-15, though they entered March at 29-23-12, which gave them a .453 winning percentage. I don’t know how you judge teams, but to me, that’s not very good.

Then you had the Devils, who went 48-28-6. That’s not all that bad, but their season ended with six straight wins.

I don’t bring these records up to take anything away from the Kings or Devils, but I do think it illustrates how meaningless the 82-game regular season is in the NHL.

The problem with your solution is that you’re adding two teams to an already-diluted playoff field. Yes, the eighth-seeded Kings won this year, but would you really have wanted to add Calgary, Dallas, Buffalo and Tampa to this year’s playoff field? And do you want 66 percent of teams making the postseason? That only goes to make the regular season even more useless.

I disagree with you when you say that you can’t have byes in hockey. After that marathon regular season, teams that are beaten and bruised need nothing more than a little rest to get just a little bit stronger for that postseason push, which can last the better part of three months. Just look at the Kings this postseason: They had five days off after winning their first-round series, six days off after sweeping the second round and seven days off after eliminating the Coyotes in five games. Clearly, there was no rust factor at play there, as the team was able to stay healthy and open up 3-0 leads in every single series it played, which is an absurdly ridiculous accomplishment.

Now, would the Kings have been able to do the same if they had to toil through a first-round series before facing a well-rested, top-seeded Canucks team? Maybe, but at least the Canucks would have earned some advantage for winning 51 games from October through April.

One thing that DEFINITELY needs to be changed is the whole “winning your division automatically gets you in the top three spots in the conference” fiasco. That’s absurd. The Bruins were the No. 2 seed in the East this year but should have been fourth. The Panthers were the No. 3 seed but should have been sixth. The divisions in hockey aren’t distinct enough to warrant such a major impact on playoff seeding (though the NHL has its hands full with that atrocious realignment plan, so perhaps this issue can be cleared up when the league makes another attempt this summer).

Keefe: OK, you have talked me out of the more teams and three-game series and into the byes. Maybe you should have been a salesman. I also agree on the ridiculous seeding with division winners, which is just as ridiculous as what baseball is doing with letting division winners with worse records than wild-card teams get into the ALDS without any problem. I forgot that I’m not supposed to mention the new MLB postseason format around you.

We have had our fair share of talks about the Patriots and how what they did between 2001 and 2004 will most likely never be seen again. To win week after week in the postseason and essentially one-game playoff after one-game playoff along with three Super Bowls in four years is something that is close to impossible in sports. Look at the Giants. They won two times in four years, which seems unfathomable, and I can think of hundreds of plays and decisions that had even one of them gone the other way they would have never won the Super Bowl, let alone made the Super Bowl, let alone made the playoffs! But I’m sure that’s a topic that makes you more nauseous than the MLB postseason format.

You brought up some good points about the chances of repeating in the NHL in past discussions and how the combination of a lengthy season mixed with a summer of partying as champions and having less of an offseason, plus the fatigue factor and every team wanting to beat the defending champions for 82 straight games takes a toll on a team. The Bruins and Canucks finished last season on June 15, even later than the end of this season, and then both went out in the first round to a 7-seed and an 8-seed respectively. Sure, the Capitals and the Kings might have just been better teams or better during that one series, but then you look at the 2010-11 Blackhawks and they barely made the playoffs before going out in the first round. The 2009-10 Penguins, who many thought would go back to the Cup for a third straight year, were bounced in the second round by the inferior and eighth-seeded Canadiens. I guess the back-to-back years of the Penguins and Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final in 2007-08 and 2008-09 are the exception to the rule, but still there hasn’t been a repeat for the title since the Red Wings in 96-97 and 97-98, and those teams were stupid. I mean they went 32-10 in the playoffs in those two years, including 8-0 against the Flyers and Capitals for the Cup.

So should we pencil in any team other than the Kings for the Cup in 2012-13? Does this mean the MSG Network won’t have to keep making series and commercials and documentaries about the Summer of ’94?

Hurley: Some day, perhaps we’ll have a discussion where you don’t mention the Giants winning Super Bowls. Alas, that day is not today.

I did like that you told me I’ve brought up some good points. That is probably the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, so I feel it’s best that I repay you with something nice. So, um, I guess I can say that when I see your face, I don’t want to punch it ALL the time, just most of the time. That’s nice, right?

I really believe that in this salary cap era, it will be nearly impossible for a team to repeat. I know the Penguins and Red Wings both made it back in two straight years, but the variables there were having the two best players in the world on one team and having the deepest, smartest roster on the other. That’s just rare. And the long injury problems that have followed Sidney Crosby since then only go to further my belief.

I probably feel that way after watching the Bruins closely in their post-Cup run. There were the obvious parties and $150,000 bar tabs and the endless sightings of Brad Marchand wearing no shirt and Tyler Seguin wearing his pants far too low, but I don’t think those were the problems that prevented the Bruins from getting back to the top. For one, there was the massive dropoff in intensity from their 25 playoff games to the first month of the regular season, when they went 3-7-0. And it’s really hard to quantify, but you really saw a lot of lesser teams around the league “get up” for their home game against the Bruins. I’m fairly positive that a half-dozen people became deaf in Winnipeg on Feb. 17, when the Jets beat the Bruins 4-2, and I’m equally as sure that there were riots on the streets of St. Paul when the Wild shut out the Bruins two days later.

Once the playoffs rolled around, the Bruins didn’t have Nathan Horton to score the crucial goals they needed, and an above-average Tim Thomas wasn’t nearly as good as the absolutely phenomenal Tim Thomas who showed up the previous spring.

And even with Horton and Thomas, the Bruins still needed a lucky bounce off a diving Canadien to win Game 7 of the opening round last year. If that puck doesn’t go in, and Montreal ends up scoring in that overtime, then I’m not sitting here talking about the Boston Bruins because nobody would care about the team that can’t get out of the first round.

The point is, it’s so ridiculously difficult to win one Cup in today’s NHL. It’s doubly impossible to do it two years in a row.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go punch a few walls because you mentioned the new MLB playoff format around me.

Keefe: I wasn’t going to talk about it because I feel like it might be a sensitive topic for you, but since you mentioned Tim Thomas, let’s talk about him. Or let’s try to at least answer the question: What is Tim Thomas doing?

It’s June 13. In two days it will be one year since the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. When the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, Tim Thomas was a hero in Boston. I don’t want to say that he would ever sustain being in the class that Tom Brady and David Ortiz are in, but he was right there, and he was at least in that class for a little while. He became so big that my friend Derek from Boston got a tattoo of Thomas holding the Cup on his arm, and no one thought it was weird.

Let’s look at what happened over the last year…

Thomas morphed into the first face of the Bruins since Joe Thornton left town, and he gave the blue-collar fans a blue-collar hero who didn’t become a starting goalie in the league until he was 36. This is the same guy that was stuck on the depth chart behind Andrew Raycroft, John Grahame and Steve Shields at different points in his NHL career. Even after becoming the starter, the Bruins signed Manny Fernandez to be the starter over Thomas in 2007-08.

But then Thomas decided to not go to The White House with his teammates to celebrate their championship with President Obama. It’s not like Thomas was a fourth-liner or someone who was a healthy scratch on and off during the playoff run … he was the sole reason the team was at The White House and he didn’t show up. Then he decided to not talk to the media when he didn’t feel like it, started being a distraction to the team and his teammates because of his Facebook page, his play slipped, and it all came together when he spoke oddly about the team following their Game 7 playoff loss to the Capitals. And then out of nowhere he decided he wasn’t going to play in 2012-13 despite being under contract in an attempt to play for Team USA in the 2014 Winter Olympics even though he was the backup goalie in 2010 and even though Jonathan Quick (the third goalie in 2010) and Ryan Miller (the starter in 2010) will play over him. Did I leave anything out?

After writing all that, it seems crazy that a year ago Thomas could have had opening containers of alcohol in Faneuil Hall while wearing no clothes and urinating on a sausage and peppers cart, and nothing would have happened to him. Now he’s just this weird guy who won the team their first Stanley Cup since 1972.

What the eff happened?

Hurley: We could probably spill a few thousand words on Thomas alone, so I’ll try to be succinct. Essentially, goalies are always the weirdest guys on the team, but in a position full of weirdos, Thomas stands out as one of the weirdest.

But I’m not even sure this is about Thomas being weird. I think it’s about him having leverage. Peter Chiarelli clearly didn’t read the CBA before signing Thomas to that four-year, $20 million contract, otherwise he’d have known that the team would absorb that $5 million cap hit whether Thomas played, quit, or moved to Italy to become a butcher. Thomas’ agent, knowing that the no-trade clause expires on July 1, pulled the only bit of leverage he and his client had — they made Thomas untradeable. Or at least, they made themselves a necessary part of any potential trade talks. Thomas knows the Bruins would be happy to trade him (and his cap hit) and let Tuukka Rask start 60-65 games next season, and by declaring he won’t play next year, it requires that any interested team would have to talk to him before acquiring him. If it’s, say, Columbus and he doesn’t want to play there, he’ll likely just tell the Columbus brass that he doesn’t plan on playing next season. If it’s, say, Colorado, and that idea excites him, then he’ll go for it.

I think that’s the business side of it. Maybe I’m a bad person for not taking Thomas’ “Friends, Family and Faith” thing at face value, but given his aspirations to play for Team USA, and his inclusion of sponsor links in his “heartfelt message” that he posted on Facebook, I think you’re a fool to not be skeptical.

Now, the part about his fall from grace is truly fascinating. The guy never had the personality to be someone like Ortiz, and he lacked the youthful greatness of Brady during the Super Bowl days, but he had unquestionably the most remarkable story of any athlete we’ve ever seen. He was the 217th pick in 1994, picked behind goalies named Henrik Smangs, Vitali Yeremeyev, Luciano Caravaggio and Evgeni Ryabchikov. When he finally made it as a full timer in the NHL more than a decade later, most of us laughed at the thought of him as a starter. He was too erratic, too wild and too out-of-control to last in the best league in the world. And he kept proving us all wrong, kept improving his numbers every single year and ultimately turned in one of the best postseason performances of any goalie ever.

Now? He’s burned more bridges that anyone thought possible, and to just about everybody around the team, he’s as good as gone. And it all happened in less than one calendar year. Truly unbelievable.

Keefe: Tim Thomas wasn’t the only guy associated with the 2011-12 season that became a focal point in every media session. We had one of those in New York in John Tortorella.

Tortorella has had this cocky attitude and swagger about himself since showing up to New York for Tom Renney in the middle of the 2008-09 season, and while the Rangers could have used a coaching change back then, it wasn’t really necessary. After Renney had returned the team to respectability (after Glen Sather spent a decade erasing any and all of that respectability) by returning to the playoffs in 2005-06 and reaching the second round in 2006-07 and 2007-08. Then with some inconsistent play in ’08-09, he was gone. Maybe the team needed a new voice and a shakeup like we saw with the ‘08-09 Penguins and Dan Bylsma or this year’s King with Darryl Sutter, but it seemed like a quick hook. If this season’s Rangers team wasn’t good enough to win the Cup (or even reach it), thinking that the 2008-09 was good enough to do so and needed a coaching change to do so is just crazy.

But Tortorella’s attitude since coming here has been “I won in 2003-04 and no one in New York has won since 1993-94.” He has carried himself this way with the media every chance he could get, and I decided that he had to take this team to the conference finals for him to finally win me over, and for him to stop banking on his success with the Lightning as a way to carry himself. He did just that and now I’m a card-carrying member of the John Tortorella Fan Club whether or not I really want to be.

As an outsider, and a fellow native of Massachusetts like Tortorella, how is he viewed from your perspective? For me, I have no choice, but to like him after he held up his end of the bargain that I created and he never knew about, and because not liking John Tortorella around here is like not liking Nick Swisher.

Hurley: I think he’s an A-hole. Should I go on?

I don’t care if a guy doesn’t say much when he talks to the media. Really, I don’t at all. Athletes/coaches/whoever not talking to the media becomes such an overblown story line these days, and honestly I could care less because they all spit the same clichés and talk for five minutes without saying anything.

What does bother me is his tough guy attitude with the media and his intimidation. You’re not a tough guy. You’re a hockey coach. You wear a suit to work. Stop trying to act like you’re a professional wrestler.

And what’s bothered me is that he’s imposed his style on that team so much in a “my way or the highway” kind of way, and I’ve never been convinced he has enough cachet for that to be justified. Yeah, he won the Stanley Cup, but that was with Marty St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier in their primes, Brad Richards emerging as a star and the NHL screwing the Flames out of winning the whole damn thing in Game 6 when Marty Gelinas and the Flames were robbed of the Cup-winning goal.

I’m not completely anti-Massachusetts coaches, though. Give me Peter Laviolette any day of the week.

Keefe: We rarely agree on anything, but the one thing we can agree on is the inconsistent job done by Brendan Shanahan throughout the season.

Shanahan started out so strong and promising by throwing the book at everyone who even attempted a borderline illegal hit, elbow or headshot. But as the season went on and owners and general managers had their way, the suspensions and punishments lessened and became more sporadic. Then it all came to a boiling point in the playoffs when Shanahan decided to dust off Colin Campbell’s dartboard and remake his cootie catcher out of some construction paper. Starting in the quarterfinals and going through the conference finals, Shanahan made a series of questionable decisions based on whether or not a player was injured from the incident.

It’s hard to find anyone over the last few seasons that has written more words about illegal and borderline illegal hits in the league than you. For someone who didn’t want Colin Campbell to be the judge for the NHL any longer and was initially excited about the job Shanahan was doing, what is your evaluation of Shanahan after one year?

Hurley: I’ve always felt my calling in life was to work at the league office in Toronto, sit in front of 12 TV screens with a dozen glazed donuts and an extra-large coffee and watch hockey games. When refs had trouble determining whether a puck crossed a line or not, or whether it was kicked in, they’d call me. I’d answer the phone and say, “Hey, Billy. Yah, dat’s a goal.” (I’d talk like a Canadian out of respect for the game.) Other times I’d say, “Ay Jahnny. How’re da wife and kids? Good. Well ahh yah! No goal. See ya, Jahnny.”

(Excuse me while I weep for a moment while realizing I’ll never get that job. … … … OK. I’ve regrouped.)

But now I think maybe my real calling in life is to determine suspensions in the NHL. I was all aboard the Shanahan Express in the preseason, when he was just banishing guys with reckless abandon and created the nickname “Shanahammer” for himself. Some of the punishments were overboard, but I always contested during the Colin Campbell era that it made ZERO sense to err on the side of NOT suspending someone. I’d much rather see an overly harsh punishment than no punishment at all. I look at Matt Cooke ending Marc Savard’s career and getting nothing for it, and I look at Zdeno Chara going out of his way to deliver a late shot on Max Pacioretty, and I don’t understand how neither player received so much as a slap on the wrist. If we were living in the Roman Empire and we enjoyed going to the Coliseum to watch beasts and men alike be slayed before our eyes, then fine, but in modern society, violent actions that break rules need to be punished. So Shanahan was doing a good job.

But as you mentioned, the owners didn’t like their players missing for long periods of time, and the Shanahammer became more like Shanapansy. He was too afraid to suspend players. He did what he was told. He was just more of the same.

In the playoffs, I don’t think any of his suspensions were too awful (I know you hated the Carl Hagelin suspension, but while it was a little lengthy, a suspension was warranted), but he was still too scared to suspend star players (with the exception of Nicklas Backstrom and Claude Giroux).

I was actually thinking of Shanahan the other night when Gary Bettman was on the ice to present the Conn Smythe and the Cup and there weren’t enough L.A. fans who follow hockey closely enough to know that they were supposed to be booing Bettman. He had that patented Bettman smugness painted on his face, and I was thinking about how much he enjoyed Shanahan serving as the punching bag of NHL fans all year long. I feel Shanahan was duped into the job, was told he could truly be the sheriff of the NHL, only to be neutered once the real season began.

Bottom line: Shanahan is a tremendous improvement over Campbell, but until the league actually gets serious about player safety rather than mostly just paying lip service to it, then we’ll always have problems with the decisions made after hits that can easily be wiped out of the game.

(My favorite anecdote about the lack of seriousness regarding player safety is that the Bruins’ team doctor has stated publicly multiple times that it can’t be medically proven that Marc Savard’s concussion suffered on the Cooke hit had anything to do with his concussion the following year that came in a routine collision with Matt Hunwick, who weighs 135 pounds soaking wet. A real life, team-employed doctor told reporters this information as fact, with a straight face. Just a coincidence then, eh, doc?)

Keefe: I thought about ending this conversation with some points about your 2012 Boston Red Sox, but I figured everything has been going pretty well, so why make you cry again? I don’t think there’s anything I can say that will make any Red Sox feel worse about watching their team in 2012 than they already do. We’ll have plenty of time to talk Yankees-Red Sox when the two teams meet at Fenway the first weekend in July. Maybe I will even think about going to a game with you since the tickets should be down to about $2.50 then. (Don’t tell Red Sox Executive Vice President and COO Sam Kennedy I said that.)

Hurley: The Red Sox do not make me cry. They make me laugh. They have a bazillion dollar payroll but they’re making decisions like keeping Scott Podsednik and Daniel Nava over Marlon Byrd. Tickets at $2.50 are actually considered a little pricey now. We could probably get some for $1.25 by July. I’ll go to the game with you, just as long as we sit at least 20 rows apart so I don’t have to look at your stupid face or hear the stupid things that come out of your stupid mouth. Deal.