As we head closer to the NHL playoffs, one thing that could come into play is that home-ice advantage appears to be dwindling amid COVID-19 restrictions. Still, it remains to be seen how long that lasts, as all U.S.-based teams except the Chicago Blackhawks and those in Canada now allow some fans.
A recent study by Canadian website OnlineGambling.ca shows that NHL games in last year’s playoff bubble and through March of this season provided a decisively lesser home advantage compared with the previous six seasons. From 2013-19 home teams won 55% of the 7,462 games.
But in 592 games played under COVID-19-restricted conditions through March, the study showed home teams winning only 49% of the time — a 10% decline.
Are road teams gaining an advantage because they don’t have 18,000 hostile fans screaming in their ears? It may also be because teams are playing each other so often this season — only within their divisions because of the Canadian border closure and to reduce travel — that familiarity reduces home edge even more.
And how might having even more fans allowed come playoff time up the odds? The Dallas Stars entered this past week with the highest fan capacity of any team at 22.86%, averaging 4,237 fans in an 18,532-seat arena.
After an early-season COVID-19 surge compacted their schedule for weeks, the Stars have recovered and are one of the NHL’s hottest teams. They’d gone eight games without a regulation loss until a late-week defeat in Detroit and are riding a five-game home win streak.
If the Stars reach the playoffs and allow even more fans into American Airlines Center, the Cup finalists from last season could surprise.
The Canadian-based teams are likely hoping home-ice advantage means less, because the border will stay closed at least through May 21. That could force the North Division winner into permanent U.S. road action the final two playoff rounds starting in June.
Anyhow, just more variables to consider this most unusual of seasons. On to your mailbag questions.
Q: @Goodall_10 asked: When can Seattle start making and announcing side deals? Do they need to wait for the protected lists to be officially submitted?
A: I’m glad you asked, because I don’t think many people understand the process. These side deals aren’t formalized, they’re back-pocket, handshake agreements.
The Vegas Golden Knights had their expansion draft in June 2017, so the Kraken’s is one month later into this year. But by February 2017 (equivalent to March 2021 in this year’s draft lead-up), Vegas had made a side deal not to draft coveted Columbus players such as winger Josh Anderson or goalie Joonas Korpisalo. Instead, the Golden Knights picked forward William Karlsson and took on the salary of injured forward David Clarkson in return for the Blue Jackets’ first-round pick in the 2017 entry draft and third-rounder in 2019.
Despite being made in February, the deal wasn’t announced until the draft. First off, though Clarkson was injured and never played again, had he been healthy and the deal been announced in February 2017, his season would have been over months before the playoffs. You can’t announce a trade and have that player keep playing for his former squad. And the expansion team, of course, doesn’t play until months after the draft.
The union wouldn’t be cool with healthy players being sidelined in their prime because they were traded to an expansion team not yet playing. So it’s kept off the books. And if a player included in a side deal is injured while playing for the team that wants to give him up, the expansion squad can simply undo the handshake agreement. The onus would be on the dealing team to find a suitable healthy replacement, or risk losing a player in the draft it wants to keep.
Judging by the timeline of the Vegas-Columbus deal, Kraken general manager Ron Francis may already have one done. But he’d want to stay silent to avoid tipping his hand. If a team’s GM knows Francis took a second-round pick from another club in one deal, he’d be less likely to offer a first-rounder when the Kraken comes calling on him. Also, if opposing GMs figure out the positions, salaries and types of players given to Francis in side deals ahead of time, they’ll know the Kraken’s remaining deficiencies and who better to protect in the expansion draft.
Q: @mbbrennan asked: Who’s in the mix for the first head coach and what is timeframe for getting that person in place? Can’t wait until the Kraken start playing reg season games.
A: Francis was asked in a media conference call a couple of weeks back about his coaching hire. “We’d love to hire our head coach and staff probably as we get in to the second quarter of this year,” he said.
The second quarter runs through June, when the third round of the playoffs take place.
“I think you look at guys who are sitting out there currently without jobs, you look at guys that are currently working,” he said. “And maybe you look at other situations that may be looking to make a change.”
At this point, it’s obvious the Kraken is eyeing a couple situations that could see coaches leave teams.
The most intriguing is Rod Brind’Amour of the Carolina Hurricanes, whose team could go deep in the playoffs or get knocked out early by Tampa Bay or Florida in a tough division.
On the opposite end, there’s Travis Green of the Vancouver Canucks, who aren’t going to the playoffs despite somehow beating the Toronto Maple Leafs twice this past week. I’ve mentioned Green could get fired for his team’s underperformance, but remember, back in January he was still considered a good coach that works well with analytics. That doesn’t change in 90 days, but the Canucks may decide to alter the dynamic.
With Brind’Amour, he’s saying all the right things about staying in Carolina, and Hurricanes owner Thomas Dundon continues to say he wants to keep him. But until it’s a done deal, it isn’t.
Francis mentioned coaches currently sidelined, and you have former Vegas Golden Knights bench boss Gerard Gallant and ex-Minnesota Wild counterpart Bruce Boudreau out there.
There’s been recent chatter about Colorado Avalanche assistant Nolan Pratt, given his work with that team’s stellar blue-line core.
But Francis downplayed hiring a first-time coach.
“I think I’m on record saying that in a perfect world I’d like to have a head coach that’s been in that role before,” Francis said. “I think it’s a tough challenge to sort of bring everybody together in such a quick fashion.”
We also shouldn’t forget that former Francis teammate Kevin Dineen, now an AHL coach in San Diego, has NHL head-coaching experience and wants another shot.
Q: @TheTumorigenic asked: Would we be talking about Tyler Johnson or TJ Oshie as potential future Kraken if they weren’t from Washington State? I think not. Isn’t Seattle better served avoiding each player and not helping TB or Washington out with their cap troubles?
A: Sure we would be. Johnson is overshadowed on a great Lightning team, but he’s only 30 and a solid center that can play both wings. Oshie is the bigger risk at 34, but he’s still producing for the Capitals and a potential Kraken captain. Both have won Stanley Cups the past three seasons. The fact they hail from Washington is a bonus.
But even if both grew up in Lithuania, their contracts are big enough that GMs needing salary cap space would entertain moving them. And the Kraken will listen, because you don’t know how many additional players or draft picks you’d get for taking either guy.
Q: @CHWorldTour asked: There’s been talk of Seattle hosting an NHL All Star Game and/or draft at some point, whether permitting is their any chance the league would entertain an Outdoor Stadium Series game here?
A: I addressed this two years ago in a column titled: “Outdoor NHL game in Seattle? As good a chance as the new team being named ‘Kraken’ “
So, don’t believe anything I write. Ever.
Or, consider why I wrote it. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had just visited town, was asked about an outdoor game here and looked as if someone had asked to borrow his Boca Raton mansion for a beach party.
“There are two things that are a problem for us with outdoor games … sun glare — well, that’s not a problem here — and rain,” Bettman said, on what happened to be one of our typical, pouring January days. “We can play in snow, but rain’s a problem. So we’re going to have to study whether or not it’s feasible.”
Bettman didn’t think T-Mobile Park and its roof equate to an outdoor game. Given the weather fiasco the NHL just had in Lake Tahoe, where two outdoor games were postponed due to melting ice conditions, I doubt he’s eager to roll the dice on it not raining here. Better off trying for the beach party.