Life after greatness: What happens when a sport loses its GOAT?

What do you do once the GOATs are gone?

There’s no denying that GOATs are great for a sport when they’re still active. Michael Jordan, Tony Hawk, and other best-to-ever-do-its pushed their sports to popularity not seen since, but led to fans coming down off a trip so perfect that they were left fiending for the next fix of greatness personified.

We always want to know who’s next in line to take the throne, and more often than not the line of successors is filled with false idols. Sure, the NFL post-Tom Brady is doing fine, but that’s the Shield, and while it, like soccer, is probably immune to Post Traumatic GOAT Syndrome due to sports’ popularity, Patrick Mahomes helps (as does Kylian Mbappe).

If No. 15 wasn’t around, fans would be talking themselves into Josh Allen or Joe Burrow, and those two aren’t on Brady’s block let alone in his city. Mahomes is at least close, which is fortunate for the NFL. When the falloff following a GOAT is so striking, it can send fans into a malaise until a successor proves worthy.

After Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls for good, the NBA dipped into a funk that only LeBron James could help them out of. Adam Silver is facing an oncoming reality without LeBron, and soon thereafter Steph Curry, and that should scare the shit out of him.

I find the post-GOAT dip fascinating for a variety of reasons, but the main one is can a player be too great? At what point does an athlete become so celebrated that they’re bigger than the game? In some instances, when a superstar moves on, so too does some of the fanbase. So with a number of GOATs recently retired, or on their way, now seems like a good time to look at life after greatness.

I don’t know if I’m onto something, or just on something, but indulge me. (Maybe take a gummy, too. I don’t know.)

What happens when a GOAT sets off for greener pastures?

The subsequent years after a GOAT retires are often filled with existential crises for their sports. There’s an inevitable dip in popularity because 20 years of storylines don’t accompany every playoff game, and we’re used to legacy-defining stakes. Think about the best meal you ever ate, sex you ever had, or party you’ve ever attended. Now think of your last meal, romp, and soiree. Congrats to you if one of them was the best, but also, I’m sorry, because now you will measure everything with that standard in mind.

It’s going to take a minimum of five more years for Mahomes to tie Brady’s Super Bowl mark, and that’s assuming he runs off the next five straight. That means we’re not going to get Super Bowls of GOAT-making proportions until 2028, but likely way beyond that because I doubt we get back-to-back 20-year dynasties.

Think about the distance that Brady and LeBron put between themselves and the next guy as far as the record books go. It’s wild. Luka Dončić and Mahomes only need another 15 to 17 healthy and prime or prime-adjacent seasons to get there.

Not every GOAT is created equal, and the level of impact determines the level of PTGD. Because I’m the foremost scientific mind in this made-up field, I separated the GOATs into three tiers — tier one being the entry-level and three being the Master Class — to illustrate the risks of perfection.

GOAT Tier 1

The first tier features players whose records are breakable, and honestly, there are not a lot of those still around for a number of reasons but mostly the lifespan of sports. The UFC has probably had the most GOATs this century, and that’s because MMA’s popularity is new relative to other sports.

Men’s tennis is the other sport this century where the GOAT belt has changed hands a few times. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic each have their own claim to a surface — clay, grass, hardcourt, respectively — and their collective dominance ushered in a Golden Era. Now, it’s on Carlos Alcaraz to follow their acts, but he’s already had a few health issues despite looking like a composite of the Three Musketeers.

There will definitely be a hole left when the last of that trio retires, yet three different guys were able to each hold the Grand Slam record over the span of a few years, so it’s reasonable that Alcaraz or a player to be named later could win more because they won’t be vying with two other peers for hardware. Thus the Tier 1 status for Rafa, Federer, and Djokovic, because their feats feel attainable despite being the standard.

GOAT Tier 2

This is Mount Olympus, with figures so untouchable their true believers will never disavow them. Jordan and LeBron are up here. So is Wayne Gretzky. Whoever tops the list of best baseball players ever is on here even though there isn’t a unanimous GOAT of MLB.

There are patron saints, and their devout followers worship them as if they were GOATs, so Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, etc. technically qualify. Be that as it may, baseball has such a complicated history with stats, and is so team-reliant, that there’s not a discernible path to the top. A lot of the most prestigious records are unbreakable, and all that shows why MLB is hustling backward. (More on that later.)

Tier 2 GOATs are titans of their sports, and leagues want to keep these athletes around for as long as possible. They rewrite the record books season after season, and are always a ratings draw. There’s a reason Brady and LeBron have been the faces of their league’s promos for the past five to 10 years. The sport is more popular when they’re in it, just like the NBA is more popular when the Lakers and Knicks are good.

The retirement of Tier 2 GOATs prompts panic attacks in commissioners, and often the response is to hype up the next logical challenger regardless of the meaning of “generational talent.” There aren’t many other exit strategies because there’s no dressing up “Our biggest name of the past 20 years, maybe ever, is retiring.”

GOAT Tier 3

In niche sports, the star can burn so hot that it turns into a sun and sparks solar systems. When that star goes dark, the sport loses its gravitational pull on the mainstream. Has skateboarding ever been as popular since Tony Hawk’s 900? As much as he sucks, Shaun White’s gold medal runs at the Olympics were probably the peak for snowboarding. He’s retired (good riddance), but it’s challenging to name another pro snowboarder.

Golf and tennis will never fall out of the mainstream like extreme and/or Olympic-specific sports because too many rich people regularly pick up a racket or a driver. (They ski, too, but not as many.) I bring up those country club activities because Tiger Woods and Serena Williams are so incredibly popular that it’s going to take years, decades, maybe longer to replace the viewership those two routinely brought, and in Woods’ case kind of still brings, to major tournaments.

They were physically and mentally stronger than the field, and dominated in a way that made good players look like hacks in comparison. Combine that with their ability to cross racial barriers few, if any, Black athletes in tennis and golf did before them, and you get demigods that go by one name.

Tier 3 GOATs lead to golden ages, and if not golden ages, at least the most public and profitable eras of those sports. Muhammad Ali is a Tier 3 GOAT. There are a lot of reasons why boxing isn’t what it used to be, but one of the main factors in its downfall is that nobody fights each other when they should. It’s hard to have a pound-for-pound greatest when the gloves can’t speak for themselves.

You never want fans reminiscing over “When such-and-such sport was still great” like they talk about the Rumble in the Jungle, the Tiger Slam, or either Serena Slams. A lot of times it’s obvious when a sport is peaking, and that kind of high leaves leagues chasing something that will never be duplicated again.

When the greatest of all time isn’t replicable

Human empathy and emotion have thrust pitcher safety to the forefront of baseball’s mind, which is great. It’s also preventing guys from ever coming near the records that would vault them into GOAT territory. Statisticians can serve spin rate and exit velocity all they want, but records for complete games and wins, among others, make chasing history impossible. The pursuit of ultimate, unquestioned greatness is the most magnetic storyline in sports, and when that theater is eliminated, it’s hard to regain a hold over fans.

The GOAT-est of accomplishments is the home run record. Barry Bonds holds both the single-season and career marks, and his vilification has forever tarnished the record books for some. Hammerin’ Hank is still the greatest home run hitter to many baseball historians, and Yankees fans will tell you Aaron Judge is the true regular season home run king. As crotchety and stupid as it sounds to say that questionable bloodlines among certain home run kings have dampened MLB’s popularity and its potential for ever regaining the moniker, America’s Pastime, it’s true.

I’m a known Yankees hater, and even I think Judge’s 2022 season should’ve been a bigger deal and meant more. It didn’t take despite the live look-ins because everything that happened with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Bonds turned fans into cynics.

Do you see the problem?

It’s fairly obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: No one cares about the race to be second (third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh) best.

Longevity is great, but how entertaining is it?

The argument against GOATs is shorter careers, and constantly keeping the product fresh and new. It’s a dumbass argument, which is why leagues placate their GOATs, and we end up getting Roger Clemens and Brady holding franchises hostage while they figure out if it’s finally time to eschew the costumes. The way athletes/GOATs are extending their careers only serves to strengthen leagues’ reliance on them.

If I were Dana White, I’d be a raging lunatic, but I’d also want the UFC GOAT belt to change hands with regularity. Jon Jones’ problems outside of the octagon have left the door ajar for another fighter to reach and surpass his legend in a decade or so, and that’s a valuable asset not every governing body can boast about its sport. (Ditto for the WNBA as its inaugural season was in 1997.)

A lot of the qualifying stats and achievements to become GOAT eligible are so difficult to reach that challengers have a visible limp during the last days of their pursuit. If LeBron plays another three to four years, that’s basically a quarter-century pursuit.

It’s rare for Brady and LeBron to be title worthy at such advanced ages, but in other cases, we’re begging guys to retire for no reason other than letting the sports move on. This is the issue currently facing the PGA with Tiger. He’s still the biggest draw, but as soon as his tournament goes south because the lower half of his body is in shambles, fans tune out.

It’s impossible to move on in any facet of life if you’re still clinging to the past. Letting go is hard, but letting go knowing it will never be that good again is painful — and probably why a lot of athletes have such a difficult time stepping away.

The thirst for who’s next, and ways to juice the system

Alexander Ovechkin is going to break Gretzky’s career goals mark, which is legendary in its own right, and will be the storyline in the NHL’s regular season until it happens. Yet I don’t think he ever got the next Great One vibes like Connor McDavid. The NHL squandered Gretzky’s popularity before he retired, and should be very smart about how they handle the game while McDavid is active.

Brady became the undisputed best QB by his play, and with the help of adjustments to the passing game and player safety. I’m not saying it was a flawless move because there’s been some pushback on the preferential treatment of offenses. If you go by the ratings though, the NFL has never been stronger.

While Gary Bettman might be willing to trade integrity for rules changes and has a veil of safety to hide behind if he made the game more scoring-friendly, he doesn’t have the vision, or the backbone to stand up to puck fanatics. I also don’t know enough about hockey to know if what I’m proposing is even possible, but I think my thought process is sound.

The next best thing rarely pans out to be the best, and is more likely to kick off a spell of mundane or average things that simply happened to follow the best. So, when there’s a candidate for the next GOAT, the powers that be should Americanize the shit of them — be unapologetically capitalistic about marketing, bend the rules to hit the numbers, and rig the system for people who won the genetic lottery.

Fans look for any excuse to dub 16-year-olds the next Jordan — and usually, the excuse is so they can tear them down when they fall short — but the other reason is that they know what it’s like to be a “Witness,” or at least want to be privy to one in their lifetime. Watching history is an incredible feeling, and the more you can pitch that to your fans, and have it be true, the better.

The future of GOAT chasing

Seeing as fans won’t have legit challengers to the unified GOAT belt in any major American sports for another decade-plus, morning shows looking for hot takes have made the arguments more specific. In addition to talking about every 12-0 NFL team’s chances of going undefeated, there’s no shortage of hyperbolic conversations as soon as a stat juxtaposes Friday night’s OT thriller with Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals.

Sports fans will entertain debates like the clutch GOAT, the comeback GOAT, or GOAT dunk contests because of recency bias, but also because they’re within the realm of possibilities. An argument has to be realistic because people only tolerate so much blasphemy, and that’s what it’s like to speak ill of the GOATs. (That doesn’t mean ESPN and league marketers won’t make the case however hollow.)

Judging by the record books, and the length of time it took to write them, sports are about to enter a long, GOATless winter, and I’m fascinated to see what happens in the five to 10 years after Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena, Brady, LeBron, Tiger, Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal.

Athletes are always getting bigger, stronger, and faster, and as much as that boosts sports’ entertainment value, it also levels the playing field. While fans say they want parity, the public loves greatness almost to a fault. Look at all the idiots who jump from team to team following Lebron. What are they going to do when he retires? Latch onto the next guy? Get together and drink Kool-Aid laced with arsenic in a display of devotion?

I’m not saying sports, as a whole, have peaked — that’s a think piece for a different sativa — but we’re a long way away from another wave of athletes approaching certified GOAT-dom, and it’ll be compelling to see how each league moves forward without its North Star.

Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn does everything you’re not supposed to

Dallas Stars left wing Jamie Benn is held back by linesman Brad Kovachik and Vegas Golden Knights center Jack Eichel.

Other than the New York Yankees for some reason, no sport really gives a flying fuck about having a captain. The NFL will occasionally pay lip service to it, but then coaches pass around that designation like a joint to reward whoever went longest at practice without drinking water or whatever. I assume the Yankees only care so Michael Kay can yell, “The Captain!” whenever Aaron Judge cuts a loud fart and add to the humorless self-importance of everything that goes on in the Bronx. Whenever you need humorless self-importance, Michael Kay is your guy.

But hockey…hockey still thinks it means something. And everyone who’s ever worn a “C” in hockey has been a great captain, if you hear hockey men tell it. You’ve never heard someone, anyone say about a captain, “Yeah that guy was a clueless dickhead. Every time he talked my brain would bubble and I had to be held back from breaking my stick over his head.” Because in hockey, breaking your stick over someone’s head in the dressing room would probably be seen as a keen motivational tactic. “That’s how much it means to that guy!” is what you’d hear from Ray Ferraro or Keith Jones from between the benches the next night. Enjoy your next few years, Flyers fans.

And no one can define what makes a good captain. If a guy is rather quiet, well then he leads by example. If he makes a lot of growling faces and yells a lot at the refs, well then he’s Mark Stone. Or maybe he’s just the best player on Earth like Connor McDavid and everyone rightly figured ain’t nobody in the Oilers’ room telling him what to do. And they’re all examples of LEADERS OF MEN.

Whatever qualities a captain should have, or however they’re supposed to go about doing it, the one thing we can probably agree on is that when the team he leads is down 2-0 in a series, and has just been rocked by giving up a goal in the first minute of Game 3, it is a time for calm. The game is hardly over, the fans are still into it, you’re still at home, there’s plenty of time. Just need to get back to whatever the plan was (although if that plan was hatched by Pete DeBoer you’re probably fucked), and play the game as if it’s 0-0. A guiding hand, the quiet assurance that everything will be fine if the team just sticks to who they are.

Don’t be Jamie Benn

Or you could do what Jamie Benn did and cost your team the whole series. Dealer’s choice:

One would also assume that as captain, LEADER OF MEN, you might take some responsibility for your actions that put your teammates in the deepest, darkest hole. Stand up, be accountable, and show teammates that everyone has to be held up to a standard, even the captain:

Oh. Or that.

Not the time for Benn’s selfish stupidity

It’s nearly impossible to describe the scale of selfishness and stupidity that taking a major and game misconduct at this point was. The Stars were down a goal, with a goalie clearly fighting it all playoffs, and Benn made him face a five-minute power play. This wasn’t even behind the play, but at center ice where even upper-deck beer vendors could spot it. Shit Jamie, why not stunner him from off the Knights bench? It had nothing to do with anything, other than Benn figuring he would never get a better chance to cheapshot Stone, perhaps out of jealousy that Stone is the better player in every way. Hard to calculate how Benn’s teams have never won shit.

The Stars would give up a goal on that ensuing power play, then Jake Oettinger would shrug helplessly at a William Carrier backhander that had the velocity of a squirrel falling out of a tree and the Stars were burnt toast. They proceeded to pull a bunch of dumb hockey shit, which stands to figure a team with this kind of standard set by leaders like Benn and Deboer would do. Cue the consistently level-headed Max Domi also getting his ass tossed and the Dallas crowd littering the ice with garbage in protest of ever having had to watch Domi play in the first place.

But hey, if you’re going to go down, anyone can simply lose. Only the truly, legendarily stupid do it with such gusto. So you’ve got that going for you, Benner. A thud for the ages.

I’m all for Jimmy Butler, Heat blowing 3-0 lead vs. Celtics

I will happily eat shit on burying the Celtics if it means getting to watch Jimmy Butler lead the first NBA team to ever blow a 3-0 lead, but we’re a long way from that yet. What I do understand is the frustration of watching Jayson Tatum cough up a hairball all series, because when he’s on he’s one of the most beautiful players to watch in the league. There’s a balletic languidness to his game, where it feels like everything had been choreographed:

The easy turns and spins to open up space for his jumpers, the quick slices and body shifts to make space at the rim, the ease with which he buries threes, it seems like it’s all set to like the best trip-hop song (you’d know if you’d done a lot of ecstasy or molly in your past). Only need it three more times. How hard can that be?

Juan Soto is back

Would seem Juan Soto has rediscovered how to hit the ball in the air again:

In the month of May, Soto has an OPS of 1.116. Glad we could help. 


Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.

Joel Embiid’s play in Game 7 said more than all the pressers in the world

Welp.

There isn’t really anything Joel Embiid could have said after his Game 7 beer belch that would have made up for it. He could have laid out all the mea culpas in the world, and Sixers fans are going to be pretty sharp eyed and tongued (pardon for making you think about Philadelphian tongues) come next October regardless.

But hey, if he learned nothing else from his coach Doc Rivers, it’s how to make a big enough show to try to distract everyone from the fact that he’s shirking responsibility. Embiid’s presser was mostly trying to get heat off soon-to-be-Rocket James Harden, though there was some pretty flimsy, “It’s up to the gods” bullshit in there as well.

The 76ers blew it

The Celtics and Jayson Tatum were so good in Game 7 that Embiid and Rivers probably couldn’t have done much to swing the tide. Though it might have been nice if it didn’t take Rivers two and a half quarters to figure out they were running over Embiid in every screen and roll and maybe try any other kind of coverage. No, they’ll rue Game 6 when the entire team froze, including Rivers, as Tatum took 40 minutes to locate a shovel to hit a bull in the ass with. They couldn’t get the ball to Embiid at all in the final five minutes then, their offense consisted of letting James Harden think it was still 2018 even though he has all the burst of a snot bubble.

But when you’re Joel Embiid, and not so much winning the MVP but bitching about maybe not winning the MVP, it doesn’t really matter if you’re playing hurt. It doesn’t really matter what you tell the assembled media. You can’t get your ass kicked by Al Horford. You can’t settle for contested jumpers at the nail every time, especially when Harden is either intentionally or unintentionally trolling Sixers fans by passing on every drive into the lane (almost certainly unintentionally because you can’t finish at the rim in traffic when your explosion is on the same level as “popping pimple”). You can’t repeatedly let the shot-clock get down to its nether regions while you and your running buddy dribble into oblivion.

No, you do what Tatum did in Games 6 and 7, which is first pull your team’s ass out of a sling when no one else can and then you grab the series and game by the throat. Embiid just watched it pass him by, as he has every time he’s been in the second round.

Sure, the Sixers probably could use more of a supporting cast around Embiid. Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris were too fleeting, the bench too inconsistent, and their coach frozen in time. But this is the NBA, and the buck always stops with the top guys, especially when he’s toting around the latest Michael Jordan trophy. Shooting 37 percent from the floor in a chance to close out at home and a Game 7 combined ain’t it. And there isn’t a sound bite that’s going to get Embiid out of that.

Edmonton Oilers eliminated by Las Vegas

Maybe if Embiid wants some counsel he can call Connor McDavid. Because he’s used to being let down by the team around him far shorter of where his talent and status dictates he should be playing games. So it came to pass again, as the Oilers were eliminated in six games by the Vegas Knights, who were on their third or fourth goalie, depending on the weather that day.

It was a familiar death by whiff for EdMo, the whiff being provided by Stuart Skinner in net as he was pulled for the third time in the series.

While there will be only a slightly smaller post-mortem and hand-wringing in Northern Alberta than there is in Ontario for the Leafs right now, it isn’t all that complicated. The Oilers by every measure were right there with the Knights for the series. There isn’t much you can do when your goalie puts up a .864 save-percentage over the series. It’s harsh on Skinner, who was very good in the regular season and is hardly the first rookie goalie to crumble under the playoff lights. Perhaps his time is still out there in the future.

The Oilers didn’t get any forward scoring more than two even-strength goals the entire playoffs outside of Draisaitl and McDavid, aside from Nick Bjugstad, their fourth-line center. Same as it ever was.

Which sport has a clear-cut GOAT?

Jockey Ron Turcotte walks Secretariat towards the winner’s circle after they captured the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes before a crowd of 70,000 fans at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., June 9, 1973.

It’s a conversation that’ll lead to a fight over drinks and is a common one among sports fans. Who is the greatest of all time in their given sport? But which sport has the easiest GOAT to figure out isn’t discussed nearly as much. As far as I’m concerned, there are two options: Hockey and horse racing. Wayne Gretzky vs. Secretariat in a grudge match between The Great One and the streak-breaker. My choice is the athlete with four legs. Secretariat was more dominant in horse racing than Gretzky on ice.

We’re not separating genders here as three-year-old stallions and fillies are both eligible to compete in horse racing’s Triple Crown. Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps are two of Maryland’s greatest exports and against their own gender, GOAT status is easily achieved. Put them head-to-head and it’s a tough call and therefore not as clear who is the overall monarch of the pool. As far as contemporaries go for Secretariat on the race track, there’s one: Man o’ War, who did finish with a better winning percentage and ran in one more race than Secretariat. Man o’ War’s 20-1 record, compared to Secretariat’s 16-3-1, looks impressive, but there’s just one problem: Man o’ War didn’t win the Triple Crown. Without horse racing’s most important race of every year on the resume, it’s void. And in a sport as niche as horse racing, those transcendent moments need to pop off the page to be the GOAT. Secretariat’s performance at the 1973 Belmont Stakes is as superhuman as any in sport and tops any individual game or season effort for Gretzky.

Gretzky has more contemporaries in hockey as well. Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, Alex Ovechkin, Dominik Hasek, and Bobby Orr all could have arguments to the throne. Yes, Gretzky would be the pick of any smart hockey fan, as Secretariat is a no-brainer for horse racing. We’d need to nitpick at Gretzky’s impressive resume to debate GOATs in other sports and when truly putting the magnifying glass on The Great One, holes exist. He’s a nine-time NHL MVP, including a streak of eight in a row from 1980-87. We’ll never see that again. And his production will forever go unmatched due to the style of play of today’s NHL. Gretzky wouldn’t dominate at the same level in today’s NHL. It’d look a lot like Connor McDavid, which is nothing to scoff at. But who is making the case for McDavid as the best hockey player we’ve ever seen this early in their career like people were for Gretzky? A reborn Secretariat looks exactly the same as the horse who still holds the fastest times in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. It’s seen as a major accomplishment when any other horse gets close to Secretariat’s times.

Secretariat vs. Gretzky

Who’s the greater GOAT? Gretzky or Secretariat | Agree to Disagree
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Who’s the greater GOAT? Gretzky or Secretariat | Agree to Disagree

No one becomes a GOAT without help from teammates and Gretzky’s comrades prop him up more than Secretariat. I know we’re talking about a team sport against an individual discipline. So let me focus on jockey Ron Turcotte for a moment compared to Luc Robitaille, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, and more. Turcotte was an accomplished jockey before Secretariat. He was aboard the winner of each Triple Crown race once before the 1973 Triple Crown, including two in 1972. And after Secretariat, he never won a Triple Crown race again. Gretzky is a four-time Stanley Cup champion, but didn’t win one after 1988. His final 11 seasons led to zero championships. Where’s that hole for Secretariat? Every big moment, the GOAT of horse racing stepped up. Gretzky couldn’t win a Stanley Cup outside of Edmonton and Secretariat won the three most important horse races of every year at three different lengths in three different states. One GOAT was able to adjust to the circumstances around him and one wasn’t despite any personal production. And that’s the deciding factor. 

It’s not supposed to be that easy, Connor

Connor McDavid barrels past Alec Martinez.

The NHL playoffs like to revel in its celebration of depth and the unsung. Everyone gets a shift, so everyone had better do a job or more, and the puck can bounce onto anyone’s stick or off anyone’s ass to change a game, a series, a whole spring. It is not always a stage for the leading men to provide the theater like the NBA playoffs usually are. But sometimes, the game’s best take that stage by the throat and provide the moments that no one else can, and you’re reminded why they’re still the game’s currency:

Alec Martinez is hardly a pylon, though the odometer is starting to get pretty heavy on his legs. And he gets utterly horsed by Connor McDavid. Which is no shame, because most every D-man in the league will have this happen to them at some point.

The poke check at the blue line would be more than enough for any other player on a penalty kill. The puck has been exited out of the zone, the power play would have to regroup, and time would be killed off the penalty.

Martinez is still in good position after losing the puck initially, or at least he would be if he wasn’t about to enter into a race for the puck with a humanized F1 car. You can see it in Martinez’s body language as he goes back for the puck. It’s past panic. He knows he’s fucked. Even getting there first, which he does, is utterly pointless, and really just scene-setting. McDavid is going to lift his stick and by the time Martinez can get it back to the puck, McDavid will already be gone. There must be nothing worse than knowing your ill fate and yet still having to go through with it on the infinitesimal chance that McDavid, like, falls down, or something.

After McDavid seizes the puck, Martinez is nothing more than one of those four elephants perched on the shell of a giant turtle that Terry Pratchett was always going on about. He’s irrelevant. McDavid is too fast and too strong. His only hope is Laurent Brossoit bailing him out. That’s a financial plan built on a lottery ticket.

You can’t defend this

Once McDavid gets Martinez on his back, Brossoit is expecting him to go backhand-forehand as he sweeps around the crease. It would be the only option for mere mortals. Martinez would love to keep McDavid on his backhand, but he’s basically fighting a fire with a glass of water. Brossoit is not expecting McDavid, at full Mach 5, and with Martinez at least claiming to be pestering him on his back, to just flick a wrist to push the puck past Brossoit before the latter can even conceive of what is happening.

This goal is so stupefying because McDavid makes it look like he’s on the ice by himself. The other two didn’t even matter. Once the puck got loose at the red line, they were immaterial. It’s the antithesis of playoff hockey, where space is constricted to the point of suffocation, shots much less goals are supposed to be hard to come by, and everything has to be earned by crawling through a muddy, barbed-wire festooned trench. And through that, McDavid played his own game, uncaring or unaware of anything, or anyone else.

It also ended Game 2 as a contest. Put the Oilers up 3-0 after two more power-play goals, which the Oilers are pouring out like a defective slot machine. Leon Draisaitl has six goals in this series already and has 13 in eight playoff games. Hockey may be the ultimate team sport and more often than not a test of the bottom of the roster. The Knights are an outfit to be seen as 1-12 among their forwards. But McDavid and Draisaitl are the show and the difference most nights, rising above hockey adage, and thought. Night after night this spring, both are doing things that their opponent is helpless to do anything about. Alec Martinez is hardly alone.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.

The Stanley Cup will be lifted by the Oilers-Golden Knights victor

The winner of this series will win it all

Among a final eight that feels like a changing of the guard in hockey more than most years, with old standbys proving their age by exiting the ice until the fall, the duo of the Las Vegas Golden Knights and the Edmonton Oilers stand out like a sore thumb. Not necessarily because they don’t also represent the new guard of the NHL, but because a franchise that started six seasons ago is now an old head, combined with a team that hasn’t been consistently relevant in the NHL for three decades, just after Wayne Gretzky was traded away. And now, the Oilers star power, combined with an amazing start to the franchise in Sin City makes their Western Conference semifinal the can’t-miss series of the round. And I’ll take it a step further.

Winner takes all

Whoever emerges victorious from the best-of-7 series is winning the Stanley Cup. You can count out every team from the Eastern Conference, as great as they are, because New Jersey, Toronto, and Florida don’t have the deep-round experience. And Carolina, the only team that could be considered an old head from the East, will fall on its face eventually. In the other Western Conference semifinal are Dallas and Seattle, which both don’t have the depth to keep up with the rest of the remaining teams. So, the only logical choices left are the Golden Knights and Oilers. Let me tell you why.

Vegas, baby!

The Golden Knights didn’t have a player finish the regular season with more than 66 points. That’s typically a sign of an awful team with no stars and a dreadful offense. Combine that with winning the Pacific Division and being the only team to advance to the conference semifinals in less than six games and the concoction is a mystery. Yet with Jack Eichel, Jonathan Marchessault, and Chandler Stephenson, Vegas is loaded and has been for much of its existence. Stephenson has been involved with Vegas since its opening season when he was on the Capitals, who defeated the Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final to end the latter’s inaugural season. He’s the young, up-and-comer that made sense for Washington to get rid of in re-tooling for another run at the Cup. Stephenson has turned into the exact kind of player that makes the Capitals’ front office look dumb for not choosing someone else to throw overboard.

Excellence in Edmonton

Now onto the anthesis in the team with the most top-level star power in the NHL, the Oilers. Four players had more than 82 points on the team. The fifth-highest-point getters on Edmonton — Darnell Nurse, and Tyson Barrie — both had 43 points. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Zach Hyman will as a quartet decide the series one way or another. If the Golden Knights can’t stop them, have fun at the Bellagio. If Vegas can slow them down at all, there’s a chance for it to advance despite plenty of momentum behind how Edmonton looked to close out its first-round series against the Kings. Either way, the combination the Oilers or Golden Knights present to the other six will be too much. Congratulations to Las Vegas for winning its first Stanley Cup in franchise history or it’ll be a return to the mountaintop for one of the franchises that brought hockey to a greater audience. 

The beginning of the end starts for the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight

Is this the year?

In the latest exhibit that the hockey gods come with a wicked sense of humor, the Toronto Maple Leafs are now tied for the longest streak of making the playoffs in the league. Thanks to the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Nashville Predators all heading for the cottage of the damned this season, it’s the Leafs and Boston Bruins tied at seven straight years. But ask any Leafs fan if that streak means anything more than a Stone of Shame.

These Toronto Maple Leafs, the biggest collection of star power at forward at least in the league, haven’t won a playoff series. They keep getting there, and they keep falling at the first hurdle. There is no more Sisyphean team in sports right now than Buds All Day. No team has promised so much and yet delivered so little. The difference between them and Sisyphus is that he just had to roll the same boulder up the hill. The one the Leafs are sentenced to gets heavier every April.

This time around, not only do the Leafs carry around the weight of their past failures and the desperation of a fanbase that borders on a cult in November much less April, but they’re carrying the idea that this might be it for this group. And even if they get past the obstacle that has defined them for nearly a decade now, a fourth playoff win, things won’t be the same after this. Whatever happens over the next week or two, the Leafs will pass through a plane of existence.

Looking ahead

First the brass tacks. Auston Matthews enters free agency after next season. He can sign an extension come this summer, and the good thing for the Leafs and Matthews is they basically already know the number. It’s $16.7 million, the max salary under next year’s cap of $83.5 million. Is that what Matthews will hold out for? Maybe maybe not but it’s the one that will shape any negotiation. Connor McDavid currently makes $12.5, the highest salary in the league with Artemi Panarin. When McDavid signed it, it was 15 percent of that year’s cap. 15 percent of next season’s cap would be $13.1 million. So there’s your range. The low end of that would be about a $1.5 million raise for Matthews per season.

That’s if Matthews wants to sign an extension now. Or he could wait for 2024, when the salary cap should jump up by a few million dollars, which would raise the maximum salary with it. Players like Matthew just haven’t gotten to free agency since his teammate John Tavares did, and he could engineer one of the biggest bidding wars in NHL history should he feel the need. It gets even more interesting should his hometown Arizona Coyotes get their new arena and suddenly are burdened with the responsibility to fill it in a way they never have before.

Even aside from the Matthews question, the Leafs have a ton of them for next season already. They have just 14 players signed for next year and just $7 million in cap space as of now to fill all those holes. Maybe they can crowbar Justin Holl, Jake Muzzin, and Matt Murray off the roster and fill some of those holes with kids, but not all of them. No matter what happens in these four to seven games with Tampa, the Leafs won’t look the same next year.

Of course, should it be another blue-clad balls-up, the long-discussed major trade could happen. William Nylander and Mitch Marner have seen their names thrown about to nearly every team in the league when Leafs fans start doing the autopsy, and that will only intensify should it not go their way this spring. Nylander hits free agency at the same time as Matthews. Marner the next summer. Even with a rising cap in a year’s time, is there room for all three? Would an aging Tavares suddenly become vulnerable to a toss overboard? He’s already shifted to wing at times to accommodate Ryan O’Reilly. Is he worth $11 million per as an aging winger? If Matthews plays hardball on an extension, would those phone lines open?

Another first-round loss could see both GM Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe kicked into the nearest mud-puddle, despite producing 100-point seasons consistently. How will a new regime view this roster? Is Matthews going to feel better about sticking around amongst upheaval? These are just some of the balls that the Leafs have to juggle.

Careful what you wish for

There’s more to it on a spiritual plane for the Leafs this time. Another first-round loss almost makes it easier to do anything. The Leafs would have cover in saying that there is just something rotten within this group, rather than just being the biggest victim of hockey’s weirdness and callousness that isn’t tied to reason, and any decision or move they make has logic.

But should they put the Lightning to the sword, and they really should, then it’s something else. Now what’s the crutch? Losing to the Bruins in the second round would hardly be solace, but the Bs are the best regular season team of all time, at least according to wins and points, and if we ignore the souped-up standings system as opposed to what came before. Say the Leafs take the Bruins to six or seven tough games, and then Boston goes on to win the Cup. How far away are the Leafs then? Barely a half-step. What will the Bruins be in the future? Patrice Bergeron might not be around, maybe not David Krejčí either. And neither’s retirement would provide the Bs much cap relief to replace them. They will not be the same next year, likely. The Lightning are on the downside of their cycle. No one’s coming up on the outside fast enough to overtake the Leafs in the Atlantic. The Leafs can’t start over or even greatly change if they’re so close.

But with Matthews’s impending free agency, running it back again would somehow be even more fraught with pressure and expectation. If the first round has become the name that shan’t be spoken in the T.O., then a Cup-or-bust campaign will resemble something on the cutting room floor of Alice Through The Looking Glass. If Leafs players and fans thought they had it rough before…

The Leafs are neither up-and-coming, nor are they, or they shouldn’t be, on the downside of a window. No team has more riding on a first-round series, and it’s hard to think of any in the past that did as well. When it’s over, the Leafs will be something different. Wanting a simple playoff series victory might look pretty simple in four to seven games’ time. Or it might look like Black Death. The Leafs will never be the same.


To follow Sam’s descent into madness having to listen to John Buccigross call playoff games, follow him on Twitter @Felsgate.