James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Anders Lee stands up for Islanders GM in light of ‘Snow Must Go’


Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Many New York Islanders fans agree with the sentiment “(Garth) Snow Must Go,” but that doesn’t mean it’s unanimous.

In response to the successful Go Fund Me drive to put up billboard(s) calling for Snow’s firing near Barclays Center, Islanders forward Anders Lee had an interesting reaction.

He took to Twitter not just to express his disagreement with “Snow Must Go,” but to ask people to donate to a different charity than his “Kancer Jam II” campaign, with the event coming on Feb. 19.

A portion of that statement reads:

” … (Snow) had the faith to draft me in 2009, and I wouldn’t be here today without his support, so I do not feel right accepting the donation. I appreciate the gesture from our fans and their efforts to support the Kancer Jam Foundation but ask that they use this money to support another fund that can benefit from this donation.”

As of this writing, Lee’s Crowd Rise drive is at $12,131, with 56 people donating. It seems like a fantastic campaign, and even in this unusual way, it would be great if it got more attention through all of this.

Looking at the Go Fund Me for the “Snow Must Go” billboards, they’re no longer accepting donations after hitting $5,980. They’re also giving additional money to the American Cancer Society, and issued a response to Lee in an update. Here’s the most relevant portion of that response:

Secondly, we recently received word via Twitter that Anders Lee will be declining any donation toward his Kancer Jam. While we are disappointed, we respect his decision, and love Anders as a New York Islander.

Without a choice in the matter, we have therefore decided to donate any excess donations to the American Cancer Society. While we understand this was not the initial advertised charity, we hope Islanders fans will understand.

Again, this is an atypical situation on top of another odd situation, as it seems reasonable for their to be a scenario in which Islanders fans could express a belief about Snow needing to go while also helping to raise money to combat cancer. Whatever happens regarding Snow’s employment status, the Islanders’ playoff hopes, and John Tavares‘ future with the franchise, let’s hope that this brings more donations to some great causes. Whether that’s the the American Cancer Society, Lee’s specific efforts, or ideally a combination of the two, that’s fantastic.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

‘Snow Must Go:’ Islanders fans raise money to protest GM


Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

OK, look: it’s always a little awkward to note when a group of people are calling for someone’s head. It’s not that far from “Frankenstein” territory.

That said, if there was ever a time when fans should really make their voices heard, this would be it.

Around the NHL, teams are sending mixed messages: they’re acknowledging a need to rebuild, while at the same time handing polarizing GMs contract extensions. With that in mind, it makes it easier to wrap your head around the New York Islanders civil revolt regarding their perceived need to get rid of longstanding GM Garth Snow.

It already began last night, as fans chanted “Snow Must Go” after the Islanders dropped an embarrassing 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, showing porous defense once again by giving up 51 shots on goal.

Rather than showing up with paper bags on their head (possibly with increasingly creative faces), an enterprising group of Islanders fans decided to buy a strategically placed billboard to voice their displeasure about Garth Snow. To do so, they put together a Go Fund Me account, and that drive basically only took about an hour to hit the $2,725 goal.

Here’s what the ad looks like:

Here’s part of the message:

It’s time to send a clear message to Islanders owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin. Fans will no longer tolerate the culture of losing surrounding this franchise. Help us send a message and tell ownership that “SNOW MUST GO” on a poster board within a half mile of the Barclays Center.

Whether you believe that keeping Snow in place is the best way to retain John Tavares or that management needs to show more urgency with a playoff spot on the line, you have to give Isles fans credit for creativity here.

Considering the fact that Snow has been GM since 2006, it’s also difficult to deny that his fingerprints are all over the Isles’ issues at this point. Plenty of fans think there needs to be a change, and they’re going the extra mile (or 10’6″ x 22’99”) to express their beliefs.

Apparently such an effort worked out for New York Jets fans, too, and they feel like spiritual cousins to Islanders fans (and of course, in many cases people are fans of both teams).

Will they get their wish? We’ll need to wait and see. Either way, it’s tough to say that they don’t have a point.

Stick-tap Greg Wyshynski of ESPN


James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL teams need new blood, new ideas


Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Every now and then, it seems like the tortoise-like pace of progress in the NHL might actually pick up.

Look at the way the game is played. Scoring is up significantly this season, with franchises being more and more willing to dress four talented lines of forwards, rather than wasting valuable minutes on enforcers and other puck-stoppers. We’re seeing less dump-and-chase and more emphasis on skill.

We’re even seeing fewer big-money mistakes in free agency; even some of the missteps are easier to defend than the days of Jeff Finger and Bobby Holik getting “They gave him how much?” deals.

(Actually, for many in the case of Finger, the question was “Jeff who?”)

Yet whenever you get too excited about change, collars get a little stiffer on the country club, and you remember that progress isn’t always a straight line.

This week was one of those moments of “course correction,” as two of the messiest teams in the league handed their GMs contract extensions in the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks. It’s tough to deny that the NHL is simply more insular than other, more innovative leagues.

As you can see, NHL owners sure seem inclined to shake their head at the common reply for anyone who’s been bothered by a blog post or hockey article: “Did you ever play the game?”

Now, as the extended article (“Who’s Running the Show?” by Wave Intel’s Jason Paul) illustrates, mistakes aren’t solely made by former players in suits. After all, Pierre Dorion is on that “Non-Pro” list, and he’s had some issues, while Peter Chiarelli’s Harvard background would make you think he’d be more open to analytical suggestion.

Still, there’s evidence that NHL teams deal with a “Yes man” culture that rears its head in disastrous ways. You’d think there would be more debate, for example, over the Bruins’ notorious decision to trade Tyler Seguin:

A similar thing happened when the Montreal Canadiens traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber. One subplot of that trade was that analytics staffer Matt Pfeffer strongly disagreed with the move, and was let go shortly thereafter. While he didn’t say that was why the Canadiens parted ways with him, it still drew headlines, such as his discussion with The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell.

“They didn’t tell me it was over that,” Pfeffer said in July 2016. “But I guess everyone knows now where I stood on the Subban-Weber trade. There are times when there’s some possibility that there would be another side to the argument, but this was one of those things where it was so, so far outside what could be considered reasonable. I made a pretty strong case, but I made the case that the analytics made. This wasn’t a personal thing.”

Pfeffer would later say he regretted criticizing the trade … though you wonder how much of that regret comes from ruffling feathers?

There are several examples of a “one step forward, two steps backward” pace when it comes to outsiders getting voices in NHL organizations. The Florida Panthers, at times, seem to represent the worst of both worlds. They briefly placed emphasis on analytics, with head coach Gerard Gallant being pushed out in the process. That only really lasted a season – really, less – before GM Dale Tallon regained true power, and then he cleaned out many of those contract, emboldening the Vegas Golden Knights in the process.

(Now that salary structure is a horror movie, although the saving grace of cheap contracts for Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck remain a silver lining throughout.)

There have been movement to scoop up analytics minds like the memorable summer of 2014, and then there has been backlash, most dramatically in the case of the Panthers.

It’s crucial to realize that there’s not necessarily “one way” to do things, even as narratives about “old-school” philosophies battling with analytics even continue in the MLB, a sport that often seems light years ahead of the NHL. All but the least reasonable advocates on “each side” will agree that there’s valuable to many different approaches.

The real danger is in cronyism, as Jonathan Willis expertly discussed for The Athletic (sub required), while making a fascinating comparison to how France prepared for WWI (as he’s wont to do). Willis describes the best-practice process of very-much-connected Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who’s distinguished himself as one of the league’s best minds:

Steve Yzerman’s Tampa Bay Lightning offers a useful example. He has some old colleagues from his time in Detroit there, including former teammates Pat Verbeek and Stacy Roest, though Verbeek mostly played for non-Red Wings teams and Roest mostly played in the minors and Europe as a pro.

But his top lieutenant is Julien Brisebois, the lawyer who worked his way into a hockey operations role in Montreal and did such fine work running their AHL team. His head coach is another lawyer, Jon Cooper, who took an unconventional path to the majors. The team employs a statistical analyst, Michael Peterson, who has history in baseball, an MBA and a master’s degree in mathematics. He also kept former interim GM Tom Kurvers on staff after taking over; he has a more traditional hockey background but comes from outside Yzerman’s immediate circle.

Such an approach was echoed by another great hockey mind, Mike Babcock, who promoted the practice of embracing diverse ideas in Craig Custance’s book “Behind the Bench.”

” … You never know where you’re getting your best idea,” Babcock said. “It could be from your rookie player, it could be from your power skating instructor, it could be from the guy who cooks breakfast. You have to be open-minded.”


To review: some of the brightest minds in the sport want to keep absorbing more and more ideas. Or, at minimum, they know that it’s wise to venture such an open-minded argument.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen several instances where “the old way” leaves teams in the hockey equivalent of debt: bad contracts, shaky prospect pools, and dire futures.

If you don’t want to listen to “the nerds,” just consider what Yzerman, Babcock, and other bright hockey people might say. NHL teams would be wise to throw out a wider net to find the next great thinkers.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

For better or worse, Canucks extend Benning, want to bring back Sedins


Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

If you’re the type of person who expects life to be a “meritocracy,” the NHL has probably upset you quite a bit in the last week.

Not long after the hockey train wreck known as the Ottawa Senators rewarded one of the architects of their mess, GM Pierre Dorion, with a contract extension while embracing a rebuild, the Canucks basically did the same thing with GM Jim Benning.

The team announced a multi-year extension on Wednesday, leaving fans in dismay and onlookers flustered. They also put out a “Yep, we’re rebuilding” press release this week, following the lead of the Rangers and Senators.

The thing is, this is probably the toughest of the moves to defend. While the Senators dealt with budgetary limitations and leftover mistakes from before Dorion’s days, Ottawa enjoyed some recent successes. After all, they were within a goal of advancing to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, and Dorion was nominated for GM of the Year, with the hiring of coach Guy Boucher proving instrumental in that run.

Under Benning’s watch, the biggest wins have … basically been when the Canucks play against type and actually rebuild a bit or draft well (on paper). There have been serious gaffes in trying to avoid the reality that this team was past its prime, with Loui Eriksson‘s contract (that $6 million cap hit still runs through 2021-22, somehow) being the most glaring example.

By no means is Benning solely responsible for the Canucks’ downfall, but it sends a strange message that he’s getting an extension.

On the bright side, Benning’s performed reasonably well, at least when everyone’s on the same page about rebuilding.

The not-so-bright side is that there still seems to be a tone of denial in Vancouver. From reports of management wanting to bring back polarizing defenseman Erik Gudbranson – who could bring back a nice return – to not moving on from Henrik and Daniel Sedin, there are some signs that the Canucks might parallel the Detroit Red Wings in trying to have their cake and eat it too.

(That approach has really just clogged their arteries, honestly.)

Ultimately, it’s tough to ignore that the NHL is a tight-knit community, and sometimes that means that people who are part of the “inner circle” tend to get more chances than those with fresher voices.

Maybe the Canucks will turn things around, maybe they won’t. More progressive teams might be licking their chops at moves like these, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL hands out fines, including for Byfuglien slash


Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The NHL’s CBA makes for quite the variety of allowable fines, as Wednesday’s verdicts from the Department of Player Safety showed.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.