[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]
Photo credit: zimbio.com
Who needs all 82 games to figure out which team is playoff-bound?
When Taylor Hall met with the Boston Bruins prior to the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, they showed him an interesting stat.
Every year, seven of the top eight teams in either Conference as of November 25th stay there and make the playoffs.
Which means, looking at this morning’s standings, we probably know who 14 of the playoff teams are.
The Play-off Locks
Consider these your Cup contenders. The presence of five Eastern teams underscores just how clearly separated the good are from the bad in that Conference.
1. Detroit (currently 1st – Western Conference)
Extremely strong in all areas of play. Todd Bertuzzi and Nik Lidstrom have had incredible first-quarters. This is a veteran team that simply oozes how to win.
MVP: Niklas Lidstrom has hit the rejuvenation machine in a major way.
LVP: It’s been a Kyle Wellwood-like start for Jiri Hudler, who was to be a secondary scoring focal point. Instead, he’s found himself a healthy scratch recently.
2. Philadelphia (currently 1st – Eastern Conference)
Average special teams so far but they’re dynamite on the attack. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is a leading Calder Trophy candidate, addressing the team’s biggest question heading into the year.
MVP: Bobrovsky (to-date, although let’s be honest, Chris Pronger’s a beast).
LVP: In a deep forward corps, James Van Riemsdyk is the forgotten man, with 1 goal in 18 games.
3. Washington (currently 2nd – Eastern Conference)
They’ve been average 5-on-5, and Alex Ovechkin has been inconsistent. Yet the team has scoring depth and is improved defensively, with John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Jeff Schultz playing well. Heck, even Mike Green has raised his defensive play from atrocious to not-entirely repugnant.
MVP: Alex Semin is outplaying Ovechkin right now.
LVP: Tomas Fleischmann hasn’t stepped up as hoped, and has found himself on the 3rd Line.
4. Boston (currently 6th – Eastern Conference)
The offense still isn’t firing on all cylinders, so the imminent return of Marc Savard should really help. Look for Blake Wheeler to move to free up cap space.
MVP: Tim Thomas has been the league’s best goaltender so far.
LVP: Tyler Seguin hasn’t had much of an immediate impact, and might have a more reduced role when Savard returns. He’s a frontline talent, but they’re bringing him along slowly.
5. Los Angeles (currently 6th – Western Conference)
This is the team most likely to add an impact player at the trade deadline, as they’re not scoring nearly as much as they were expected to. Goaltending and the defense have been very strong.
MVP: Jonathan Quick. He’s been arguably the best goalie in the Western Conference this year. Justin Williams has been a surprising offensive leader as well.
LVP: The Pony Express hasn’t really made it to California yet. Alex Ponikarovsky has just four points in 13 games.
6. Montreal (currently 3rd – Eastern Conference)
Carey Price is rewarding those who believed in him, and defensively this is one of the best groups in the Conference. They might not win the division, but should comfortably make the playoffs. Over/under on “the Price is Right” headlines the rest of the season: 47.
MVP: Price. He’s a Vezina-candidate at the quarter pole. Tomas Plekanac is a strong runner-up, as he’s carried the offense.
LVP: Scott Gomez. Seven points in 22 games, and is being outplayed by Jeff Halpern. Jeff Halpern!?!? Seems to have lost his shiftiness, which is the one thing small NHL players (and pawn shop owners) can’t afford to lose. Perhaps he’s hurt.
7. Pittsburgh (currently 5th – Eastern Conference)
Very little has gone right for the Penguins this year. Marc-Andre Fleury has struggled; both Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek have been average; and Evgeni Malkin seems to be regressing. Yet here they are, 5th in the Conference.
MVP: You could compare how Sidney Crosby is carrying this team to how Wayne Gretzky carried those Los Angeles Kings teams in the late 80s. Brent Johnson is a strong runner-up, having played well during Fleury’s early-season struggles.
LVP: Mike Comrie. Brought in to help ignite Malkin, all he’s done is increase Hilary Duff Google Image searches in the Pittsburgh area.
Consider these your good news stories for the season. They’re teams that are showing resiliency and finding ways to win.
8. Phoenix (currently 2nd – Western Conference)
Their special teams aren’t that special, and it’s hard to imagine this scoring-by-committee squad avoiding droughts throughout the rest of the year. But this team knows how to win low-scoring games.
MVP: Ever since Ray Whitney found his offensive pulse, the team has been great.
LVP: Tough to say it, but Shane Doan means more to the team in the dressing room than on the ice. He has one goal in 11 games.
9. Columbus (currently 4th – Western Conference)
Quietly, under the radar, the Blue Jackets are playing strong, fundamental defensive hockey. While their power-play is atrocious, they’ve finally found a first line with Rick Nash-Derick Brassard-Jakub Voracek.
MVP: Rusty Klesla and Marc Methot have helped shut the barn door defensively, while Mathieu Garon is 6-1 with three shutouts. He’s outplayed Steve Mason.
LVP: Kris Russel just can’t seem to get the job done at either end of the ice.
10. New York Rangers (currently 7th – Eastern Conference)
The injury to Marian Gaborik was supposed to kill this team’s chances. Instead, career-year efforts from Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, along with the emergence of Artem Anisimov, have this team poised as a potential dark horse. Can the kids keep it up?
MVP: Credit has to go to Dubinsky and Callahan, but quietly Dan Gilroy’s become the team’s best defenseman by a country mile.
LVP: Todd White has given the Rangers very little, while Steve Eminger’s career seems to be at a crossroads. No, not the Britney Spears movie. The other kind of crossroads.
11. Colorado (currently 7th – Western Conference)
A host of injuries to the Avs, including to starter Craig Anderson, made it look like a lost season in Colorado. Yet Petr Budaj has been good enough, backing a resilient team that’s finding offense from unexpected sources. This is one of the more entertaining teams in the league to watch.
MVP: John-Michael Liles. This team has crying out for an offensive presence along the blueline. Enter Liles, who has taken his game to a new-level, and delivered after years of organizational patience.
LVP: Kyle Quincey has been the fans whipping boy all year. Speaking of which, where exactly did the term “whipping boy” come from? At some point in our history, was it someone’s lot in life to be whipped? When the whipping boy reached manhood, did he become something else? Because you never hear about whipping men..Well, outside of San Francisco and parts of Vancouver you never hear about them.
The Have-to-make-its or Else.
Their personnel are the envy of most teams in the league, but they’ve been incredibly underwhelming so far. If these teams don’t make the playoffs, consider them ripe for major change in the off-season.
12. Vancouver (currently 3rd – Western Conference)
Yes, the team still struggles to find secondary scoring. Yes, Roberto Luongo doesn’t seem to dominate games like he once did. Yes, Keith Ballard is proving to be exactly what he was in Florida – a talent that consistently leaves you wanting more. But this team is too deep to miss the playoffs, aren’t they? Struggling at 5-on-5.
MVP: The Sedin Twins, with a slight edge to Daniel.
LVP: How are NASCAR fans and Andrew Alberts similar? They both watch the competition fly by.
13. San Jose (currently 8th – Western Conference)
Their defense really misses Rob Blake, and they only started receiving secondary scoring when Logan Couture caught fire.
MVP: Patrick Marleau has been as consistent a performer as the team has had through the first quarter.
LVP: Devin Setoguchi has been invisible. Antti Niemi has also been clearly inferior to Antero Nittymaki in goal.
The Likely First-Round Fodder
Consider this team good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to win a round.
14. Tampa Bay (currently 4th – Eastern Conference)
They’re a sexy pick right now. Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis deserve all their press, but beyond their exploits, this run-and-gun squad has some real issues. They remain a porous defensive team with little secondary scoring. Surprisingly average at 5-on-5.
MVP: Stamkos. He and St. Louis would probably be top-5 in Hart Trophy voting right now.
LVP: He’s been hurt for most of the year, but even when healthy, Simon Gagne looked washed up.
These teams are holding onto a playoff spot by the skin-of-their-teeth, and will be in a battle all year.
15. Atlanta (currently 8th – Eastern Conference)
Who would have expected Niclas Bergfors would have more points than Ilya Kovalchuk, but that’s a testament to the success the Thrashers are having under coach Craig Ramsey. This gritty team has found ways to score goals, and goalie Ondrej Pavelec has been on-fire lately. They’re not very deep though, which means they’re destined to be in a dogfight for the final playoff spot.
MVP: Dustin Byfuglien has been a revelation on defense, giving the Thrashers a potential star to market locally.
LVP: Neither Nik Antropov nor Bryan Little have provided the offense that was expected of them.
16. St. Louis (currently 5th – Western Conference)
One of the league’s better home teams, the only thing standing in their way is a lack of offense. Sadly, the injury to TJ Oshie could make just-enough difference to jeopardize their season. Still riding their hot start in the standings, but their on-ice play has leveled off.
MVP: Jaroslav Halak has been everything the franchise hoped and more.
LVP: More was expected of David Backes than three goals so far.
These teams could steal a playoff spot.
17. Chicago (currently 9th – Western Conference)
Only if they can find some consistency, fix their penalty kill and reverse their losing record at home.
MVP: Jonathan Toews has been dependable, and the offense is starting to come after a slow start.
LVP: After a hot start Tomas Kopecky has really struggled, sporting a team-worst -11. Marty Turco hasn’t exactly made fans forget about Antti Niemi either.
18. Ottawa (currently 9th – Eastern Conference)
Only if they can somehow fix how they play in their own zone, which is akin to a blind man playing dodge ball.
MVP: Daniel Alfreddsson. The only Senator that can be counted on night in, night out.
LVP: As bad as Sergei Gonchar has been in his own zone (-12 so far), he at least can contribute offensively. Chris Phillips, on the other hand, is supposed to be a defensive defenseman, and he’s also -12.
19. Carolina (currently 10th – Eastern Conference)
Only if they can improve their special teams and reduce their goals against. Cam Ward has been average thus far.
MVP: Eric Staal. He is the franchise. Honourable mention to Brandon Sutter, who’s quietly leading the team at +9.
LVP: They dealt Anton Babchuk, who was struggling 5-on-5, so we’ll go with Tuomo Ruutu, who’s sporting a team worst -7, and only has four goals on the year.
20. Buffalo (currently 11th – Eastern Conference)
Only if Ryan Miller can get healthy and shut the barn door long enough for the offense to find its way.
MVP: Derek Roy. The little guy is playing all-world right now.
LVP: Shaone Morrison. If he’s the answer on defense, you’re asking the wrong question.
Playing for next year already, in descending order of quality
MVP: Luke Schenn. He’s been their best player night in, night out.
LVP: Colton Orr doesn’t contribute anything other than his face in a fight. Dishonorable-mention goes to Francois Beauchemin, who seems to have lost a step at 30-years old.
MVP: Pekka Renne. Not sure if this team would win any games without elite goaltending at their disposal.
LVP: Sergei Kostitsyn has done nothing to resurrect his career.
MVP: Brad Richards. He’s returned himself to the elite level, just in time for free agency.
LVP: While Jamie Benn is suffering from the sophomore slump, much, much more was expected from Matt Niskanen.
MVP: Alex Tanguay has been a consistent contributor on a team full of passengers. Jarome Iginla has been hot of late. For the team to make any headway he needs to be their MVP.
LVP: Ian White before he was traded; Olli Jokinen now.
MVP: Toni Lydman, when in the lineup, has been a stabilizing factor. Corey Perry might be also playing the best hockey of his career.
LVP: Todd Marchant looks turkey-left-in-the-over-an-extra-two-hours-while-we-watched-the-Patriots-play cooked.
MVP: Niklas Backstrom has been great. Brent Burns has also put in a strong season so far.
LVP: Cam Barker has been awful.
MVP: Tomas Vokun. He’s likely the biggest trade-chip available at the NHL deadline.
LVP: Steve Bernier hasn’t even lived up to the team’s modest expectations of him.
28. New Jersey
MVP: He’s only played six games, but Mattias Tedenby’s strong play has some people saying he could save the Devils’ season.
LVP: Ilya Kovalchuk. Is it too soon to compare his career to that of Alexei Yashin?
29. New York Islanders
MVP: Dwayne Roloson, at 187-years old, is doing his best to keep the Islanders in games. He could be trade-bait if Rick DiPietro gets healthy. Oh wait – never-mind. That will never happen.
LVP: While it’d be easy to ask why Jon Sim is collecting an NHL paycheque, Trent Hunter has one goal this year.
MVP: Ales Hemsky. With any kind of centreman, or if he played in any Eastern city, he’d be regarded as an elite NHL player. He’s taking on every team on his own this year.
LVP: While Andrew Cogliano has completely regressed, Tom Gilbert might be the softest defenseman in the NHL.