Oct 282011
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

If the 2011-12 season was the Pacific Ocean, we’ve barely dipped our toe into the cold waters.

Nonetheless, there’s been almost a month of NHL hockey, and it’s not too early to start evaluating what’s happening around the league.

Here now are a handful of teams better than, or worse than, their record-to-date.

Significantly Worse Than Their Record (aka the Ron Washington is a Lousy Coach Division)

Toronto: The Leafs enter Friday with a 6-2-1 record and a .722 winning percentage, good for 5th overall in the league. Phil Kessel is leading the league in scoring, which a Toronto player hasn’t done since exposed ankles were considered risqué. It’s time to start planning the parade right? Wrong. For starters the Leafs are near the bottom of the league in goals against (24th) and shots for/shots against differential.  Other than Dion Phaneuf, Toronto’s defense has also been wildly inconsistent and surprisingly soft. Finally, as in previous seasons there’s still nothing special about the team’s special teams (powerplay is 21st, penaltykill is 25th). Despite some strong 5-on-5 play, the Leafs look primed for a losing stretch.

New Jersey: Despite a rash of injuries, the Devils enter Friday with a 4-3-1 record, and their .563 winning percentage has them seated 13th in the league. The biggest factor in their early season success has been the play of Johan Hedberg, whose taken over for the injured Martin Brodeur and posted terrific numbers (2.31 goals against average, .926 save percentage). If you look closely though, you notice that once again this is a New Jersey team that can’t score. They are 25th in goals per game, 26th on the powerplay and 25th in shots for/against differential. They’re still not getting any production from their defense (just two goals so far this season), At 38 and as a career backup, Hedberg can carry a team for only so long. These Devils look a lot like the team that stunk up the first half of last season.   

Dallas: With a record of 7 wins and 3 losses, the Stars enter Friday sitting atop the Western Conference standings. Like New Jersey, the Stars have been carried through October on the shoulders of incredible goaltending. Kari Lehtonen is sporting a miniscule 1.84 goals against average and a .945 save percentage, and remains the defacto team MVP. However, the rest of the team’s peripheral numbers aren’t very good. The Stars are 22nd in goals for and on the powerplay, and their shots for/against differential is nearly -6. In fact, the Stars currently give up the fourth-most shots in the entire NHL. Granted, this may be the result of coach Glen Gulutzan’s conservative gameplan, but these Stars look identical to the team they were last year – decent, but not good enough for the post-season.  

Significantly Better Than Their Record (aka the Tony LaRussa’s St. Louis Cardinals Are Surprising Baseball Again Division)

Montreal: Wait a minute, aren’t the Canadiens struggles being debated in Quebec’s National Assembly as we speak? Isn’t the Molson family about to not only fire coach Jacques Martin, but get his family and friends fired from their jobs too? Aren’t we about to see Patrick Roy’s triumphant return behind the bench of the Habs? Well, hang on a second. Yes, the Canadiens’ record of 3-5-2 places them 27th overall. However, they’re sixth in the league at 5-on-5 play, and their shots for/against differential is almost +8, placing them 3rd overall. This is a quintessential Jacques Martin team – one that will live and die by the success of its defense and goaltending. As Carey Price rounds into form (his save percentage right now is 28 points below his career norm), the Canadiens will rise back up to where they should be – fighting for a playoff spot. 

Boston: Not since the 1967-68 Toronto Maple Leafs has a defending Stanley Cup Champion been this low in the standings so far into the season. The Bruins currently sit last in the Eastern Conference, 29th overall.  Boston’s biggest problem has been scoring – they’re 26th overall in goals per game, 25th at 5-on-5 play and 24th on the powerplay. Otherwise, they’re still playing the extremely strong defensive game coach Claude Julien demands. Tyler Seguin looks primed for an All-Star season, and David Krejci is too good to struggle for long (only one point, a goal, so far). If Boston can muster even league-average scoring, the Bruins will find themselves comfortably in the playoffs.

Philadelphia: Let’s acknowledge they’ve given up 14-goals in two games and that their star goalie has a crisis of confidence. They look lost defensively without Chris Pronger, and currently sit 17th overall in the league (.550 winning percentage). These Flyers, however, can flat out score. They’re 2nd  in goals for per game, 4th on the powerplay and their shots for/shots against differential is +6.3 (5th overall). They have three dangerous lines, and for every disappointment so far (James Van Riemsdyk, Scott Hartnell), there’s been a revelation (Wayne Simmonds has far more puck skill than expected; Sean Couturier is the team’s best defensive player). Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky aren’t this bad, and neither are the Flyers.

Thoughts on the Fly

-          Vancouver’s trade last weekend led me to this collection of Mike Gillis’ moves as general manager of the Canucks. A few things stand out on this list.

  • First, the trade for Christian Ehrhoff was a legitimate home run, and the trade for David Booth (acquiring the most talented player in the trade and a 3rd round draft pick) looks like it could be another.
  • Beyond these two moves it’s a very mixed record, with two notable trade mistakes: acquiring Keith Ballard for a first round pick AND Michael Grabner; and trading 3rd and 2nd round picks for Steve Bernier.
  • It’s too early to make any conclusions, but the Gillis drafts don’t look very dynamic. Last May, Hockey’s Future ranked the Canucks 27th in the NHL in terms of its farm system talent. This month the website released its 50 top-prospects, with only Cody Hodgson making the list (26th).
  • Finally, there are a number of moves on this list that made little-to-no impact on the team whatsoever. Maybe that’s a good thing though – better no impact than a negative one.

-          Damien Cox speculates Sidney Crosby might play on November 11th.

-          For all the angst coming out of Montreal, the expectations surrounding Erik Cole are the most unfair. Cole had success in Carolina because he played wing with an elite centreman (Eric Staal). He’s struggled in Edmonton, and now in Montreal, because he’s a strong complimentary player, not a go-to scoring presence. Without Staal, he’s a useful, industrious, 15-22 goal scorer. Hab fans expecting more will be disappointed.

-          Speaking of Montreal, this is what happens when you build a team entirely around defence and goaltending. If those areas falter even a little bit the team can’t score enough goals to compensate. The Habs will right the ship, but it’s a tight-rope low-scoring teams walk. Nashville’s struggling in the same fashion right now (last in the league in shots for/shots against at -11.4).

-          Final Habs note: Firing Perry Pearn 90 minutes before game time was the most ridiculous NHL firing in years, and is a black mark on the Montreal front office. He deserved better, and will land on his feet elsewhere.  

-          For all the accolades Duncan Keith has earned in Chicago, he could be ranked third behind Brent Seabrook and Nick Leddy in terms of performance this year. Seabrook is taking less physical risks, and as a result his positional play has improved. Meanwhile, Leddy has seamlessly filled Brian Campbell’s role.

-          The best part of any talk about a Philadelphia Flyers alumni team? Thinking of Eric Lindros and Bobby Clarke on the same bench.

-          He probably can’t keep it up, but every one of Kings defenseman Jack Johnson’s goals this year has been a game-winner.

-          Sorry Oiler fans, Nik Khabibulin won’t have a 0.97 goals against average all year. Enjoy the ride while it lasts, and full marks for squeaking out a win against the Capitals. Having said that, the Capitals were dominant 5-on-5, and Ovechkin hit the crossbar with less than a minute to play.  

-          Only three forwards are in the top-50 in the NHL in terms of ice-time: Ilya Kovalchuk, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

-          There’s 12 teams on pace to score fewer than 200 goals this year. Even with the Winnipeg-Flyers game, it certainly feels like scoring is down in the NHL.

-          TSN’s Darren Dreger takes a look at who could be next coaching behind an NHL bench.

-          Brad Richards is really struggling in New York. He isn’t skating very well or controlling the play at all.

-          In case you missed it – Jonas Hiller’s new mask.

-          Here’s a report on Defense Independent Goalie Rankings for last season. Oiler fans might be surprised to see Devyn Dubnyk in the top-10.

-          Katie Baker’s weekly recap on Grantland.

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