Tom Wakefield

Apr 112012
 
Todd Bertuzzi of the Detroit Red Wings and Shea Weber of Nashville Predators do battle

Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

Season Series: Vancouver (2-1-1)

It was an anti-climactic season for the Canucks, who despite injuries to Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin and an up-and-down season from the blueline still found a way to win the President’s Trophy as the league’s best team. A big reason for the success was in net, as Vancouver’s tandem of Roberto Luongo (2.41 goals against) and Cory Schneider (.937 save percentage) put the Canucks near the top of the NHL’s goaltending ranks. In fact, after the All-Star Game only Phoenix and St. Louis had a better save percentage than Vancouver’s .930. Ironically, this Canucks team enters this post-season with many of the same questions it had last post-season. Is there enough secondary scoring on the team? (Not if David Booth and Mason Raymond remain MIA.) Is the defense deep enough? (Probably if Dan Hamhuis can continue his terrific campaign.) Can Luongo “win the big one”? (Probably, but if not Vancouver has the best back-up in the league.) It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out this time around.

This is not how the Los Angeles Kings season was supposed to go. Armed with Mike Richards, the Kings looked like a team that would vie for home-ice advantage and not scrape into the playoffs. Low scoring teams are usually cannon fodder once the post-season begins, and the Kings look primed to fulfill that destiny. Offense has been the sore point all season – only Minnesota scored fewer in the regular season, and a coaching change (from Terry Murray to Darryl Sutter) didn’t really help much. Drew Doughty, Richards, Dustin “Pancake” Penner, Simon Gagne and Jarrett Stoll all struggled to score. Jeff Carter, added at the deadline, offered hope scoring at a 30-goal pace before hurting his foot. Now he’s a question mark as the post-season starts. Nonetheless, there were some bright spots for the Kings. Goalie Jonathan Quick’s 1.95 goals against average, .929 save percentage and 10 shutouts effectively saved L.A.’s season. Anze Kopitar took another step towards becoming the best player in the Western Conference, scoring 76 points and playing a strong two-way game. No team gave up fewer shots-per-game after the All-Star Game than the Kings (24.8).

Key Player, Vancouver: Daniel Sedin

Daniel Sedin is one of the best snipers in the game, and together with brother Henrik gives the Canucks an elite first line. The longer he sits in the first round waiting to recover from his concussion, the better it is for the Kings, who desperately need to win a few 1-0, 2-1 games to pull off a series upset.

Key Player, Los Angeles: Drew Doughty

Doughty’s performance this season has been arguably worse than his disappointing 2010-11 season. Talent-wise though he remains one of the few defencemen in the league capable of dominating play at both ends of the ice. With Daniel Sedin out, it’s one less offensive Canuck player the Kings have to keep in check. If Doughty can keep Henrik Sedin at bay and jump-start L.A.’s powerplay, he could turn a short series on paper into a long one.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both coaches have their critics but they tend to get maximum effort out of their roster.

Goaltending: Even. Jonathan Quick has had a Vezina-esque season playing behind a stifling defense, but the 1-2 punch of Roberto Luongo and Corey Schneider has been elite as well.

Defense: Kings. Both of these teams are loaded with two-way talent and feature strong bluelines, but the Kings under Darryl Sutter have become a suffocating group to play against.

Offense: Kings. The biggest edge in any category as long as Daniel Sedin is healthy. Otherwise it’s much closer, especially if some of the underperforming Kings find life.

Special Teams: Canucks. Los Angeles’ 17th ranked powerplay hurts them against a Canucks team that’s likely to take penalties.

Prediction: Canucks in 5

*****

St. Louis Blues (2) vs San Jose Sharks (7)

Season Series: St. Louis (4-0)

How successful was the Blues regular season? With 109 points, St. Louis had their best record in 12 years (1999-2000). This maturing team was 43-15-11 under coach Ken Hitchcock, who implemented a physical defensive system upon his arrival that pressures puck-carriers and forces turnovers. Goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott split the workload like an old-school tandem, resulting in a league best 1.78 goals against average and .932 save percentage. The 2011-12 season was also a coming out party for a couple of young Blues. Alex Pieterangelo was the team’s best offensive and defensive defenseman, earning Norris Trophy buzz and leading the blueline with 51 points. T.J. Oshie had a career-high 54-points, while David Backes led the team with 24 goals and vaulted himself into Selke Trophy consideration. Quietly, Andy McDonald returned from injury and played at almost a point-a-game pace, giving the Blues three potential scoring lines. Potential scoring lines is the key word there, as defensive responsibility remains the priority on a Hitchcock hockey team. The Blues will go as far as their offense can take them.

It seems like the San Jose Sharks have been destined to win a Stanley Cup forever. Instead, this year’s 7th place finish likely serves notice that the championship window for this group of players is closing fast. San Jose earned 41 points in its last 41 games, worst among all playoff teams. Goaltending was a big factor in the team’s poor play, as the Sharks goals against rose more than a half-goal-per-game (0.52) after the All-Star Game. San Jose’s attack was 10th in the league, but it too has suffered from some inconsistency, with key scorers Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau scoring just 4 goals each since March. Ironically, it’s the much-maligned Joe Thornton (39 points in 35 games since the All-Star break) who’s been the team’s best offensive player down the stretch. On the blueline, Dan Boyle remains the team’s biggest offensive threat, while Brent Burns has been a bit of a disappointment as the team’s #2 defenseman. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is the team’s best shutdown d-man and the only one who can skate (apologies to Douglas Murray and Colin White). This is probably it for the Sharks – their last run at a Cup before the core is altered.

Key player, St. Louis: David Backes

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Backes matched up against San Jose’s top line. His success against Joe Thornton will dictate the length of this series.

Key player, San Jose: Antti Niemi

San Jose only wins this series if Niemi can equal or surpass the goaltending performance of the Blues. The Sharks need him to get hot, fast.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Blues. Big advantage here for the Blues. Not only does he have a Stanley Cup ring, but Ken Hitchcock has modified his approach to communicate better with today’s modern player.

Goaltending: Blues. Not only did the Blues lead the league in all goaltending statistics, their goals against actually dropped as the season went along. Let’s not forget the last time Jaroslav Halak was in the playoffs he looked like Patrick Roy.

Defense: Blues. Both teams have solid bluelines, but St. Louis top players are committed defensively in a way San Jose’s aren’t.

Offense: Sharks. The Sharks offense was dormant most of the year but they ramped it up after Martin Havlat returned (3.1 goals per game over their last 10 games). San Jose’s top-end talent has a higher ceiling than that of the Blues.

Special Teams: Even. San Jose’s powerplay was second overall for the year and they were the only team to score at a rate higher than 10% after the All-Star Game. However, their penalty kill is a major weakness (29th in the league; 30th after the break). The Blues have a strong penalty kill (7th overall); average powerplay (17th).

Prediction: Blues in 7

*****

Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6)

Season Series: Phoenix (3-1)

There’s some cruel irony in the Phoenix Coyotes winning their first division title as a franchise in what is likely their last season in the desert. Much of the credit belongs to two people: coach Dave Tippett and goalie Mike Smith. Tippett’s defensive system allows the Coyotes to give up shots (only Ottawa and Carolina gave up more per game) but keep scoring chances in the middle of the ice to a minimum. It’s an approach that helped make a name for Ilya Bryzgalov and, this season, helped Mike Smith become a Vezina Trophy candidate. Not only did Smith resurrect his career, but he was practically unbeatable after the All-Star Game (.941 save percentage). It should be noted though that Tippett’s system (and, in turn, Coyotes goaltending) has failed in recent post-seasons as gifted offensive teams (namely the Detroit Red Wings) have found ways to get the puck into key scoring areas. And while this is a Phoenix team that can skate, hit and defend, scoring doesn’t come naturally (18th overall). Terrific seasons by Ray Whitney (77 points) and Radim Vrbata (35 goals) were offset by an absence of offensive flair at the centre ice position. Phoenix enters the playoffs without a single pivot having scored more than Martin Hanzel’s 34 points.

The Chicago Blackhawks overcame much on their way to a 101-point season. For starters, team goaltending has been mired in the bottom-third of the league all year. Chicago’s .899 save percentage since the All-Star Game tied with Boston for worst among playoff-bound teams. That the Blackhawks were solid defensively (9th in shots against) all year only amplifies their challenge between the pipes. The absence of Jonathan Toews also threw the team’s attack into a flux. The captain had 57 points in 59 games prior to a concussion, but taking Toews out of the lineup contributed to a 0.57 goals-per-game decrease in Chicago’s offense after the break. Viktor Stalberg has emerged (22 goals) in a supporting role, but Brendan Morrison (0 points in 11 games), Michael Frolik (5 goals in 63 games) and Andrew Brunette (12 goals) have disappointed. As a result, Chicago features a talented but extremely top-heavy attack that doesn’t go beyond its first two lines.

Key Player, Phoenix: Mike Smith

Without a dominant Mike Smith performance it’s hard to see how the Coyotes can muster enough counter-attack against Chicago’s deep blueline to win the series. The “Desert Dogs” need Smith to steal a couple of games.

Key Player, Chicago: Jonathan Toews

The captain is questionable for Game 1, and without him, Chicago is missing their leader, best two-way player and best faceoff man. Patrick Kane is a creative player but out-of-position and a defensive liability at centre (winning just 42% of his draws). With Toews in the lineup, the Blackhawks also become a much harder team to defensively match-up against. If he’s healthy, this is probably a short series.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Quenneville has won a Cup but there’s been whispers of a lethargic season behind the bench. Meanwhile, Dave Tippett might just be the best NHL coach to not have a Stanley Cup ring.

Goaltending: Coyotes. Mike Smith had a regular season for the ages, but Corey Crawford has had playoff success before. He could surprise here.

Defense: Blackhawks. Phoenix’s forwards play a better defensive system and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has emerged as a legitimate top-line defenseman. But Chicago gets the edge given its deep blueline. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nick Leddy, Johnny Oduya and Nik Hjalmarsson are among the best top-5s in the league.

Scoring: Blackhawks. This is a mismatch if Toews is healthy; if Toews isn’t healthy this is closer than you may expect. Phoenix’s goals per game in the second-half: 2.56. Chicago’s in the second-half without Toews? 2.59.

Special Teams: Coyotes. Chicago’s special teams are arguably the worst in the playoffs. While the Coyotes powerplay is anything but powerful, they’re a top-10 penalty-killing team.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6

*****

Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)

Season Series: Tied (3-3)

It’s an exciting time to be a “Smashville” hockey fan, as the Nashville Predators had their best regular season in five years. This year’s edition retained the qualities the franchise has been known for – stellar goaltending (Pekka Renne had 43 wins and 5 shutouts) and a strong blueline led by Shea Weber (19 goals) and Ryan Suter (46 points). Where this team differed from there history was on offense. This aggressive, bulldog Predators team was the highest scoring Western Conference squad after the All-Star Game, and finished 8th overall in league scoring. It was a balanced attack featuring seven players with 40-or-more points and the league’s best powerplay. The acquisition of Alex Radulov (7 points in 9 games) also gave Nashville its first legitimate top-line centre since Peter Forsberg donned the mustard orange in 2006-07. The team went 6-3 with the Russian sniper in the lineup, including an impressive 4-1 win over Detroit on March 30th. Tough, fast, and now capable at both ends of the ice, this could very well be the most talented Nashville Predators team of all-time. Their time is now.

While it may have been another 100+ point season in Detroit, the Red Wings actually had their worst regular season points-wise since 1998-99. And while the team was its usual strong self in a variety of categories (7th in goals for and goals against; 5th in shots for, 3rd in shots against), there were some cracks in the team’s foundation. Their road record was 25th in the league and is the worst among Western Conference playoff teams. Their special teams finished in the bottom-half of the league. Niklas Lidstrom had his worst point-totals since 1994-95, while Pavel Datsyuk failed to score 20-goals for the first time since his sophomore season. Dan Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom and Todd Bertuzzi failed to combine for 10 goals after the All-Star break. Still, there is a lot of talent on the roster, as demonstrated by the team’s 23-game home-winning streak. Niklas Kronwall and Ian White had strong seasons on the blueline, while Valtteri Filppula (66 points), Jiri Hudler (25 goals) and Johan Franzen (team-best 29 goals) kept the Red Wings attack potent. When healthy, Jimmy Howard proved he could carry the Red Wings if needed. 

Key Player, Nashville: Alex Radulov

The Predators would have beaten the Canucks last year if they had a single gamebreaker in their lineup. Now they have that gamebreaker and are going up against a Red Wings team that is similar to the Canucks in style of play. A successful series on the scoreboard from Radulov probably means the Predators win the series.

Key Player, Detroit: Jimmy Howard

This is a greying Red Wings team that may find themselves at times physically dominated by the younger, potentially hungrier, Predators. For a long time Detroit has iced teams that haven’t had to rely on goaltending to succeed. This could be the year, and the series, where that dependence is reversed.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Red Wings. A slight edge as both Mike Babcock and Barry Trotz are terrific coaches.

Goaltending: Predators. Pekka Renne is an elite netminder; Jimmy Howard is improving.

Defense: Predators. Both teams play well defensively, with Detroit arguably underrated in this area. It’s on the blueline where Nashville has a slight edge. Weber and Suter are the best one-two punch in the league.

Offense: Red Wings. Slight edge here as the Red Wings have greater depth among their forwards. But this is the best attack the Predators have had in quite some time.

Special Teams: Predators. The Predators have the best powerplay in the league and a top-10 penalty kill. The Red Wings have struggled in both areas.

Prediction: Predators in 5

Apr 112012
 
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers

Photo credit: canada.com

New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)

Season Series: Ottawa (3-1)

It’s been a rather Cinderella season for the New York Rangers, who rode their improving young core, particularly on defense, to their most successful season since they won the Stanley Cup in 1993-94. Marion Gaborik eclipsed 40-goals for the third time and is the most dangerous Rangers forward. Ryan Callahan (29 goals) is the most complete player on the team and is a Selke Candidate this year. Brad Richards scored some key goals during the season, but his 66 points and -1 were somewhat disappointing. For all the hype over Henrik Lundquist’s performance this year, since March he’s been rather pedestrian (2.60 goals against; .895 save percentage). Nonetheless, this is the strongest blueline (highlighted by career years from Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonough and Michael Del Zotto) Lundquist’s ever played behind.

Speaking of Cinderella seasons, the Senators were destined for a lottery pick according to most pre-season prognostications. Coach Paul Maurice brought the offense from his stint in Detroit, but more importantly the emergence of Erik Karlsson transformed Ottawa into one of the most dangerous teams in the league. Leading the attack upfront was Jason Spezza, who played 80 games for the first time in three years and was among the league-leaders in scoring. Craig Anderson actually improved as the season went along, helping the team almost shave half-a-goal against per game off their record post All-Star Game. This is a very young team though, and Anderson will have to come up huge if the Sens are to have a chance in the series.

Key Player, Rangers: Marian Gaborik

The Rangers will need their best offensive player to have a terrific post-season if the team has any chance of a Cup run. Gaborik’s compete-level will be tested by anOttawateam that will punish him physically every time he touches the puck.

Key Player, Senators: Erik Karlsson

Similar to Gaborik, Karlsson is the straw the stirs the Senators offensive drink.  The Rangers are going to go after Ottawa’s young quarterback defenseman and make him pay the price every time he goes back for the puck in his own zone. If Rangers such as Brandon Dubinsky are successful limiting Karlsson, they’ll neutralize Ottawa’s attack.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Rangers. John Tortorella’s won a Stanley Cup and should get the match-ups he wants with home-ice advantage.

Goaltending: Rangers. As strong as Anderson played this season few goalies are in Lundquist’s league.

Defense: Rangers. Despite improved play from Filip Kuba and Karlsson’s excellence, New York’s blueline has greater depth and is augmented by a strong two-way forward group.

Scoring: Senators. Top-4 in the league scoring-wise, and only one of three teams to average more than three goals-per-game after the All-Star break.

Special Teams: Even. Ottawa’s stronger on the powerplay, while the Rangers were among the league’s best on the penalty kill.

Prediction: Rangers in 6

*****

Boston Bruins (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7)

Season Series: Washington (3-1)

The defending champion Boston Bruins were tied with Ottawa for the second-fewest points among playoff teams in their last 41 games (45 points). Poor goaltending was a major factor, as while the Bruins reduced their shots against after the All-Star Game, their goalies could only muster a .899 save percentage. Nonetheless, this is a team that’s arguably as deep as the Cup winners last year, with Tyler Seguin (team-leading 67-points) having replaced Mark Recchi; Brian Rolston playing the Rich Peverley role (15 points in 21 Bruins games) and Joe Corvo filling the Tomas Kaberle position as “offensive defenseman who needs his ice-time well-managed.” Nathan Horton’s injury has been somewhat off-set by improved play by Benoit Pouliot. A repeat is not out of the question.

If there is a playoff team that would like to forget its regular season it’s the Washington Capitals, who went from pre-season favourites to run away with the Southeast Division to coming this close to finishing outside the playoffs.  The firing of Bruce Boudreau brought Dale Hunter back to the Washington franchise, but the team really didn’t improve their play. The Caps were 30-23-7 under the new coach and, for the first time in years, struggled to find any offense. Hunter’s system (or lack thereof) was criticized by his own players, and a war-of-words between Roman Hamrlik and his coach added to speculation Hunter was in-over-his-head at the NHL level. Tomas Vokoun (currently suffering from a groin injury) was roughly league-average in goal, which didn’t help matters. In reality though, part of Washington’s problem was directly tied to their lack of offensive depth, particularly in the wake of Niklas Backstrom’s absence due to concussion. With Backstrom back, this is a Caps team that enters the playoffs with a few gamebreakers (Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Backstrom), a strong commitment to defense and an improved blueline (Mike Green’s play has fallen off a cliff, but John Carlson and Dmitri Orlov have stepped up). The pieces are there for this team to surprise… or leave the post-season after four-straight losses.

Key Player, Boston: Tim Thomas

Boston’s veteran goalie has been rather average in 2012. If he can’t find his game now, the Capitals will stick around longer than many people think.  

Key Player, Washington: Alex Ovechkin

He is the most talented player in this series and a match-up against Zdeno Chara should be incredibly challenging. But Ovechkin, rather quietly, has been terrific down the stretch (12 goals in 19 games) and has Backstrom back as his centre. A special effort by Ovechkin could re-write this Capitals season and give the Bruins fits.

Quick Decisions

Coaching: Bruins. This is Hunter’s first trip to the NHL post-season; Boston’s Claude Julien is among the league’s best.

Goaltending: Bruins. Closer than you might think given Tim Thomas’s struggles. Who knows how Vokoun will play – and if he’ll play – meaning it’ll be up to Michael Neuvrith or Braden Holtby to shock the world.

Defense: Bruins. Washington potentially has more blueline talent but the Bruins are a more complete and effective group, both forwards and defense.

Scoring:  Bruins. Dale Hunter hasn’t been able to get Washington’s offense firing, while the Bruins can roll four scoring lines.

Special Teams: Bruins. Slight edge due to stronger penalty killing.

Prediction: Bruins in 7

*****

Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series: Florida (2-1-1)

The Florida Panthers enter these playoffs as the lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference. Historically, teams with the fewest goals to reach the playoffs usually make quick first-round exits. Furthermore, the Panthers enter the post-season with the worst goal differential remaining – another ominous omen. Having said that, there are a few reasons why Florida won the Southeast Division. For starters, the Panthers have received solid goaltending from both Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen. More importantly, Brian Campbell (52 points) had a renaissance and Jason Garrison (16 goals) had a career year, helping to turn a below-average blueline into a decent group. Florida also got great mileage from its top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg, although they tailed off as the season wore on (Versteeg had just 4 goals after the All-Star Game).

Coached by former Panthers bench boss Peter DeBoer, the Devils implemented a more aggressive system this season to strong results. Nowhere was this more impressive than on the penalty kill, where New Jersey led the league with 15 shorthanded goals. Ilya Kovalchuk had his best season from a complete player perspective, leading the team in goals, points, ice-time and playing a penalty killing role. David Clarkson (30 goals), a healthy Zack Parise (31 goals), Patrick Elias (78 points) Petr Sykora (21 goals) and rookie Adam Henrique (51 points) have given New Jersey more scoring depth than they’ve had in years. This depth upfront hasn’t translated to the defense however, as the Devils blueline is much like Easter Island (aka a bunch of statues). Rookie Adam Larsson led defenseman in scoring with 18 points but has found himself a healthy scratch down the stretch. There’s a lot of pressure on Marek Zidlicky to be a powerplay quarterback in the post-season.

Key Player, Panthers: Brian Campbell

Not only is Campbell likely to play more minutes than anyone else in the series (outside of the goalies), but he’ll be asked to contribute at both ends of the ice. If Florida wins the series the powerplay – on which Campbell is the quarterback – will have to be a factor. Similarly, it would not be a surprise to see the smooth-skating Campbell matched-up against Ilya Kovalchuk, in the hopes that speed can counteract speed.

Key Player, Devils: Martin Brodeur

Brodeur isn’t the goalie we all remember, but his numbers and play did improve as the season went along (.921 save percentage after the break). And yet, he hasn’t won a playoff series in five years. Poor play from Brodeur is probably the only way the Panthers can win this series.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both teams are led by coaches in the playoffs for the first time. Both did good jobs in the regular season.

Goaltending: Even. Brodeur and the Devils goaltending were much improved in the second-half, but Florida’s Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmenson were just as strong all year for the Panthers.

Defense: Even. The Panthers blueline is stronger than that of the Devils, but New Jersey’s system and team approach to defending the goal remains elite.

Scoring: Devils. Florida scored only 2.29 goals-per-game after the All-Star break, worst among playoff teams.

Special Teams: Devils. Florida was 7th on the powerplay but 25th on the penalty kill. New Jersey was 1st overall on the penalty kill and 14th on the powerplay.

Prediction: Devils in 5

*****

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)

Season Series: Philadelphia (4-2)

There’s a lot of hype about the Penguins as they enter the playoffs, and the buzz is legitimate. Pittsburgh played at a 60-win, 315-goal pace in the second half of the season, and enter the playoffs relatively healthy. There may not be another team in the league more equipped to transition from an attack-focused approach to a defensive one than the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin (109 points) is this year’s likely Hart Trophy winner, and there were times he simply dominated opponents in the offensive zone. His chemistry with James Neal (40 goals) might be the best in the league. Given reduced ice-time upon his return from a concussion, Sidney Crosby also dazzled, putting up 37 points in 22 games this season. When you add Jordan Staal (25 goals) to the mix, this is the deepest team at centre in the league. It’s also the most fragile, as each of Staal, Crosby and Malkin have battled injuries in the past. An injury to Malkin or Crosby especially could change the fate of any playoff series. On defense, Kris Letang battled injuries all season but when healthy looked like a Norris candidate. Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek are a strong shutdown pairing. 

Despite major changes in the off-season, it was really business as usual for the Flyers, who reached 100 points for the second-straight year. Team success was predicated on offense, as Philadelphia was one of just three teams to average more than three goals-per-game. Claude Giroux was a major reason for the team’s offense, establishing himself among the league’s elite scorers with 93 points. Having said that, a strong rookie campaign from Matt Read (24 goals) and a breakout season for Scott Hartnell (37 goals) helped give the Flyers three solid scoring lines. Rookie Sean Couturier played the shutdown centre role all season, and it will be interesting to see how he fares in that role during the playoffs. On defense, the addition of Nicklas Grossman gave the Flyers the capable defensive-defenseman they didn’t have once Chris Pronger was lost for the year (career?) due to injury. Kimmo Timonen (43 points) also took on a greater role after Pronger’s injury, and played some of the best hockey of his career. In goal, Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky were the subject of criticism all season, but their play improved substantially after the All-Star Game.

Key Player, Pittsburgh: Matt Cooke

There’s every reason to expect this Penguins and Flyers series will get ugly. Cooke (19 goals) has had a terrific year, introducing self-control into his game and becoming an effective checking line player. If Cooke can play like Esa Tikkanen, acting as a defensive pest but staying above the expected Flyers shenanigans, he could drive Philadelhpia crazy and into a march to the penalty box. 

Key Player, Philadelphia: Jaromir Jagr

As much pressure as there will be on Ilya Bryzgalov’s shoulders, Jaromir Jagr is the key veteran presence in this young Flyers dressing room. Jagr battled groin injuries during the second-half of the season but demonstrated at times he can still dominate play, particularly down low in the offensive zone. The Flyers can’t win this series if Jagr is a passenger – they need him to be a catalyst.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Both are Stanley Cup winners; both are among the best in the game.

Goaltending: Even. Statistically, Philadelphia received better goaltending from its netminders than Pittsburgh did this year. The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury has become somewhat of a modern day Grant Fuhr – a big game goalie whose statistics otherwise seem unremarkable.

Defense: Penguins. The Penguins have proven without Crosby or Malkin they can be an elite defensive team in the NHL. The Flyers would rather trade chances with their opponent, and their blueline isn’t nearly as deep.

Offense: Penguins. Despite some impressive scoring depth on the Flyers roster the Penguins, with Crosby and Malkin, offer a Lemieux-Francis, Gretzky-Messier, Forsberg-Sakic –like twosome. Containing both of them will be impossible.

Special Teams: Penguins. The Penguins are top ten on both the powerplay and penalty kill, while Philadelphia’s penalty kill has been bottom-third of the league.

Prediction: Penguins in 7

Apr 042012
 

With 98% of the NHL season behind us, it’s time to fill in an imaginary awards ballot.

But before we get to that, let’s take a moment to consider two more dead teams:

Calgary Flames

What went wrong: No team had an easier stretch drive schedule among teams fighting for the last Western Conference playoff spots than the Flames did. They failed to reach the post season because they couldn’t score. The Flames as a team are currently 25th in shots on goal per game. They’re 3-9 in shootouts, rivalling Montreal (5-11) and Carolina (0-6) for the league’s worst record in the skills competition. Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen and Curtis Glencross will finish the year as the team’s lone 20-goal scorers. None of them are consistent (Iginla’s slow starts have become legendary). Calgary sits last in the league in faceoff performance.

What went right: Mikka Kiprusoff carried the team all season with stellar play between the pipes. When finally healthy for the second-half Mark Giordano played well. He has 16 points after the All-Star break and has helped Calgary reach 11th in the NHL on the powerplay. Mike Cammalleri has struggled to stay healthy with the Flames but when dressed has scored at a 30-goal pace.

Off-Season Gameplan: It’s been said in this space more than once, but this aging Calgary team desperately needs a rebuild. After three years of missing the playoffs there’s clearly not enough talent in the lineup to reach the post-season. There isn’t enough organizational depth right now either to create hope for better days in the future. This may the last chance Calgary gets to shop Jarome Iginla before seeing his value depreciate completely on the marketplace.

Winnipeg Jets

What went wrong: There was lots of talk pre-season about what the travel schedule would do to not only the Jets, but other teams in the Southeast Division. Clearly it was a factor for the Manitoba team, as Winnipeg has put together a terrible road record (13-21-5). The penalty kill is below 80%, which hurts a team that’s short-handed a lot (25th worst). As well as Ondrej Pavelec has been at times this season, he tired down the stretch (3.13 goals against in March) and currently ranks 57th in the league in save percentage (.906). Alex Burmistrov was improved this season, but his offensive progression has been slow (just 28 points in year two). Eric Fehr (3 points, 35 games) was a bust, while Tanner Glass (-12) was asked to do too much.

What went right: Blake Wheeler (61 points) and Evander Kane (29 goals) have taken steps forward as top-six, even top-line players. Dustin Byfuglien has had a strong second-half. Off the scrap-heap, Kyle Wellwood has been an effective offensive player (47 points despite just 14:57 per game in ice-time). The MTS Centre has proven to be one of the few home-ice advantages left in the NHL.

Off-Season Gameplan: Continue to build around a very solid core. Veteran depth, particularly the type that could improve the defensive side of Winnipeg’s game, would be helpful. Mark Scheifele will get the Burmistrov treatment next year. If Scheifele’s ready, he could supply enough offense to bring the playoffs back to Manitoba.

***

Now with that little bit of ugly business out of the way, let’s take a quick look at who deserves award recognition for the 2011-2012 NHL season.

Hart Trophy – Evgeni Malkin

Runners-up: Jason Spezza; Henrik Lundqvist

Malkin has been arguably the league’s best player this year. Lundqvist is probably the most valuable, but goalies rarely win this award. A Hart nomination is the feather-in-the-cap to a marvellous season from Jason Spezza.

Norris Trophy – Zdeno Chara

Runners-up: Alex Pieterangelo; Erik Karlsson

Chara wins because he’s put forth his strongest offensive season while retaining defensive dominance (+33 leads all d-men). Karlsson’s had a magical season but his defensive play remains average. Under Ken Hitchcock, Alex Pieterangelo has arrived, breaking the 50-point barrier but more importantly playing extremely well defensively night in, night out.

Vezina Trophy – Henrik Lundqvist

Runners-up: Jonathan Quick; Mike Smith

The Rangers success gives Lundqvist the nod over Quick, whose Los Angeles Kings team have been in a playoff dogfight all season. Mike Smith’s career rejuvenation in Phoenix gives him a slight edge over the two St. Louis Blues goalies (Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott) who’ve split too much playing time to be considered.

Selke Trophy – Patrice Bergeron

Runners-up: David Backes; Anze Kopitar

Bergeron wins almost 60% of his draws and is one of the league’s premiere penalty killers. Backes has flourished under Ken Hitchcock, leading Blues forwards in goals, points, hits and blocked shots. Kopitar deserves greater recognition, is leading the Kings in points once again but, more importantly to this category, has been Los Angeles best defensive player as well.

Calder Trophy – Gabriel Landeskog

Runners-up: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins; Matt Read

Not only is Landeskog tied for the rookie points lead, but he’s an incredible +23 and has played in all situations for the Avs down the stretch. He’s a future captain. Nugent-Hopkins is the most offensively-gifted rookie, but injuries have prevented him from running away with the freshman scoring crown. Matt Read leads all rookies in goals and has become an important player in the Flyers lineup.

Adams Trophy – Ken Hitchcock

Runners-up: Paul Maclean; John Tortorella

Hitchcock’s turned a middle-of-the-pack team into arguably the best team in the Western Conference. Paul Maclean has done wonders in Ottawa, taking a Sens team destined for a lottery pick into the playoffs. Tortorella’s nomination is a reward for guiding a team that’s out-performed its roster’s talent level all season.

 THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Another take on possible NHL awards, this one from ESPN.
  • Let’s just get this out of the way: Mike Milbury was a joke as a general manager and he’s a joke as a commentator. His take on league affairs is almost always neanderthal and ultra-traditionalist. Attacking Sidney Crosby gets your name in the paper though.
  • This definitely should be on any list of craziest goals of the year. It also epitomizes the difference in heart between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs.
  • At this point, wouldn’t it be for the best for everyone if the Washington Capitals missed the playoffs, fired their coach, and re-built their approach around Ovechkin’s offense than see the gutsy Sabres (one of the best teams in the NHL since the All-Star Game) come up short?
  • Quietly, Willie Mitchell’s having one of the best defensive defenseman seasons in the NHL this year. Granted, the ultra-conservative Kings gameplay helps in that regard.
  • Still without a contract, you have to expect the Edmonton Oilers are ready to walk away from Tom Renney. The talk is Todd Nelson, coach of Edmonton’s AHL farm team, will get a long look. Hard to believe he’s the guy who can take this young team to the next level.
  • It’s a small sample size, but the Nashville Predators are 4-3 in Alex Radulov’s seven games. The big Russian has 3 goals, 6 points in that span and has fit extremely well into the lineup.
  • For all of those people ready to anoint the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh, let’s acknowledge the fact that the Penguins are actually 25th in the NHL in team save percentage. Marc-Andre Fleury, not Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby, will have the biggest say in how far the Penguins go in the playoffs.
  • Speaking of which, the Chicago Blackhawks, for what it’s worth, are 27th in the NHL in team save percentage. Numbers-wise, Chicago’s entering the post-season with the worst goaltending amongst remaining teams.
  • Some other interesting Pre/Post-All-Star Game numbers: Winnipeg was 22nd in league scoring during the first half; 3rd so far in the second half. Buffalo was 25th in the first-half; 5th in the second half. Going the other way, Vancouver was 3rd in the first half scoring-wise; 15th in the second half. Washington was 9th in the first half; 26th in the second half.
  • Defensively, the Bruins have gone from 4th in the first half to 22nd in the second half. Minnesota from 8th in the first half to 25th and Pittsburgh from 10th to 23rd. Improving their defensive play in the second half were teams like Buffalo (26th to 7th), Anaheim (23rd to 8th), Colorado (21st to 5th) and Ottawa (27th to 13th).
Mar 272012
 

As we wind down the 2011-12 NHL season, it’s only fitting to take a moment and pay our respects to the “dearly departed” – those teams we know will be golfing in a couple of weeks.

Here now is a quick look at each of the teams looking ahead to 2012-13 already,  in reverse order of today’s standings.

Columbus Blue Jackets

What went wrong: Pretty much everything. James Wisniewski’s 8-game suspension crippled the team out of the gate. Coach Scott Arniel tried switching his team’s approach from an aggressive to conservative style mid-season, but the results were too poor to save his job. Jeff Carter was injured for much of his time in Columbus, and looked like a pout on skates when he did play.  Oh, and Steve Mason is currently ranked 77th amongst NHL goalies in goals against average (3.43).

What went right: Unlike Jeff Carter, Jack Johnson has embraced being a Blue Jacket, and has 10 points in 15 Columbus games. He still has the potential to turn this difficult trade into a real win for the Blue Jackets. Derick Brassard has quietly led the team in scoring since the All-Star Game (20 pts in 27 games).

Off-Season Gameplan: Address the goaltending issues that have hampered the franchise for most of its existence and make peace with Rick Nash. Trading Nash would kill the franchise. If this means firing GM Scott Howson, so be it.

Montreal Canadiens

What went wrong: The front office went insane, firing assistant coaches within hours of game time and throwing Randy Cunneyworth under the bus for his unilingualism. Top veterans Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Mike Cammalleri struggled, rendering a pop-gun offense useless for most of the first-half. And while Carey Price played well, even his numbers were slightly off from last season.

What went right: The Canadiens have embraced their youth as the season’s moved on. Max Pacioretty looks like a top NHL power forward. David Desharnais is second in team scoring since the All-Star Game (22 points in 26 games) and will be Montreal’s defacto second line centre next season. The physical Alex Emelin could be an interesting compliment to Andrei Markov in a top pairing. Lars Eller continues to develop and will flirt with 20 goals this year. Of the veterans, Eric Cole reached the 30-goal plateau for the first time in five years.

Off-Season Gameplan: Draft a talented Russian, whether it’s Alex Galchenyuk or Mikhail Grigorenko, with their highest pick since selecting Mike Komisarek seventh overall in 2001. Alex Kovalev flourished in Montreal, where the fans embraced his offensive flair. There’s no reason to believe that magic can’t happen again.

Edmonton Oilers

What went wrong: Nothing really went wrong – this team is probably as bad as they should be, especially given the injuries they’ve accrued. Of those injuries, the one to Ryan Whitney was the most damaging, as it exposed a very shallow blueline group. Nik Khabibulin has played worse as the season’s gone on, and he may be moved in the off-season. Eric Belanger is having his worst season as a pro, but he has partially solved the team’s faceoff problems.

What went right: Jordan Eberle does look like a young Dany Heatley and should be a Lady Byng candidate this season. The other super kids, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall, both look like they have top-20 NHL player potential. Devyn Dubnyk has a .918 save percentage since the All-Star Game. Sam Gagner continues to show flashes of top-six talent, and leads the team with a +8 rating. Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry have had terrific second halves. The pieces on this team are really starting to come together.

Off-Season Gameplan: Not much needs to be done upfront, but it’s the defense that needs tinkering. Another top-4 defenseman, or a youngster (draft pick) with top-pairing talent should be a priority. Help for Dubnyk would be an asset as well.

Minnesota Wild

What went wrong: Minnesota’s lack of offensive depth was exposed by injuries to Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Mikko Koivu. As a result, just like the Habs, a slight weakening of the team’s defensive play was enough to sewer the Wild’s playoff chances. The Wild might not have a 25-goal scorer this season. Josh Harding has had a disappointing second half (2 wins in 10 games, a .904 save percentage).

What went right:  Despite some historically low numbers, Dany Heatley has been a more competitive player with the Wild than he was in San Jose or Ottawa. Jared Spurgeon has played well enough that the Wild could trade Nick Schultz. Nik Backstrom has been his usual solid self.

Off-Season Gameplan: Bring on the kids. Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle could both see top-six roles in the NHL next season, bringing much needed offensive talent to the Wild roster. The Wild should also be in the running for a lottery pick in a draft that is loaded with quality defenseman. Beyond the influx of youth, Zach Parise should be targetted if he hits unrestricted free agency. It’s the type of move that would not only help the team, but would satiate restless Wild fans who feel the franchise has been spinning its wheels.

New York Islanders

What went wrong: For the Islanders to take the next step they need to work on their 5-on-5 play. They’ve ranked near the bottom of this category all year. Michael Grabner suffered from the sophomore slump (16 goals). One has to ask whether his skating talents can continue to flourish in a league where hooking and holding has crept back into play. Heralded rookie Nino Niederreiter has suffered through a lost season on the Island, with just one assist in 49 games. He’s averaged fourth-line minutes to boot.

What went right: John Tavares took another step towards greatness, improving his strength and speed and looking on many nights like a future Art Ross candidate. As Tavares has blossomed he’s lifted his linemates to new heights – Matt Moulson may reach 40 goals this year and P.A. Parenteau will have more than 50 assists. Together they have given the Islanders a dynamic first line, which is usually enough to fight for a playoff spot. New York’s powerplay has also been good all year, and Evgeni Nabokov has given the Islanders good goaltending on a nightly basis.

Off-Season Gameplan: GM Garth Snow should make resigning P.A. Parenteau a priority. Given the misuse of Nino Niederreiter this season, one wonders if the Islanders still see him as a top-six talent. If not, moving him could net a solid return. Continuing to build offensive depth, and acquiring a solid, stay-at-home top-four defenseman, should also be on New York’s shopping list. A few tweaks and this team will fight for a playoff spot next year.

Toronto Maple Leafs

What went wrong: The Leafs gambled on James Reimer and it came up snake eyes. As a result, the run-and-gun Leafs have given up goals by the bushel, eventually costing coach Ron Wilson his job. The defensive depth hasn’t materialized, with Mike Komisarek looking AHL-bound, John-Michael Liles frequently swimming out of position in his own zone and Luke Schenn regressing in his fourth season. In a broader sense, GM Brian Burke’s rebuild hasn’t gone well either – compared to the team he inherited, the Leafs are only better in a few areas (top-line wingers; top-two defensemen; more prospects). Otherwise this team looks a lot like the 2008-09 team that was jettisoned out of town. None of the replacements, particularly those acquired through free agency, have been actual upgrades.

What went right: All due respect to Tyler Seguin, but Phil Kessel remains the better player in that trade and will likely finish top-5 in league scoring. He is Mike Gartner 2.0. Healthy for the first time and stronger than ever before, Joffrey Lupul established himself as a top-line winger and compliment to Kessel, playing in the All-Star Game before getting hurt. Jake Gardiner and Carl Gunnarson have emerged as potential top-four defenseman, with Gardiner in particular showing flashes of offensive prowess.

Off-Season Gameplan: It’s a make-or-break off-season for GM Brian Burke. New coach Randy Carlyle demands a conservative style of play this roster wasn’t built for, which means major changes could be afoot. A lottery pick would be beneficial, as the Leafs could use a top-line talent to go with the complimentary-type players drafted in previous seasons. However, the most important move the team could make this summer is to solidify their goaltending position. Whether it’s taking Roberto Luongo off of Vancouver’s hands (I know, NTC), grabbing one of the “elite” young goaltenders (Josh Harding, Corey Schneider, Jonathan Bernier), or making a play for Jaroslav Halak. The Leafs won’t make the playoffs next year without a solution in net.

Anaheim Ducks

What went wrong: The Ducks just dug themselves too deep a hole. Whereas last year the team found its game amidst rumours the players had turned on coach Randy Carlyle, Anaheim couldn’t do the same this season, eventually leading to Carlyle’s firing. In particular, Jonas Hiller struggled early, and captain Ryan Getzlaf has had a nightmare season (one goal since the All Star Game).  Sophomore Cam Fowler has also struggled (-24 on the year).

What went right: The team has responded to coach Bruce Boudreau, and a full season under his direction should see the Ducks return to the post-season. Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne and Bobby Ryan have performed well for coach “Gabby.” Sheldon Brookbank has done a good job as the sixth defenseman, while Toni Lydman remains one of the better defensive defenseman in the league.

Off-Season Gameplan: Signs point to Selanne returning, which means the Ducks core remains as good as any in the NHL. Devante Smith-Pelley will likely have a top-six role to lose in training camp, but the Ducks could really use an upgrade at second-line centre. Impending free agent Saku Koivu can’t adequately fill that role anymore. Some veteran grit to the third and fourth lines would help as well.

Carolina Hurricanes:

What went wrong: Terrible starts to the season from Cam Ward and Eric Staal effectively put the Hurricanes behind the eight-ball. An injury to Joni Pitkanen – the team’s best offensive defenseman – didn’t help either. Carolina’s special teams, particularly the penalty kill, have been among the league’s weakest. No team gives up more shots-per-game than Carolina. Jeff Skinner hasn’t been the same player since returning from injury.

What went right: Surprisingly, Jiri Tlusty has had a strong second-half, placing second in team scoring (18 points in 22 games). Tim Gleason has been a beast defensively and remains one of the most underrated blueliners in the game. Chad LaRose will flirt with 20 goals this year. Staal’s been terrific since about December.

Off-Season Gameplan: With some solid youngsters up-front in the pipeline (Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk), what Carolina could really use is a veteran defenseman. Rumours that the Hurricanes are interested in Ryan Suter if he becomes a free agent underscore this belief. With the offense essentially living-or-dying on the Eric Staal’s back (shades of the 1990s Toronto Maple Leafs and Mats Sundin), Carolina has to hope Jeff Skinner rebounds next year.   

Tampa Bay Lightning

What went wrong: The clock struck midnight on the pumpkin named Dwayne Roloson, as the veteran netminder has been arguably the NHL’s worst goalie all year. The team’s blueline hasn’t played as well as last season either, with Eric Brewer in particular not living up to his playoff performance. With only four goals and averaging just 11-odd minutes of ice-time, one wonders if Brett Connolly’s development has been hurt playing in the NHL this season. Marc-Andre Bergeron’s injury meant the Lightning went most of the year without a true poweplay threat from the point. The penalty killing has struggled.

What went right: Steven Stamkos remains the league’s elite sniper, and should pick up the Richard Trophy for his 50+ goal efforts this season. Victor Hedman has had a strong second-half (+4, 10 points in 22 games), as has Teddy Purcell (33 points in 27 games). The latter is noteworthy, since it’s been done in Vincent Lecavalier’s absence.

Off-Season Gameplan: Goaltending. Tampa Bay doesn’t really have any, and needs to find it in the off-season. Beyond that a solid defenseman in the draft would go a long way to shoring up the blueline for the future. Offensive depth would be the third priority, particularly given that Martin St. Louis will be 37 next year.

Mar 212012
 

The Globe and Mail report that Patrick Roy is waiting in the wings to take over the Montreal Canadiens after this season is not unexpected.

Rumours for months have made it seem like a Quebec-centric bidding war has developed between the Habs and prospective Nordiques franchise over the services of Mr. Roy.

Interestingly though, yesterday’s news turned my inbox into a debate over the merits of Patrick Roy. Not necessarily his merits behind the bench or in the executive suite, but on the ice.

The question was – who was a better goalie, Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy?

It’s the type of question that has fueled hockey talk in living rooms, sports bars and in online forums. It’s also the type of question that really can’t be answered, since:

a) It’s a question of comparing different eras;

b) Dryden’s career was short and excellent on a dynasty team, while Roy played roughly two decades for average-to-excellent teams;

c) Roy revolutionized the position while Dryden revolutionized how to look bored during game-action;

d) Statistics available for Roy’s career are far more available than those for Dryden.

This last point is most challenging, since a quick scan online reveals only fewa season’s worth of save percentages are available for Dryden.

But there ARE a few season’s worth of save percentages available, and with that there’s enough to try and take a “scientific” stab at this question.

First up, let’s take a look at the modern season stats we do have for Ken Dryden:

AgeYearRecordMinutesGoals AgainstSavesGAASVPCT
231970-716-0-032792001.650.957
271974-7530-9-16332014914402.690.906
281975-7642-10-8358012115312.030.927
291976-7741-6-8327511713422.140.920
301977-7837-7-7307110512312.050.921
311978-7930-10-7281410810842.300.909

Now let’s grab Patrick Roy’s seasons at the same age:

AgeYearRecordMinutesGoals AgainstSavesGAASVPCT
231988-8933-5-6274411311152.470.908
271992-9331-25-5359519216223.20.894
281993-9435-17-11386716117952.500.918
291994-9517-20-6256612712302.970.906
301995-9634-24-2356516516322.780.908
311996-9738-15-7369814317182.320.923

Clearly, the numbers above suggest Dryden is the superior netminder.

However, the numbers don’t take into account the different eras, nor do they take into account the strength of Dryden’s Habs vs. Roy’s Montreal/Colorado teams. Let’s do both.

First, let’s equalize their eras. We know that historically the NHL averages roughly 6.17 goals per game. We also know the number of goals-per-game the NHL averaged in each of Dryden and Roy’s seasons.

Given this knowledge, we can do the following math to equalize their different eras: (actual goals against) / [(season’s goals-per-game/historical goals-per-game average)] = “new era-equal” goals against.

How does this impact the numbers? Again, Dryden seems to have a clear advantage over Roy:

Ken DrydenGAASVPCTPatrick RoyGAASVPCT
1970-711.630.9581988-892.030.923
1974-752.420.9151992-932.710.909
1975-761.830.9341993-942.370.922
1976-771.990.9261994-953.060.904
1977-781.910.9261995-962.720.910
1978-792.020.921996-972.450.919

Those are microscopic numbers for Ken Dryden, but they don’t take into consideration the strength of Dryden’s team.

We’ll try to compensate for the different strengths of teams by equalizing the shots-on-goal each goalie faced. Amazingly, the average number of shots on goal per team per NHL game has remained static over the years. The average number of shots faced in 2010-11 per game, per goalie was 30.411. Let’s use the 30.411 figure and apply it the era-equalized goals against to see what both goalies would look like playing in the “same era,” facing the “same number of shots.”

The expectation here is that, for Dryden, his goals against should be higher. The Canadiens of his era were a solid defensive team that gave up anywhere from 25-28 shots on goal per game. For Roy, we expect his numbers to remain relatively the same, as he regularly faced over the course of his career 30 shots against per game.

Ken DrydenPatrick Roy
AgeOld GAAOld SVPCTNEW GAANEW SVPCTOld GAAOld SVPCTNEW GAANEW SVPCT
231.650.9571.300.9582.470.9082.340.923
272.690.9062.590.9153.200.8942.770.909
282.030.9272.020.9342.500.9182.390.922
292.140.9202.270.9262.970.9062.920.904
302.050.9212.240.9262.780.9082.740.910
312.300.9092.450.9202.320.9232.460.919

The expected kind of happened, although not to the degree imagined. Dryden’s goals against went up, but they were still far superior to Roy’s numbers.

This hasn’t been the most perfect study for a variety of reasons, including the fact that quality of scoring chances couldn’t be taken into consideration (those numbers don’t exist to my knowledge), and we only looked at a select few seasons of each goalie.

Nonetheless, when the numbers are modified to put each goalie into the “same era” against the “same number of shots,” it’s clear the Dryden vs. Roy debate is really no debate at all.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Last week, we took a look at the terrific battle for the 7th and 8th playoff spots in the Western Conference. There’s still a race going on in the Eastern Conference between Washington, Florida, Winnipeg and Buffalo for the 3rd and 8th spots respectively. However, surprises seem far less likely to happen.
  • Of the four teams, Florida plays the weakest opponents (a .508 winning percentage heading into last night’s Philadelphia game). The Panthers reaching the playoffs seems like a sure thing.
  • The Jets have the toughest schedule, playing teams with a .572 winning percentage (including last night’s Pittsburgh game). They also play 6 of their last 9 games on the road, where they’ve struggled (11-20-4). It sure seems like the lights of the MTS Centre will be dark come playoff time.
  • Having said that, of the four teams in the discussion the Jets have been the highest scoring team over their last 20 games, potting 3.25 goals per game. Unfortunately for them, they’ve given up the most goals as well, averaging 3.15 goals against per game.
  • Blake Wheeler has become the big straw stirring the Jets drink, with 26 points in 23 games since the All-Star Game. Bryan Little has also come alive, with 10 goals and 19 points over the same period. Not to be out-done, Dustin Byfuglien has been a point-per-game player from the defense as well with 22 points in 22 games.
  • On paper, it’s hard to see how the Washington Capitals are still in the playoff race. They’re 9-9-2 over their last 20 games, giving up an average of 2.90 goals against per game while only scoring 2.40 goals per game. 5 of their last 9 games are at home though, where they have had good success this season (23-10-3). That should be enough to squeak them into the playoffs.
  • The wildcard here are the Buffalo Sabres. They’re 6-2-2 in their past 10 games and 11-5-4 in their past 20, putting the pressure on a Caps team that’s spinning its wheels. A March 27th game on the road against Washington looms large. If Buffalo wants to make the playoffs, they not only need to win that game, but improve on their current 12-9-5 record against their remaining opponents.
  • Reasons for Buffalo’s surge since the All-Star Game: Tyler Myers is +11 since the break; With 19 points each over the same period, Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford have given the Sabres scoring depth; Ryan Miller has a 2.02 goals against and .932 save percentage in 23 post All-Star game appearances. (Editor’s note: What? No mention of Cody Hodgson? /sarcasm – J.J.)
  • Evgeni Malkin is the first NHL player to score 5 or more points in a game 4 times in one season since 1995–96. During the 1995-96 season, Mario Lemieux did it 6 times for the Pittsburgh Penguins, while Peter Forsberg did it 4 times for the Colorado Avalanche.
  • How is it possible that Ryan Getzlaf has just 9 goals this year?
  • Other prominent players who may not hit 10-goals this year: Brandon Dubinsky (8); Kyle Turris (8); Mason Raymond (8); Michal Handzus (7); Dustin Penner (7); Paul Gaustad (7); Ville Leino (6); Brian Rolston (6); Mike Knuble (6).
Mar 142012
 

Yes, this is the week of returns in the NHL, with Sidney Crosby playing against the Rangers on Thursday and all signs pointing to Alex Radulov returning to the Predators in the near future.

And yet if you take a step back, what you’ve really got in the NHL right now is an epic race for the final playoff spots in the Western Conference.

As of Wednesday morning, there were five teams separated by a single point in the standings for the final two playoff spots in the West.

Which of these teams will make the playoffs? Which of these teams is most likely to face Vancouver in the first round? Let’s take a closer look at each team:

7th place: Phoenix Coyotes (70 games: 34-25-11)

  • Last 20 games: 12-4-4 (.700)
  • Goals per game in their last 20: 2.45
  • Goals against per game in their last 20: 2.05
  • Home record: 18-12-6 (5 games left)
  • Road record: 16-13-5 (7 games left)
  • Shootout record: 5-8
  • Strength of remaining schedule: .555 (2nd easiest)
  • Record against teams in remaining scheduled: 17-13-4 (.558)
  • Games against teams in race: 4 (Calgary; Colorado; San Jose, San Jose)

Notes: Phoenix has won three of four games against San Jose this year and plays them twice more. However, they also play St. Louis twice more, who they’re winless against. The Coyotes were excellent in February but have cooled slightly since. How they do on this next road trip (at Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Dallas) could go a long way to sealing their playoff fate.

Prediction: 6-3-3 in their final 12 games, to finish with 94 points.

8th place: San Jose Sharks (69 games: 34-25-10)

  • Last 20 games: 5-11-4 (.350)
  • Goals per game in their last 20: 2.35
  • Goals against per game in their last 20: 3.20
  • Home record: 19-11-3 (8 games left)
  • Road record: 15-14-7 (5 games left)
  • Shootout record: 6-5
  • Strength of remaining schedule: .570 (2nd hardest)
  • Record against teams in remaining schedule: 13-9-3 (.580)
  • Games against teams in race: 6 (Los Angeles; Phoenix; Colorado; Phoenix; Los Angeles; Los Angeles)

Notes: Of all the teams in the race, it’s the Sharks who have their fate in their own hands. They have six games against teams also fighting for the final two spots, including three against the rival Kings. Only one of San Jose or Los Angeles is making the playoffs, and it’s quite possible neither will make it. The Sharks have had a brutal 2012 thanks to some sour goaltending (although the team’s not scoring either). Can their much maligned core (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau in particular) save the season? The betting here is no, leading to an off-season of change.

Prediction: 6-6-1 in their last 13 games, to finish with 91 points.

9th place: Calgary Flames (70 games: 33-25-12)

  • Last 20 games: 10-4-6 (.650)
  • Goals per game in last 20 games: 2.75
  • Goals against per game in last 20 games: 2.55
  • Home record: 19-10-5 (7 more)
  • Road record: 14-15-7 (5 more)
  • Shootout record: 3-7
  • Strength of remaining schedule: .543 (easiest)
  • Record against teams in remaining schedule: 19-7-6 (.689)
  • Games against teams in race: 4 (Phoenix, Colorado, Colorado, LA)

Notes: Not only does Calgary have the easiest remaining schedule, but they have dominated the teams they will play against. The Flames have been scoring more goals per game over their last 20 games than any other team in the race, which bodes well. However, that awful shootout record could shoot them in the foot.

Prediction: 6-4-2 in their last 12 games, to finish with 92 points.

10th place: Los Angeles Kings (70 games: 33-25-12)

  • Last 20 games: 10-9-1 (.550)
  • Goals per game in last 20 games: 2.30
  • Goals against per game in last 20 games: 2.15
  • Home record: 18-13-4 (6 games)
  • Road record: 15-12-8 (6 games)
  • Shootout record: 5-7
  • Strength of remaining schedule: .558
  • Record against teams in remaining schedule: 13-9-3 (.580)
  • Games against teams in the race: 4 (San Jose; Calgary; San Jose; San Jose)

Notes: Not only will their games against San Jose go a long way to defining how the Kings finish, but their road record will as well. The Kings and Coyotes are the two strongest teams in this race on the road. The concern – as it has been all year – for Los Angeles has to be whether they will score enough to win games down the stretch. They’ve had a pedestrian last 20 games record-wise, scoring fewer goals during that stretch than any of their playoff race opponents.

Prediction: 4-4-4 in their last 12 games, finishing with 90 points.

11th place: Colorado Avalanche (71 games: 37-30-4)

  • Last 20 games: 11-7-2 (.600)
  • Goals per game in last 20 games: 2.70
  • Goals against per game in last 20 games: 2.20
  • Home record: 21-15-1 (4 more)
  • Road record: 16-15-3 (7 more)
  • Shootout record: 8-1
  • Strength of remaining schedule: .583 (hardest)
  • Record against teams in remaining schedule: 5-14-2 (.286)
  • Games against teams in race: 4 (Calgary, Phoenix, San Jose, Calgary)

Notes: The Avalanche clearly have the toughest schedule down the stretch, and have a terrible record against the teams they are to play. Having said that, they are one of the hottest teams in the NHL over their last 20 games, and their goals for and goals against have greatly improved in 2012. Like Los Angeles, Colorado’s destiny could be decided on the road, with seven more road games to play. Unfortunately for Avs fans, Colorado’s road record is only average.

Prediction: 4-5-2 over their last 11 games, finishing with 88 points.

My final predicted order of standings:

  • 7th place: Phoenix Coyotes (94 points) – They’d likely play Vancouver in the first round.
  • 8th place: Calgary Flames (92 points) – Momemtum + schedule = Feaster miracle.
  • 9th place: San Jose Sharks (91 points) – And not a few weeks ago, I called them a contender.
  • 10th place: Los Angeles Kings (90 points) – A lack of scoring probably costs Lombardi his job.
  • 11th place: Colorado Avalanche (88 points) – A great stretch run brings optimism for 2012-13.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Kudos to the Penguins for managing Sidney Crosby’s minutes and deciding to play him on the point on the powerplay. It will be fascinating to see how long this protection lasts, especially once the team gets to playoff time. Hard to see the Bruins or Rangers not trying to knock Crosby off the ice.
  • Let’s not get ahead of ourselves regarding Alex Radulov. If KHL production is roughly 62% the equivalent of NHL production, then his Russian stats this season translate as follows: 26 goals, 39 assists over 82 NHL games. That’s not bad, but it’s not necessarily superstar worthy. You have to expect a learning curve as well going from the KHL to NHL stretch-drive/playoff action.
  • Nonetheless, kudos to David Poile for pulling the wool over the eyes of other general managers. Make no mistake – the Predators are gunning for the Stanley Cup.
  • Biggest reason why the Leafs are still in a freefall: It’s training camp all over again in Toronto. The team is learning to play Randy Carlyle’s structured style, which in many ways is the opposite to how they’ve played all year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Leafs finish with a lottery pick.
  • Speaking of the Leafs, Damien Cox’s tweet earlier in the week suggested that Toronto will try and target Jaroslav Halak in the off-season. Naturally, the question begs – why would St. Louis want to make that trade?
  • How good has Steven Stamkos been? He’s the NHL’s leading goal-scorer currently by 12 goals. The biggest goal differential between the league’s top-two goal-scorers since the lockout was 13 goals in 2007-08 when Alex Ovechkin scored 65 and Ilya Kovalchuk had 52. Before that, it was a 14-goal differential in 1999-00 when Pavel Bure had 58 and Owen Nolan had 44. And prior to that, it was a 16-goal differential in 1991-92 between Brett Hull’s 70 goals and Kevin Stevens’ 54.
  • Marty Turco has looked awful in two appearences with Boston. Their divisional lead over the Ottawa Senators is in serious jeopardy if Tim Thomas doesn’t play the bulk of Bruins games down the stretch.
Mar 062012
 

It seems these days not a day goes by that there isn’t something about the mediocre Toronto Maple Leafs that’s making the headlines. 

At first blush, the signing of Mikhail Grabovski to a five year, $27.5 million contract seems rather ludicrous. We’re talking about high-end salary for a streaky scorer that’s never put up 30-goals or 60 points.

 But is the contract really that far out of whack? Let’s do this arbitration-style, and look at some comparables.

Comparable #1: The 2004 NHL Entry Draft – Part 1

Grabovski was drafted 150th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. There were 30 centres selected prior to that, although only 19 have made the NHL, and only nine have played 240+ games (the rough equivalent of three NHL seasons):

PlayerDraftedSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Evgeni Malkin2nd$8.7 M4104991.2237406
David Krejci63rd$5.25 M3592600.7258128
Mikhail Grabovski150th$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Travis Zajac20th$3.89 M4162520.6137126
Brandon Dubinsky60th$4.2 M3772050.5422446
Dave Bolland32nd$3.375 M2841480.5232181
Tyler Kennedy99th$2 M3091460.4730162
Rostislav Olesz7th$3.125 M3551320.37-10118
Torrey Mitchell126th$1.367 M263700.2713137

Clearly Malkin remains the best centre taken in the draft. Grabovski though is in the running for second-best (with Krejci, Zajac and Dubinsky).

Comparable #2: The 2004 NHL Entry Draft – Part 2

When you take all players from this entry draft into consideration, there are a group of players who have played a similar number of games to Grabovski: 

PlayerDraftedSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Blake Wheeler5th$2.55 M3091810.5954188
Blake Comeau47th$2.5 M3061320.43-49159
Tyler Kennedy99th$2 M3091460.4730162
Kris Versteeg134th$3.083 M3091960.6315185
Mikhail Grabovski150th$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Troy Brouwer214th$2.35 M3031320.44-1214

Clearly from the above table Kris Versteeg’s career production is the most similar to Grabovski’s. Furthermore, just like Grabovski, Versteeg’s career-to-date is without a 30-goal or 60-point season.

Comparable #3: What Does Cap Geek Say?

A search function on Cap Geek  gives the user the chance to find comparable salary cap hits for any player. These are the centres Cap Geek selects as Mikhail Grabovski’s salary comparables:

PlayerAgeSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Ryan Getzlaf26$5.325 M4974600.9364481
John Tavares21$5.5 M2271840.81-3397
Jason Pominville29$5.3 M5254170.7941155
Mike Richards26$5.75 M5103830.7543458
Jeff Carter27$5.27 M5043700.7341302
Patrick Sharp30$5.9 M5523710.6759375
Tomas Plekanec29$5 M5353530.6613322
Mikhail Grabovski28$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Ryan Kesler27$5 M5453320.6152487
Shawn Horcoff33$5.5 M7494330.58-43479

It’s an interesting list. The Horcoff contract is widely regarded as a huge albatross for the Oilers. He’s also the oldest centre on this list, with the most experience (and least production).  Kesler has fewer points per game than Grabovski, although he plays a far more well-rounded style (physical, defensive-minded, good on faceoffs) than the Leafs player. In fact, many of the players on this list bring “more to the table” than Grabovski does on a nightly basis.

With his new contract, Grabovski is effectively being paid to produce the type of offense consistent with a first-line player. Yet most of the comparable centres on this list produce more offense than he does.

The majority of players on this list have also played around 500 games, or roughly two more seasons than Grabovski has. While it seems logical to pay a player like Tavares this kind of salary early in his career (he’s an elite talent that the Islanders have locked-up long term), Grabovski is 28-years old. The player he will be is the player he is right now.

And the player he is right now looks like a player who doesn’t necessarily fit in with this group.

Looking at all these lists, it’s clear Grabovski will be overpaid at $5.5 million per season.

Toronto’s desperate for a number one centre. Now they’ve got a player who can’t play like one, but certainly gets paid like one.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Speaking of the Leafs, Grabovski’s now paid more than Phil Kessel, the Leafs top scorer. That can’t sit well with Kessel, who’s carried the team’s offense this season. It also gets the Spidey-senses tingling – maybe there could be a Rick Nash for Phil Kessel trade in the off-season after all.
  • From a few weeks ago, here’s the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle on what Grabovski is worth.
  • Final Leafs note – Randy Carlyle will bring necessary structure to the Toronto Maple Leafs. But let’s not forget Ducks players grew to hate their coach, and dressing room issues were a large part of the last two years in Anaheim. It would not be a surprise to see, at the end of the day, that Ron Wilson will have coached more Leaf games than Randy Carlyle.
  • I lied about it being the final Leafs note. This happened today on Toronto radio. Must bring back warm memories for Vancouver sports radio listeners.
  • Rumoured complaints by the Senators, Canucks and Maple Leafs about Ron Maclean and Don Cherry are just another reason why it’s easy to believe the CBC is getting out of the hockey business after their contract runs out.
  • So Sidney Crosby’s head is clear and it looks like he might be ready to go for the playoffs. Except that the playoffs are played at a faster, more physical pace than the regular season. In everyone’s rush to get Crosby back on the ice, isn’t it in his best interests to take as much time off as possible and start fresh for the 2012-13 season?
  • The Globe and Mail selects the 2014 Men’s Olympic Hockey Team so Steve Yzerman doesn’t have to.
  • Interesting news that Canada currently sits fourth in the world hockey rankings. Here are the top-10 rankings in descending order: Russia; Finland; Sweden; Canada; Czech Republic; United States; Switzerland; Germany; Norway; Slovakia.
  • Dobber writes a personal note to George McPhee and Ted Leonsis that sounds similar to what was said in this space a few weeks ago.
  • Not making too big a deal about this, but Tim Thomas’s numbers in 2012 aren’t at their usual level of excellence (11-9, 2.66 goals against, .909 save percentage). With Tuukka Rask out and Marty Turco signed, the Bruins have to hope that Thomas finds his old form in time for the playoffs.
  • Grant Clitsome on playing in Winnipeg: “The hardest thing to adjust to was having to shout at your teammates as you can’t hear them with how loud the crowd is.”
  • In case you missed it, a breakdown of each team’s height, weight and age post-trade deadline.
  • A nice analysis on Fear the Fin about the San Jose Sharks recent slide.
  • Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
Feb 282012
 

Let’s get this out of the way first.

I’m still not convinced Columbus’ interest in dealing Rick Nash wasn’t a creation of TSN and Sportsnet. The two networks needed a big name to speculate about to drive up ratings for their annual Trade Deadline TV marathons.

Sadly for those networks, Nash remains a Blue Jacket at least until the draft, where the hype will be built up all over again. I am giddy with anticipation (and by giddy I mean hitting my head with a shoe to make the idea of 24 hour coverage of “The Rick Nash Trade – Part Two” go away).

Nonetheless, the trade deadline did produce some moves – 15 trades involving 31 players, according to TSN. As per usual, the moves quickly revealed who’s serious about the Stanley Cup.

Based on team performance and moves they made, here now are the REAL contenders for the Stanley Cup.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Vancouver

The Canucks enter the final portion of the NHL season with the strongest group of forwards they’ve had in a long time, if not ever. The 2012 version of Sammy Pahlsson is a step-slower, slightly less-effective than the one who helped the Anaheim Ducks with the Cup in 2007. However he remains a strong shutdown centreman who can win faceoffs (he led the Blue Jackets in faceoffs prior to the trade, winning 51.1%).

In Zack Kassian, Vancouver effectively replaced Raffi Torres from last year’s playoff run with someone younger and with 20-30 goal potential. Kassian could even develop into the big, scoring winger the team hasn’t had since Todd Bertuzzi left town. Kassian models his game after Bruins bruiser Milan Lucic, which is probably music to the ears of most Canuck fans.

Marc-Andre Gragnani is an underrated puck-moving defenseman who is about to have the spotlight shine on him. There are folks who think he could flourish into a 40-50 point player, and there are certainly similarities between his game and ex-Canuck Christian Ehrhoff. Those similarities include some puzzling play in the defensive zone.

Bottom Line: This Canuck team looks primed for another long post-season run. Cody Hodgson is a big chip to play, but when you consider the team’s time is now (and Vancouver already has Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler in the top two centre positions), Gillis has made the team stronger than it was yesterday.

Potential weakness: The blueline.

2. San Jose

While there will be folks who scoff, let’s remember that the Sharks have made the Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons, and they will enter these playoffs with likely their deepest team ever. Like the Canucks, the Sharks have had some concerns regarding secondary scoring and forward depth, and the acquisitions of Daniel Winnik, T.J. Galiardi (and previously Dominic Moore) address this area.

Winnik was one of Colorado’s most important forwards, playing tough minutes and leading team forwards in ice time for much of the year. The improved play of Gabriel Landeskog and Winnik’s status as an impending UFA made him expendable. He’ll look very good alongside Michael Handzus on San Jose’s third line.

T.J. Galiardi has been an offensive tease so far in his career but he’s got the talent to be a fringe top-six player. Ray Fererro mentioned during Trade Deadline coverage today that Galiardi came to training camp having put on too much muscle, which hampered the player’s speed. Galiardi is an adequate replacement for Martin Havlat, allowing the injury-prone star to take his time to get back into the lineup.

Bottom Line: The Sharks improved their defense in the off-season, and now have improved their foward group. If Martin Havlat comes back healthy, and they get any kind of goaltending, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Sharks three-peat as Conference Finalists, perhaps even graduating to the Cup Final. A re-match with the Canucks would not surprise.

Potential weakness: Goaltending

3. Nashville

Why the Predators and not the Red Wings? Detroit only tinkered with their team (adding Kyle Quincey), and now enter the playoffs with pretty much the same group that’s been knocked out of the playoffs early the last two years.

Meanwhile, the Predators are showing Ryan Suter the money and  pushing their chips to the middle of the table. They were rumoured to have made a big push for Rick Nash, and when that didn’t materialize, they quickly added Andrei Kostitsyn from Montreal. He’s an enigmatic scorer, but he is a scorer, and a legitimate top-6 one at that. Playing with his brother Sergei could be problematic (one friend commented beer sales are about to go up in bars around Nashville), but it’s unlikely coach Barry Trotz will let any off-ice shenanigans impact the team on-ice.

Paul Gaustad is another effective grinder on a team full of them, and acquiring Hal Gill earlier in the week gives the Predators a premiere shutdown defenseman, perhaps one destined to matchup with Ryan Kesler this season.

Bottom Line: The Predators are one of the toughest teams to play against in the NHL, and they were a sniper-away from beating the Canucks in last year’s playoffs. Andrei Kostitsyn might not be Paul Kariya or Peter Forsberg, but he is someone who can create offense on his own. With a deep defense, strong goaltending and an upgraded forward group, Nashville has become the dark horse team to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup.

Potential weakness: Scoring

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Boston

Remember, these are the defending Stanley Cup champions, who have retained much of the team from last year. The addition of Brian Rolston effectively replaces the departed Mark Recchi, although the emergence of Tyler Seguin means less is expected of Rolston in an offensive role. He might become a key part of the second powerplay unit, shooting darts from the point. Otherwise he’ll play a bottom-six role.

Meanwhile, there is a common belief today that you need 8 NHL-ready defenseman to go far in the playoffs. Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau fit that bill, the former one of the better shot blockers in the league, while the latter is a good skater and marginal puck-mover.

Bottom Line: Boston looks like a team ready to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

Potential weakness: Nathan Horton’s health

2. New York Rangers

Why the Rangers, when they didn’t make a single move of significance (apologies to John Scott) at the Trade Deadline? Sometimes, the best move a team can make is no move. The 2012 New York Rangers are greater than the sum of their parts, and messing with that chemistry in a significant way could upset everything the team has been building towards.

Rick Nash would have been sexy, but there’s no telling how his arrival would have worked in the locker room. GM Glen Sather was smart to let this team prove what it can do in the playoffs, and then tinker as necessary in the off-season.

Bottom Line: Thanks to Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, the Rangers are Nashville-East with more scoring. That makes them a Cup contender.

Potential weakness: Scoring

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Couldn’t put Pittsburgh on the list for one reason – there’s no guarantee Sidney Crosby is coming back. If he does, and he’s healthy, they’re added to the contender mix. The thing is, with how aggressive play is in the playoffs, does anyone think Sidney Crosby would survive a long playoff run without another injury?
  • The Flyers aren’t a contender, and really, haven’t been one all season. They’re fun to watch but there are too many holes on defense or in goal to be considered among the elite. Could be a different story in a few years though.
  • Puzzling move #1: The Toronto Maple Leafs trading Keith Aulie, who remains a legit defensive prospect - one who could become Hal Gill 2.0. Yes Toronto has depth on the blueline, but acquiring Carter Ashton for Aulie seems like acquiring 50 cents on the dollar. Ashton projects as a 3rd line guy at best. Burke is living and dying by his current roster in Toronto. It’s likely not enough to get the team into the playoffs.
  • Puzzling move #2: The Edmonton Oilers trading Tom Gilbert to their division rivals the Minnesota Wild for Nick Schultz. I think this sums it up nicely. Perhaps all this really means is that Edmonton intends to draft an offensive defenseman in the first round this year, and pair him with Schultz immediately.
  • Talked a lot about the Vancouver – Buffalo trade above, but one more thing: there’s no question Cody Hodgson is the most talented player in the deal, but from a Canucks standpoint they’re looking to win now. Long-term, it could be a trade the Canucks regret, although it does seem the franchise never warmed to the guy. Biggest immediate concern - what happens if one of Kesler or Sedin gets hurt?
  • Johnny Oduya is a nice complimentary pickup by the Blackhawks, but they needed more (another d-man, another scoring forward) for their playoff chances to truly improve. Right now, the ‘Hawks look like a second round team at best.
  • It’s rare you see the Flames apologize to the Oilers.
  • It would not surprise me if Ben Bishop eventually forced Craig Anderson out of town in Ottawa. Bishop is a very good goalie prospect, and the team already has Robin Lehner on the farm. It could be Anderson becomes the known asset the Senators eventually move for needed pieces.
Feb 222012
 

One game does not represent an entire NHL season.  

But Washington’s 5-0 loss to Carolina Monday night was another of the growing number of nails being hammered into the coffin laying rest to the Washington Capitals – 2011-12 edition.

Make no mistake, this Washington team is taking after Monty Python’s dead parrot – it’s bereft of life, destined to rest in peace.

And to think just 24 months ago this was a team destined to transform and dominate the NHL landscape.

There are two reasons why the juggernaut Washington Capitals of 2009-10 have transformed into a Cinderella-sized pumpkin.  

The Little Reason: Injuries to their core players

Mike Green had 76 points in 75 games in the 2009-10 season. In the two seasons since, Green has played just 61 regular season games total. He is the straw that stirs the Washington attack, and he’s been MIA for most of the last two seasons.

This year, the team’s number #1 centre – Nicklas Backstrom – has missed significant time due to a concussion. The drop-off in talent from Backstrom to Marcus Johansson is the equivalent of leaving Charlize Theron to date Mayim Bialik.

Other than Alex Ovechkin, these are the team’s two best, most dynamic players. Without them it’s a no brainer the Capitals have struggled more.

The Big Reason: GM George McPhee abandoned his plan

The 2009-10 Capitals were having fun tearing up the league on their way to a 121-point season. They were the “go-go” Capitals, featuring seven 20+ goal scorers.

Flash forward to today, and the Capitals will be lucky to have four 20-goal scorers.

2009-10 Capitals 20-goal scorers:

Ovechkin 50
Semin 40
Backstrom 33
Knuble 29
Laich 25
Fleischmann 23
Fehr 21

2011-12 Capitals 20-goal scorers (on pace):

Ovechkin 34
Semin 22
Brouwer 21
Chimera 21

Where did the offense go?

It was left in Montreal during the Spring of 2010.

That seven game loss to the Canadiens was devastating to the Capitals front office, who expected nothing less than a championship run that year.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how the Capitals lost the series after being up three-games-to-one:

1) They were a young team (younger than the team that lost to Pittsburgh the year before). Inexperienced playoff teams are extremely suspect to the whims of momentum (both positive and negative).

2) Confidence is a major factor in the success of special teams, and the Capitals just didn’t have it in their powerplay (1-for-33 in the series). This meant the Habs could take penalties without punishment.

3) Montreal employed a passive trap when they had the lead, which confounded coach Bruce Boudreau.

4) Montreal paid extra-special attention to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom defensively, challenging the rest of the Capitals to create offense.

5) Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak put on the greatest playoff goaltending performance since Patrick Roy in 1992-93, if not longer.

Given the above, the steps that had to be taken to get the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final were clear:

1) Find some playoff experience to add to the dressing room.

2) Count on better luck (Halak-esque performances don’t happen every year).

3) Support coach Boudreau in figuring out how to beat the trap.

4) Find an impact second-line centre to take the pressure off of Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Instead, General Manager George McPhee went in the opposite direction, abandoning the style of play he’d built the team on for one that put a priority on defensive accountability.  

It’s been downhill ever since.

The 2010-11 Capitals racked up 107 points but their goals per game rate fell more than a full goal (-1.09). A distance emerged between the team’s run-and-gun – and best – player (Ovechkin) and its coach. Talented Tomas Fleischmann was shipped out for the blueline carcass known as Scott Hannan.  

Come playoff time, Washington was swept by another trapping team, this time the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round. But unlike during the Montreal series (where Washington generated scoring chances to no avail), the Capitals went meekly into the off-season, and with little offensive push back.

This past summer, GM George McPhee doubled-down on his defensive bet. He added Tomas Vokoun to play goal, and brought in Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Roman Hamrlik to bring size and grit to the team. 

What none of these players do is create offense on their own.

And, for the first part of the 2011-12 season, they couldn’t stop a puck either. Vokoun got off to a poor start, and despite his team out-shooting and out-chancing the opposition, Bruce Boudreau was fired.

The hiring of Dale Hunter was the last bit of “defensive desperation” to come out of the Washington front office. As discussed last week, Hunter’s hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach has stifled what creativity has remained in the Capitals attack.

The transformation of this team from “go-go” to “no-go” is now complete.

Today the Washington Capitals are in a desperate fight for their playoff lives. It didn’t have to be this way.

If Capitals fans should blame anyone, it’s GM George McPhee.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • No big surprise – this interview suggests the man behind the Seattle arena bid could care less about the NHL.
  • Meanwhile, it looks like the NHL would like to sell the Phoenix Coyotes to the bid that includes Jeremy Roenick.
  • Speaking of the Coyotes, it’s been quite the season for Radim Vrbata. He’s cracked 30 goals for the first time, and at least one person thinks he should be a Hart candidate.
  • Don’t look now but Tyler Myers has found his game in Buffalo. He’s got 2 goals, 7 points and is a +7 in his last 10 games.
  • Here’s a Detroit reaction to acquiring Kyle Quincey. Here’s more analysis from Colorado’s Mile High Hockey blog. From here it looks like a trade that helps out all three teams.
  • A great Maclean’s piece on the rise of hockey in the United States. Maybe moving into the sunbelt regions wasn’t such a bad idea for the game after all.
  • As much as there is to like about David Booth on the second line for the Canucks, they still need one more offensive piece and a defenseman, if they plan on making another Cup run this year. Mason Raymond hasn’t looked like a top-six player all year, and the blueline remains inconsistent.
  • Since the free advice is flowing, here’s some for Nashville GM David Poile – there might not be a better year to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Who knows if you’ll ever have Ryan Suter and Shea Weber under contract again, you’ve got the young assets to move, and you’re one of the toughest teams to play against in the league. Ales Hemsky, Ray Whitney, Derek Roy, etc. etc. – go get some deadline offense and push your chips into the middle of the table.
  • In case you missed it, Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
  • I know Antoine Vermette is struggling, but this return for him certainly doesn’t give anyone confidence Scott Howson is the type of GM who can maximize the return in any Rick Nash or Jeff Carter trade. It also doesn’t address their goaltending issues either.
Feb 162012
 

Ken Hitchcock has more than 500 wins, a .590 career winning percentange and a Stanley Cup to his credit.

But he’s never won the Jack Adams Award for NHL Coach of the Year.

With all due respect to the great work John Tortorella, Dan Bylsma, Kevin Dineen and Mike Babcock are doing with their respective teams, Hitchcock should win his first Jack Adams Award this year.

The impact he’s had on the St. Louis Blues has been incredible. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at how each of this season’s coaching changes have played out.

TeamGoals ForGoals AgainstShots ForShots AgainstPowerplayPenalty Kill
STL+0.06-0.98+1.56+0.82+8.60%+9.20%
LA-0.04-0.77-0.76-2.13+0.60%+3.00%
ANA+0.63-0.42+0.63-2.56+0.50%-6.30%
WAS-0.61-0.77-4.84+1.30+3.30%+0.10%
CAR+0.32+0.51+1.02+0.42+7.23%-5.22%
MTL+0.11+0.05-2.51-0.23+3.90%-0.50%
CBJ-0.25-0.24-3.27+2.32+7.10%-1.70%

Ken Hitchcock

Pre-hiring: St. Louis was 6-7 (.461 points %)
Post-hiring (as of February 14): St. Louis is 28-8-7 (.733 points %)

Under Hitchcock, the Blues have shaved almost a goal-a-game off their defense, while improving their special teams astronomically. The powerplay, penalty kill and winning percentage improvements are the biggest gains amongst any of the new coaches. Carried over an 82-game season, the Blues under Hitchcock are playing 120-point hockey.

Darryl Sutter

Pre-hiring: Los Angeles was 15-14-4 (.515 points %)
Post-hiring: Los Angeles is 12-5-7 (.646 points %)

Sutter has done exactly what many expected of him when he was hired – he’s ignored calls for more offense and tightened the screws defensively to an even greater extent than Terry Murray. Unexpectedly, this approach is working quite well, as the Kings have gone from playoff question mark to an almost certainty… especially if they can add some offense at the deadline.

Bruce Boudreau

Pre-hiring: Anaheim was 6-14-4 (.333 points %)
Post-hiring: Anaheim is 16-11-5 (.578 points %)

Under Boudreau Anaheim’s top offensive players have woken up, improving Anaheim’s offence by more than half-a-goal per game. Meanwhile, “Gabby’s” also tightened up the defence (roughly two-and-a-half less shots per game). The penalty kill hasn’t been as good though.

It’s interesting – the three coaches who have (arguably) had prior success at the NHL level have had the biggest winning percentage improvement amongst all teams that changed coaches.

Dale Hunter

Pre-hiring: Washington was 12-9-1 (.568 points %)
Post-hiring: Washington is 16-14-4 (.529 points %)

Hunter’s clamped down even more on the Capitals offense than Boudreau had prior to his firing. While this has led to a better goals against average, Washington is giving up more shots, and is taking fewer shots than before. The powerplay’s improved, but it certainly looks like the Capitals under Hunter are a borderline playoff team at best.

Kirk Muller

Pre-hiring: Carolina was 8-13-4 (.400 points %)
Post-hiring: Carolina is 13-12-7 (.516 points %)

Muller’s helped the offense get going, although one could argue the improved play of Eric Staal has been the major difference maker here. Goals against and shots against are slightly worse, while the penalty kill is much poorer.

Randy Cunneyworth

Pre-hiring: Montreal was 13-12-7 (.516 points %)
Post-hiring: Montreal is 10-13-2 (.440 points %)

The coaches may have changed, but according to these numbers players aren’t playing all that differently for Cunneyworth than they were with Jacques Martin.  The sad fact for Cunneyworth supporters is that Martin won with this team and the new coach isn’t. Montreal is taking fewer shots but their powerplay is improved. Honestly there is nothing here to suggest Cunneyworth will be a head coach beyond this season.

Todd Richards

Pre-hiring: Columbus was 12-24-5 (.356 points %)
Post-hiring: Columbus is 6-9-1 (.406 points %)

In fairness to Richards, the Blue Jackets season was lost well before he took over the reigns as coach. Nonetheless, it does look like the team is playing worse for Richards then they did Scott Arniel. The powerplay improvement could be inflated due to the small sample size (Richards has coached just 16 games for the team).

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • The fact that Ron Wilson sits 7th on the list of NHL all-time coaching wins (currently at 619 and counting) is a testament to mediocrity. Wilson teams haven’t always lived up to expectations, but they’ve also never been horrendous either. They’re like lukewarm porridge. Good enough to eat but nothing to savour.
  • Rick Nash might now be “on the market,” but only one of three rumoured destinations makes sense. Contrary to what Canucks fans would have you believe, shedding enough salary to fit Nash under the cap would be incredibly problematic. Meanwhile, GM Mike Gillis has made it clear he believes you need two goalies to succeed in the playoffs, so Cory Schneider isn’t going anywhere right now. Conversely, the New York Rangers have the cap space, but their team chemistry is so good it’s hard to see them gutting their roster for Nash. Besides, what they could really use is greater depth on the blueline. This leaves the Kings, who have the pieces (Jonathan Bernier), salary they could move to give them cap space (Dustin Penner) and the need (scoring) as the best bet for Nash.
  • Having said all that, if the Blue Jackets trade Rick Nash you might as well fold that franchise in Columbus.
  • Absolutely infuriating: obstruction is up, scoring is down, and the NHL is calling fewer penalties according to this story from Pittsburgh.
  • Could we see the U.S. adopt the Saturday night hockey tradition? It seems like it worked like gangbusters in Buffalo recently.
  • In case you missed it, Puck Daddy’s calling this the goal of the year already.
  • If I’m Ales Hemsky, I’m getting out of Edmonton as fast as I can. Clearly they don’t realize what they have, and how secondary scoring makes a difference in a long playoff run. He’s injury prone and inconsistent, but he’s also only 28 years old and has shown himself capable of dominating games in this post-lockout era. Letting his contract situation twist in the wind over the course of this entire season, ultimately to trade him for 25 cents on the dollar at the deadline, is poor asset management on the part of the Oilers front office.
  • Elliotte Friedman’s latest 30 Thoughts.
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