Nov 282011
 

NHL standings are a lie.

Well, for the most part they’re a lie. You see, there are only two days in the schedule where all 30 teams will have played the same number of a games: the first day of the regular season and the last day of the regular season.

In between these two days, 30 different NHL team schedules create standings that reward or punish teams that have played more or fewer games than their opponents.

Now as usual around these parts, you’re probably wondering why this is relevant. Well, the week of U.S. Thanksgiving is usually the time of the year when most NHL teams have played 20 games or a quarter of their season.

It’s the time of the year when navel-gazing (for those who can see their navels) is ramped up for fans, and general managers start making decisions about their clubs.

As a public service, here now are the real, unvarnished NHL standings after a quarter of the season. They reflect each team’s results through their first 20 games of the year.

Western Conference

1. San Jose – 27 points

Powerplay: 4 / Penalty Kill: 29 / Goals For: 7 / Goals Against: 5

What’s working: The top-two lines have carried the offensive load and continue to demonstrate they’re among the league’s best. With Martin Havlat and Brent Burns, this is a quicker team than Sharks teams of yore – one that’s capable of an even stronger counter attack. The “Hot Pickle,” Marc-Edouard Vlasic, is playing the best hockey of his career. Both goalies Antti Niemi and Thomas Griess have played well.

What’s not: Havlat, while bringing speed and creativity to the attack, only has one goal. Colin White is a team worst -4. The penalty kill has been frustratingly bad.

2. Minnesota – 27 points

Powerplay: 26 / Penalty Kill:12 / Goals For: 28 / Goals Against: 1

What’s working: Mike Yeo, in his first year behind the Wild bench, has instilled a work-ethic, discipline and resiliency that’s helped the Wild reclaim its tight-checking identity and lead the Northwest Division. Let’s not forget Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, who combined have been the best goaltending tandem in the league so far. Minnesota’s blueline, while lacking name-recognition, is very mobile and sound positionally. They’re exhibit A when it comes to “greater than the sum of its parts.”

What’s not: Consistent with their franchise history, the Wild still can’t score. Dany Heatley is playing the best defensive hockey of his career, but he doesn’t look like a 40-goal threat anymore. Coach Mike Yeo hasn’t found a line-“fit” for Devin Setoguchi either. The powerplay is crying out for a real quarterback: Marek Zidlicky has fewer powerplay points (2) than Chicago’s “swash-buckling” Steve Montador (5).

3. Chicago – 27 points

Powerplay: 18 / Penalty Kill: 26 / Goals For: 2 / Goals Against: 16

What’s working: The Patrick Kane experiment at centre is going very well. Together with linemates Patrick Sharp and Dan Carcillo, Chicago’s second-line is a nice combination of grit, speed and two-way play. Nick Leddy has looked very good when paired with Nick Hjarlmalsson and has settled into a role on the first powerplay unit. Ray Emery, despite a no-show against Edmonton, has given the Blackhawks better goaltending in a back-up role then the team got from Marty Turco last year. Marian Hossa is back as a top-performer.

What’s not: Inconsistency in three areas: The penalty kill, Corey Crawford and Duncan Keith. Keith at times looks like he’s trying to do too much on the ice, while Crawford has ricocheted between spectacular and pedestrian all season.

4. Phoenix – 25 points

Powerplay: 27 / Penalty Kill: 5 / Goals For: 12 / Goals Against: 12

What’s working: Mike Smith is doing an incredible Ilya Bryzgalov impression, and fulfilling some of the promise that originally had him pegged as Dallas’s future #1 goalie after Marty Turco. The Coyotes feature two-way depth at centre as well, with Martin Hanzal, Daymond Langkow and Boyd Gordon all contributing. Phoenix is also taking the fewest penalties in the league, which speaks to team discipline. Radim Vrbata’s been hot and is on a 40-goal pace.

What’s not: Despite having some nice pieces, the Coyotes powerplay is struggling. While Dave Tippett’s style is to keep three-alarm scoring chances against to a minimum, Phoenix is still routinely out-shot.

5. Detroit – 25 points

Powerplay: 9 / Penalty Kill: 22 / Goals For: 8 / Goals Against: 6

What’s working: The retirement of Brian Rafalski has had a negligible impact on Detroit’s defense thanks to strong performances from Ian White, Mark Stuart and Niklas Kronvall. Meanwhile, Jimmy Howard is giving the Red Wings some of the best goaltending they’ve seen in a long time. He’s been Vezina-calibre through the first quarter. The powerplay remains a weapon, with Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula playing well.

What’s not: Todd Bertuzzi, Daniel Cleary and especially Henrik Zetterberg have all struggled to score through the first 20 games, while hopes of Jiri Hudler’s resurgence have faded. Surprisingly, for a veteran team, consistency on a nightly-basis has been a real struggle.

6. Nashville – 24 points

Powerplay: 17 / Penalty Kill: 11 / Goals For: 16 / Goals Against: 14

What’s working: This has been the best stretch of David Legwand’s career, and he’s quietly become one of the better two-way forwards in the league. Craig Smith, plucked from college hockey, is the surprise team leader in goals (7) and points (16). Despite the weight of expectations that come with a gigantic new contract, Pekka Rinne has played up to his high standards.

What’s not: As debate over the futures of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber continues, it should be noted that the rest of the Predators blueline hasn’t exactly been lights out. Jonathan Blum’s playoff performance hasn’t carried over into the regular season, while Kevin Klein is somehow a -11. The Big Two are carrying the defense.

7. Dallas – 24 points

Powerplay: 15 / Penalty Kill: 15 / Goals For: 20 / Goals Against: 17

What’s working: Similar to Minnesota, new coach Glen Gulutzan has got the Dallas Stars strongly executing a defensive system that’s frustrating opponents. This team is much stronger 5-on-5 than they were last season. Jaime Benn looks like a potential top-10 NHL scorer, and has helped the team overcome the loss of Brad Richards. The third line of Vern Fiddler, Radek Dvorak and Eric Nystrom has been one of the more effective checking lines in the league so far. Goalie Kari Lehtonen is playing his heart out.

What’s not: For a team that’s not exactly an offensive juggernaut, it’s taken too many penalties so far. Brendan Morrow’s on a 12-goal pace. The special teams remain average.

8. Los Angeles – 23 points

Powerplay: 10 / Penalty Kill: 16 / Goals For: 24 / Goals Against: 7

What’s working: This may be the strongest defensive team the Kings have had in quite some time, backstopped by a stellar Jonathan Quick. Rookie Slava Voynov has shown real offensive flair on the blueline, taking heat off of Drew Doughty (who hasn’t brought his A-game many nights). Mike Richards is well on his way to becoming as big a fan favourite in Los Angeles as he was in Philadelphia. Simon Gagne is playing like his old self, while Anze Kopitar is currently the best player you’re not paying any attention to.

What’s not: Well, for starters putting Ethan Moreau on the powerplay recently. That’s like giving your opponent an extra penalty killer. It was a strange coaching decision, but one that probably underscores just how poorly Dustin Penner has played. Jarrett Stoll has disappointed in a third line role and could become trade bait, especially with the team looking to give more ice-time to centre Andrei Loktionov. Overall, the team needs to score more.

9. St. Louis – 22 points

Powerplay: 30 / Penalty Kill: 25 / Goals For: 21 / Goals Against: 4

What’s working: Ken Hitchcock, another example of what usually happens when you replace a coach mid-season. The Blues are as tight as a drum defensively these days. Kevin Shattenkirk has carried on from last season and it looks like the Blues stole him from Colorado. Alex Steen is the team’s most valuable forward and is on a 30-goal pace. Brian Elliott has resurrected his career in goal and has outplayed Jaroslav Halak at times.

What’s not: The offense, particularly the powerplay, has been awful. Patrik Berglund has slept through most of the first quarter-season, as has Chris Stewart. Barret Jackman, an important veteran looked to be a shutdown presence on defense, has had too many brain cramps.

10. Edmonton – 22 points

Powerplay: 5 / Penalty Kill: 7 / Goals For: 22 / Goals Against: 9

What’s working: Some of the kids – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle – have been good-to-great offensively, and compete hard on a nightly basis. Ryan Smyth is playing his best hockey since leaving Edmonton the first time, and has partnered with Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Jones to form an effective second/shutdown line. Nikolai Khabibulin has surprised everyone with strong goaltending, while Corey Potter has come out of nowhere to play important minutes on a decimated Oilers blueline.

What’s not: The other kids – Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark – haven’t competed well in their sophomore seasons, with the latter playing his way into the AHL. Their struggles have left the team with little scoring depth. The Oilers are still learning how to play 5-on-5, with injuries to the defense really hampering the team’s own-zone play. Sam Gagner doesn’t seem to have a role right now, and could be moved for a defenseman. Impending UFA Ales Hemsky has been off and on the IR. When healthy he’s looked like the point-per-game performer he can be. The front office will have to make a tough decision on his future shortly.

11. Vancouver – 21 points

Powerplay: 1 / Penalty Kill: 8 / Goals For: 9 / Goals Against: 18

What’s working: The Sedins, who remain among the league’s elite. Cory Schneider has played like a first-string goalie. Jannik Hansen has proven sometimes his hands can keep up with his feet. Maxim Lapierre and Chris Higgins have played like they were born to wear Canuck sweaters. The special teams are good. Schneider has been better than good.

What’s not: The blueline hasn’t played up to its potential, with Kevin Bieksa regressing and Keith Ballard playing as if he wished he was anywhere but on the ice. Alex Edler has picked up the offensive slack from the departed Christian Erhoff, but he still has room to grow in his own zone. In fact, on too many nights the team’s best defensemen has been Sami Salo. Meanwhile, secondary scoring – Vancouver’s hidden achilles heal (not-named Roberto Luongo’s psyche) – is MIA. David Booth has the talent to be a solution, but there are whiffs of Alain Vigneault/Keith Ballard 2.0 coming from his doghouse.

12. Colorado – 19 points

Powerplay: 2 / Penalty Kill: 27 / Goals For: 19 / Goals Against: 23

What’s working: The team’s getting chances, regularly out-shooting its opponents. Shane O’Brien and Ryan Wilson have surprised, playing above expectations. Gabriel Landeskog is quietly putting together a solid rookie season. The powerplay has been lights out. J.S. Giguere has outplayed expected starting goalie Semyon Varlamov badly.

What’s not: Varlamov, who has looked Andrew Raycroft-esque. Erik Johnson, who continues to play like Jay Boumeester’s less physical cousin. In fact, Johnson (-12) and partner Jan Hejda (-15) have really struggled together. Peter Mueller’s injury issues have robbed the team of a dynamic top-six forward. Finally, Joe Sacco looks like a coach that’s running out of time and ideas.

13. Calgary – 17 points

Powerplay: 24 / Penalty Kill: 24 / Goals For: 27 / Goals Against: 19

What’s working: Well, Miikka Kiprusoff’s the same-old, same-old, keeping the Flames in games whenever he can. The rookies, particularly Roman Horak, have given Calgary a bit of speed and fans a bit of hope. Curtis Glencross hasn’t turned into a pumpkin after signing his contract. In fact, he’s on pace for 25-goals.

What’s not: How about Jay Feaster’s decision to pretty much stay-the-course since he became the team’s general manager? This team was crying out for a rebuild last season. Henrik Karlsson hasn’t played well-enough in goal to warrant giving Kiprusoff greater rest than in previous seasons. Jarome Iginla’s slow start has lasted longer than usual, which makes sense for a player who’s carried the team on his back for almost two decades. Mikael Backlund, touted as having potential first-line centre talent, has been ineffective when in the lineup. The special teams have been special in a “special bus” kind of way.

14. Anaheim – 16 points

Powerplay: 21 / Penalty Kill:  6 / Goals For: 29 / Goals Against: 20

What’s working: Teemu Selanne remains an elite contributor despite being as old as Moses. The penalty kill continues to get the job done.

What’s not: Pretty much everything else. The top-line of Corey Perry-Ryan Getzlaf-Bobby Ryan hasn’t dominated by any stretch of the imagination. Sophomore Cam Fowler remains an adventure in his own zone, while Lubomir Visnovsky’s offense has dried up (4 points in 16 games) as the powerplay has strugged. Jonas Hiller, a Vezina-worthy goalie last season, has been pedestrian. The Ducks take too many penalties, and are among the league’s worst at 5-on-5. Last season the talk was Randy Carlyle had lost the room, but the Ducks turned it around a few months in. It’ll be interesting to see if that happens again.

15. Columbus – 12 points

Powerplay: 23 / Penalty Kill: 30 / Goals For: 25 / Goals Against: 30

What’s working: Vinny Prospal has been terrific, and created a spark of offense with whomever he’s played with. Blue Jackets fans have had to consult the internet to find out what Curtis Sanford has given them. It’s called decent goaltending folks.

What’s not: It’s easy to pick on the Blue Jackets since they’ve obviously been the worst team in the league through 20 games. Injuries and James Wisniewski’s suspension really put the team behind the eight-ball right out of the gate. GM Scott Howsen is remaining patient, as it’s hard to evaluate a roster when it’s missing key players. That being said, the team’s best players certainly haven’t played very well, with Rick Nash and Derrick Brassard in particular going through the motions at times. Scott Arniel has already changed the team’s system to a more defensive approach to compensate for the absence of scoring they expected to have. Bigger changes aren’t that far off.

Nov 042011
 

Dear Gary (aka Bettman-in-da-house, aka Mr. Commish, aka Saviour-of-Winnipeg),

Not to go all Peaches and Herb (or Jeremy Roenick), but “realignment and it feels so good!”

NHL realignment is the hot talk around the league right now, and I know reviews are mixed concerning your latest plan to re-shape the NHL.

Personally, I like what you’ve reportedly done:

Eastern Conference
Division 1Division 2
PhiladelphiaDet/CBJ
WashingtonMontreal
New York RangersOttawa
New York IslandersBoston
New JerseyBuffalo
CarolinaToronto
Tampa BayPittsburgh
Florida
Western Conference
Division 1Division 2
Det/CBJVancouver
WinnipegEdmonton
ChicagoCalgary
DallasColorado
NashvillePhoenix
St. LouisLos Angeles
MinnesotaAnaheim
San Jose

The first round of the playoffs features divisional play (1 vs 4, 2 vs 3).

After the first round, the remaining teams are seeded 1-4, with 1 playing 4, 2 vs 3, etc.

Now, the Penguins and Flyers hate this proposal, because they’ve got a good rivalry going that fills their rinks, and playing in different divisions will hurt that.  

Teams in the proposed eight-team divisions also have a gripe, because mathematically they have a smaller chance of making the playoffs than teams in a seven-team division.

But you know what Gar (can I call you Gar, as in Danny Gare?), I think you should tell these complainers to stuff it. Your proposed plan reduces travel, solves most (but not all) of the league’s geographic issues, and doesn’t do too much to upset most of the NHL’s current/historic rivalries.

Listen. I’m in a charitable mood. I like what you’ve done for hockey in Edmonton and Winnipeg. I like the salary cap era.

Here are two tweaks that take your plan to the next level.

Tweak #1 – Level the playing field

The biggest gripe I’ve seen outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia involves the notion of 8-team divisions and 7-team divisions competing for the same number of playoff spots (4).

That’s easy to fix: make both divisions in each conference the same size. The Eastern Conference gets 16 teams, the Western Conference 14 teams: 

Eastern Conference
Division 1Division 2
PhiladelphiaDetroit
WashingtonMontreal
New York RangersOttawa
New York IslandersBoston
New JerseyBuffalo
CarolinaToronto
Tampa BayPittsburgh
FloridaColumbus
Western Conference
Division 1Division 2
ColoradoVancouver
WinnipegEdmonton
ChicagoCalgary
DallasPhoenix
NashvilleLos Angeles
St. LouisAnaheim
MinnesotaSan Jose

The first round of the playoffs still features divisional play (1 vs 4, 2 vs 3). After the first round, the remaining teams are seeded 1-4, with 1 playing 4, 2 vs 3, etc.

With this small tweak, every team in each Conference has the same odds of making the playoffs. Columbus joins Detroit moving to the East, where both teams geographically should be and want to be. Colorado moves to the “Central-esque” division, where it probably could be if you ever looked at a map of all NHL teams.

Sure, someone may suggest that there’s a greater chance of making the playoffs in the Western Conference than the Eastern Conference. You know what I say to them, Gar? That’s the price you pay for saving thousands of dollars on travel costs, you cheap bastards.

Actually, there’s only one issue with this tweak.

What the heck happens if you have to move the Coyotes out of Phoenix?

Yes Gar, I know that will never happen. I know you’ve been spending the last few years trying to decide which of the 100s of potential owners you want to give the Coyotes to so that the team can stay in Phoenix.

But if, god forbid, you have to move Phoenix, you’ll probably have to move them East (to say, Quebec City? Quelle surprise!). This means you have to, right now, keep Columbus in the West. (Why Columbus? Because they’re still one of the newbie franchises around the board table.)

So, here’s how you solve the 8-team/7-team disparity, while revolutionizing your sport.

 Tweak #2 – Let Teams Pick Their Playoff Opponent 

Eastern Conference
Division 1Division 2
PhiladelphiaDetroit
WashingtonMontreal
New York RangersOttawa
New York IslandersBoston
New JerseyBuffalo
CarolinaToronto
Tampa BayPittsburgh
Florida
Western Conference
Division 1Division 2
ColumbusVancouver
WinnipegEdmonton
ChicagoCalgary
DallasColorado
NashvillePhoenix
St. LouisLos Angeles
MinnesotaAnaheim
San Jose

The four Conference teams with the next best records get the final four playoff spots and the top four teams select their first round opponent. Division winner with the best record picks first. Then the other Division winner. Then the second-place team with the best record. Then the other second-place team gets whoever’s left.  

In the second round, teams are reseeded 1-4 based on regular season performance, with 1 vs 4, 2 vs 3.

Think about the possibilities that result from having teams choose their playoff opponent.

First of all, winning a division or conference would suddenly matter quite a bit. The NHL would reward the best regular season teams by giving them some control – whether it be reduced travel or a weaker opponent. The 11 remaining conference teams would also have equal odds of becoming one of the final four playoff teams – eliminating the eight-team, seven-team divisional bias.

There would be added buzz in April and March as fans talk about potential matchups and seeding races. Instantly, rivalries would be created or renewed once selections are made. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are mad because they don’t play each other as often? Well, problem solved – one can choose to play the other in the first round if they have a good regular season.

Gar, you could take this idea and create another television event, one that would be unique to the North American team sporting market. It would be a professional sports version of the NCAA’s Selection Sunday event. It would be just like the MMA or WWE, where opponents choose one another all the time because it always delivers a compelling storyline.

Mr. Commish, I offer this idea free of charge…although I wouldn’t mind having a division named after me. Or maybe I’ll just take a lifetime invite to the Winter Classic. It’s something we can negotiate later.

You’re welcome.

 THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Isn’t this about the time that the Oilers start falling back to earth? And yet, they played a terrific road game against the Kings, giving up only 19 shots.
  • Same thing can be said about the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are amazingly in first place in the Eastern Conference right now. Then again, it’s been a long time since the Maple Leafs had two scoring lines going like they do right now (Joffrey Lupul-Tim Connolly-Phil Kessel; Clarke MacArthur-Mikael Grabovski-Nik Kulemin).
  • Watching the Blue Jackets-Leafs game, it looked like Leaf shooters were targeting Steve Mason’s blocker-side with great success (4 goals on 11 shots).
  • Speaking of Columbus, this is the earliest they’ve ever gotten to 10 losses. A coaching change is on the way, but Ken Hitchcock isn’t the solution. The Blue Jackets are not strong enough in goal or on defense to play the conservative style Hitchcock demands. At the same time, he hasn’t shown much success coaching younger players, and future of this team is in its prospects.
  • At the same time, anyone who is suggesting Craig Button is a viable candidate for the Blue Jackets front office should give their head a shake. He was a league-worst level GM in Calgary. Lest we forget the trading of J-S Giguere and Marc Savard for bags of pucks, the release of Martin St. Louis and the signing of Roman Turek to a mega-contract.
  • I wonder how folks are feeling about the Erik Johnson for Chris Stewart/Kevin Shattenkirk trade these days? Johnson looks a lot like Bryan McCabe – a big shooter, decent skater with poor defensive instincts. At least McCabe was physical – Johnson plays a Jay Boumeester-like soft defense. Things aren’t puppy dogs and ice cream in St. Louis though either where Chris Stewart has gotten off to a very slow start (2 goals and 3 points in 11 games). In fact, right now the best player might just be Kevin Shattenkirk, who has taken another step, evolving into an intelligent, two-way defenseman playing alongside Alex Pieterangelo.
  • CBC is counting suspensions and concussions this year so you don’t have to.
  • Colorado’s Paul Stastny has yet to score a point at home this year.
  • Mike Smith has been very good for the Coyotes thus far. Makes you wonder what went wrong in Tampa?
  • Speaking of Phoenix, another factor in their early season success is the play of defensemen David Schlemko and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Ekman-Larsson is becoming a factor at both ends of the ice, and looks more and more like a player you build a team around. Schlemko is strong skater who doesn’t make mistakes with the puck.
  • Kudos to the Predators for inking Pekka Rinne to a 7-year/$49-million contract. Rinne is an elite goaltender, and having him signed long-term means Nashville has an important cornerstone in place. This probably means that one of Shea Weber or Ryan Suter is gone, especially since the Predators have some young depth at defense. It also wouldn’t surprise if Rinne’s $7 million annual salary becomes the defacto ceiling for Predator player contracts.
  • One last Predators note – while the media (particularly in Canada) portray Nashville as hockey backwater, it’s nice to see the team showing it’s willing to spend to build a contender. Predator fans have more trust in the franchise today than they did yesterday.
  • Chicago may just be the best team in the league right now. They’re scoring goals despite a terrible powerplay (8.7%, second-last in the league).
  • Yes, the Minnesota Wild are getting strong goaltending. No, they are not getting the production they’d like out of Marek Zidlicky. Zidlicky wasn’t very good last year either, and certainly doesn’t seem like a top-line defenseman anymore. That no-movement, modified no-trade clause in his last contract is starting to look like a big, heavy anchor around GM Chuck Fletcher’s neck.
Oct 282011
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on the Fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-          Katie Baker’s weekly recap on Grantland.

Oct 142011
 

A collection of hockey thoughts and observations as one settles into a new NHL hockey season:

  • It should be clear to anyone who has watched the Senators play that Paul Maclean hasn’t had any more luck than Cory Clouston at motivating Sergei Gonchar. No one gives up on puck battles quicker than he does.
  • One week doesn’t make an NHL season, but as of today the Senators look an awful lot like the worst team in the NHL.
  • Speaking of NHL defensemen, Sheldon Souray’s big shot has already helped the Dallas Stars. However, Souray also looks a step slower than he did back in his Oiler and Hab days. At some point in the season the Stars will have to manage his minutes at even strength.
  • Staying in Dallas, it’s clear early on that Kari Lehtonen is auditioning for the Ilya Bryzgalov role as “goaltender who single-handedly keeps his team in the playoff hunt.” The Stars are not very good, but Lehtonen has been sensational out of the gate.
  • One more Dallas thought – let’s settle down about their attendance issues. It’s only October (American NHL teams normally struggle at the gate at the start of the season), the Texas Rangers are legitimate World Series contenders (and they’ve played both nights when Stars had woeful home crowds) and they’re finally getting an owner soon.  Texas is blossoming as a hockey state, but the Stars have been on life support as a franchise for the last couple of years. A new owner, with a clear business plan for the community, should rectify the issue.
  • One early season trend: more and more teams on the powerplay are attacking the blueline with speed, only to drop the puck to a trailing player before entering the zone. Since the penalty killers have collapsed on the puck carrier, the trailer usually gains easy entry into the offensive zone.
  • Speaking of early season impressions, despite his -2 rating Nikita Nikitin has had a solid start in St. Louis and may be ready for top-pairing minutes. On the downside, Jaroslav Halak has had a tough time controlling his rebounds and hasn’t looked great in net.
  • Question: Did Aaron Asham take it upon himself to apologize for his post-fight antics or did the Penguins leadership group (Dan Blysma, Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz) encourage him to be regretful post-game? Personally I think it was the latter, in hopes of minimizing any potential suspension.
  • Interesting to see how some teams are dolling out the ice time to start the year. Through Friday, Brian Campbell is getting close to 30-minutes a game in Florida. Surprisingly, Jason Garrison is getting the second-most ice time among Panthers defensemen.
  • Other ice time observations:
  • Most ice-time among Panthers forwards: Kris Versteeg. Probably wishing he’d signed elsewhere: Scottie Upshall, who is only seeing 10-minutes a game in Florida.
  • In Colorado, Daniel Winnick is the surprising ice-time leader among forwards. Actually the Avalanche are taking an offense-by-committee approach to the start of the season. No forward is averaging more than 18-minutes a game, and nine forwards (including Chuck Kobasew !?!!?) are getting at least a minute of powerplay time per game.
  • In St. Louis,  Jason Arnott is seeing only 13-minutes a game in St. Louis, and is seeing less powerplay time than Matt D’Agostini.
  • Speaking of not seeing any powerplay time, Shawn Horcoff looks like the odd-man out in Edmonton. He’s averaged 46 seconds of powerplay time thus far. Adding insult to injury – it took all of two games for the Sportsnet panel (Jeff Marek, John Shannon and Marty McSorley (?!?!)) to speculate that the Oilers may trade Horcoff at some point this year.
  • Don’t look now, but Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky left Thursday’s game against Minnesota early with an an injury to the same shoulder he had surgery on.
  • One last Oiler note: Linus Omark, he of the nifty shootout attempts, is reportedly in Tom Renney’s doghouse.
  • Yes Don Cherry’s days as a relevant commentator are probably over. His recent comments about fighting even have some people calling for his job.  But the CBC owns NHL hockey rights until 2014, and Coach’s Corner remains a ratings goldmine. Whatever the current fallout, expect Cherry to stick it out until the end of the current CBC deal. After that? Says here he retires from regular TV duty.
  • The parade route is already being planned in Toronto where the Maple Leafs are 2-0. Most impressive thing about their start? Phil Kessel, who seems quicker, stronger and more determined than ever before. Heck, he’s even joined Twitter, although it looks like we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for him to post something interesting.
  • A nice recap of the first week by Katie Baker over at Grantland.
  • Sadly, some players still don’t seem to realize the danger of concussions.
  • The top-10 immoveable contracts in the NHL, according to The Hockey News.
  • The New York Islanders 3rd jersey has been leaked.
  • Oct 062011
     

    After more than a month of review, analysis, and rankings, it’s time to predict what will actually happen in the upcoming NHL season.

    If you take all things into consideration, one thing becomes abundantly clear – parity. No team is very strong at each position (coach, goalie, defence, forward), and most teams are only a shade better or worse than another.

    It looks like all the same teams that made the playoffs last year have a good chance of making it again this year. As we’ve discussed though, it’s rare that there’s so little change in the standings from year-to-year. Injuries therefore will be the biggest factor in determining who plays on in April and who doesn’t.

    This time last year I predicted Boston as the Stanley Cup champion. Read on to find out this year’s predicted winner:

     Western Conference

    1. Vancouver 110-115 points
    2. Anaheim 105-110
    3. Nashville 100-105
    4. Chicago 100-105
    5. San Jose 90-95
    6. Detroit 90-95
    7. St. Louis 90-95
    8. Los Angeles 90-95
    9. Calgary 80-85
    10. Edmonton 75-80
    11. Colorado 70-75
    12. Dallas 70-75
    13. Phoenix 70-75
    14. Minnesota 65-70
    15. Columbus 55-60

    Notes on the above:

    • Surprisingly, I have the Predators rated the best team in the Conference (based on very strong goaltending, defence and coaching scores). Nashville plays in a brutally tough division though. Vancouver plays in the weakest division in the league, and that should lead them to another 1st place showing.
    • I have Chicago, LA and Vancouver rated roughly the same. I don’t have a non-playoff team rated anywhere near the top-8 teams in the West.
    • Could be significantly better than they’re ranked: San Jose (if Niemi plays a full season like his half-season last year); Colorado (if the kids are healthy and Varlamov is a legit goalie); St. Louis (if Halak is healthy and the youth take the next step).
    • Could be significantly worse than they’re ranked: Anaheim (if any of their core gets hurt they have very little depth); Detroit (if Jimmy Howard is only adequate and age catches up to the team); Phoenix (if their goaltending is as weak as expected).
    • Could miss the playoffs: Their division is so tough, a slow start or injury troubles could kill St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago or Nashville’s playoff chances.
    • Could make the playoffs with some luck: Calgary (if Mikka Kiprusof has some magic left, Iginla stays healthy and they incredibly find some secondary scoring).

     Eastern Conference

    1. Washington 110-115
    2. Boston 105-110
    3. Pittsburgh 105-110
    4. Philadelphia 100-105
    5. Buffalo 100-105
    6. Montreal 90-95
    7. NY Rangers 90-95
    8. Tampa Bay 85-90
    9. New Jersey 80-85
    10. Toronto 80-85
    11. Carolina 75-80
    12. NY Islanders 70-75
    13. Winnipeg 70-75
    14. Ottawa 60-65
    15. Florida 55-60

    Notes on the above:

    • Pittsburgh is the highest rated team in the Conference, but its close between them, Boston and Washington. Given the weakness of Washington’s division, the Capitals are likely to take first place.
    • I think the travel schedule of teams in the Southeast Division will have a negative impact on how those teams compete in the standings.  
    • Could be significantly better than they’re ranked: New York Rangers (depends how the kids progress and if Brad Richards performs); New Jersey (depends on Martin Brodeur, Adam Larsson and Mattias Tedenby); New York Islanders (if they get any goaltending they could be in the playoff mix).
    • Could be significantly worse than they’re ranked: Toronto (Corporately, Brian Burke has to get his team into the playoffs this year. The team is awfully young and inexperienced though); Montreal (if Carey Price goes down look out); Tampa Bay (similar to Montreal, they cannot afford a Dwayne Roloson injury).
    • Could miss the playoffs if things don’t gel right: Philadelphia (Chris Pronger’s injury prone, no one really knows what Jaromir Jagr will do and the kids are still kids).
    • Could make the playoffs with some luck: Carolina (great goaltending, okay defence and Eric Staal is an elite player).

    Other fearless predictions for the upcoming season:

    • Conference Finals: Washington over Pittsburgh in the East; Chicago over Nashville in the West
    • Stanley Cup Final: Chicago over Washington
    • Chicago plays Vancouver in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
    • Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combine to play 120 games this year. Only one of them is available come playoff time.
    • With the Toronto Maple Leafs not making the playoffs, Brian Burke removes himself from the GM position and takes his place as President of the hockey club.
    • Phil Kessel is rumoured to be traded all year.
    • Jaromir Jagr is the most entertaining thing about the new season of HBO 24/7.
    • Lou Lamoriello retires at the end of the season. So does Martin Brodeur, Niklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne and Jaime Langenbrunner.
    • The Predators do not trade or re-sign Shea Weber, leaving him a UFARFA for 2012-13.
    • The NHL and NHLPA do not come to terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
    • The Philadelphia Phillies win the World Series over the New York Yankees. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera promptly retire.
    • Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla fail to score 30 goals.
    • James Neal, Taylor Hall, John Tavares and Tyler Seguin each score 30 goals.
    • A year after her divorce, a Christina Aguilera sex tape is leaked online.
    • The War Horse marks the beginning of the end of Steven Speilberg’s career as a director. It’s awful.
    • Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith do divorce after all.
    • Slash does not appear on stage with Guns N’ Roses at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
    • The Toronto Blue Jays bid on Prince Fielder.
    • There is another recession.
    • Game of Thrones sets new viewing records for HBO.
    • Only Two Broke Girls, The New Girl and Prime Suspect earn a second TV season on a major US television network.
    • The Office without Steve Carrell is terrible.
    • Gabriel Landeskog is the highest scoring rookie. Nino Niederrater wins the Calder Trophy.
    • Alex Ovechkin wins the Art Ross and is the only player to crack 100 points.
    • Jonathan Toews wins the Hart.
    • Shea Weber wins the Norris.
    • Roberto Luongo wins the Vezina.
    • Tuukka Rask replaces Tim Thomas as Bruin starter at some point this season.
    • Shane Doan is traded from Phoenix at his request.
    • Jose Theodore is traded by Florida at the trade deadline.
    • It’s all but confirmed the Phoenix Coyotes will play in Quebec City starting in 2014.
    • The Blue Jackets’ Scott Arniel is the first coach fired. Ron Wilson is next, and whoever replaces Ron Wilson spurs the Leafs to a late-season playoff charge.
    • Coldplay’s new album is considered a disappointment.
    • Brendan Shanahan is forced (allegedly) to resign as NHL disciplinarian.
    • Teemu Selanne is hurt and can’t play in Winnipeg in December.
    • To the financial benefit of the NHL there is no NBA season.
    Oct 052011
     

    Yesterday it was the Eastern Conference goalies. Today, the Western Conference as we wrap up our positional previews.

    A+ Grade

    Nashville
    Last Year (B-)

    A stellar playoff performance proved Pekka Rinne is more than just a product of an elite defensive team. He’s the Conference’s best goaltender right now. If injured, Anders Lindback is a more-than-capable replacement.

    A- Grade

    Anaheim
    Last Year (B)

    Vertigo derailed what was shaping up to be a Vezina-worthy season for Jonas Hiller. Symptom-free, he’s an elite goaltender. Dan Ellis is an okay backup in the short-term, but any injury to Hiller and the Ducks are in trouble.

    B+ Grade

    Vancouver
    Last Year (B+)

    Despite two very inconsistent post-seasons, Roberto Luongo has been a great regular season goaltender. In fact, it could be argued Luongo has something to prove this year, which may mean trouble for opposing shooters. Cory Schneider is a strong backup and can fill in admirably for long stretches. He may be required to do so if Luongo falters again.

    Calgary
    Last Year (B)

    Miika Kiprusoff is starting on the downside of his career, but he’s still capable of Vezina-worthy numbers. The team has high hopes for Henrik Karlsson, who might just be the most talented backup Kiprusoff’s ever had behind him on the depth chart. Then again, we are talking about a list that includes Curtis McElhinney, Vesa Toskala, an-end-of-his-career Curtis Joseph, Jamie McLennan, Phillppe Sauve, Brian Boucher, Roman Turek, Dany Sabourin, Goofy, Greg Goldberg, Lisa Simpson, Lanny McDonald’s moustache, Snidley Whiplash’s moustache and Paul Brandt.   

    B Grade

    St. Louis
    Last Year (B+)

    It was a mixed debut for Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis, as injuries and inconsistency dogged his first season with the Blues. There were enough good moments though to confirm he is no Habs one-season wonder (aka Steve Penney). Ben Bishop and Brian Elliott competed for the backup role in camp, with Elliott winning the role. Both are significant downgrades from Halak.

    Los Angeles
    Last Year (C+)

    There is an embarrassment of riches at this position in Los Angeles, with Jonathan Quick playing extremely well last year, and Jonathan Bernier remaining one of the elite goalie prospects in the league. The Kings will move up this list as these two continue to develop.

    B- Grade

    Chicago Last Year (B-)

    Marty Turco was a Christina Hendricks-sized bust last year, but the emergence of Corey Crawford effectively saved the Blackhawks season. Crawford was very good against the Canucks in the first round last year, and goes into this season as the defacto starter. The backup role is up for grabs, with former badboy Ray Emery competing with prospect Alexander Salak. Emery looked good with the Ducks down the stretch, while Salak toiled in Europe after a good North American showing in 2009-10. Neither were all that special during training camp. (Ed. note: The Blackhawks signed Ray Emery a couple of days ago, and sent Alexander Salak to Rockford in the AHL. – J.J.)

    Dallas
    Last Year (C-)

    Kari Lehtonen brushed aside his injury past and was the Stars’ MVP, almost carrying the team into the playoffs. He’ll be asked to do even more on a weaker Dallas team this year. Andrew Raycroft is serviceable as the backup.

    C+ Grade

    Colorado
    Last Year (C+)

    Semyon Varlamov was a walking band-aid for the Capitals last year, and has yet to play 30 NHL games in a season. There’s no question he’s talented, but durability is a legitimate concern. The Capitals have been a good team as well, so it will be interesting to see what his numbers look like playing for a young Avalanche team. Jean-Sebastien Giguere is a swell guy who’s clearly reaching the end of his career performance-wise. His last two years in Toronto were pedestrian.

    San Jose
    Last Year (C)

    After a horrible start to the season, Antti Niemi was sensational from January until the end of the season. He is unorthodox, and his playoff numbers were disappointing, but when hot he’s one of the better goalies in the league.  Antero Nittymaki is out for 12 weeks meaning Thomas Griess gets a chance to be the backup. Griess has #1 goalie potential.

    C Grade

    Detroit
    Last Year (B)

    Brilliant in his rookie season, Jimmy Howard was hit by the sophomore slump for much of last year. He picked up his game in the post-season though, and seems destined to be a Chris Osgood-level NHL starter. Ty Conklin is the journeyman backup.

    Edmonton
    Last Year (D+)

    Devan Dubnyk was Ken Wregget-esque at times last year, giving an overmatched Oilers team a chance to win. His best days are ahead – the question remains how good of a goaltender he can be. Having completed his jail time, Nikolai Khabibulin enters the year looking to redeem his reputation.

    Minnesota
    Last Year (C)

    Nicklas Backstrom had a bounce-back year between the pipes for a very pedestrian Wild team. He’s a second-tier NHL starter. Josh Harding missed all of last season due to injury, got hurt in training camp and at 27 sees his career at a crossroads. 

    C- Grade

    Phoenix
    Last Year (A)

    Coyotes fans are about to learn how just how hard it is to win in the NHL without elite goaltending. Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera are solid backup goalies at best.

    Columbus
    Last Year (C+)

    Chin up Blue Jackets fans – whereas the Steve Mason era has been a nightmare, the Mark Derkanich era, whenever it starts, has some promise. In the meantime, Curtis Sanford (not this Sanford, the other one) is also in the mix.

    Sep 262011
     

    What do Michael Ryder and Ashton Kutcher have in common?

    Both have previously enjoyed success in supporting roles, and now both are being asked to replace bigger stars that left town after difficult contract negotiations.

    It’s doubtful either will make anyone forget who they’re replacing anytime soon.

    Last Monday, more than 27 million viewers tuned in to see how Two and a Half Men would replace Charlie Sheen with Ashton Kutcher.

    For those that missed it but wondered how it went, allow me to summarize: blandly juvenile.

    Granted, juvenile jokes and innuendo are a big reason why Two and a Half Men is the most popular sitcom on television.

    But there’s no question the show’s charm had a lot to do with Charlie Sheen playing off his real-life reputation.

    Ashton Kutcher brought a different energy to the season premiere. He was Kelso 2.0 – written to be smarter but just as much the same boy-man character who stole laughs and struggled to keep a straight face on That 70’s Show.

    Yep, like Sheen, Kutcher is essentially playing himself. That, however, doesn’t make him interesting. Without the sub-text Sheen’s real-life exploits brought to the sitcom, Kutcher isn’t a strong enough actor to create an interesting character on his own. And he’s struggled throughout his career when given opportunities to play a lead role.

    Meanwhile, Michael Ryder is essentially the only off-season acquisition the Dallas Stars made to replace Brad Richards. He’s also struggled when asked to play a lead role (see Montreal career), and enjoyed great, Stanley Cup success as a top-nine forward in Boston.

    How are he and the rest of the Stars forwards shaping up for the 2011-12 season?

    Let’s get to ranking the Western Conference forward groups:

    A- Grade

    Anaheim
    Last Year (B+)

    For the second year in a row we have a surprise on top of the list. This result is almost entirely due to three things: Corey Perry’s emergence as the Hart Trophy winner; Bobby Ryan’s development into a near-elite player; and Teemu Selanne’s incredible season as a 287-year old (matched only historically by the 2000 year old man ). The first line of Ryan-Ryan Getzlaf-Perry is the best in the league. Like last year though there are real depth issues beyond the top two lines, with Andrew Cogliano skating like Todd Marchant, but in no way capable of replacing the latter’s defensive abilities. If Selanne plays like his age, and none of the youth (Kyle Palmieri in particular) step up into supporting roles, they move down this list quickly.

    B+ Grade

    San Jose
    Last Year (A-)

    Will battle with Los Angeles all year for the title of strongest team down the middle. Martin Havlat also represents a speed upgrade over Dany Heatley, although he’s injury prone and beyond him the right side is fairly punchless.  In fact, like Anaheim this is a team with scoring issues in the bottom six, particularly on the wings. It’s a gritty bunch though, and one that looks tailored for the post-season.

    Vancouver
    Last Year (A-)

    Yet another team at the top of this list with an elite core of scoring talent but some questionable depth. Recently, a James Mirtle piece argued how the Toronto Maple Leafs needed more balanced scoring, as their top four forwards provided 53% of forward goals last season. For the Canucks, the Sedins, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows provided 58.7% of Vancouver’s forward goals last year. That’s a lot of pressure on a few players. With Kesler and Mason Raymond’s injuries clouding their potential impact this season, Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson will have to pick up some of the offensive slack. The third line (Chris Higgins, Manny Malholtra, Jannik Hansen) has the makings of one of the better shutdown lines in the league.

    Detroit
    Last Year (B+)

    Strong down the middle with Pavel Datsyuk (maybe the best player in the game), Henrik Zetterberg, Valterri Filppula and Darren Helm. They could really use some help on the wings though, as Dan Cleary and Johan Franzen (despite his playoff scoring reputation) are more appropriate options for a strong second line. The wildcard is Jiri Hudler, who was a George-Lucas-messing-with-the-original-Star-Wars-trilogy-again scale disappointment last season. This is a quick, intelligent group of forwards.

    Los Angeles
    Last Year (A-)

    As discussed above, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarrett Stoll give the Kings arguably the strongest set of centremen in the league. The acquisition of Simon Gagne was a wonderful under-the-radar move. His play improved exponentially as the season went on last year in Tampa Bay and he’s shown previous chemistry playing alongside Richards. Kyle Clifford and Brad Richardson are youngsters providing grit on the third line, while Ethan Moreau will try to extend his career as a veteran 4th line presence. Really, if Dustin Penner can demonstrate any kind of scoring consistency, this could be the Conference’s best group of forwards.

    B Grade

    St. Louis
    Last Year (C+)

    On paper this a solid, still improving two-way group that might have greater depth than some of the teams ranked higher. While they lack an elite point producer, they could legitimately see seven 20-goal scorers this year (Patrik Berglund, David Backes, Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Alex Steen and Chris Stewart). Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner bring Stanley Cup experience.

    Chicago
    Last Year (A+)

    Make no mistake – the core of the Blackhawks forward brigade (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, David Bolland, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa) is good enough to sit atop this ranking. It’s the complimentary players that are still very much a work in progress. Andrew Brunette is a good addition to help the powerplay, but at this point zambonis move faster. Meanwhile, none of Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg or Rostislav Olesz has shown any sort of consistency in their young careers. If one of them finds “it” offensively, the ‘Hawks move up this list.

    Columbus
    Last Year (C-)

    Things are looking up in Ohio as Rick Nash finally has some talent to partner with. Jeff Carter and Vaclav Prospal bring much needed scoring depth to the Blue Jacket attack and Ryan Johansen is an elite prospect (although he may be brought along slowly).  The third and fourth lines are inexperienced but play hard. R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette are decent second-line talents.

    B- Grade

    Edmonton
    Last Year (C+)

    The future is very bright in Edmonton, but it’s not here quite yet. Taylor Hall looks like a future Maurice Richard candidate and Jordan Eberle looks like a future 30-goal scorer. Alex Hemsky is in his contract year, and seems poised for a career year. Then again, that’s said every year, and he always finds a way to get hurt. Adding Ryan Smyth and Eric Belanger addressed two weaknesses (leadership and face-off prowess), but it’s Ben Eager who represents the most important off-season move. Together with Darcy Hordichuk, the Oilers have size that can contribute at the NHL level for the first time in at least two seasons. This group could surprise.

    C+ Grade

    Minnesota
    Last Year (C)

    It’s a career crossroads for Dany Heatley. Granted, he played hurt last March and throughout the Sharks playoff run, but a lack of effort has been associated with the former 50-goal scorer for a few seasons now. (You know who else you could say that about? Everyone involved in HBO’s Entourage.) Meanwhile, a healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard and greater opportunity for Devin Setoguchi give the Wild their best top-six forwards in franchise history.

    C Grade

    Colorado
    Last Year (B+)

    Last year’s rankings warned of a potential sophomore slump for this group, and boy did they deliver in that regard. There’s still some real promise here though. Gabriel Landeskog was a terrific draft pick, adding some Brendan Morrow-esque qualities to a young, finesse-based lineup. The question is health as Milan Hejduk is older than some countries; Peter Mueller missed much of last season; and David Jones is a band-aid player. If this group can stay healthy they climb these rankings. 

    Dallas
    Last Year (C+)

    What was a solid top-six is now weaker thanks to Richard’s departure. Jamie Benn will likely shift into the centre ice position, and Ryder will be given every chance to cement himself as a go-to goal scorer on the club. He’s streaky though, which leaves Loui Eriksson the only natural goal-scorer on the roster. Vernon Fiddler and Adam Burish are decent third-line grinders, but there’s very little offense in the bottom-six.

    Calgary
    Last Year (C+)

    The Flames may slip another grade before the start of the season if Jarome Iginla continues to have back troubles. Those back troubles are really no surprise though – he’s been carrying this team for a long time. There’s some nice grit here, and they’ll remain a tough team to play against. But scoring is going to be a struggle. That’s why there’s a lot of pressure on Mikael Backlund to evolve into an impact offensive player this year.

    Nashville
    Last Year (C-)

    With all due respect to Martin Erat, there really isn’t a legitimate first line player on the Predators roster. That being said, this is a team filled with forwards who do the “little things” right, and they may just be the best defensive group collectively in the NHL. In many ways Predators forwards are similar to Calgary as a group, although younger and without an Iginla to build around. Keeping the comparison in mind, Colin Wilson is Nashville’s Mikael Backlund. 

    C- Grade

    Phoenix
    Last Year (C)

    You know you’re in trouble when Ray Whitney is the most dangerous forward on the roster. The Coyotes may have the worst group of centres in the NHL, and that’s counting Kyle Turris, who is (inexplicably) holding out. I imagine Turris asking for more money has gone about as well as this. How much longer does Shane Doan really have to play in the desert?

    Sep 152011
     

    The other day, we looked at the Eastern Conference bluelines. Today, let’s look at the Western Conference defence rankings.

    A Grade

    Chicago
    Last Year (A+)

    A slip in the ratings heading into 2011-12, as neither Duncan Keith nor Brent Seabrook were quite as good last year as they were the season before. Meanwhile, Nick Hjalmarsson also disappointed. However, Nick Leddy looks like a future top-4 stalwart, and there’s some veteran depth now with the signings of Steve Montador, Sean O’Donnell and Sami Lepisto.

    Los Angeles
    Last Year (A-)

    This is assuming Drew Doughty signs. Otherwise they drop a grade. Doughty struggled with some injuries last year, but he remains a perennial Norris Trophy candidate. Jack Johnson’s plus/minus was awful (-21), but he played well in Doughty’s absence and looks like a legitimate first pairing guy. The rest of the group is an average mix of youth and experience, with Matt Green being the best defensive guy on the team.

    Nashville
    Last Year (B+)

    It should come as no surprise that the three teams with two top-level defencemen on the roster are all ranked at the top of this list. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter round out the trifecta of excellence, and quite easily could be the best twosome of the lot. Jonathon Blum and Ryan Ellis offer some young offensive promise, with Blum in particular looking ready to play 18 minutes a night. Kevin Klein (not this Kevin Kline) and Francis Bouillon are serviceable.

    B+ Grade

    Phoenix
    Last Year (B-)

    The Coyote blueline is a veteran heavy group that represents the only real strength the team has heading into the season. Keith Yandle was an offensive force last year, and it will be interesting to see if he can repeat his Norris-worthy campaign. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the future and will be given more minutes this season.

    B Grade

    San Jose
    Last Year (B+)

    Listening to some people, you’d think Brent Burns was the second coming of Scott Niedermayer. He isn’t. Instead, he’s a solid, 40+-point defenceman who can take pressure off Dan Boyle and give the team one of the league’s better top-fours (Boyle/Murray, Burns/Vlasic). Speaking of which, put me down in favour of Picklesnake.

    Detroit
    Last Year (A-)

    Sorry, but Ian White isn’t Brian Rafalski, and the Red Wing defence is weaker due to the latter’s retirement. Niklas Kronwall played the best hockey of his career last year, but the franchise could really use one of Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl to emerge. Is Nick Lidstrom the greatest defenseman of all time? Discuss.

    B- Grade

    Anaheim
    Last Year (C)

    A solid mix of veterans and youth, although the bottom pairing looks quite weak. Taking nothing away from Nick Lidstrom’s historic year as a 40-year old, veteran Lubomir Visnovsky also found himself hooked up to the rejuvenation machine last season. At 35, Visnovsky was deserving of Norris consideration. Toni Lydman is the stabilizing presence, as the Ducks play a lot better with him in the lineup. No one likes to predict a sophomore slump, but it wouldn’t surprise if Cam Fowler regressed a bit in year two.

    St. Louis
    Last Year (B)

    To be honest, who knows exactly what to expect from the Blues defence this year. It’s awfully young and full of promise, kind of like Lindsay Lohan once was (side note: how creepy is it that someone sat down and made that video?). Anyways, we all know how LiLo turned out. That being said, Alex Pietrangelo seems ready to become a top-10 NHL defenceman, and Roman Polak is one of the better defensive players in the league. If Kevin Shattenkirk and Nikita Nikitin can find consistency, this can become an elite group.

    Vancouver
    Last Year (B+)

    They may have only lost Christian Ehroff, but Vancouver’s defence doesn’t seem as deep heading into this season. For one, it’s hard to believe Kevin Bieksa will repeat his career-best performance last year. Similarly, Keith Ballard is a shadow of the player he once was, and would probably benefit from playing on a different team, under a new coach. The Canucks are excited about Chris Tanev and the coach loves Aaron Rome, but neither are ready or capable of playing big minutes. No, the only way Vancouver’s defence moves up these rankings this year is if Alex Edler takes the next step in his development.

    C+ Grade

    Calgary
    Last Year (B)

    Let’s just all admit that Jay Bouwmeester is the new Brett Hedican – a beautiful skating defenceman who is average in all other aspects of the game. Anton Babchuk and Chris Butler have puck-moving talent, and add some speed to what was a statuesque Flames blueline. Speaking of statues, Scott Hannan replaces Robyn Regehr as the “Calgary Flame most likely to be passed by an opponent on the way to a scoring chance.”

    C Grade

    Minnesota
    Last Year (C)

    I’d be surprised if Wild employees, let alone fans or hockey followers, could name the starting six defenceman who will suit up for the team opening night. With Minnesota moving towards a more offensive approach, Marek Zidlicky could see a jump in production. The philosophical change should also cement roster spots for Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon – two decent skating players with puck-moving potential. Nick Schultz is a warrior and underrated.

    Dallas
    Last Year (D)

    Make no mistake, if two of Sheldon Souray, Brad Lukowich, Adam Pardy or Mark Fistric play together at any point in the NHL this year, that pairing will be the worst in the entire league. That the franchise decided to give Sheldon Souray a shot should tell you this will be a rebuilding year in Dallas. Souray wasn’t very good in the AHL last year, and his last regular NHL action was roughly two years ago. The top-two pairings are okay, with Alex Goligoski the most creative, Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley the most reliable, and Nick Grossman the best defender.

    Columbus
    Last Year (C+)

    They added James Wisniewski, you say. The rest of the top-six is arguably league-worst, I say.

    Colorado
    Last Year (B-)

    They could move back up the standings based on two developments: One, Erik Johnson figures it out and takes the next step (and the scuttlebutt is he’s been a horse preparing in the off-season). Two, Jan Hejda proves it wasn’t a Blue Jacket mirage and he really is one of the better defensive defencemen in the league. We’ll see. Sadly, the rest of the Colorado defence is young and questionable.

    C- Grade

    Edmonton
    Last Year (C-)

    There’s nothing wrong with loading up on talented offensive players through the draft. At some point though, the Oilers are going to have to figure out that preventing goals is another way to win games. Ryan Whitney was putting in a team MVP-esque performance last year before he got hurt, and talk is he’s hurt himself again in the off-season. Without Whitney, the Oiler blueline is the worst in the NHL. Theo Peckham is a beast though.

    Sep 072011
     

    As discussed in yesterday’s post, changing a coach at mid-season, rather than in the off-season, seems to have a greater positive impact on team performance.

    Examining all the coaching moves since the start of the 2005-06 season reveals some other interesting tidbits:

    1. Only four coaches hired at mid-season led their teams to a worse performance than the coach they replaced:
      • 2009-10 Philadelphia: Peter Laviolette (.535) replaced John Stevens (.540). One could argue these are almost equal results.
      • 2008-09 Tampa Bay: Rick Tocchet (.397 winning percentage) replaced Barry Melrose (.438). Funny how Melrose was ridiculed for his performance returning to the bench, while Rick Tocchet demonstrated himself to be just as incompetent.
      • 2008-09 Montreal: Bob Gainey (.500) replaced Guy Carbonneau (.583)
      • 2005-06 Los Angeles: John Torchetti (.417) replaced Andy Murray (.564)

    2. The best improvement by a coach hired in the off-season:
      • 2009-10 Phoenix: Dave Tippett (+28 points after replacing Wayne Gretzky)
      • 2009-10 Colorado: Joe Sacco (+27 points after replacing Tony Granato)
      • 2010-11 Tampa Bay: Guy Boucher (+23 points after replacing Rick Tocchet)
      • 2007-08 Boston: Claude Julien (+18 points after replacing Dave Lewis). You’re not likely to see any of the four names replaced on this list named as NHL head coaches ever again.

    3. The worst performance by teams after hiring a coach in the off-season:
      • 2008-09 Colorado: Tony Granato (-27 points after replacing Joel Quennville)
      • 2010-11 New Jersey: John Maclean + Jacques Lemaire (-24 points after replacing Jacques Lemaire)
      • 2009-10 Edmonton: Pat Quinn (-23 points after replacing Craig MacTavish)
      • 2006-07 Los Angeles: Marc Crawford (-21 points after replacing Andy Murray + John Torchetti)

    One final note – for all the talk that Pat Quinn’s coaching time had passed after that brutal 62-point performance for the Oilers, it’s worth noting Tom Renney led an stronger Edmonton team to exactly the same number of points the following season.

    Here now are the coaching rankings for the Western Conference:

     A Grade

    Mike Babcock – Detroit
    Last Year (A)

    The best coach in the game? Probably. The demise of the Red Wings has been increasingly predicted over the last few years, and yet it never seems to actually happen. Credit the coach, who knows exactly the right buttons to push to motivate each player.

    Barry Trotz – Nashville
    Last Year (B+)

    Nashville fell a sniper short of upsetting Vancouver in the second round. That’s not Trotz’s fault, who clearly outcoached Alain Vigneault during the series. He’s among the best in the league.

    B+ Grade

    Joel Quenneville – Chicago
    Last Year (B+)

    Getting the Blackhawks – a team gutted by so many moves in the offseason that the players probably needed name tags in training camp – into the playoffs last year was an underrated coaching accomplishment.

    Alain Vigneault – Vancouver
    Last Year (B-)

    You coach a team into the Cup Final you get to move up these rankings. Yet, he still has an inexplicable man-crush on Aaron Rome; has turned once-promising Keith Ballard into an ECHL’er; and is at least partially to blame for the unsportsmanlike attitude that permeates Canuck culture. Last year was likely the pinnacle of Vigneault’s coaching career.

    B Grade

    Randy Carlyle – Anaheim
    Last Year (B)

    Carlyle headed into last season at a crossroads, with whispers of his having lost the room heard around the league. Instead, the coach and team rallied to a playoff spot. He did a great job not only integrating Cam Fowler into the lineup, but protecting him and his confidence.

    Dave Tippet – Phoenix
    Last Year (B)

    Performed another coaching miracle getting the Coyotes into the playoffs last year, but faces his greatest challenge trying to do that without Ilya Bryzgalov in 2011-12.

    B- Grade

    Tom Renney – Edmonton
    Last Year (B-)

    The Oilers featured stronger systems play and a better dressing room atmosphere last year, but failed to improve in the standings. A terrific coaching “teacher,” at some point Edmonton brass will have to ask themselves if Renney has the chops to take a team far into the playoffs. That’s a question that’s still a few seasons off though.

    C+ Grade

    Terry Murray – Los Angeles (FIRED WATCH)
    Last Year (C+)

    Let’s make it two years in a row for Murray to find his name on the “Fired Watch.” Expectations haven’t been this high for the Kings since Gretzky was in town. An adequate bench boss, he hasn’t coached a team out of the first round since the Flyers made the Stanley Cup in 1997.

    Todd McLellan – San Jose
    Last Year (C)

    Won a classic series against the Detroit Red Wings (and coach Mike Babcock) and got his team to the Conference Final for the second year in a row. And yet, he still hasn’t really helped the team shed its underachieving label.

    C Grade

    Davis Payne – St. Louis (FIRED WATCH)
    Last Year (C)

    With the Blues expected to rise in the standings this year the heat is on Payne, who is also in the final year of his contract. Injuries crippled the team last year, but St. Louis was also inconsistent and prone to weak first period efforts.

    Brent Sutter – Calgary (FIRED WATCH)
    Last Year (C)

    Still looking for the same success in the NHL that he had coaching junior hockey. He seemed a bit more flexible handling his roster once brother Darryl was out of the mix. Still, with a veteran-laden squad like the Flames, it’s playoffs or bust.

    Joe Sacco – Colorado
    Last Year (C+)

    Sacco, heralded as a great communicator after his first year as coach, had a tough second season. The team looked unprepared at times and Sacco’s seemingly random benching of players was odd (Chris Stewart was a healthy scratch before being dealt).

    Scott Arniel – Columbus (FIRED WATCH)
    Last Year (C)

    You know what the definition of a square-peg and round-hole problem is? Meshing Arniel’s puck possession gameplan with the Blue Jackets roster last year. It didn’t work. The personnel is stronger this year in Columbus, so now it’s up to Arniel to deliver some results.

    Glen Gulutzan – Dallas
    Last Year (N/A)

    Another rookie head coach, this time taking over from “The Hair” (aka Marc Crawford). Despite team assurances, it does look like Gulutzan’s price-tag (ie. cheap) played a part in his being hired over other coaching options (Craig MacTavish, Ken Hitchcock, etc). Gulutzan has had an impressive minor league coaching career, particularly in the ECHL. You know who else had a pretty impressive ECHL coaching career? John Brophy, who’s actually in the ECHL Hall of Fame. Just sayin’…

    Mike Yeo – Minnesota
    Last Year (N/A)

    Yeo takes over from Todd Richards, promising to bring offensive hockey to the Wild. The former Penguins powerplay coach is young (39) and, well, eager, as his visit to Finland to meet with Mikko Koivu can attest. He only has one season of head coaching experience though, and the ditches along the NHL highway are full of wannabe assistants who couldn’t make it as head coaches.

    Feb 132011
     

    [Every Sunday, Caylie King looks at the Canucks week that was and the Canucks week ahead. You can follow Caylie on Twitter (@cayking).]

    Canucks Record

    56 GP, 36-11-9, 81 points (1st in Northwest Division, 1st in Western Conference)

    Who’s Hot

    It was about this time last year that Mikael Samuelsson went on a hot streak, a way of showing Team Sweden what they were missing out on. To say that Sammy is en fuego as of late would be an understatement. He has 6 goals and 14 points in his last 8 games while adding a different look to the first PP unit. With the injury to Alex Edler, Sammy has fit nicely into the first PP unit and is, for now anyway, quarterbacking the point with Christian Ehrhoff. Sammy is also happy to back on the 2nd line with Kesler, where they have rekindled their chemistry along side Mason Raymond.

    Who’s Not

    Night in and night out, Jannik Hansen is one of the hardest working Canucks on the ice, but unfortunately, it hasn’t translated in to much offensive success recently. He only has 1 goal and 1 assist in his last 12 games. While he works tirelessly on the penalty kill and tries to generate chances on the 3rd line with his speed, he just hasn’t been able to finish.

    Who’s Next

    Monday, February 14, 2011 vs. St. Louis Blues (5:00 PM start, away)

    The St. Louis Blues lost both games to the Minnesota Wild in this weekend’s home-and-home series. Since a 5-game win streak to end 2010, the Blues have only 4 wins in 2011. (In contrast, the Canucks have 3 regulation losses in 2011.) The Blues are looking from the outside into the playoff race, sitting in 13th place in the Western Conference.

    The Canucks and Blues have split their first two meetings of the season, with the road team coming out on top both times. The Blues won 3-2 in Rogers Arena on December 5th; the Canucks won their latest meeting 3-1 on December 20th in St. Louis.

    Alex Steen has 4 points (3G -1A) and is a plus-3 in the season series to date. He has 15 goals, 40 points and a plus-4 rating for the season.

    Tuesday, February 15, 2011 vs. Minnesota Wild (5:00 PM start, away)

    On the front page of the Minnesota Wild’s website, it says “Every Point Counts”, which is fitting considering that the standings in the Western Conference seem to change every night. Minnesota has been battling with the Flames and Kings for the last playoff spot. The Wild are hot and are currently on a 4-game winning streak; they have an 8-2-0 record in their last 10 games.

    The Wild have won 2 of their 3 games against the Canucks this season. Both wins came at home at the Xcel Energy Center where they outscored the Canucks 10-2, including the 4-0 beating just last month. (Incidentally, that loss was the start of a mini-slide where the boys in blue went 0-1-3.)

    Martin Havlat has 9 points with a plus-7 rating in his last 10 games. He leads the team in points with 48 (16G – 32A) for the season. He has 3 points in 3 games against the Canucks this season.

    Thursday, February 17, 2011 vs. Nashville Predators (5:00 PM start, away)

    The Canucks roll into Nashville for the last game of a 3-game road trip. The Preds look different this time with the addition of Mike “Mr. Underwood” Fisher, who came over in a trade from the Ottawa Senators. The Predators are 5-4-1 in their last 10 and are currently sitting in 4th place in the Western Conference.

    The Canucks have won the only meeting between the two teams this season, when Lee Sweatt potted his first NHL career goal and first game-winning-goal.

    After a few tumultuous years in Montreal, Sergei Kostitsyn seems to have found a home in Nashville. He has 10 points (4-6) in his last 10 games and is second in team scoring, just behind Captain Shea Weber, with 15 goals, 18 assists and 33 points – all are career-highs.

    Saturday, February 19, 2011 vs Dallas Stars (7:00 PM start, home)

    It’s Hockey Night in Canada and the Canucks are home from a road trip to play against the Dallas Stars. With only 2 wins in their last 9 games, Dallas is just barely holding onto 3rd place in the Western Conference, with the Coyotes only a point back and making a push for the Pacific Division lead.

    The Canucks have had Dallas’ number this season winning all 3 previous meetings by a combined score of 15-3. Both Sedins have 6 points each in the 3 games played.

    All-Star Loui Eriksson has 4 points (1-3) in his last 5 games and is second in team scoring with 18 goals and 53 points this season. He is also a good plus-14. Eriksson is a pure offensive player and is generally-considered to be one of the most underrated players in the league.

    Welcome Back: Sami “Balls of Steel” Salo

    The win against the Calgary Flames on Saturday saw the return of Sami Salo.

    About a month ago it was unknown whether we would even see Sami back this season or ever. But with the latest string of injuries – unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, you’ll already know that Edler is out indefinitely after having back surgery, Ballard is out about a month with a sprained knee and Dan Hamhuis was plastered to the boards and will be out indefinitely with a concussion – the return on Sami has happened with opened arms.

    Sami’s presence adds so much to the Canucks lineup, and it’s always nice to know we have that blast from the point that would scare any goalie straight. It’ll take a few games for Salo to get back into top playing form, after all this is his “training camp”, but to see #6 back on the ice makes all Canucks fans happy.

    So here’s to Sami Salo, we missed you and your balls of steel!

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