May 302012
 
New Jersey Devils vs Los Angeles Kings

Having lamented the current state of the NHL in part 1 of my Stanley Cup Finals preview, let’s at least acknowledge the fact that both the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles kings aren’t exactly passive, defensive teams.

In fact, it could be argued that both teams have made it this far because they have, more than any other teams in the postseason, been able to combine their strong defensive systems with excellent forechecks. These are two teams that like to apply pressure in the offensive zone (thank god).

Now, onto breaking down the actual match-up between the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings.

Goaltending:

Kings

What I said pre-season: B (“There is an embarrassment of riches at this position in Los Angeles […]. The Kings move up this list as (Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier) continue to develop”)

Now: A. Jonathan Quick has been the best goaltender in the playoffs so far and was neck-and-neck with Henrik Lundqvist for best goalie in the league this year. He plays the position aggressively, and it will be interesting to see if a strong Devils attack can exploit this and get Quick caught out of position.

Devils

What I said pre-season: B- (“This is probably Martin Brodeur’s final season.”)

Now: B. I wonder, if the Devils win the Cup, does Brodeur retire? Or does he come back to defend? While his play has dropped off the last few seasons, he was a steady performer this year, helped by a Devils approach that protected him from having to face many Grade A scoring chances. Brodeur’s numbers  (2.04 goals against, .923 save percentage) have been good in the post-season, but he’s had soft moments in each series. He’ll need to raise his game against the Kings.

Bottom Line: Some would have you believe that Brodeur’s experience is a positive factor over Quick. However, since the lockout only the Red Wings in 2007-08 have won the Cup using a goalie who’d won one before (Chris Osgood). It’s hard to believe, at this point in the playoffs, previous experience is much of a factor. Which means the Kings get a big nod at this position.

*****

Forwards:

Kings

What I said pre-season: B+ (“If Dustin Penner can demonstrate any kind of scoring consistency, this could be the Conference’s best group of forwards”)

Now: B+. It took 82-games for Kings forwards to live up to their potential, as they struggled immensely during the regular season. The first line – Dustin Brown – Anze Kopitar – Justin Williams – has dominated the post-season, with Brown in particular playing the best hockey of his career. But these playoffs have been a “return to glory” for Dustin Penner (10 points), Mike Richards (11 points) and Jeff Carter (9 points). Together, they represent one of the tougher, better second lines in the entire NHL, and have helped the Kings go from second last in league scoring (2.29 goals per game) in the regular season to third in the playoffs (2.93). Dwight King (5 goals) has provided the third line with much needed offense. This is a physical group that, while not exactly fast, anticipate the play very well.

Devils

What I said pre-season: B (“This might be a sneaky-good offensive group, although the bottom-six could use work”)

Now: B+. Despite the bounce-back season from Patrick Elias and the terrific rookie season of Adam Henrique, the Devils were middle-of-the-pack (15th) in league scoring during the regular season. However, over the course of the year they added Alexei Ponikarovsky and Steve Bernier to the roster, and promoted Steven Gionta. Each of those moves has improved the team’s third and fourth lines, turning the Devils into a four-line squad capable of pinning opponents in the defensive zone. This depth compliments the offensive talents of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, who enter this Final as the most talented offensive players on either roster. This is a very good group, although Patrick Elias hasn’t produced much this spring (18 games, 4 goals, 6 points).

Bottom Line: The Devils have the better talent and the stronger fourth line, but no line is playing better than the Kopitar line right now. Consider this match-up even.

*****

Defense:

Kings

What I Said pre-season: A (Drew Doughty […] remains a Norris Trophy candidate. Jack Johnson […] looks like a legitimate first pairing guy. The rest of the group is an average mix of youth and experience”)

Now: A. Despite trading Jack Johnson to Columbus for Jeff Carter during the season, the Kings retain their A-grade thanks to the emergence of Viatcheslav Voynov and the stellar season from Willie Mitchell. Mitchell and Matt Greene give the Kings two terrific, physical shut-down defenseman. Meanwhile, Voynov and youngster Alec Martinez can skate and provide excellent first passes out of the zone. In fact, the Kings compensate for a lack of speed from their forwards by transitioning the puck from defense to forwards  quicker than most other teams in the league. Finally, after roughly 12-20 months of mediocre play, Drew Doughty has rediscovered his elite game this post-season, and is the best defenseman in the series by a country mile. Finally, this is a blueline that has the green light to join the attack, helping the Kings generate more odd-man rushes than most.

Devils

What I said pre-season: C (“[…] Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov are two of the best defensive defencemen in the league. Otherwise it’s an average group with below average skill”)

Now: C+. As expected, the lack of skill hampered the Devils blueline for much of the season, as New Jersey’s group struggled to move the puck up to its forwards effectively. However, the late season addition of Marek Zidlicky and the promotion of Peter Harrold from Albany brought much-needed speed and passing skill to the Devils defense. This has paid off in the post-season, with both players getting the majority of powerplay time and leading New Jersey to the fourth-best powerplay in the post-season (18.2%). Meanwhile, Bryce Salvador is playing his best hockey in years, leading the defense with 11 points (9 at even-strength) and tied with Anton Volchenkov for most hits by a Devils defenseman (37). This is a lunch pail, no-name group that is very reminiscent of the Cup-winning Hurricanes blueline of 2005-06.

Bottom Line: The offensive gap between the two teams has closed a bit, but the Kings remain the more dynamic blueline. When you add that Los Angeles gets to play Drew Doughty 25+ minutes a night, this category is a mismatch for the Kings.

*****

Coaching

Kings

What I said pre-season: C+ (“Let’s make it two years in a row for Murray to find his name on the “Fired Watch.”)

Now: B. The best thing that could have happened to the Kings was firing Terry Murray, who hadn’t been past the first round of the playoffs in some 15 years. Full disclosure though – I thought the hiring of Darryl Sutter was going to be a disaster, and I was wrong. Sutter was example B to Ken Hitchcock’s example A in the whole “mid-season coaching replacements do better” hypothesis. Sutter’s pushed the right buttons and demonstrated that, for all his failings as a general manager, he remains a quality head coach.

Devils

What I said pre-season: C+ (“[Peter] DeBoer’s preferred puck possession style never really fit with the Panter’s mix of inexperience and grinders.”)

Now: B. Finally graced with a solid nucleus, DeBoer has finally delivered on the promise he showed while having great success in the junior ranks. He’s taken the Devils disciplined defensive approach and grafted his own philosophies onto the team, delivering the most dynamic New Jersey squad since the early 2000s. DeBoer plays hunches and isn’t afraid to mix up his lines or lineup to get the matchups he needs. He’s the real deal.

Bottom Line: A very even matchup. Sutter has a slight edge given his Stanley Cup experience but DeBoer is the more flexible coach. Let’s call this a wash.

*****

Special Teams:

Kings: The Kings have dominated this post-season despite a pretty terrible powerplay. There is a distinct lack of creativity to their approach. Having said that, L.A.’s penalty kill has been superlative, with Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar dangerous shorthanded (2 goals each).

Devils: The Devils over-aggressive penalty kill, which was the league’s best in the regular season, has been exploited in the playoffs. The powerplay, on the other hand, has been surprisingly strong.

Bottom Line: It’s this simple: Kings wretched powerplay versus Devils’ awful post-season penalty kill. The team that wins this matchup wins the special teams category. Given the likely poor ice conditions in both arenas, the penalty kill will have a slight edge. Which means this category goes to the Devils by a whisker.

*****

Intangibles and Random Thoughts:

  • It’s the rare a team without a dominant top-line defenseman wins the Stanley Cup. Advantage: Kings
  • Despite having a lot of offensive talent on the Kings roster, it’s rare a team wins the Stanley Cup having scored so few goals in the regular season. Advantage: Devils
  • The Kings haven’t had to do a lot of travel this post-season, but it’s still been more than the Devils. It will be interesting to see how New Jersey travels West (given the Kings, with all their off-days, were able to get to the New York area and acclimatize well in advance of Game 1). Advantage: Kings
  • Anton Volchenkov will probably get the match-up against Anze Kopitar, but Kopitar is so strong it’s hard to see the “A-Train” earning much more than a draw in this battle. Advantage: Kings
  • Both teams will probably match their top-lines against one-another, with the Kings wanting the Kopitar line up against the Zajac line, and the Richards line against the Henrique line. Even if Kopitar/Zajac is a wash, it wouldn’t surprise to see the Richards line more productive than the Henrique line. Advantage: Kings
  • Since 1980, there have been six “coastal” Stanley Cup Finals, featuring a West Coast team versus an East Coast team. Only the Anaheim Ducks have won it on behalf of the Western Conference. Advantage: Devils
  • The Kings have gotten to the Stanley Cup Final so quickly and easily that they’ve had a lot of time off. It means they’re healthy, but also means they haven’t had to face much adversity. The Devils have had a tougher road, which could mean they’re more battle-hardened. Advantage: Devils
  • Even though the Kings’ fourth line had a pretty good series against the Coyotes, they in no way have had the impact of New Jersey’s Bernier-Gionta-Carter line. The Devils have had terrific fourth lines in their Cup-winning seasons, and through three rounds they’ve had one again. Advantage: Devils

*****

Stanley Cup Prediction: Kings in 6

Bottom Line: This could be a surprisingly entertaining series featuring two teams that play physical, aggressive styles. The Devils might have the most talented forwards, but the Kings have the stronger goalie and blueline. Pre-season I said I had “Chicago, LA and Vancouver rated roughly the same” as the Western Conference’s best teams. The firing of Terry Murray took the Kings’ greatest impediment to success out of the equation. With Wayne Gretzky watching, expect Dustin Brown to raise the Stanley Cup over his head, completing one of the most unexpected championship runs in NHL history.

May 142012
 

Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8)

Season Series: L.A (3-1-2)

What we learned about the Coyotes in the Second Round: That they’re Cinderella at the ball. Hard to give too much credit to a team that has been routinely outshot (-9.5 shots for/shots against differential in the playoffs) and only had one powerplay goal in the second round. Mike Smith has been terrific yes, but the Desert Dogs were fortunate Nashville found the Phoenix nightlife to their liking. Then again, there are a couple of notorious partiers on the Kings team…

What we learned about the Kings in the Second Round: After a rather miserable 82-game season, this Kings team has become the fearsome squad many pundits predicted could be a darkhorse Cup contender way back at the beginning of the season. It’s not a very fast team, but the Kings move the puck well, are big, and might have the best forecheck left in the playoffs. Los Angeles is averaging 3.00 goals per game right now (tied for 3rd in the post-season and best remaining with the Devils), which is the type of production that should be expected from this group of forwards. Jonathan Quick has been the best goalie in the league this spring (.949 save percentage). Darryl Sutter got some good minutes out of the fourth line against St. Louis (which he didn’t do against Vancouver) and even Dustin Penner (5 pts in 5 games against the Blues) is rolling.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching:  Even (Sutter’s been to a Cup Final as a head coach before, but Dave Tippet has had a great playoff behind the bench leading his less-talented team to two series wins)

Goaltending: Even. Quick has been the playoffs’ best, but the Coyotes don’t get this far without Mike Smith performing like a superhero. Smith gets the benefit of the doubt, although the Kings made Brian Elliott look human last series.

Defense: Kings. Both teams are exceptional defensively. The difference is the Coyotes still give up a ton of shots (even if they’re from outside scoring areas). The Kings are able to clamp down a bit more and they have Drew Doughty, who showed flashes of dominance early in the Blues series.

Offense: Kings (Los Angeles’ top two lines are more talented than what Phoenix can put on the ice, and they’re hot right now. Having said that, Phoenix has gotten timely scoring from every line. Consider this a slight edge that could grow larger if Jeff Carter could ever get going).

Special Teams: Even. Neither team is lighting up the powerplay right now and yet both teams have extremely strong penalty kills. This, coupled with the strength of both goalies, points to a low-scoring series.

Prediction:  Kings in 5.

*****

Notes on the Dearly Departed:

St. Louis Blues

Cause of Death: Injuries to Alex Pieterangelo and Jaroslav Halak.

Prescription: Stay the course. Brian Elliott was inconsistent at times in the second round, meaning interest in dealing Jaroslav Halak in the off-season should be limited. Otherwise this is a team in the headed in the right direction (especially if Patrick Berglund can carry his playoff performance into next year).

Nashville Predators

Cause of Death: Off-ice distractions that tore the dressing room apart.

Prescription: Let Ryan Suter go – the Predators have some good young defenseman primed for NHL exposure, and they could use the money to help keep Shea Weber long-term. Move back-up goalie Anders Lindback in a package that can return a top-six scoring forward. Let Alex Radulov go – sure he’s talented, but it’s clear now he doesn’t have the intangibles that lead to NHL playoff success. This could be a classic case of a team stumbling before taking the next step. There’s still a lot to like in Smashville.

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.
Dec 132011
 

Things that make one wonder on a Tuesday: 

The Kings are in Trouble 

Has Dean Lombardi lost his mind? 

According to reports, the Los Angeles Kings are looking at Darryl Sutter as their next coach. 

Because the Lombardi-Sutter connection won championships in San Jose, right? 

Look, it’s not like the problem with the Kings isn’t well-known. They aren’t scoring enough goals (last in the league). Their point-producers, outside of Anze Kopitar, are all under-performing. 

How Sutter – a notorious “defense-first, -second and –third” coach – could be seen as the right person to create scoring is a mystery.   

Not to mention the fact that Sutter hasn’t coached in five years and, towards the end of his time in Calgary, seemed to have an “out-of-touch-with-today’s-players” smell about him. 

Meanwhile, just down the road Randy Carlyle sits, waiting for his phone to ring. Carlyle has won a Stanley Cup (something the Kings never have), is a butt-kicking coach (something the Kings players need), and his Ducks team could score (five times in the top-15, including three top-10 finishes, over seven years).   

Hiring Darryl Sutter would reek of a kind of nepotism and backward, nostalgia-thinking that brings into question Lombardi’s actual ability to build a Stanley Cup champion. 

Let’s face it: Lombardi teams have historically been in the “good, but not good enough” category. 

Here’s hoping for Kings fans Lombardi’s interest in Darryl Sutter is nothing more than a courtesy call to an old friend. 

Otherwise, this would be a move in the absolute wrong direction for the franchise. 

NHL Concussions 

So now we can add Claude Giroux to the list of prominent NHL scorers felled by concussion. 

To be honest, this discussion has become incredibly tiresome. It’s clear neither the NHL nor the NHLPA view these head injuries as a major issue, or else greater steps would have already been taken to improve player safety. 

You know, steps like eliminating fourth line goons, increasing suspensions and fines, investing in new helmet and neck guard research or getting rid of high-density polyethylene shoulder pads, elbow pads and shin guards.

That’s right, the same stuff used for ballistic plates, folding chairs, riverbank enforcements and natural gas pipes can be found in NHL equipment. 

As has been said in this space before, the NHL decision-making culture isn’t exactly a progressive one. It’s a league run by people who value toughness over skill, and equate truculence for heart and passion. 

At this point, it’s fairly obvious what needs to happen before the NHL gets its house in order on the concussion and player safety issue. 

No, it’s not a Sidney Crosby retirement. 

It’s another Bill Masterton moment.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Hey look, The Hockey News agrees about Darryl Sutter.
  • According to this timeline, does Sidney Crosby only have 400-odd games left in his career?:
Name PPG before concussion First “serious” concussion Age at first “serious” concussion GP post first concussion PPG post first concussion # of concussions Retired at 
Pat LaFontaine 1.06 April 6, 1990 – hit by James Patrick 25 410 (7 seasons) 1.30 32 
Eric Lindros 1.41 March 7, 1998 – hit by Darius Kasparaitus 25 400 (7 seasons) 0.895 34 
Sidney Crosby 1.39 January 1, 2011 – hit by David Steckel 23 ????????????
  • Speaking of concussions, a nice wrap up by Sports Illustrated of 16 NHL’ers whose careers ended due to concussion-related injury.  Some of the names may surprise you.
  • Final concussion note – speculation is Jeff Skinner suffered one last week against Edmonton’s Andy Sutton.
  • One more note on the Kings firing Terry Murray – nice guy, overrated coach. Not sure if he coaches again in the NHL.
  • If you think about it, the approach Dale Tallon is taking to rebuilding the Panthers (invest in veterans while filling up the farm system with prospects) is similar to what Dean Lombardi did in San Jose originally. Despite the lack of championships, the Sharks truly have become the model expansion franchise in the NHL.
  • Dear New Jersey Devils – if Kurtis Foster is the answer, you’ve been asking the wrong question.
  • Speaking of the Devils, their penalty kill is an absolute joy to watch. Opponents have very little time to set-up in the offensive zone.
  • Last Devils thought – they really made Tampa’s defense look slow on Monday night. Particularly Brett Clark, who was caught flat-footed at the blueline on two New Jersey goals.
  • Lots of kudos to go around for the way the New York Rangers are playing right now, but here’s two things to note: 1) their young defense, particularly Dan Girardi, has improved over last year. Girardi has played like an All-Star so far this season. 2) Marian Gaborik is healthy, returning to game-breaking form he had two seasons ago.  The Rangers have a balanced attack for the first time in a long time.
  • Since Washington’s Mike Green has been hurt, John Carlson has 14 points in 14 games.
  • Don’t look now, but the Hurricanes are 1-5 under Kirk Muller. Meanwhile, Dale Hunter has the Capitals at 3-3 after six games, while Bruce Boudreau is 1-3-1 in Anaheim, and Ken Hitchcock is 11-2-3 in St. Louis.
  • Steven Stamkos may sit fourth in league scoring, but he hasn’t had much luck on the powerplay. He’s on pace for just 8 powerplay goals, down from 17 last year.
  • Some interesting time-on-ice stats: Brooks Laich leads Capitals forwards in ice-time (although Alex Ovechkin’s ice-time has gone up under Dale Hunter); Daniel Winnik leads all Avalanche forwards (interesting, given he essentially plays a checking role); Ryan Suter (not Shea Weber) leads Nashville in ice-time; Jeff Carter (not Rick Nash) leads all Blue Jackets forwards.
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