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.

Apr 092012
 

With the first round series between the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings scheduled to start on Wednesday, here is a brief look at the season series between the two teams.

In the Regular Season

The Canucks won the season series against the Kings, but just barely. They took 5 of 8 points (2-0-1 record); the Kings took 4 of 8 points (2-2-0).

November 10, 2011: Vancouver Canucks 3 @ LA Kings 2

In their first meeting of the season, the Canucks raced to a 3-goal lead in the first period. A Trevor Lewis elbowing major and Drew Doughty cross-check gave the Canucks a 5-on-3 powerplay early in the first period. On the two-man advantage, Sami Salo wired a shot from the point and beat Jonathan Quick. Then, with the team still on the powerplay, Andrew Ebbett deflected the puck off of Wille Mitchell to give them a 2-0 lead. For good measure, Aaron Rome got his 2nd goal – in just his second game of the season – which would eventually stand the game-winner.

The Kings mounted a small rally. Doughty got the Kings on the board midway through the second period with a slap shot from the side boards. And with time winding down in the third period and Quick on the Kings bench for an extra attacker, Mike Richards scored on a deflection to cut the Canucks’ lead to 3-2 and make things interesting. However, this is as close as they would come as Roberto Luongo recorded the win.

December 31, 2011: Vancouver Canucks 1 @ LA Kings 4

With 6 wins in 7 games, the Canucks had a great opportunity to end 2011 on a positive note with a New Year’s Eve meeting in LA. But after the Canucks scored an early goal, just 3 minutes into the game, they let the lead slip away and the Kings went on to score 4 unanswered goals.

Bieksa scored the lone Canucks goal, finishing off a good pass and play from Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Bieksa’s marker was in the midst of a season-high, 7-game point streak in which he had 8 points (1G-7A). From December 15 to January 7, Bieksa had 12 points (2G-10A) in 12 games.

Brad Richardson, Matt Greene, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams scored for the Kings. Kopitar’s goal came after the Canucks couldn’t capitalize on a 4-minute powerplay courtesy of a Mike Richards double-minor for high-sticking. As Richards came out of the penalty box, the Kings went 3-on-2 going the other away and Kopitar cut across the crease and backhanded the puck past Luongo.

On this night, the Canucks struggled painfully to clear the zone. And when they did, they just couldn’t generate enough sustained pressure to beat a strong Jonathan Quick.

January 17, 2012: LA Kings 3 @ Vancouver Canucks 2 (SO)

In their third meeting of the season, the Canucks and Kings traded a couple of goals each before the Kings eventually won in the shootout.

First, it was Dustin Penner who deflected a Drew Doughty shot and scored the game’s first goal. Then, Daniel Sedin scored a powerplay goal early in the second period to tie up the game. Late in the second period, while on a powerplay, Justin Williams pounced on a juicy Willie Mitchell rebound to give the Kings a 2-1 lead. David Booth then tied things up in the third period, converting on a beautiful cross-crease pass from Jannik Hansen. Mike Richards recorded the shootout winner.

March 26, 2012: LA Kings 0 @ Vancouver Canucks 1

The fourth and final meeting of the regular season may very well be the most accurate preview of the two teams’ first round playoff series.

Manny Malhotra opened the scoring just 3 minutes into the game by streaking down the left win and wristing a nice shot off the post and past Jonathan Quick. From that point on, it was a tight and low scoring affair.

The Canucks in particular went into a defensive shell the rest of the night. They mustered a mere 25 shots on Quick with 13 of them coming in the third period. Roberto Luongo was huge, stopping all 38 Kings shots.

Who’s Hot: Canucks

Before Daniel suffered a concussion in March, Henrik was struggling and had just 4 assists during a stretch of 12 games. However, since then, Captain Hank has stepped up and finished with 11 points (1G-10A) in his last 8 games. Just as important, he has stated that he is feeling more confident and wants the puck more.

With 81 points (14G-67A) in 82 games, Henrik led the Canucks and all Western Conference skaters in the regular season. Especially with Daniel’s status unknown (though he did skate in practice this morning), it’s no secret his production will be critical to the team’s success during this playoff run.

Who’s Not: Canucks

After surgery in the off-season, Ryan Kesler, last year’s 41-goal scorer and Selke Trophy winner finished the 2011/2012 regular season with 22 goals and 49 points in 77 games – a far cry from his 73 points last season and 75 points the season before that – including a woeful 2 assists in his last 12 games.

There seems to be little doubt among the Canucks faithful that Kes will find his beast mode once post-season play begins.

Here’s hoping.

Who’s Hot: Kings

It’s hard to imagine where the Kings would be without Jonathan Quick’s play this season. Once thought to be expendable because of the play of Jonathan Bernier – sound familiar, Canucks fans? – Quick should be a Vezina candidate and is easily the the Kings’ MVP.

Quite simply, Quick has been a rock in net for LA. He has a 35-21-13 record, a league-high 10 shutouts, a 0.929 save percentage and a goals against average of 1.95. He doesn’t give up much during each game so taking advantage of offensive opportunities will be key for the Canucks. He’s managed to earn the Kings at least a point in 10 of his last 12 starts, going 8-2-2 to finish off the season.

Who’s Not: Kings

Dustin Penner has been a huge disappointment for the Kings this season. His 17 points (7G-10A) in 65 games are his worst season totals, not including his 2005/2006 season in which he 7 points in 19 games. In his last 23 games, Pancakes has just 4 points (2G-2A).

Mar 212012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Last week, we took a look at the terrific battle for the 7th and 8th playoff spots in the Western Conference. There’s still a race going on in the Eastern Conference between Washington, Florida, Winnipeg and Buffalo for the 3rd and 8th spots respectively. However, surprises seem far less likely to happen.
  • Of the four teams, Florida plays the weakest opponents (a .508 winning percentage heading into last night’s Philadelphia game). The Panthers reaching the playoffs seems like a sure thing.
  • The Jets have the toughest schedule, playing teams with a .572 winning percentage (including last night’s Pittsburgh game). They also play 6 of their last 9 games on the road, where they’ve struggled (11-20-4). It sure seems like the lights of the MTS Centre will be dark come playoff time.
  • Having said that, of the four teams in the discussion the Jets have been the highest scoring team over their last 20 games, potting 3.25 goals per game. Unfortunately for them, they’ve given up the most goals as well, averaging 3.15 goals against per game.
  • Blake Wheeler has become the big straw stirring the Jets drink, with 26 points in 23 games since the All-Star Game. Bryan Little has also come alive, with 10 goals and 19 points over the same period. Not to be out-done, Dustin Byfuglien has been a point-per-game player from the defense as well with 22 points in 22 games.
  • On paper, it’s hard to see how the Washington Capitals are still in the playoff race. They’re 9-9-2 over their last 20 games, giving up an average of 2.90 goals against per game while only scoring 2.40 goals per game. 5 of their last 9 games are at home though, where they have had good success this season (23-10-3). That should be enough to squeak them into the playoffs.
  • The wildcard here are the Buffalo Sabres. They’re 6-2-2 in their past 10 games and 11-5-4 in their past 20, putting the pressure on a Caps team that’s spinning its wheels. A March 27th game on the road against Washington looms large. If Buffalo wants to make the playoffs, they not only need to win that game, but improve on their current 12-9-5 record against their remaining opponents.
  • Reasons for Buffalo’s surge since the All-Star Game: Tyler Myers is +11 since the break; With 19 points each over the same period, Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford have given the Sabres scoring depth; Ryan Miller has a 2.02 goals against and .932 save percentage in 23 post All-Star game appearances. (Editor’s note: What? No mention of Cody Hodgson? /sarcasm – J.J.)
  • Evgeni Malkin is the first NHL player to score 5 or more points in a game 4 times in one season since 1995–96. During the 1995-96 season, Mario Lemieux did it 6 times for the Pittsburgh Penguins, while Peter Forsberg did it 4 times for the Colorado Avalanche.
  • How is it possible that Ryan Getzlaf has just 9 goals this year?
  • Other prominent players who may not hit 10-goals this year: Brandon Dubinsky (8); Kyle Turris (8); Mason Raymond (8); Michal Handzus (7); Dustin Penner (7); Paul Gaustad (7); Ville Leino (6); Brian Rolston (6); Mike Knuble (6).
Jan 102012
 

If someone you know is in a car crash, the first thing you want to know is how badly hurt they are.

The 2011-12 season of the Columbus Blue Jackets has been an epic car crash.

But in the grand scheme of things, they’re not too badly hurt.

Why? Just like someone struggling with addiction, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to start your way back to the top.

For the Blue Jackets, this year has been rock bottom – and the path to the top is pretty clear.

Here’s why the future isn’t all that dark in Columbus:

1. The first overall pick this year is a dandy.

Nail Yakupov has been heralded as the best Russian prospect since Alex Ovechkin and has drawn comparisons to Pavel Bure. Unlike many of the Russian forwards that come to play in the NHL, Yakupov has strong on-ice vision and knows how to use his teammates (witness the 4-assist game against Canada in the World Juniors). A torn meniscus shouldn’t dampen his NHL future, and he’s already stated he doesn’t want to play in the KHL. If the Blue Jackets remain as the worst team in the NHL and don’t lose their first overall pick in the draft lottery, Yakupov could have the same impact as Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have had on their respective teams.

2. They already have a veteran superstar to build and market the team around.

Rick Nash has never had an elite centre to play with, and for the most part has been almost a lone-gunman his team’s attack, making it easy for the opposition to defend against him. However, he remains an elite talent, with great speed for a power forward and terrific goal-scoring hands. In many ways, he could become what Jarome Iginla came to mean to the Calgary Flames, both on the ice and in the community. The Blue Jackets would be fools to move him. Besides, teams when trading a superstar of Nash’s standing rarely get equal value back in a trade (witness the Joe Thornton deal from Boston years ago).

3. Their attendance woes are greatly exaggerated.

One of the great myths propagated by hockey media (particularly Toronto hockey media) is that Columbus is just another failed NHL expansion team destined to move.

Well hold on a minute.

From 2000-2004 Columbus was actually a top-15 market attendance-wise in the NHL, peaking at 8th overall in the league in 2001-02. Granted, years of on-ice incompetence eventually wore the lustre off of going to Blue Jackets games. But if you look at the history of the franchise (2000-present), they’re actually only 21st in league attendance:

RankTeamAverage Attendance (2000-present)
1Montreal Canadiens20,837
2Detroit Red Wings18, 859
.........
21Columbus Blue Jackets16,168
22Boston Bruins16,083
23Florida Panthers15,625
24Carolina Hurricanes15, 441
25New Jersey Devils15, 157
26Anaheim Ducks14, 988
27Nashville Predators14, 935
28Atlanta/Winnipeg14, 714
29Phoenix Coyotes13, 823
30New York Islanders13, 090

The success or failure of a hockey market can only truly be measured once the local team has experienced both sustained success and failure.

Columbus has only known failure. It’s not a stretch to think the team will fill their building again once the team enjoys some success.

4. It doesn’t take a rocket science to see where this team needs to improve.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Scott Howson has been at best mediocre, at worst a failure, as Blue Jackets general manager. The remainder of this season, and what he can accomplish in the off-season, will decide if he remains the team’s architect in 2013.

Howson has already stated Columbus is open-for-business. There’s a nice breakdown of who could be moved here. Who the team ships out though is almost secondary to the importance of what it brings back.

In this case, the only acceptable return is a goalie who can make a difference night in, night out at the NHL level.

The Steve Mason era has to end. Other than during Mason’s rookie season, the team’s goaltending has been among the league worst. A great team can win with average goaltending. A rebuilding team can only win with great goaltending.

The Blue Jackets need to find that goaltending – that is priority no. 1. Maybe it’s Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles; Cory Schneider in Vancouver; Thomas Griess in San Jose; Anders Lindback in Nashville; or Sergei Bobrovsky in Philadelphia. Maybe it’s 2012 unrestricted free agents Tomas Vokun in Washington or Ray Emery in Chicago. Maybe it’s a a draft pick like Andrei Vasilevski. Maybe it’s prospect Mark Dekanich, who has been knocking on the door in Columbus for awhile but can’t seem to stay healthy.

Whoever it is, the Blue Jackets must turn that perennial weakness into a position of strength for the team to turn around.

The most consistently successful teams in NHL history are those that build from the goaltender out. It’s time Columbus followed the blueprint.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • One final Blue Jacket thought - the time to fire coach Scott Arniel was two months ago, when the season was still somewhat salvagable. Letting Arniel try to change the team’s on-ice philosophy on the fly during the season only further muddled the direction of the team. As stated above, the future could be rosy in Columbus if the right moves are made right now. Howson’s handling of Arniel though creates more doubt he’s the GM to right-the-ship.
  • Can’t stop laughing at the headlines involving Dustin Penner’s injury while eating pancakes. With only four goals and 15 points in 50 career games now with Los Angeles, he could be moved at the trade deadline. The question is – who would want him? Love these unasked follow-up questions to Penner about his injury too.
  • This is why expansion is coming soon to the NHL – it would address the “unbalanced” conference issue the NHLPA has with the league’s proposed realignment. Adding two teams to the proposed “East” (say Metro Toronto and Quebec City) would give every conference eight teams. Such a move would also add a lot of profits to the league, which in turn benefits both owners and players.
  • If the NHL does expand let’s hope they reduce the roster size. There’s not enough talent for 30 teams, let alone 32.
  • Here are ESPN’s first-half grades.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #1 – Here’s why the Washington Capitals do not make the playoffs this year: Dale Hunter is in over his head as coach; beyond Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom, the team is overrated offensively; the team lacks the discipline to commit to a defensive scheme; GM George McPhee has made the critical mistake of overvaluing players on his own roster.
  • The Emperor has no clothes Part #2 – It sure looks like the Edmonton Oilers, despite all their high draft picks, are on the fast-track to nowhere. They’re likely the worst team in the league right now. Sure that can happen when your team’s best players get hurt. It’s more likely to happen when you ice an AHL-level defense and feature only adequate goaltending.
  • “We’re in the people business too, and I would look like an idiot not to put him in” says Ken Hitchcock about giving Jaroslav Halak the start in Montreal. Funny how this comment made me think about how the Canucks chose to start Cory Schneider against Boston over the weekend. Sure Vancouver won, but it was probably bad people business for Roberto Luongo.
  • One last Canucks thought: Sami Salo had been playing some of the best hockey of his career before getting hurt against the Bruins. Vancouver’s rolling right now, but defensive depth must remain a trade priority if this team intends to make a long Stanley Cup run.
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